Books – The Many by Wyl Menmuir

the many

The Many – Wyl Menmuir

One success of the Man Booker longlist this year has been to throw up a few random choices, ignoring the established and safe choices for some intriguing titles. The Many is the debut novel (novella? at 141 pages this makes a welcome break from the lengthier tomes of last year’s list) from Wyl Menmuir, published by Salt, an independent publisher.

Set in an isolated fishing village in Cornwall, this is the story of two men. Ethan is a local man, still struggling to get over the death of fellow fisherman, Perran, a decade earlier. When Timothy, an incomer, arrives and buys Perran’s old cottage, the community is stirred up.

They lower their voices when Ethan is close by, he notices, out of respect, or awkwardness, he is not sure, but he hears the stories as they spread. Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to save them from themselves, or to hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.

This is a book about loss and grief. It is unsettling in its strangeness, the sea becoming a metaphor for an absence of control. The fishermen take their boats out every day but usually return empty handed, or with fish that are half-dead and inedible. These fish are sold to a mysterious buyer, symbolised by two men in suits and a woman in a long grey coat who watch in silence as the unattractive catch is loaded up. The sea is heavily polluted, thwarting Timothy’s romantic hopes of swimming each morning after his run, and his dream of an idyllic hideaway quickly dies along with his hopes of ever being considered as anything other than a glorified tourist.

This is a village that has been cut off from its livelihood. Their designated fishing area contains nothing but the poisoned fish, and they are hemmed in by a row of container ships, quietly standing guard over the more lucrative waters beyond. The ships brought back memories of those menacing stones in Marianne Dreams (a brilliant  children’s book if you haven’t read it), something in the quiet watching of the village though there appears to be no crew on any of them. Timothy eventually convinces Ethan to take him out on the boat one morning. His presence gives Ethan the courage to venture out past the ships for the first time, bringing  in the first lucrative catch in years.

There are many questions to be answered throughout this book, the reader being drawn into the mystery of Perran’s death along with Timothy. But Timothy himself has secrets. Why is he alone at the cottage when he has a family? What is he trying to escape from? Why choose a village where he and his wife already had a terrible past experience? The present tense adds an urgency that is only somewhat slowed by the italicised passages of backstory, and the briefness of the book as a whole adds to the reader’s need to discover. This is a book that can be read in one sitting, preferably on a dark and gloomy day, though even on a sunny day I found myself drawn into this gothic, melancholy tale.

 

 

Interested in this year’s Man Booker longlist? I will be reviewing a number of books over the next couple of weeks so watch this space! Click below for my other reviews:

Books – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Books – My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The Seamstress – Part Four

Victorian scissors

Kitty was a determined woman. It was less than an hour later when she poked her head in at Nora’s room, smiling broadly. ‘I just gave Ned a piece of my mind regarding his less than chivalrous behaviour last night. He apologises profusely and promises to do everything in his power to bring Sean to the King’s tonight.’

‘But what am I to say to him?’ Nora was equal parts excitement and panic.

‘Did no one tell you, Nora?’ Kitty’s grin broadened, if that were possible. ‘I am a matchmaker extraordinaire. Leave it to me. Now what will you wear?’

Nora looked down at her dress. It was a dull grey cotton, practical and well-mended, originally worn as half-mourning after serving her full year in black for a man who had let her down.

‘No, Nora. You cannot wear that.’ Kitty began to rifle through the pile of dresses that come back from the laundry that morning. ‘This?’ It was red silk, cut far too low, worn in a terrible play that Sam had pulled after a week.

‘Absolutely not! He’ll think me some kind of streetwalker.’ Nora stood to supervise Kitty’s selection.

‘Blue. Yes, it goes with your colouring.’ Kitty held the dark blue taffeta against Nora. ‘It might be a little big though. Try it on.’

The dress was almost a perfect fit, just a little loose around the chest and Nora would easily fix that. Thanks to her early start, she had completed all of her tasks for that day and was able to devote her afternoon to altering the dress, taking every care to match the thread to the material, making the stitches as neat and tiny as possible.

She was just putting the iron on the fire, ready to press the creases from the frock, when Ned knocked on the open door. She nodded and waved him in.

‘Afternoon.’ He shuffled his feet nervously. ‘Erm, so I wanted to apologise. For my behaviour last night. It was unlike me, I cannot explain it, and I don’t want you to feel that I cannot be trusted. I’m ever so sorry, Nora.’

‘And so you should be!’ She folded her arms across her chest and saw him gulp. ‘Look, Ned, I spoke to Sean this morning. He told me all about Maggie. I saw her, you know.’

‘Oh.’ She watched the colour rise in his face as he scratched his chin awkwardly. ‘You must think me a complete fool. I can’t tell you how stupid I feel. I want to make it up to you. I will make it up to you. Sean’s meeting us later on Union Street. I’ve made sure he knows it was all my doing, what happened.’

‘Good.’ She could only keep a straight face for a little longer, her mood buoyed by the news of Sean. ‘Oh, Ned I forgive you. Just don’t try anything like that again!’

‘I won’t. Lesson learned. Besides, if all goes well this evening I think Sean would have something to say about it.’

It was Nora’s turn to blush now. ‘Get out of here will you.’

Time seemed to have stopped. Nora went to the wings to watch the evening’s show but could not even follow the story of the so-called comedy that was on before Ned’s play. Kitty came to fetch her after her own dance number had finished and the two women headed down for some liquid courage.

‘You deserve to be happy, you know.’ Kitty spoke suddenly, surprising Nora.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You. You’re punishing yourself for something. To do with your late husband?’ Kitty was more astute that Nora had given her credit for.

‘I know that I should not. Peter was a handsome drunk. Ned reminds me of him a bit actually, though I’ve never seen him as mean as Peter could be. I was glad when he died.’ Nora clapped her hand to her mouth in horror. She’d never said it aloud before.

Kitty pulled Nora’s hand away. ‘You can say it. It doesn’t matter and you feel better now don’t you? He doesn’t know and, horrid though it is to say, it sounds like he didn’t care much about you. Forget him. Sean seems like a decent fellow and you’re no longer tied down.’

Nora did feel better. ‘Thank you Kitty.’

‘No thanks necessary.’ She linked arms with her new friend. ‘Just promise me that whatever happens we will good friends.’

‘Promise.’ They turned on to Union Street and Nora saw Sean coming towards her from the other direction. He raised his hand in greeting and she waved back. It was time for a new beginning.

 

 

Books- The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

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The Book of Night Women – Marlon James

Most people know Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his Man Booker prize winning novel. When he won last year, several people began to tweet about his previous book, The Book of Night Women, saying that they thought it equally as good, if not better. Having now read it, I feel compelled to agree.

Born into bondage in the corrupted paradise of a sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century, a time of uprisings and rebellion, Lilith has little hope of escaping a life ruled by the whip. But, like the slave women who fear her the instant she opens her eyes, Lilith sees life differently.

Lilith is at the heart of this novel, born to a thirteen year old slave who dies during her birth, a black girl with green eyes. Someone is looking out for her though she doesn’t realise it until much later. After she kills a would-be rapist, she falls under the care of Homer, a trusted slave who runs the kitchen. Homer disposes of the body and hides Lilith from the man’s compatriots who suspect her. It is Homer who later introduces her to the Night Women, a secret gathering of women who are planning a revolt.

Like James’ most famous novel, Night Women is written in conversational patois. We only discover the identity of the narrator at the end but the style works, and with only the one voice it is much easier to immerse yourself into. The hardest read is the violence. James does not shy away from what life would have been like for a slave in Jamaica at the time. Lilith’s first real taste of punishment comes when she accidentally spills soup on a guest at the New Year ball:

Lilith couldn’t move. She looking but she not seeing, she listening but she not hearing, all the sounds come like one sound and she can’t hear nothing. She don’t even see it, when Massa Humphrey take all the rage of the lord and slam her knuckles in her face. Lilith stagger back, but she didn’t fall. Before she can think, he punch her in the chest, then straight in the mouth and she fall and spit blood. He about to pounce ‘pon her like animal, but Robert Quinn jump in and catch him first.

After this beating Lilith is whipped on a regular basis until her unknown saviour finally makes himself known. This book visits dark places, following these desperate women who know that their lives are worth almost nothing (less than $200 Lilith discovers when she is taken past a slave auction on a shopping trip) and that they can be killed over the smallest things. All of the Night Women bear scars, from whipping, being burned as punishment, from rape.

Lilith herself is a fascinating character. By the end of the first chapter she is already a murderer herself, and she kills on more than one occasion when in fear for her life. She sees herself as separate from the other women, even the others who share her green eyes. She hates that she is related to them and constantly battles against the other women. It is only Homer’s influence that keeps the women together.

The relationship between Lilith and Robert Quinn, the overseer, is also intriguing. Quinn likes to think of himself as a civilised man, and as an Irishman is also discriminated against by most of the white community. He confuses Lilith with his kindness, though he is also quick to strike her when he suspects her of keeping secrets and scheming. He is her first thought during the inevitable uprising though she know she risks her own life in doing so.

This book has incredible drama, lifted straight from history. It is reminiscent of Wide Sargasso Sea in that Massa Humphrey is a perfect Rochester, the so-called good man with uncontrollable fits of rage,  Isobel Roget his Bertha Mason who slowly goes mad, the destruction of her family and dependence on drugs leading her there. I was also reminded of Toni Morrison, for the unflinching telling of a story that can be hard to read. The women rule this book and James writes them as though seeing the world through their eyes. I was gripped from start to finish and will be thinking of this story for a long time to come.

Just Write/Writing Magazine party

Not long ago I wrote a piece about writing competitions and so I thought it only fitting to share my first shortlisting, for the 2016 Just Write Creative Writing competition, run in association with Writing Magazine and John Murray Press.

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The shortlist announcement in Writing Magazine

A big draw for me when deciding to enter this competition was the prize – six shortlisted authors were to be invited to a reception at Hodder HQ. In July I received an email to tell me that I had made the shortlist and was invited to come along on the 18th August for the announcement of the winner.

So, to last Thursday. We were asked to arrive for 3.30pm at the Hodder offices (which are far nicer than the office I work in) to meet the other shortlisted authors and some of the lovely people at Hodder and Writing Magazine who were had liked our stories. After getting to know everyone briefly we were then taken off one by one to be interviewed. On camera! It wasn’t as bad as it sounds – we had been sent the questions in advance which took care of any awkward silences, though I will not be watching myself back whenever the video appears!

We were also given a goody bag which I will go out on a limb for and say was the best goody bag I’ve ever been given. Books, a literary map (which is about to go on the wall in my writing space), a very handy notebook, pens, everything a writer needs basically, and one can never have enough tote bags.

At 6pm we went up to the roof terrace for the party itself. From Victoria Embankment the view is absolutely incredible, especially enjoyable with a glass of champagne in hand. Even the weather was well-behaved. We had time to mingle with ‘proper’ authors (as opposed to ‘aspiring’ which is the category that I place myself in), editors, lots of people who all seemed genuinely interested in us and our stories. Then came the big announcement: the winner was Emma Myatt for her story Wordsmith.

To cap off an amazing day, our stories had been printed into paperback books, Emma having the unique hardback copy to celebrate her success. I even had my first taste of signing copies for people!

 

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Look at that view!

If you would like to see more about our day, and read the short stories, you can find them on this page of the Just Write website.

 

Our work in print

The Seamstress – Part Three

Victorian scissors

Nora woke at dawn the next day, bright sunshine through the curtain-less windows prodding her eyes open as the lamplighters did their rounds, undoing their work of the night before. She tossed and turned for a little while before giving in to the day and rising from the narrow bed that she had slept alone in for almost a year, ever since arriving at Mrs Gorton’s lodging house with one small bag of possessions and a smile of desperation.

She washed quickly and dressed. She was lucky to have her own room, but unlucky in that it only had room for the bed, a washstand and not much else. She thought of it as a cell, the place where she had come to do her penance for not preventing her husband from slowly destroying himself.

It was far too early to gain admittance to the theatre but the alternative was to sit in the shared living room with Mrs Gorton who could carry a one-sided conversation for hours. She bought a muffin on the street and ate it as she walked, enjoying the warmth of the summer day. Her pace slowed as she drew closer to the Olympia, spotting Sean’s coffee-stall ahead of her.

‘Nora!’ He called out as soon as he saw her. ‘Are you well? I missed saying good night, I’m sorry. Would you accept a free mug of coffee as an apology?’

‘Good morning.’ She took the proffered mug, noting that he’d already added the right amount of sugar as she sipped it. ‘Thank you Sean, but I should pay you for this. I’m afraid I rather stole away last night. It was a little rowdy for me.’

‘Understandable,’ Sean agreed. ‘You didn’t miss much. Ned was in a foul state when he got home not so long ago. I hope he’ll be right for this evening.’

‘He came home drunk?’ Nora felt a twinge of guilt.

‘Yes, well,’ Sean lowered his voice and Nora leaned forward to hear him, ‘I probably shouldn’t be sayin’ this, only p’raps it’s for the best that someone at the theatre knows.’

‘Knows what?’

‘Old Ned does have a tendency to overindulge on the ol’ alcohol from time to time. Especially when he spies a certain red-head.’

Nora leaned back. ‘I think I saw her last night. Who is she?’

‘Maggie Lenahan. She is an actress of sorts. She managed to get herself a starring role at one of the big theatres, but only by giving away certain favours to certain men, if you get my meaning.’

‘Yes,’ Nora confirmed quickly in case Sean felt the need to explain further. ‘So how does Ned know her?’

‘He declared his love and she made a fool of him. Everyone else has forgotten about it by now but he is set on making her regret it. I saw her a few days ago and invited her to come along last night. I thought that if they talked they could sort their differences. Bad idea really, it only got Ned all fired up again.’ He took Nora’s empty mug, dropping it into his bucket of soapy water. ‘She turned up then? I didn’t see her but it looked to me that perhaps Ned had moved on to better things.’ He winked and Nora’s face fired red. He thought that she liked Ned.

It all made sense now, Nora thought later on as she sat in her room, unable to concentrate on the simplest running stitch. She’d only been invited along as bait, used to rile this Maggie girl. How dare he assault her like that! How dare he do it in front of Sean! She set down her work, too furious to continue. She should have it out with him, she decided.

The green room was empty apart from Kitty who was sitting on a sunken armchair, poring over the reviews in the papers that were delivered each day.

‘Kitty, you’ve not seen Ned have you?’ she asked.

The younger woman looked up and smirked. ‘No. Lost ‘im have you?’

‘No! Whatever you saw last night was all him, not me. I never wanted him to touch me. I’m actually on my way now to give him a piece of my mind.’ Nora stopped as she realised she was shouting.

Kitty hadn’t taken offence. ‘Fair enough. I thought it a little strange. It looked to me like you were keen on his friend rather than him.’ She cocked her head to one side, still smiling.

‘Oh God, was it that obvious?’ Nora sank on to the wooden chair next to Kitty. ‘I am mortified. Do you think Sean noticed? And what must he think of me now that he saw me with Ned. I saw him this morning and he thinks that I wanted that to happen.’

‘Nora, don’t you worry. I’ve a feelin’ he might know exactly what Ned was up to.’ Kitty patted Nora’s hand. ‘And if you hadn’t legged it you might have found out that he likes you too.’

‘Really?’ Hope was dangerous, Nora knew that well. ‘No, I’m too old for all of that, and barely out of mourning.’

‘How old are you, Nora? ‘Cause you don’t look ancient enough to just give up.’

‘Five and twenty last February,’ Nora admitted and Kitty choked back a cackle.

‘Lordy, Nora, you’re no age at all. Leave it to me.’ Another pat on the hand and Kitty vanished, leaving Nora to wonder what had just been set into motion.

 

 

 

Books – Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

half of a yellow sun

Half of a Yellow Sun

For five years this book has sat on my bookshelf, at three different addresses. For some reason award winning books tend to sit longer in my TBR pile than any other (Wolf Hall is staring at me, unread, at this very moment). I’m not sure of the reason; perhaps it’s because there’s less of the unexpected. These books have already received validation from more qualified people than I. Well, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on this classic novel, ten years after publication.

In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic  new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined…

The novel begins in the early 1960s, setting up the characters before m0ving ahead to 1967 and the beginning of the Nigeria-Biafra war. I came to the book knowing practically nothing about this civil war. Adichie portrays the horror of war in  simple ways, allowing the reader to be caught up in events as they unfold. The title refers to the Biafran flag, a tricolour featuring a rising sun. The novel’s protagonists are Igbo and we follow their journey from a united Nigeria, to being forced to flee as they join the new state of Biafra.

Adichie’s characters are cleverly chosen and worked well in illustrating different sections of Nigerian society and how they were affected by war. The book begins with Ugwu as he goes to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a university lecturer who lives within an intellectual bubble. He presses Ugwu into educating himself, hosts evening salons for his university colleagues, and brings his lover Olanna to live with them in Nsukka, a town in south-eastern Nigeria. Olanna comes from a wealthy family. She and her twin sister, Kainene are well educated, not long returned from living in England. Kainene’s lover, Richard, is a white English journalist who falls in love with his adopted country as he falls in love with Kainene.

The great strength of this novel is how the characters draw you in. Often with books that have multiple protagonists, there is a distance between them and the reader, there isn’t enough quality time spent with each to build that bond that stimulates empathy. Somehow I felt equally close to Ugwu and his war experience, the horror of what he does and what is done to him,  as I did to Olanna who should have been as easier character for me to identify with. Even when Adichie’s characters act immorally there is a shared complicity with the reader. You can understand why they have behaved in those ways, even when they have committed a crime. The saying goes that desperate times call for desperate measures, and certainly in this book that rings true.

For me the great test of a classic is whether I would read it again, and whether, on finishing the book, I miss it immediately. On both counts I would rate this novel in that category.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess in Victorian England

NPG Ax61384; Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 15 September 1862 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

Few people know that Queen Victoria had a black goddaughter, named Victoria after her patron. The mother of this girl had been under the protection of the queen since arriving in England as a young child. Her name was Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Sarah’s story begins with tragedy. Born into a royal family in West Africa, as a five year old child she was orphaned, her parents killed by the King of Dahomey who took her as a slave. A few years later she was given as a present to a Royal Navy captain, Frederick Forbes, who convinced the King that he should gift her to Queen Victoria as ‘a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites). Forbes was against slavery and saw in Sarah a great example against the pseudo-scientific theories of the day, refuting the claims that white people were intellectually superior to other races. As Forbes noted in his journal, Sarah was ‘far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.’

Forbes gave Sarah his own surname, adding Bonetta which was the name of the ship that brought her to England.  He brought her to Queen Victoria who was charmed by the girl and decided to take responsibility for her upbringing. Sarah suffered ill health and so was sent first to a school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. At the age of twelve, Victoria brought her protégée back to England to finish her education.

Sarah was well-liked and was a frequent visitor to Windsor Castle. She was highly intelligent, having learned fluent English on the voyage over to England with Forbes, was an accomplished pianist, and had earned the admiration of many in the royal court. In 1862 she was invited to the royal wedding of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria.

Later that same year, Victoria gave permission for Sarah to marry a man that she had met in Brighton. James Pinson Labulo Davies was a Yoruban businessman who was living in Britain at the time. The wedding took place in Brighton that August and must have been quite the spectacle. People travelled down from London on the train to be there. She had sixteen bridesmaids and a procession which the Brighton Gazette reported as being made up of ‘White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen’. The marriage was widely reported in the newspapers.

NPG Ax61382; James Pinson Labulo Davies; Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy

James Pinson Labulo Davies; Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 15 September 1862 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

The photographs above are currently on display as part of the Black Chronicles display at the National Portrait Gallery, London. They are from the wedding album taken by the celebrity photographer of the day, Camille Silvy. To give an idea of the high regard Queen Victoria bestowed upon her charge, Silvy had already photographed Prince Albert and other royalty. The display is on until November and is well worth a look.

The married couple ended up settling in Lagos. They had three children, the eldest named Victoria after her royal godmother. Sarah remained close to the queen, returning once to England to bring the two Victorias together. She had never fully recovered from the cough that had afflicted her since arriving in England as a child, and was diagnosed with TB in her late thirties. She went to Madeira to recuperate but died in Funchal at the age of thirty seven. Queen Victoria was greatly saddened by her death and continued to fund Victoria Davies’ education. It does make you wonder why not many people have heard about a woman who was so close to royalty.

You may also be interested in Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862 – 1948