Category Archives: comedy

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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A COMPLICATED KINDNESS by Miriam Toews

a complicated kindness by miriam toews

Sixteen year old Nomi is about to leave school and “already anticipating failure”. Her favourite quote is “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge” and she wonders if it’s possible to donate her body to science before she’s actually dead.

She lives with her father, Ray, in a small Mennonite town called East Village. Her mother, Trudie, and older sister, Tash, left town a while back. One day Nomi finds her mum’s passport and wishes she hadn’t – the “Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful” story she has told herself involves Trudie travelling the world, having adventures.

Growing up Tash and Nomi are allowed to “listen to the names of dead people being read out in a terrifying monotone” but not “the Beatles singing all we need is love”. Ray spends a lot of time at the local dump “where he could organize abandoned dreams and wrecked things into families, in a way, that stayed together.” He and his daughter communicate mostly by writing notes to one another. He is “stuck in the middle of a story with no good ending”. She is smart, rebellious and will never leave him behind. The complicated kindness that gives the book its name might set them both free but will it make them happier?

This came highly recommended so I was looking forward to reading it. It’s a sweet, simple, poignant and funny coming of age novel  and Toews has won various awards – presumably in large part because the way she’s depicted life in East Village is incredibly authentic. But truth be known I was rather disappointed. Despite all that’s going for it, A COMPLICATED KINDNESS left me feeling something was missing or lacking. There was so much potential and yet it didn’t really go anywhere other than the kind of dead end that’s East Village. Perhaps that was Toew’s intention, I don’t know, but whilst I wanted to finish her book, much like Nomi I was also very much looking forward to being out of there.

 

 

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DEATH OF A SHE DEVIL by Fay Weldon

Ruth Patchett is back. She’s 84 and living in the High Tower, one time love nest of her rival Mary Fisher who now haunts the tower. A senile Bobbo (whom Ruth plotted to send to prison in THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL) is ensconced in the uppermost Lantern Room and the rest of the tower complex is home to the staff and supporters of IGP, the Institute for Gender Parity, set up when Ruth realised the opportunities for pretty and plain girls would never be the same so decided to focus on goals such as closing the pay gap instead.

One of the residents is Valerie Valeria, young, ambitious and an altogether different kind of feminist from Ruth.Valerie’s plans for IGP include glossy catalogues, a bullet proof Mercedes and much spectacle and expense reuniting Ruth with her estranged children and a surprise grandson, Tyler.

This isn’t nearly as good as THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, which I remember devouring when I first discovered it, but Weldon has written another funny and smart reflection on gender politics and how it affects our every day lives. Especially interesting is how she integrates new debates about gender and sexual identity – albeit not as thoroughly or as deeply as they deserve. Valerie persuades Ruth’s grandson Tyler to transition, a story line which affords plenty of opportunities to reflect on the impact of testosterone and oestrogen, but leads the she devil to some rather suspect conclusions. Other characters  touch on the way feminism has evolved and the differences between various struggles for equality. Weldon’s satire is genuinely non discriminatory and she directs it with equal savagery at all, and especially at those who seek to use feminism to pursue their own goals. As one of the older women in the tower, Dr Simmins, remark at one point: “So whatever changed, except perhaps, these days, gender? There were nice people and nasty people and some of them were M and some of them were F: and a whole lot in between.” Despite these themes, Weldon’s wit and story telling powers mean there’s nothing worthy or overly earnest about what is a gutsy, gleeful if somewhat less radical novel than is predecessor, and one that builds beautifully to the most fitting of deaths for the ultimate she devil.

 

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DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris

“There is no risk assessment for Life. And Life is what we are teaching.”

Joanne Harris once again mines the same rich seams of St Oswald’s School for Boys as she’s done in BLUE EYED BOY and GENTLEMAN & PLAYERS. This time it’s 2005 and the school governors have appointed a new crisis management team, who come bearing such dubious gifts as rebranding advice, paperless workplace policies and joint classes with sixth formers from the nearby Mulberry Girls School. Latin master Roy Straitley is up in arms, especially when the identity of the new superhead is revealed as Jonny Harrington, one of his least favourite ex pupils and who is now “double-dipped in a toxic brew of arrogance and sanctity.”

Straitley’s narrative is interspersed with one from the 1980s, when the school was rocked by a scandal involving his close friend, English teacher Richard Clarke. As each layer unfolds we learn about a web of disturbing secrets. Unifying past and present is the question of reputation – how far we might go to protect it, what it’s based on, whether it’s deserved and how much it shapes how we respond to people or events.

Harris’ trademark ability to mix unreliable voices and dark humour with a glorious grasp of human nature is evident throughout. So too is her alertness to hypocrisy and apparent admiration for values such as loyalty and friendship. And, as in previous St Oswald’s novels, she displays her ongoing fascination with class, pitting the grammar school boys against those from the Sunnybank Estate where “there’s a whole language of spitting…It’s got its own grammar, and everything.”

I especially enjoyed the tension between the old school and would be modernisers at St Oswald’s – and Harris’ sympathy for the way things have always been done, for the compassionate neglect that seems under attack. “In my experience, pastoral care and paperwork exist in inverse proportion to each other, like common sense and training” declares Straitley, who rebels against the use of email, health and safety, the fast tracking of his younger colleagues up the career ladder and all advice about smoking less, exercising more and laying off the saturated fat. DIFFERENT CLASS allows Straitley to celebrate a number of small victories – reminders that not all progress is necessarily better than the past it replaces. His days are numbered though and Harris clearly thinks that’s a tragedy, for all he’s gently mocked.

A seductive novel, adorned with blackmail, murder, licquorice all sorts, homophobia and chalk dust, DIFFERENT CLASS plays out cleverly like the game of chess to which Harris herself deliberately invites comparisons. As a whole though it feels less like a homage to life as a series of winning moves to gain the upper hand,  and more as celebration of turning up and taking part. 

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A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

a-god-in-ruins-by-kate-atkinson

This book picks up the story of Teddy Todd, from LIFE AFTER LIFE,  granted a reprieve at the end of that novel and and who survives a bombing mission and a prisoner of war camp to return home. Whilst flying a record number of missions and repeatedly unsure if he has a future, Teddy vows that if he survives he will just be kind. A GOD IN RUINS tells how he tries to keep that promise, living a life, that, after the war, is unremarkable in many ways, with Teddy the very definition of stoic. It could make for a very dull read but this is Atkinson, so it’s quite the opposite.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE Atkinson’s narrative thread turned on the alternative paths that might be followed if seemingly small events turned out differently. In A GOD IN RUINS she picks a similarly unusual structure, this time based around memories. The novel moves around a great deal in time, between Teddy’s childhood, the war, his marriage to Nancy (whose family lived next door to the house at Fox Corner where he grew up), the arrival of his own daughter and then of grandchildren, and old age and his final days in a nursing home. It often segues between these not in any apparent order but because what happens in one thread prompts recollection of an earlier episode – that might be the sight of a girl on a bicycle, finding a much treasured clock whilst packing to move house, or lines from poetry. Oft repeated refrains tie things together, as they do in our own lives, whether it’s Nancy’s exhortation “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”, the appearance of a skylark, or the way in which all the Todd family conjure an idealised past with their litany of the flowers that grew near Fox Corner, “flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion, the ox-eye daisies”.

The overall effect is of feeling we have truly shared someone’s life with them – both the every day mundane and the stand out highlights. What’s very special about this book is that, although essentially a catalogue of events, we nonetheless experience Teddy’s life more as the relationships that hold him together.  Most of us tend to look back and forward in time by way of specific moments, whether they are quiet or of heightened drama, yet Atkinson’s novel celebrates these moments more for their  long and short term consequences on how we interact with our fellow human beings, and in Teddy she gives us a character whom she clearly admires for embodying awareness that it is the point of it all. In turn, his daughter, Viola, is mocked relentlessly for her obliviousness to this universal truth and it’s striking that Atkinson’s trademark satire, of which Viola is the most common victim, is far harsher here than in her other novels.

One of the most moving aspects of A GOD IN RUINS is the sense we have of life being wasted, whether it’s viscerally in the horrific sixty million dead overall from the Second World War or more indirectly from the way in which the past infects the present – at one point Teddy’s grandson reflects that he has no idea “how to get a life” and resents his grandfather’s generation, “They’d been given history.” Atkinson’s book is peppered with various utopias, about which she’s largely rather impatient – make the most of what you have, here and now, she seems to be telling us. You get one shot and this it is. Like Teddy, just be kind and appreciate being given a future. The totally unexpected twist at the end of the novel, and that I am still resisting – hard – but, which I have to hand to Atkinson, is perfect in almost every way, underscores her theme. And after all, as Teddy remarks when he finds out his sister is having an affair,  nothing should really surprise us, because, “The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”

Teddy’s existence encompasses horrors beyond belief (“people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars”) and small lies (the stain on an old photo is blood not tea), it is part of history and crosses centuries, there’s unbridled passion and the safety of an altogether less demanding kind of love,  it is vast and at the same time no bigger than his predilection for saving rubber bands. And at the end, a beautiful end, there’s no prize for having endured “its never ending grinding labour”, no “afterward after all“, just “time tilting” and, if you are lucky, having someone by your side who can make you feel loved.

Breathtaking, magnificent, dazzling and heartbreaking, according to the reviews printed on the front cover, A GOD IN RUINS is all these things and more. But crucially, it’s truthful and it’s real, and I think therein lies the incredible impact it had on me.

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling

the casual vacancy by jk rowling

I am sure I cannot be the only one to have spent the first few chapters of this book expecting Dementors, a flying motorbike or a Hippogriff to come hurtling round the corner but once I got over that I really enjoyed Rowling’s spot on portrayal of life in the fictional West Country town of Pagford. It opens with the demise of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, whose championing of a closer relationship with the local council estate called the Fields where has was born, has won him both friends and enemies amongst the local great and good. As supporters and opponents line up to fill Barry’s shoes on the council and determine the future of Pagford, Rowling takes us behind the town’s front doors to reveal all kinds of scheming, secrets and skulduggery.

We know she can tell stories and THE CASUAL VACANCY is no less good in this respect than the Harry Potter books. But what’s thrown into the mix here – and is a pleasant surprise – is Rowling’s acute  eye for parody, her insight into people’s vices and a healthy dose of honesty. Very few of the residents of Pagford escape her satirical observation. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of over fed and sanctimonious local butcher, Howard Mollison, who is leader of the parish council and relentless in his sucking up to those richer and more powerful than him. Howard’s daughter in law, Samantha, obsessed with the sculpted abs of a singer in a boy band, is also a triumph. But it’s the characters on the estate that elicited most of my sympathy, especially Krystal Wheedon, who is battling to keep her much younger brother Robbie being taken away by social services from their drug addict mother, Terri. The petty troubles of the Mollison’s, for example, pale into insignificance beside the tragedies that befall the Wheedons but, whilst Rowling’s politics shines through, she doesn’t fall into any obvious traps – this is a multi dimensional book full of complex, real personalities that simultaneously reflect the best and worst of human nature.

Interestingly, it’s the teenagers that give the plot its momentum, hacking in to the council website and posing as the ghost of Barry Fairbrother to wield some rare power over the adults of Pagford. This works practically in that the older generations are perhaps less likely to have the appropriate IT skills, but it also suggests that Rowling is still fascinated by what goes on in young people’s heads.  This very definitely isn’t a book written for children though. Funny in parts, this is essentially a very dark book – drug taking, self harming, domestic abuse, rape, and suicide all happens behind Pagford’s closed doors. Rowling seems fascinated by the shortsightedness and hypocrisy of the town’s residents, returning time and again to the crushing impact of poverty and inequality, to the damaging decisions of people unable – or unwilling – to open their minds to difference and disadvantage. In doing so, and whilst exploring the modern tendency to judge others from positions of relative anonymity, Rowling has herself very publicly, passed judgement on the snobbery and smugness that infects Pagford. Thank goodness, frankly, because it’s this which elevates THE CASUAL VACANCY from something that might otherwise have been little more than an updated Joanna Trollope novel.

In the interviews which accompanied the publication of her first book for adults, Rowling was suitable sanguine about its likely reception –  “The worst that can happen is everyone says, That’s shockingly bad.” It isn’t. It’s not shockingly good either. She’s not suddenly developed overnight into a poet or a modern day George Eliot. But this book does give us what we might reasonably expect of a Rowling novel – a good read, a smart plot and characters we can root for. And that is plenty to recommend it, in my book.

 

 

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