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Two Reviews: ‘Kadian Journal’ and ‘The Little Girls’

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen ***
9780099287780I have found Elizabeth Bowen’s novels a little hit and miss in the past, but since absolutely adoring The House in Paris, I was eager to read more of her work. I selected The Little Girls as my next choice, and initially found it a little difficult to get into; Bowen’s writing is notoriously beautiful and complex, and it always takes me a chapter or two to feel entirely comfortable with the way in which she writes.

The plot of The Little Girls, with a mystery at its heart, appealed to me, and whilst I came away without loving it, it is definitely a novel which I admire. The novel, as with many of Bowen’s, is very character driven. I was not, however, pulled in enough to warrant a four or five star rating, and only found myself completely engaged with the section in which the three protagonists were ‘little girls’. Bowen, for me, creates far more believable child characters than she does adults, and I was struck by every character trait and peculiarity about them. The dialogue here is often meandering, and a few retorts were utterly nonsensical; this can make the novel feel a little confusing at times. Had The Little Girls contained very little dialogue, the chances are that I would have loved it.

 

 

Kadian Journal by Thomas Harding ***
Harding’s reflection on grief, after his only son, Kadian, is killed in a freak cycling 9780099591849accident, opens on that pivotal day. The family are cycling in the Wiltshire countryside, when he is killed; of witnessing the accident, Harding writes: ‘He’s suddenly way ahead of me. A hundred feet perhaps. He must have gathered speed. And then there’s a flash of a white van, moving fast from left to right, at the bottom of the slope. It shouldn’t be there. And the van hits Kadian. Driving him away from view, away from me.’

Much of the memoir uses this choppy narrative style, which works very well to describe the accident and its aftermath, but is not so effective at other times. For the most part, Harding’s prose is both heartfelt and very matter-of-fact; the latter made me feel rather detached from the whole. It felt, at times, as though I was intruding upon somebody’s personal diary, which I had no right to read. There was no real sense that Kadian Journal was meant for a general readership; it felt too raw, in many ways. Harding also uses rather a lot of repetition unnecessarily, which I did find wearing after a while. Kadian Journal is a nice tribute to a lost son, but it did not always plunge the depths or the despair which I would have expected from such a book.

 

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Three Novels: ‘Winter’, ‘War Crimes for the Home’, and ‘Turtles All the Way Down’

Winter by Ali Smith ***** 9780241207024
Anybody who knows me will not be surprised in the slightest to hear that Ali Smith’s Winter, the second novel in her seasonal quartet, was one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2017. I received a signed copy for Christmas, and read it just three days afterwards. The novel is, again unsurprisingly, startlingly brilliant; I was swept in immediately, and was once again blown away by the quality and clarity of Smith’s writing. Winter is searing, and so clever; it is once incredibly topical, informed, and important. I cannot speak highly enough of the novel in my review; I shall merely end by saying that it is an absolutely brilliant literary offering from Smith, as per.

 

9780747561460War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen ****
I have very much enjoyed most of Liz Jensen’s novels to date, and the storyline of War Crimes for the Home would have piqued my interest even if I had not already been acquainted with her work. This is, I believe, my first foray into her historical fiction, and I found it very enjoyable. This takes place on the Home Front in Britain during the Second World War, and the battles fought on British soil, along with the effects which they brought, have been well captured. I liked the use of retrospect, and the memory loss which present-day Gloria suffers with has been handled well. Not at all a nostalgic portrayal of times gone by, War Crimes for the Home is sure to appeal to every fan of historical fiction that likes to be surprised a little in their reading.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green **** 9780525555360
As with many readers, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down was a highly anticipated read for me. I really enjoy his writing, particularly with regard to the dialogue which he sculpts; it is not always entirely authentic, in that I cannot imagine many teenagers speaking as articulately as he clearly can, but it is stuffed with original ideas, and beautiful turns of phrase. Green’s portrayal of anxiety is not a stereotypical one, such as I have read before; rather, it has depth. The plot is not a predictable, and it certainly throws up some surprises along the way. Whilst not my favourite of his novels, I still found it markedly difficult to put Turtles All the Way Down well… all the way down.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Peony in Love’ by Lisa See ***

I have wanted to read more of See’s work since finishing her gorgeous Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. I was expecting something along the same lines if I’m honest, with constantly beautiful writing, characters I felt sympathy for, and a wonderfully crafted sense of times past in the fascinating country of China. 9780812975222

When beginning Peony in Love however, I found that it did not pull me in as much as the aforementioned novel, and I even began to get a little discontented with it as I reached the second part. The writing was relatively nice – an insipid word, but sadly I can pay no higher compliment – but something about the narrative voice made it feel a lot more modern on the whole than it should have. It was supposed to be the account of a young girl living in 16th century China, and on occasion it read like an overexcited and thoroughly modern teenager had penned it. I did not like Peony, our narrator and protagonist, at all. She was incredibly self-important, and whilst she acted as though she was so grown up, she was in reality very naive. Peony had the kind of youthful arrogance which really puts me off in novels (though I do adore Holden Caulfield – go figure). I suppose we can put See’s portrayal of Peony partly down to the teenage condition, but she very much overdid this element of the plot in my eyes.

The period of history which See addresses in Peony in Love is fascinating, but I do not feel that it is explored as well as it could have been. As in Snow Flower, the foot-binding scenes made me feel rather sick. With regard to the history presented, I felt that some of the characters clashed a little with their social backdrop. We are told why several of the protagonists act in the ways in which they do after a while, but I still struggle to believe that someone in 16th century China would be so unfailingly rude to her husband as Peony’s mother is.

Overall, I found Peony in Love to be rather an odd tale, and a thoroughly unexpected one. On the face of it, it is a love story, but elements of it are rather creepy. The cultural history which See portrays is fascinating but horrendously brutal, and I only wish See had made more of it within the novel.

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‘Doppler’ by Erlend Loe ****

In Loe’s native country of Norway, Doppler, which was first published in 2004, has sold over 100,000 copies, and the author is seen as something of a Scandinavian bestseller – for good reason. This novel is described as ‘a charming, absurd and cleverly subversive fable… about consumerism, existence… and a baby elk called Bongo’. An intriguing premise, certainly. So what is Doppler all about? 9781781851050

It tells the story of Andreas Doppler, a citizen of Oslo, who has recently lost his father and is about to become a parent himself for the third time. At the outset of the novel, Doppler states his current status in rather a matter of fact way: ‘My father is dead. And yesterday I took the life of an elk’. He goes on to say: ‘well, how can I put it, after I moved into the forest, for that is actually what happened, that’s what I do, I live in the forest’.

This move into the forest came as something of a shock for Doppler’s family. After a cycling accident, in which he tells us ‘I fell. Quite badly’, he is happy to find that his mind is finally void of all of the trivial everyday thoughts which once filled it, ranging from theme songs of his young son’s favourite television shows to the kinds of tiles he and his wife should buy for their bathroom. In jolly naivety, he believes that his wife, teenage daughter and young son Gregus will be better off without him. Doppler as a character is straight to the point and certainly knows his own mind. His prose is often blunt: ‘I don’t wish to meet people. They disgust me’. Something about this brutal honesty and the no-holds-barred approach to the events which pepper the text is endearing.

The baby elk, Bongo, comes into the story after Doppler kills his mother, and is soon the main focus of the man’s attentions. At first this feeling is one of loathing: ‘That bloody elk. If it comes back, I’ll split its skull open’, but it soon turns to understanding: ‘It’s all alone and it’s beginning to realise the world is a harsh place, and it cannot see any future or meaning in anything. Of course, it’s immature of it to take out its frustration on me, but what else can you expect? After all, it’s only a child’. Just one page after this occurs, their friendship is cemented: ‘We slept together in the tent that night. The calf supplied a surprising amount of heat. I used it as a pillow for most of the night, and when I woke up this morning, we lay looking at each other in a close, intimate way that I had seldom experienced with people’. He soon comes to think that he has actually done the elk a favour by separating it from its mother, stating: ‘… and by the way, I continued after a short pause, your mother would soon have brutally broken the ties between you two in any case. She would have shoved you away from her and told you to push off…. You lot seem so good-natured, but you treat your kids like shit’. During these one-sided conversations, the elk – and the reader – becomes Doppler’s confidante, seeming to listen patiently to his every outburst and pearl of wisdom.

The narrative style which Loe has crafted throughout Doppler takes us right inside the head of our protagonist. He talks directly to us as though he trusts us with his every secret, and this creates a kind of camaraderie between the reader and character almost immediately. The prose style does not follow general conventions, and there are often commas where full stops should be, but therein lies the beauty of the book. The narrative is quite philosophical in places, and is filled with complex ideas which mingle with Doppler’s wilderness existence in interesting ways.

Don Shaw and Don Bartlett have provided a wonderful translation of the text, which I am sure rings true of the original. Sadly, there are quite a few editorial mistakes throughout the book; this does not detract from the wonderfully engrossing story, but it is a real shame.

The book as an object is lovely – a cream hardback with dark red endpapers and lovely red and white illustrations adorning the slipcover. The story is lovely too – witty, satirical, humorous and even quite touching in places. We meet Doppler’s friends as he himself does, and it feels as though we are right there beside him on his grand adventure.

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‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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‘Latecomers’ by Anita Brookner ***

Latecomers sounded like a joyful anomaly in Anita Brookner’s work, which I have come to view as a series of incredibly similar novels, following, as she does, largely female characters with the same traits, and problems in their usually domestic-based lives.  Published in 1988, Latecomers was inspired by the Kindertransport, which evacuated Jewish children from Germany to Britain during the Second World War.

Helen Dunmore has written a lovely introduction to the volume, in which she calls Latecomers ‘a moving, compassionate portrayal of how we confront the past and live with the present’.  She goes on to say that ‘The brilliance of Latecomers lies in the way every cherished domestic detail is set against an immense dark canvas.’9780141048291

Hartmann and Fibich have been best friends since meeting at the English school they both attended.  Both are named Thomas, hence Brookner’s decision to call them by their surnames.  Of them, Dunmore writes ‘These two, united against the miseries of the school, become each other’s family and remain so for the rest of their lives.’  Hartmann is the first character whom we meet.  Brookner writes that at this point, ‘He was now middle-aged, in the closing stages of middle-age, even old, he daringly thought.  He had an impressionistic attitude towards his age, as he did towards his daughter’s marriage, sometimes resigned to it, sometimes deciding to ignore it entirely.’

The men ‘respond to their shared history in different ways’, and are markedly different characters.  Hartmann is confident, taking an awful lot of pleasure from food; Fibich is more timid, and has an unhealthy relationship with food, hoarding it but finding the process of eating rather a chore.  ‘Fibich,’ writes Brookner, ‘with his anxious mournful temperament, had nurturing instincts, although what he longed for was to be in receipt of those instincts from someone else.  Yet it seemed that this would never be.’  The contrast between both men, despite being so close, did work well, but they felt like rather typical characters; there was very little about either which surprised me whilst reading.

Brookner also follows several close family members of both Hartmann and Fibich, and whilst this gives the book a little more scope, it feels like rather an inward-facing novel.  As ever, Brookner appears more concerned with how people feel than what they do.  Despite the novel looking rather different on the face of it, there are still rather a lot of similarities which can be drawn between Latecomers and her other novels: portraits of people, albeit largely men rather than women, are presented at length here; the style of Brookner’s prose is rather old-fashioned, and on occasion a little stuffy; and there is actually relatively little included with regard to the plot of the book.

Despite the Kindertransport being one of the elements which drew me toward Latecomers, it is barely mentioned; rather, the novel begins when Hartmann and Fibich are already in England.  I thought that the Kindertransport, as well as elements of the Holocaust which still affect both boys despite their being in a different country, would be more of a focus than they were.  So much more could have been made of these aspects, making the novel stronger as a result.  Brookner’s oversight really let Latecomers down for me.

Whilst Dunmore believes that there is ‘a good deal of comedy in this essentially tragic novel’, I must admit that from a modern perspective, I did not find it overly amusing.  The asides which Brookner clearly intended to be humorous felt very dated.  There are certainly some acerbic remarks which have stood the test of time, but, like much of Brookner’s fiction, Latecomers is very of its time, and does not translate that well into the twenty-first century.  Of course, some of what she writes about is still relevant, but Latecomers, overall, feels like a very secluded 1980s novel, a little underwhelming and predictable in both its characters and plot.

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‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien ***

The Little Red Chairs marked my first foray into Edna O’Brien’s work of over twenty novels.  She is an author whom I have heard a lot of wonderful things about over the last few years, but reception for this, her newest novel for ten years, has appeared rather mixed.  Regardless, there are some wonderfully positive reviews splashed across the cover; The New Yorker deems it ‘Astonishing… A remarkable novel…  A vital and engrossing experience’, Claire Messud calls it ‘At once arduous and beautiful’, and Philip Roth thinks it ‘a masterpiece’.  The Little Red Chairs was also shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2016, and was a book of the year for the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Sunday Express.

9780571316281The Little Red Chairs is set in a village on the west-coast of Ireland.  A faith healer, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, or ‘Vuk’ for short, arrives from the Balkans, mystifying residents and putting the community ‘under [his] spell’.  He attempts to ‘set himself up’ in the village as an ‘alternative healer and sex therapist’, which is a shock to the shrouded and traditional Catholicism of the place. One villager in particular, Fidelma McBride, ‘becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.’

The opening description of the novel, in which O’Brien masterfully captures a wild river, and its effects upon the faith healer, is sweeping, and really sets the tone for the first half of the novel: ‘He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerised by it.  Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.’

The Little Red Chairs is at first largely quiet, involved almost entirely with people and their interactions, as well as their reception of the faith healer.  One gets a feel for the villagers immediately, along with their differences and similarities.  The way in which O’Brien tends to reveal characters at random, with Fidelma and Vuk as her main focus, is effective in this respect.  The plot seems a little sparse to sustain itself over the entire novel, but the twist which comes changes the tone entirely, and adds something rather sinister to the whole.  One can tell throughout that O’Brien is an accomplished author.

O’Brien’s novel rather chillingly begins with the following memorial: ‘On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for each Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.’  The reasons for this become more and more clear as the novel goes on, and details of the faith healer’s past emerge.  I was a little surprised by some of the outcomes of the novel, but feel as though O’Brien handled the content with both sensibility and sensitivity.

Whilst rather disturbing in places, and surprisingly so, all of the story’s threads were well pulled together.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of instances in which it felt as though the plot had been rushed, or something had not quite come to a natural conclusion.  I very much enjoyed O’Brien’s prose, but the dialogue felt awkward at times.  Conversations were jarring and rather unlikely, often veering towards the pretentious.  I would definitely like to try O’Brien’s other work in future, and believe I may plump for some short stories next, to see how they compare.

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