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‘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.

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‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud *****

After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’.  In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’.  The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’

9781447289418The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’.  He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.

Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’  He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person’s true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’  Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

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‘Fenny’ by Lettice Cooper ****

In a writing career which spanned over sixty years, it is a real shame that the majority of Lettice Cooper’s books are out of print, and that most prove quite difficult, or at least rather expensive, to procure.  She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968, and had much praise bestowed on her for her services to literature.  Of her work, I had read only The New House, which I very much enjoyed, before finding an inexpensive copy of Fenny – the 264th title on the Virago Modern Classics list – online.  The green-spined edition features an introduction by Cooper’s peer, Francis King.  He notes the high quality of Cooper’s writing, which has ‘a consistency of style, of moral outlook’.

2330502First published in 1953, Fenny is a much later novel than 1937’s The New House.  As its predecessor, it enticed me from the very beginning.  It focuses on a young woman named Ellen Fenwick, who has worked at a school in her native Yorkshire for several years.  She is offered a summer post in Tuscany, in a secluded setting quite near to Florence, as the governess to an eight-year-old girl named Juliet Rivers, the granddaughter of a famous actress whom Ellen very much admires.  The entire situation thus presents a ‘dazzling prospect’ for her.  It seems ‘far removed from the fireside teas and prize-givings’ which her current job includes, and Italy promises a ‘dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates’.

Accepting the post, Ellen soon finds herself journeying to Italy.  When she arrives at the Villa Meridiana, she finds freedom of a sort: ‘she tastes her first cocktail, cuts her hair, becomes “Fenny” – and falls in love.’  However, set as the novel is against rather a tumultuous period in history, she is ‘forced to come to terms with both emotional and political realities.’  The novel spans the period between 1933 and 1949, in which Ellen forges a new life for herself.  Throughout, Cooper charts her growth into a woman of middle age, and the circumstances which surround her, causing her to examine herself and adapt accordingly.  Ellen, throughout this, remains a believable character, constantly putting her own wellbeing behind that of those who surround her.  Of Ellen, King writes in his introduction: ‘That, in the years ahead, she should suffer so many disappointments and yet never become embittered, never lose her faith in life, never (most important of all) lose her faith in herself, is what makes her such an admirable and appealing character.’  Indeed, I liked Ellen from the first, and was so interested in the new life which she forged for herself, as well as learning about what she had left behind.

Through Ellen’s movement to mainland Europe, Cooper was able to explore one of her favourite tropes – the differences between North and South.  The North is mentioned only briefly in the novel, but it is Ellen’s assimilation into an entirely new culture and way of life which is interesting.  Added to this is the fact that before travelling to the Villa Meridiana, Ellen has never been abroad.  Far before she reaches the final stop on the train, her excitement is palpable; Cooper writes: ‘… she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race…’.  Upon arrival, Ellen is transfixed on her surroundings: ‘The strange city through which they drove was the scenery of a dream.  She saw tall, flat-fronted houses with shuttered windows, stone facades lit by street lamps.’  Throughout, Cooper’s observations of character, and descriptions of place, are perceptive and sumptuous respectively.  Italy has been used as a character in its own right here, its presence feeding into the relationships and decisions of each character within the novel.  Soon after Ellen’s arrival, Cooper describes one of the endless lovely scenes which unfold over her surroundings: ‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’

Fellow Virago author Storm Jameson called this ‘certainly Lettice Cooper’s finest novel’, and it is easy to see why.  Fenny is both introspective and evocative.  It believably charts the life of a single woman in circumstances which change, and cause her to change in consequence.  Cooper has such an understanding and an awareness of her protagonist, and the things which others around her cause her to feel.  In this manner, Fenny is a fascinating and insightful character study.    Whilst, of course, the focus is upon Ellen, we do learn about the Rivers family, their friends who live not too far away, and another tutor, amongst others who are introduced later on.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, and Cooper’s prose is pitch perfect.  

I found the extended timeframe in which Ellen’s story is told to be effective, and so much of Cooper’s commentary pertinent and applicable to today: ‘Of course I am interested in politics,’ a lecturer tells Ellen.  ‘Life, it seems to me, is not divisible.  One cannot disassociate oneself, especially in these days, even if one does not take an active part in them.’  I very much enjoyed reading Fenny, and whilst I did not find the final section as transporting, nor as realistic, as the previous ones, it is still a Virago publication which I treasure.

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‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.

After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults.  Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’.  Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘.  The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel.  Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.

The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’.  They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta.  The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing…  No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’.  The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.

The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast.  Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark.  Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves.  Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche.  Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’.  Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless…  Belle did exactly as she chose.  When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’.  The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.

The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’.  Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too.  What is Calcutta?  It is not the world’.  There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.

The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully.  Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.

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One From the Archive: ‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

First published in 2017.

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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Books About the British Empire

Ever since I first learnt about it in junior school, I have been fascinated by the British Empire, and the effects of colonialism on different populations around the world.  Whilst reading as an adult, I have always been drawn to books which explore these themes, but in order to try and expand my reading on the topic, I thought it might be a nice idea to make a list of ten books about the British Empire which I’d like to read.  (For an explanation of the British Empire, and a list of further reading, this Goodreads list is wonderful.)

 

1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham 99664
‘Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful, but love-starved Kitty Fane.  When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.  The Painted Veil is a beautifully written affirmation of the human capacity to grow, to change, and to forgive.

 

2. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

305573. Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
Shooting an Elephant is Orwell’s searing and painfully honest account of his experience as a police officer in imperial Burma; killing an escaped elephant in front of a crowd ‘solely to avoid looking a fool’. The other masterly essays in this collection include classics such as “My Country Right or Left”, “How the Poor Die” and “Such, Such were the Joys”, his memoir of the horrors of public school, as well as discussions of Shakespeare, sleeping rough, boys’ weeklies and a spirited defence of English cooking. Opinionated, uncompromising, provocative and hugely entertaining, all show Orwell’s unique ability to get to the heart of any subject.’

 

4. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
‘Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan – one of the many young children sent ‘Home’ from the East to be fostered and educated in England. Jane Gardam’s novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age. In so doing, she not only encapsulates a whole period from the glory days of British Empire, through the Second World War, to the present and beyond, but also illuminates the complexities of the character known variously as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Filth, Master of the Inner Temple, Teddy and Sir Edward Feathers.’

 

5. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes 188458
‘A classic adventure novel and one of the most startling, highly praised stories in English literature – a brilliant chronicle of two sensitive children’s violent voyage from innocence to experience.  After a terrible hurricane levels their Jamaican estate, the Bas-Thorntons decide to send their children back to the safety and comfort of England. On the way their ship is set upon by pirates, and the children are accidentally transferred to the pirate vessel. Jonsen, the well-meaning pirate captain, doesn’t know how to dispose of his new cargo, while the children adjust with surprising ease to their new life. As this strange company drifts around the Caribbean, events turn more frightening and the pirates find themselves increasingly incriminated by the children’s fates. The most shocking betrayal, however, will take place only after the return to civilisation.  The swift, almost hallucinatory action of Hughes’s novel, together with its provocative insight into the psychology of children, made it a best seller when it was first published in 1929 and has since established it as a classic of twentieth-century literature – an unequaled exploration of the nature, and limits, of innocence.’

 

6. Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
‘A misadventure in a brothel links the destiny of the enigmatic George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer, to a foundling who becomes his obsessively devoted maid, a wily street boy who takes advantage of his sexual ambiguity, and his alternately philosophical and libidinous brother-in-law in this terse, searing novel that takes them from the comfortable parlors of Victorian Liverpool to the horrific battlefields of the Crimean War.’

 

47025657. The King’s Rifle by Biyi Bandele-Thomas
‘It’s winter 1944 and the Second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago fourteen-year-old Ali Banana was a blacksmith’s apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he’s trekking through the Burmese jungle. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But Japanese snipers lurk behind every tree—and even if the unit manages to escape, infection and disease lie in wait. Homesick and weary, the men of D-Section Thunder Brigade refuse to give up.  Taut and immediate, The King’s Rifle is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick-strike division of the British Army in India. Brilliantly executed, this vividly realized account details the madness, sacrifice, and dark humor of that war’s most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.’

 

8. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
‘Exotic Hong Kong takes center stage in this sumptuous novel, set in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s a city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells, and it’s home to a group of foreign nationals who enjoy the good life among the local moneyed set, in a tight-knit social enclave distanced from the culture at large. Comfortable, clever, and even a bit dazzling, they revel in their fancy dinners and fun parties. But their sheltered lives take an abrupt turn after the Japanese occupation, and though their reactions are varied — denial, resistance, submission — the toll it takes on all is soon laid bare.   Enter Claire Pendleton from London. Months after her husband is transferred to Hong Kong in 1951, she accepts a position as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy couple, the Chens. Claire begins to see the appeal of the sweltering city and is soon taken in by the Chen’s driver, the curiously underutilized Will Truesdale. A handsome charmer with a mysterious limp, Will appears to be the perfect companion for Claire, who’s often left to her own devices. But a further examination leaves her with more questions than answers.  An intricately woven tale of lives changed by historical events, Lee’s debut brings this hothouse flower of a city alive with passion, and imagines characters both unforgettable and tragic.’

 

9. There Is Room for You by Charlotte Bacon 358848
‘Anna Singer, a charmingly independent young New Yorker, feels derailed after losing her father to a car accident and her husband to a younger woman. She books a trip to India, hoping that there she will be able to put her grief into perspective. Though this is her first visit, India has always tantalized her: her English mother, Rose, was raised in Calcutta during the twilight of the British Raj, but seldom spoke of her childhood. Then, as Anna departs, Rose gives her a manuscript in which she has recorded her Indian memories, torn between two cultures and belonging completely to neither.’

 

10. Staying On by Paul Scott
‘Tusker and Lily Smalley stayed on in India. Given the chance to return ‘home’ when Tusker, once a Colonel in the British Army, retired, they chose instead to remain in the small hill town of Pangkot, with its eccentric inhabitants and archaic rituals left over from the days of the Empire. Only the tyranny of their landlady, the imposing Mrs Bhoolabhoy, threatens to upset the quiet rhythm of their days.  Both funny and deeply moving, Staying On is a unique, engrossing portrait of the end of an empire and of a forty-year love affair.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite books which deal with the British Empire and colonialism?

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