1

The Book Trail: From McCullers to Manning

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a novel written by one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.  A couple are books which I have already read, and others are ones which are slowly creeping up my vast to-read list.

 

1. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers 6577412
‘Twelve-year-old Frankie Adams, longing at once for escape and belonging, takes her role as “member of the wedding” to mean that when her older brother marries she will join the happy couple in their new life together. But Frankie is unlucky in love; her mother is dead, and Frankie narrowly escapes being raped by a drunken soldier during a farewell tour of the town. Worst of all, “member of the wedding” doesn’t mean what she thinks. A gorgeous, brief coming-of-age novel.’

 

2. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
‘Set on the Mississippi Delta in 1923, this story captures the mind and manners of the Fairchilds, a large aristocratic family, self-contained and elusive as the wind. The vagaries of the Fairchilds are keenly observed, and sometimes harshly judged, by nine-year-old Laura McRaven, a Fairchild cousin who takes The Yellow Dog train to the Delta for Dabney Fairchild’s wedding. An only child whose mother has just died, Laura is resentful of her boisterous, careless cousins, and desperate for their acceptance. As the hour moves closer and closer to wedding day, Laura arrives at a more subtle understanding of both the Fairchilds and herself.’

 

5268723. North Towards Home by Willie Morris
‘With his signature style and grace, Willie Morris, arguably one of this country’s finest Southern writers, presents us with an unparalleled memoir of a country in transition and a boy coming of age in a period of tumultuous cultural, social, and political change.   In North Toward Home, Morris vividly recalls the South of his childhood with all of its cruelty, grace, and foibles intact.  He chronicles desegregation and the rise of Lyndon Johnson in Texas in the 50s and 60s, and New York in the 1960s, where he became the controversial editor of Harper‘s magazine.  North Toward Home is the perceptive story of the education of an observant and intelligent young man, and a gifted writer’s keen observations of a country in transition. It is, as Walker Percy wrote, “a touching, deeply felt and memorable account of one man’s pilgrimage.”‘

 

4. The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer
‘In the mid-1950s, the town of Lacey in the Mississippi hill country is a place where the lives of blacks and whites, though seemingly separate, are in fact historically and inevitably intertwined. When Lacey’s fair-haired boy, Duncan Harper, is appointed interim sheriff, he makes public his private convictions about the equality of blacks before the law, and the combined threat and promise he represents to the understood order of things in Lacey affects almost every member of the community. In the end, Harper succeeds in pointing the way for individuals, both black and white, to find a more harmonious coexistence, but at a sacrifice all must come to regret. In The Voice at the Back Door, Mississippi native Elizabeth Spencer gives form to the many voices that shaped her view of race relations while growing up, and at the same time discovers her own voice – one of hope. Employing her extraordinary literary powers – finely honed narrative techniques, insight into a rich, diverse cast of characters, and an unerring ear for dialect – Spencer makes palpable the psychological milieu of a small southern town hobbled by tradition but lurching toward the dawn of the civil rights movement. First published in 1956, The Voice at the Back Door is Spencer’s most highly praised novel yet, and her last to treat small-town life in Mississippi.’

 

5. Dreams of Sleep by Josephine Humphreys 897991
‘Alice Reese knows that the cheerful sounds of her family eating breakfast mask a ten–year marriage falling apart. As Alice and her husband, Will, struggle to understand–and perhaps recapture–the feelings that drew them together in the first place, their interior lives are sensitively and convincingly explored.’

 

6. Household Words by Joan Silber
‘The year is 1940, and Rhoda Taber is pregnant with her first child. Satisfied with her comfortable house in a New Jersey suburb and her reliable husband, Leonard, she expects that her life will be predictable and secure. Surprised by an untimely death, an unexpected illness, and the contrary natures of her two daughters, Rhoda finds that fate undermines her sense of entitlement and security. Shrewd, wry, and sometimes bitter, Rhoda reveals herself to be a wonderfully flawed and achingly real woman caught up in the unexpectedness of her own life.’

 

4397317. A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
‘The hero of Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a child of Hollywood, and once his life was a glittery dream. His father starred in Westerns. His mother was a goddess of the silver screen. The family enjoyed the high life on their estate, Casa Fiesta. But his parents’ careers have crashed since then, and their marriage has broken up too.  Lovesick and sex-crazed, the mother sets out on an intercontinental quest for the right—or wrong—man, while her mild-mannered but manipulative former husband clings to his memories in California. And their teenage son? How he struggles both to keep faith with his family and to get by himself, and what in the end he must do to break free, makes for a classic coming-of-age story—a novel that combines keen insight and devastating wit to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.’

 

8. School for Love by Olivia Manning
‘Jerusalem in 1945 is a city in flux: refugees from the war in Europe fill its streets and cafés, the British colonial mandate is coming to an end, and tensions are on the rise between the Arab and Jewish populations. Felix Latimer, a recently orphaned teenager, arrives in Jerusalem from Baghdad, biding time until he can secure passage to England. Adrift and deeply lonely, Felix has no choice but to room in a boardinghouse run by Miss Bohun, a relative he has never met. Miss Bohun is a holy terror, a cheerless miser who proclaims the ideals of a fundamentalist group known as the Ever-Readies—joy, charity, and love—even as she makes life a misery for her boarders. Then Mrs. Ellis, a fascinating young widow, moves into the house and disrupts its dreary routine for good.  Olivia Manning’s great subject is the lives of ordinary people caught up in history. Here, as in her panoramic depiction of World War II, The Balkan Trilogy, she offers a rich and psychologically nuanced story of life on the precipice, and she tells it with equal parts compassion, skepticism, and humour.’

 

 

Have you read any of these books?

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4

‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney ****

Particularly since finishing Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, I had been eager to pick up her debut, Conversations with Friends.  The novel, which is set in Dublin and rural France, follows four friends – students Frances and Bobbi, and married couple Nick and Melissa – ‘who ask each other endless questions’.  The conversations between the four take place both in person and online, and cover myriad topics – ‘sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender, and, of course, one another.’ 97805713342472

The novel’s blurb suggests that Rooney’s book can be read in any number of ways: as a romantic comedy, as a feminist work, as something which exposes both intimacy and infidelity, or with regard to the way in which our minds consider and place our physical bodies.  It has been highly praised by critics since its publication in 2017; Sara Baume calls it ‘a novel of spine-tingling salience’, and Gavin Corbett ‘an essential read from an astonishing new talent’.  Colin Barrett compares Rooney to both J.D. Salinger and Bret Easton Ellis.

Conversations with Friends is narrated by Frances, a young woman who has just completed her third year at University in Dublin.  Bobbi has been her best friend since the pair met at the strict convent school which they attended.  At the outset of the novel, after a poetry reading, Frances and Bobbi have been invited to writer and photographer Melissa’s home; at this point, she tells us: ‘I was excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s house, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.’  At the house, they meet Nick, who they already knew was an actor: ‘He and Melissa were frequently photographed together at events and we had friends of friends who had met them.  He had a big, handsome face and looked like he could comfortably pick Melissa up under one arm and fend off interlopers with the other.’

Frances and Nick strike up a secretive email conversation after their first meeting, and then, later on, share a kiss at a party.  Before this moment occurs, Rooney writes: ‘Eventually Nick looked over and I looked back.  I felt a key turning hard inside my body, turning so forcefully that I could do nothing to stop it.  His lips parted like he was about to say something, but he just inhaled and then seemed to swallow.  Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overhead.’

The pair soon embark upon an affair, meeting up as often as possible in Frances’ flat, or Nick’s home when Melissa is absent.  Rooney hones in on the emotional conflict which this creates.  When Frances first sleeps with Nick, for instance, she writes: ‘Little tears had started slipping out of my eyes and down onto the pillow.  I wasn’t sad, I didn’t know why I was crying.  I’d had this problem before, with Bobbi, who believed it was an expression of my repressed feelings.  I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying.  I knew I was embarrassing myself badly, but there was nothing I could do about it.’

I found Frances to be a lifelike character.  She is built of quirks and complexities, and is all the more recognisable for it: ‘I felt restless, the way you feel when you’ve already done the wrong thing and you’re anxious about what the outcome to be.’  She has a lot to deal with in her life – an alcoholic father, a mother who lives rather far away, and whom she does not see very often, and a diminishing sense of self-worth – and her responses to different situations feel authentic.  She is, throughout, coming to terms with herself and her future, which she has absolutely no plans for.  I found her an amusing construct, and, at times, quite admirable in her beliefs, and the way in which she voices them.

The title is a little misleading, in that not all of Rooney’s characters could be classified as friends.  Bobbi and Nick do not even pretend to get on with one another, and Frances and Melissa are both hideously jealous of one another at points.  Frances even has a waveringly negative opinion of Bobbi, who is the only constant character who is there for her in the novel.  At the outset, she reflects that at school: ‘Nobody liked her.  She got temporarily suspended once for writing “Fuck the patriarchy” on the wall beside a plaster cast of the crucifixion.’  After the two become a couple, and then amicably split up, they remain firm friends, moving to Dublin together for University.

As with Normal People, I got a feel for the quite complex and realistic characters immediately.  I found Frances particularly fascinating, and could never quite guess what she was going to do next; there were psychological depths to her character.  The others, however, did not pique my interest anywhere near as much as Frances did.  What I found most interesting was the way in which they interacted, and the ways in which their relationships with one another changed so dramatically as the novel went on.  Rooney has built a lot of tension between her characters, and it feels as though she completely understands them, and their motives.

As one might expect, the novel is almost saturated in different forms of conversation. The relationships between the four characters play out through different mediums – instant messaging, text messaging, in person, or through messages sent between two characters by an interlocutor.  This element could so easily have been overdone, but I felt as though Frances’ narrative voice pulls everything together well.

In Conversations with Friends, Rooney explores so many topics: masculinity, sexuality, youth, naivety, (in)experience, relationships, and growing up, amongst others.  It is a rich novel, which offers a lot to draw upon and consider.  Many of the scenes which Rooney has constructed are emotionally charged, particularly when Nick and Frances’ affair comes to a head.  In some ways, the novel has a different feel to it than Normal People; it is sadder at times, and feels a little more serious, even pretentious.  Whilst I found the novel compelling, Conversations with Friends was not a compulsive read for me, as I found Normal People to be.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ by Sarah Winman ****

First published in 2015.

 

I very much enjoyed Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, so when an unsolicited copy of her second book, A Year of Marvellous Ways, was delivered by the postman, I found myself rather eager to read it immediately.

Whilst I was (somehow) entirely unaware of its publication, I was pleased to see that A Year of Marvellous Ways has been incredibly well received.  Patrick Gale says that the book is ‘like Dylan Thomas given a sexy rewrite by Angela Carter’, and Emylia Hall writes: ‘Folkloric, poetic, gorgeous.  All I needed was a campfire and a bottle of moonshine’.  The novel’s blurb heralds it ‘a glorious, life-affirming story about the magic in everyday life and the pull of the sea, the healing powers of storytelling and sloe gin, love and death and how we carry on when grief comes snapping at our heels’.

In terms of the storyline, A Year of Marvellous Ways is rather different to that of When God Was a Rabbit, but Winman has still placed her focus entirely upon her characters and their relationships, something which I feel that she does incredibly well.  The novel is set ‘in the wilds of Cornwall’ following the Second World War, and tells of a relatively unusual friendship, ‘between an old woman coming to the end of her life and a young soldier who sees little point in going on with his’.

Marvellous Ways is the main protagonist of the piece.  She has just begun her ninetieth year, and still lives beside the remote Cornish creek close to the hamlet of St Ophere, where she has spent the majority of her days: ‘It had been a destination village on account of its bread.  Now, in 1947, it was nothing more than a desolate reminder of the cruel passing of time’.  When Francis Drake, a young soldier, comes to the creek, intent upon an important task, ‘broken in body and spirit’, she comes to his aid without any hesitation: ‘Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death, as you might assume, given her age.  She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete.  It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream’.

Marvellous’ world comes to life immediately; the places which she knows and loves are so well evoked.  When placed against them, she herself becomes more of a realistic character, and one can easily imagine her bumbling down to the creek and swimming, or gathering her supper.  Winman’s writing is strong, and her descriptions are gorgeous; Marvellous, for example, has eyes, ‘as blue and fickle as the sea’.  Startling occurrences and imagery come almost out of nowhere, and immediately capture the attention.  Winman’s initial descriptions conjure vivid images in the mind’s eye: ‘She had watched him go into the church as a shadow, and when he had emerged he was still a shadow with deep hues of mauve emanating from his dark skin, and from his mouth the glowing tip of a cigarette pulsed like the heart of a night insect’.  She has a marvellous way, too, of using all of the senses to add both realism and a dreamlike feel to the whole: ‘at the solid crunch of earth’, ‘a thick crust of hoar frost’ and ‘the brittle light’, for example.  The tranquillity of Cornwall also provides a sharp and much-needed contrast to the mud-filled battlefields of the Second World War.

As well as learning about Marvellous’ 1947 present, details about her past are also woven in.  Her life has been a sad one, filled with heartbreak. Of a past relationship, Winman writes, ‘… and they kissed and she wished they hadn’t because she could taste his sadness on his breath.  Could taste his other life and his other women too, and that’s why she knew he wouldn’t stay’.  The element of relationship building, which is an intrinsic portion of the plot, is both realistic and rather beguiling: ‘And that was the night they began to share dreams because that’s what happens when you both know the weight of another’s soul’.

The third person perspective has been used to good effect, and it certainly allows Winman to follow each of her protagonists here.  Personally, however, I found Marvellous’ story far more intriguing than Drake’s.  Those portions of Drake’s story which should have been packed with emotion felt a little detached.  Whilst Winman has a good grasp of her omniscient voice within A Year of Marvellous Ways, it is nowhere near as captivating as the voice which so vividly comes to life within When God Was a Rabbit.

Despite this, A Year of Marvellous Ways is a strong novel, which demonstrates the extent of how enduring friendships and promises can be.  The structure which Winman has made use of does work to her advantage, incorporating as it does both the present and the past, along with elements of magical realism.  Her characters are, for the most part, memorable constructions, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

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‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck ****

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

81bkztrl1zlThe novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forceful tool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh ****

I heard a lot about Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, during 2018, and was eager to read it myself.  There have been so many positive reviews surrounding the book, and the Los Angeles Times have hailed Moshfegh ‘an unforgettable new American voice’.  Thankfully, I was given a copy of the novel for Christmas, and picked it up at the start of the year.

9781787330412My Year of Rest and Relaxation is described as ‘a shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature.’  The protagonist of the piece is a twenty six-year-old, unnamed, ‘thin, pretty’ woman, a recent graduate of Columbia University.  She lives in an apartment, paid for by the inheritance she received from her deceased parents, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  She seems to have it all – wealth, a good degree, relative safety – ‘but there is a vacuum at the heart of things.’  The blurb goes on to ask: ‘It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?’

The novel’s protagonist decides, against better advice, to spend an entire year ‘under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs’.  She makes the decision to do so, as she feels somewhat overwhelmed by the world around her: ‘Things were happening in New York City – they always are – but none of it affected me.  This was the beauty of sleep – reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream.’  I found her a fascinating character; whether as an effect of the drugs, or of her own personality, she is very direct about the likes of her parents’ deaths, and of her own sexual experiences.  One gets a feel for her immediately, and can come to understand her reasoning: ‘My hibernation,’ she says, ‘was self-preservational.  I thought that it was going to save my life.’  She sees sleep as something vital to the core of her self: ‘Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.’

I was pulled in immediately.  In the opening paragraph, the narrator details the routine which she makes herself stick to during her hibernation experiment. She tries not to leave her apartment if she can help it, and when she does, she goes no more than one block away.  Whenever she finds herself awake, she walks around to a local bodega and buys two coffees; she would then ‘chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly whilst I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again.  I lost track of time in this way.  Days passed.  Weeks.’  The woman who prescribes her this cocktail of drugs, Dr Tuttle, is located in the Yellow Pages, and is an eccentric and unusual character.  The narrator quickly learns to both exacerbate and fabricate her symptoms, so that she can receive stronger prescriptions, enabling her to live her life in a total daze.

As time goes on, she begins to remember less and less about what she does, and quite a sinister edge creeps into the story; she buys many unnecessary things online, spends a lot of time talking to strange people on Internet chatrooms, and wakes up smeared with the remnants of popsicles and chocolate milk that she does not remember purchasing.  She reflects upon this in the following manner: ‘Sleepwalking, sleeptalking, sleep-online-chatting, sleepeating – that was to be expected, especially on Ambien.  I’d already done a fair amount of sleepshopping on the computer and at the bodega.  I’d sleeptexted and sleeptelephoned.  This was nothing new.’  She becomes numbed, both to the city in which she lives, and to the effects which it has upon her.

Whilst under the influence, she does maintain a relationship of sorts with her best friend, Reva, but there are many startling problems embedded deep within their discussions.  She describes Reva as ‘corny and affectionate and needy, but she was also very secretive and occasionally very patronizing’.  Reva cannot understand, or bring herself to, why her friend is shutting out the world.  The more troubling aspects of their friendship are slowly revealed: ‘I couldn’t get rid of her,’ says out protagonist.  ‘She worshipped me, but she also hated me.  She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes.’

This is the first of Moshfegh’s books which I have read, but it will not be the last.  I am particularly intrigued by her novel Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2016.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is an alarming novel, but also a compulsively readable one.  The unreliable narrator’s situation is rendered surprisingly convincing, due to a combination of clever plotting and Moshfegh’s tightly considered prose.  I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time.

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‘Himself’ by Jess Kidd ***

I have been intrigued by the highly praised work of Jess Kidd for quite a long time, and decided to purchase one of her books to read.  I selected Himself to begin with as, although all of her storylines appealed to me, I was really in the mood for the Gothic feel which this seemed to promise.  Its blurb describes it as a ‘beautiful and darkly comic debut novel [which] creates an unforgettable world of mystery, bloody violence and buried secrets.’

Louis de Bernieres calls this novel ‘a magic realist murder mystery set in rural Ireland, in which the dead play as important a part as the living’.  M.L. Stedman’s description of the novel alone would have drawn me toward this story: ‘Himself is a sort of Under Milk Wood meets The Third Policeman meets Agatha Christie’.  Suitably intrigued, I began Himself, expecting to be enchanted.

9781782118480The novel’s protagonist is a man in his mid-twenties named Mahony.  When he returns to the village of Mulderrig, in which he was born, ‘he brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the lies of his past.’  He longs to know what happened to his mother, who abandoned him when he was a baby, and she just a teenager.

The quite harrowing prologue of Himself begins in 1950, when a young woman, the mother of a tiny baby, is being horrifically beaten: ‘The man held her.  He watched with quiet devotion as each breath she took became a difficult triumph…  And he rocked her, small in his arms, for the longest while.  As she left the world she raised her hand like a dreaming child and with blind splayed fingers touched his chest.  He kissed every one of her white fingers, noticing the curves of black earth under her nails.’  After this, ‘He laid her in a well-made grave in the middle of the island.  She was little bigger than a stillborn calf, but still he was sure to weight her down, for the tide was coming in.’  The prologue is revealing; the reader almost immediately knows the details which Mahony so longs for.

The novel proper begins with Mahony’s return in April 1976: ‘Today Mulderrig is just a benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun.  Pretending to be harmless.’  He has returned after receiving a note from one of the nuns who looked after him at a Dublin orphanage; she tells him his name and his mother’s, and informs him that he was born in Mulderrig, County Mayo.  The note goes on to say: ‘For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you.  They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.’

Kidd builds a strong sense of place here: ‘From the bowels of the mountains comes the River Shand.  Born twisting, it weaves through stone and land and forest down towards town, where it flows out to meet the estuary.  In some places the river is banked and faded, in others wild and forgotten.  In most places it’s cold and tidal.  In all places it’s a law unto itself.’  Focus has been placed upon the darker macrocosm of the village, which is often hidden beyond the relatively friendly, family-orientated image which it at first seems to project.  When Mahony takes in the view from his room at night, for instance, Kidd writes: ‘The air is cooler now and filled with the elemental smell of earth and trees and sea and sky.  Out past the cries of the foxes and dying birds, if he listened, he would hear the black waves lapping against the quay and the owls hunting over the fields.  Or the sound of the houses as they settle and sigh in their sleep, all the way down to the bay.’

The real strengths of Himself for me were the atmospheric descriptions, and the use of the dead as characters.  They are apparent from the beginning: ‘For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahony’s.  The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales, which the dead just yearn to fill.  For the dead have second-hand stories to share with you, if you’d only let them get a foot in the door.’  Mahony can see them almost immediately, with their voices ‘high, metallic: a bad connection on a faraway exchange.’  The way in which Kidd crafts the movement of the dead was startling and often quite beautiful: ‘They rise through mouse-carved wall cavities and damp-blown stone.  Through brittle flock paper and worn wooden floors.  Through dust-dulled carpets and wide stone flags.  They have been dead for a wing beat and for an age.’  The elements of magical realism which are present from the outset add something otherworldly to the novel, and make its story seem more mysterious.

I found some of the characters in Himself interesting due to their eccentricities, but others felt flat and dreary.  I was bored by Mahony after just a little while; I found him predictable and cliched, and could never quite believe in him, or his quest.  I felt an odd dislocation, a detachment from him.  My favourite character – and probably the only one who will stick with me from the entire cast here – by far was Mrs Cauley, a woman who lives at the boarding house which Mahony stays in.  She has crafted a ‘literary labyrinth’ in the dusty room which she occupies.  When Mahony sees it for the first time, Kidd describes the experience as follows: ‘The smell is so strong that Mahony can taste it; a thick damp prowls into his nose and mouth, settles on the back of his tongue and starts to paw his throat closed.  It is the smell of a million mould-blossomed pages, of a thousand decaying bindings, of a universe of dead words.’  Mrs Cauley is able to tell him a little about his mother, and joins him on his quest to discover what really happened to her.  Once his mother disappeared from Mulderrig, she tells him, ‘if she ever thought about the girl it was to picture her arriving at some new place, some new city.  Stepping off a bus, a boat, a train, with her scowl and her smile and her brutal eyes.  With her brand-new baby and her second-hand coat.’

Many of the structural elements in Himself have been well handled.  The use of the present tense and omniscient perspective make the story more urgent, and there is an assured flow to the prose.  The inclusion of rather a vast cast of dead characters is a great touch, which I found quite thought-provoking at times.  I very much admired the way in which the separate threads of story interlinked and crossed over.

There were, however, some reservations which I had about the novel whilst reading.  The dialects of the characters feel stereotypical, and their voices were often difficult to distinguish between.  Some of the plotlines present here felt either flat, or overdone.  I had lost interest in the main thread of the mystery by around the halfway point, and did not find the novel anywhere near as engrossing as I had initially expected to.  Far less tension was created than I would have envisaged, and I would think twice before applying the term of Gothic to the novel.  I am tempted to read more of Kidd’s work in future, as her other novels sound unusual enough to pique my interest, but I must admit that I felt a little disappointed with this one.

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2

‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

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