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Reading the World: ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami ***

Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017.  Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book.  This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.

9780099448570Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan.  As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’.  When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch.  When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar.  It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.

The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane.  Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’.  We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know.  Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency.  I had to buy it for her before things disappeared.  Before the world fell to pieces’.  Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee.  I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt.  There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.

Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic.  There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light.  This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging.  It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists.  There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together.  Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.

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‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell ****

Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by acclaimed Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. In it, she presents an ‘intimate portrait of a family in crisis’. This crisis is found not only in her characters, but in the setting too, taking part as it does during the London heatwave of July 1976. As one might expect, this heat is like a character throughout the book, its presence stifling: ‘The heat, the heat… It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome; it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs’.

9780755358793The novel opens with Irish housewife Gretta, one of the main characters in the book and without whom the story would not be able to unfold in quite the way it does. She is described as ‘so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story’. At the beginning of the book, headstrong Gretta is baking bread in the fierce heat: ‘She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers… She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that’. Gretta and her quiet husband Robert Riordan have been married for over thirty years, and are the parents of a son and two daughters – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, all of whom are off in the big wide world, living their own lives. The relationship of their parents is a happy one, filled with ‘small acts of kindness that [make] people know they are loved’.

On the pivotal July morning in which the novel opens, London has been in the midst of a heatwave for several days. The citizens are listless and lethargic, and even the smallest acts outside seem like heroic feats. Robert goes out to buy the newspaper at the exact time that he always does, and fails to return. The three children are drafted in from their various locations – Michael Francis in another part of London, Monica in Gloucestershire, and Aoife in New York City – to help find their father. Gretta’s relationship with each of her children is fractured in some way. She dislikes her son’s Englishness, she loathes the space which has opened up between her and her favourite daughter Monica, and she dislikes the way in which Aoife fled to the United States and ‘Never called. Never wrote’.

Each of these characters, too, has a fractured life in some way. Michael’s marriage has hit a definite rough patch; he is a man ‘hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house’. Monica is living in a lonely farmhouse with her new husband, whose stepdaughters go out of their way to make life difficult for her: ‘Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own’. Aoife is almost living a hand to mouth existence and is struggling with the fact that, having been held back so much at school, she cannot read.

The author’s descriptions of Michael Francis’ young children particularly are imaginative and perceptive: ‘Hughie is a sprite, a light, reedy being, his too-long hair flying out behind him, diaphanous, an Ariel, a creature of the air, whereas Vita is more of a soil-dwelling animal. A badger, she reminds him [Michael Francis] of, perhaps, or a fox’. Throughout, O’Farrell’s writing style is polished, and her third person narrative voice has been deftly crafted. The short time period in which the novel takes place too adds in its own way to the story.

O’Farrell clearly knows her characters incredibly well. She feeds in lots of details about each of them as the book goes on, and she makes it clear that in Instructions for a Heatwave, nothing is quite what it seems. Secrets lie behind every closed door, and once happy hearts seem as lifeless as the scorched grass in the city. The detritus of family life has built up over time, leaving behind a trail of broken individuals, who use the horrid situation they find themselves in to try and build bridges with one another.

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One From the Archive: ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ by Claire Fuller ****

Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was purchased with some of my Christmas book vouchers, and was the eighth entry for my Read My Own Books project.  I chose to purchase the novel for two reasons – firstly, I had heard so many good things about it, and secondly, the initial sentence of the blurb captivated my attention entirely: ‘Peggy is eight years old when her father takes her to live in a cabin in a remote European forest’.  I adore books which feature child narrators or protagonists, who are wrenched from their comfort zones and have to find a way to cope with their new and unfamiliar surroundings.  I was half-expecting a dark, modern fairytale retelling to spiral from the pages.

Our Endless Numbered Days was the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015, and is also part of the Waterstones book club.  The novel has been so well reviewed.  The Sunday Express call it ‘Bewitching.  A riveting, dark tale, full of wonders, suspense and revelation, light and shadow’, and Esther Freud believes it to be ‘Utterly gripping, hypnotic.  I tore through it’.

Peggy is our first person narrator for the entirety, telling her story from a position of retrospective, a technique which allows her past to feel just as vivid as her present.  Her father, James Hillcoat, is part of the North London Retreaters group, which prepares for imminent disaster, and her mother, Ute, is a world-class pianist: ‘No one ever described Ute as beautiful – they used words like striking, arresting, singular.  But because she was a woman to be reckoned with the men composed themselves’.  Peggy’s parents came together through a turmoil of sorts: ‘For the public and critics, her relationship with James Hillcoat was a scandal.  Ute was at the height of her career and she gave it all up for the love of a seventeen-year-old boy.  They married the next year, as soon as it was legal’.  9780241003947Her father’s best friend, Oliver, is frank about his beliefs, telling him: ‘You know what the trouble is with you, James?  You’re so damn British.  And the rest of you – you’re all living in the dark ages, hiding in your cellars, driving off to the country like you’re going on a fucking Sunday picnic.  You still call yourselves Retreaters; the world’s moving on without you.  You haven’t even figured out that you’re survivalists’.

In 1976, whilst her mother is on a tour of her native Germany, Peggy’s father, under a mysterious cloud of anger, takes her to live in a forest, in a dilapidated structure called ‘die Hutte’, far away from civilisation, and a world away from the life she knows.  James tells her that her mother has died, and that is the reason why they are unable to return to their North London suburb.  The reality of Peggy’s situation really hits home with the position of retrospect which she adopts: ‘I had no idea that this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years.  Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and touched my knees around one of her stout legs’.

From the start, Fuller’s writing is quite lovely in places; evidence of her Creative Writing MA, it seems: ‘And I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Knowing that the sun had shone, and the piano must have been played, and people had lived and breathed whilst I had been gone, helped steady me’.  The entire work is filled with interesting and intriguing details, which often add a sense of mystery to the whole as the plot unfolds: ‘The summer the photograph was taken, my father recast our cellar as a fallout shelter’ proclaims the first sentence of the second chapter, for instance.

Peggy is a lovely character, whom one cannot help but warm to.  Her childish observations and ways of trying to take life by surprise are endearing: ‘I liked to wake without moving my body to see if I could catch myself in that empty place between sleeping and walking, just as I became conscious of the world and the position of my body’.  She is made to grow up at the age of eight, little shocks coming at pivotal points in her journey to attaining adult levels of understanding: ‘As I followed behind him the diamond of blue canvas [from what used to be their tent] mocked me, the awful knowledge staring me in the face whilst I climbed that we wouldn’t be going home’.

The spacing of the plot points ensures that the reader’s interest in Peggy’s tale is sustained throughout.  Our Endless Numbered Days put me in mind of Frances Greenslade’s wonderful Shelter and Claire King’s charming The Night Rainbow from the very beginning.  The novel is engaging, and the tension builds quite marvellously.  Fuller’s writing is taut and emotionally charged, and Peggy is a believable narrator who lingers in the mind for a long while after the final page has been read.

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One From The Archive: ‘Saving CeeCee Honeycutt’ by Beth Hoffman ****

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt begins in Willoughby, a rather quiet town in the state of Ohio, in the 1960s. The main protagonist of the novel, Cecelia Rose Honeycutt, is known by the affectionate nickname of CeeCee. Her story is intriguing from the outset due to its strong opening line: ‘Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road.’

In her writing, Hoffman creates a feeling – almost a sense of foreboding – that things are not quite right from the outset. CeeCee’s father, Carl, is away on business at the start of the book, and her mother Camille’s behaviour becomes rather erratic. When he returns, the entire family structure changes dramatically. Carl spends his time in a fit of rage and takes little notice of CeeCee. He is essentially a cowardly character who often turns to alcohol in order to drown his sorrows. In a round-about way, Carl relies almost entirely upon CeeCee and expects her to look after Camille almost constantly. Hoffman places much focus upon Carl and Camille’s fractured relationship and how uncomfortable it makes their daughter feel from the outset.

It is clear that Camille is unstable. Her behaviour is unpredictable and she has rapid mood swings, which are terrifying for CeeCee, the only other permanent member of the household, to witness. Camille becomes more and more obsessed with a 1951 beauty pageant in which she was crowned ‘Vidalia Onion Queen’, believing that her past is her ‘real life’. The relationship between mother and daughter which Hoffman portrays is incredibly sad. It is wrought with misunderstandings and dawning understanding, along with strong personality clashes.

Lonely CeeCee, who is unpopular at school, finds a friend in her kindly elderly neighbour Gertrude Odell. Aside from Gertrude’s occasional wisdom, CeeCee does not have much guidance whatsoever from the adults around her. She is quite often left to her own devices, becoming more and more absorbed in her books as time progresses. She strives to make her own life seem less like reality and more like a fictionalised tale which she is separate from, rather than an intrinsic part of. Her seeking solace in the library is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

As the story progresses, the reader really begins to feel for CeeCee and her plight. She yearns for normality and seems to have no choice aside from growing up incredibly quickly. Her child self has some very adult responsibilities thrust upon it. Her entire world is turned upside down when her mother is suddenly killed and she is subsequently amazed that life continues around her. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt follows the protagonist during the summer in which her life changes completely.

After her mother’s death, CeeCee’s Great-Aunt Tallulah Caldwell – known by all and sundry as ‘Aunt Tootie’ – arrives in Ohio. CeeCee is consequently sent away to live with her in a large house in Savannah, Georgia. When the action moves to Savannah, the characters become incredibly vivid and flamboyant. Aunt Tootie is an incredibly charismatic woman with a penchant for collecting vibrant hats, ‘old houses, antique clocks and Boston cream pie’. Other characters, the majority of which are single women, are Aunt Tootie’s black cook Oletta, ‘flap-jawed busybody’ Violene Hobbs and elegant Thelma Rae Goodpepper. CeeCee is welcomed with open arms by them all, and soon sees the society she is in as ‘a strange, perfumed world that… seemed to be run entirely by women’. Although life in Savannah seems like an alien concept at first, she soon fits in.

CeeCee is forced to grow up even more as the novel progresses. Shocking racial prejudices and attacks which she witnesses challenge her perceptions. She sees things which no adults would want to witness, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. CeeCee continually tries to make sense of the world itself and her personal place within it. She is inquisitive and is forever asking questions about everything going on around her. She soon embarks on a steep learning curve, as everyone around her has something to teach her or some wisdom to impart.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is told from the first person perspective of CeeCee herself. As well as the conscious narrative stream, the novel contains many flashbacks from CeeCee’s past. Hoffman really brings the voice of her protagonist alive and brilliantly captures her growing embarrassment regarding her mother’s behaviour and trying to constantly please those around her. There are lots of childish aspects in CeeCee’s narrative at first. She sweetly stores up advice for the future from events which she witnesses in her home town – for example, ‘I made a mental note that if I ever needed help from a man I would make him a pie’.

Hoffman certainly captures American dialect within the dialogue of her characters. She does not make too much of it and gets the balance of slang words and colloquialisms just right. The dialogue is well written on the whole but some of the characters do not really stand out when they talk. Carl’s speech patterns particularly seem a little abrupt in places.

The descriptions in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt are wonderful and, even with the story told from the point of view of a young girl, Hoffman’s use of vocabulary is far from mundane. Moods of Camille’s ‘spike and plummet like a yo-yo’, and she is viewed by her daughter as a ‘crown-wearing, lipstick-smeared lunatic’. Hoffman’s portrayal of houses and scenery in the novel is decent enough, but there are perhaps not as many descriptions in the book as the reader would hope for. She sets the scene, but does not do so as fully as she could have done.

The aspect of social history in the novel is certainly interesting, particularly with regard to racial prejudices and mental illness, but much more could have been made of both. Some of the period details in the novel didn’t seem quite right. Hoffman has not written about any stigma attached to mental illness, which would have been prevalent in society at the time. In the book, mental illness is talked about as if it is an everyday occurrence which is not to be worried about, rather than something to be hushed up and swept under the carpet. The novel would also benefit from a few page breaks in order to separate the story. Weeks pass between connected paragraphs which does make the novel a little difficult to follow in places.

In conclusion, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is a wise novel which is heartwarming and amusing in equal measure. It is a relatively easy read and an enjoyable one at that. The story is not overly action-packed, but it does not need to be. An overriding theme in the novel is triumphing over adversity. The strong women in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt clash with one another at times, but eventually overcome their problems. The novel is essentially a celebration of family, friends, community and, in part, America.

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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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‘Thalia’ by Frances Faviell *****

Like many bloggers and readers, I was immensely excited when I heard about Dean Street Press teaming up with Furrowed Middlebrow to release some little-known books written by women, and lost to the annals of time.  I was so looking forward to trying Frances Faviell’s work particularly, as I have heard a little about her over the last few years, and her storylines very much appeal to me.

The first of her novels which I decided to try was Thalia.  The novel is narrated by a young woman, eighteen-year-old Rachel, who is sent away from her aunt’s London home in something akin to disgrace.  She takes up a post in Dinard in Brittany, as a kind of companion to a young and decidedly awkward teen named Thalia.  There is a lot of family scandal within its pages, and characters as startlingly original as prickly Cynthia, Thalia and young brother Claude’s mother.  The storyline takes twists and turns here and there, and one can never quite guess where it will end up; one of the true delights of the novel, I felt. 9781911413837

One of the other strengths within the novel – and there are many – is the sense of place which Faviell details.  France springs to life immediately, and the minutiae which she displays, both in terms of the general region of Brittany, and within the home, are vivid.  One feels present in Rachel and Thalia’s colliding worlds through Faviell’s stunning use of colour and scent.  Rachel herself is startlingly three-dimensional; I would go as far as to say that she is one of the most realistic narrators whom I have ever come across.

Faviell’s writing is taut and beautiful; she is an extremely perceptive author.  I was completely entranced by Thalia, and was loath to put it down.  Thalia is brilliant; a cracking read, which definitely put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier in terms of its character development, and the use of settings as characters in themselves.  Faviell’s Brittany comes to life in just the same way as du Maurier’s evocation of Cornwall; it is clear that she adores the place, and has her own experiences there have informed this novel.

In a loose way, one can see Thalia as a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more.  The social history evokes a period both gone and still present; there is simply so much here to love and admire.  Thalia is breathtaking and captivating, and I am now going to happily read my way through all of the Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles.  I imagine that, based upon the strength of Thalia, each one is going to be an absolute gem.

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Anita Brookner and Sarah Duguid’s ‘Look at Me’ ****

I hardly ever link together reviews based upon shared book titles, but I recently read two entitled Look at Me, and thought that they would be interesting to show in this way.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner ****:
9780241977774‘Once a thing is known it can never be unknown.’ By day Frances Hinton works in a medical library, by night she haunts the room of a West London mansion flat. Everything changes, however, when she is adopted by charming Nick and his dazzling wife Alix. They draw her into their tight circle of friends. Suddenly, Frances’ life is full and ripe with new engagements. But too late, Frances realises that she may be only a play thing, to be picked up and discarded once used. And that just one act in defiance of Alix’s wishes could see her lose everything …’

Look at Me is an undoubtedly intelligent novel.  I did not find it as immediately engaging as I did Leaving Home, but there was the same minute level of detail within our protagonist, Frances, and she felt rather realistic in consequence.  There are some elegant turns of phrase here, and an effective unsettling feeling soon creeps in.  Look at Me is an absorbing novella, with such a quiet power.

 

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid **** 9781472229847
‘Lizzy lives with her father, Julian, and her brother, Ig, in North London. Two years ago her mother died, leaving in a trail a family bereft by her absence and a house still filled with her things: for Margaret was lively, beautiful, fun, loving; she kept the family together. So Lizzy thinks. Then, one day, Lizzy finds a letter from a stranger to her father, and discovers he has another child. Lizzy invites her into their world in an act of outraged defiance. Almost immediately, she realises her mistake.  Look at Me is a deft exploration of family, grief, and the delicate balance between moving forward and not quite being able to leave someone behind. It is an acute portrayal of how familial upheaval can cause misunderstanding and madness, damaging those you love most.’

I spotted this in the library catalogue quite by chance when I was searching for Anita Brookner’s novella of the same name.  It wasn’t a book which I’d heard of before, but its storyline sounded so good that I decided to add it to my reserve list.  Tinder Press is also a favourite publishing house of mine, which was a further reason to borrow it.

Look at Me is absorbing, and so cleverly written; its suspense is built beautifully, and a claustrophobia becomes apparent at around the halfway point.  It put me in mind of books by Harriet Lane (also a positive).  It is especially vivid in terms of space and place.  Well written and well paced, Look at Me kept me interested and entertained throughout, and I am very much looking forward to Duguid’s next novel.

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