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.

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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: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

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Ellen Kushner’s second-world fantasy Swordspoint is one of those books I wish I’d picked up a while back, and for some reason never did. It’s a novel which  bursts with the kind of elements I love in historical fantasy the most: courtly intrigue, superlative world building, queer characters and swords. Lots of swords. Don’t ask me why – there’s probably something very Freudian behind it which I’d rather not think about.

Anyway, set in an unnamed city which seems part restoration London, part Quattrocento Florence, disputes are settled at swords point; the nobility often hiring professional swordsmen to fight on their behalf in matters of honour. Enter Richard St Vier who is the best of them all – a man with a murky past who is skilled enough to be choosy when it comes to his patrons. And his lover, Alec – a man with an even murkier past, who tends to bring out the psychopath in Richard, egging him on to yet bloodier deeds.

Richard becomes embroiled in the machinations of the nobility who live on ‘the Hill’ – the smart side of town, and finds his own reputation and ultimately his life jeopardised as a result. And while I’ve read other reviews referring to this story as a ‘fantasy of manners’, with an emphasis on capturing atmosphere and character, I found myself gripped by the plot, as Richard becomes an unwitting pawn on an intricate playing board.

The one thing that niggled was the representation of female characters who were, for the most part, scheming aristocrats a la Dangerous Liaisons, happy whores or eventually docile wives. I could have done with a woman whose role went beyond fairly obvious stereotypes. I also felt there were a few subplots that would have been worth a bit more development. Richard didn’t seem particularly haunted by one of the more shocking events from his past; and Alec’s foray into astronomy was little more than a passing allusion.  However, there was so much else going on here that it was hard to keep track of those lesser plot lines.

The novel is beautifully written in clear, precise prose and with an attention to detail that leaves you in no doubt, as a reader, of how Kushner wants you to feel – from the dangerous alleyways of Riverside, to the refined gardens and palaces of the Hill. It’s a book which very much serves as an antidote to fantasy conventions of good versus evil, or tradition versus modernity. Really worth a read.

Review: Beowulf for Cretins by Ann McMan

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Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the characters you encounter in books to be people you really know. They’re so artfully brought to life that you think, “I would give anything to be in on this conversation; to sit down with this lady and share a bottle of wine with her.”

At least, that was how I felt about Grace Warner – hapless heroine of Ann McMan’s novel Beowulf for Cretins. With her self-deprecating wit, her inner conflicts and her absolute devotion to the woman she loves, Grace is the kind of character you root for from beginning to glorious end.

Following a messy break-up, Grace finds herself indulging in an “over-night rental” – as she terms it – with a beautiful stranger at a party. Back at the liberal arts college where Grace works teaching freshman English, it turns out that her one-night stand just happens to be her new boss. And while Grace ends up falling hopelessly in love with Abbie – the new president of St Alban’s college – she knows that it’s a relationship which could spell disaster for both of them.

Both Abbie and Grace are the kind of leading ladies who really don’t get enough airtime in fiction: mature women who are warm, intelligent and flawed enough that you can fully relate to them. At the same time, the novel dishes up an eclectic “supporting cast” of characters ranging from CK – a punk physics genius who pulls no punches as Grace’s best friend – to Dean – Grace’s ‘Cro-Magnon’ of a brother, and of course Grendel – the misfit freak of a dog that Grace finds herself saddled with.

The dialogue fairly zings with wit, and beneath the comedy there’s always a hint of the insecurities and sensitivities which make Grace such a fascinating character – from her lapsed Catholic heritage to the jealousies and politics of campus life.

Just a perfect read which made me want to rush out and buy all of Ann McMan’s books right away.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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I decided to read The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock after listening to an interview with the novel’s author, Imogen Hermes Gowar on the Guardian books podcast (which is, by the way, always worth a listen). You can find the interview here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2018/mar/13/man-booker-international-and-the-womens-prize-for-fiction-where-to-start-reading-books-podcast

What attracted me to the story was the way Hermes Gowar has isolated an aspect of late eighteenth century London society – its fascination for exotica and curios – and taken that as a reference point for exploring the city at large, in terms of its changing physical and cultural landscapes.

The story hinges on the moment when merchant Jonah Hancock discovers that his ship has been sold in exchange for what is claimed to be a mermaid. Devastated over the loss of his vessel, Hancock nevertheless endeavours to recoup his losses by putting the mermaid’s mummified remains on display.

In fact, public fascination with the mermaid gains Hancock access to social spheres which, as a ‘middling’ kind of merchant he has never previously enjoyed: from the luxury and sensuality of an upmarket King Street brothel to the newly moneyed circles of Mary-le-Bone and Blackheath. In the process, he meets renowned courtesan Angelica Neal who proves as alluring as the mermaid itself.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock emerges as a work of textual archaeology, revealing the hidden histories of those people who frequently serve as little more than ‘local colour’ in received versions of national history. In contemplating her future as Hancock’s wife, for example, Angelica realises the extent to which her own identity will ultimately be lost; concealed beneath a series of socially-prescribed roles:

These claims upon her will only multiply – she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant – and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left. (p.372)

The novel also references characters who slip through the net of white-washed historical narrative such as Polly – a mixed race prostitute, displayed like the mermaid as a curiosity.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock throws the reader headfirst into the murky waters of a city on the brink of change: into its new role as a capitalist powerhouse. In this respect, London itself emerges as a protagonist in the novel, transformed by a burgeoning economic reality which sees social climbers like Mr Hancock encroaching on the terrain of the upper classes.

This is a multi-layered jewel of a book, injecting London’s past with an immediacy which makes you question how far removed we are from such a reality. The fetishising of women’s bodies and the hunger for what we perceive to be exotic or grotesque are after all as characteristic of our contemporary media as they ever were for 18th century London society.

A beautifully written, startling and disturbing piece of fiction.

Review: Survival Instincts by May Dawney

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Given the fact that the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ are currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight; given the constant barrage of media reports on climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and rising geopolitical tensions, it’s perhaps not surprising that dystopian fiction keys into some of our deepest collective fears. How might we function in a world without technology – or an excess of it? Will we be able to resist the political extremes of totalitarianism or anarchy? What happens to us if, stripped of our humanity, we’re forced to fall back on our most primitive instincts, with the survival of one meaning the destruction of others?

This last question is what haunts May Dawney’s novel, Survival Instincts. War has ravaged the planet: humanity has all but obliterated itself. Only a few survivors eke out an existence either as ‘wilders’, relying on their own wits and skills to hunt and fend for themselves, or in defensive communities and homesteads.

Lynn Tanner is a wilder: a woman who has learned the hard  way that she can rely on no one but herself. She makes her way across the scarred landscape which was once New York State, scavenging and searching for hideouts, preying on wild animals for food and being preyed upon in turn by wolves, bears and other predators.

Lynn is forced to question her own values and instincts, however, when she is taken prisoner by a group of homesteaders and tasked with a quest which could well lead to her death. Accompanied by Dani, a hunter for the community, and her dog Skeever, Lynn finds herself suddenly forced into a position of trust, and experiences emotions which challenge her entire sense of who she is and whether there might be more to life than mere survival.

This is a gripping, beautifully written and uncompromising story which asks significant questions about how people might function when deprived of even the most basic comforts. Dani and Lynn’s unfolding relationship is perfectly paced, as the two women are beset by issues of trust and yet somehow start to believe that love might be more than just a luxury; it could imbue their lives with real meaning. It’s a story which confronts the daily grind of survival in a realistic way, and it does what all good speculative fiction should – it leaves you thinking long after you’ve read the final page about how we would function in such a future, and how distanced we really are from it.

Survival Instincts is simply an exceptional read, and a book which stays with you long after you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.

Review: Just Jorie by Robin Alexander

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So before I review Just Jorie, I’d just like to say that this was a story which broke my audio book virginity, if you can forgive the expression. I haven’t listened to audio books before, simply because for whatever reason Amazon Audible wasn’t available in Poland until recently. And now I’ve tried one, I’m absolutely hooked – it means I can fit more books into my week without even trying!

But anyway, onto the book itself. Just Jorrie is the sweet and engaging tale of two women who find true love for the first time at forty (or thereabouts). It’s mostly set in New Orleans and focuses on Jorie (Marjorie Andolini) and Lena Vaughan, who find themselves thrown together by chance while waiting for a plane home. They decide to make the journey back by car together, and end up discovering out a lot more about each other than they’d bargained for.

Lena is forty, a high flying businesswoman who for some reason never seems able to meet the right guy. Jorie works for her family’s car parts company and is out and comfortable with her identity as a lesbian. Ostensibly worlds apart, they both begin to realise that each might be the other’s ‘one’: that certain somebody who’ll bring magic, love and security into their lives.

For Lena, this means a late-in-life examination of her own sexuality. For Jorie, it comes with plenty of concerns: is Lena just toying with her? Is it possible that someone with Lena’s background could fall for her? And that’s without taking into account the helpful ‘advice’ which comes their way and threatens to rock the boat, courtesy of various friends and family members.

The key note of the story is its humour. Avoid reading or listening to this book in public, because you will laugh. A lot. The dialogue is fast, sharp and witty and the characterisation is just perfect – especially when it comes to the Andolini household, and Jorie’s crazy Aunt and Gramps who never hold back. And I loved how easy it was to relate to all the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Put simply, Just Jorie is a beautifully written, upbeat romantic comedy. And I can definitely recommend the audio version, narrated by Lisa Cordileone, who brings all the characters to life.

Review of “Building Love” by M E Tudor

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A sweet romance about real people finding real love.

Following the sudden death of her father, Patricia McNeal goes off the rails, taking drugs, partying and ending up pregnant at eighteen. Her mother Mandy, also coming to terms with the death of her husband, embarks on a new life and opens a B&B.

Enter Theresa Garland, working for her father’s construction company, who is tasked with turning Mandy’s dream into a reality. There’s a definite spark between Theresa and Patty, but it takes a great deal of soul searching and bitter experience before they can acknowledge it. And even then, both girls seem to be victims of their own pasts: of circumstances which it’s hard to keep secret in a small town.

What I liked about the book is just how easy it was to relate to the main characters. Both Theresa and Patty are strong, stubborn, beautiful women who’ve been dealt a poor hand in life and learn to make the best of it. And you find yourself really rooting for them in their search for love, family and security. The perfect summer read.

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

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This was quite the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read for a long time: a novel which is brutal in its honesty and honest in its presentation of brutality. It shocks, it disturbs, it confounds and it never, ever spares the reader.

I guess, on one level, this might be Eimar McBride giving her literary forebears the finger. After all, the narrative which unfolds is couched in fluid, stream of consciousness monologue – a nod perhaps to the ‘Penelope’ chapter of Ulysses and to Joyce’s male centric Bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist. But the nameless protagonist of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is no worldly-wise, self-satisfied Molly Bloom, and the focus of this book is fully on female sexuality. And if McBride’s work offers any kind of release, it is not in an affirmative portrayal of that sexuality. In fact, it stems from a gradual process of disintegration: from the girl slowly stripping herself of all she is and of all that is expected of her.

This is fundamentally the story of the destruction of a sensitive, intelligent child. Her mother – a devout, almost fanatical Catholic – never truly succeeds in engaging with her daughter in a meaningful way and seems to almost wilfully refuse to understand her. Sexually assaulted at the age of thirteen by her uncle, the protagonist is left with serious psychological scars and can only find an outlet for her pain in degrading, sexual encounters. At the same time, she positions herself between the world and the one person she ever really loves – her brother – who has suffered a brain tumour.

The girl is constantly perceived by others; objectified in so many different ways. Yet her monologue reveals the extent to which she is internally fragmented and incapable of sustaining a coherent sense of her own identity. It’s a hard and at times excruciating read. But it takes the reader places few other books dare: into another human being’s tormented psyche.

 

Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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I arrived at this novel by a vagarious route. I recently finished Hild by Nicola Griffith in which the last Celtic kingdom of Elmet is a central motif. To my shame I had never heard of Elmet, even though I lived for about two years in Yorkshire (Elmet was located over roughly what would later become the West Riding.) After reading Hild I began to realise just how politically complex 7th century England was. The term Anglo-Saxon is conceptually inaccurate as it implies a dominant, monolithic culture when in fact Angles and Saxons were already fragmented and warring groups. In this context, the idea of a residual Celtic Kingdom in the north of England appears less of an anomaly and more a kind of proof of just how porous British identity always has been.

Anyway, I found the idea of Elmet a fascinating one, and I happened to be at an airport bookshop when I saw Fiona Mozley’s book, read that it had been shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize and immediately went and downloaded it. What I love about this novel is the fact that it plays on that original idea of Elmet as a kind of badlands: a world away from the norms, a place where ancient values and beliefs still frame the way people live and think. Yet at the same time, Mozley repositions that idea in a more recent context: in a Yorkshire scarred by the destruction of mining communities and on the cusp of entering a new, unforgiving reality of hard capitalism and privatisation.

The novel foregrounds a pocket of resistance to such change in the form of Daddy (John Smythe), a prize fighter who brings up his children Kathy and Daniel in the middle of a forest, schooling them in self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Daddy makes his money through violence – through boxing in illegal fights – while going at any length to protect his family against the threats which encroach upon their little world.

The fascination of this story is not what is said but what is left unsaid. Its impact lies in its ambiguity: in the frayed edges around the tale which Daniel, its narrator, weaves. It gives the novel a mythic, lyrical feel which contributes to the sense of this being a kind of latter day legend, just as Elmet itself became the subject of myth making.

It’s a novel which is at once rooted in a keen sense of geography and history but which at the same time transcends time and space. Mozley’s prose rings with innovation and with imagery which throws into relief the wild, stark, beautiful world which Daniel inhabits. It’s a story of survival and of loss, of the clash of value systems, and of our sense of how the past invades the present. Elmet is also violent territory, and the fact that this violence is muted in Daniel’s narration makes it all the more shocking. Abuse and conflict, the book suggests, are as much a part of our cultural inheritance as the land and traditions which Daddy is so desperate to hand onto his children. This is a book which you carry with you long after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.