Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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It is winter and a teenage girl has gone missing while on holiday in the Peak District. The whole village turns out to search the hills and the moors, the police hold a press conference and journalists descend on the village. This could be your everyday crime novel, focused on finding out what happened to Rebecca Shaw: did she fall and hurt herself; did someone harm her. Reservoir 13 is not your everyday novel. The structure is unique, the prose poetic. McGregor is more concerned with the life of the village itself.

The last days of August were heavy with heat and anything that had to move moved slow. At the allotments the beds were bursting with beans and courgettes, the plants sprawling over the pathways. The bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged. The first lambs were ready to sell and Jackson’s boys were busy making selections and loading them into the trailer. At the cricket ground the annual game against Cardwell was lost. The girl’s mother came to the church from time to time. She arrived just before the service began, escorted by the vicar to a set in the side aisle which was kept free for her, and left during the closing hymn. 

The novel is not particularly concerned with what actually happened to Rebecca Shaw but at the fall out. The cast is made up of the villagers, their lives as they grow older over the course of thirteen years. Kids who knew Rebecca before she vanished talk about what they remember, grow up and go to uni, their lives occasionally haunted by her memory. We see babies born, marriage end and new relationships begin as time ticks on. There are some stalwarts that crop up in each chapter: the turning of the year; the annual cricket game against Cardwell. Every so often there is a ‘sighting’ of the missing girl, or her father is seen around the village, reminding the residents. Otherwise, life goes on as usual but with a few adjustments – no fireworks on new year, parents more worried when their children stay out late, a suspicious eye cast upon the neighbours.

What struck me about this book is its commitment to the village as a whole. The local wildlife is as important as the humans who live in the houses. Fox cubs and badgers, the fieldfares – we see them born and move on and die as well. With such a large number of characters, it is tricky to care about all of them. We watch over them from afar, as though skimming over the surface of the village in one of those police helicopters that is occasionally dispatched to search for Rebecca. It is an interesting technique, along with the decision to have this crime (or is it?) in the background without every really moving it to the forefront of the narrative.

For a novel in which, it could be said, not a lot happens, or not a lot happens very quickly, it is surprisingly engrossing. Each chapter encapsulates a year in the village and I read on wanting to revisit certain characters – would Su cope with juggling her twins and her BBC job; would Richard convince childhood sweetheart Cathy to give things another go; which lucky lady would end up in bed with Gordon Jackson that year. It’s a bittersweet sort of book – as with all life there are ups and downs. A book I will remember having read without necessarily remembering much about. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the Man Booker shortlist. But neither would I surprised if it didn’t. In a way it reminded me of Wyl Menmuir’s longlisted The Many from last year – there is no resolution but the journey itself seems enough.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

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This is a hefty book at 866 pages in the hardback edition. Not the longest book out there but a decent time commitment indeed. If I hadn’t had a week off work and three decent length train journeys, I may have waited to see if Auster made the Man Booker shortlist before deciding to invest.

I was also a little put off by the premise – one character but in four different versions. It brought Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us to mind and I found that book to be quite flawed and lacking in depth because of the constant flipping between strands. Auster’s version is far more successful, partly because of course he has taken so much more space to tell his story, but because he keeps to one protagonist and gives each strand time to bed in. The first chapter shades in the relevant family history that applies to each Ferguson incarnation:

According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century. While waiting to be interviewed by an immigration official at Ellis Island, he struck up a conversation with a fellow Russian Jew. The man said to him: Forget the name Reznikoff. It won’t do you any good here… Tell them you’re Rockefeller, the man said. You can’t go wrong with that. An hour passed, then another hour, and by the time the nineteen-year-old Reznikoff sat down to be questioned by the immigration official, he had forgotten the name the man had told him to give. Your name? the official asked. Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargesssen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson. 

Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947, only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson. From that point, his life takes four different paths – the same boy but living four different lives. Each strand takes Ferguson to live in a different location which means different friends, different schools. The family’s fortunes vary as Ferguson’s father decides whether or not to stay loyal to his brothers and the homeware store they own together. Some characters appear in all strands, family members and close family friends, but their impact upon Ferguson is less in one life than another, depending on who else is around him.

The reason this works is that each chapter is of a decent length. Spending thirty or so pages immersed in one Ferguson helps each individual story fix in the memory. Also, having each Ferguson grow up in a different town made it incredibly easy to pick back up (the four strands go round in turn).  I also had the benefit of a four hour train journey which enabled me to read large amounts in one go – I think that, as with most books of this length, you can’t dip in and out, ten or so pages at a time.

The first five hundred or so pages were sublime. There were shocks, heartbreak, tragedy. Not all the characters survive and so you have the shock of mourning a death only to have that person reincarnated in the next Ferguson. Where I began to lose interest, and this is perhaps a personal issue, is that once Ferguson reaches college age the novel became quite bogged down in both politics (Vietnam war etc) and also in Ferguson’s attempts to become a serious writer. Reading about avoiding the draft and the college sit-ins is incredibly interesting the first time around, but multiple versions of the same became a little more tedious. And perhaps it was really that easy to get published in the late 60s/early 70s for someone with talent, but there is no struggle for Ferguson. People rave about his stories and rush to publish him. People rush to help Ferguson in all his incarnations and I sort of wanted him to fall on harder times, even just once.

All in all, this work is epic. It held my attention throughout, and I didn’t mind the ending, even though it was a little contrived. But to me that fit with the way this novel is constructed. I felt satisfied by the way Auster concludes Ferguson’s story and I almost think he deserves to make the Man Booker shortlist for his daring. This is a novel that could so easily not have worked, and yet it does.

Augustown by Kei Miller

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Augustown first came to my attention when it was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize earlier this year. Since then, Miller has won the OCM BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Literature and been shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Green Carnation Prize for this, his third novel.

The Augustown of the novel is a fictional place, according to the author’s note, but one that shares a history and ‘bears an uncanny resemblance to’ a real place: August Town, Jamaica. In a way, this is the first clue that this is a story built around real events but becoming more of a fable.

The story begins with Ma Taffy, a blind old woman who lives with her niece Gina and her son Kaia. When Kaia walks home from school one day, she can smell that something has happened to him, something wrong. Kaia’s school teacher has taken umbrage with his dreadlocked hair and cut it off. Ma Taffy tells Kaia the story of the flying preacherman, the true story of Alexander Bedward who prophesied that he would one day fly but instead ended up in an institution. She can sense that something bad is about to happen.

And Ma Taffy wondered why they made it mean so much, this Nazirite vow she herself had taken: No blade shall ever touch my head. It was just hair, after all. It was just hair. It could grow back. It was nothing for a big, big man to lose his life over. But in her heart, Ma Taffy knew it was more than enough to die for. She knew that for people to be people, they had to believe in something. They had to believe that something was worth believing in. And they had to carry that thing in their hearts and guard it, for once you believed in something, in anything at all, Babylon would try its damnedest to find out what that thing was, and they would try to take it from you.

From Ma Taffy’s premonition arises a sense of impending doom. As she predicts the autoclaps to come, so the reader waits with baited breath to find out what will happen. Weaving the old neighbourhood stories amongst these few hours in the present (or the present as far as Ma Taffy is concerned, which is 1982), as we see the teacher wait in his schoolroom, knowing that judgment is on its way, there is a gentle tension building. While Ma Taffy is telling Kaia the story of Bedward, his mother Gina, or Miss G to her employer (who happens also to be the principal at Kaia’s school) is deciding whether to share her great secret. Miller weaves all of these strands together until the novel reaches its climax, its catastrophe.

There are various elements of magic realism at work in this novel. The way Ma Taffy tells the story it seems that Bedward really could fly and it was the local authorities who brought him crashing down; the very conclusion of the novel seems impossible. The way she senses danger, and can smell it, goes far beyond any expected heightening of her senses following her blinding. There is much to be discussed around the issue of race; those with wealth and power in Kingston are invariably white or light skinned, living above the Augustown valley so that, as Gina says to one young white man, ‘people like you can just stay up here and watch, like gods.’ And this for me is the strength of the book: its discussion around Jamaican society and the damaging impact of British empire that still scars it.

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

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Having found myself slightly addicted to the PC Peter Grant series, I moved straight onto book 3: Whispers Under Ground. Grant finds himself called to the scene of a murder at Baker Street Underground Station. The victim is the son of a US senator, stabbed to death with a strange piece of pottery that gives off the strong vestigia that tells PC Grant that something out of the ordinary is going on. Having established the link between something or someone magical, Grant is immediately seconded to the Murder Squad, working once more with DCI Seawoll who has never been his biggest fan and has only just returned to duty after the events of Rivers of London. There is also the complication of FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds who is supposed to be kept in the dark as far as magic is concerned, but who keeps mysteriously showing up wherever Grant – and therefore the magical world – is.

It isn’t that hard to find the bodies at a major crime, even one at a complicated scene like an Underground station – you just look for the highest concentration of noddy suits and head that way. When I stepped out onto platform 3 the far end looked like an anthrax outbreak. It had to be foul play then because you don’t get this much attention if you’re a suicide or one of the five to ten people that manage to accidentally kill themselves on the Underground each year.

Grant’s unofficial partner in his investigations is WPC Lesley May, still on leave but keen to get back in the game. The banter between these two was a highlight, May battling to keep Grant in line and stop him from making needlessly reckless risks. Watching Peter come to terms with her horrific facial injuries does add another dimension to his character. Often quite immature, watching him with May he does seem to be growing up at last.

Carrying through from the last book, the Folly are still on the trail of the rogue wizard, the Faceless Man, who tried to kill Grant in book two. With Nightingale having established a list of potential Little Crocodiles, members of an elite Oxford University dining club who may have been taught dark magic. In some ways I felt more invested in this plot strand, most likely because it is a continuation. It feels as though this will run for a few more books to come which I like.

Thoughts so far- this is building up to an epic encounter with the Faceless Man, though since Peter Grant is a slow learner, I hope this is a long way off for his sake. I like the development of the other recurring characters, Lesley May and DI Stephanopoulos in particular. I do like that Peter is quite inept, charming in its own way, but I would like him to wise up a little. Time will tell…

 

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

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First published in Chile back in 2012, Meruane’s semi-autobiographical novel has just been published in the UK in an English translation by Megan McDowell. Featuring a protagonist also named Lina Meruane, also a Chilean writer, it does read a little as pure autobiography but the events are fictional (drawn from Meruane’s real experience of going temporarily blind).

Lina, a Chilean writer living in New York, is at a party when her eyes haemorrhage. This is not expected; she has already been seeing a doctor who has warned her that this could happen at any time. Blood fills her vision and leaves her practically blind, barely able to make out shapes and outlines. She has just moved to a new apartment with her partner, Ignacio, and everything is new and prone to being bumped into. The doctor tells her she must wait one month for her eyes to settle before he can determine whether there is any chance to save her sight.

Thwacks against half-closed doors, all of their edges blunt. A nose mashed against a shelf. Scratched fingers, broken nails, twisted ankles almost sprained. Ignacio took note of every mishap and tried to clear the boxes still only half-emptied, he moved the open bags from the hallway and cleared away orphan shoes, but then I got tangled up in rugs, I knocked over posters leaning against walls, I toppled trash cans. I was buried in open boxes with table legs between my fingers. The house was alive, it wielded its doorknobs and sharpened its fixtures while I still clung to corners that were no longer where they belonged. 

Lina has already planned to travel to Santiago to visit her family, and takes us on the terrifying journey as a newly blind person navigating air travel. Ignacio cannot travel with her so organises a wheelchair for Lina at the airport, an action she sees as humiliating. Her parents don’t understand why she can’t get her eyes operated on in Chile and this period is marked by Lina trying to rediscover the city that she used to know. When Ignacio arrives later, she navigates him by memory. She teaches him the words for common items that his Galician Spanish give other names to. Even as Lina becomes more dependent on Ignacio, she becomes more irritated and worried about how she would cope without him.

The final section of this, quite short, novel – around 150 pages – is the most urgent. Lina returns to New York and is admitted to hospital to have her surgery. The reader is forced to wait with her as the doctor explains that the operation more complex than he had anticipated; she will have to wait several weeks to know if she will see again. No spoilers from me, but these few pages were by far the most gripping, watching Lina and Ignacio on tenterhooks, Lina making ever greater demands on his loyalty.

This book won’t be for everyone but it reads as an incredibly personal journal. For anyone who loves memoir or autofiction, this should be an ideal read.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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History of Wolves is one of three debut novels on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Ever drawn in by a beautiful book cover, I love it when the cover fits the contents as perfectly as it does in this case. The Minnesota scenery and the small town of Loose River and its many lakes form an incredible backdrop to this novel.

Linda is fourteen, at high school, a loner. She lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake. She has no friends since the other commune inhabitants left some time before. When a family move in across the lake, she finds herself fascinated by them. Patra, the wife, is a young twenty six, childlike and immature. Her husband, Leo, is away for much of the time and Paul, her son is four years old. Linda, despite not really liking children, jumps at the chance to babysit Paul and becomes a regular visitor. From the first page we know that Paul is no longer around, and by page two Linda is clearer: he is dead.

In April, I started taking Paul for walks in the woods while his mother revised a manuscript of her husband’s research. The printed pages lay in batches around the cabin, on the countertop and under chairs. There were also stacks of books and pamphlets. I’d peeked at the titles. Predictions and Promises: Extraterrestrial Bodies. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The Necessities of Space.

“Just keep clear of the house for a few hours” were Patra’s instructions. I was given snacks in Baggies, pretzels wound into small brown bows. I was given water bottles in a blue backpack, books about trains, Handi Wipes, coloring books and crayons, suntan lotion. These went on my back. Paul went in my hand. His little fingers were damp and wiggling. But he was trusting, never once seeming to feel the shock of my skin touching his.

He wasn’t like animals. I didn’t have to win him over.

At first this novel reminded me most of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, from the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Eerie winter backdrop – tick. Small town America – tick. Loner female protagonist living in a weird family set up – tick. Newcomers who bring trouble with them – tick. As the novel drew me in, I began to feel differently, though the premise is similar. In both books the reader is drawn on because of a need to know what exactly happens, having been promised a moment of huge significance at the very start. Where I found Eileen calculating and intentionally tricksy, there is an authentic honesty to Linda’s narration.

Having read some other reviews, I do agree that the subplot involving Mr Grierson, a teacher at Linda’s school, and Lily, a fellow student, to be a bit meandering and oblique. Although the main action is set while Linda is fourteen, she tells us that she is now thirty seven, and we get snippets of her life at twenty six. Linda spots that Grierson treats Lily, widely acknowledged to be beautiful but a little odd, in a different way to the rest of the girls in class. She seems strangely drawn to both Lily and Grierson and, much later, writes to Grierson after he has moved away. I thought that her preoccupation with Grierson had a lot to do with her loneliness and a need to fit in. Just as her motivation in babysitting Paul has more to do with wanting a relationship with Patra, she wants someone to look at her the way that her teacher looks at the girl across the classroom. It is all conducted at such distance that I think this is where it lost focus a little.

The writing of this book is incredibly accomplished and beautiful. Fridlund recreates entire acres of scenery in a few words, and this is what elevates the novel from what, in other hands, could have been a rather straightforward story. I think it will struggle to make the shortlist but I have a lot more books to read yet.

See my reviews of other longlisted books here:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

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Shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize, this slim novel is the story of Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties who is married to an older man, Edwyn. It is not a happy marriage. I wasn’t drawn to this and, had I not wanted to finally get round to finish reading the Baileys shortlist, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. I went in with an open mind but had a feeling that it was going to be very beautiful and that not very much would happen. I was sort of right.

I read the blurb and expected this to be a short and claustrophobic tale of a marriage gone wrong. Really this is a rather disjointed tale of Neve’s life up to the current moment. I picked this up to take on a three hour coach trip, thinking that with only 167 pages it might get me through most of the journey. Instead, I found myself frequently putting it down, then getting confused when I next picked it up as to when or where Neve was. Riley flits around Neve’s life so quickly that I often had to reread passages just to remind myself if we were in Manchester, London, Glasgow…

I enjoyed most the fraught relationship between Neve and her mother. Often comic, I found this far more interesting than Neve with Edwyn which felt rather one-note – he says something vile; she tries not to provoke him further. In some ways Neve was a younger reflection of her mother. Both of them flitted around, moving from place to place. In some ways I felt that Neve was only with Edwyn because she feared becoming like her mother, ditching relationships and having to start afresh each time. There were also some interesting scenes between Neve and her father, a bully who was reminiscent of her husband, which I wanted to be explored more.

When Neve and Edwyn do have a proper conversation (as opposed to the sections where he’s basically having a childish trantrum), these are full of tension and bile. Edwyn harps on about a time years ago when Neve drank too much and was sick, in every room of their flat if he’s to be believed, and Neve doesn’t, though she can’t remember. As much as he picks fights with her it is only when he tells her that he won’t forgive her, that he never forgives, that it feels as though Neve’s breaking point has been reached. I found their relationship a curious one. He is older than her, though by how much I was never quite sure. At times it seems that he is taking the father role – they don’t have sex, or not very often. There is no desire and only a few moments of affection which seemed to be habitual rather than truly emotional.  He constantly refers to her using him to keep a roof over her head.

It is Neve’s dependency on others that I found so frustrating. She is a person who seems to fall into situations rather than having any control. She is always living a few quid from destitution. The relationship with Edwyn balances on her need for financial support while he, ageing and suffering from heart disease, relies on her for companionship, someone to care for him rather than act as a lover. I wondered what brought them together in the first place.

This is the sort of book that you will enjoy if you like short story collections – this reads a little like one, a series of vignettes taken from Neve’s life. As a novel, it was a little too flighty. I often lost track of time and location and, reading the reviews of others, this is a common experience rather than as a result of me reading in several sittings. Perhaps my expectations were too far removed from what the author was trying to achieve, but for me I found this an unsatisfactory read.