Category Archives: love story

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 HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE by John Boyne

As a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Romanov family, and especially the mystery of whether Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, survived the firing squad that executed her parents and siblings. This book reminded me that, as an adult, I remain just as susceptible to the same fairy tale like intrigue that used to captivate me.

As with so many of Boyne’s novels, THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE takes historical events as the framework for a fictional account, in this instance of a love affair between Anastasia and Georgy, one of her father’s soldiers, plucked out of Kashin, “a dark, miserable, fetid, unhealthy, squalid, depressing wreck of a village” and transported to the Royal household. On his first night there he catches the eye of a young girl in the street, only later to learn who she is. The two begin a clandestine relationship and, when the family are taken to Ekaterinburg following the Tsar’s abdication, Georgy pursues his true love.

THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE moves between the present day, where Georgy has recently retired as a librarian at the British Library in London and is caring for his wife Zoya, dying of cancer, and his ever more distant memories – of Anastasia, of the aftermath of the political turmoil that wracked his homeland and the events that forced him to flee Russia. Despite Boyne being hugely sympathetic to the Romanov family and barely paying lip service to the misery and hardship for which they were responsible, he has written a moving and enduring story. One that takes in much of the 20th century and much of the human condition, from love to loneliness. In fact I defy anyone not to get caught up in the romance and sadness of the tale he has spun. It’s pure escapism and a joy to read.

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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES by Kate Tempest

Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry  and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.

Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.

A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.

Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN.  It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company.  Extraordinary.

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THE LANTERN by Deborah Lawrenson

the lantern by deborah lawrenson

There’s something very captivating about this sensual, mysterious novel. It evokes its Provencal setting through some gorgeous (if at times over wrought) language that appealed to all my senses, and the way it moves between past and present is seamless and bewitching. Yet overall I felt a bit irritated reading THE LANTERN and in large part I suspect that was because it crossed over every so often into the supernatural. Now I love a bit of supernatural or magic or fantasy in a book. I love a lot of it too, as evidenced by my reading the Harry Potter series about once a year. But these things have their place and, although I have no hard and fast rules, I don’t much like it when ghosts, spells, visitors from other planets or whatever arrive unannounced in a book that I am expecting to be the kind of book where such things do not occur. As it turns out, there are rational explanations for all the supernatural events that take place but none of that is revealed until very close to the end and, by that time,  I am afraid the damage had been done.

At the heart of THE LANTERN is a house called Les Genevriers that has been home to immense happiness and terrible heartbreak. When Eve and Dom, in the midst of a whirlwind romance, buy the house and start the long process of rescuing it from neglect they stir up all sorts of secrets about the previous inhabitants. The random objects Dom and Eve find in the overgrown garden and wonder over are precious memories to Benedicte Lincel, who grew up at Les Genevriers at the time of the Second World War and who is struggling to let go of the past. The house and the events that take place there link Eve and Dom’s story with Benedicte’s, until eventually the two collide with the shocking discovery of a body in the grounds of Les Genevriers.

The slightly oppressive nature of Les Genevriers once the summer has passed, feeds suspicions that Eve has been harbouring about Dom, and these feelings are heightened by his repeated disappearances, news reports of missing local teenage girls, and her lover’s brooding, uncommunicative nature. As she tries to find out the story behind Dom’s break up with his wife, Eve becomes more and more unsure about the man she has followed to the South of France. A friendship with a local French woman who knew Dom’s wife prompts even more questions and when Eve discovers that his ex had been researching the history of former owners of Le Genevriers, the house starts to feel more like a prison that a retreat.

Benedicte’s older sister, Marthe, lost her sight as a young girl and as an adult was a world renowned parfumier. Like many of his generation, their brother Pierre decided that his future lay in getting rich as a factory worker rather than the back breaking work of rural life. Benedicte is the one who stayed at home, caring for her ageing mother and trying to keep Le Genevrier in one piece. When handsome Andre turns up one evening looking for board in return for work, Benedicte starts to feel she may have a future ahead of her and the two soon fall in love. But like everyone in this story, Andre has dark secrets and Benedicte’s heart gets broken – first by him, then by her sister, and finally by her prodigal, bitter and violent brother.

I definitely found Benedicte’s the most moving of the two narratives that make up the book – she’s a far stronger and interesting character than modern day Eve who is a bit too self obsessed and drippy for my liking. But it takes a while before her story really gets going and that also added to my frustration with THE LANTERN, as did the obvious but ultimately undeserved comparisons with Daphne DuMaurier’s REBECCA- a far superior book. There’s no doubt Lawrenson can write and the story is well plotted and richly told. She develops some interesting themes, most notably around blindness and passivity. So it’s a shame that I just didn’t get along with THE LANTERN as well as I might. If you do not have the same prejudices, you may well enjoy it – and at least you are forewarned.

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FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

fates-and-furies-by-lauren-groff

Lauren Groff’s ARCADIA really gripped me and that’s why I picked up FATES AND FURIES and I had very few expectations about it. I missed the reviews, the online chatter and the fact that it was Barack Obama’s book of the year in 2015.  From the back cover there was no hint whatsoever that this was anything other than a portrait of a fascinating couple and life inside their marriage. Much of it is exactly that – Mathilde and Lotto seem well matched, happy and resilient. They have their struggles and differences but they are a team and confront adversity  together or give one another space as wisdom dictates. From their first encounter at a party, where Lotto proposes on the spot to the enigmatic beauty, to his collapse in the domestic countryside idyll they occupy with their dog, the pair defy both their friends, who place on bets on how long they’ll stay together, and his doting mother, a wealthy, obese agoraphobic who never meets her daughter in law. There’s a cast of secondary characters but Lotto and Mathilde are the leading lights in one another’s lives and on the pages of FATES AND FURIES. An actor falls just short of greatness but is encouraged by Mathilde to become a far more successful playwright, Lotto’s perspective dominates the first section of the book. We learn about a golden childhood, marred by losing his father at a young age, an abusive teacher and the suicide of one of his best friends. Lotto craves adulation and sex, and pursues both with singular determination, even as a monogamist. His wife, provides both, willingly and indulgently. Her sacrifice and loyalty are clear for all to see but Mathilde is no insufferable walk over: she challenges Lotto, stirs him to fulfill his potential, and we are always acutely aware that her own remarkable talents go way beyond simply supporting him.

And then Lotto dies and we get Mathilde’s side of things, which couldn’t be more different.

Much like in GONE GIRL, everything we thought we knew about the pair’s relationship is completely blown apart. Not only is she not the person Lotto and we believe her to be, all the facts and events we had a handle on are now turned upside down and inside out. Frighteningly intelligent, scarily manipulative and deeply intriguing, Mathilde’s relationship with Lotto is one of secrets, deception, frustration and lies – yet he never had any idea.

It’s a clever book – more than worthy of Mathilde’s imagination – and I especially loved the section after Lotto’s death (thought the dream sequence in which he dies is deeply irritating). But my enjoyment, I am sure, was all the fuller for having no idea what was coming, no expectation whatsoever that things would be turned on their head. Usually I like to know roughly where books might be going before I read them but this experience is a great advert for not having that insight, though I do appreciate I’ve denied anyone reading this review the same opportunity, Thankfully, Groff’s writing and style is impressive enough to allow FATES AND FURIES to stand regardless and, whilst future readings might not be as impactful as the first, they are almost guaranteed with a book this different, energetic and well written.

 

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GUERNICA by Dave Boling

guernica-by-dave-boling

I didn’t know very much about what happened to Guernica before reading this book but it was a good excuse to find out more and very timely too, given several politicians and commentators have drawn parallels with what’s currently happening in Aleppo. The author’s end note also puts the events into an ongoing context: “Historians have disputed the death toll from the bombing of Guernica, by the act nonetheless remains at the taproot of the assaults against civilian populations that the world still grieves on an all too regular basis.”

He also notes that he deliberately chose to focus his novel less on the political background and more on the “poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt.” He does so very effectively, despite the first half of the book being relentlessly positive and upbeat. As we meet the key characters and watch their lives unfold, I kept expecting things to go wrong; people to be stood up at the altar, miscarriages, betrayal or accidents. But these are people enjoying the simple things of life, happy with what they have and fully aware of being blessed. That doesn’t mean things are always easy, but they respond to problems with love, openness and a profound trust that things will work themselves out. They share, they talk and they dance.

At the centre of the story is Justo, his brothers Josepe and Xabier, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter, Miren, her best friend, the blind and orphaned Alaia, and two brothers, Dodo and Miguel. Miren has inherited her mother’s good nature and knack of being adored, “for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended…She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.” She can dance on the rim of a wine glass, strides so her black plait swings like a pendulum, and rather than inducing envy, reminds people how life looked before it became complicated. Justo is a giant of a man, literally and metaphorically. His physical strength is matched by an inner sense of purpose that’s deployed protecting those whom he loves. When he tells his daughter’s fiancee about a ritual that involves biting off ram’s testicles, we cannot be sure if it’s fact or fiction, but that doesn’t really matter; it has the desired effect. Mariangeles keeps him in check most of the time and has a clarity of vision and sense of objectivity that makes her the ideal mouthpiece for the many of the historical and political facts Boling weaves into his pastoral idyll. The firebrand Dodo also bring this perspective but is more revolutionary than cool observer, perfectly conveying the Basque passion that throbs through the novel.

As I turned each page having my expectations of disaster confounded each time, there was, nonetheless, a sense of impending doom, after all a novel with such a title is not going to avoid tragedy. This sense was heightened by occasional vignettes starring historical figures such as Picasso, Luftwaffe pilot Von Richthofen and Basque president José Antonio Aguirre, and the effect is to underline the separation between the everyday lives being lived out in Guernica and the storm clouds gathering just out of sight. Miren sums it up when she  admits “these things happened but not to her, not here” and goes on “she felt that if she could just talk to Franco, sit down with him, she could straighten this all out, She could make him see the importance of stopping the war.” It’s a thought I have most days about men like Assad.

All of which makes the shock when it does arrive all the more profound. Not a book to read in public, if you can help it.

Boyling spans decades in the first half of the book, then we get a section that’s just one day: 26 April 1937. Things slow down as they are wont to do in moments of horror and pain. Every graphic detail is recollected, from the sounds to the smells, to the sensation of being lost in the town you’ve known since birth because it’s unrecognisable. A door cannot be shut because “the lower part of a man’s leg, still wearing a black espadrille” blocks it. People rammed into a shelter lick the walls “trying to suck in condensation to fend off the steaming heat”. The wheels of a pram kick up cockerels’ tails of dark fluid.

Then comes the aftermath. Von Richthofen reflects on the bombing and judges it “a genesis moment” and “Effective. Modern. The new war.” Xabier is asked how many people died and replies “When you see a group of boys fused into a blackened mess, you don’t take an inventory. How many died? How many? Death was infinite.”The undead seeking family members, the grieving, the anger and the revenge. Whether that’s taking the lives of those responsible, saving lives, or just stubbornly continuing to live your own.  The children shipped to England for “rest, contentment and – more important still – peace”. Welcomed with open arms and nobody demanding dental checks to verify their age. And the painting, seen and admired around the world, and about which Picasso remarks, when asked by a German soldier “You did this, didn’t you”, “No. You did”. The steady, difficult tasks of rebuilding your home and your life, when everything has changed so dramatically and everywhere is haunted by those you have lost.

A sensual book of every day miracles, GUERNICA is far from perfect – it’s naive at times, suffers from a lack of political analysis and too many easy cliches – but there’s something about it that touched me deeply. Perhaps because, more than anything, it’s a reminder of what living a good life means; that love endures; that sometimes happiness is all the more sweet for the despair that precedes it. A reminder that “if you lose someone you love, you need to redistribute your feelings rather than surrender them. You give them to whoever is left, and the rest you turn towards something that will keep you moving forward”. And that, despite the weight of history, we still have much to learn as a human race about how to avoid the horrors of war.

 

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THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry

the-essex-serpent-by-sarah-perry

“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”

 

 

 

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