“Under the Blue” by Oana Aristide – review

The year is 2020. A deadly virus has swept across the world with alarming speed, killing almost everyone in its path. A tiny group of survivors must set out on a race across the globe to outrun both the disease and the environmental catastrophe that threatens to follow in its wake.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but please, stay with me for a moment!!

Firstly, it’s both interesting and important to read the author’s note that accompanies the novel, in which she explains it was actually written well before the horrendous events of last year began, so any anxieties about this being a tasteless cash-in novel can be dispelled straight away. Secondly, you may be asking yourself, do I really want to read a novel about a global pandemic in the current circumstances? Well, I wouldn’t have said so either before I read this, but although on the surface it appears painfully close to reality, it actually takes a vastly different road very quickly. Likewise the themes it tackles are a world away from the ones that raise their heads on our news reports day in day out; this isn’t a debate on government action or inaction, healthcare inequalities or vaccine nationalism. Instead, it zooms in on two opposite ends of perhaps the most fundamental spectrum there is: the individual’s moral choices and the ethics of the species that is humankind.

There are only a tiny number of characters in the novel, something which, despite the worldwide nature of the events that are unfolding, gives it an intensely intimate feel. The protagonist is Harry, a loner and an artist who, apart from a few casual interactions with the neighbours, lives in his own little world without family or real friends. We know from the opening pages he is carrying a burden of guilt and sadness relating to his recently deceased nephew, but exactly why is at this point something of a mystery. When the virus hits the London he is forced, like so many millions of others, to run – the start of a harrowing and desperate journey that we will take with him throughout the course of the book. The second strand of the novel took me completely by surprise, coming as it does in complete contrast to Harry’s quest for survival. It begins in 2017, three years before the pandemic, and focuses on a pair of scientists and their attempt to develop an artificial intelligence that will ultimately, it is hoped, be able to anticipate and identify large scale threats to humanity before they happen. The training regime for the AI – named Talos – seems laborious at first, as it works through history from the earliest human times, learning about everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the great plague of the fourteenth century in order to accumulate information that will help it predict future scenarios. However, things move on, more quickly and in a more complex direction than scientists Paul and Lisa had predicted, as they attempt to give Talos an understanding of the concept of using ethical judgement in decision making. As the AI begins to grow a mind of its own outside of the initial parameters his creators believed they had set, he (the scientists refer to Talos as having a male identity) raises increasingly challenging questions about exactly why humans hold the beliefs they do in relation to the fundamentals of right and wrong. As the time of the pandemic approaches, there seems to be more and more doubt as to whether Talos is actually prepared to be the saviour of humanity, or whether his actions will ultimately be governed by his own internal “belief” system that may in fact run counter to human interests.

I’m always very conscious not to give away spoilers if I can help it when I write a review, and because this novel is such a tense ride from beginning to end I’m going to pull up even shorter than I would normally when discussing plot and characters! I’m not going to tell you anything about what happens to Harry on his journey, or what finally becomes of Lisa and Paul’s uber-intelligent robot creation Talos. I don’t need to dangle tantalising eipsodes from the novel in front of you to get you hooked; Oana Aristide has been exceptionally clever in the way she pulls you into the story from the word go, so if you’ve got as far as picking up the book in the first place, then your investment in its characters and climax is pretty much a given. It must be tempting when you’ve created a fictional, scientific event such as the catastrophe of Under the Blue to indulge yourself by presenting the reader with all the details you’ve worked out lovingly in your head prior to writing, but the author refrains from any premature exposition – one of the novel’s great strengths. Harry, for days, even weeks, doesn’t have the full picture of what’s going on; and why would he? He’s had to pack a bag and run, with no time to go online or watch hours of rolling news bulletins, so it makes perfect sense that to start with we know very little either. The author doesn’t allow us access to any information before it comes onto the radar of her characters, and it’s that uncertainty, unease and desperation to get our heads round just what is going on that gives the story such a compelling edge. Yet Harry’s struggle isn’t just about coming to terms with the reality of current events, harrowing enough though that would be in its own right, but the realities that lie semi-buried in his own psyche: his guilt, his failings, his unfulfilled desires and the deep-seated isolation that goes beyond even being one of the last people left alive on earth. I thought he was a wonderful character – completely real, likeable in his own slightly sad way, and free from any post-apocalyptic survivor cliche.

The tension, strangely, doesn’t come (for the most part) from big, bombshell moments of high drama, but rather from the bizarre and unexpected sense of inertia surrounding Harry’s attempt to make it to safety. We get the sense that somehow, whatever decisions he makes and however many miles he travels, he is no closer to the relief of a secure and happy end. The mixture of hope, necessity of action but also futility is emotionally exhausting, for both us and the characters, mirrored and intensified by the unremitting, stifling heat of a parched and unforgiving summer. The second strand of the novel, the story of Talos the AI, is vastly different in style and provides a break from the uncomfortable, sweat-drenched narrative of Harry’s physically and mentally arduous escape attempt. Written entirely in script-like dialogue, it’s pacey and immediate, yet still manages to take its time unpacking the disquieting questions that arise when humanity is assessed objectively by something that has been created without any of the moral assumptions we take for granted. As Talos learns more about the species that built him, he puts across a new perspective on humankind’s supposed moral mastery of the world: are we actually anywhere near as inherently “good” as we believe we are? Do we really possess any innate superiority that would justify our position as judge, jury and executioner on this planet? And perhaps most importantly, what grievous damage have we done to this world that we call home while blinkered to the level of our destructive capabilities? Lisa and Paul intend their robot to be unshakably on the side of humanity, but as the story unfolds it becomes less and less clear whether or not he ultimately is. The fact that I started very quickly to think of the AI as simply another character with his own “personality” is a testament to how cleverly his dialogue is written; if this part of the novel had failed to hit the right note of authenticity it would have undermined the whole thing, but it’s entirely convincing.

We can guess, given Talos’s proposed purpose as a predictor of catastrophe, that the scientists’ story will at some point tie in with the pandemic narrative, but it is almost the end of the novel before we find out exactly how. When the two strands finally come together, it’s with an emotional heft that I can still feel weighing on me some time after reading; it’s one of those conclusions that you need to go away and think about quietly for a while afterwards. The author leaves us with a whole world of ideas still to ruminate over even after the book has ended, and there’s a real satisfaction to that as you know the novel has done its job. The events of the past year have certainly made me re-examine how I look at certain things, and in many ways I feel I was somehow emotionally primed and ready to read a novel like this and get the most out of it. As ever, I’d very much love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading x

  • Under the Blue is out in March, and I won my advance reading copy in a Twitter giveaway competition.

“Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Ronan Hession – review

There are some books that announce their presence with fireworks and fanfare, and there are some that slip quietly in by the side door and wait for you to notice them. Leonard and Hungry Paul is understated in almost every way, yet manages to blossom into something pretty special. There’s little to summarise in the way of plot; although the novel is loosely framed by the run-up to the wedding of Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, that’s not where the real depth of the novel lies. It’s as much of a character exploration as it is a story, focusing its lens on a brief period in the lives of two best friends whose personal circumstances and life trajectories don’t quite fit the expectations of those around them – and perhaps those reading about them too. Both are single, neither are pursuing an all-consuming quest for romance. Both have spent their whole lives (they are now in their 30s) living with parents, although when the novel begins Leonard’s mother has just died, and with it the world he knows. Neither do they have high-flying careers as some sort of acceptable “substitute” for relationships: Leonard writes entries for children’s encyclopedias and Hungry Paul works a couple of days a week as a postman, standing in when the regulars are off duty. Through the course of the book, the author explores the big-hearted friendship that has kept the complications of the outside world at bay. They talk, they play board games and simply enjoy each other’s company, kindred spirits who understand each other perfectly, even if not everyone else understands them. Yet even Leonard and Hungry Paul’s tranquil existence isn’t immune from twists of fate, and little by little a trickle of small surprises and unpredictable turns of events conspire to raise the possibility that their lives might be about to change.

My overriding emotion when reading this novel was actually one of relief: finally, a contemporary novel brave enough to feature as its lead characters the type of people who are all too often sidelined in fiction of all kinds, whether it’s in book form, or on TV or film. What made the book particularly clever, I thought, was the way it went one step further, and flipped the conventions of what we expect from a novel about relationships. Paul’s sister Grace fits the “main character” bill perfectly: she has a successful career, a wedding on the horizon and just enough doubt about why she doesn’t feel as excited about it as she should to fuel a whole story of romantic angst and self-analysis. Paul and Leonard would normally be the sideshow, two single men in their thirties brought into the story ever now and then for a bit of comic relief or to provide a shoulder to cry on, before receding quietly to allow Grace, star of the show, her happy-ever-after moment. But in this novel the author gives them their own story. We care about Grace, and follow her with some interest, but the hope we have for a happy ending is well and truly on behalf of Leonard and Hungry Paul.

What was refreshing as well was the fact that you might assume at the start of the novel that these two men are somehow to be pitied, falling as they do outside the normal parameters of what society regards as a success. Yet the only thing that saddened me during the course of the novel was not the nature of Leonard and Paul themselves, but the way they were sometimes misinterpreted or misjudged by others. When Leonard makes a misstep in a potential romance he has absolutely no idea he has done so; since everything he does comes from a place of kindness, he is taken aback to find out that some people aren’t used to being on the receiving end of something he sees as so fundamental that it doesn’t even warrant thought or analysis. Grace badgers her brother Paul constantly, seeing him as a drain on her parents and completely lacking in drive or ambition, yet failing to realise that his situation isn’t borne of laziness or selfishness, but rather a certain zen-like simplicity of worldview. If your life is going smoothly, and you and those who surround you are content (and to be fair his parents have never told him outright that they aren’t) then why would you want to change things for the sake of it?

However, throughout the course of the novel, opportunities present themselves to the two friends that could mean change is on the horizon, but they come in very different forms. Leonard’s encounter with a co-worker sparks the courage to pursue a romantic relationship in a way he’s never done before, but perhaps more importantly provides him with the inspiration to unleash the creativity that’s been smouldering inside him with no outlet. For Hungry Paul, it’s his entry for a very banal local competition (leading to some laugh-out-loud funny moments) that has unexpected consequences. Yet in keeping with the tone of the novel, any changes that come aren’t cataclysmic. There are no epiphanies, no earth-shattering events that result in either of the friends suddenly shaking off their past selves and becoming different people. Indeed, what the author seems to care about more than anything is the idea that personal growth should be about embracing rather than abandoning who you are; it’s not about trying to mould yourself to someone else’s idea of achievement, but tapping into the unique abilities you possess just by being you. It sounds a bit trite when written here but believe me, in Ronan Hession’s hands it’s very powerful – and moving.

There were a few sections of the book that for me didn’t quite work as well as the bulk of it. The author clearly knows his characters inside out – their thoughts, motivations, worries and priorities – and is keen to share them with the reader in as much detail as possible. However, there were times when the desire to go inside a character’s head in such depth started to read a bit more like a psychological description than a novel. The most striking example is a chapter that describes every relationship Grace has had since her teenage years, in an attempt to provide context for why her current relationship with her fiance has so far worked out well. I’m all for building three-dimensional characters, but this felt like a slightly odd way to do it and was a little off-kilter to read.

That niggle aside, Leonard and Hungry Paul was a real pleasure, and it was a joy to spend time in the company of two men whose warmth, gentleness and complete lack of artifice is a ray of light in an angry, noisy and frenetic world. The novel, although as benign as its characters, is at the same time a quiet call-to-arms to re-evaluate the way we regard our fellow humans, and to really consider what it is that gives a person their true value. It’s all too easy, the author suggests, to overlook those who aren’t shouting the loudest, pushing themselves to the fore or meeting preconceived notions of social attainment. He knows, however, how precious and special his characters are, and shows them the care and attention they truly deserve. If you feel like you need a glimmer of hope – don’t we all – then I would tell you to pick up this book, go into a quiet corner and allow yourself to absorb all the love contained in these tender pages.

Thank you for reading x

“Little” by Edward Carey – review

Today we know her as Madame Tussaud, but for much of her life she was plain Marie Grosholtz – “Little”. This wonderfully imaginative novel gives a backstory to the diminutive girl who grew up to become the hugely successful businesswoman whose name is now familiar the world over. Her start in life was far from auspicious: orphaned at a tragically young age, she found herself in the care of the eccentric – and although not unkind, far from warm – medical model-maker Dr. Curtius. It marked the start of an extremely bizarre childhood, learning how to make lifelike wax models of internal organs and other parts of the human body in all their biologically accurate detail. Then one day Dr. Curtius gets a strange request: to cast the head of a medical colleague in wax. From that moment on, Marie’s life will never be the same again. The great and the good all want their likeness cast in wax, a new kind of status symbol, and Dr. Curtius has found his niche in business. The peculiar but touching partnership of Marie and the doctor, however, is not to last; circumstances drive the pair to Paris, where they lodge in the home of widowed Mme Picot and her son Edmond. The widow seems to have one aim from the offset, namely to exploit Dr. Curtius’s commercial success for her own gain and to drive a wedge between him and the little girl who’s worked so faithfully alongside him. Marie endures years of cruelty, neglect, exploitation and violence at the hands of this most horrendous of characters, until fate intervenes once again and she experiences a reversal of fortune that no-one from a poverty-stricken background such as hers could ever have imagined was possible.

In the decades that follow, Marie bears witness to some of the most famous events in French history, from royal machinations at the Palace of Versailles to the grim horrors of the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this volatile and dangerous era, it is wax that saves her again and again, her talent being both a release from fear and loneliness, and a literal life-saver in the darkest throes of The Terror. You can well imagine, then, how this pairing of the brutal time period and the naturally unsettling nature of wax heads that look like they’re about to spring to life, combines to create a novel that doesn’t just flirt with the macabre so much as jump into bed with it. The casting of wax heads is an uncomfortable business at the best of times, but one that turns into a truly gruesome practice when used on the freshly severed heads brought to the doctor and his apprentice by revolutionaries in the heat of their bloodlust. Yet even years before the anarchy in the French capital explodes in its bloody climax, the entire world is troubled by a sense of unease, whether it’s the wax replicas of notorious murderers in the exhibition hallway, the ghosts that Marie is sure she can hear stalking the Paris house or the chilling feeling that society itself is about to fall over a precipice from which there can be no return.

Little is also a deeply sad novel. Over the course of her life Marie experiences loss after devastating loss, the ones she suffers in later years proving to be the most soul-destroying of them all. She is not alone; many, if not most, of the people with whom she crosses paths are carrying the weight of their own grief, suffering and what we would today call post-traumatic stress with them as well. This is a world where people disappear, taken either by fate or by others intent on causing pain and hurt. Yet Marie somehow carries on, bearing her burdens with a resolute steadfastness and strength of character that never feels contrived or unrealistic, but rather keeps you rooting for her right to the end. The story is told in her voice, and I loved the way the tone gradually shifted from a childlike view of the world around her to the more mature outlook of a grown woman. Even as an adult, however, Marie never loses the sense of imagination and wonder that has been with her since the beginning; there is a hint of something magical, undefinable and unknowable in the air even in those times when the grim earthliness of events cannot be ignored.

I enjoyed Little from beginning to end, and Marie Grosholtz is one of the most beautifully drawn lead characters I can remember reading about for some time. Her life is strange, unconventional and pervaded by the sinister, and all the more memorable for it. If like me you love novels reimagining the lives of real figures from history then you’ll be a fan of this for sure; if you’ve read it already, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you for reading x

The Guest List by Lucy Foley – review

I’m not really a crime thriller person and on the occasions I’ve dipped into the genre I’ve often come away disappointed. I was super happy, then, to discover The Guest List, a thriller I genuinely enjoyed – it’s always a little bit rejuvenating to read something different to your normal fare and to come away feeling positive about it. It’s a variation of the classic locked room mystery: a murder takes place during a wedding party on a remote island, with a select guest list and a location cut off from the outside world. Among the group, grudges are ubiquitous and as you would suspect, the various characters’ seedy backstories provide a vast selection of possible motives for a killing. The fun of this kind of set up is that every reader has a genuine chance of guessing the solution to the puzzle and Lucy Foley turns out to be an extremely fair writer when it comes to providing decent clues; she creates a very clever story yet refrains from any impulse to pull the rug out from under your feet for the sake of an outlandish twist, a device that appears all to often in crime fiction and can simply leave you feeling cheated.

The book is written from the point of view of a number of different wedding guests, the narrative hopping between characters every chapter. I’ve read a couple of other books in which this way of writing hasn’t really worked for me, because I found a particular character uninteresting or their voice didn’t ring true, but in The Guest List I loved it. It kept the story moving at a rapid pace, and because the chapters are pretty short it constantly tempts you into thinking “just one more”; before you know it you’re over half way through and then, well, there’s no point in stopping! That’s not to say all the people you meet in the course of the novel are enjoyable company – far from it. The wedding is a ridiculously lavish affair, bride Jules and groom Will being a high-flying editor and a TV star, and the couple are as strident and egotistical a pair as you’d expect. The groom’s friends, who make up a large proportion of the titular guest list, are an obnoxious, posturing posse from his private school days, their innate sense of entitlement all too often tipping over into cruelty and harassment. Among the bride’s friends and family there are a few more sympathetic figures, in particular her sister Olivia, whose mental fragility is immediately obvious to the reader even as it exasperates the bride who can’t bear for the attention to be on anyone else but her. You’d think, given the descriptions above, that the book might be unbearable, so awful are some of the main players, but as the story goes on, the author gradually reveals flaws and vulnerabilities that make us feel, if not entirely sorry for them, at least more understanding of their behaviour.

The dialogue is a little bit cringe-worthy in places, primarily the banter between Will’s school friends – although I couldn’t decide whether this was down to the writing or simply the fact that any drunken persiflage will end up reading a bit lamely when it’s down on paper. This aside though, the style is brilliantly easy to read and keeps the story moving along at just the right pace. Another clever little device is the fact that, although the book opens with the moment the wedding guests hear the screams indicating something terrible has just happened, we don’t know for sure who the victim is until a bit later on. Quite honestly, by the time the novel reached its conclusion there were a number of characters I would have been quite happy to see with a knife in their back!

All I’ll say about the conclusion itself is that it’s punch-the-air perfect and not what I had guessed at all. I had such a fun time with The Guest List in fact that I’m absolutely going to be buying her first novel, The Hunting Party, which I gather is a similar kind of set-up, and if it’s anywhere near as enjoyable should be a cracking read. As ever, if you’ve read either of Lucy Foley’s books I’d love to hear what you thought!

Pine by Francine Toon – review

It’s the perfect time of year for something creepy, when even the most easily spooked of souls (like myself) are tempted by the prospect of a book that makes you want to leave the light on. Pine is without doubt my pick of the spooky season, ticking all the spine-chilling boxes and then some. It’s not, however, a traditional ghost story by any means, and that’s part of the reason I loved it so much – nothing here is predictable, and nothing about it was like anything I’ve read before. It’s a full-on mash up of thriller and supernatural, and it’s really hard to say on which side of the line it falls. I’ve come across a number of thrillers (as I’m sure you have too) that throw in the odd thunderstorm or creepy old house to add a bit of atmosphere and amp up the tension, when in actual fact there’s nothing paranormal going on at all, and we’re never meant to really believe there is. This novel, however, flips wholesale between the very real, earthly mystery of a woman who went missing in unexplained circumstances several years before, and genuine occult chills: the figure at the window, stone circles that appear out of nowhere, not to mention some very literal bumps in the night.

But before I get too carried away, I should probably back-track a bit. The book’s two main characters, who share the majority of the narrative between them, are Niall and his daughter Lauren, who live in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands. Lauren’s mother (and Niall’s wife), Christine, is the woman who disappeared some years before, when her daughter was only tiny. No body was ever found, but no-one ever heard from her again – and no-one knows why she would have left or where she went. This tragic event – and the effect it had on the family left behind – creates a genuine sadness that runs through the core of the story, giving it a lump-in-the-throat emotional depth that many thrillers lack. Niall responds to his grief by drinking, and alternates painfully between moments of overwhelming love and affection for his little girl and periods of neglect, when the lure of the local pub proves stronger than his paternal instincts. Lauren faces isolation on all fronts: the absence of a mother she doesn’t remember yet whose presence she knows she misses, an unreliable father with a propensity to vanish for hours on end leaving her to fend for herself, and loneliness at school, where the other children seize on her vulnerability and subject her to a constant barrage of verbal and physical bullying. She isn’t completely friendless, however, and while her father drinks she creates her own adventures with schoolmate Billy and a couple of older girls from the village, Diane and Ann-Marie. Her relationship with Ann-Marie in particular will turn out to have some very chilling and ultimately dangerous repercussions.

The Highland setting is an absolute gift for anyone wanting an unnerving backdrop for their tale! The pine forests behind the village are full of frightening potential; when Lauren and Billy head off to play in this disorientating, menacing wilderness, we as readers follow them with some reluctance. Where I thought the author surpassed herself, however, was in her imaginative creation of Lauren’s home; the very place where you’re meant to feel safe became one of the most sinister settings in the novel. From the moment we take our first tour of the wooden paneled walls, dark blue carpets and damp rooms we get an unshakeable sense that all is not well. Francine Toon stirs up fear through the simplest things – the sound of dripping without an obvious source, a curtain that divides the living and dining area – a barrier that seems somehow insecure and subject to be breached without warning; a lamp that may or may not have already been on when the characters first entered the room….

Seriously, I’m getting a cold sensation up my back even just sitting here typing this out as I remember how I felt reading those spooky passages! I read a book of M R James ghost stories earlier this year and creepy though many of them were, none gave me quite the physical sensation that Pine managed. It’s easy, I think, to misjudge horror, and there’s a very fine line between scary and silly, so I have to take may hat off to Toon for evoking maximum discomfort while staying on the right side of the line. My only tiny niggle is that perhaps the supernatural element of the book becomes slightly overdone right at the end, but certainly not enough to spoil the book as a whole.

I mustn’t forget of course that there’s a whole other side to the novel, carried away as I am with the thrill of the paranormal! It is just as successful in its other guise as a crime novel, and the human relationships are what makes the whole story so, well, believable. Whatever spooky goings on may or may not be happening up in the forest, at its heart Pine is the story of a father and daughter who are both grieving, one for a life he lost and the other for a life she could have had. If you took away all the other mystery, that relationship alone would have made for an immensely powerful novel. It would have been easy to make alcoholic father Niall, who forgets to come home to feed his daughter and takes out his misery in violently destructive rages, a despicable character, but he is so nuanced and complex that he garners our sympathy rather than our condemnation. Ten year old Lauren, too, is given a voice that feels utterly authentic for her age (which must be very hard to do I think) an despite being “only” a child is as fascinating and sophisticated a character as any of the adults. The whole book, in fact, is a beautifully realised mosaic of elements that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find together, but the end result is a striking, unforgettable book that defies easy classification. It won the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year, but if you overlook it because you don’t consider yourself a crime fan (and I certainly don’t) then you’d be missing out on something really special – and you’d be spending a little less time looking over your shoulder when you turn the last light out before bed….

Related posts

The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare – review

It may seem bizarre to say that a novel exploring forced marriage, violence and exploitation akin to modern-day slavery was one of the most uplifting books I’ve read this year, but that’s how I felt after I put it down for the last time. I had my eye on this months ago when it first came out but have only just got round to reading it, and I am SOOO glad I did. If you’re after a story of female empowerment and determination in the face of oppression then this is one for you.

This is one of those novels where I feel 100% justified in referring to the main character, Adunni, as the “heroine”; once you’ve read it you’ll know exactly what I mean. Her story takes place in Nigeria, a country I confess I know next to nothing about, but author Abi DarĂ© was born and brought up there so there’s no doubting the authenticity of her voice and the portrayal of the society that treats poor Adunni so harshly. The novel begins when the girl, barely into her teens, is sold into a forced marriage by her father, who has fallen on hard times and wants the income her new husband will provide. Adunni is heartbroken; not only does she have absolutely no attraction to or affection for the middle-aged man she’s to marry, but her new life as a subservient wife will mean that her dream of going to school and eventually becoming a teacher herself is taken away from her.

It’s no great spoiler to say that when she arrives at the home of her new husband, her life is not a happy one. He already has two wives, one of whom is jealous, vicious and violent and makes Adunni’s existence one of misery and fear. The sexual realities of being a married woman are also incredibly painful to read, as revolting to us as they are to a girl who is far too young to be enduring this kind of relationship. However, the situation takes a turn for the worse when a tragedy strikes quite early in the book, and Adunni finds herself thrown from the frying pan into the fire, working for no money as a servant in the home of a sadistic, abusive textiles entrepreneur known to her cowed, bullied household as “Big Madam”.

It’s hard to believe that a story such as this belongs to the modern age, and it’s sobering to have Adunni’s tragedy laid out in front of us knowing this is not just a novel, but a reality that affects millions of girls and women in a society run very much for men. Yet there is more to the misery here than a fight for women’s equality with their male counterparts; the way in which women of different classes and generations relate to other is in many ways just as toxic. Adunni comes from an impoverished rural family, which immediately diminishes her chances in life and leaves her open to exploitation and abuse by both men seeking to assert their sexual dominance and women reinforcing their perceived class superiority. There are also clashes between tradition and modernity that play out in disturbing ways. Tia, who we meet later on in the novel, is what most readers would think of as a thoroughly modern woman, who campaigns on social and environmental issues and is very Westernised in her appearance and attitude. It turns out, however, that even among the adult population of Nigeria there is a divide between those women who are wedded to older, established cultural norms around motherhood and a woman’s duty to her husband, and those who are exploring other ways to live their lives. The damaging clashes between Tia, her family and other women in her social circle serve to highlight just how many battles Nigerian women are fighting and on how many fronts.

If this all sounds rather heavy, somehow it isn’t; I thought long and hard about how, despite all the agony, the book retains its optimism, and decided that (appropriately, given the title) it’s down to the endearing, hopeful and beautiful voice of narrator Adunni. Her aim is to make not just her own voice heard, but to speak out for all the other girls and women who are in her situation: oppressed, abused and denied the freedom to pursue their dreams on the grounds of their sex. The novel is written in her slightly broken and imperfect English (one of her goals is to improve in the language, and she learns as the story goes on), lending her an extra vulnerability but also an extra grit, her efforts to get to grips with the words she needs to use to tell her story a constant reminder of the uphill battle she faces and a sign of her determination to improve her chances in life.

There were a few times during the book when I wondered whether this hopeful tone was in fact an unrealistic representation of what the reality is for so many women like Adunni, and whether it was in some way diluting their individual tragedies to suggest there was a way out. By the time I’d finished, though, and given it some more thought, I decided it wasn’t as simple as that. Yes, Adunni is presented with a couple of lucky encounters and chances for escape that many girls wouldn’t be fortunate enough to have, but the author balances this out by showing us plenty of women whose endings are tragic in their different ways, some subtle, some less so. To liken it to a fairytale might sound flippant given the subject matter, yet that’s the feeling it left me with. We all know that real life doesn’t always have a happy ending, but the point of fairy stories is to make us believe just for a moment that happiness is possible, and the most awful of adversities can be overcome. Hope, the author is saying, not only keeps us alive but drives us on to better things; and in the most dreadful of circumstances nothing is more precious. Adunni, far from being an example of unrealistic expectation, is a figure of empowerment, of believing that women deserve better, that women can achieve and that women – sadly – sometimes need to fight in order to overcome the odds stacked against them.

Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt – review

I came across Vivian when I was browsing the Fitzcarraldo website looking for a new read, and the subject caught my imagination immediately. I confess I’d never heard of Vivian Maier, whose life story the book explores, but right from the off she sounded like a compelling character. Her family emigrated to America from Europe when she was a child and she spent the majority of her subsequent years there, living out a life that on the surface would seem pretty ordinary. She worked for many years as a nanny in Chicago and New York, but remarkably also found the time to take thousands upon thousands of photographs capturing the people and sights she encountered while walking the city streets. Vivian is an unusual take on the familiar trope of real lives made fiction, and one that raises questions as much as it provides answers.

I called it unusual because it’s not a straightforward third or first person narrative. Instead, the story is set out almost like a playscript, with a character’s name followed by their thoughts or description of events. These can be pages long, or a single line – sometimes two characters even converse with each other about abstract ideas surrounding the story, as if they’re considering things retrospectively. The narrator is a “character” too, appearing as simply “narrator” when it’s their turn to pass comment on events. She (I call it “she” because I automatically imagined it as the voice of Christina Hesselholdt herself, although of course this is only my interpretation) is the voice that grounds the reader in reality; she talks about her research and the gaps that inevitably appear when trying to compile a complete and fair account of someone else’s life, and as such we’re never able to forget that this is merely an attempt to put together a reasonable representation of Vivian Maier, and can only ever be flawed, both as a “biography” or indeed a fully satisfying novel.

What comes across without any doubt, however, is that Vivian is in many ways quite a sad figure. She comes from a dysfunctional and largely unhappy family (there are hints of some sexual abuse during her younger years) and doesn’t seem to have any meaningful relationships of any kind with other people during adulthood. She is, we learn, obsessive to an extreme extent, hoarding newspapers in her bedroom to the point when the only way through the room is via pathways between the teetering stacks of print. Strangely though, she seems to have a more ambivalent attitude to her own photographs. Although she takes her camera with her wherever she goes, and has been captivated (we learn) by the hobby since she was young, many of her pictures are never developed, and never catalogued or displayed in any way. Perhaps it’s the act of observing and choosing the precise moment for the perfect shot that’s most important to her, rather than having an end result in which she can take pleasure – but we never know for sure. One thing is clear: Vivian Maier never made any attempt to make a career out of her indubitable talent.

Such an enigmatic main character will always lead to a reader wanting to know more after the final page, but even so, I did feel the novel petered out somewhat towards the end, when the story became incredibly sketchy. Maybe there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to draw on as regards Vivian’s later years, but her old age is skimmed over pretty quickly, with new characters introduced but never really developed, even though we’re given to understand they played a part in looking after her towards the end of her life.

As I said earlier, however, the author (speaking through her “narrator”) is open about the challenges of writing such a book, and by the end it becomes almost as much about the act of creation than is is about Vivian herself. The narrator even resorts to conversing with her protagonist towards the end of the book, as if she realises her readers will have questions she hasn’t been able to answer. Why, she asks Vivian, did you not do x, y and z? Fictional Vivian gives an elusive, inexact reply – an acknowledgement that of course we can never claim to know what went through someone’s head at any given time when perhaps they weren’t even sure themselves. In some ways, the novel is a rebuttal to those fictionalised accounts of real lives that give the illusion of being a reliable insight into a person’s psyche. I know that as a reader I’ve been so swept up by certain novels featuring real figures from history that they almost become the historical reality in my own head – I have to remind myself that Philippa Gregory shouldn’t be my first point of reference when citing fascinating facts about the Tudors! I did appreciate the way the author shone a light on the act of writing a novel of this kind, rather than it just being a straightforward retelling; it ensured that as a reader you were never able to drop your guard and stop thinking, or start assuming, and I enjoyed that approach very much.

Vivian was certainly a very interesting read, and for the vast majority of the book a very compulsive one – I put everything else I was reading aside and finished it in a day, unusual for me. I resisted the urge to look up Vivian Maier’s photographs online until I’d finished, as I didn’t want the images I already had in my head messed with in any way. When I’d finished, though, I did look into her work – and I’d really recommend you do the same, as suddenly the sadness and isolation that seeped out from the pages of the novel was there in front of you, literally in black and white.

Have you read Vivian and if so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts

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