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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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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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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 FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

the-forgetting-time-by-sharon-guskin

You Only Live Once. That’s what people said, as if life really mattered because it happened only one time. But what if it was the other way around? What if what you did mattered MORE because life happened again and again, consequences unfolding across centuries and continents? What if you had chances upon chances to love the people you loved, to fix what you screwed up, to get it right?

Jerome Anderson has spent his life researching the possibility that consciousness can survive death. He’s travelled the world documenting incredible cases of children who remember previous lives in huge detail, ache for contact with their previous families and, in some instances, bear birthmarks that are haunting clues to the manner of their previous deaths. Now, diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and the prospect of rapidly losing access to much of his language and vocabulary, Anderson is racing against time to publish his findings and include one more compelling case that will appeal to US audiences.

Janie Zimmerman is Mommie-Mom to 4 year old Noah, conceived during a one night stand on a holiday in Trinidad, and struggling with a son who refuses to be bathed, has horrific nightmares about being pushed under water and incessantly pleads to be taken home. When Noah’s teachers involve protective services out of growing concern over his behaviour and vivid stories, Janie takes to Google in desperation, stumbling upon a link to Anderson’s work. With Noah increasingly distressed, a stream of psychiatrists bleeding her financially and emotionally dry, and her successful career as an architect stalling in the face of crisis after domestic crisis with her son, Janie reaches out to Anderson.

Denise Crawford is just about holding down a job at an old people’s home. Her teenage son, Charlie, is fed but that’s about it, and her musician husband Henry spends his time on the road away from home, trying to escape the memories of  their other son, Tommy, who disappeared at the age of nine and whose body has never been found. Seven years on and Denise still puts up flyers with Tommy’s face on them, urging people to get in touch if they have seen him, hoping beyond hope that theirs will be one of the miracles she’s read about in the papers and Tommy will be returned to them.

THE FORGETTING TIME brings these narratives together in what’s a moving, though somewhat predictable, story.  Guskin captures Anderson’s plight particularly successfully, but all the characters are convincing and touched me hugely. The moments when Denise meets Janie, and Noah meets Charlie are charged with enormous amounts of tension and Guskin rises to the occasion without resorting to cliches or platitudes. Janie’s reflection that the man made constellations she’s replicated on Noah’s ceiling is “the most all of us could handle of the universe” implies Guskin is a true believer in the phenomenon her story explores, but there’s a healthy dose of scepticism throughout and what emerges in the very satisfying Epilogue (for which full marks to the author) is more a sense of how valuable clinging to explanations can be, as we seek comfort in our lives and deaths.

Part mystery, part Jodie Picoultesque women’s fiction and part something undefinable, THE FORGETTING TIME is definitely unforgettable.

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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 THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE by Marybeth Mayhew

the things we wish were true by marybeth mayhew

A young boy has an accident at a swimming pool and is whisked away by ambulance, leaving his sister in the care of Zell, lonely since her own children left home. Her neighbour Lance, pulled the child from the water and is the hero of the hour, attracting the attention of Jencey, former prom queen and hanging out at the pool to try to forget the events that have forced her back to the town where she grew up. Her childhood sweetheart, Everett, married her best friend, Bryte, and the two have a son, Christopher, just one of the many children playing in the water that day.

Thrown together by events at the pool, each of these characters have a life changing summer ahead of them that brings new meaning to the idea of family and friendship.

Harmless, untaxing, drivel.

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