Tag Archives: irreverent

THE MANDIBLES by Lionel Shriver

It’s 2029. There’s a Latino in the White House and Putin is still ruling Russia. The dollar is about to become worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Families like the Mandibles, who have accumulated wealth from one generation to the next, and along with it a sense of security and entitlement, now find themselves facing a new financial and social reality. One which requires them to battle simply to survive in an America that’s become even more competitive, brutal and violent than they could imagine.

Shriver’s writing is, as usual, blistering and unflinching. Her comedy is dark and the satire just brilliant – take one Mandible mother, trying to be modern, fresh and quirky, who gifts her sons the names Goog (for Google) and Bing.  The premise is that the future  everyone expected is one big practical joke and the nightmare future she has created  to replace it is both credible and terrifying. Hiding gold is treason. Homeless shelters overflow. Supermarket shelves are regularly empty and inflation out of control. From details like a return to printed bank statements (“So history could reverse” observes one character) and the daily rituals of first saving water then having to scour the streets for old fabric to turn into reusable toilet paper, this is large scale social breakdown told through the every day small things.

The younger generation and the drop outs adapt most easily but by 2047 a new kind of economy has emerged to replace the old one – one in which it’s clear they are going to have to shoulder most of the burden of supporting their parents and grandparents. Their resentment at having to work three jobs, paying 77% tax to meet the costs of elderly social care, and filling the gaps previously plugged by immigrant workers is palpable. The concept of free time laughable.  Leaving not an option when your chipped. No wonder the Utopian myth that is Nevada, the state that chose to leave the US almost as soon as the shit started hitting the fan, persists.

Some of Shriver’s previous books have failed to live up to the high of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN but this is her back up there.  She hasn’t shied away from doing the economics thoroughly and she’s got every little thing right – from the throw away lines about the Chelsea Clinton administration to the way slang has evolved. From the way that food evolves from being a style and life choice for the “watercress and wasabi” set to something that prompts former hedge fund managers to mug their neighbours at knife point – superior quality designer kitchen knives, of course. From the practical uselessness of the jobs most of the Mandibles do to the astute characterisation of every family member – from eccentric, canny Enola, for whom no amount of economic chaos can detract from the importance of doing her daily jumping jacks at the ripe old age of 80 and beyond, to thoughtful teenager Willing who quickly grasps that his beloved dog needs to be given away before the family can no longer feed him and just as quickly learns to steal, lie and wield a gun.

I loved this dark dystopian novel. And it’s definitely made me think twice about what’s valuable now compared to when everything does go belly up. Basically, stock pile loo roll, grow your own food and don’t bother with a pension.

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ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

I’d been warned this book was upsetting and it definitely was. How could it not be when Elf is intent on killing herself and her sister, Yoli, is intent on stopping her? What I wasn’t prepared for was how funny it is in places, how bitter sweet and how it would totally change my perspective on suicide.

Elf is a successful pianist with a loving husband called Nick and her sister adores her. But Elf just doesn’t want to live. A fast approaching world tour precipitates her latest suicide attempt which sees Yoli rush to her side, along with their mother and Nick. The envelop Elf in their love and care but, as the story unfolds, Yoli is forced to confront the idea that what Elf needs more than anything is to be allowed to die. She researches the possibility of taking her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, wrestles with whether to tell the rest of the family and makes promises to Elf that she’s still not sure she can keep. Yoli is also making plans to bring her sister home, let her sit and just be and Elf knows this, so is making plans of her own.

It was clear from the outset this book was not going to end happily and yet when it did end as expected I was happy for Elf. What Toews has done is convey just how hard life is if you truly want to die. How the feelings of those anchoring you to life can matter hugely but still not be enough to keep you alive. And how sometimes nothing, not even love, is enough. That’s not something I am prepared to hear very often. Last year, someone I knew – not well but who was loved by a dear friend of mine – killed herself. Reading ALL MY PUNY SORROWS has helped me better understand why she did and to even admire her for her bravery.

Toews own sister killed herself and much of the book is close to her own experiences, including of growing up as a Mennonite. She’s depicted a childhood that’s fizzing with laughter, rich with community and full of love. As an adult, Elf appears to have it all whilst by contrast Yoli’s life is messy and unfulfilled. This messiness provides much of the book’s lightness, as do her tales of a sister who is strong willed, passionate and never does things by halves – as I said, the outcome is inevitable. And yet Toews taps into what most of us would experience in Yoli’s shoes – a blind faith that things are going to turn out differently, against all the evidence and all the odds. It’s this which is both a source of joy in the novel and of sadness. It also means the book doesn’t read as the story of Elf’s death but rather as the story of her life. Far better than the A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS spoke to me in all sorts of ways and I hope it might speak to you too.

 

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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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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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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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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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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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