The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

gustav

Once upon a time (well, a month or so ago) I was determined to read all of this year’s Baileys shortlisted books before the winner was announced. With five days to go and three of the novels not yet read that is most definitely not going to happen. My failure is tempered by the knowledge that I have had to give over precious reading time to writing – a new novel which I am obsessed with. Nevertheless I had already reserved a couple of the Baileys books from the library so they will not go unread. Rose Tremain’s book attracted me first due to its relative brevity (as well as being due back to the library today).

Set in Switzerland and beginning in 1947 Gustav Perle grows up in a tiny flat in a small town. He lives with his mother, Emilie. His father, a hero says his mother, died when he was a baby. When new boy Anton moves to Gustav’s town, the boys quickly become friends. Anton is a talented pianist, a prodigy he tells Gustav. Emilie doesn’t like Anton visiting their small flat. Anton’s family are Jewish and Emilie tells Gustav that his father died trying to protect the Jews during the war. Tremain cleverly uses Anton’s constantly supportive parents to contrast the indifference that Emilie shows to her son. When Emilie contracts pneumonia and has to be taken to hospital, Gustav is left alone with only a friendly neighbour to help. She tells him he must wash the sheets where his mother wet the bed, to weak to get to the bathroom, and there is a heart-breaking scene where he goes down to the laundry but is too little to reach the light switch and has to leave the sheets there until the next day.

The middle part of the book takes place before Gustav’s birth, the story of how his parents met. This is a bleak novel and so I wasn’t expecting a happy tale, but in some ways I could understand why Emilie had turned out the way she did once I knew what she’d already been through (though she is never portrayed as likeable, rather slightly calculating and self-pitying). The real circumstances around her husband’s death were even more tragic than imagined, though I felt that here the rather Swiss restraint that Tremain employs could have been relaxed. Having become involved with Erich’s predicament I found that his actual death was rather anticlimactic. I don’t think I needed it to be more dramatic in terms of what happens, only I think I wanted more detail. I wanted to be there, and to know his thoughts, rather than finding out about it later, if that makes sense.

This is the sort of novel which is quietly excellent. The prose is perfect and never overwrought. I found the dialogue a little rigid but it fit the style of the novel. Both Gustav and Anton are very restrained and, certainly with Anton, there is the suggestion that if they let go too much then all will be lost. I am full of admiration for this book, but I never quite fell in love with it.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

dark circle

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.

 

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

Mare

This is one of those books that I just can’t make up my mind about. I think I liked it, but there were times while reading where I wondered where it was going.

The novel is mainly told through the point of view of Ginger, a forty odd year old recovering alcoholic, and Velvet, eleven years old at the start of the novel. Ginger lives in upstate New York with her husband Paul. A second marriage for him, she feels like an outsider in a community that still includes his ex-wife and daughter. Ginger herself has been unable to have children. Paul refuses to consider adoption, but eventually agrees to a middle ground and suggests that they host an inner-city kid for a couple of weeks in the summer. That kid is Velvet. The story seems inevitable: Ginger will become too involved. And that is sort of what happens, though there are depths to this story that make it more than a one note tale.

The mare of the title is a horse at the barn near Ginger’s house. She takes Velvet there for horse riding lessons and it turns out that the girl has talent. The mare, Fugly Girl (renamed Fierce Girl by Velvet), has been abused and is volatile, but over time Velvet learns how to earn her trust. Again, a bit of a cheesy metaphor, but I think Gaitskill just about gets away with it. Ginger goes against Velvet’s mother’s wishes and lets Velvet ride even when her mother says that it’s too dangerous, even paying out ridiculous amounts of money for bareback riding lessons, which she hides from Paul. I wanted more to come from this – Ginger is basically obsessed by the midpoint of the book and willing to do anything to help Velvet, trying to convince her mother to move the family out of Brooklyn, getting her school teachers to call with updates,  but there are never any consequences to her ongoing deceptions.

Ginger and Velvet narrate alternating chapters, chapters which are sometimes as short as a paragraph, barely ever longer than three or four pages. Occasionally another voice comes in, Paul, or Velvet’s mother Silvia, but rarely. I was surprised to find that this technique worked for me. As a reader, it was useful to get two sides of an argument. Velvet often lied to others but would be more honest in her own narration. It was also a neat trick at times when events were occurring outside of their sphere, meaning that we could jump into other locations and see through someone else’s eyes.

On to the characters themselves. I found Ginger a little irritating and I struggled to see her and Paul as a real couple. They were always on opposite sides, and although his few chapters did help to see that there had been love there once, I wondered how it had faded so quickly when they hadn’t been married for that long. Velvet was a more interesting character, and had real development as she grew from the young eleven year old at the beginning, to a streetwise thirteen year old. The scenes between her and Silvia were devastating, Silvia just wanting her daughter to not make the same mistakes but seemingly unable to explain herself. At times this also became frustrating. Because Silvia doesn’t speak English I could understand the gap between her and Ginger but I didn’t get why she couldn’t just speak to her own kid. She seemed unable to have a conversation with Velvet that didn’t involve shouting, and towards the end that just seemed odd.

This was a good enough book but I wanted the stakes to be higher. I feel like Gaitskill offered us a glimpse of disaster (and the characters all seemed to be aiming straight for it) but then closed the door as though she thought we couldn’t handle it.

 

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

the lesser

I had no intention of getting on with this book. If it hadn’t been longlisted for the Baileys Prize then I would almost definitely carried on thinking ‘not for me’, just as I did with McBride’s feted debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (which I still have not read).  Written in a poetic, stream of consciousness style, this is a novel that takes a while to get into. Once I was immersed in it the style seemed natural to read. This book could not have worked without the almost dreamlike state its prose creates, and by the end I’d sort of fallen in love with it.

In its basic form, this is a love story set in the mid 90s. Eily, an eighteen year old drama student, moves from Ireland to London. She meets an older actor, Stephen, almost twenty years her senior and semi-famous. The novel is about their relationship over the course of the academic year. It is a coming of age story for Eily, but for Stephen too the relationship marks a turning point. Gradually we discover that both of them have troubled pasts.

Reading this was a little like watching a relationship through a Vaseline-smeared window. The way McBride writes her prose makes the words seem less concrete. Occasionally I missed who was speaking but enough was clear. Since Eily and Stephen spend large chunks of the book off their faces on booze or drugs, it felt more immersive to not have a crystal clear vision of everything they were doing and saying. About a third of the way through, I wondered if there was enough of a story to sustain my interest, but this is where McBride then delves back into their histories. Stephen, for me,  became a believable character here, telling Eily on the eve of his birthday about his childhood and early adulthood. Before that, I did think him a little clichéd – the older man, actor who could have made it bigger had he not battled drug addiction, constantly shagging everything that moved.

While Stephen became fully rounded through his revelations, I never really understood what made Eily tick. Even though this written in first person, in her thoughts, there was a childlike quality to her that never went away. She spends most of the novel trying to grab Stephen’s attention. He is the older man with the more interesting life. Maybe if McBride had brought us more from her time in Ireland, or spent more time with her one friend that she seemed to have, I would have cared more for her. I think it was her lack of interests outside of the relationship that made me find her a little two dimensional. Even the acting was shared by both of them.

The revelation for me is that I really did enjoy this book and I’d not be upset to see it on the Baileys shortlist. I think it would be a good addition just for the bold way McBride writes (plus I hate writing sex scenes and she had to write loads in this! None of which I found excruciating to read).

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The woman next door

After having my mind blown by The Power I needed something a little lighter to read and so I turned to this next in my Baileys Prize TBR pile.

The Woman Next Door is the story of two women in their eighties. As the title suggests, Hortensia and Marion live next door to each other in an affluent Cape Town suburb. Hortensia is black, originally from Barbados while Marion is white and a Cape Town native. On the face of it they have a lot in common. Both are recently widowed and have made some unsettling discoveries about the men they spent their lives with. Both had impressive careers, in architecture and design. However, they also hate one another. It is only an unforeseen accident that forces the two together.

This is a light read but it takes on a lot: loneliness, racism, betrayal. Both women are facing the end of their lives and having to admit to themselves that they ‘made do’. Neither had a particularly happy marriage and both have been left with their husband’s secrets to deal with. It seems inevitable that the women will end up finding common ground, but it’s not made easy. Both are fairly cantankerous, and they seem to enjoy winding one another up.

There is added tension in the fact that Marion is without doubt a product of the old apartheid society. She claims that Hortensia plays the ‘race card’ too often, but her own children call her racist. One of the funnier moments is when Marion discovers that her black maid, Agnes, has been bringing her own toilet paper to work. Marion had decided that her own two ply tissue was not necessary for Agnes and had provided her with one ply. Agnes, disagreeing, brought three ply with her instead, forcing Marion to upgrade her own toilet paper so as not to be outdone.

Where I struggled a little with the book was the past history of the women. I didn’t really understand why Marion didn’t get on with her husband, or why she had so many children when she didn’t come across as the maternal type and clearly resented having had to give up her architectural practice. I was also unsure why Hortensia, who had endured dirty looks and being spat at on the streets of 1950s London, accepted at an early age that her marriage would not be what she’d hoped. Obviously there was a lot more going on than this (not wanting to give too much away!) but I didn’t buy it completely. I wanted more interaction between the partners during those scenes set in the past. I found these flashback scenes more interesting than the storyline in the present, for the most part.

Overall, I thought this was a strong novel, deserving of its longlist status, but I would be surprised to see it on the shortlist just because the competition this year is so incredible.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power

I often read quotes on book jackets and find them either so generic as to be useless, or the book doesn’t live up to the billing. In this case, Margaret Atwood’s quote is entirely apt.

It happens slowly at first, but across the world teenage girls are discovering that they have a new ability. Their bodies can generate electricity which can be discharged through their fingers. It is then discovered that younger girls can awaken this power in the older generations. Most women have a ‘skein’, the newly discovered body part which generates the power. Men do not have it, apart from a few with chromosomal differences. This novel explores the theory that it is men’s physical abilities that have resulted in our patriarchal society, and looks at what might therefore happen if the tables were turned.

The story is narrated via four main characters: Roxy, daughter of a gangster, who uses her powers to take revenge on the men who killed her mother; Allie, a mixed race child in care who escapes an abusive foster family; Margot, mayor and mother; and Tunde, a young man who forges a career in journalism by travelling the world in search of uprisings. Their stories begin separately but intertwine towards the end. The choice of characters worked well and having a male character showed a different perspective.

This book was excellent regarding the small role changes that occurred quickly: the way that the alpha male TV news broadcaster gradually gets undermined by his younger female co-host; echoes of Trump when Margot goes up against a male candidate for Governor. There are also several incidences of rape – female against male – and while I felt that a couple of these were justified, I thought it became a little gratuitous by the end, especially as they became more violent and graphic in description. I have also read some criticism of the way Muslim women are portrayed (this is concerning the Saudi revolution – though I get that this is a simplified reversal of events such as those that took place in Iran in the 1970s).

Alderman builds tension by counting down to an unknown event. We begin at ‘Ten years to go’ and each section skips ahead a year or two. Generally I thought this worked well, since it would take time for societal changes to bed in, though at times I forgot that we’d moved on a few years, so eager was I to read quickly. I can’t say more without giving away massive spoilers but I was unsure about the very end of the book – I wasn’t sure it entirely worked. Nevertheless, a brilliant novel. In the wrong hands this could have easily become unfocused  given the scope of it, but Alderman corrals her characters expertly to bring together a thrilling book.

I  read this as part of the Baileys Prize longlist. I probably won’t have time to read all the novels before the shortlist is announced but here are links to those I’ve already reviewed:

Books – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

 

Books – A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

I made it! This was the last book on the Baileys shortlist and I finished with a day to go before the announcement. So – is A Little Life a contender for the prize?

This is a weighty book even in paperback form, 720 pages. I don’t mind that. I quite enjoy a longer book as long as it can justify its length. And the premise does promise that: four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York. We are to follow their lives over decades, as ‘their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride.’ So far so good.

This synopsis is a little misleading. This isn’t really the story of four men, it is the story of one. After a few early chapters cursorily sketching out the background of three of the men, we narrow in on the main protagonist: Jude St Francis. This is Jude’s story – the many characters orbit him like he is the sun, their every thought seems linked to his wellbeing even when they have bigger concerns that they should be dealing with. This, for me, was the main fault of this novel. Because as a reader I couldn’t see why he should have so much power over everyone. He wasn’t particularly likeable, narcissistic and selfish, character traits that had cause but over the course of such a number of pages began to wear my patience thin.

Jude is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Much has been made of the relentless depiction of what Jude goes through at the hands of various adult men, from the age of around eight until fifteen, that I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention here. Personally I think that scary topics should be brought up and not sugar-coated. His personal story is unique but terrible things happen to children every day, and perhaps if the nurse that Jude saw before the worst had taken place had read this book she may have been more inclined to report his abuse. However, he seems spectacularly unlucky – to be abused so horrifically by several separate adults, none of them linked, in different states and institutions – it seems a little unlikely, though we are told that Jude is beautiful as an explanation.

Jude’s looks also excuse a lot. His lack of personality makes his popularity a mystery; it leaves only beauty and pity as reasons. Oh, and his success. All four of the friends become ridiculously successful, American dream successful. Jude is a ruthless litigator, rising as far as to be offered chairman of his firm; Willem starts off as a believable struggling actor and waiter only to become a Hollywood A lister; JB ends up with his own art gallery, a show at MoMA and his works selling for large sums; Malcolm has his own company, architect to the rich and famous, designing public buildings across the world. Even bystander characters have to be successful, there is no allowance for mediocrity here. Which does help as Jude’s health gets worse because we all know that he could never afford his treatments in the US if he weren’t a millionaire by that stage of his life.

What I admired about this book was its boldness. Yanagihara is not afraid to confront hard topics such as abuse. There is drug addiction and its consequences, Jude’s ongoing self harm which was much harder to read that the abuse inflicted on him by others. It deserves its place on the awards shortlists for that. However, I didn’t buy into the characters at all, mainly because they are presented as just that – puppets used to move the story forward. They live in a very sterile  and pretentious environment. There was also too much telling versus showing. Perhaps because Jude is so annoying (constant relentless self-pity is not an attractive trait, even in someone so horribly abused) we have to be told that his friends are all obsessed with him. I also found it difficult to imagine the men growing older. Their lives, apart from their work, seemed stagnant. There was no emotional development in evidence.

I was also a little confused by the decision to have two of the four ‘main characters’ be black when the author then painted them in vague stereotypes and pretty much discarded them apart from when they could interact with Jude.  JB and Malcolm had very little time on the page, apart from to upset Jude at various points. I did wonder if it was a publishing decision to pitch the book as the story of the four men as there are other characters who appear much more than JB and Malcolm and have more part within the story.

So, what is my overall verdict? It is a book that I would recommend people to read, even though it is never going to be up there on a list of my favourites. It’s a book that should not work at all, and yet it kind of does, despites its many flaws. It deserves its place on the Baileys Prize shortlist. Whether it deserves to win or not is going to come down to which camp the  judges fall into: this is a book that you will either love, or love to hate.

 

My other Baileys Prize shortlist reviews:

Books – The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

Books – The Green Road – Anne Enright

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild