The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

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Shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize, the latest novel from Linda Grant is set in post-war Britain. Eighteen year old Lenny and twin sister Miriam are diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent away from their East End London home to a sanatorium in Kent: the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculosis (known as the Gwendo). Originally designed with wealthy private patients in mind, the brand new NHS has resulted in all sorts of characters being thrown together, their illness the only thing they have in common.

I found life at the sanatorium fascinating,  though for the patients it was incredibly dull. Miriam’s roommate is Valerie, an Oxford graduate. They are prescribed the rest cure, which involves sitting out on the veranda in all weather, taking the air. Lenny is sent off for a pneumothorax injection which collapses one of his lungs, the idea being that with rest the lung can recover. The worst treatment offered (as a last resort) is the thoracoplasty operation where ribs are removed in order to put the lung to rest. There is talk of a new wonder drug, streptomycin, which it is said can cure the disease, but there is no knowing when this will become available to the Gwendo.

Valerie alleviates her boredom through reading, and begins to educate Lenny and Miriam through the reading aloud of novels, the twins particularly fascinated with Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Cliques have formed, people of similar backgrounds, such as the air force officers, sticking together. The mothers are heart-breaking – being kept away from their families for so long that when they do go home their children don’t know who they are. Lady Anne is a member of the aristocracy, a survivor from the first days of the Gwendo. Most mysterious is Hannah Spiegel, a German woman who keeps herself to herself but watches everything around her. Arriving later, Persky is an American merchant seaman who shakes things up, getting rid of the Strauss records that have been inflicted upon them via the hospital’s Wireless Committee and replacing them with rock and roll.

Grant’s writing is effortless and unforced. Characters speak authentically, and her research seems impeccable but never too evident. As the disease develops there are some incredibly touching moments; patients being sent home to die, the decisions to be made when enough streptomycin is provided for a trial of only six patients, the discovery of a hidden children’s ward. I only wish that the novel had perhaps ended a little earlier. While it was interesting to see what happened to the patients later on, I felt this last fifty pages or so didn’t hold my attention as strongly as life in the sanatorium. Saying that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and it definitely earns its place on the Bailey’s shortlist.

 

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

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Longlisted for the Man Booker in 2010, In a Strange Room focuses on one man’s nomadic life. This novel is comprised of three parts, three journeys made by the South African protagonist, also Damon. Young when we meet him, middle aged by the end, Damon has no tether. Although he returns to Cape Town between trips, it seems to the reader that he only really exists on the road. Each section is titled according to the role which Damon plays within it.

The first chapter, The Follower, concerns an odd friendship between Damon and Reiner, a German he meets in Greece. Reiner is escaping a relationship with a woman who would marry him, and Damon is trying to forget his own failed relationship. Keeping in contact, they meet up later in South Africa and decide to travel to Lesotho. It’s an odd partnership, Damon clearly attracted to Reiner, who knows it but doesn’t care. Reiner does what he wants without any regard and it becomes quite a stressful read as Damon tags along behind, constantly hoping that Reiner will suddenly decide to embark upon a relationship with him.

The Lover, sees Damon travel from Zimbabwe up through Malawi to Kenya overland. His wandering seems aimless until he meets up with a group of French-speaking tourists and fixates on Jerome, a young Swiss man, who speaks hardly any English. There seems to be a mutual attraction between the two men but communication is a barrier. They are able to communicate only through a third man, Christian, who can speak both English and French. At first, Damon assumes that it is this constant presence of another that is preventing him from being able to get closer to Jerome. However, when he later visits Switzerland he finds that even alone with Jerome they are unable to  move forward.

The third part, The Guardian, is the most heartbreaking and was, for me, the one that I am still thinking of days later. Damon travels to India with Anna, a friend who is recovering from a bout of manic depression:

On the last occasion that she went off the rails, years ago, she landed in a Cape Town clinic, emaciated and scarred with cigarette burns. It took months for her to recover, a process that she fetishized in her photographs, many of them pictures of herself naked, all her wounds on display. The episode is sexy in her mind, no cause for shame, and culminated in several bouts of electro-shock therapy, which she’d asked for, she later told me, as a substitute for killing herself.

Galgut’s writing is soul-bearing, the perspective shifting. In the above paragraph Damon is written as first person, but in much of the novel the prose is written in third person, often shifting within the confines of a single paragraph. I found this disconcerting at first, though got used to it. Thinking of it as a confessional, a man sharing experiences that were life-affecting, it made sense, this idea that third person can add a distance and make it easier to make certain revelations.

The strength of this novel for me was in its landscapes. As Damon travels across Africa I found myself wanting to look at how to get to Malawi, how I might lie on an unspoilt white beach and sleep in a wooden bungalow by the sea.

It took a while for this book to grow on me, but its secret is in creating visions that take time to fade rather than having an instant impact.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there, or any damn where until I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.

When a book gets the level of attention that Angie Thomas’s debut has had, it has a lot to live up to. YA as a genre is great at tackling current issues and The Hate U Give brings Black Lives Matter to the forefront.

Starr is sixteen years old and lives in Garden Heights, not exactly the most affluent part of town. Her parents work hard to send their children to school outside the neighbourhood, travelling up to an hour each way to the suburbs where Starr is only one of a couple of black kids at Williamson Prep. Leaving a Garden Heights party with best friend Khalil, they’re pulled over by a police officer, Officer One-Fifteen. Unarmed, Khalil is shot in the back right in front of Starr, the only witness other than the officer. Some people demand her to speak up, others would rather she stayed silent. With tensions rising, Starr has to make a decision that could land her whole family in danger.

Starr is a perfect lead and her voice is authentically teenage. Amidst the chaos that Khalil’s death causes, she still has to go to school, still has boyfriend problems that are unrelated to the shooting. She struggles to keep the two parts of her life separate and this adds to her pain, feeling that her school friends won’t understand, or will judge her. None of her friends know that she was a witness at first and those scenes at school where people are debating Khalil’s death, whether he deserved it or not, are heartbreaking.

Another strength is Starr’s family. Thomas gives her an imperfect family where love is ever-present. Her older brother, Seven, has a different mother who just happens to be the girlfriend of King, the local gang leader. Starr’s father is a strong influence, a former gang member who served time for King and then turned his back on that lifestyle once he got out. He teaches his kids to be better, making them work in the grocery store that he owns, hoping that they’ll go to college and be able to move away. Uncle Carlos is a police officer who knows Officer One-Fifteen, and seeing how he reconciles his professional life with what’s happening to his family was incredible interesting. Thomas gives so many sides to this story but it’s never too much.

This is an incredible novel that is current and, perhaps unfortunately, won’t date. In the book, Starr posts about the lynching of Emmett Till on her Tumblr, a crime which went unpunished back in the 1955. You have to hope that in sixty years time we aren’t still talking about the deaths of young black men and women in this way.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

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I do love a Georgian drama, and Helen Dunmore has written a brilliant depiction of eighteenth century Bristol. Birdcage Walk is so authentic I could smell it. Dunmore’s city is one where women have agency without being too modern and she weaves historical fact into a dark tale of a marriage that is dangerously controlling.

The year is 1792 and Lizzie Fawkes is barely more than a girl. Recently married to John Diner Tredevant, a property developer and widower in his thirties, their relationship is one of passion. This was not an arranged or forced marriage, rather Lizzie tells the reader several times how she longed to be with him and ignored her mother’s advice to wait. It is only now, as he gradually becomes more controlling and demanding, that she wonders about his first wife, Lucie, and what really happened to her.

While Diner is concerned with making money from his most ambitious development, a terrace of fine houses overlooking the Gorge, Lizzie’s family are radicals, busy writing their pamphlets and spreading word of the French Revolution. Their ideals are the very opposite of Diner’s, and she defends him to them even as his scheme falters. In uncertain times, as the French bourgeoisie are being lead to the guillotine and there is talk of war, who will want to buy a fine mansion house? In turn, Diner sneers at the fanciful idea of women’s rights that Lizzie’s mother writes about, thinking of the radicals as clueless idealists.

The prelude of the novel is present day, a novice dog owner who likes to stroll along Birdcage Walk, a path that leads through a real graveyard in Clifton, Bristol, it’s church gone after being bombed during the second world war. Helen Dunmore wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian on the inspiration for the novel, and also her recent cancer diagnosis. Legacy is an important theme of the book. Diner hopes that his grand terrace will outlive him. Lizzie’s mother, Julia, writes pamphlets and is revered and reviled for what she publishes. These writings no longer survive, though in the present day her husband, Augustus, is still remembered a pamphleteer. Strange, when Lizzie tells us that it was Julia who wrote so compulsively, not her husband:

Hannah sniffed: her nose was red, with a drop hanging from it. ‘It’s rest she needs, not writing-boards.’

Sacrilege, coming from Hannah. Mammie’s ideas flowed most clearly at night, with one lit candle to speed her pen while Augustus slept on beside her. There was nothing more important than that those ideas of hers should be captured and set down. Hannah had always arranged our days for that purpose. Our rooms were clean, our clothes washed and our food cooked, but even so Mammie needed the night for her work. She would wake with her mind suddenly, startlingly alive. She’d sit up in bed, reach for her writing-board, prop it against her knees, and seize on her thoughts before they vanished. Who would imagine, from the clarity of her treatises, that they sprang from a warm bed?

Birdcage Walk is a masterclass in how to write historical fiction well. Using fact and fiction in equal measure, this is an involving story with a satisfying conclusion.

 

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

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Receiving rave reviews when it was published in 2015, Laura Barnett’s debut novel is billed as love story in the same vein as One Day and Life After Life. I was interested to see how Barnett had constructed a ‘Sliding Doors’ concept in novel form. I think I was expecting some clever literary trick, but actually this is a straightforward retelling of two lives, just in three different versions.

The  main characters are Eva and Jim. The novel begins in 1958 when they are nineteen and both studying in Cambridge. Jim is walking down the same street as Eva is cycling, rushing to a supervision and already late. Version One brings them together when Eva runs over a rusty nail and Jim stops to assist with her punctured tyre. In Version Two there is no nail but a dog who she just manages to avoid hitting. She sees Jim but does not stop. In Version Three the dog causes her to swerve and fall off her bike, Jim to the rescue.  From that moment we know that each life will be different.

Taking place over almost sixty years, there is a lot of ground covered. Barnett jumps years ahead at a time, with each version having a short chapter before we’re moved on again. It felt a little stilted to me because of that. I struggled to get into the characters as we spend so little time with them in real terms. Some time periods had versions that were very different, but others were brought together through a shared event. Having to read three accounts of a birthday party, for example, got a little confusing while also becoming tedious.  Often I forgot which version I was reading, and there are some characters who only appear in certain versions. Eva and Jim’s various children totally lost me – even when they have the same parents in two versions they didn’t have the same name since they were born in different years.

I enjoyed the idea of this book more than its reality. Perhaps Barnett would have been better to follow only two versions and give us a deeper insight into the lives of Eva and Jim, who only by the very end became real in my head. Most of the peripheral characters were very flat and I would have liked to feel more pain for Jim when one of his daughters gets into trouble, but I just didn’t care enough when she’d barely been in the novel. Sliding Doors worked so well as a film because it was so easy to follow. Only two Gwyneths (and a handy haircut to help differentiate them) and one consistent break in the narrative to split them. I was already wondering by the end of the first set of chapters why Barnett had decided to create three different reasons for Eva to meet/not meet Jim – why use both the nail and the dog?

As a debut novel this was an ambitious undertaking, and well-written. Lots of people rave about it, and I can understand why, but I couldn’t fall under its spell.

The Clockhouse Retreat @ The Hurst

Usually when I write up my holidays, I’ve been somewhere a little more exotic than Shropshire! Last week I headed up to The Hurst, formerly the home of playwright John Osborne, now an Arvon Centre hosting various creative writing courses. While the main house is given over to running the courses, the Clockhouse is just across the way and is home to a permanent retreat. I spent six nights, getting stuck into the second novel while editing (again) the first.

The Hurst is a fabulous location for a retreat. With extensive grounds, I almost wished I’d had more time for walks. The Clockhouse is made up of four apartments – spacious with a separate sitting room/study and a huge corkboard to plan out those restructures. Downstairs are a shared living room/library and a large kitchen. All food is included in the rates and they even have wine already brought in, payable through an honesty box system. Basically, if you want to max out your writing, you can go and think about nothing else.

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We had lovely weather but the fire was too tempting to resist!

Spending time with other writers is another highlight of the Clockhouse. All deep into our drafts, it was great to talk shop in the evenings and compare experiences. We even kept to the Arvon tradition of reading a little of our work on the last night. We also ate dinner together which was nice to break up the isolation! Most of the food provided is locally sourced, even the frozen pre-prepared meals, so we ate very well. There are desserts, biscuits, crisps, and loads of healthy stuff as well (we did think there seemed an excessive number of packets of prunes). I lucked out and had two fellow inmates who could cook so we had a curry night, roast chicken, pasta arrabiata – thanks to Susan and Andre!!

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Curry night courtesy of Andre Hess

I only left the Hurst once, when offered an opportunity to visit nearby Ludlow, a medieval market town. As well as the market, we walked round Ludlow Castle and visited Ludlow Food Centre on the return journey (perfect for any foodie – they have tons of local produce.

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Ludlow Castle

 

 

 

The verdict of the group was that the Clockhouse was pretty much the perfect retreat. I think it would be better for writers who have a project underway and just need to crack on and get it done. We all made great strides during the week and I’m already thinking about a return visit.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

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In 1936, Stalin attends a performance of Lady MacBeth of Mtensk, Dmitri Shostakovich’s famous opera. Popular up until that point, when Stalin took against the volume of the brass and percussion Shostakovich found himself officially out of favour (I saw this opera a couple of years ago at ENO and loved it. The brass is incredibly loud and trio of suited men in front of me obviously felt much the same as Stalin, since they left at the interval). This is the beginning of Barnes’s novel, a fictionalised version of the real life of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.

With a young wife, baby on the way, Shostakovich waits for the worst to happen. I found this such a tense book to read because it this is a man who was forced to tread lightly through life. Convinced, following this first denunciation, that he will be called to the Big House and likely never leave it alive, he packs a suitcase, kisses his wife goodbye, and goes to sit in the hallway outside their apartment by the lift. He does not want to be taken from his home, so each night he sits here and waits for them to come. The below extract shows how commonplace this was:

While he had been awaiting orders from the Big House in St Leninsburg, Oistrakh had been expecting arrest in Moscow. The violinist had described to him how, night after night, they came for someone in his apartment block. Never a mass arrest; just one victim, and then the next night another – a system which ramped up the fear for those who remained, who had temporarily survived. Eventually, all the tenants had been taken except for those in his apartment and the one opposite. The next night the police van arrived again, they heard the downstairs door slam, footsteps coming along the corridor… and going to the other apartment. From this exact point, Oistrakh said, he was always afraid; and would be, he knew, for the rest of his life.

This is a tense book. Snippets of life show a man who knew he would never be allowed to live up to his potential. Who never dares write another opera after the debacle of Lady Macbeth, even though he knows opera to be his forte. Who is forced, by a defector with his own agenda, to publicly denounce Stravinksy on a state sponsored visit to the US. Who, towards the end of his life, feels that he has lived too long. The House of Terror in Budapest is now a museum, a memorial to its victims, and I imagine that the Big House that Shostakovich fears so much was similar. Barnes brings to life a man for whom talent became almost a curse.