4

‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams ****

I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.

The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.

Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’

The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’

Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.

I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’

The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.

Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.

3

‘Liminal’ by Bee Lewis *****

I was not planning on breaking my book buying ban (again…), but I ended up ordering a copy of Bee Lewis’ Liminal, along with Eleanor Anstruther’s fascinating A Perfect Explanation.  The publisher of both novels, Salt Books, was asking for everyone to buy one book during the pandemic, as their business was suffering.  I set out to just choose one, but could not decide which I would rather read, so both novels landed on my doorstep a week or so later.

37810194._sx318_I was immediately drawn to Liminal when I started to read its Gothic-sounding blurb.  I very much enjoy reading deliberately unsettling books, and had not picked one up in quite some time.  Liminal, therefore, sounded perfect.  It focuses on Esther, a pregnant woman whose leg was amputated after a childhood accident, and her husband, Dan.  The pair are travelling from their former home in Bristol to start a new life in the remote Scottish Highlands, restoring a former train station, which has been abandoned for decades.

We follow Esther ‘as her marriage, life and body begin to dramatically change’.  Due to her disability, she often feels isolated; this is exacerbated by the rough and uneven terrain around their new home, and its remote position.  A deep snowfall, which arrives soon after the couple do, also makes movement more difficult to Esther.  Early in the novel, she thinks back to her home in Bristol, uncertain about having left everything which she is so comfortable with behind: ‘The city was her touchstone, its roads were rooted in her veins, its houses in her cells.  Yet she’d agreed to leave her sanctuary, trading the strident city streets for the cool mountain air and yawning expanse.  She’d heard her rational self trotting out the reasons why: new life, fresh start, fantastic opportunity, support for Dan.  But she couldn’t just ignore the small voice deep inside her that invaded her dreams and called her out for the coward she was.’

Lewis’ beautiful prose highlights all that is bleak around Esther: ‘The bone-numbing wind tried to breathe new life into the ancient landscape, but Spring was not yet ready to be roused and instead pulled a cloak of frost around her.’  One of my favourite parts of the entire novel was the way in which the landscape is personified; it is a character in itself, and it lives and adapts throughout the novel.  Lewis’ writing is continuously dark, descriptive, and haunting, but never does it feel repetitive or overdone.

Even the elements of magical realism – ‘Gothic fantasia’, as they are termed in the novel’s blurb – blend in seamlessly with the realistic.  Esther awakes one morning, for instance, naked and outside, ‘on a bed of bracken’.  Lewis describes the experience, with striking imagery, as follows: ‘The metal shaft of her right leg was cold against her skin…  This was bad.  She had to get back home, back to Dan, back to safety, but nothing looked familiar to her and a growing dread burrowed into her stomach.  She ran her hands over her body, checking for injuries as she stood up, hunching her shoulders and stooping low to the ground, conscious of her nakedness.  Her moth tasted of iron as the fear she felt fused with her blood.  The trees loomed in towards her, closing ranks, surrounding her on every side.’

The span of Liminal, which takes place over a single week, works wonderfully.  The atmosphere and pressure grow exponentially.  We learn early on that something is not right within Esther and Dan’s marriage, and that it has not been so for a long time.  They are grieving both the death of a friend and a miscarriage, and Esther cannot quite believe that she has been given another chance to become a mother.

From the outset, Liminal felt like a novel which I would love.  This feeling grew stronger as I continued to read it, and I quickly got to the stage where I could not bear to put it down. I sank into the writing; I was totally absorbed within it.  For a debut novel, Liminal is nothing short of a masterpiece.  There are so many elements here which soar.  Lewis has such an understanding of Esther, and focuses on her strengths whilst also being continually aware of her limitations as a disabled woman.  I am so looking forward to reading whatever Lewis publishes next, and am almost certain that whatever her main subject is, it will be handled with finesse and compassion.

2

Two Novels: ‘Dancing Backwards’ and ‘The Word for Woman is Wilderness’

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers ****

I cannot help but feel that British author Salley Vickers is somewhat underrated.   I have not seen many reviews of her work online, or on platforms like BookTube, and her works tend to have rather low overall ratings on Goodreads.  However, she is an author whose work I have very much enjoyed since first picking up Miss Garnet’s Angel back in 2012.

6918121I picked up one of her novels, Dancing Backwards, when my library first reopened for browsing, having been shut for four months due to the pandemic.  Stuck in one place, with little opportunity to travel, I decided that I wanted to read as many books about journeys as was possible.  Dancing Backwards, therefore, seemed perfect.  The protagonist of the piece, a woman named Violet Hetherington, is travelling to New York by ship, to meet an old acquaintance.  Her journey is as much an inner one as a physical one; thus, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s early masterpiece, The Voyage Out.

As ever, Vickers’ prose is remarkably vivid from the outset.  Her writing is intelligent, and it has a lot of depth to it.  She never loses the focus of Violet, but is astute at writing about her surroundings, and of the other characters who are taking the same journey.  Violet feels wholly realistic; we learn about her past and present, and her hopes for the future, through the many vignettes which make up the novel’s structure.  She can be rather an acerbic woman, and I enjoyed her dark humour.  Vickers wonderfully charts Violet’s relationships, and deftly handles the way in which the narrative moves back and forth in time.  Dancing Backwards is a wonderful novel about taking chances, and being true to oneself.

 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews ****

I also picked up Abi Andrews’ novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, on the same library visit.  It has been on my radar for quite some time, and I was so interested in the plot and somewhat unconventional structure.  The novel takes as its focus a nineteen-year-old woman named Erin, who has never strayed too far from her Midlands home.  She decides, however, to take an epic journey to the wilds of Alaska, travelling via Iceland, Greenland, and Canada to do so.

Throughout, Erin details her experiences of travelling and living in rather hostile 36279988._sy475_environments, and those who help her along the way.  Inspired on her journey by the rather infamous Chris McCandless, she comments: ‘Travelling by sea and land will be an Odyssean epic, only with me, a girl, on a female quest for authenticity.’  She films her own documentary as she goes too, which was an authentic-feeling way for Andrews to shoehorn in a lot of cultural commentary.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a fascinating and thought-provoking piece of ecofiction, which held my attention from its very beginning.  I loved the numerous different approaches used here, from transcripts from the documentary, to philosophical musings.  Erin is a wonderful character, who comes to rely entirely upon herself, and does so with a great deal of realism.  There are many moments of profundity throughout, and the originality which Andrews has managed to create in this, her debut, is quite astounding.

6

‘Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote’ by Jane Robinson ****

Having very much enjoyed Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings some years ago, I felt that it was high time I picked up another of her books.  I found the prolific author’s tenth book – Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote – on a jaunt to my local library, and settled down to read it on a grey afternoon.

The idea behind Hearts and Minds fascinated me.  I have always been so interested in the suffrage movement, but Robinson had found an element of it which I had never before learnt about.  This surprises me, as I have studied it in detail over the years; the Great Pilgrimage just seems to be a largely overlooked event, for reasons unbeknownst to me.  I agree wholeheartedly with Robinson’s commentary on the Great Pilgrimage; she calls it ‘one of the most inspiring and neglected episodes in British history.’ hearts-and-minds-jane-robinson-9780857523914

In the summer of 1913, the year before the outbreak of the First World War, Britain became ‘gripped by suffragette fever’.  This was the year in which the Great Pilgrimage took place.  It was planned by the peaceful non-militant suffragist group, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS), who were keen to create as much distance as possible between themselves and the militant suffragettes.  The often increasingly violent acts of the suffragettes made them seem a larger group than they were; rather, the suffragettes were a minority, albeit one who gained a lot of attention in the media, and in the country at large.  As Robinson writes, the suffragettes’ ‘confrontational approach distracted public attention from the imaginative and quietly courageous work done by tens of thousands of others across Britain…  [The suffragists] were just as determined about emancipation… but more persuasive.’  The suffragists wished to set themselves apart once and for all, and planned the Great Pilgrimage to be ‘as much as a march against militancy as it was for women’s rights.’

Thousands of women took to the streets to try to win equal suffrage. These women, from all over the country, ’embarked on an astonishing six-week protest march they called the Great Pilgrimage.  Rich and poor, young and old, they defy convention’, and happily gave up ‘jobs, family relationships, and even their lives to persuade the country to listen to them.’  Their journey was at once ‘dangerous, exhausting and exhilarating’, and paved the way to alter the lives of British women forever.  Their march was beset by problems from the outset, from vandalism of their property, to physical violence meted out by those who disagreed that women should be given equal suffrage.

The women who participated in the Great Pilgrimage were largely unknown.  High-profile suffragists marched amongst them, but for the most part the women left their small towns and villages all over the country to show their solidarity.  Of these women, Robinson notes: ‘Many of the people who feature in this book were not thought important enough to record in official chronicles of the fight for the vote, or were too modest to imagine anyone being interested in who they were.’  Robinson also writes, although not always at great length, about the hundreds of men who supported the cause, many of whom set out to march with the women along part of the route.

The march took six different routes from all corners of Britain – Carlisle, Newcastle, Yarmouth, Portsmouth, and Brighton, amongst other locations – converging in a final push upon London.  Smaller routes fed into these larger ones ‘like tributaries, all flowing to the capital city.’  It began in the middle of June, and went on until the end of July.  The different groups of participants had to stop many times along the way in order to hold meetings with locals, trying to convert the more stubborn to their cause.

In Hearts and Minds, Robinson weaves together extracts from diaries, letters, and unpublished accounts, framing these within the wider context of the suffrage movement, and the United Kingdom’s political landscape.  She spans a vast period, from the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and thoroughly explores ‘a story of ordinary people’ who brought about ‘extraordinary change’.  In her introduction, Robinson sets out the social constraints of early twentieth-century Britain in a succinct manner, and continually points out the importance of the Great Pilgrimage.  It at last gave women, who were denied a voice, ‘the authority to challenge the domestic stereotype’.  Although women did not receive equal suffrage until 1928, the Great Pilgrimage was a series of small steps, which made an enormous difference.

Hearts and Minds is incredibly thorough, and so easy to read.  Robinson sets out the birth of both suffrage groups in great detail, and also offers biographical information about several of the women who were there from the very beginning.  The attention which Robinson gives to setting the scene, indeed, is so thorough, that the Great Pilgrimage is not explored in any detail until the middle of the book.

Hearts and Minds is inspiring, filled as it is with so many selfless women – and men – who advanced a cause of vital importance, and changed Britain for the better.  They ensured, en masse, that their voices were heard, and their determination is heartening.  This is another highly engaging book from a wonderful historian, and I am very much looking forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the months to come.

5

‘All the Beggars Riding’ by Lucy Caldwell ****

I have been blown away by Irish author Lucy Caldwell’s short stories in the past, and have been keen to pick up one of her novels, to see how the form compares.  All the Beggars Riding was the first which I picked up, as I was kindly gifted a copy for my birthday.  The novel is Caldwell’s third, and was first published in 2013.18164399

All the Beggars Riding focuses upon Lara Moorhouse and her younger brother Alfie, who grew up in London during the 1970s and 1980s.  Their father worked as a plastic surgeon in Northern Ireland for part of each week, helping to reconstruct the faces of those injured in bombing attacks during the Troubles.  He then spent a day or two in an exclusive Harley Street practice.  When Lara’s father passes away in a helicopter crash, the truth about his life is revealed; he had another family, a wife and children, who lived in Belfast.  Lara’s mother ‘was, in fact, his mistress’.

The novel marks Lara’s attempts to confront her past, in which she makes herself revisit ‘troubling memories of her childhood to piece together the story of her parents’ hidden relationship.’  In the present day story, Lara is thirty-nine years old, and is grieving following the death of her mother.  Of this, she comments on the turmoil which she feels: ‘… inside, I was alternately blank and lurching with grief, thick and oily, like waves, that would rise up and threaten to swamp me utterly…  People kept saying, time will heal, and in a terrible, clichéd way, it does: every day life pastes its dull routines over the rawness, although the rawness is still there.’

The novel begins, rather specifically, on a Thursday morning in May 1972, with one of Lara’s memories: ‘Early morning, say six, or half six, but the sunlight is already pouring in, through the curtainless window set high in the slope of the roof…  You are standing, face upturned to the window, breathing in the sun.  I can see you, almost: if I close my eyes I can almost see you.’  I liked the way in which Lara occasionally addresses her childhood self, longing as she does to retain some memory of who she was.

One of my favourite elements of All the Beggars Riding was the emphasis which Caldwell places on the unreliability of memory.  Our narrator comments: ‘… lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory…  We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.’  Later, she muses: ‘But it seems to me that in too many books people’s memories come in seamless waves, perfectly coherent and lyrical.  Recollections come like that one just did to me, searing, intense and jagged from nowhere, burning bright when before there was nothing.’

The author certainly has a recognisable style; as with her short stories, she searches for the essence of her characters throughout All the Beggars Riding.  One gets a real insight into Lara’s thoughts and feelings, and her discomfort with writing a memoir: ‘For one thing, it’s gruesome using real people’s lives, real people’s deaths, to try and explain something of mine, I know.  The scales of suffering are incomparable.’

There is a lot to connect with within Lara’s story.  She longs to capture a realistic picture of her past self in this, her exercise of memory.  She probes into the past, often uncomfortably, asking a great deal of questions in her desperation to make sense of things.  I admired the way in which Caldwell, through Lara, went in search of her mother’s story, piecing together the concrete facts and imagining her thoughts and feelings.

I am always drawn to stories about families, particularly those in which there is an element of dysfunction within the familial structure, and I am pleased to report that All the Beggars Riding did not disappoint.  I was not as enamoured with the story as I am with much of her shorter fiction; Caldwell’s stories are perfect, truly.   Here, as in her other work though, her prose is thoughtful, and her protagonist realistic.  I did feel for Lara and her situation, her uncertain memories, and her fraught relationships with others.  I must admit that to me, though, the ending of All the Beggars Riding felt too neat, and was not entirely satisfying.

8

‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’ by Susannah Cahalan ****

I have wanted to read Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness for such a long time, but have struggled to get my hands on a copy.  Thankfully it was added to my online library app, and I was able to borrow it straight away.  Unusually in this case, I actually watched the film before picking up the book, and thankfully found a memoir which has so much depth in both formats.

Brain on Fire is described as ‘the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture 13547180her identity’.  As a twenty four-year-old, Cahalan was establishing herself as a journalist in New York City, living in a studio apartment by herself, and working at the New York Post.  After having a series of strange symptoms for a number of weeks – the certainty that there were bedbugs in her apartment which were biting her, a sudden out of character jealousy which causes her to check her boyfriend’s emails, migraines, numbness in various parts of her body, and paranoia – she wakes alone in a hospital room, ‘strapped to her bed and unable to speak’, and with no memory of how she came to be there.  This previously astute and independent woman was labelled ‘violent, psychotic, a flight risk.’

Cahalan has vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and violent moodswings.  She loses her appetite, she forgets how to read, and she loses her ability to speak.  When she is first admitted to hospital, Cahalan writes: ‘This new me was physically different: skinny and pale, cheeks sunken in, and thighs whittled down to toothpicks.  My eyes were glazed over…  it was hard to maintain a conversation because I operated on a delay, responding to basic questions several seconds after they were posed.’

Cahalan spent weeks visiting different medical experts, with both her family and her boyfriend, in order to get to the bottom of her illness.  All of her tests and vital signs came back as normal, but her family pushed for answers.  Although she does eventually get an answer, many of the doctors whom she sought help from tried to convince her that her illness was all in her head, and originated only from a psychological source.  Cahalan believes that her illness may have been caused by a pathogen ‘that had invaded my body, a little germ that set everything in motion.’  She comments: ‘I would learn firsthand that this kind of illness often ebbs and flows, leaving the sufferer convinced that the worst is over, even when it’s only retreating for a moment…’.

Cahalan’s experiences are harrowing, and rather troubling to read about.  Her first seizure ‘marked the line between sanity and insanity.  Though I would have moments of lucidity over the coming weeks, I would never again be the same person.  This was the start of the dark period of my illness, as I began an existence in purgatory between the real world and a cloudy, fictitious realm made up of hallucinations and paranoia.’  She forgets huge chunks of time, and moves through various misdiagnoses, some of which are rather traumatic.

Along with her own experiences, Cahalan has woven in those of her divorced mother and father and their new partners, her boyfriend Stephen, and her brother, who was away at college and largely kept in the dark about her illness.  Cahalan also includes portions of the stream-of-consciousness journal which she kept whilst in hospital, and which in retrospect she does not recognise herself within.  Some of her patient notes also feature in Brain on Fire.  This, alongside her narrative, demonstrate how erratic her behaviour so quickly became, and the way in which she had no control whatsoever over her body.

Throughout, Cahalan is open and honest about all of her experiences, many of which must have been highly traumatic to recount.  The terror of her condition within Brain on Fire is almost tangible.  Of course, with a memoir or illness narrative dealing with such a strange and debilitating disease, parts of the book are rather difficult to read.  However, Cahalan charts her incredibly hard and harrowing journey, in a thoughtful and fascinating manner.  There is so much depth to Cahalan’s narrative, both scientifically and emotionally, and it feels like a privilege to finally be able to read Brain on Fire.

2

‘Bird Cottage’ by Eva Meijer *****

I received a copy of the beautifully designed Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer for my birthday, after hearing many wonderful things about it – Town and Country, for example, describe the novel as ‘a celebration of a life spent immersed in nature’, and Country Life deems it ‘a great pleasure for birders and readers alike’.  Bird Cottage has been translated from the original Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett, and is printed in its English edition by Pushkin Press, a publishing house which I always gravitate toward.

40724595._sy475_Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len.  Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty .  In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds.   From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books.  With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’

The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden.  When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual.  It feels as if someone is strangling me.’  We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music.  As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.

Len makes a home with the generations of birds which inhabit her garden; indeed, they soon come to inhabit her home, too.  On the decision of some Great Tits to nest inside her cottage, she observes: ‘Their choices were not always happy – they would roost between the curtain rods and the ceiling, or in the frame of a sliding door, which meant that it could no longer be closed – and so I began to hang boxes on the walls, or old food cartons, or small wooden cases.’  Such a glorious sense of place is created, and soon, Len’s cottage, with all of its little quirks, feels rather intimate.  I loved the descriptions of the outside world too, of which there are many: ‘The red in the sky has turned lilac, then purple, then dark blue, the shadow of the earth silhouetted against the pink, and now it’s become a blanket full of stars, little openings that let the light shine through.’

The first person perspective which has been used throughout works so well, as does the present tense which is continually used.  One is made aware, almost immediately, of how much Len cared about the birds whom she essentially came to plan her life around.  Everything is seen through Len’s kind eyes, and the birds become characters in their own right.  She observes: ‘The Great Tits are sunning themselves in the front garden, their wings outspread.  Jacob and Monocle II are sitting next to each other, very fraternally, as if they don’t usually spend the whole day quarrelling.  It’s the heat that has made them so placid…  Jacob’s oldest son is perched on a low, broad branch.  He is a little slower than the others – too much feeding at my bird table.’

I very much admired Meijer’s interpretation of Len Howard, and would dearly like to learn more about her.  Meijer notes that very little about Len’s life has actually been preserved, and that she pieced together the novel with the use of sparse known facts, and Len’s own work.  Unfortunately, Len’s books appear very difficult to get hold of affordably, but I can only hope that they are reissued at some point in the near future.  I am sure that the many delighted readers of Bird Cottage would love to read Len’s original work.

Such warmth suffuses Bird Cottage, and it is such a delightful novel to read.  The translation has been seamlessly done, and the prose is often achingly beautiful.  Bird Cottage is charming and delightful, and provides a wonderful piece of escapism from the fast-paced world in which we live, where many people often forget to take notice of the little things around them.  Bird Cottage is a novel to savour.

5

‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips ****

Julia Phillips’ debut novel, Disappearing Earth, has been hovering close to the top of my to-read list since its publication in 2019. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award in its publication year, and reviewers have called it, variously, ‘mesmerising’, ‘a riveting page-turner’, ‘immensely moving’, and ‘a genuine masterpiece’.

Disappearing Earth opens on an August afternoon in Kamchatka, an isolated peninsula in northeastern Siberia. The region is ‘as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.’ To give one an idea of the isolation of the region, Phillips writes: ‘To the south west, and west was only ocean… Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken; some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others, to the upper villages, only existed in winter, when they were pounded out of ice. No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent. No one could come or go over land.’ From here, it would take nine hours to fly to Moscow, Russia’s capital city.

In the biggest city on the Kamchatka peninsula, Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, two young sisters are abducted; a subsequent police search finds nothing of their whereabouts. Their disappearance shocks the whole community, ‘with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.’ Phillips’ entire cast of characters are connected by this ‘unfathomable crime’. The sisters are Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, just eleven and eight years old respectively. From the first chapter, which details their disappearance, we learn of their close relationship, and the way in which they have spent the entire summer with one another. The man who takes them, feigning a sore ankle so that they will see him back to his car, ‘looked carved out of fresh butter’.

The strong sense of place which suffuses the novel – it is almost a character in itself – is immediately apparent. Of the sisters, Phillips writes: ‘They sat under the peak of St. Nicholas Hill. If they had kept walking along the shoreline today, they would have seen the stony side of the hill eventually lower, exposing the stacked squares of a neighbourhood overhead. Five-story Soviet apartment buildings covered in patchwork concrete. The wooden frames of collapsed houses… the last bit of land before the sea.’

Following the abduction, each chapter focuses upon a different character, and details how they have been affected by the story of the Golosovskaya sisters. Each chapter also takes place in a subsequent month, so we move through an entire calendar year in the space of the novel. We meet, for instance, a teenage girl named Olya, who loses her best friend when she expresses her belief that is completely safe to be alone in the city. We also learn of a young indigenous woman, who disappeared some time before the sisters, and who was never searched for properly due to police bias. As Phillips writes: ‘Reporters behaved as though the sisters from this summer invented the act of vanishing.’ The relationships which are imagined between characters are complex, and tautly drawn.

Aside from the disappearance, Phillips deals with some very important issues, including corruption; poverty; media bias and propaganda; racism against indigenous peoples; separation; isolation and solitude; and the way in which so many things have changed since the collapse of the USSR. The many and varied concerns of the characters feel realistic, as does the search for the ‘two small white bodies’, which ‘served as a good excuse to ignore the city’s other corruptions…’.

I was so interested to read about Kamchatka, where few novels are set, and Phillips held my interest throughout. It feels as though Phillips knows the places and spaces which she writes about intimately. Although there is a lot of darkness within this novel, I would still like to visit the tundras and vast wildernesses of Russia, to see how they compare to Moscow and St Petersburg, which I am lucky enough to have visited.

Given its structure, Disappearing Earth is almost a short story collection, which is connected by a single, pivotal event. I really enjoyed the simple yet effective approach which Phillips has taken, focusing as she does on so many individuals, all of whom the reader gets to know very well. There are a lot of layers within this debut novel, and I very much look forward to reading whatever Phillips brings out next.

4

‘Grey Souls’ by Philippe Claudel ****

French author Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls had been languishing on one of my many to-read lists for years before I thought to check my local library for a copy.  The novel won the Prix Renaudot in France, and has been praised variously as having a ‘heart-gripping, melancholic beauty’ (Independent), and using ‘magnificent’ language (Le Parisien).  First published in 2003, Grey Souls, which is the opening volume in a loosely-connected war trilogy, has been translated into English by Hoyt Rogers.

26848591Grey Souls is set in northern France, a region which I personally know very well, in December 1917.  The small town of ‘V’, in which the entirety of the novel takes place, is close to the Front.  Here, towards the end of the First World War, ‘any lingering sense of normality is destroyed with the discovery of a strangled ten-year-old girl in the freezing canal.’  A deserter from the army is conveniently convicted of her murder, and is subsequently executed.  Years later, however, ‘struggling with the tragedies and demons of his own past, the narrator is still trying to make sense of these events.’

The opening of Grey Souls sets up the unnamed narrator’s quest immediately: ‘It’s very difficult to find the beginning.  So much time has gone by that words will never bring back – and the faces too, the smiles, the wounds.  Even so, I must try.  I have to cut open the belly of the mystery and stick my hands deep inside, even if none of that will change a thing.’  He tells us that he once worked as a policeman, and is now retired.

At the outset, the narrator describes the moment at which the child’s body was found: ‘Lying on the ground, a ten-year-old’s body seems even smaller, especially when it’s saturated with winter water…  She looked like a fairy-tale princess with her eyelids blanched and lips turned blue, her hair entangled with the grass, withered brown by morning frosts.  Her little hands had clutched at emptiness.’  This is just one example of how rich and effective Claudel’s descriptions are.  Another which struck me is the description of the nearby battle, which the town of ‘V’ is shielded by: ‘By the grace of the hill we managed to dodge it, despite the smells and noises it threw our way…  The war mounted its stylish performances behind the hill, on the other side, in a world that wasn’t even ours – in other words, nowhere.  We refused to be its audience.  We made of the war the stuff of legend, and so we were able to live with it.’

The narrative in Grey Souls moves quickly, pivoting from one year to another at will.  We learn, by turns, of the rather cynical narrator’s past, as well as that of his father.  The mystery element of the novel is also tied in, and returned to time and again.  ‘All this must seem a muddle, back and forth in time,’ the narrator explains, ‘but in fact it’s the very image of my life, made of nothing but jagged bits and pieces, impossible to stick back together.’  There is rather a cold, odd aspect to the narration, which culminates in paragraphs such as the following: ‘Words were never easy for me.  I hardly used them when I was still alive.  If I write as if I’m a dead man, or a matter of fact, that is true, true as true can be.  For a long time I’ve felt like one, just keeping up a pretence of living for a while longer.  I’m serving a suspended sentence, you might say.’

Grey Souls is a slim novel, but it is filled to the brim with intrigue and atmosphere.  The prose is absorbing, and the pace works well.  At its core, this is a mystery novel, but in reality, it feels like much more than that.  A lot of sadness and emotion is packed into Grey Souls, and the plotting adds intrigue to the story.  Claudel hints at occurrences throughout, but we only learn about them in their entirety much later.  This is a very good novel indeed, and I will certainly continue with the rest of the series at some point.

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‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ by Patrick Radden Keefe ****

Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which blends together history and a particular true crime case, was the winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.  I have travelled to Northern Ireland many times before, and am fascinated by the history of the country.  I had been drawn to the book for some time before I found a copy to borrow on my library’s app.

43363624._sy475_The prologue of Say Nothing begins in July 2013, in the library of Boston College, which ‘holds the most comprehensive collection of Irish political and cultural artefacts in the United States’.  Here in 2013, writes Radden Keefe, ‘two Belfast detectives arrive, and take back with them a series of secret files… [which] contained sensitive and dangerous secrets.’

Part of the focus of Say Nothing is the disappearance of thirty eight-year-old widow Jean McConville, from a small home in the notorious Divis Flats in Belfast.  She was the mother of ten children, and four more who died in infancy.  Throughout, Radden Keefe relates details of her home life, and later her case, to the societal conditions in Belfast at the time, showing that Jean’s circumstances were far from unusual: ‘But this was Belfast in 1972, where immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes, and she didn’t get any.’

Radden Keefe makes Jean’s case feel so immediate; he writes, for instance, the following about the circumstances of her disappearance: ‘But when they opened the door, a gang of people burst inside.  It happened so abruptly that none of the McConville children could say precisely how many there were – it was roughly eight people, but it could have been ten or twelve.  There were men and women.  Some had balaclavas pulled across their faces; others wore nylon stockings over their heads, which twisted their features into ghoulish masks.  At least one of them was carrying a gun.’  These people were the McConvilles’ neighbours.  They dragged Jean away, using her son Michael as a decoy, and left little trace behind them.

Michael McConville becomes the focus of one of the earlier chapters, in which Radden Keefe examines how he spent his time during the Troubles.  Michael ‘spent most of his time thinking about pigeons’, as opposed to the other children, who made danger their playground.  These children would ‘scuttle outside and crawl through the skeletons of burned-out lorries, trampoline on rusted box-spring mattresses, or hide in a stray bathtub that lay abandoned amid the rubble.’

We learn much more about Jean as the book goes on.  After her husband’s death to cancer, she, who ‘had been delicate by temperament to begin with, fell into a heavy depression’, and became a recluse.  She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and had little support from those outside of her home.  According to Michael, his mother was ‘an overworked, depressed, psychologically fragile’ woman, who ‘spent her days cocooned in her flat, smoking cigarettes and juggling children and doing laundry by hand.’  A day before she was dragged from their flat, attest her children, she did not come home from bingo.  She had been forcibly taken to an army barracks after being ‘tied to a chair, beaten and interrogated’.

Jean’s story is, of course, heartbreaking, as is the majority of the historical and political context against which her disappearance occurred.  After she is taken, her children are left alone in the flat, having to fend for themselves: ‘They held onto one another, marooned inside the flat.  Bedtime was suspended and dishes piled up in the sink.’  Helen, the eldest McConville daughter, takes charge of her younger siblings, and receives no help whatsoever from their cruel neighbours, or the Catholic church, who were ‘unsympathetic’ to the McConvilles’ plight.  Soon, rumours began to spread about Jean’s disappearance, with some believing that she ‘had absconded of her own free will, abandoning her children to shack up with a British soldier.’  The children are eventually taken into care, where many of them are treated in appalling ways, the traumas of which profoundly affect their adult lives.

Radden Keefe’s writing pulled me in immediately.  He covers the historical and political background with impeccable control, and although the information within the book could quite easily have become dense, he makes it accessible.  The author has such a handle on complex and tumultuous periods of Northern Irish history.  Radden Keefe’s prose is informative, intelligent, and intoxicating.  He focuses on many different individuals throughout, who all have a part to play in the wider story.

Say Nothing is so much more than a true crime book; it is a social, political, classist, and geographical history.   Radden Keefe writes at length about the IRA, Sinn Fein, and tensions between Northern Ireland and the British government, and focuses on individuals who had quite a part to play during this period, such as Gerry Adams.  Of course, there is a great deal of shocking content here, some of which I found quite difficult to read.  Radden Keefe examines the myriad concerns which the wider political context fostered, all of which are intertwined with the story of Jean and her children.  Say Nothing is fascinating and incredibly thorough, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.