Monthly Archives: April 2016

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxane Gay

an untamed state by roxane gay

“I am so excited you are going to read this book, I need to share how good it is with someone. ” So said the friend who lent me this and who has given it a place in her top 3 best books ever.  And it’s easy to see why.

Mirielle is the American daughter of a wealthy Haitian businessman who one day, setting out on a trip to swim in the ocean with her one year old son, Christophe, is kidnapped at gun point in front of her father’s gated estate outside Port au Prince. So begins a 13 day ordeal during which she is raped, mentally and physically tortured, and spiritually broken. We know from the outset that Mirielle survives and is freed, so there’s an absence of tension in that respect. Instead we get the tension that exists between our expectations of others, and how they behave in reality. Between the expectations we have of ourselves, and the truth that’s exposed in a crisis. This overlays and underpins a plot that is harrowing, language that is as direct as a kick in the gut, and a central character as complicated, remarkable and interesting as they come.

Divided into two distinct sections, and woven through with the story of Mirielle’s childhood, her parents’ romantic love story and her own stormy courtship with her husband. Michael,  I actually found the second part, once Mirielle is released, the more compelling. It follows her return to America with her husband and son, where the process of healing both her body and her mind is detailed painstakingly. There’s a moment when she’s curled in a ball, hiding under the bed at her mother in law’s house and I had to put the book down to weep. Proper tears, that flowed for a long time, not just the welling up that comes often from being moved by something. Interestingly, the first section, where all the brutality and violence that drives Mirielle under that bed occurs, didn’t overcome me in quite the same way. I think I was numb, but also the style is different, at times more documentary than drama. Because after all, some things don’t need embellishment: they are powerful enough on their own.

Perhaps the real impact of this book though, comes from the painful questions at its core about about guilt and innocence. Mirielle’s is dehumanised by her captors, subjected to the most horrific violence. We are in no doubt that she – nobody – deserves such treatment.  And yet, her background, her privilege, her wealth mean she must ask whether she is not also responsible for equally heinous crimes. As the leader of the kidnapping gang tells her “You are complicit even if you do not actively contribute to the problem because you do nothing to solve it.”  Her body not only pays the price for for her father’s obstinate refusal to pay the seven figure ransom the kidnappers demand, it also pays the price for the collective sins that rich Haitians commit daily by ignoring the poverty that surrounds them. In the words of one reviewer, her body becomes “the landscape on which a political war is waged by men who want to use it for their own ideological purposes.” Hasn’t it ever been thus, Gay’s unflinching graphic detail and plot twists, which time and again see women doing men’s bidding, whether it be out of fear, love or misplaced loyalty, assert. But AN UNTAMED STATE is concerned with something bigger than feminism alone: an enormous space in which the concept of equality and justice is messy, difficult and bloody.

Such moral complexity is handled deftly by Gay. This isn’t a book that feels weighed down by the challenging issues it raises. Nor, despite it’s subject matter, is it ultimately bleak. On the contrary, there’s something hopeful that radiates from the pages, something strong but quiet that reminds us things which get broken can usually be fixed – whether that’s bodies, families or corrupt states. And it isn’t a book that I raced through, oddly, given my propensity to do so and the way it drew me in. What it is, is a book that made me want to rage, to sob, to cheer and to reflect  – and then, finally, to share with others. Just as my friend foretold.

 

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A YEAR OF MARVELLOUS WAYS by Sarah Winman

a year of marvellous ways by sarah winman

Marvellous Ways is the 89 year old daughter of a mermaid. She swims every day in the Cornish Creek whose banks are her home and to which she clings, like a limpet, until, during the year of her life in which we share, she recognises that it’s time to let go.

When the book opens, Marvellous is waiting for something. She’s not quite sure what, because the image, by way of her long-gone soul mate Paper Jack, is incomplete, more of a sense carried on the tail feather of a dream. But she’ll know it when she sees it. Or rather, it turns out, him – Frances Drake, not long returned from the battlefields of France, who washes up on her doorstep weighed down by a broken heart and a last letter from a dead soldier to a grieving father.

As the two get to know one another we are gifted with the remarkable stories of their lives, featuring, in no particular order, a baker called Peace, a haunting poker game, a lighthouse where love lives, a ceiling plastered with hand written notes,  sloe gin, a bridge, and the endless tides of the sea. As these stories unfold so too does their friendship, of the kind that takes up residence in the centre of your chest and reveals life. Friendship that’s about renewal, freedom and the forever.

Twisting from past to present, A YEAR OF MARVELLOUS WAYS is poetry in motion. Winman’s prose is as captivating as her characters, and she has woven and an enchanting, suspenseful novel that celebrates memories, love and the healing power of nature. Even better than her debut, WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT, it marries magical realism with the stark reality of old age, grief and war. The result is something nourishing, bewitching and deeply moving, if a little sentimental at times.

This kind of book’s not everyone’s cup of tea but, as with all the best fairytales,  if you can suspend disbelief and just go with the ebb and flow, you’ll be richly rewarded. For me, the delight was amplified by the remarkable similarities between Marvellous and a long, grey-haired woman from Cornwall I happen to be lucky enough to know and who could also be the daughter of a mermaid…..

 

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WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS and STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson

started early, took my dog by kate atkinson when will there be good news by kate atkinson

More from the incomparable Atkinson and the next two in the Jackson Brodie series.

WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS sees Brodie involved in a horrific train crash, his identity stolen by a released prisoner, a kidnap, arson, some greek and latin text books used to hide drugs, and several wrong turns. Jam packed with accident, fluke and surprises galore, it is the living embodiment of a line much favoured by Brodie: A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen. It is also another of Atkinson’s tributes to the interconnectedness of people’s lives, especially their pasts, presents and futures.

As with the other Brodie books, women and girls being murdered is a key preoccupation, and here, as well as our detective’s familiar take on things, we are treated to the perspectives of a female police officer, Louise, (She had always preferred North and South to Wuthering Heights. All that demented running around the moors, identifying yourself with the scenery, not a good role model for a woman), and Joanna Hunter who, as a child, was the sole survivor of a vicious attack on her mother and siblings. But this is not your typical crime novel. The darkness isn’t allowed to completely descend and WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS is as much a celebration of the good that people do for one another, as a catalogue of harms. One character in particular lifts the book into the light – a smart, feisty 16 year old by the name of Reggie, who administers mouth to mouth resuscitation on Brodie when he’s thrown from the train wreckage, outfoxes the comedy criminals in pursuit of her scurrilous brother, and is a terrier when it comes to the people she loves.

Louise is also a triumph. Angry, awkward and utterly appealing, she crashes her way through the book, cursing under her breath and furious with pretty much everyone, especially Brodie and her husband (She had made a terrible mistake, hadn’t she? She had married the wrong man. No, no, she had married the right man, it was just that she was the wrong woman).

It’s Louise and Reggie’s dogged persistence that help bring the novel’s main crimes to light and then to resolution. Brodie’s plays a central but ultimately supporting role but it’s the women in WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS who deserve a medal. So too does Atkinson for having penned yet another masterpiece. One of the many brilliant things about it was that I kept thinking it was over then turning the page to find across extra little tying up of ends – when the end does come it’s hugely satisfying and complete as a result. Other writers really should take note!

In STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, Brodie is trying to track down the birth parents of a woman named Hope McMaster, who is living in New Zealand, pregnant and prone to sending him over enthusiastic emails at all times of day and night. As he drives the length and breadth of the country following up various leads, Brodie’s also scouting out potential houses, somewhere to settle down and call home.

Meanwhile, in Leeds, Tracy, a former police officer turned shopping mall security guard, ends up in possession of a small child called Courtney, triggering memories of one of the first cases she worked on – the murder of a prostitute and the toddler left behind locked in her flat with the corpse for 3 weeks. As Tracy grapples with her conscience she must take ever more extreme steps to avoid falling into Brodie’s clutches and the hands of two leather clad thugs who are also apparently pursing her.

Starring a rescued dog, several bent coppers, an aged actress struggling with  the onset of dementia, another private detective called Jackson, and the ever present voice of Brodie’s ex girl friend, Julia, this is yet more quality writing, wit and clever plotting from Atkinson. Who else would give us lines like these: If Britain had been run by Betty’s [tea room on Harrogate] it would never have succumbed to economic Armageddon….All those tiny ancient marine life forms falling to the ocean floor to come back to life one day as a Disney Fairies Tea Set….Tracy had never picked anything in her life apart from scabs and daisies, and the latter was more of an assumption than an actual memory…..She felt as if she’d accidentally wandered into the middle of a Werther’s Original advert….He didn’t want to be responsible for Hope McMaster going into premature labour brought on my exclamation marks.

Can’t wait for the next in the series.

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THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joel Dicker

the truth about the harry quebert affair by joel dicker

I read this book in about 3 sittings, said the person who lent it to me. I managed to devour it in slightly over 24 hours. Billed as perfect for anyone bereft since finishing GONE GIRL or the Millennium books, it’s got the former’s twists and garden paths, with the latter’s feel of something very well researched and realistic. I occasionally found myself slightly irritated by the book within a book device (the main characters are novelists and we are treated to extracts from their writing, as well as fictional acknowledgements at the end) and by the background urgency provided by Barack Obama’s imminent election, which serves to impose all sorts of artificial deadlines on the novelist characters, but overall this is a clever and compelling book that really does read like riding a roller coaster.

The action all takes place in Somerset, New Hampshire, home to celebrated author Harry Quebert, in whose garden the body of a young woman has just been found. It belongs to Nola Kellergan, a fifteen year old who went missing thirty three years previously and who, in a confession to a former student, himself now also a writer, Marcus Goldman, Harry declares was the love of his life. Buried with Nola is a manuscript of the novel that propelled Harry to fame. Marcus, struggling to write a follow up to his best selling debut novel, rushes to Somerset in a bid to help clear Harry’s name. Refusing to believe his mentor is either a murderer or a paedophile, Marcus starts investigating what happened during the summer of 1975, when Nola disappeared, and in doing so uncovers far more than one dead body. Reclusive business moguls, hideously deformed chauffeurs, bitter blonde pony tailed diner waitresses and too good to be true pastors root this novel very firmly in a US literary tradition, as well as the geographical and social landscape where it is set. Some of Dicker’s stereotypes are there to be shot down in flames, others stay true, and it’s testimony to his considerable skills that, apart from one character who correctly aroused my suspicions from the outset, they were all sufficiently complex and credible to keep me guessing right until the last moment.

An intricate plot with many characters means you need to concentrate carefully on every word if you don’t want to be completely surprised (or lost) but when things finally become clear, it does all fit into place and I had several “of course” moments. There’s no one grand denouement, more a series of them, and this did mean that the end didn’t pack quite the same explosive punch for me as the rest of the story promised but this is thrilling writing, a thrilling story and just the ticket for curling up in an armchair when recovering from a nasty virus. Both Harry and Marcus struggle to write their second novels – I hope Dicker doesn’t, as I am already looking forward to it.

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