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LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

This book is impossible to dislike but neither did it ignite a burning blaze. Rather, like hot buttered toast, it’s comforting, easy to digest and not overly sweet.  Every so often it gets a bit edgy but that soon passes and the overall effect is of having spent a good amount of time alone and peacefully curled up in snug armchair.

Ng’s story is located in the planned community of Shaker Heights, where most people fall into the category of organised, happy achievers. For those who don’t, life is a bit of a strain. One such misfit is Izzy Richardson, who is in constant conflict with her sunny blessed siblings and successful parents. When the Richardson family take on new tenants for the little cottage they own across town, Izzy finds a sympathetic ear in the new arrival to town, Mia, a nomadic artist and bohemian thinker. Meanwhile, Mia’s daughter, Pearl, strikes up a close friendship with the Richardson’s youngest son, Moody, whilst harbouring a crush on the older Trip.

Into this mix is thrown a moral dilemma that divides the usually united Shaker Heights community – a young Chinese single mother abandons her baby one night and the child is handed to a wealthy doting couple, lifelong friends of the Richardsons  and who have been desperately trying for a baby for decades. But then the birth mother, who works with Mia waitressing in a takeaway, changes her mind and the case ends up in court. Running parallel to this narrative is a thread about a pregnant teenager and another about Mia’s past and how she got pregnant with Pearl. These two stories are presented as raising equally complex ethical questions but really they don’t – they are about society’s moral standards and the way those too often lead to shame and secrecy. Who should have custody of the abandoned baby is much less clear and Ng explores the many angles to the arguments with compassion and sensitivity.

It’s all a little laboured and obvious, as are the burning fire motifs and themes like control of ones destiny and regret. I didn’t care deeply for any of the characters or feel strongly about what they were going through. Nor have their experiences stuck firmly in my memory – though the abruptness of the ending has done. But this lack of strong feelings is rather soothing. So too is being slowly carried along on the gentle virtuous undulations of LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. My overall verdict: Perfectly lovely while it lasted but definitely now time to move onto something else.

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HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie

This book hit me hard. It’s honest, uncomfortable, deeply moving and hurtles towards an ending that both shocked and surprised me.

Twins Aneeka and Parvaiz are at the heart of the story, which revolves around him departing London to work for an Isis media team and her starting up a relationship with the Home Secretary’s son, Eamonn, in a bid to help her brother return home when he realises what he’s got himself into. Also in the mix is their older sister Isma, who herself meets and falls for Eamonn whilst studying overseas and is inadvertently the cause of his path crossing that of Aneeka. Isma incurs her sister’s wrath when she tells the authorities of Parvaiz’s whereabouts and the two fall out, setting in motion a chain of events that sees Aneeka travel to the other side of the world to save her brother.

Essentially a story about whether family matters more than anything else, it comes alive through rich characterisation and a slow but inexorable building of tension. Each  family member is torn in different directions by the pull that religion, sacrifice, ambition and loyalty exert and the overall effect is a searingly candid portrait of a slice of modern Britain. Shamsie really gets under the skin of her protagonists and I appreciated how Parvaiz is neither demonised or let off the hook. Eamonn’s father is a particular triumph – a man who has risen in politics by turning his back on what he defines as the Islam of the past and demanding the very highest standards of himself and his family, who he knows will always be the focus of suspicion, never really part of the establishment.  All their stories beg the question how much does the past shape our presents, and all celebrate the enduring power of love.

Long listed for the Booker prize, pretty much every review will tell you this is a rewrite of the Greek myth of Antigone. If you don’t know how that goes, don’t look it up before you read HOME FIRE – it will spoil things for you and, believe me,  you don’t want to spoil a book this good.

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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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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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SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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HE SAID/SHE SAID by Erin Kelly

he said she said by erin kelly

Laura and Kit witness a rape whilst at an eclipse festival in Cornwall.They call the police and are called as witnesses in support of the survivor, Beth Taylor. So begins a nightmare that sees their lives turned upside down and their trust in one another destroyed.

Kelly deploys the classic unreliable narrator technique to great effect here and I never really knew who was being honest or accurate. She steadily reveals crucial details and doesn’t give too much away until right at the close. It’s a very atmospheric novel too, with a growing and claustrophobic sense of the past closing in on the present, and an ever present undercurrent of latent violence. Laura’s pregnancy and high levels of anxiousness, coupled with Kit’s obsession with chasing eclipses moments all add to the mood.

Clever, never cliched and deeply compelling, this is Broadchurch in book form (and in fact she has written a best selling novel inspired by that TV series). Perfect for the beach and whiling away sunny days.

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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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