Review: The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell

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I recently mentioned how much I was enjoying the recent strain of gothicism which is emerging in British literature (https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/12/20/review-melmoth-by-sarah-perry/). My latest foray into this territory was The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell, which has received much praise for its cunning nod to older literary forms. Part Conan-Doylesque mystery, part Wilkie Collins style chiller, this is a story packed full of malevolent aristocrats, charismatic detectives, unexplained deaths and disappearances, and cunning twists.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Gideon Bliss – an impoverished Cambridge undergraduate – and Octavia Hillingdon, an orphan adopted by a wealthy newspaper magnate. Octavia’s indeterminate social status turns out to be to her advantage in her role as journalist and society columnist, with one foot in the banqueting halls of the upper classes and the other in the treacherous streets of Whitechapel. Both characters find themselves gradually sucked into the sinister world of the so-called ‘spiriters’, who may or may not be responsible for the unexplained deaths of several young, working class women.

It is, however, O’Donnell’s sleuth – Inspector Henry Cutter – who proves the most memorable character of all: a Scotland Yard police officer with a mouth like a sewer, who has a history with the spiriters and aims to see true justice served – a kind of Dickensian Spooky Mulder. Cutter takes Bliss under his wing and the two form a perfect old cop/young (fake) cop pairing – Cutter as world weary father figure to Bliss’s innocent, geeky son.

The book melds its supernatural theme into a realistic depiction of Victorian London and O’Donnell has the most amazing handle on imagistic language, conjuring, with a few deftly chosen words, the glamour of a society ball or the bleakness of the Kent coast. It’s a book you feel rather than read: a novel which slings the reader head first into a maze of dark, forbidding streets, flesh and blood characters and dialogue which captures speech rhythms and idiolects so well that it reads like eavesdropping.

This was a great read to start the year with, and left me with the feeling that if ever a detective deserved his own spin-off series, it is surely Inspector Cutter.

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Review: Public Library by Ali Smith

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Recently I ordered a couple of ‘real feel’ copies of works by or about Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy, and a collection of critical essays on her work. I already had one of these books on my Kindle, but as I needed volumes with page numbers, I decided to order from second hand bookshops. When both books arrived, they were coated in library issue plastic covers, and one of them still contained stamps from Dulwich public library. Coincidentally, I was just reading Smith’s volume of short stories Public Library, which addresses the demise of this treasured institution across the UK following a decade of local government cuts and austerity.

It was both ironic and deeply saddening, and it made me think of what a focal point the library was in the small Derbyshire town where I grew up. (I’m happy to say that’s one book palace which survived the chop). A visit to the library meant opening up new worlds: a very private new world as a reader in a very public space.  And it meant measuring one’s progress from childhood to adolescence when you received the adult reader card – a rite of passage noted by a few of the contributors to Smith’s volume. Libraries are communal spaces and democratic spaces. They function like an enormous secret we’ve all been let in on. Downloading an ebook is just not the same – you don’t have that same sense of sanctuary, or of paying books their due respect while celebrating the fact that this is one of the few times life genuinely gives you something for free. Because without an internet connection and a credit card, you’re mostly forced to source your books the pirate way. And that demeans all of us – authors and readers.

The short stories in Public Library are also a celebration of the act of reading itself, of words and their power, of writers and their histories. Smith has the most amazing ability to mine for joy and subversion in all of her work; to eke out a space in what we take for granted, enabling the reader to see it from new perspectives. I can think of no other author who could effectively pair a tale on credit card fraud with an investigation into the death of D H Lawrence. Or who could trace the breakdown of a marriage to an obsession with Katherine Mansfield. Smith is best at making the incongruous seem a vital part of lived experience – at tracing analogies and associations between the most disparate of pairings. She’s a rebel writer whose work casts an even light over popular culture as much as the literary past, if it will draw her reader’s attention to an idea or image. And snaring our attention is something she never fails at.

Public Library is a paean to our most treasured communal spaces, and to how books connect us across geographies and across time. An essential read and a provocative one.

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

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Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Neo-gothicism seems to be the order of the day in contemporary British literature, with writers like Sarah Perry, Sarah Waters and Andrew Michael Hurley all offering new takes on a much out-moded genre. What all these authors have proved is that the gothic – with its hauntings and secrets, its dark retreats and the way it plays on our most hidden fears – offers perfect territory for exploration of all that we would still repress, even in our current age of confession, self-expression and over-sharing.

What Perry achieves in Melmoth is nothing short of astounding, and I have to admit that as much as I enjoyed her previous outing The Essex Serpent, Melmoth proved a more satisfying read, abounding in cunning devices which deceive and challenge the reader. To such an extent, in fact, that Perry claims one American newspaper was entirely taken in with the myth of Melmoth when in fact it was her own invention! Taking her cue from Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer, Perry transforms Melmoth into a biblical figure – one of the women who witnessed the resurrection of Christ, but refused to acknowledge it. As a result, she is forced to walk the earth until the day of judgement, watching the guilty and, in her loneliness, summoning sinners to walk with her.

Though set in 21st century Prague, Melmoth has a timeless feel which Perry creates through artful use of dialogue and description so that, in her own words, she renders the present ‘strange’ (podcast: The Guardian) or uncanny, thereby creating the perfect gothic backdrop to the horrifying story which unfolds. And what emerges is a story which terrifies far more through its exploration of human cruelty than its supernatural references. The narrative pivots around the shy, shrinking figure of Helen Franklin: an English translator enduring self-imposed exile for a crime committed long ago. Because Helen refuses to confront her past, the reader is denied knowledge of what that crime might have been until the very end of the novel. In stead, Helen sets about uncovering the myth of Melmoth through stories left behind by the Wanderer’s victims, each of which reveals an aspect of human cruelty and weakness. And by the time Helen is ready to examine her own conscience, we are left in no doubt that her sin was truly grave.

What I really loved about this book was its structure: the stories slotting inside one another like the matryoshka dolls sold to tourists on the Charles Bridge, with Helen’s own personal narrative both framing and nesting inside each one. Perry’s skill as a writer means that the novel glides over a range of genres and styles, from biography to travel diary, with subtle intertextual references ranging from Maturin to Kafka. And the story pays out its surprises with such perfect pacing that its finale leaves you breathless – and in no doubt that while the author has dredged humanity’s dark side, it’s the light which remains. This is literary sleight of hand at its most dexterous – an absolute masterpiece.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.

Review: Winter by Ali Smith

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As with all of Ali Smith’s work, Winter is couched in deceptively simple prose, lulling the reader into a sense that this will be a straightforward tale of loss and redemption. And while it is both of those things, it is also a charged, complex and astoundingly beautiful meditation on the way, as a society, we stake out ideological battle lines; on the relationship between art and nature, the fake and the real; on our attitudes to the environment and on our obsession with technology.

This is the second part of Smith’s seasons quartet, and as might be expected there is thematic overlap with Autumn, most saliently perhaps in the references to memory and loss. One particular character is also referenced, who may well prove to be a link throughout the series. The story pivots around the relationship between two women: Sophia, a self-made business woman in her sixties, and her older sister Iris who has been a lifelong defender of the environment and human rights. Ideologically worlds apart, the sisters have grown to despise each other’s life choices; Iris living in a commune and protesting at Greenham Common while Sophia emerges almost as the model Thatcherite business woman, building up her small empire of department stores. Sophia’s son Arthur is the casualty in this family war: a sensitive child who has been severed from his roots and left to fend for himself at a private boarding school. As an adult, he seems to live life in proxy via his blog on which he posts fictional encounters with the natural world.

The feud played out between Sophia and Iris mirrors in microcosm those social and ideological fractures which often seem insurmountable on a broader, social level and the book widens its references to take in Brexit, the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War. Yet Winter ultimately considers the potential for healing and reconciliation even in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a book which refuses to take sides, and which foregrounds dialogue and the understanding of difference as key to a future which will rise above and beyond the hatreds of the past.

Winter is a novel which confirms Ali Smith’s status as one of the greatest living British novelists – she was recently placed first in a TLS poll of academics and authors (theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/05/). I am always grabbed by the playfulness of her writing: her love of invention combined with her unquenchable curiosity, and the way her sentences seem to feed off and into each other. Reading Winter for the first time, I felt I was only scraping at the surface of the story, and I am certain that this is a book I’ll be revisiting on more occasions in the future.