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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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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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A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

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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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THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

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I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?

A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.

Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and  start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.

Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.

This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.

 

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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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A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness

a-monster-calls-by-patrick-ness

“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them lose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

I was expecting to weep bucket loads at this but managed to get almost to the end before shedding a tear. The very premise of the book is sad and painful though and when I did cry, I really cried. Conor is 12 and his mum has cancer. His life is one long struggle with school bullies, overly sympathetic teachers, a stressed grandmother and a regularly occurring nightmare. One night at 12.07 the yew tree he can see from his bedroom window comes alive as a monster. It tells him three stories with unexpected endings and then demands that Conor reciprocates with the story of what happens in his nightmare.

The monster’s stories are designed to illustrate that we all have good and bad within us and that it’s our actions that count in the grander scheme of things, not what we think. They reveal the contradictions that make up most of us, the power of being honest with ourselves yet how difficult it can be to tell the truth. Simple fairy tales on one level, they go far beyond your standard moral fables, and Conor’s angry and physical responses to the monster’s words do nothing to detract from the sense that multiple and complex interpretations are possible, each one depending on our unique experiences, feelings from moment to moment and openness to different ideas or meanings. The layers of understanding and sensitivity woven through each page make this  a wonderful book for children and adults alike, whether dealing with loss, grief and guilt or not.

What I didn’t know until reading A MONSTER CALLS is that the idea originally came from another writer, Siobhan Dowd, who died of terminal cancer before she could finish writing the story. By all accounts, Ness has done her great justice and I very much hope the film adaptation retains the simplicity and clarity that allows the book to make such a profound impact.

NB The Kindle version I read isn’t illustrated and I’d really recommend reading a hard copy.

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THE ICE ROAD by Gillian Slovo

the-ice-road-by-gillian-slovo

I’ve  been fascinated by Russian history since watching a film about the missing princess Anastasia as a child, and when I took a trip to Moscow and Leningrad when studying for history A level it was amazing to see the sheer scale of the buildings and landscape. So this novel, set in the Leningrad of the 1930s absorbed me from the very first page to the last. It’s epic in its reach across the political events of the time and the various lives of Slovo’s beautifully conjured cast: Boris Aleksandrovich and his family, old friend Anton and the child he takes in, and the cleaner, Irina, who he sends on an adventure that both opens her eyes to what’s possible in life and binds them together as the turmoil of the Stalin years unfolds.

There’s snow, passion, political treachery, desperation, food queues, the ballet, lice, parades, a prison where people rot if they are left alive long enough, samovars, a grand ship that needs rescuing, heroism, loyalty, trenches, an American and  ice, more ice and then the ice road, built to bring supplies to the starving citizens  that survived Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign. A moving and evocative book about the everyday acts of kindness and cruelty that shape our lives and the history we live through.

 

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