LULLABY by Leila Slimani

LULLABY opens with two dead children, killed by the nanny. It proceeds to reveal how and why. There’s suspense, tension and mystery. Louise, the nanny is wonderful – the parents love her, the children love her. But stuff gets in the way – like class, humiliation, relative wealth, race, caring as a financial transaction, suspicion, privilege, hypocrisy and insecurity.

Slimani’s novel has a simplicity about it that I found very appealing, but that simplicity belies its depths. The nanny’s relationship with another woman in the neighbourhood, Wafa, only takes up a few pages all in but tells us so much about them both and the worlds they inhabit. Louise’s interactions with Myriam, the children’s mother, are more frequent but similarly laden with layers of meaning.  And questions too, about what price we pay for our choices, about the illusion that parenthood is one more thing at which we will excel, to which we are entitled.

LULLABY is an easy book to read – it’s gripping and well written. Yet the insight into Louise’s life, into the parent’s attitudes towards her,  makes for an uncomfortable read too. And then there’s what you know is coming. The building tension as we wait to find out the motive. The horror and the sadness. The neighbours hindsight and everyone’s remonstrations.  But it adds up to so much more than a thriller. It’s an interesting book about women’s roles and equality and the emotions we hide from others. Unusual and definitely to be recommended.

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THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

I have been looking at this book for some time and for some reason it always felt like it was going to be hard work, so I put off reading it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Lambert family are a joy to read about. From stubborn, principled Alfred and his wife,  Enid, for whom life’s highlights are weddings and Christmas, to their 3 children – angry Gary, loser Chip and striving Denise.  The joy is because of course, there’s so much more to all of them than I can possibly convey here.

Indeed everything about this book is big, epic even – from landscapes traversed by railroads to ideas and theories. Its  geographical heart is the mid West of America, taking in Lithuania and New York en route. It encompasses dodgy pharmaceutical corporations, celebrity restaurants, the internet sale of most of Vilnius, philanthropists growing vegetables with poor kids, and children setting up CCTV in their own homes. It’s a commentary on the modern economy, the digital age and the American dream. But above all it’s about the space in time when nothing much is happening. Who we are and who we have become. The disappointment, the self-obsession, the tragicomedy and the humiliation. The rot. And how it’s all pretty much inescapable.

Franzen’s greatest skill is perhaps that he has made such a dark and ultimately desperate book feel warm and light-hearted. That there’s much which feels familiar is no doubt largely responsible. What I also felt though was distance – and, I admit, superiority. My life is surely more than waiting for something to happen? More than an attempt to correct the mistakes of my parents? Of course, this is what we all believe – and perhaps delusion is one way to survive. Enid found wonder drugs, Gary alcohol. Denise throws herself into love, work, sex, whilst Chip runs away. Alfred is the only one facing the truth and it’s making him depressed.

I didn’t only put off reading THE CORRECTIONS, I delayed writing this review too, knowing I’d never be able to do it justice.  I don’t pretend to be a literary critic – this blog is intentionally small and personal. A book like this somehow deserves more though and all I can really say is that if ambitious, intelligent proper literature is your thing, please go find the joy.

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EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid

“We are all migrants through time.”

This is the story of Nadia and Saeed – a young couple trying to make their relationship work. It’s also the story of a world on the move. Of people’s fears about war, leaving family behind,  change and difference – all told in Hamid’s extraordinary prose that makes poetry of bombs raining down from the skies.

It starts when Nadia and Saeed meet in a city that might be in Syria, Afghanistan or somewhere similar. She rides a motorbike, lives alone, wears full black robes. He’s the son of a university professor, lives at home, works for an insurance company. He prays, she doesn’t. They get together and when their home becomes unsafe, they flee together, through a magical door, one of many springing up across the world, which takes them to Mykonos. Similar doors later take them to London and San Francisco.

The horrors of public and private executions, relatives and friends blown to bits, the punishment they might expect as unmarried lovers are all powerfully evoked with a simplicity and truthfulness that’s incredibly moving to read. So too, the shock of emerging into a new place, the adjustments they must make and survival techniques they must learn. And then when they discover that the solace they used to seek in one another’s company is no longer a comfort and having journeyed together is no longer enough.

A deeply political book that confronts many of the moral questions in today’a world, EXIT WEST  is at times brutal and heartbreaking,  at others beautiful and magical.  At times, it reads like philosophy, at others it captures details like the enjoyment of a tin of herrings. Every word Hamid writes though held me spellbound, with it’s wisdom and insight. I loved this book, what it had to teach me and how it made me feel. It’s for the joy of finding a book like this that I read so much and the rarity of such a find makes it all the more special.

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SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff

Matt Ruff’s other books have been, to put it mildly, riotous and this is no exception. The house of the title is a construct in the mind of Andy Gage, created as a means of managing his multiple personality disorder (MPD). Andy shares the house with over a hundred other souls, including his father, Aunt Sam, a boy named Jake, fighting fit Seferis and testosterone-fuelled  Adam. The mental landscape they occupy features a pumpkin patch, a pulpit where the souls go to communicate directly with Andy, a meeting room where everyone can convene, a lake with an island to which the soul Gideon has been banished, and a locked basement.

Learning how Andy satisfies the needs of all his personalities, draws on their different qualities and carefully holds together the whole is fascinating. The delicately balanced order by which he strives to live is in direct contrast to – and threatened by – the chaos that is the life of Penny Driver, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, who also suffers from MPD and who crashes into Andy’s life thanks to his friend and boss, Julie Sivik. Julie owns and runs a not very successful tech company that’s developing virtual reality software. Both her frequent change of career and boyfriends, alongside the different tents within a warehouse structure of the workplace she has created, serve as gentle reminders that most of us consist of different selves, urges and interests – and that MPD is just that normality taken to extremes.

Andy suspects Julie’s motivations for hiring Mouse, believing she either wants to match make them or help ‘cure’ Mouse – if not both. Her agenda never become entirely clear but Andy and Mouse do develop a close relationship, as together they confront some of the causes of their disorder, the traumatic events of their pasts and go haring round the country getting into all sorts of potentially difficult situations when their different personalities take control. Mouse also gets to meet Andy’s doctor, thanks to an intervention by the evil twins Maledicta and  Malefica and her protector personality, ‘Thread’, a move which is the start of her getting her own house in order, albeit along a very different model to the one favoured by Andy.

This is a smart, fast paced novel that has multiple dimensions as well as personalities – far too many for me to capture or do justice to here.  Also featuring a 1957 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, a dilapidated real house on the verge of crashing to the ground, two broken-hearted police officers, heart-breaking emotional and physical abuse, regular notes to self, frequent mayhem, Harvest Moon diner, the gem that is Mrs Winslow, a hunt for a child murderer, a serious amount of swearing, and some seriously unexpected twists. Ruff has magnificently combined horror and humour to write a story that messes with your head and I challenge anyone not to get swept along in the strange whirlwind.

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UNDER A POLESTAR by Stef Penney

It’s 1948 and Flora Mackie is on an airplane heading for the Arctic Circle. She’s seated next to a young and irritating journalist, who insists on asking Flora all sorts of questions, when all she wants to do is remember….

This is an epic adventure and love story, with a mystery at its heart. From Flora’s first expedition aboard her father’s whaling ship in 1889, she falls head over heels with the ice, snow and people of northern Greenland, forging friendships that will last a lifetime and which are repeatedly rekindled when she heads up her own scientific expeditions to the Arctic as an adult. Flora breaks ground time and again, as a woman and as an explorer, railing against her male rivals and the media that have dubbed her ‘Snow Queen’. But she is limited in what she can do alone and all too often has to rely on men to help her fulfill her dreams. Flora’s passion for the North is matched only by her passion for Jakob de Beyn, an American, with whom she crosses paths when he’s a geologist on an expedition led by the ruthless Lester Armitage. There’s an inevitability about the doomed relationship between these star crossed lovers that’s only in part down to the reflective structure of Penney’s narrative, but it doesn’t detract from the intensity of their connection – or the heat they make to keep out all that cold.  The erotic heart of the novel burns deeply and is all the more powerful for being set in a context that’s interesting in its own right, as well as unpredicatble. For example, Armitage’s lies, recklessness and treatment of the Inuit in particular cast a new and less than flattering light on the brave explorers mythology that persists, even today.

Penney writes in exquisite detail of the discoveries made in the region at the time, of Flora and Jakob’s exploration of one another’s bodies, and the emotional landscapes they traverse as they conquer the inhospitable glaciers and frozen seas of the North. The ice is smelled as well as felt, heard and tasted. She’s created too in Flora in particular a beguiling and eminently likeable and admirable central character, and in common with Jakob, one who is the very definition of principled and good without being dull or smug. Penney also manages to craft a narrative that moves around in time and is at times timeless, and to do so with a clarity and mostly leisurely momentum that’s somehow difficult to resist.  Every bit as good as THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, UNDER A POLE STAR is a beautiful story with a dark edge, beautifully told.

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BIRDCAGE WALK by Helen Dunmore

John Diner Tredevant  is a brooding and ambitious property developer, who claims his first wife died whilst visiting her native France. He’s now married to Lizzie Fawkes and together they live in Bristol, in the home Diner has built, overlooking the abyss that is Clifton gorge. Lizzie, who was brought up moving from one rather less grand set of rented rooms to another with her mother, Julia, a political writer, feels most at home when in the kitchen of her marital home, with the servant girl, Philo.  She remains close to her mother, both geographically and emotionally,  even if she finds her step father, Augustus, rather pompous and silly at times, and loves visiting the household, which revolves around Julia’s creative impulses, ably facilitated by Hannah, who has served Julia ever since Lizzie was a child, and the couple’s advocacy of women’s rights and republicanism. The bold idealism August and Julia represent is utterly at odds with Diner’s capitalism and Lizzie struggles at times to accommodate the two, torn between strong ties to her past and the ever more controlling, distrustful behaviour of the husband to whom she is passionately and jealously drawn.

The backdrop to these relationships is the French Revolution, unfolding in gory detail through letters sent to Julia and Augustus by political friends caught up in events on the street, and whose economic consequences are soon felt keenly by Diner, desperate to sell the other houses he is building and into which he has ploughed so much. Less significant but equally keenly felt by our protagonists are the revolutions unleashed by the news that Julia has fallen pregnant at the age of 40 and by the arrival of an unannounced visitor from France, asking questions about Diner’s first wife. As Lizzie’s life gets more and more entwined with that of her mother’s household, she feels ever more distant from Diner, whilst his unpredictability and anger grow with every passing day that brings new reports of bloodshed and turmoil over the Channel.

Menace and mystery pulse from the pages of BIRDCAGE WALK and Dunmore’s story telling skills are in fine form. In Diner and Julia in particular, she has created complex characters that are equal to the drama, desolation and danger of the plot they inhabit – one which is full of drama, desolation and danger. I tend to avoid overtly historical fiction though I always enjoy how Dunmore’s novels are committed to revealing the role played by usually forgotten people – and usually women – in defining the past. As she writes in her Afterword, “The question of what is left behind by a life, haunts the novel”. That’s certainly true and, whilst not as brilliant as A SPELL OF WINTER, for example, BIRDCAGE WALK is, nonetheless, a fantastic read and highly recommended.

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AUTUMN by Ali Smith

I generally like Smith’s books, especially the way she plays with structure and language. At times that can make them slightly less accessible but in my experience persistence usually pays off (though I do have a copy of HOW TO BE BOTH on my kindle that I have not read yet because it feels a bit daunting). With AUTUMN she has written something apparently much more straightforward and in which I found myself easily absorbed. However, the relative simplicity belies some complex ideas and themes.

The emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Daniel Gluck, 101 years old and who spends  most of his time in his nursing home sleeping and dreaming, with Elisabeth Demand, 32 years old, on the verge of losing her job as an art historian, and adapting to the post-Brexit world. Daniel and Elisabeth were neighbours when she was a child and he inspired in her a love of beauty, colour, stories and much else. It jumps between the present day and some very funny interactions eg between Elisabeth and the man at the Post Office as she tries to make a passport application, Daniel’s vivid dreams, and the time when the pair first met, 1993.

These threads are held together not just by our characters but also by their different and contrasting commentaries on the nature of time. From Daniel’s slow breaths, and the observation that each one might be his last, to his dreamscapes, which are full of longing and speeded up action. From Elisabeth’s forays into the life of Daniel’s one time love, the largely forgotten only woman Brit pop artist Pauline Boty, to the changes taking place after the Brexit vote and the literal and metaphorical fences she encounters. Time is portrayed as fluent, the present as fleeting, our existence as fragile.

Smith has written a sobering book, in which the smallness of everyday life, where one’s head on a passport photo is measured with a ruler and rejected, contrasts temporarily with the largeness of what we leave behind through our interactions which others, but which in turn becomes small then disappears thanks to our fading memories and transience in this world. Despite all this, there’s an energy and colour to the novel, which I really loved. It’s flies by, much like time. It’s a reminder that nothing lasts for ever, including the things we fear and dread.  And above all, it’s a call to make the most of every moment, because the seasons will keep passing and we are powerless to stop them.

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