0

The Book Trail: From Roundabouts to Mountains

For the start of this edition of The Book Trail, I have chosen a quirky novel which I reviewed back in April, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

9780340994306

1. The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall
‘Who is the Roundabout Man?  He doesn’t look like a tramp, yet he lives on a roundabout in a caravan and survives on the leftovers from a nearby motorway service station. He calls himself Quinn, the name of a boy in a world-famous series of children’s books, but he’s nearer retirement than childhood.  What he hopes no one will discover is that he’s the real Quinn, immortalised as a child by his mother in her entrancing tales about a little boy’s adventures with his triplet sisters. It is this inheritance he has successfully run away from – until now. When Quinn’s reclusive existence is invaded, he has to turn and face his past, and all the uncomfortable truths it contains about himself, his sisters and, most of all, his mother.’

 

2. The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth
‘It’s Friday in the Leeke household, but this is no ordinary Friday: the Leekes are Lancastrian Mormons and tonight they will be welcoming back their son Gary from his two-year mission in Utah. His mother, Pauline, wants his homecoming to be perfect. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be following the script.  In turn, the members of the family let us into their private thoughts and plans. There’s teenage Jeannie, wrestling with a disastrous secret; her peculiar elder brother, Julian, who’s plotting an exit according to his own warped logic; their father, Martin, dreaming of escape; and ‘golden boy’ Gary, who dreads his return. Then there’s Pauline, who needs a doctor’s help but won’t ask for it.  As the day progresses, a meltdown looms. Except that nothing goes according to anyone’s plan, and the outcome is as unexpected as it is shocking. Laced with black humour and giving an unusual insight into the Mormon way of life, this is a superbly orchestrated and arresting tale of human folly and foibles and what counts in times of crisis.’

 

3. Idiopathy by Sam Byers 16066898
Idiopathy: a novel as unexpected as its title, in which Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan—three characters you won’t forget in a hurry—unsuccessfully try to figure out how they feel about one another and how they might best live their lives in a world gone mad. Featuring a mysterious cattle epidemic, a humiliating stint in rehab, an unwanted pregnancy, a mom–turned–media personality (“Mother Courage”), and a workplace with a bio-dome housing a perfectly engineered cornfield, it is at once a scathing satire and a moving meditation on love and loneliness. With unusual verbal finesse and great humor, Sam Byers neatly skewers the tangled relationships and unhinged narcissism of a self-obsessed generation in a remarkable, uproarious first novel.’

 

4. The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen
‘A poem wrapped in brown paper. A man, a woman, a city, and a past that must not be remembered.  Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic, has a new lease on life. In remission from cancer, she returns to the city where she was a student over thirty years ago to investigate some little-known papers by T. S. Eliot, which she believes contain the seeds of her masterpiece; a masterpiece that centres on a poem given to her when she was eighteen by the elusive Professor Hunt…  But as the days pass in the city she loves and her friendship with Professor Hunt is rekindled, her memories return her to a time shadowed by loneliness, longing and quiet despair, and to an undeclared but overwhelming love. Paralysed by the fear of writing something worthless, haunted by a sense of waste, Elizabeth Stone comes to realise she is facing the biggest test of her life.  As in her acclaimed debut The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen gives an intense evocation of place, an unflinching portrayal of a character by turns comic, absurd, and disturbing, and a powerful sense of the transcendent within the ordinary. Profound and hypnotic, The Professor of Poetry devastates even as it exhilarates and echoes long after it has been closed.’

 

158144045. The Retrospective by A.B. Yehoshua
‘An aging Israeli film director has been invited to the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela for a retrospective of his work. When Yair Moses and Ruth, his leading actress and longtime muse, settle into their hotel room, a painting over their bed triggers a distant memory in Moses from one of his early films: a scene that caused a rift with his brilliant but difficult screenwriter—who, as it happens, was once Ruth’s lover. Upon their return to Israel, Moses decides to travel to the south to look for his elusive former partner and propose a new collaboration. But the screenwriter demands a price for it that will have strange and lasting consequences.  A searching and original novel by one of the world’s most esteemed writers, The Retrospective is a meditation on mortality and intimacy, on the limits of memory and the struggle of artistic creation.’

 

6. Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
‘A fable of the comic-horror of modern urban existence seen through the eyes of Doctor Dolly, a woman alone in an alienating city. Dolly mounts a solitary, crazy and comic protest against warmongers and bureaucrats, adopting a son along the way.’

 

7. Homesick by Eshkol Nevo 2210309
‘This heartwarming, charming and clever first novel dips into the lives of each of the inhabitants of a village in Israel.  It is 1995 and Noa and Amir, a student couple, have decided to move in together. Noa is studying photography in Jerusalem and Amir is a psychology student in Tel Aviv. They choose a small apartment in a village in the hills, midway between the two cities.  Originally called El-Kastel, the village was emptied of its Arab inhabitants in 1948 and is now the home of Jewish immigrants from Kurdistan. Not far from the apartment lives a family grieving for their eldest son who was killed in Lebanon. The younger brother left behind, Yotam, forgotten by his parents, turns to Amir for support.  Further down the street, Saddiq watches the house while he works at a building site. He knows that this house is the one from which his family was driven by the Jews when he was a boy, and to which his mother still has a rusty key. Despite friendships that develop and lives that become entwined, tensions among this melting pot of characters seem to be rising to the surface.  This enchanting and irresistible novel offers us windows into the characters’ lives. Each comes from somewhere different but we gradually see that there’s much about them that’s the same. Homesick is a beautiful and moving story about history, love, family and the true meaning of home.’

 

8. The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev
‘Set in a small rural village prior to the creation of the State of Israel, this funny and hugely imaginative book paints an extraordinary picture of a small community of Ukrainian immigrants as they pioneer a new life in a new land over three generations. Narrated by Baruch, a grandson of one of the founding fathers of the village, this lyrical novel transcends time and place by touching on issues of universal relevance, showcasing the skill of a master storyteller who never fails to entertain.’

 

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which is the most quirky book which you have read of late?

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Roundabout Man’ by Clare Morrall ****

The Roundabout Man is the first of Clare Morrall’s novels which I have read.  I have been interested in her work for quite some time now, and selected this novel as my first taste of it due to the wonderful quirkiness of its blurb.  The Roundabout Man is Morrall’s fifth book, and was first published in 2012.

Of Morrall’s main protagonist, the Literary Review writes ‘Quinn is quietly fascinating…  his fumblings toward an understanding that can only ever be partial are brilliantly achieved.’  The Sunday Times agrees, stating that: ‘Morrall writes with poise and delicacy, and her subjects are delightful offbeat.’ 9780340994306

Quinn Smith lives in an old caravan in the middle of an overgrown roundabout, somewhere in England.  He shares his name with a young boy in a ‘world-famous series of children’s books’, and people often think he is joking when he introduces himself.  However, he was the inspiration for the fictional Quinn, a series which was written by his mother, and featured his older, bossy triplet sisters, Zuleika, Fleur, and Hetty.  It is ‘this legacy which he has successfully run away from – until now.’  In the novel, Quinn is forced to face the ghosts of his past, and the ‘uncomfortable truths it holds about himself, his sisters and, most of all, his mother.’

The Roundabout Man opens in rather a beguiling manner.  Morrall writes using sixty-year-old Quinn’s voice, which I believed in immediately: ‘I exist in the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries heading for the M6, the north and Scotland, or south to Penzance and Land’s End.  I sometimes wonder if they don’t go on the motorway at all, that I hear the same vehicles circling endlessly, a kind of multiple Flying Dutchman, doomed to travel for ever.  I don’t regret for one minute that I am no longer one of them.’  He goes on to state: ‘I’ve anchored myself in the middle of one of the few patches of land where no one goes, among well-established birches, ashes, sycamores, surrounded myself with rotten and claimed sanctuary.’

At the outset of the novel, Quinn is visited by a young journalist named Lorna, who is keen to interview him for a piece in the local newspaper.  She asks him if he minds living alone, and his answer, whilst guarded, is a resounding no.  He does sometimes let himself wonder why, at his age, he is living as he is, feeling ‘far too old for extended camping holidays’.  His way of life is particularly difficult when the weather becomes cold: ‘When the frost clutches everything around’, he allows himself to ‘consider the merits of carpets and central heating’.  However, Quinn is able to see ‘compensations’ in the beauty of the nature all around him.

Morrall’s prose is nicely wrought, and there is an almost unusual quality to its phrases and what it touches upon.  I really liked the structure of the novel; each relatively short chapter is made up of several sections, which either note the events of Quinn’s present, or regress back to the past.  He reveals little about himself in person, but the reader learns a lot about him due to Morrall’s arrangement of plot.  Of his childhood home, he says: ‘Our house, The Cedars, was an Arts and Crafts house, bought by my parents when they first married, paid for with the money they’d inherited from their parents, both sets of whom had died by then.  It was exactly the right setting for a famous writer.’

We learn of his mother, Larissa, who comes across as cold and lacking maternal instincts.  She reminded me somewhat of Enid Blyton, putting on the airs of a darling, beloved mother during photoshoots with prestigious newspapers and magazines, but showing little affection to her children, and the family’s string of foster children, in private.  Of these photography sessions, Quinn warmly reminisces that he loved them, allowing him ‘the rare opportunity to sit on my mother’s lap.’  The memories of all four siblings have become confused with certain scenes in their mother’s books, and they muse upon what is real, and what is fabricated, and how one can possibly tell when they all remember different things.

Quinn’s voice feels candid throughout, and one cannot help but feel for him, particularly in those sections where he writes about his often lonely childhood.  Their upbringing has had a knock-on effect into their present: ‘Zuleika, Fleur and I had kept in touch, but we were not a close family.  Our childhood had been so public that my sisters had leaped away from The Cedars with enthusiasm and reinvented themselves, coming back less and less often until they stopped altogether.’  Hetty is rarely in touch with her sisters, and never with her brother.  Of his sisters in adulthood, Quinn muses: ‘It was hard to believe the they were all the same age, that they used to impersonate each other, do everything together, think identical thoughts.  They had been a three-headed creature in my childhood, but at some point in the lat few years, a phantom surgeon had performed an operation, separated the organs, made them into three people.’

I found The Roundabout Man immersive, peopled with a cast of three-dimensional characters.  Morrall has struck a great balance between character focus and plot.  The family dynamics are fascinating, and filled with tiny, observant details.  This novel, full of heart, seems to be rather an underrated one, but its unusual story has a lot of depth, and is well worth a read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

The Book Trail: Stubborn Birthdays

Today’s edition of The Book Trail begins with a Deirdre Madden book which I enjoyed even more on my second reading, and takes us through some wondrous looking fiction set in far-flung places.

1. Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden 6441391
Dublin. Midsummer. While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly’s, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university.

 

2. The Language of Others by Clare Morrall
The world is a puzzling, sometimes frightening place for Jessica Fontaine. As a child she only finds contentment in playing the piano and wandering alone in the empty spaces of Audlands Hall, the dilapidated country house where she grows up. Twenty-five years later, divorced, with her son still living at home, Jessica remains preoccupied by the desire to create space around her. Then her volatile ex-husband reappears, the first of several surprises that both transform Jessica’s present and give her a startling new perspective on the past.THE LANGUAGE OFOTHERStells the absorbing story of a woman who spends much of her life feeling that she is out of step with the real world, until she discovers why. Related with humour and compassion, it offers a fresh, illuminating insight into what it means to be ‘normal’.

 

101291223. Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
One starless night, a girl’s childhood was swept away by the terrors of the Khmer Rouge. Exiled from the city, she and her family were forced to live out in the open under constant surveillance. Each night, people were taken away. Caught up in a political storm which brought starvation to millions, tore families apart, and changed the world forever, she lost everyone she loved. Three decades later, Janie’s life in Montreal is unravelling. Haunted by her past, she has abandoned her husband and son and taken refuge in the home of her friend, the brilliant, troubled scientist, Hiroji Matsui. In 1970, Hiroji’s brother, James, travelled to Cambodia and fell in love. Five years later, the Khmer Rouge came to power, and James vanished. Brought together by the losses they endured, Janie and Hiroji had found solace in each another. And then, one strange day, Hiroji disappeared.  Engulfed by the memories she thought she had fled, Janie must struggle to find grace in a world overshadowed by the sorrows of her past.  Beautifully realized, deeply affecting, Dogs at the Perimeter evokes totalitarianism through the eyes of a little girl and draws a remarkable map of the mind’s battle with memory, loss, and the horrors of war. It confirms Madeleine Thien as one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today.

 

4. The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
Kim Echlin’s powerful new novel tells the story of Anne Greves, from Montreal, who meets Serey, a Cambodian student forced into exile when he cannot return home during Pol Pot’s time of terror. Anne and Serey meet in a jazz club where their shared passion for music turns into a passion for each other, against the will of her father. But when the borders of Cambodia open, Serey is compelled to return home, alone, to try to find his family. Left behind, and without word from her lover, Anne tries to build a new life but she cannot forget her first love. She decides to travel to the war-ravaged country that claimed Serey. What she finds there is a traumatized and courageous people struggling to create new freedoms out of the tragedy that claimed their traditional ways, their livelihood, and a seventh of their population.  “Despair is an unwitnessed life,” writes Anne as she searches for the truth, about her lover, and about herself. “If we live long enough, we have to tell, or turn to stone inside.”  From its first page, The Disappeared takes us into the land of kings and temples, fought over for generations. It reveals the forces that act on love everywhere: family, politics, forgetting. Universal in its questions about how to claim the past, how to honor our dead, and how to go on after those we love disappear, it is a story written in spare and rhythmic prose. The Disappeared is a remarkable consideration of language, truth, justice, and memory that speaks to the conscience of the world, and to love, even when those we love most are gone.

 

5. The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb 6738493
Tu’ is a young tour guide working in Hanoi for a company called New Dawn. While he leads tourists through the city, including American vets on “war tours,” he starts to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam–and what they miss entirely. Maggie, who is Vietnamese by birth but has lived most her life in the U.S., has returned to her country of origin in search of clues to her dissident father’s disappearance during the war. Holding the story together is Old Man Hung, who has lived through decades of political upheaval and has still found a way to feed hope to his community of pondside dwellers.

 

6. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day.  Connie’s niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie’s past and her mother’s broken childhood. In the process, she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious (and unrelated) deaths of two young girls. As the novel moves deeper into their lives, the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles – aunt, niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter – until a sudden, capsizing love thrusts Anne herself into a newly independent life.   This spellbinding tale – set in Saskatchewan and the Ottawa Valleycrosses generations and cuts to the bone. It probes the roots of obsessive love and hate, how the hurts and desires of childhood persist and are passed on as if in the blood. It lays bare the urgency of discovering what we were never told about the past. And it celebrates the process of becoming who we are in a world full of startling connections that lie just out of sight.

 

112774847. Requiem by Frances Itani
Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist, has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock. But Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast, and Bin finds himself alone and pulled into memories he has avoided for much of his life. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, his Japanese Canadian family was displaced from the West Coast. Now, he sets out to drive across the country: to complete the last works needed for an upcoming exhibition; to revisit the places that have shaped him; to find his biological father, who has been lost to him. It has been years since his father made a fateful decision that almost destroyed the family. Now, Bin must ask himself whether he really wants to find him. With the persuasive voice of his wife in his head, and the echo of their great love in his heart, he embarks on an unforgettable journey that encompasses art and music, love and hope.

 

8. Stubborn Season by Lauren B. Davis
Where does one person end and the other begin? That’s the question that haunts Irene, a girl growing up in Toronto during the Great Depression. Living with her father, a pharmacist who finds comfort in the bottle, and her mother, a woman teetering on the edge of her own depression, Irene’s crumbling family situation mirrors the economic and social turmoil just beyond the front door of their respectable, working class neighbourhood home. As she grows into a young woman, Irene finds herself consumed by her mother’s increasingly erratic moods and isolated in a world where unemployment, poverty and bigotry have taken firm root.  Yet in the midst of lives that seem lost, Irene finds strength in the unlikely form of David, a young man from the Jewish farming community of Sonnenfeld, Saskatchewan, who is fighting his own battle for dignity, hope and a place in the world.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository