This is Happiness by Niall Williams – review

I won’t lie: I bought this book primarily because there was a hare on the cover. It was my first Niall Williams novel and I had no idea what sort of author he was, but having now spent many happy hours basking in the luminous quality of his writing I know it won’t be my last. This is happiness indeed.

Set in 1950s Ireland, the story begins as Noel, a boy in his late teens who has dropped out of the seminary following a crisis of faith, returns to the rural community of Faha to live with his grandparents. He has arrived at a highly significant time in the town’s history: it is about to receive electricity for the first time. While Noel struggles with contemplating his future, the family are joined by a newcomer and lodger, brought to Faha by the forthcoming electrical works but with something far more profound on his mind. Christy is on a moral mission to right a great wrong he did to one of the town’s inhabitants many decades ago when he was a young man. For Noel, he provides a window onto parts of humanity he hasn’t yet experienced, the friendship he needs and the impetus to see himself and his future in a new light.

The novel’s structure places the events very firmly within a defined time frame, one that serves to highlight the momentous, quasi-mystical nature of the happenings contained within it. Much as Mary Poppins can only stay until the wind changes, so we know this magical moment won’t last, but also that the town and its characters will be shaped by it for the decades to come. The first notable herald of unusual times is the weather: in Faha, we are told, it rains almost constantly, so the appearance of sunshine is in itself a small miracle, one which is met with pleasure but also incredulity and a sense of the normal order of things being thrown somewhat out of kilter. The coming of the electricity provides another framing device, the novel starting with the news that electrification is on its way and ending with the flicking of the switch that will finally bring modernity to the community. Then there is Christy, whose residence in the town in ostensibly connected to the electrical installation, but who is almost a spiritual presence (guru? sage? I hesitate to say a Christ-like figure, but a clue in the name perhaps?) and one whose appearance in Faha we know to be transient – when the electricity comes, he will go.

This sense of spirituality is the cornerstone of the novel. Human, worldly passions are treated with a reverence that elevates them to something ethereal; even the slightly comedic infatuations of an inexperienced teenage boy are spoken of in deferential terms, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek at times. Music is vitally important, and Noel and Christy’s nocturnal sojourns to the local pubs in search of the best live performers are themselves akin to a spiritual quest. The fact that they are usually blind drunk by the time they head home, and that their inebriated cycling exploits make for some hilarious passages in the novel, strangely (cleverly) doesn’t in any way detract from the sense of joy, elevation and release that comes from following their passion. The whole novel could be said to be one of metaphor; the coming of electric power is poised to illuminate Faha just as the coming of Christy and the events that unfold as a result bring enlightenment to the life of narrator Noel. Even the name Noel has etymological links to the Latin for “birthday” or “relating to birth”; no coincidence perhaps for a character who spends the novel on a journey of self-discovery, personal growth and deeper understanding of those around him as he truly lives perhaps for the first time.

Appropriately, the writing itself is sublime; at times, reading the novel felt like being rocked to sleep in a hammock, the prose lilting, ebbing and flowing but never less than pinpoint precise. On almost every page there was a turn of phrase that made you pause for a second to take in the perfection. Niall Williams takes great care to afford even the most mundane moments a sense of beauty, as if to remind us that everything about this life is wondrous. He also clearly has enormous affection for the rural way of life that has now disappeared; technologically speaking the people of Faha may be backward but they have something special in their sense of community and determined self-sufficiency that we too come to love and admire as the novel goes on. Electricity, that great innovation that we couldn’t in the 21st century do without, seems incongruous and unnecessary here, a blight on tradition that signals an ending as much as it does a beginning.

I fell completely and utterly in love with this novel; I defy you to read it and not do the same! If you’ve read it already – or any of his other books – do tell me what you thought.

Happy reading x

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – review

You know, I’m kind of glad I didn’t know exactly what Shuggie Bain was about before I started reading. I can think of occasions in the past when simply discovering the theme of a book – A Little Life, My Absolute Darling – has been enough to put me off even trying it, despite the fact that the writing has been praised by critics and readers alike. So if I’d known I was about to embark on a novel depicting alcoholism, rape, domestic violence and child sexual abuse, there’s no WAY on earth I would have gone anywhere near it. And I would have missed out on one of the most affecting, haunting and all-round superb books of 2020.

Set in Glasgow in the 1980s and 1990s, Shuggie Bain tells the almost unbearable story of Agnes Bain and the three children who, as the years go by, bear the brunt of the addiction that slowly dismantles their mother piece by piece. Shuggie is the youngest, and it’s he who frames the novel; we first meet him as a teenager living an independent yet pretty dismal and unfulfilled life at the very start of the book, before going back in time to his early years and following him as he grows up amid the wreckage of a family that’s breaking apart. The neglect, poverty and unpredictability of living with an alcohol-dependent parent are not the only things he has to deal with: as the book progresses and Shuggie grows older, he can’t shake the sense that he is different from the other children and doesn’t fit in. He is bullied and mocked – by adults as well as other children – and finds himself more and more alone, escaping to imaginary worlds that he creates for himself during the lonely days when he can’t face school and can’t face home.

If outside world is hostile, home holds just as many terrors. One of the most striking elements of the story is the way addiction instills fear in the sufferer’s loved ones. Is Shuggie’s mother going to be drunk or sober when he gets home from school? If she’s been drinking, is she going to be celebratory, vindictive or despairing? If she’s drunk but still cheerful, can Shuggie stop her drinking herself to the next stage of intoxication, the stage of anger and recrimination? I can’t remember the last time my heart broke so completely when reading a book as it did when I watched this little boy taking care of his inebriated mother in a way far beyond his years, desperately trying to keep further alcohol out of her reach, trying to distract her from her destructive whims and reacting with devastating practicality when she finally loses consciousness.

So far you might imagine that Agnes Bain would be an extremely unlikeable character – after all, what kind of parent would put their child through this? If I had to put my finger on the area in which the novel most excels (hard to do when it’s amazing in so many ways) I’d say it’s in the way Douglas Stuart manages to keep us on side with characters who could at first glance be incredibly unappealing. Yes, Agnes is an alcoholic whose children go hungry so she can feed her habit and whose youngest son is left vulnerable to abuse because she isn’t there to look out for him; but the things we see her go through in her own life are equally shocking. Her second husband is brutish, violent and unfaithful. Her relationship with her parents is not straightforward; she is no stranger to physical violence from that quarter. The other men she encounters while she is at her most vulnerable range from outright abusive to unreliable and enabling. I doubt there’s a single reader who’d be unable to feel sympathy for Agnes at least at some point during the story.

Calling the novel a social commentary makes it sound a bit dull and dry, and that’s absolutely not the case, but I did feel there was a hugely important wider point behind the minutely observed individual stories. Poverty and a lack of opportunity traps not just Agnes but entire communities; small wonder, then, that addiction and other substance abuse become one of the few escapes available. To say the book’s message is that Agnes’s alcohol dependency is a direct result of social policy would be a massive oversimplification, but the seeds of the argument are certainly there if you feel inclined to read the book in that way. Personally, this more “political” aspect is something that struck me very strongly and haunted me for some time afterwards: it’s all too easy, from a position of privilege, to pass judgement on others who haven’t had access to the opportunities we’ve had, and to make assumptions about what might be called their “life choices” – when in fact they have almost no choice at all.

So how does this book remain in any way readable with all its bleakness and tragedy? The answer for me is quite simply, Shuggie. No matter what happens, you read on, and you read on for Shuggie. You get through it with him and for him, and you feel as if by reading his story you’re somehow there holding his hand through the worst of times. And strangely, when it ends, although there’s no denying you’ve been put through the wringer emotionally, you’re not left with a sense of despair – because Shuggie loves his mother no matter what, and it’s that love that cuts through the novel’s darkness and provides a tiny, but absolutely crucial, light.

I prefer to recommend rather than beg, but this time I’m begging shamelessly! You won’t just read this book, you’ll live it; so please, try it – let it get under your skin and into your head, and appreciate the awesome power of what a book can do.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – review

I don’t normally go for YA books, and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed any on This Girl’s Book Room, but if they’re not usually your cup of tea either please do stay with me; the book I’m talking about today is one that defies categorisation and quite simply should be read by everybody, whether you consider yourself a fan of YA or not. The book’s narrator is William, a 15 year old boy whose world is turned upside down one horrendous day when his older brother Shawn is shot dead. He is no stranger to gun violence; no one in this community is. When the first shots ring out he instinctively follows the rules that have been drummed into him and his friends: run, hide, lie down flat. But these are only the first set of rules to follow; the second set of rules are for what comes afterwards, when you’ve seen your loved ones lying dead on the ground, rules that are so ingrained among the inhabitants of the community that everyone knows them without knowing how or why. Rule 1: No crying. Rule 2: No snitching. Rule 3: Revenge. Following these rules isn’t a choice – it’s an obligation, which William sets out to fulfil, armed with Shawn’s gun. He steps into the lift that will take him down and out of his block – and then the extraordinary happens. The lift stops at the next floor, and as the doors open he is joined by a wholly unexpected companion, one who he used to know very well; one who is now dead. At each floor the lift stops and at each floor William encounters another ghost, all of them people who played a significant part in his life, and who all died untimely and violent deaths as the cycle of killing and revenge spun on and on. As they tell their stories, the biggest tragedy of all comes into focus, namely that no death in these circumstances can ever be isolated, but rather becomes the catalyst for more killing, a link in a heartbreaking chain that has no end in sight.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Long Way Down is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read; I started reading and didn’t stop until I was done, and when I was done I was a broken wreck. The subject matter alone pretty much guarantees a novel of emotional heft, but here’s the real stroke of genius: it’s entirely written in verse. I once heard poetry described as “language under pressure”, and that’s precisely the effect it has here – pressure, intensity and immediacy. The writing is sparse, sometimes only a handful of words on a page, but with this method of storytelling every single word has to count, and it does. Even the briefest phrases are chosen with almost excruciating care, and I was left completely stunned by the raw emotional power that could be contained in such spare poetry, with every single word a blow. I don’t know whether the author intended the effect to be similar to the gunshots that are pivotal to his story, but that’s how reading it felt – short, sharp hits of pain. I’ve never experienced poetry used in this way before, and it blew me away.

Then there are the searching questions that the author leaves bouncing round your head after the final page. As William rides down in the lift, he is confronted with the possibility that perhaps there is a choice. By exacting revenge, he might hope to assuage at least some of the feelings of grief and injustice triggered by the murder of his beloved brother; yet in doing so he is making himself the next link in the chain of brutality and ensuring the killing will continue – he might even be the next to die. Or he could turn round, go home and break that chain, and take a stand against the rules that call for more death, over and over again… How much of our existence is a choice, and how much is forced upon us by our upbringing, our community, the social circumstances in which we find ourselves? Judgement from a place of privilege is absurdly easy, but Jason Reynold’s mission is to make it difficult, and to sweep away any preconceptions we may have had.

Reading – and enjoying – this novel so much also opened my eyes as to how narrow my reading often is, and how all too often I dismiss books, almost without thinking about it, because they don’t fit into my preconceived ideas about what is interesting, relatable or relevant to me. I should say a huge thank you to Alfie @Elfcouncillor for the glowing recommendation, without which this amazing novel would have completely passed me by! If you’ve read it I’d love to hear your thoughts as always.

See you back on the blog very soon x

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – review

I feel duty-bound to start this review with a warning: you should only pick up this book if you’re prepared for it to take over your life completely until you’ve finished it. Seriously, to call it addictive is an understatement – Daisy Jones and her dysfunctional cohorts will worm their way into your heart and stay lodged there with a longevity few fictional characters achieve.

The story feels familiar, and indeed you don’t have to be a music aficionado to know it’s one that’s been played out many times in the real world: a band experience a meteoric rise to fame, only for tensions within the group to cause it to implode in spectacular fashion, putting an end to both friendships and careers in the process. The novel begins when the band in question are known simply as The Six, but it’s the arrival of the striking, uber-confident Daisy Jones as frontwoman that kicks off the events that will ultimately be everyone’s undoing. I’m aware as I write this that the bare bones of the story arc sound a bit ho-hum and very predictable, but what sounds like a tale we’ve all heard before, in the hands of Taylor Jenkins Reid morphs into something magic.

Let’s start with the setting: 70s America, a nostalgically rendered pre-iTunes world where the expert craftsmanship of the album and the electricity of live performance are the keys to musical success. I’m far too young sadly to remember the era, yet somehow the way it was written sparked off a yearning in me for this vastly different time – aided in part perhaps by the fact the story is told through the characters’ own reminiscences. There’s no rose-tinting – the hedonistic combination of the proverbial sex, drugs and rock’n’roll represents freedom, fun and wild indulgence but it comes hand in hand with its flipside of addition, infidelity and emotional hangovers that out-punch the physical ones. Yet the pleasure and the pain are both equally intoxicating and compelling; you can’t help but acknowledge one couldn’t exist without the other.

The absolute stroke of genius, however, in Daisy Jones and The Six is the format in which it’s written. The entire book takes the form of an interview transcript, with the character’s name followed by their dialogue. When it comes to creating a sense of authenticity you can’t get much better than this; the result is a cast of characters who seem so real you can’t believe this is a fiction; it will have you running to Google just to double check the band didn’t actually exist! At first it feels almost like reading a lengthy magazine article; the format lends the writing an immediacy and a pace that drives the story along at a rattling speed. What took me by surprise though was the emotional gut-punch Daisy Jones and The Six managed to pull off as the story drew nearer its end. The genuine pain I felt for some of the characters was unexpected given there remains no descriptive language and no intervention by a narrator to guide our sentiments in the desired direction. When a writer is relying purely on dialogue to do the heavy lifting for them it has to be spot on, and this never hit a false note. The root of all the sadness can perhaps be boiled down to the fact that no-one can ever really understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, even those people closest to them. The irony here is that we get to see it all as each character speaks in turn: we hear polar opposite interpretations of events spelt out in the words of the participants themselves, each assuming their version of events is true – they never get to hear as we do the contradicting viewpoint that would have altered their perspective and just maybe allowed them to prevent the heartbreaks and the rifts that tragically go on to last a lifetime.

Of the many books I’ve read over the last few months, this one stands out a mile. Everyone who’s read Daisy Jones and The Six (or enjoyed the audiobook, which I gather is extremely well done) has showered it with effusive praise, and I’m happy to join the fan club. If you’ve read it too I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – review

I read lots of books that I’d be happy to call great. I read loads of books that I’d go on to recommend to friends and family. But every now and then one comes along that blows everything else out of the water and takes its place on the pedestal reserved for the absolute zenith of quality writing. You can undoubtedly see where I’m going with this; The Vanishing Half is one such book and I suspect it will be a long time before I read anything that comes close to achieving what this novel managed to do. In fact, I’ve been sitting indecisively at the laptop for some time now, wondering where an earth to start – and how to convey the sheer perfection of its emotional heft, sublime writing and arresting story.

Well, let’s start with a plot summary. The novel follows the lives of a pair of twins – Desiree and Stella – who are born in the small American town of Mallard in the 1940s. It’s an unusual place; its founder, Alphonse Decuir, was a freed slave (and the twins’ ancestor) whose dream was to build a town populated by a black community, one which “refused to be treated like Negroes”. Yet his ideal vision was one of “lightness”; we are told how:

"...he imagined his children's children's children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.  A more perfect Negro.  Each generation lighter than the one before." 

And it’s skin colour that ultimately drives the twins in very different directions. Desiree lives out her life as the black woman she is, but once the adolescent Stella realises she can pass for white, her life is set on a trajectory that sees her leave her family, and hometown and her identity behind to forge a new persona – a persona that is white. The women’s choices have consequences that last a lifetime, ones that are borne not only by themselves but by their children, who become the ultimate victims of a life defined by lies, evasion and subterfuge.

What drew me into the novel straight away was the evocative depiction of small-town America as it was in the mid twentieth century. The descriptions of the mundane – the familiar and unchanging clientele at the local diner, the twins watching Audrey Hepburn movies at the local picture house, their mother in her rocking chair shelling beans – are made to seem at once inconsequential and loaded with meaning, nostalgic and yet utterly authentic. The writing carries with it a real sense of affection on the part of the author towards not only her characters but the world they inhabit, flawed and brutal though it may be.

This brutality, when it appears, is a real shock, a flash of horror incongruous against the seemingly gentle, benign setting; it marks the beginning of what will be a tragically common thread through the twins’ lives – racism and the violence that all too often comes with it. At times it takes the form of social discrimination, ironically by members of the community who consider themselves

"fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at newsreels of southern sheriffs swinging clubs at colored college students.  They thought [Martin Luther] King was an impressive speaker - they might even have cried at his funeral, that poor young family - but they still wouldn't have allowed the man to move into their neighbourhood."

At other times, when the white community’s sense of their inherent privilege is threatened, social exclusion turns to violent action – sometimes under the cover of darkness, at other times in metaphorical and literal daylight, invading the very places where people believe they can feel safe and secure. These parts of the book are hard to read, but crucial to the painful truth that Brit Bennett is exposing through her novel: racism is everywhere, from the thugs that do their fatal damage with a crowbar to the white-collar workers of affluent suburbia who inflict theirs through petitions, gossip, bullying and harassment.

Ultimately, I’d say this was a novel about belonging, and it asks the question of its characters again and again. Stella, by passing as white, gains access to a section of society who would never allow her to belong if they knew the truth of her ethnicity. Desiree, returning to Mallard as an adult, has to face up to the reality of belonging in a place she always promised herself she’d leave behind her. And when the twins’ children take over the baton of the story, the novel’s tack changes again, charting the struggle of finding your place in the world when there are so many unanswered questions about your family’s past hanging over your head. It was at this point, when Desiree’s daughter Jude leaves Mallard for the other side of the country, hoping to fulfil her potential at college, that the story went off in a direction I didn’t expect. It’s difficult to say much more at this point without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll leave you (hopefully) to read the book and discover for yourself where the story goes. What works so well, though, is that even as the novel branches out, the author keeps bringing all her threads back together at just the right point to keep the tapestry holding together and to remind us as readers how and why things got to where they are.

I could go on writing about The Vanishing Half for days and still not have covered everything I want to say; I can’t remember the last time there was so much to love crammed into one book. The evocation of time and place is spot on; the characters live, breathe and exist without ever striking an inauthentic note; every description, every line of dialogue, every tiny incident is treated with exquisite care and attention. It’s a story about race, yes, but it succeeds as such because it’s also a story about real people – their frustrated ambitions, failed relationships, lies, loves, hopes and regrets. It is without doubt THE best book I’ve read in 2020 and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Is it a sad book? In many ways yes, and yet for all the heartbreak there are glimmers of hope that keep pushing resolutely through the grief and the pain, meaning that when we come to the end, despite everything we’ve gone through in the company of these characters, we don’t feel any sense of despair.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re lucky enough to have experienced this book for yourself! Thanks for reading.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg – review

Any novel featuring a precocious clique of university students acting out a lethal drama of arrogance, manipulation and murder is inevitably going to draw comparisons with The Secret History. Most of these comparisons are, let’s be honest, going to be unfavourable, because Donna Tartt’s first (and in my opinion best: discuss) novel is a masterclass in campus nastiness and post-adolescent hubris that has yet to be bettered. I’m not surprised that Tartt gets a mention on the book’s back cover, but to assume this is going to be a mediocre attempt at a carbon copy would be to do The Truants a disservice.

However, I openly admit that when I started reading it, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to unfold. I’ve read a couple of novels with similar set-ups (The Bellwether Revivals, If We Were Villains) so was pretty sure what to expect: an insular group of characters whose vices, obsessions and jealousies eventually tear the obnoxious clique apart from the inside. Kate Weinberg begins her book by introducing a collection of characters who appear to fit into this mould. Jess Walker, from whose point of view the story is written, is a frustrated girl who has lived out her life thus far as the bored, almost-invisible “middle child” in a pretty unremarkable middle class family. On her arrival at university she is immediately drawn to the absurdly wealthy, socially fearless and uninhibited Georgie and the two of them form a slightly unexpected but inseparable pair. It’s not long before this fledgling friendship expands to include two young men: Nick, another student and Alec, a South African journalist who although not enrolled in the university, delights in turning up on campus to argue with and humiliate the lecturers. Every dysfunctional group needs a force to drive it to its ultimate destruction, and it’s Alec who is the catalyst for the events that follow. His position as the influencer of the group is easy to understand; he has a seductively tragic backstory, a life experience his younger admirers lack, and a level of eccentricity and individualism that falls just on the right side of appealing. Crucially, he is also incredibly charming – an asset that will have serious repercussions for those who fall under his spell.

So far, so unsurprising: but the author throws another character into the mix, one who I found the most intriguing of the entire novel. Lorna is a university professor whose reputation for academic excellence and cutting edge ideas earns her something of a celebrity status among her students, in the eyes of Jess most of all. At first I had her painted as a somewhat insubstantial personality, a stylish yet hollow woman who knew how to put on a performance and who took undue delight in the hero-worship she received from her na├»ve pupils; as the novel progresses, however, she becomes more of an enigmatic figure and we’re never sure how much of the mystique surrounding her is a fabrication, a figment of Jess’s obsession, and how much is founded in reality.

I was expecting The Truants to remain quite insular in its focus and claustrophobic in its setting, as is often the case with stories of this kind, but I was actually very happy to find it take off in an unexpected direction. In the first chapters there are all the hallmarks of pending self-destruction: drinks, drugs and romantic attachments, some concealed and some very much less so. However, the author cleverly decides to split her close-knit group apart midway through the novel, and this gives the book room to become a different sort of story. The second half becomes almost more akin to a thriller, with a mystery to be unravelled, yet the writing manages to balance the excitement of an unsolved puzzle with an increasingly astute focus on the characters and their confusion, passion, guilt and pain. Jess carries the story in ever-increasing solitude as others fall by the wayside, and eventually it comes down to the relationship between the troubled student and Lorna, the professor, mentor and caregiver to whom she is drawn like a moth to a flame. The connection between the two remains shrouded in questions to the end. Was there an element of sexuality there? Was the affection even genuine, or was it ultimately a relationship that served a purpose at a particular moment in time?

There are few neat answers for anyone involved in this story – and I liked that. The truth of life is that friendships drift apart, past betrayals cast a shadow over relationships that can taint them forever and people can disappear from your life overnight without warning and before you’ve had a chance to make your peace with the part they played in your journey. The partying students who we meet at the beginning of The Truants learn many of these hard lessons over the course of the book, and I think it’s that progression that prevents us from tiring of a collection of characters who are, to be brutally honest, mostly self-absorbed and not always that likeable. For all their faults, they will stick in your head – and I always feel that’s the mark of a well-written novel.

Thanks for reading; if you have any thoughts on The Truants I’d love to hear them, so do leave your comments below!

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – review

The Ashes of London kicked off my love affair with this series, and it’s been going strong ever since. I thought book three, The King’s Evil, was the pinnacle – until I read this one, after which I could only doff my hat to Andrew Taylor for topping his previous installment once again. For those of you who haven’t come across them before, the books are set in Restoration London and feature the exploits of civil servant James Marwood, who finds himself drawn reluctantly into the machinations of Whitehall and the King’s court. Over the course of the series he develops an enigmatic relationship with Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, whose family history forms an ever-present cloud over her prospects and security. On the surface they are acquaintances who every now and then are useful to one another, yet we can see quite clearly there’s something more to their relationship than that: something unspoken and not entirely understood by either of them. They are not lovers, not even friends necessarily, but there’s no denying they each instinctively need what the other provides.

The Last Protector of the title is the name given to Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who has been in exile on the continent since the monarchy returned to power and has made no attempt to cause trouble for Charles II’s regime – until now. Intimately connected with the conspiracy theories, rumour and unrest filtering through London is the flamboyant but dangerous Duke of Buckingham, whose dandyish attire and theatrical manner belies his power and ruthlessness. With the King, Buckingham and the mysterious figure of the Protector forming three sides of a devious and manipulative triangle, James Marwood faces double dealing and betrayal on all sides as he tries to unmask the instigators of the political violence spreading through the capital.

This is a period of history I love and find absolutely fascinating, so there’s an immediate appeal to be found in the setting alone. However, sound historical research doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with enjoyable historical fiction – and this is where Andrew Taylor gets it so right. The recreation of mid seventeenth-century London feels authentic without being a vehicle for gratuitous fact-dropping, and the author manages to give his readers an understanding of the political climate of the time without using dialogue as clumsy exposition. Most important of all, the characters feel as relatable as if they were alive today, and having followed Marwood through four books now, I feel as attached to him as I did to Shardlake in C J Sansom’s magnificent series. The political setting means there are inevitably swathes of male characters, but the author seems to go out of his way to redress the balance by involving some terrific women in the story, taking care to draw them in as much detail as his male lead. There’s a surprising amount of historical fiction out there that’s pretty lazy with its female cast (the bawdy innkeeper’s wife! the homely peasant! the generic Tudor princess!), often relegating them to the role of sexual victim or plot accessory, but what this series gets right is the way in which it treats women as individuals whilst acknowledging the reality of their lives in a society that was more overtly patriarchal than the one we live in today.

The Last Protector is a compulsive page-turner, an intriguing thriller, an escape into the past and also a touching story of the cruel chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots. I have my fingers crossed for many more books to come – it’s clear that James Marwood’s story is very far from over.

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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo – review

Kim Jiyoung is not a remarkable woman. She comes from a conventional family, went to school and college, got a job, found a partner, married and had a child. Everything about Kim Jiyoung is what everyone would expect – until the day when, aged 34, she sets off on a course that frightens her husband, alienates her in-laws and looks set to undo the stability and predictability that has been the defining feature of their lives. Jiyoung begins to speak as if another person were inhabiting her body. When she addresses her husband by talking about herself in the third person, he thinks it’s a slightly odd but understandable cry for attention and support. However, when she takes on the persona of a friend who died the year before, he starts to feel more and more unsettled. Finally, after an altercation at a family gathering where Jiyoung speaks some uncomfortable home truths about their behaviour – all the while as if she were commenting as another person – her husband, Daehyun, decides to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. The story that follows is of Jiyoung’s life as recounted to the doctor during their sessions.

The style in which Cho Nam-Joo relates her protagonist’s tale is clever, unusual and extremely effective; Jiyoung, while not in any way a two-dimensional character, is nonetheless very obviously an everywoman, intended to represent the millions of women in South Korea (and in many other countries too) who come up against barrier after barrier when simply attempting to live their lives with the same freedoms and opportunities as their male counterparts. At times it reads almost like a work of fact rather than fiction, the author peppering the narrative with pertinent statistics relating to women’s earnings in the workplace, or the ratio of men to women in a society that favours male children to the point where abortions of female foetuses are a frighteningly common occurrence. And actually, this is a work of fact in the guise of a novel. Everything Cho Nam-Joo describes is a genuine reflection of women’s existence in a society that favours men from cradle to grave.

It’s not an easy read. Some of the discrimination – and danger – Kim Jiyoung suffers is very overt, such as the episode where man follows her onto a bus and sexually harasses her. Slightly more subtle, but just as frightening in its implications, is the bullying that she and her female classmates receive at the hands of male students – and most importantly, the teachers’ response or lack thereof. Even when one teacher, unusually, tries to dig into an incident in which Jiyoung’s shoe is stolen, she tells the girl that her tormentor’s behaviour is because “he likes you…..Boys are like that; they’re meaner to the girls they like.” This is a world in which boys literally have the upper hand from the day they’re born; the author describes how women from all generations of Kim Jiyoung’s family were commiserated when they gave birth to girls, and constantly endured friends and relations telling them how much better their lives would be once they’d had a boy and the pressure was off them to produce a male child. Once the patriarchal set-up has been established, it never lets up. All the way through school, college and finally the workplace, Jiyoung and her female friends find themselves second best and having to fight for the most basic of rights. Boys are served lunch first in the school canteen while the girls have to wait in a second queue. Business managers promote men over women who are more competent, and are quite candid about the fact they’ve done so. Female siblings are expected to use their salaries to contribute to the higher education of their brothers in order that they might have better employment opportunities. Some of it seems so absurdly discriminatory as to be almost unbelievable, but it’s all too true.

To say I enjoyed the book wouldn’t be a fair assessment, as it’s quite clearly not meant to be a comfortable or escapist read. As the injustices pile up, so does the rage of the reader, as we get a very vivid sense of the powerlessness of women in the face of such an entrenched patriarchy. That’s not to say that Cho Nam-Joo presents her female characters as completely helpless; throughout the book there are small glimmers of hope as Jiyoung and others speak out against the circumstances in which they find themselves. All too often, however, small victories are followed by backward steps as the established social order of men first, women second, reasserts itself. Centuries of inequality cannot be overturned overnight. It is a difficult read, but a hugely important one. Only by shining a light on unfairness, discrimination and abuse can anything ever begin to change.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry – review

“Even though it can only be legend – you almost think, don’t you, that one day you might look up and see her there?”

Melmoth. The woman in black who haunts both your waking hours and your fretful sleep. She is The Wanderer: the woman who denied the risen Christ and was henceforth damned for ever more, condemned to an endless life of isolation, trudging through the centuries on bloodied feet, looking for other despairing souls to share her infinite suffering. She is the footstep behind you in the street, the shadow on the wall, the figure seen but not seen from the corner of your eye….

Are you looking over your shoulder yet? If not then I promise you will be by the time you’ve finished this book! I picked it up on the back of finishing a collection of M R James’ Ghost Stories, wanting something to prolong the creepy atmosphere that I’d been relishing. The Essex Serpent has been an absolute favourite of mine since I read it a few years ago, so I already knew I loved Sarah Perry’s writing style; Melmoth is a similar mixture of unease, paranoia and an is-it-real-is-it-imagined quasi-supernatural entity at its core. Set in present-day Prague, it follows lonely, unassuming protagonist Helen Franklin, whose life is turned upside down when she is given a collection of documents by an academic friend, Karel. He is clearly greatly disturbed by the contents – and, judging by his haggard expression and anxious glances at the doorway, by something else as well. The testaments contained in these papers form the basis of a story that unfolds in ever increasing layers, taking the reader from Second World War Czechoslovakia, to England’s 16th century heresy trials, to late twentieth century Manilla and finally to Turkey in the 1920s. If this all sounds too scattered and fragmented to come together as a coherent novel, I can assure you I found the opposite to be true. The characters telling their stories all have one thing in common: they believe themselves to be stalked by Melmoth following a decision for which they feel an unassuageable guilt, even anguish.

It’s clear very early on that Helen too has experienced some kind of trauma in her past from which she hasn’t yet recovered. She denies herself all but the minimum amount of food she needs to survive, she scratches her wrists, refuses to indulge in anything that might give her any pleasure, such as music or colourful clothes, and she shuns anything that has the potential to become an affectionate relationship. In fact Karel appears to be about the only person in her life she could call a friend, and even then we sense a certain restraint on her part, a barrier that she is never prepared to let down completely. Whatever her story, the things she reads about the Melmoth legend affect her greatly. She sees the faces of the guilt-stricken storytellers appearing before her, along with another presence – something dark, shadowy and indistinct, which both frightens her and yet somehow attracts her to it. According to the myth, Melmoth’s ultimate aim is to entice the despairing into taking her hand and joining her on her endless journey; this novel is ultimately about who succumbs and who has the strength to resist. The big question is, what will Helen do?

The book is packed full of brilliant characters – not all likeable by any stretch of the imagination, but all compelling and very real. Helen is deliberately enigmatic to start with, but the author gradually reveals more and more about her character through incredibly subtle, skilful writing and in the end we feel we know her better than she knows herself, supressing as she does the parts of herself we suspect she loathes. Josef Hoffman, a boy who writes of his childhood in wartime Czechoslovakia, is both a sad and utterly repellent figure. The man known only as Nameless in his testimony is equally abhorrent, although frighteningly recognisable as an example of the thousands of people throughout history who have aided and abetted atrocities by hiding behind a desk and signing the papers that legitimise persecution in lieu of pulling the trigger themselves. It’s a real bugbear with me that I usually forget many of the finer details of books pretty much as soon as I’ve finished them, so I take it as a sign of how strong the characterisation is in Melmoth that every single actor Sarah Perry puts on her stage is still vivid and alive in my mind.

In any supernatural story it’s extremely hard to get the balance of fear just right, and Sarah Perry does an amazing job in this respect. At one end of the spectrum there’s the intangible but very real unease that sends a shiver down the spine, at times created by nothing more than a bird flying into a window or the ceiling mouldings of cherubs in a library that become grotesque figures “screaming, as if behind the vault their soft fat feet were being scorched with branding irons.” This eeriness runs through the very fabric of Prague itself; the bright, noisy trappings of modern life sit uneasily alongside the old city with its dark passageways and ominous statues, the crowded cafes and lively music failing to mask the malevolence stalking the streets just out of our sight. Then there’s Melmoth herself – how do you describe an entity like this without it becoming a cliched monster, in danger of being slightly laughable? Things are often at their most frightening when they’re unknown, and the author keeps Melmoth out of view for much of the book; she’s a shadow, a footstep or, when she does appear as a woman, her face is hidden. Only when her victims have reached the depths of despair does she reveal herself, and then her hideous appearance is put before us in all its glory.

But of course behind all this horror another idea is at play, namely that Melmoth is nothing more than the manifestation of our own guilty conscience and lack of hope that we can ever be forgiven for what we’ve done. We can only banish her when we come to terms with our past and allow ourselves to believe that we can atone for our sins by positive action. It’s an idea that’s quite common in a lot of supernatural stories – is the evil entity real or is it the protagonist going mad – but I think it works beautifully here, because the novel doesn’t really require a definitive answer. If you want to read it as an “imagine if this legendary creature was real” kind of story, or whether you prefer to interpret it as a psychological character study that explores what trauma, grief and guilt can do to a person, I think you’ll get just as much out of it either way. Equally, I think it’s possible to take it as some kind of mixture of the two. Ultimately though, it’s about revelling in the gothic atmosphere, feeling the chill of being observed by something unseen, and admiring the beautiful writing that makes the ordinary become sinister in unexpected ways.

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The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

I’m actually quite proud of myself for even allowing this story collection into my home! I don’t mind admitting I’m the world’s biggest coward when it comes to anything vaguely supernatural; there’s a frantic scramble to change the channel when even just the trailer for a spooky programme comes on TV, and quite frankly the thought of consuming any paranormal entertainment by design is pretty much unthinkable. So when my sister recommended this book to me, to say I was wary would be an understatement, and I was completely shocked when not only was I not overly terrified, but I actually enjoyed it.

If you’re of a fragile disposition like me, I think it definitely helps that most of the stories are framed by an objective narrator, who passes on the story second hand after talking to a friend, finding a documented account and so on. This keeps the ghostly action contained within the tales one step removed if you like, and it’s a comfort to come back to the safety of a (surviving!) narrator and a sense of reality after any creepiness is over and done with. Having said that, it’s very much a mixed bag of scariness, ranging from the mildly sinister to the fairly disturbing, and which ones linger in the mind most will probably vary very much from reader to reader: out of all the stories, I count myself fortunate that only one came back to bother me in the middle of the night! (If you have even a slight aversion to puppets, then avoid “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” – you have been warned).

The author definitely has some favourite themes, returning to them a number of times in the course of the collection. There are a lot of stories that take place in and around churches or cathedrals – unsurprising perhaps given the wealth of potentially spooky material attached to these places, but I didn’t mind the repetition of the setting as these tales in particular appealed to me. The notion of revenge or punishment is also a prevalent idea; many of the stories’ victims are hounded by supernatural entities precisely because they’ve committed some sort of sin, whether that’s consorting with evil spirits, or taking possession of a significant object that doesn’t belong to them. At the end of “The Haunted Doll’s House” there’s even an author’s note acknowledging the similarity to another of his stories, but hoping the reader will see enough of a difference to still enjoy it!

I can see why M R James is known as a master of the ghost story; what I found most intriguing – and extremely clever – was his ability to create an atmosphere of menace out of what would normally be the most benign of surroundings: a hilltop on a sunny day, a painting of a country house, the blackberry bushes at the side of a country lane. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to look through a pair of binoculars again for a while without a shiver down the spine. It was a superb mixture of the traditional and the unexpected, and it held my interest from first to last despite there being around 30 stories in all. Even if you think you’re not a fan of ghost stories, like I did, I’d honestly encourage you to give these a try and see what you think – I’m certainly glad I did. Just don’t read them after dark.

My favourite stories:

  • The Mezzotint
  • The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
  • A Neighbour’s Landmark
  • An Episode of Cathedral History
  • The Residence at Whitminster

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