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Two Reviews: ‘A Lifetime Burning’ and ‘The Room of Lost Things’

A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard ***
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I really enjoyed Gillard’s novel Emotional Geology when I read it a few years ago, and purchased A Lifetime Burning on my Kindle sometime afterwards. I love immersive family sagas, and was pulled in immediately. There is such an intelligence and compassion to Gillard’s prose, and I enjoyed the non-linear structure, which was effective in showing the depth and backgrounds of the characters.

Elements of the storyline, however, let the whole novel down for me. Some were frankly so unlikely that they felt ridiculous, which surprised me. I was very much enjoying the book up until the first bizarre twist came, but felt my interest in it waning somewhat. Despite being so well written, in some ways, A Lifetime Burning was really rather disappointing, and it has made me think twice about reading all of Gillard’s oeuvre, which was my original plan.

 

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy *** 9781844082131

I decided, after quite enjoying The Hidden Room but not getting on at all well with London Lies Beneath, that I would give Stella Duffy one last chance. Thus, I borrowed The Room of Lost Things from the library. I was not pulled in straight away, but did find myself becoming more interested after a few pages, and almost engrossed a couple of chapters in.

The real strength for me here was the way in which London is portrayed; I miss the city dearly, having studied there for an entire year, and now being a whole country away from it. Duffy goes into so much detail about different boroughs; London, wonderfully evoked in all of its grit and glory, essentially becomes a character in itself, arguably the most important one in the novel. I admired the way in which everything revolved around something as dull and suburban as a dry-cleaning shop, too; it worked very ell as the novel’s focal point. The structure is clever yet simple.

I did find my attention waning after a while though; whilst the main thread of story featuring Robert and Akeel is interesting, some of the secondary characters had stories which felt quite repetitive after a while. This is my favourite of Duffy’s books to date, but I still wasn’t blown away by it.

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‘The Lost Daughter Collective’ by Lindsey Drager *****

I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective.  Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.

The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole.  This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well.  We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.31305921

Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms.  The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life.  The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city.  The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’  The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing.  ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism.  When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life.  The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait.  Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’

I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles.  The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm.  The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them.  There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective.  There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.

Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously.  She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories.  Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale.  Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.

There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own.  The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards.  The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach.  It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Tiny One’, and ‘Falling Awake’

The Tiny One by Eliza Minot **** 9780375706332
I love stories which feature child narrators, and Eliza Minot’s The Tiny One was almost perfect.  The book’s blurb ticked a lot of boxes for me, and I was very much looking forward to immersing myself within the story.  Via is only eight years old when her mother is killed in a car accident; her voice from the outset is believable, and has been constructed both with sensitivity and an outpouring of emotion.  She springs to life almost immediately; she is made up of naive quirks and complexities.  The structure which Minot has utilised within her novel is the age-old formula of fragmented memories, which build a full picture of both Via and her mother.  Once I began to read The Tiny One, I could barely put it down.  It is as transportative as Kaye Gibbons’ work, and is a must for anyone who enjoys reading about trauma in fiction, or seeing serious occurrences from the viewpoint of an unreliable or biased narrator.

 

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald ****
9781910702437Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake has one of the most beautiful blurbs which I have ever read; even had I not been familiar with her poetry or output beforehand, it would definitely have enticed me to pick this particular tome up.  I very much enjoyed Dart when I read it a couple of years ago, and have been eager to read more of Oswald’s ever since.  The imagery which she creates throughout Falling Awake is nothing short of beautiful, and her use of mythology is strong and fitting.  The themes of nature and mutability tie the whole together wonderfully.  Oswald’s repetitions are splendidly handled, and there is not a single poem here which falls short of being meaningful or memorable.  Falling Awake is a fluid poetry collection, which I would heartily recommend to any fans of poetry.

 

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Two Favourite Contemporary Novels: ‘Swimming Lessons’ and ‘The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty’

I have linked my relatively short reviews of Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (2016) and Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (2015) for two reasons – firstly, I adored them both, and secondly, there is a very thin and tenuous thematic thread which links the two.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller *****
“Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?”
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I very much enjoyed Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and was very much looking forward to her second effort, Swimming Lessons.  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed it even more than her debut.  The plot very much appealed to me, and it was compelling from the outset.

Ingrid’s voice is rich and distinct; she has such agency.  The inclusion of her letters allows her to be present within the story despite not being visible in the physical world.  Each of the backstories which Fuller has created for her characters are just as vivid as their present; there is a wonderful sense of realism here.  The structure perfectly matches the plot, and the presence of the landscape is exquisite; it is always there, affecting the characters and, in part, being affected by them.  There is so much depth and emotion within Swimming Lessons, and so much to adore.

 

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida *****
In Vendela Vida’s taut and mesmerizing novel of ideas, a woman travels to Casablanca, Morocco, on mysterious business. While checking into her hotel, the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport all of her money and identification. Stripped of her identity, she feels burdened by the crime yet strangely liberated by her sudden freedom to be anyone she wants to be.  Told with vibrant, lush detail and a wicked sense of humor, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is part literary mystery, part psychological thriller an unforgettable novel that explores free will, power, and a woman s right to choose not her past, perhaps not her present, but certainly her future.9780062110916

I have very much enjoyed Vendela Vida’s previous novels; they provide fantastic, intelligent escapism, which grips one from the beginning through to the end, and give realistic glimpses into vivid and vibrant places.  Her most recent effort, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is no different, and the fact that Morocco is high on my travel list made me look forward to reading it even more.

The second person perspective was used masterfully throughout, and worked incredibly well.  The story itself is relatively simple on the whole, but it has a complexity all of its own.  The sense of unease which creeps in is almost unrecognisable at first, but – in part due to the narrative voice used – the reader becomes so invested within the story that its tension soon heightens.  Vida plays with the concepts of identity and loss in her tautly written novel, which has been extremely well paced.  Little clues are left along the way, but one never quite guesses what will happen next.  The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a whirlwind of a novel, which begs for compulsive reading, and which deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have currently.

 

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The Book Trail: From ‘Here I Am’ to ‘My October’

I am beginning today’s Book Trail with Jonathan Safran Foer’s newest (and wonderful) third novel, Here I Am.  We move through a host of (relatively) new and exciting releases as we make our way through the Goodreads ‘Readers also enjoyed…’ pages.

 

1. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer 9780241146170
‘A monumental new novel about modern family lives from the bestselling author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and Abraham replied obediently, ‘Here I am’. This is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. Over the course of three weeks in present-day Washington DC, three sons watch their parents’ marriage falter and their family home fall apart. Meanwhile, a larger catastrophe is engulfing another part of the world: a massive earthquake devastates the Middle East, sparking a pan-Arab invasion of Israel. With global upheaval in the background and domestic collapse in the foreground, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us – what is the true meaning of home? Can one man ever reconcile the conflicting duties of his many roles – husband, father, son? And how much of life can a person bear?’

 

2. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

 

97805713278503. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
‘From the writer of one of the most memorable debuts of recent years. An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. This older man has a disturbing past that the young girl is unprepared for. The young girl has a troubling past of her own. This is her story and their story. The Lesser Bohemians is about sexual passion. It is about innocence and the loss of it. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, it is a celebration of the dark and the light in love.’

 

4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
‘dam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.’

 

5. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 9781783782666
‘In Canada in 1990, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-Ming. As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie. Written with exquisite intimacy, wit and moral complexity, Do Not Say We Have Nothing magnificently brings to life one of the most significant political regimes of the 20th century and its traumatic legacy, which still resonates for a new generation. It is a gripping evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and its effects on personal and national identity, and an unforgettable meditation on China today.’

 

6. We’re All in This Together by Amy Jones
‘A woman goes over a waterfall, a video goes viral, a family goes into meltdown — life is about to get a lot more complicated for the Parker family.  Like all families, the Parkers of Thunder Bay have had their share of complications. But when matriarch Kate Parker miraculously survives plummeting over a waterfall in a barrel — a feat captured on a video that goes viral — it’s Kate’s family who tumbles into chaos under the spotlight. Her prodigal daughter returns to town. Her 16-year-old granddaughter gets caught up in an online relationship with a man she has never met. Her husband sifts through their marriage to search for what sent his wife over the falls. Her adopted son fears losing the only family he’s ever known. Then there is Kate, who once made a life-changing choice and now fears her advancing dementia will rob her of memories from when she was most herself.   Set over the course of four calamitous days, Amy Jones’s big-hearted first novel follows the Parkers’ misadventures as catastrophe forces them to do something they never thought possible – act like a family.’

 

231650917. Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott
‘Close to Hugh is a glorious, exuberant, poignant comic novel about youth and age, art and life, love and death–and about losing your mind and finding your heart’s desire over the course of seven days one September. As the week opens, fifty-something Hugh Argylle, owner of the Argylle Art Gallery, has a jarring fall from a ladder–a fall that leaves him with a fractured off-kilter vision of his own life and the lives of his friends, who are going through crises (dying parents; disheveled marriages; wilting businesses) that leave them despairing, afraid, one half-step from going under emotionally or financially. Someone’s going to have to fix all that, thinks Hugh- and it will probably be him.  Meanwhile, beneath the adult orbit, bright young lives are taking form: these are the sons and daughters of Hugh’s friends, about to graduate from high school and already separating from the gravitational pull of their parents. As bonds knit and unravel on cellphones and iPads and Tumblr and Twitter, the desires and terrors and sudden revelations of adolescence are mirrored in the second adolescence of the soon-to-be childless adults.   With exquisite insight and surefooted mastery, Endicott manages something surprising: to show us, with an unerring ear for the different cadences and concerns of both generations, two sets of friends on the cusp of simultaneous reinvention. And, as always in Endicott’s wonderful fictional worlds, underpinning the sharp comedy and keenly observed drama is something more profound: a rare and rich perspective on what it means to rise and fall and rise again, and what in the end we owe those we love.’

 

8. My October by Claire Holden Rothman
‘Luc Lévesque is a celebrated Quebec novelist and the anointed Voice of a Generation. In his hometown of Montreal, he is revered as much for his novels about the working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri as for his separatist views. But this is 2001. The dreams of a new nation are dying, and Luc himself is increasingly dissatisfied with his life.  Hannah is Luc’s wife. She is also the daughter of a man who served as a special prosecutor during the October Crisis. For years, Hannah has worked faithfully as Luc’s English translator. She has also spent her adult life distancing herself from her English- speaking family. But at what cost?  Hugo is their troubled fourteen-year-old son. Living in the shadow of a larger-than-life father, Hugo is struggling with his own identity. In confusion and anger, he commits a reckless act that puts everyone around him on a collision course with the past.  Weaving together three unique voices, My October is a masterful tale of a modern family torn apart by the power of language and the weight of history. Spare and insightful, Claire Holden Rothman’s new novel explores the fascinating and sometimes shocking consequences of words left unsaid.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend?  Which are you inspired to pick up?

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