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One From the Archive: ‘Whispers Through a Megaphone’ by Rachel Elliott ****

Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone was longlisted for 2016’s Baileys Women’s Prize, won, of course, by Lisa McInerney with her novel The Glorious Heresies.  I am not familiar with the latter, although it does have a place on my enormous to-read list, but I can wholeheartedly say that Elliott’s debut novel is very good indeed.  Laurie Penny has deemed it ‘a book with a big, beating heart’, and the word ‘charming’ is repeated in a lot of the reviews on the press release.

There are two protagonists in Whispers Through a Megaphone – thirty-five year old Miriam Delaney, and Ralph Swoon, a psychotherapist with twin teenage sons.  When the novel opens, it has been three years since Miriam last left her house:9780992918224

‘No, that’s not quite true.  She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive.  But step out into the street?  No chance.’

Tossing a coin essentially hands Miriam back her freedom: ‘Heads I could be part of the world, tails I’ll always be outside it’.  Her theme song of sorts is Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’: ‘It’s the soundtrack to a future that feels terrifying, exciting, possible, impossible’.  When she does make it out of the house, Elliott wonderfully describes her inner world: ‘It is unusual for Miriam to be gleeful like this, because her default personality setting is melancholy infused with kindness, which sounds like a room spray for introverts’.

Ralph receives the curveball on his birthday, of all days, that his wife no longer loves him.  He decides to move out without informing her, taking what little he needs, and setting up camp in an abandoned shed in the woods.  He adopts a stray cat, names it Treacle, and has companionable suppers with her.  One evening, quite soon into his stay, Miriam comes across him, running, as she does, into the woods in fright: ‘But she has found him.  Or maybe he has found her.  They haven’t found each other, not yet’.  The wholly platonic relationship between the pair which follows is rather heartwarming; it’s rather refreshing to read a novel in which a romance is not automatically sparked under such circumstances.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks are given to Miriam’s childhood, lived with her rather cruel mother, Frances.  She is not bullied much at school; rather, she ‘was only visible when the children were bored’.  She has been told that her father had an aneurysm and died when she was just one, whilst he was outside pegging up various items of laundry.  Her mother’s erratic behaviour is a staple of her girlhood, and even begins a clandestine relationship with Miriam’s married headmaster.  Told to be quiet so often in childhood, Miriam’s voice has been damaged; she can only communicate in whispers, which many of the other characters attribute to her contracting severe laryngitis.

Elliott has a witty, comical way of writing, and her descriptions particularly are rendered quite original in this manner: ‘washing up water that was supposed to smell of lavender and lemon, but actually smelt like the passageway between Asda and the car park’, and, of Ralph, ‘saying “blow me” was something he had inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom’.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is about people in all of their many horrid, wonderful forms.  It is an engaging and surprising read, in which each and every character who peppers the pages has his or her own personal crisis to deal with; Ralph’s sons, for instance – angry Arthur, and Stanley, who is trying to keep his relationship with the serious Canadian Joe under wraps.  The relationships which Elliott builds are complex, but one gets a feel for them almost as soon as each character is introduced, or each situation shifts.  The structure, in which alternate chapters follow Miriam and Ralph, works wonderfully.  Whispers Through a Megaphone is full of depth; it is essentially about a whole cast of characters discovering themselves, and reclaiming some part of their past, or their future. A lovely uplifting read, which is perfect for every season.

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‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman ***

My interest in Naomi Alderman’s The Power was piqued after it won this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  With regard to her other fiction, I had only read Alderman’s The Lessons beforehand; I did this three or so weeks before the announcement of the Bailey’s Prize.  I very much enjoyed it – almost loved it, in fact.  This, twinned with the hype around the title, made me want to read The Power sooner rather than later.  The novel has been deservedly hyped, it must be said.  Margaret Atwood calls the novel ‘Electrifying!’, and the New Statesman deems it a ‘thrilling, spark-throwing version of the future detonates almost everything that seems normal about gender in the present.’  The Guardian calls it ‘an instant classic’, and Grazia writes of it as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale for the Gone Girl generation.’9780670919963

Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are too obvious, and have been done; needless to say, The Power is probably closest to it in terms of the dystopian books which I’ve read to date.  I would also suggest that those who have enjoyed The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood pick it up, as similarities can be drawn between the two.  It also, perhaps strangely, reminded me of Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Magic Finger; you may well see what I mean when you’ve read it.

The novel’s blurb is immediately enticing: ‘All over the world women are discovering they have the power.  With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain – even death.  Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control.’  The Power is supposed to have been written by an author named Neil Adam Armon, who has been looking into the history of this mysterious, dangerous power which women are found to have possessed for centuries.  Neil is rather a dry historian, but has decided to present something a little different in his newest book: ‘… What I’ve done here is a sort of hybrid piece, something that I hope will appeal more to ordinary people.  Not quite history, not quite a novel.  A sort of ‘novelization’ of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative.’  Neil introduces the story in a series of letters to Naomi.

The Power opens in the following way: ‘The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree.  Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers.  The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.’  This quote is attributed to ‘The Book of Eve’ from a kind of inverse Bible.  In fact, The Power comes across as a reversed history, with many fantastical elements, and a worldwide, almost epidemic scale, thrown in.

The first character whom we meet is Roxy, who discovers that she has the Power after two men hurt her mother: ‘Roxy feels the thing like pins and needles along her arms.  Like needle-pricks of light from her spine to her collarbone, from her throat to her elbows, wrists, to the pads of her fingers.  She’s glittering, inside.’  Roxy becomes one of the youngest, and one of the first, to have the Power.  Other stories and cases are soon outed upon the Internet, with videos appearing on YouTube.

The Power, in all, follows four different characters, three of whom have the Power, and one of whom, Tunde, is exploiting it in a way, shooting footage and selling it to newspapers, before he becomes a correspondent for CNN.  These characters live in destinations as far-flung as Wisconsin and Moldova, and their paths cross and converge as the novel goes on.

The structure of the novel works on a kind of countdown basis.  At the beginning of the story, there are ‘Ten years to go’, then nine, then eight.  Rather than ensure that the hierarchical world power structure is destroyed, there soon evolves a hierarchy between those who have the Power; there are leaders and minions.

This seemed like a very good time in history for Alderman to publish such a novel; I think we all need to know that the future can be markedly different in all manner of surprising ways.  The Power provokes so much thought, and has a storyline which cannot be easily forgotten.  The Power is a clever book, but it does rely a little too much upon religion and bureaucracy; in fact, these draw attention away from the main thread of the novel.  I was not personally keen on the ‘mixed media’ which is spattered throughout the story, with its diagrams and ‘extracts’ taken from chatrooms and other webpages.  The fantastic element of The Power has been well thought through, but I found it too drawn out in places, and even got a little bored of it toward the middle.  I will say that The Power, in my opinion, is nowhere near as compelling as The Lessons, but it does make some interesting comments upon the modern world, and is worth reading for this alone.

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‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant **

‘The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.’

9780349006758I have read and very much enjoyed a couple of Linda Grant’s books to date.  With all of the hype currently surrounding this novel, particularly as it has just been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize, I was left distinctly unimpressed.  Whilst I am all for historical novels set in and around the sanitorium, this fell rather flat for me.

The Dark Circle is interesting in terms of its historical setting, and whilst the story begins in rather a promising manner, there is no real consistency to the piece.  I also felt that it was sorely lacking in terms of its characters.  They were shallow and stereotypical; the only one whom I wanted to know more about when she was introduced was Valerie, and she soon succumbed to being just as predictable, naively privileged as she was, as Lenny and Miriam.  The characters in The Dark Circle are not realistic enough to carry the whole, and the lack of plot hooks or twists makes the whole feel rather lacking.

The Dark Circle has an awful lot of promise, but I am afraid that I did not find it lived up to this.  The final part of the novel felt altogether unnecessary; rather trite and irrelevant.  I did not care enough about the protagonists to want to know what happened to them in their post-sanitorium lives.  Sadly, <i>The Dark Circle</i> disappointed me, and I am now in two minds as to whether to read any more of Grant’s novels in future.

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‘Whispers Through a Megaphone’ by Rachel Elliott ****

Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone was longlisted for 2016’s Baileys Women’s Prize, won, of course, by Lisa McInerney with her novel The Glorious Heresies.  I am not familiar with the latter, although it does have a place on my enormous to-read list, but I can wholeheartedly say that Elliott’s debut novel is very good indeed.  Laurie Penny has deemed it ‘a book with a big, beating heart’, and the word ‘charming’ is repeated in a lot of the reviews on the press release.

There are two protagonists in Whispers Through a Megaphone – thirty-five year old Miriam Delaney, and Ralph Swoon, a psychotherapist with twin teenage sons.  When the novel opens, it has been three years since Miriam last left her house:9780992918224

‘No, that’s not quite true.  She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive.  But step out into the street?  No chance.’

Tossing a coin essentially hands Miriam back her freedom: ‘Heads I could be part of the world, tails I’ll always be outside it’.  Her theme song of sorts is Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’: ‘It’s the soundtrack to a future that feels terrifying, exciting, possible, impossible’.  When she does make it out of the house, Elliott wonderfully describes her inner world: ‘It is unusual for Miriam to be gleeful like this, because her default personality setting is melancholy infused with kindness, which sounds like a room spray for introverts’.

Ralph receives the curveball on his birthday, of all days, that his wife no longer loves him.  He decides to move out without informing her, taking what little he needs, and setting up camp in an abandoned shed in the woods.  He adopts a stray cat, names it Treacle, and has companionable suppers with her.  One evening, quite soon into his stay, Miriam comes across him, running, as she does, into the woods in fright: ‘But she has found him.  Or maybe he has found her.  They haven’t found each other, not yet’.  The wholly platonic relationship between the pair which follows is rather heartwarming; it’s rather refreshing to read a novel in which a romance is not automatically sparked under such circumstances.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks are given to Miriam’s childhood, lived with her rather cruel mother, Frances.  She is not bullied much at school; rather, she ‘was only visible when the children were bored’.  She has been told that her father had an aneurysm and died when she was just one, whilst he was outside pegging up various items of laundry.  Her mother’s erratic behaviour is a staple of her girlhood, and even begins a clandestine relationship with Miriam’s married headmaster.  Told to be quiet so often in childhood, Miriam’s voice has been damaged; she can only communicate in whispers, which many of the other characters attribute to her contracting severe laryngitis.

Elliott has a witty, comical way of writing, and her descriptions particularly are rendered quite original in this manner: ‘washing up water that was supposed to smell of lavender and lemon, but actually smelt like the passageway between Asda and the car park’, and, of Ralph, ‘saying “blow me” was something he had inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom’.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is about people in all of their many horrid, wonderful forms.  It is an engaging and surprising read, in which each and every character who peppers the pages has his or her own personal crisis to deal with; Ralph’s sons, for instance – angry Arthur, and Stanley, who is trying to keep his relationship with the serious Canadian Joe under wraps.  The relationships which Elliott builds are complex, but one gets a feel for them almost as soon as each character is introduced, or each situation shifts.  The structure, in which alternate chapters follow Miriam and Ralph, works wonderfully.  Whispers Through a Megaphone is full of depth; it is essentially about a whole cast of characters discovering themselves, and reclaiming some part of their past, or their future. A lovely uplifting read, which is perfect for every season.

Purchase from The Book Depository