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‘The Travelers’ by Regina Porter ****

Regina Porter’s sweeping debut novel, The Travelers, was recommended to me by the wonderful Storygraph website. For those readers who have yet to check it out, I would highly recommend it. You can important existing reading lists, and the recommendations are tailored specifically to you; basically, it weeds out a lot of the generic fiction which Goodreads seems to proffer, and allows you to come across titles which you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. The Travelers was such a title for me.

Porter has blended together a history of the United States, which ranges from the middle of the twentieth century, to President Obama’s first year in office. It illuminates more than six decades of tumult and change on a grand scale, moving from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to the Vietnam War and beyond. Porter incorporates several US states – New York, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee – as well as the likes of France and Germany. Her focus is two families, who seem rather different on the face of it, and who come together in ‘unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways’.

The first character we meet is Jimmy Vincent; Porter moves rather hurriedly through the momentous occasions in his life. As the novel progresses, we meet one character after another in this way, and learn more about them when their paths cross. The links between them come to light slowly at times, and quickly at others; some are self-explanatory, and others are rather surprising. The connections forged are many, and clever.

Each of the characters, perhaps unsurprisingly given the novel’s title, undergoes travel in some way; sometimes across continents, and at others just to a house in the same town they grew up in, or from one relationship to another. They move towards, and away from things. Porter effortlessly captures how each individual, as well as the places which they inhabit, change over time, and understands so well how different neighbourhoods and communities can so easily become gentrified.

Much is revealed about each of the protagonists; for instance, in 1966, we meet nineteen-year-old Agnes Miller. Porter writes: ‘Agnes’s legs were so long they could skip across the Nile. Her hemline was modest. She worked part-time in the college library. Whenever anyone asked Agnes what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell him or her automatically that she wanted to be a teacher. It did not matter if Agnes liked the profession. The answer was suitable and pleasing.’ The first tense moment in the novel – and there are many which follow it – occurs when Agnes and her fiancé, Claude, are stopped by police whilst driving.

Porter’s prose is rather more matter-of-fact than I was expecting, but her style works wonderfully given the scope of the novel. She has managed to fit in an astonishing amount in just over 300 pages. Two elements of her writing which I very much enjoyed are the use of vignettes, and the differing perspectives which she creates. Whilst we hear from a few characters in the first person, an omniscient narrative has been chosen for others. This helps to break up the writing, and stops any of the characters from feeling too similar, as can so often happen in books featuring multiple perspectives. The structure is not a linear one either, and moves back and forth in time, which allows Porter to build up the more mysterious elements of the stories with a great deal of tension and wonder.

That The Travelers is infused with melancholy seems obvious, given that Porter covers a lot of difficult and grave topics here – the aftermath of war, grieving, racial issues, and the breakdown of relationships, for instance – but there are also some amusing and lighthearted moments to be found. There is also a great deal of emotion within the pages of The Travelers, and some passages which will stay with me for a long time yet: ‘Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from hr childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.’

First published in 2019, The Travelers is a remarkable debut. The different threads of story, set in different locations and time periods, which run through the whole, have been wonderfully wrapped up at the end, without rushing, or making unrealistic claims. There is such variety here, and so much for the reader to enjoy. The characters are distinctive, and everything within the novel has been executed admirably. Each time period is well anchored, with a lot of specific social and societal detail. I found The Travelers to be wonderfully absorbing, and transporting.

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One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

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‘Painter to the King’ by Amy Sackville ****

I adored Amy Sackville’s first two novels, Orkney and The Still Point. When I spotted a copy of her newest work in my local library, therefore, I picked it up and read its blurb with interest. Painter to the King is very different in its approach, given that it marks Sackville’s first foray into historical fiction, but as she is such an innovative writer, I fully expected to love it too.

Painter to the King gives a fictional account of artist Diego Velázquez, who, as a twenty three-year-old, was summoned to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. He arrived in Madrid to become the official ‘painter to the King’, a position which he would hold until his death.

Velázquez’s job gave him ‘an unparalleled view of palace life’, and it is this which Sackville has set out to explore. She examines his story through his own eyes, and in consequence, ‘… we see an intimate relationship that is not quite a friendship, between a king and his subject, between an artist and his subject.’ Sackville aims to expose ‘what is shown and what is seen, about art and death and life’, and dips into the spaces between.

When we first meet Velázquez, in 1622, he has ridden to Madrid from Seville: ‘He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight.’ He meets the King quite soon afterwards; at this point, Philip IV is not even twenty, seen as ‘a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.’ He has been the King of Spain for two years, much of that time spent mourning his late father. He would go on to rule Spain during the Thirty Years War.

The omniscient narrator of the novel speaks from a position of hindsight. When describing the King, for instance, the following is said: ‘… Now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t see it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending -‘. The narrator also writes about experiences they have had viewing Velázquez’s paintings whilst on a trip to Madrid in the modern world; I found this a thoughtful inclusion.

I loved Sackville’s descriptions, and the importance of minutiae in her writing. Her prose is beautiful and rich, suffused with detail. I admired the way in which she tries to infiltrate the visions of the artist at the novel’s core. She writes: ‘The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled… he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’

Painter to the King is highly evocative throughout, and Sackville captures precise scenery, sights, and smells with such a deft hand. The writing here is often sensuous, particularly when Velázquez’s work is described, or when evoking the entire process of creating a new painting. When she describes El Corto, the area around the palace in which civilians live and work, she writes: ‘Everything here exists to serve the court, to bake its bread and cure its meat and weave and stretch its linens and sew its sleeves and tunics and undergarments; an ersatz city at the axis of a cross drawn through the country, and built upon a high dry plain across which hot winds in summer and ice winds in winter wander and gallop like madness.’

Sackville’s prose is relatively experimental, and there are some sections of stream-of-consciousness here. I really liked the fresh approach which she gives to the historical novel, a genre which tends to follow a similar writing style. Sackville’s rich vocabulary lends itself well to this work, and allows her to blend art and history in such a satisfying way. Painter to the King reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s playful historical novel Orlando at times. She sweeps through Philip’s reign, and Velázquez’s career with such authority.

Painter to the King was first published in 2018, but I only found out about it when browsing in my local library in the summer of 2020; even as someone who looks out for Sackville’s work, I do not find it reviewed often – or at all – and this is a great shame. I admired this interesting and unconventional work of historical fiction, but must admit that I did not find it as compelling or as breathtaking as her contemporary fiction. However, Sackville is a highly underrated writer, and one which I urge every reader to seek out. Whichever of her novels you choose to begin with, they are guaranteed to intrigue and surprise.

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‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

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‘The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future’ by Stephen Rutt ****

The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future is naturalist Stephen Rutt’s third book. His newest effort is set against the background of the pandemic, which has so affected us all since the beginning of 2020. As with many of us, it stopped Rutt’s plans in their tracks, preventing him from travelling across Britain’s woods and forests, and following warblers, the intended initial focus of this book. A Suffolk-born resident of the Scottish market town of Dumfries, Rutt spent the first few months of the pandemic living with his partner’s family, during an ‘enforced stay’ in rural Bedfordshire.

Like many of us, Rutt turned to the constancy of nature during the first summer of the pandemic – and he found anything but. Wherever he was physically during this year, he spent his time noting ‘the abundance teeming in our hedgerows, marshlands and woodlands’. In his close communication with the nature around him, though, he began to notice ‘disturbances to the traditional rhythms of the natural world: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time, disruption to habitats and breeding, [and] the myriad ways climate change is causing a derangement of the seasons.’ What came out of lockdown for Rutt was The Eternal Season, in which he both celebrates the summer season, and observes the ‘delicate series of disorientations that we may not always notice.’

In his introduction, Rutt writes: ‘Birds have always been the focus of my passion for nature and they always will be. But the summer does not belong to them alone; there is a full spectrum of life to consider that can seem largely absent from the winter months: the butterflies and dragonflies that add colour to the days; the moths that haunt the warm nights and the swooping bats that pick them off; the unforgettable arachnids and amphibians that lurk in ignored corners.’ He goes on, commenting: ‘Our summer wildlife is the filter through which we can see what’s really happening in our seasons’, as it tends to have a far-reaching knock-on effect. As Rutt sets out, ‘A bird you look at is no longer just a bird but one of an intertwined series of forces, capable of being expressed as statistics, that explain the terribly restless, indecent state of the world.’

One of the real strengths of The Eternal Season regards the way in which Rutt writes of his surroundings. On his ‘allowed daily exercise’, as he walks in a Bedfordshire wood, he recounts: ‘A muntjac disappeared through a brief blizzard of blossom, driven from the blackthorn by the breeze. Cowslips and primroses and their hybrid, the false oxlips, spangled the edge of the track with stars of lemon and butter. Leafwards, I slipped into a green hypnosis.’

As a ‘locked-down naturalist’ trying to make the best of things, he turns to the Internet, exploring by way of Google and Ordnance Survey maps. He writes at length about the challenges climate change has already wrought in Britain, and muses about what it may mean for our native and visiting species in the future. He makes one continually aware of ways in which things are changing, and how something which alters somewhere else in the world can have such a serious knock-on effect in Britain. Everything is connected, and the ruin of one thing could bring about the ruin of all. Throughout, Rutt quotes the results of surveys, as well as a wealth of other naturalists, and even novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Each chapter here focuses on a single species, from the little owl to the natterjack toad. He notices the species around him changing, along with their abundance. Throughout, there are stark warnings, and mixed feelings. On the walks which he takes around the Bedfordshire countryside, he comments: ‘It was the first cuckoo I had seen in two years. The first yellow wagtail in three, corn bunting in four… And this feeling is incredibly complicated for me. I’m excited, as birds always make me; I’m delighted to be seeing these species when I had begun to wonder if I would ever see them again. But here is the kicker: it’s one pair of yellow wagtails, one individual cuckoo, a few pairs of corn bunting… The species might be here but their numbers are low, the birds being spread even thinner. And it feels as if I’m writing my own archive of loss, walking through a living museum before it’s sealed off behind the glass case of history, a display of the future dead and gone.’

Rutt’s prose is intelligent and accessible, and it is clear to see that he is a rising star in the world of nature writing. The Eternal Season is a book for every single person who has sought out the nature around them in the last, strange year; who has mused upon the species which they have seen in their local parks; and who are more aware than ever of which species exist, and which thrive, around them. Rutt is acutely aware of what we may stand to lose, and what may have been lost already. A feeling of hope, however, suffuses the whole – and what more do we need after the last year, but hope?

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‘The New Wilderness’ by Diane Cook ****

I had been seeing Diane Cook’s latest novel, The New Wilderness, everywhere before receiving a review copy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2020, and television rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers. The New Wilderness has been highly praised everywhere I have looked; Lemn Sissay deems it ‘the environmental novel of our times’, and Emily St. John Mandel applauds it as a ‘virtuosic debut, brutal and beautiful in equal measure.

Cook’s dystopian novel is about a future in which climate change has ravaged our cities, making them unlivable. She has focused upon the relationship between a mother, Bea, and her daughter, Agnes. When Agnes is five, she is gravely ill, as a consequence of the damaged world. She is wasting away, ‘consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home.’ Bea knows that if they stay in the city, where medical treatment is difficult to find, Agnes is sure to die. They have no choice but to join a social experiment, pioneered by Bea’s husband, Glen; they will move to the last remaining wilderness – the ‘unwelcoming, untamed’ Wilderness State – to join a group of volunteers. They travel here simply ‘because there was no other place they could go’.

This experiment, overseen by a series of Rangers and officials who fill the Wilderness space, ‘took almost a year of working and waiting to get the permission to place humans into what was essentially a refuge for wildlife, the last Wilderness area left… It was risky. It was uncomfortably unknown. It was an extreme idea and an even more extreme reality.’ The family slowly learn how to survive in their new surroundings, which are unpredictable, and often fraught with danger. Their experience quickly becomes a disorienting one; they stop measuring days, and have only vague maps on which to mark their journeys and location. They are nomads, really; they traverse the land, not permitted to stay in any one place for more than a week.

From its very beginning, The New Wilderness is vivid, and plays to our collective visceral fear of the world changing irreversibly. In the first scene, Bea gives birth to a baby daughter, who is stillborn. Cook writes of this in prose which sets the largely bleak tone for the whole novel: ‘The body emerged from Bea the color of a bruise. Bea burned the cord somewhere between them and uncoiled it from the girl’s slight neck and, though she knew it was useless, swept her daughter up into her hands, tapped on her soft chest, and blew a few shallow breaths into her skinny mouth.’ The reader is quickly given an insight into Bea’s state of mind; she reflects that she did not want to bring a baby into this new world, and doing so would have been wrong.

We learn a lot about Bea’s approach to motherhood, as well as her constantly shifting relationship with her daughter, as the novel progresses. Early on, it is revealed that Bea ‘loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.’ Bea soon learns that as Agnes grows healthier, and becomes more independent, their new life will threaten their relationship in a very real way.

The boundaries between the human and animal worlds are wonderfully blurred in The New Wilderness; indeed, I believe that this is one of the elements which Cook handles most impressively. The human group often finds itself trespassing into habitats which animals have called home for centuries. Of course, they rely on the animals being around them as a source of food and clothing, amongst other things, but Cook makes it clear that the animals themselves are disappearing at an alarming rate; they are becoming rare. The characters’ primal instincts are also often compared to animal counterparts, which I found to be an interesting touch: ‘Like an animal, Agnes froze when fearful and bolted when endangered. Bea imagined that as Agnes grew up this world would change. She might feel less like prey and more like a predator.’

Descriptions of the natural world are plentiful here. The environment in which the group lives is recognisable, but their circumstances are so out of the ordinary. Cook builds a believable scenario very early on, and her world-building is competent and thorough. We do not know where exactly the novel is set, or in which year, but it provides a scary glimpse into what the future really could hold, unless we as a civilisation drastically change our ways. The reader quickly gets a feel for their environment, and the way in which they are forced to live within it.

There are, as one might expect, many trigger warnings in this novel, from death and violence particularly. Also shocking, if perhaps inevitable, is the approach which the members of the group take toward death: ‘They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the Community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living. They worried about one another, of course, but when one of them ceased surviving for whatever reason, they closed ranks and put their energy into what remained alive.’

The New Wilderness draws together a lot of elements which interest me in fiction – dystopias, complex relationships, growing up – and Cook handles each so well. I found The New Wilderness to be a compelling and highly readable novel, which holds a few surprises along the way. The plot moves along very well indeed, and the characters and their actions are convincing.

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‘The Changeling’ by Joy Williams ****

It pleased me when I saw that Joy Williams’ rather forgotten novel, The Changeling, was back in print after forty years, having first been published in 1978. The New York Times declares Williams ‘one of the great writers of her generation’, an opinion which has been echoed by many.

The Changeling is a novel steeped in mystery and magical realism. Our focus is Pearl, a young mother trapped inside her marriage to Walker. At the outset of the novel, she has fled to the anonymous bar of a Florida hotel, with her infant son, Sam: ‘She was running away from home, from her husband… She had boarded a plane and traveled twelve hundred miles in three hours. The deception that had been necessary! The organization! People were always talking to her at home, on her husband’s island. She couldn’t bear it any more. She had to have a new life.’ This soon proves to be an unsuccessful escape, however, as Walker suddenly appears to force her home.

On her return, the unnamed island off the coast of the United States is ‘transformed into a place of madness and pain’. Pearl soon ‘slips into the delirium of motherhood and alcoholism’, becoming convinced that Sam is not her baby. The Changeling is unsettling throughout, and there is a lot of tension between its characters, as well as between Pearl’s physical body and her mind.

The reissued novel has an introduction by author Karen Russell, whose work I very much enjoy. She writes that the novel ‘feels at once unprecedented and eerily familiar’, and goes on to say: ‘Every great book shapeshifts with its reader. The Changeling, however, does something wilder still: it generates its own autonomous magic, one that feels wholly independent of the reader and her moment. The spirit inside it is not the human spirit – it is far vaster than that.’

Russell, who says that she has read The Changeling on numerous occasions, comments that Williams’ sentences ‘have a cartilaginous magic. They come glinting out of profound and mysterious depths, slipping quickly through the deadening nets of any easy understanding.’ In a particularly beautifully phrased observation, she writes: ‘This is a young tale; its landscape is the womb of the world, its language is perennially green, and the only thing I can say about it with absolute conviction is that your encounter will surely be very different than my own.’

In the very first chapter of the book, whilst Pearl sits in the Florida bar, Williams captures such an atmosphere, something which goes on to suffuse the entire novel. She also gives us a real insight into the state of Pearl’s mentality: ‘The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present. Pearl was always conscious of this. It made her pretty passive and indecisive usually.’

When, on the way back to the island, Pearl is involved in a plane crash, she becomes convinced that her son has been swapped with another baby. She is uncertain around him, afraid. When he gets older, this feeling still remains; he is a constant reminder to Pearl that something is not quite right. ‘He seemed,’ writes Williams, ‘all the disorder of her heart. She saw the infant in his face still. His other face, his boy’s face, was harder for her to recognize. He didn’t speak to her as the other children did. He kept away. She had no real sense of his purposes. Were not his purposes rooted in her responsibility? But she was an irresponsible woman, removed from everything, floating through space, exercising longing.’

There are some deeply unsettling, nightmarish scenes throughout The Changeling, and elements of strange eroticism. In one particularly chilling example, Williams includes a hallucination which Pearl has: ‘She was having a baby in a large, freshly cut field. There was blood on the grass but it may not have been her own… Her thighs were spread. Her arms were spread. She was going to have a baby. She knew that those around her were going to cut open her stomach and fold back the flaps of skin and unfold the baby from her like a bridal gown. She knew that they would abandon her there, her terrible dark wound a nest for the dying creatures of the night.’

Pearl’s mania develops as the novel goes on, and its scenes become all the more unnerving: ‘In the night, demons chattered in her aching head, not voices at all but comprehensible all the same. Terrible things. Creeping or winged, dark and avenging, carving a woman like her out of carrion, out of mold. Carving this woman out with their sharp beaks.’

Nothing about The Changeling feels at all dated. Rather, it is fresh and original, a modern fairy tale written in lyrical prose, which holds so much surprise. The novel is beguiling and disturbing in equal measure, and it reads as though one is in a dreamlike – or nightmarish – state. There is a real claustrophobia to it, in both its tension and atmosphere, and I found it incredibly creepy.

Williams has authored three other novels and three short story collections; I can only hope that these will become readily available, and soon. I imagine that, like with The Changeling, I will be thinking about each of her stories for a long time to come.

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‘Awayland: Stories’ by Ramona Ausubel ****

Ramona Ausubel is one of my absolute favourite authors, but her work has proven to be rather difficult to find in the United Kingdom. When I spotted a copy of her newest publication, a short story collection entitled Awayland, for an affordable price on AbeBooks, I just had to order it. This gorgeously designed paperback has been well received, with the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, writing that it ‘astounds for its daring visionary scope and compassion.’

Eleven tales make up Awayland, and these have been subsequently split up into different sections, something which feels rather rare in the form of a short story collection. They introduce us, says the blurb, ‘to a geography both fantastic and familiar’, and to the ‘tangle and thump of her characters’ inner worlds and emotional truths’.

The first rather humorous story in the collection, ‘You Can Find Love Now’, takes us through the dating profile of a Cyclops; he calls himself Cyclops15 online, as ‘Cyclops 1 through 14 were taken’. In ‘Freshwater from the Sea’, a woman in Lebanon is nearing the end of her life, and is beginning to disappear. Ausubel writes: ‘Where she had once been a precise oil painting, now she was a watercolor.’ Her state is continually changing, and as we near the end of the story, her daughter observes: ‘She looked more and more like weather, like a brewing storm.’

‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species’ is set in the ‘shittiness’ of a town in northern Minnesota, where the residents are failing to reproduce. The narrator of the story observes: ‘It is as if their lives are so boring, so deeply muddy that it hardly even occurs to two people with enough feeling to create anything other than a disappointed sigh.’ The town’s mayor puts into place a ‘designated sex day’, which culminates in the prize of a free car for whichever couple gives birth first on a chosen date.

‘Departure Lounge’ is a story about a group of astronauts, in training in a remote part of Hawaii: ‘We lived in a bubble on a crater on a mountain on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but where we imagined we lived was Mars.’ The chef of the group, who narrates the story, later reveals her loneliness, and her sadness at the way in which her own plans have been put on hold in order to take part in the experiment: ‘I would be a good mother. I would be generous and interested in all the side-roads of childhood – superheroes and princesses and dinosaurs and bugs and minor weaponry and animal rights. I would mean it, if only someone would join me in my little life.’

There is much in Awayland about bodies changing, both in terms of ageing, and from flesh into other states. Many of the stories contain pregnancy, and what it means to move into the state of motherhood. Ausubel also reflects at length on what it means to confront one’s own mortality. Throughout, Ausubel’s prose is layered, and unusual. In ‘Remedy’, for instance, protagonist Summer is described as ‘the smell of fire and the smell of pine forest and the smell of a storm’.

I find Ausubel’s work wondrously inventive, but I must admit that Awayland is my least favourite of her publications to date. Whilst there are undoubtedly some great and original ideas to be found here, I did not feel as though the sense of creativity and imagination which normally suffuses her stories was as strong as it perhaps could have been. The tales are not as memorable as I was expecting, either.

There is whimsy here, something which Ausubel usually excels with, but this sometimes feels a little overshadowed by other elements. There is also a great deal less magical realism than can be found in earlier stories and novels. Regardless, Ausubel definitely deserves a great deal more attention, and I wholeheartedly look forward to her next book – whatever that may be.

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‘The Paper Cell’ by Louise Hutcheson ****

Louise Hutcheson’s debut novel, The Paper Cell, was a highly anticipated read for me, after seeing snippets of reviews sprinkled around the Internet, but not much more. The Paper Cell was published in 2017, and is part of the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection – which provides ‘distinctive diversions for discerning readers’. I received a copy of the lovely miniature Contraband hardback edition for Christmas, and dug in on Boxing Day.

In the London of the 1950s, a publishing assistant named Lewis Carson ‘finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name’. Two days later, the woman’s body is found on Peckham Rye Common; she has been strangled to death. The blurb posits, rather intriguingly, ‘did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

The Paper Cell begins in 1953, in a London-based publishing house. When Fran Watson, the young author in question, first pays him a visit, Hutcheson immediately sets the scene, showing how manipulative Lewis can be: ‘Lewis shifted behind his desk, aiming to look uncomfortable and achieving it. He affected a grimace as her eyes flitted up, then down. It was a pleasing dynamic, he thought. Though she had arrived when he was at the height of a bad temper, her obvious defects made him feel rather good about himself by comparison.’

At this point in time, Lewis has not read Fran’s manuscript, but rejects it – and her – regardless. After she has left, he then spends the next two hours ‘pored over its pages – once, twice, three times – returning compulsively again and again to the first page with a growing sense of horror.’ In London, Lewis belongs to a ‘ramshackle writers’ group with not one published piece between them and a tendency to get drunk before they get constructive’.

The narrative then shifts forward in time, and we move to Edinburgh. Here, an ageing Lewis is living, and in 1998, he is about to give his first interview for over a decade, to a sharp newspaper journalist. The novel which he stole was published under the title of ‘Victory Lap’, and is highly regarded as a classic of the twentieth century.

One of the real strengths of The Paper Cell is the control which Hutcheson has over her scenes and characters. She showcases a lot of emotions which flash and seethe within her cast. I very much enjoyed the vintage setting, which feels realistic; several period details are signposted throughout the novel, which embed it in time and place. Most of the narrative takes place in 1953, and the portions which occur in 1998 are, of course, heavily concerned with the earlier period. I really enjoyed Hutcheson’s descriptions, many of which are brief, but almost tangible; she writes, for instance, ‘The faintest whisper of daylight was beginning to creep through the drapes, but the room was mostly dark, and heavy with cigarette smoke.’

Hutcheson writes throughout with a practiced hand, and The Paper Cell, in consequence, feels like a very polished debut novel. It is not quite what I was expecting, and takes a lot of wonderful twists and turns as it goes on. The LGBTQ+ element to the plot was well handled too, and the entirety moves along nicely. Despite the brevity of the story, I felt that I really got to know the characters and their world. I was so enthralled by the novel, in fact, that I read it in a single sitting.

I have been careful not to give too much away in this review, as I very much enjoyed coming to The Paper Cell and knowing very little about it, aside from the stolen manuscript element of the plot revealed on its blurb. In my opinion, The Paper Cell is a book best to read without knowing the entire plot; it offers up many surprises in consequence, and there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. I very much look forward to reading more of Hutcheson’s work in future, as it certainly seems as though she has a promising writing career ahead.

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‘Lucy’ by Jamaica Kincaid ****

Jamaica Kincaid is an author who has been on my radar for over a decade. Before a family holiday in Antigua, taken in 2008, I searched high and low for some of her novels, wanting to read at least one Antiguan author whilst away. However, my search was sadly a fruitless one.

It has, surprisingly, taken me the intervening twelve years to find a single copy of one of her books, as they never seem to be available in any bookshops which I peruse, or any of the several county library systems which I have used since. I finally found an affordable copy of her third novel, Lucy, which seemed like a great title to begin with, on AbeBooks, and began to read it almost as soon as it dropped through my letterbox.

Our named protagonist, nineteen years old and already world-weary, has left her home in the West Indies behind to become an au pair to ‘four small girls’ in the United States. She has left her ‘much loved, much hated mother, [and] her childhood self’ behind.

The novel begins in mid-January, when Lucy is trying to settle into a quite bewildering life in a big city. Everything is different, and new – using lifts, having a refrigerator, and staying in an apartment to name but three examples. Lucy comments: ‘… I could not see anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there were lights everywhere. As we drove along, someone would single out to me a famous building, an important street, a park, a bridge that when built was thought to be a spectacle. In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul…’.

Snow, too, is new to Lucy. She arrives in the United States during a very cold winter. She remembers that ‘the snow was the color and texture of a half-cooked egg white, making the world seem soft and lovely and – unexpectedly, to me – nourishing. That the world I was in could be soft, lovely, and nourishing was more than I could bear, and so I stood there and wept, for I didn’t want to love one more thing in my life, didn’t want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.’

Throughout, Lucy tries to reconcile her new life, which she had so yearned for, with her old one. She reflects: ‘What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such a rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.’ She feels exiled from her past, and from her own country: ‘I looked at a map. An ocean stood between me and the place I came from, but would it have made a difference it had been a teacup of water? I could not go back.’

I loved the poetic prose in Lucy, and enjoyed the authentic first person perspective throughout. I really appreciated the somewhat cynical tone which suffuses the novel, and found Lucy a wonderfully unusual and unpredictable young woman. She often surprises with her comments and observations; she sees a lot of things in quite unexpected ways. She is unflinchingly honest; of her own position, she says: ‘I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.’

I quite enjoyed the geographical vagueness; we only know that Lucy has moved from one unnamed country to an unnamed city in another, and many of the landmarks with which the reader could identify both have been removed. Lucy comments: ‘I was born and grew up in a place that did not seem to be influenced by the tilt of the earth at all; it had only one season – sunny, drought-ridden. And what was the effect of growing up in such a place? I did not have a sunny disposition, and, as for actual happiness, I had been experiencing a long drought.’

The novel is slim yet powerful. It is structured as a series of short vignettes, which over time reveal our protagonist to us. Kincaid is a perceptive author, particularly with regard to the relationships formed between characters.

Lucy is a highly readable and transporting story, and I cannot wait to build up a collection of Kincaid’s work as soon as I can find more copies of her books. I can see that she could very quickly become a favourite author of mine.