GATHER THE DAUGHTERS by Jennie Melamed 

“Let the men be strong like trees, and the women like vines, the children our fruit.”

The dystopian future of this novel is a small, low tech and religious island community that’s deeply patriarchal and deeply disturbing. Channelling THE HANDMAID’S TALE and countless other imitations, Melamed has created a nightmare world for women and girls, in which their primary function is as breeders, morhers and home makers. Each summer the island’s children run wild and enjoy the freedom of living outside-  until, that is, they hit puberty and, during their “summer of fruition,” are paired off and required to marry. For most girls, marriage, though often loveless, violent, monotonous and isolating, is a welcome escape from their families and the rules that mean fathers are expected to have sexual relationships with their pre-pubescent daughters.

This and other rules are set by a group of elders called Wanderers – and yes they are all men – who are the only ones permitted to leave the island and visit the wastelands that exist elsewhere. The ferry man who helps them make the crossing has a stump where his tongue has been cut out. The rules also include unrelated women only being permitted to gather in groups of more than three without the presence of a male chaperone for birthings, and daughters always submitting to their father’s will. 

One summer, Caitlin, whose father is especially abusive both towards his daughter and her mother, witnesses something that goes against the creed with which she has been indoctrinated her entire life. She shares the secret with her peers, who include Janey, desperately starving herself to avoid the onset of periods, and Vanessa, a Wanderer’s daughter who has more access than most to ideas and information thanks to the books her father brings back from the wastelands and who is also lucky enough to have been spared his sexual abuse. 

The girls’ shock at what they have discovered prompts them to start questioning every aspect of life on the island, and the combination of a highly contagious virus, new arrivals from the wastelands and a long sultry summer stirs up unease and rebellion amongst the community’s young women and girls. The solidarity they feel from their shared knowledge has an especially profound effect on Caitlin and Janey but it also affects all the other girls too, many of whom discuss their fears and what their fathers do to them for the very first time. As Janey hurtles towards the point at which marriage is inevitable and the wanderers struggle to contain the events Caitlin has unwittingly set in train, GATHER THE DAUGHTERS builds towards a painful and tragic ending.

Melamed does oppressive and claustrophobic wonderfully well and captures the different voices of her characters to great effect. The story is told from the perspective of key girls and women on the island and much of what I enjoyed about the novel is the way their narratives reveal a society that’s been carefully thought through and detailed by the novelist- from the final draft older members are required to drink once they’ve outlived their usefulness to the growing prevalence of detectives, “born blue and slimy and dead like drowned worms in a puddle”. 

 Melamed has also been thoughtful about the impact on sons and mothers of what happens between girls and their fathers – the girls all fear bearing daughters and pray desperately for sons, in part so they don’t end up hating their daughters the way they have felt hated by their mothers growing up. The scenes of rape and abuse are all the more shocking for their absence of embellishment – the facts are allowed to speak for themselves, though in other parts of the book, the writer doesn’t manage to exercise the same restraint and her writing is less powerful as a result. 

Overall though this is a memorable, if difficult, read – with themes that have added resonance  given I am writing this in the recent aftermath of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing  #MeToo campaign. 

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THE GIRL WHO TAKES AN EYE FOR AN EYE by David Lagercrantz

The latest installment in the Millennium series sees  Lisbeth Salander come to the defence of a young Muslim girl, in prison for murdering her brother,  the exposure of more shocking revelations about her own past, and a social eugenics experiment that separates high achieving twins at birth.

The core cast is the same. Lagercrantz introduces a new perspective on violence against women with  an honour killing whilst remaining true to how we expect Salander to respond. And the  journalist Blomvkist is back in prime bed hopping and investigatory mode. But that’s where the similarities with Larsson’s books ends. Most notably the energy that Salander and Blomvkist exude is largely absent. In fact we barely spend any time with her, despite her being the real draw of the series, and the book suffers as a result. Lagercrantz’s new characters are either pantomime villains or bland victims.  And unlike the clever complicated plots Larsson wove, this story has over complex threads that never really come together, some even just fizzle out. It’s still gripping stuff but not anything like as good as it ought to be given what the author has to play with.

Disappointing.

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ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

A detective story like no other I have ever read, ELIZABETH IS MISSING revolves around a woman called Maud who is suffering from dementia. She is desperate to find her friend Elizabeth but the clues to her whereabouts are muddled with those from Maud’s past and the disappearance of her just married sister, Sukey. Maud endlessly tests the patience of her long suffering daughter Helen and her carer Carla, a brilliant character who is convinced every old person is on the verge of being murdered in their bed. But her persistence, and insistence that something is wrong, lead Maud to finally solve the mysteries that are haunting her.

The narrative switches between past and present, much as Maud is wont to do. Sometimes she’s lucid in the present but often she’s not, and the ensuing encounters with, for example, police officers, Elizabeth’s son and the receptionist at the local newspaper who takes personal ads are both funny and inherently sad. The notes she stuffs in her pockets are supposed to help but they tend to cause more confusion than clarity – whilst reminders to not eat any more toast are dutifully ignored.

Healey has beautifully captured the loneliness of dementia and the impact it has on the different generations of Maud’s family.  I especially loved one scene when she’s in a coffee shop with her granddaughter Katy and spills her drink: Helen would make an irritated noise now, but Katy laughs. “Bit too big for your hands, isn’t it?” she says, and makes me feel delicate rather than clumsy.  Helen’s characterisation is masterful, with just the right balance between patience and immense frustration.  Whilst Maud’s occasional awareness of her situation is incredibly poignant: I think of telling her that I’ve forgotten why we’re here. But she looks so happy and I’m worried about how she might react.

At one point Maud’s detective work takes her back to her childhood home. The passage Healey has written to describe how Maud feels, is a perfect example of the strengths and insight of this remarkable book:

I’m not sure what to do. I can see a light on in the kitchen, but I can’t think how to get there. It all seems so familiar, as if it should call up memories, but I can’t reach them. There’s a layer of other people’s lives on top….I feel in my pockets for notes, but there’s nothing there, just a few threads and emptiness. I’ve no notes at all. The lack makes me feel sick; I’m cut loose and whirling about in the wind. I wrong the fabric of my coat, scrunching up and down in panic. And then, inside the ripped lining, I find one small blue square with my writing on it: Where is Elizabeth?

Life affirming, funny, honest and addictive – this is a brilliant first novel and Healey is clearly a writer to watch out for.

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THE ICE by Laline Paul

I was reading this as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck the Americas and an estimated 40 million people were affected by flooding in South Asia. Anyone who still thinks the climate isn’t changing and that the effects are not dangerous isn’t paying attention. Paull has set her novel in a chilling and not too distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted and multi nationals compete to exploit the new business and shipping opportunities that have opened up. It revolves around two close friends, Greenpeace campaigner Tom Harding and his university friend and global entrepreneur Sean Cawson. It opens with a cruise ship  detouring for a rare sighting of a polar bear and instead finding Tom’s frozen dead body, revealed by the melting ice of the Midgard glacier.

What ensues is a fascinating story about the pair’s different journeys and choices, a searing commentary on the corruption, lies and motivation of the corporations seeking to profit from investment in the Arctic region, and a thrilling and emotionally charged drama as the inquest into Tom’s death unfolds. Sean trades in exclusivity, discretion and powerful connections. He has created a retreat at Midgard for the world’s elites – and Tom has been persuaded to get on board to provide ethical and environmental credibility. When a visit to Midgard ends in tragedy, Sean is forced to confront his role in events and the value of the life he has created for himself.

The beating heart of THE ICE is a tension between two different takes on humankind, captured in one particular scene between Tom and Joe Kingsmith, Sean’s long term mentor and financial backer. The latter mocks Tom’s idealism: “Your beautiful idea of everyone pulling together only happens in the movies, war and sport”. Tom counters with an assertion that “People are better than you think.”  Paull uses small but perfectly chosen details to illustrate the vast gulf between Tom and Sean’s ideologies – one of my favourite is an aside about the Tom Harding Bequest, his friend has established, worth £100,000 and set to awarded in the first year to “Imperial College for the newly patented biodegradable Fruit-Fly drones, nano-tiny and with unprecedented maneuverability”. Very little could be further from the natural world that’s been the focus of Tom’s life work.

The friends share an lifelong obsession with the Arctic and each chapter is prefaced by a short passage taken from older writing and accounts about the region – including the effects of gangrene and an 1893 excerpt from an explorer’s journal which describes movement in the ice as “Nature’s giants… awakening to the battle.” The overall effect is of a moving and very gritty eulogy for the frozen region we have lost forever. “Climate change was too big to care about, too vague to talk about, and was just – unsexy” reflects Sean at one point. Paull has proven that literature has a leading role to play in challenging that perception. But THE ICE is a gripping story even without its dramatic backdrop of climate breakdown and Paull doesn’t labour her environmental subtext – she doesn’t need to when it speaks  so powerfully for itself. Lines like “Record deaths this month both sides of the Schengen Fences” seem almost throwaway.  The combination of personal conviction, politics and corporate greed really made it stand out for me though. A truly impressive book and a more than worth follow up to THE BEES. If it doesn’t touch you deeply, you aren’t paying attention.

 

1893

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HOW TO STOP TIME by Matt Haig

This book reminded me enormously of John Boyne’s THE THIEF OF TIME because the main protagonist is a man who does not age. In this instance, Tom Hazard, born in 1581 has worked for Shakespeare, dined at the next table from Charlie Chaplin, witnessed his mother being drowned for witchcraft, sailed with Captain Cook, and drunk cocktails with F Scott Fitzgerald. Yet he can still pass himself off as 40 odd years old when he applies to teach history in a London comprehensive, a stone’s throw from where he lived with his one true love Rose, victim of the Great Plague.

HOW TO STOP TIME is, on one level, the story of Tom’s quest to find the child he had with Rose – a daughter named Marion who inherited her father’s condition and from whom he was separated when Tom was forced to flee is family to keep them safe from superstitions of the day. This quest has seen him become indebted to 900 year old Hendrich, who heads up a society dedicated to tracking down other “albas” or albatrosses and keeping them safe from discovery from the mere mortals known as “mayflies” that die after around 70 years. Hendrich promises Tom he is making full use of all the society’s extensive resources to hunt for Marion too and in return expects Tom to help him draw the other albas that surface into the society. Motivated by a paranoid fear of becoming the victim of a biotech company science experiment, Hendrich makes all the albas in the society start their lives over every eight years to avoid detection. One of the tasks he entrusts to Tom is reeling in newly discovered albas – or killing them if they refuse to cooperate and therefore risk putting the other members of the society in jeopardy. When Tom is sent to Australia to enlist Pacific Islander Omai, who he has not seen for hundreds of years, he finds his old friend has a different take on longevity and life’s purpose, putting them both on a collision course with the increasingly unhinged and obsessive Hendrich.

On another level this is a beautiful love story. Tom’s loyalty to Rose is sweetly conveyed and evocative of a time when love seemed so much purer and simpler. His return to London is a pilgrimage to his memory of Rose and yet, for the first time since she died, Tom meets someone else there to whom he is attracted – Camille, a fellow teacher at the school where he ends up working. Torn between Rose’s memory and a desire to experience the present again rather than just mark time, Tom starts to struggle with the logic which has governed his life for so long, making him cautious about not forming ties for example. He soon finds himself unable to overcome the pull Camille is exerting, throwing caution to the wind and opening up to her about his secret.

On yet another level, HOW TO STOP TIME is a commentary on our relationship with the past. It dwells on the way we repeat the mistakes of the past – “we had done what so often happened in the proud history of geographic discovery. We had found paradise. And then we had set it on fire.” Haig ponder humankind’s apparent ability for endless self destruction. It’s full of comparisons between events now and those in history – “Superstition is back. Lies are back. With hunts are back”. He takes every opportunity to send up the  present – “No one I knew in the 1600s wanted to find their inner billionaire. They just wanted to live to see adolescence and avoid body lice.” And despite lines like this he mostly romanticises the past,  successfully getting away with it and helped by the fact he’s subtly avoided this being a historic novel that requires accuracy and instead the history is just part of the clever conceit he has created. This is a writer supremely confident with his subject matter and he never labours these big underlying themes.

What I loved most about HOW TO STOP TIME though, was how it works as a reflection on what it means to live – and how difficult it is to simply inhabit the present moment, no matter whether that moment is in 1581 or 2017. Rather than relishing his virtual immortality, Tom is weary of life and only keeps going because of his desire to find Marion, and in doing so himself. He struggles throughout to be actually here in the now, to stop the ghosts of other nows from getting in. Meeting Omai again opens Tom’s eyes to how this might be possible, as does falling for Camille. He learns that happiness is not about living an ordinary mayfly life, but about finding the point of living the life you have. That even when love is dangerous it’s the whole point. And that “In those moments that burst alive the present lasts for ever” because “the only way to stop time is to stop being ruled by it.”

I wanted to live in this book forever.

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THE TOBACCONIST by Robert Seethaler

Set in Austria in 1937, this is the story of Franz, who leaves the idyllic lakeside home of his childhood to work as an apprentice for a Viennese tobacconist. He falls in love, makes friends with the customers, including Sigmund Freud, and navigates the moral dilemmas of a city apparently in thrall to Nazism.

THE TOBACCONIST is a beautifully written, understated book and yet I just couldn’t connect with it. Nothing about Franz or what happens to him sparked any emotion in me, and even the menace of the secret police and persecution of Vienna’s Jewish citizens failed to feel anything more than historical facts.  Really disappointing and I was hoping for much more given the rave reviews the book has received.

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YOU DON’T KNOW ME by Imran Mahmood

The idea of this bold debut novel is really smart and original. A young man, in court facing murder charges, sacks his lawyer and makes his own closing speech, arguing that the jury deserve to know the whole truth, not just the sanitised, edited version he has previously been advised to tell them. The truth is a story involving drugs, gangs, guns, corruption, modern day slavery and  extortion. Most importantly, it gives the jurors insight into a world none of them is likely to have experienced – other than perhaps as news headlines – and into the difficult decisions a young black man growing up in London’s subculture faces every day.

Mahmood is himself a lawyer so, as might be expected, the novel is one long well crafted argument, rich in precise detail. The defendant’s voice is credible and authentic – even as his story stretches credibility and exposes him on a number of fronts, including as a liar. That conflict is at the heart of YOU DON’T KNOW ME, which raises all kinds of challenging moral and legal dilemmas. If someone has been dishonest once, does that mean everything they say is untrue? If they have broken other laws, does it mean they are guilty of murder?

Set out as a court transcript, this book had me rattling through it and I was entirely caught up in the world Mahmood has captured, as well as the twists and turns of the defence statement. And then the book finished – really abruptly – and I almost hurled it across the room. Not just because of the abruptness, but because we never learn if the defendant’s found guilty or not – and I really wanted to know. I get that the reader is the jury and gets to make up their own mind but I was expecting more than that – I wanted to cheer if the defendant got off and be angry if he didn’t. I get that Mahmood is writing about moral ambiguity, and how innocent until proven guilty means suspending disbelief, and how what really matters is the truth, but none of that would have been lost by giving us a verdict. The absence of one made me feel hoodwinked and spoilt what, until that point, had been a brilliant novel.

So if you don’t mind books that end with more questions than answers, I’d thoroughly recommend YOU DON’T KNOW ME, for it’s hugely successful attempt to take on some of the prejudices and tensions at the heart of the justice system. If, like me, you prefer books that end with clarity and resolution, you have been warned.

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