Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.

Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.

What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.

The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how  language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.

I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.

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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.

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 – Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley

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So the first thing to say is that no one does bleakness like Andrew Michael Hurley. And there’s something attractive – and underrated – about bleakness. He did it so well in The Loney (review here) that you could almost feel yourself sinking into the sludge and fog of the Lancastrian coastline. And this time, in Devil’s Day, he creates the impression of a farming community so lost, isolated and ill at ease with itself that you really start to believe the devil might be haunting the moors and forests of the Ribble Valley – and exacting his price from the humans he preys on.

Born into the Endlands – said claustrophobic little farming community – John Pentecost has left to become a teacher in staid, sober Suffolk. He heads north, however, with his wife Kat and an agenda. John wants to return to the Endlands, and he wants Kat there with him. But the valley can’t hold back its secrets for long, and what at first appear to be quaint traditions and beliefs may reflect a darker truth – a truth which Kat refuses to accept.

Hurley excels at drip feed horror – at a gradual revelation of phenomena and events which may or may not be connected, and which may or may not have supernatural origins. And that is where the real complexity of his stories lie – in their ambiguity. Just as in The Loney, it’s hard to say with Devil’s Day where human work ends and the devil’s might begin. And evil itself might as easily be found in nature as it is in any external force for ill will.

It’s possible that Hurley might have overstretched the pacing somewhat with this one. The Loney paid out its surprises more evenly – with Devil’s Day, a good 50% of the novel is devoted to detailing The Endlands, its history and inhabitants. But then again, this contributes to a sense of a world that is lived in, that is real, and that could very well have settled into practices that set it beyond boundaries and belief systems.

Devil’s Day is a story that chills to the core. Perfect Halloween reading.

Review – The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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This is probably the angriest book I’ve read all year. The Mars Room is not just an indictment of the American prison system, but an exploration of how society itself fails many of those who get caught up in that system.

Romy Hall, a dancer at the infamous stripper joint ‘The Mars Room’ ends up in a high security Californian ‘Correctional Institution,’ having murdered the man who stalked her. At the same time she discovers that her mother – sole guardian of Romy’s little boy Jackson – has died, and that her own parental rights have been revoked. With no say in the matter, Romy is left estranged from her own child; unable to trace him from prison.

Part furious satire, part invective, Kushner’s novel exposes the farce of a system which leaves the most vulnerable in a position where they will almost inevitably end up behind bars. It is a system characterised by institutional violence. People like Romy – or her cell mate Button Sanchez – are victims of the conditions it creates; punished hypocritically by a society which refuses to examine the way it fails so many of its own citizens.

“The word violence,” narrates Romy, “was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.” (Kindle Loc 3292)

The Mars Room prises apart the myth of a judicial system aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. Such people are thrown into a cycle of violence and counter-violence from birth; the scapegoats of a society which refuses to examine itself and its own crimes.

A hard read, but an essential one.

 

Review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

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I don’t read thrillers very often, but I’ve recently been on something of a crimefic roll after reading Alias by Cari Hunter  https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/review-alias-by-cari-hunter/

Snap, by Belinda Bauer, was on the Booker longlist – a major achievement for a work of genre fiction – and comes with enthusiastic endorsement from Val McDermid, who has described it as “the best crime novel I’ve read in a long time.”

What attracted me to the book, however, was its intriguing subject matter. Based on the unsolved murder of Marie Wilks, Snap focuses very much on the trauma suffered by a victim’s family in the wake of their a loss. Jack Bright’s mother is brutally killed when he is just eleven years old. She leaves her car at the side of the motorway to make an emergency call and never comes back, leaving Jack to fend for himself and his two young sisters, Joy and Merry.

Cut to three years later and the kids have slipped off social services’ radar. Supported by Jack’s talent for breaking and entry, they are living in hand to mouth squalour. When an opportunity to track his mother’s killer presents itself, Jack seizes it, endangering both himself and his siblings.

For me, the thing which really shone through the whole book was Bauer’s portrayal of Jack – quickwitted and resourceful, yet the psychological damage he has endured and his age make him incredibly vulnerable. The plot never stalls, and there are sufficient twists to turn this into both a real page turner and a story which pivots sympathetically around a young boy’s deep sense of loss.

What I wasn’t so convinced of, however, were Bauer’s portrayals of the ‘supporting cast’, who  emerge at times as mere thumbnail portraits, veering towards stereotype and caricature without true depth. This was particularly the case with the crew of police officers introduced later in the story, ranging from the hard bitten, unorthodox veteran detective, to his fey, vein assistant, both of whom came across more as cliche than rounded character.

A really entertaining read but not Booker material.

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney has been described as the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (Guardian): a writer who explores the loves and lives of Millenials, turning accusations of shallow self-absorption on their head. That’s simply not who her characters are. Her books may brim with references to lives lived online, to friends with benefits and clicktivism, but the young adults who populate her novels are politically tuned-in; emotionally astute; voracious readers and sparkling conversationalists.

To a large extent, anyway, this is what I took from Normal People: Rooney’s Booker long-listed novel about a pair of Sligo teenagers who fall in love – and then somehow seem to keep on almost wilfully missing each other. Both Marianne and Connell are attractive, frighteningly intelligent and both are, in their own ways, damaged – Marianne by her own family and Connell by the pressures of small town life and social class.

In this respect, Rooney plumbs deep psychological depths to establish why Marianne – so gifted and so beautiful – should experience such self-loathing. And why it takes a real tragedy before Connell is able to shake himself free of his own complexes and prejudices.

While Connell and Marianne came across as fully realised and recognisable individuals however, I felt this book could have been twice its length if Rooney had given more substance to the supporting characters. We only hear of Marianne’s mother through second-hand reports, for example, yet she is so pivotal in her daughter’s decline. And then there are the endless succession of boyfriends and girlfriends who never quite match up to the real thing: overprivileged, or intellectually challenged, a series of   emotional stooges contrasted with Marianne and Connell’s perfect pairing.

At its heart, Normal People is a love story – at times achingly painful, at others joyous, and there is obviously something timeless about that which goes beyond immediate concerns around technology and peer group prssures. I think, though, that I would have enjoyed a richer background texture to the book – a more in depth exploration of those forces which steer Marianne away from what she views as ‘normal’. And to which Connell sacrifices so much.

A fascinating read, but I’m not convinced it lives up to the hype.

Review – Alias by Cari Hunter

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Thrillers really don’t come any better than Alias by Cari Hunter. The story begins with a fatal car crash high in the wintry wastes of Snowdonia, and a victim whose amnesia means that she’s lost track of her own past. And it ends in a bloody and terrifying finale which had me on the edge of my seat. This is a book which sucks you in from its mysterious start to its shocking conclusion, and Hunter succeeds in racking up the tension on every page.

Rebecca/Alis stumbles from the wreckage of a hired vehicle unable to remember who she is, let alone the identity of the dead woman beside her. With the help of Detective Bronwen Price of the Welsh police, Alis gradually pieces together a past in which she was almost certainly caught up in a criminal underworld. But whose side was she on? And can she trust the people who now claim to know her?

There is so much detail in this book – a no holds barred realism which sweeps the reader along as Alis tracks her pre-amnesic self from north Wales to the backstreets and suburbs of Manchester, risking her life in search of the truth. And the slow burn romance which develops between Alis and Price adds extra tension to this multi-layered narrative, as it could jeopardise their whole investigation.

I downloaded the Audible version of Alias – which I can’t recommend enough. Nicola Vincent captures all of the characters perfectly, bringing out the snarky, clever dialogue at one moment; Alis’s deep trauma and fear at others. What more can I say? Download it now!

Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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I like kind of drifting into and across books. Sometimes finding a new author is like being involved in a massive paper chase, in which one good read leads to the next. The reason, for example, why I picked up (or rather downloaded) Daisy Johnson’s novel Everything Under was because it was recommended by Fiona Mosley, whose novel Elmet I greatly enjoyed. And I read Elmet due to a fascination with the concept of the Celtic/English hinterland of Elmet presented by Nicola Griffith in her work of historical fiction, Hild.

Indeed, there are a lot of points of comparison or overlap between Everything Under and Elmet. Both stories concern people who live on the peripheries of society. Both explore the relationship between gender and identity. And both use myths, history or legend as a base point for exploring contemporary British culture. Thus, the myth of Oedipus leaks into the lives of Johnson’s characters, steering them inexorably towards tragedy.

Gretel is a lexicographer, whose lonely existence is shored up by a fascination with language and semantics. She embarks on a journey in search of her mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel when she was just thirteen years old. But it now emerges that Sarah is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her fading grip on language means a loss of the past itself; her story delivered up in half-remembered fragments.

Through this confused web of time and memory, Gretel gradually pieces together the story of how the almost idyll of her childhood – spent amongst the ‘river people,’ drifting physically and metaphorically along the fringes of society – was splintered and destroyed by the arrival of a boy named Marcus. And of how Marcus may in fact have once been a girl – Margot.

There are so many strands to this complex and disturbing narrative that one reading doesn’t do the book justice. Johnson reveals the way in which we become trapped or ensnared by language or stories in so many different ways. Both Gretel and Sarah are haunted, for example, by the idea of the Bonak – a water creature hunting the river banks. Yet the border between genuine danger and self-imposed fear is a fluid one, and the Bonak turns out to be a term coined by Sarah herself, as she and Gretel share a private language.

In a sense, language in Everything Under takes on the role of fate in Oedipus Rex. It condemns people to relive the same, inescapable narratives; unable to veer course from self-imposed systems of semantics and association. “Again and again,” says Gretel, “I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.” Only with the disintegration of language, ultimately, can release from the past be found.

Everything Under has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a novel which reads like a river, meandering, free flowing, and at times sucking the reader into dangerous and disturbing depths. And ultimately, it reminds us of why myths like Oedipus still carry resonance in our fractured, fragmented times. Highly recommended.