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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A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin – review

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It has to be said that Sophie Tobin writes really cracking stories.  I’ve read all her previous novels, and every single one is a proper stay up late, just-one-more-chapter kind of book; this one possibly even more so than any of the others.  In A Map of the Damage we get a double-whammy of excitement and intrigue with a dual narrative tale of love, loss and obsession, the two stories linked by the elegant yet imposing Mirrormakers’ Club in London, which we visit during its design and construction in the nineteenth century and again as it weathers the incendiary bombs of the Second World War.

In 1940, Livy makes her way to the club after she is caught up in a bomb blast.  Quite what draws her there she can’t say; the blast has left her with no memory of who she is or where she belongs, and the only thing she has to go on is a sense that this is somehow a place of safety.  Not long after, the Mirrormakers building also exerts its mysterious pull on two men for whom it holds a very different significance – for one, it may provide clues to the whereabouts of a missing family heirloom, and for the other, a glimmer of hope and the chance to reclaim something – or someone – long since lost.

In 1838, a freak accident leads to a chance encounter between an architect and the wife of the man overseeing his commission – to design and build the Mirrormakers’ Club.  It’s the start of an attraction that will lead both of them down an increasingly tortuous path towards the tantalising possibility of happiness and freedom; but are the obstacles too great to be overcome?

Both stories were perfectly balanced; I sometimes get the sense with multiple narratives that the author is more engaged in one than the other, or perhaps one of them doesn’t flow as naturally, but not here.  I was equally committed to both sets of characters and storylines, albeit for different reasons.  The wartime story I found surprisingly affecting (it brought a tear to my eye a couple of times!), in particular the idea of an amnesiac being oblivious to the past they shared with people who cared for them, and who are now forced into maintaining an emotional distance that’s heartbreaking to watch.  The nineteenth century storyline brought with it the almost unbearable tension of a passionate love story carried out almost entirely within the constraints of formal dinners and drawing room visits; the more you witness the way in which controlling husband Ashton Kinsburg manipulates how others perceive his wife by moulding her into an image of his own perfectionist ideals, the angrier you become and the more you’re willing her on to leaving her him for the lovestruck architect.  Of course, the times being what they are, that isn’t as simple as a reader might wish it to be.

Manipulation and exploitation of women for social or sexual gain rears its head in both eras, but I still felt that ultimately this book belongs to its women.  Charlotte Kinsburg, who falls in love with her husband’s architect, could be said to have the last laugh, even as her grasping descendants hunt high and low for the diamond that one belonged to her; she gazes down implacably from a painting in the Mirrormakers’ Club, almost daring anyone to try and pry her secrets from her.  Livy’s past may have been taken from her, but she attacks the future with a determination to make her own plans and regain control of the life she has left.  And watching over them all is the club itself, which, with its mirrors, domes and glass that play tricks on the eye and the mind, seems to be almost alive, organic and fluid.  It becomes as many different things as there are characters: a safe haven, a symbol of power and wealth, a love letter in stone.  I think I will remember the staircases, dim basement rooms and vast halls of the edifice almost more than I will the human faces that roam through it.

Thank you for reading as ever!  If you’ve read this or any other of Sophia Tobin’s books, do comment and let me know what you think.

Related posts:  The Silversmith’s Wife review                                                                                                              The Widow’s Confession review

 

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki – review

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If you’ve visited This Girl’s Book Room recently, you’ll definitely recognise this book as it’s been on my CR list for quite a while!  Well, I’m pleased to announced I’ve finally finished it, meaning I can stop tantalising you all with comments about how great it is and get stuck into a full review.

Or can I?!  I’ve had this sense of hesitation a few times now after finishing a book: more often than not I’m keen to dive straight into writing about something as soon as I’ve closed the last page, but occasionally I have a sense of needing to gather my thoughts and emotions for a while before committing anything to paper.  This was one of those times.  The ending left me with an unexpectedly blank feeling; not because the book was lacking in emotional depth – quite the opposite – but because there was just so much left to process.  Where were these characters’ journeys going to take them next?  How would some of them recover, if ever, from the traumatic events that had touched their lives?  What would the relationships, some strained and others strengthened throughout the course of the novel, look like as the subsequent years went by?  In The Makioka Sisters we are allowed to be part of the family for a limited period of time before being snatched cruelly away again, and left to imagine how the saga could continue.

It’s late 1930s Osaka where we meet the Makiokas.  The two eldest of the four sisters – Tsuruko and Sachiko – are settled with husbands and children, and the big issue facing the family is how to bring about a marriage for the third oldest sister, Yukiko.  Shy, reserved and serious, Yukiko doesn’t have the kind of sparkling personality that tends to win over a man on first meeting, and her sisters are smarting from previous failed attempts at making a match for her.  Japanese convention being what it is, moreover, the youngest sister, Taeko, cannot marry until her older sister has found a husband.  Taeko is everything her sisters are not – forward, unabashedly independent and already with a scandalous liaison behind her; what is more, the complications in her love life show no sign of going away, leaving the family in a state of anxiety lest any impropriety brings shame upon the Makioka name.

Yukiko’s marriage quest provides the backbone of the book.  The story covers a number of years (never precisely specified, but it starts in the run up to Japan’s entry into the Second World War and ends while the war is still going on), and other momentous events – a flood, a family illness, an affair – provide regular pulses of action and interest that keep things moving forward, but it’s the painful lack of a prospective husband for Yukiko that haunts both the family and the novel.  One of the things I enjoyed most was that it opened a window onto long-forgotten social conventions that seem completely alien to us now; at this time, for a relatively high-status family like the Makiokas, marriages are decided in large part by the rest of a woman’s family, in particular the male members – even those who are only part of the family through marriage.  Tatsuo and Teinosuke, as husbands of the two oldest sisters, are expected to have the final say on whether a suitor is appropriate to marry Yukiko. Throughout the novel, various well-meaning friends and acquaintances suggest potential husbands, and each time both parties “investigate” the other, sending mutual contacts to dig into the opposite number’s financial and romantic history, social standing and character traits.  It’s utterly fascinating to read, not least because something that on the surface seems underhand is simply accepted by everyone concerned as part of the marriage-brokering process, common practice as it was at this point in Japan’s history.

The synopsis so far may sound unappealing to anyone who can imagine themselves becoming angry and frustrated by the depiction of such a patriarchal society; I would have considered myself firmly in your camp too, but I’d urge you to read it nonetheless.  Yes, there are many instances when the extent to which men play an unfairly dominant role in the lives of their female relatives is teeth-clenching in its outdatedness; however, on closer reading the will and power wielded by the Makioka sisters is greater than it first appears.  Taeko, despite the consternation of her relatives, finds ways to lead the life she wants rather than the one others would prefer she had.  Yukiko has a calm and quiet determination to get her own way in the numerous marriage negotiations: when she says no, she means it, and her brother-in-laws’ desire to see her with a husband never crosses the line into trying to force her into a union with someone she is adamant she does not want to marry.  In fact, there are a few mentions in the novel of an incident prior to the story’s timeframe when she was so forthright in confronting Tatsuo, the head of the Makioka family, that he has been very wary of going against her wishes since.  As the novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that times are changing; Western culture is starting to exert its influence over some of the sisters and society at large, and the Makiokas, although still an important family, don’t have anywhere near the standing they had in previous generations.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Japan itself, which provides a vivid backdrop to the story.  The action moves between the tranquil gardens of suburbia, cherry blossom festivals and imposing mountains, and the bustle of a rapidly modernising Tokyo, which grates harshly against Sachiko in particular, who loves her more traditional hometown.  It’s been a while since a novel sucked me into its world so completely, and I’m going to miss it now I’ve had to take my leave.

Thank you for reading as always!  Do let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought.

Related posts: Japanese Journeys                                                                                                                                  A Day Out with Hokusai

 

 

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – review

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It’s been years since I read Erin Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I still remember how I fell head over heels in love with it.  She became one of those authors whose subsequent books you yearn for and then, when they finally appear, it feels like birthday, Christmas and new year rolled into one.  I was hugely disappointed, then, to have to admit that The Starless Sea just didn’t live up to its predecessor.

The premise sounded like it would be right up my street: a magical, underground world that acts as a kind of sanctuary for stories comes under threat and the main character, Zachary Rawlins, guided by a cast of enigmatic characters, must fight to protect this labyrinthine library and stop it from being destroyed forever.  And it should have been exactly up my street: I was captivated by this world that held the loves, losses, dreams and secrets of a million long-forgotten souls in the form of their stories, and I really took to the character of Zachary, the slightly geeky loner who doesn’t ever seem to quite belong.  The trouble was that, for at least half the book, I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in either’s company.

Zachary is set on his quest to find the Starless Sea and save the world of stories by the discovery of a mysterious book, which contains a number of weird and – to start with at least – unfathomable folk tales, fairy stories and legends.  What I found problematic was that for the first half of the novel, the chapters following Zachary’s journey are interspersed with stories from his newly-discovered book; some of these are fairly entertaining tales in their own right, others less so.  Every now and then yet more fragments of story pop up,  introducing (in the most oblique terms) other characters both from our own world and the subterranean story realm.  It’s pretty clear when you’re reading that these multiple narratives are somehow going to interconnect at some point, and I was prepared to go with it on the basis that all would soon be revealed, even though I found the constant hopping about quite frustrating.  Thankfully, once you get past the half way point the novel focusses in much more consistently on Zachary’s story, with far fewer diversions into another character’s story arc, and it’s at that point I felt it became a better book.

There were definitely some things here to like.  I loved Zachary’s companions Dorian and Mirabel; like Zachary, both were very finely drawn and their individual journeys turned out to be quite moving.  In fact, the book as a whole has a palpable sense of sadness flowing just under the surface, always there in a barely definable yet somehow unmissable way.  I actually think that creating and sustaining this atmosphere was the novel’s cleverest achievement, but I get the feeling you’re meant to come away feeling that the smartest part was tying all the different strands together.  Trouble was, by the time I got to the end I wasn’t entirely sure I’d found a place for all the pieces – the significance of many of the fairy tales and snippets of story that appear in the first half of the book becomes clear as the novel progresses, but there were still some I looked back on after I’d finished reading with a bit of a “but what was that bit all about?” feeling.  And it’s very magical; I tend to prefer magical realism with the emphasis on realism – but that’s a purely personal preference rather than a criticism.  In fact, I’ve talked to someone else who really enjoyed the fairy tales and digressions of the novel’s first half and was disappointed when the narrative became more straight forward!  Proof, if any were needed, that it’s all a matter of taste.

Would I recommend it?  If I’d read this one first I have to say I wouldn’t have gone on to read The Night Circus, but if you like full-on magic then it’s probably worth a try; and if like me you find it a bit tough going initially, it’s worth persevering for the excitement of the story in the second half.  Not my favourite book of recent times, but I’d be very interested to hear what you think if you’ve read it – perhaps you loved it?  Let me know!

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – review

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I bought this book for two main reasons: I love medieval stuff and I love the cover.  What I didn’t expect was quite how much fun it was going to be.

Starting at the head and working down, the author gives us a colourful and exuberant guided tour of the medieval body, not simply addressing literal, medical approaches to human physiology but its more abstract significance too.  The body as a whole was a universally understood metaphor for the functioning of medieval society, with the monarch as the head, the peasants as the labouring feet and all other levels of life in between, everyone working within their God-given social sphere to keep the state functioning as it should.  The phrase “the body politic” is of course one we still use today.  Beyond that generality, however, it turns out there were a huge number of bodily parts that had their own philosophical significance; one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the connection it highlights between the spiritual meaning attached to the various body parts and the age’s prevailing scientific understanding of how they functioned.  The heart, for example, had for several centuries been regarded as the seat of the soul and, as opposed to the brain as we now know, the organ that governed actions and emotions – hence the plethora of art and literature depicting deep feeling, but in particular love, as being almost literally linked to a person’s heart.  In fact, for all culture vultures out there, this is a very satisfying book, including its fair share of analysis of art forms ranging from tapestry to music, sculpture to literature, all presented in the context of the medieval body.  A real bonus is that rather than the small section of colour plates often found in the centre of non-fiction paperbacks, this book has coloured illustrations throughout, which definitely adds to the reading enjoyment and appreciation.  What I really liked as well was the fact that this bodily exploration isn’t just confined to English medieval history, but also takes in Europe and the Middle East, the latter in particular providing a fascinating comparison and an opportunity to introduce many artworks with which most of us won’t be at all familiar.

In case you were getting worried, don’t fear – there’s also a lot of the inevitable gruesome fun to be had from the accounts of medieval medical procedures and pictures of surgical instruments and body parts.  Of course we regard it all as incredibly primitive stuff, but the author is keen to point out that we shouldn’t look down on the middle ages too harshly; he demonstrates that diagnoses and treatments weren’t plucked out of the air according to pure superstition, but rather followed their own definite logic to what was considered a reasonable conclusion, even if that isn’t the conclusion we would draw today.

Far from being dense or heavy-going, Jack Hartnell writes with a light, easy style and a definite sense of humour.  The only drawback I found was that because the subject is so vast, certain aspects of the body are abandoned just as you were getting interested.  I wouldn’t say it’s unsatisfying by any means, but it definitely leaves you wanting to find out more.  The flipside of that though is that it’s accessible to absolutely everyone, and as such I think there are loads of people out there who may not be particularly into medieval history that will still find this a really absorbing read.

The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox – review

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Being a bookseller certainly has its perks.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to go and help run the bookstall for one of Brian Cox’s lectures on his national tour; there were unfortunately a couple of complete fangirling moments when it’s fair to say I didn’t cover myself in glory (I could feel my IQ slipping away before my eyes in the presence of the Great Man), but his talk was absolutely mesmerising, and his ability to captivate an audience incredible.  This latest book ties in with the TV series on the planets that he presented not long ago.  Although he’s listed prominently on the cover (understandably), in fact he only wrote the introduction and one of the chapters, but I found it didn’t matter at all as the entire book is very engaging in style and completely readable for the space science layman such as myself.

Out of all Brian Cox’s TV series, I actually found The Planets my least favourite, I think because mind-blowing though the special effects were, I found they distracted me from the scientific content, and it seemed as though most of the emphasis was on the visual impact rather than how thoroughly the science was explained.  The book totally redresses that balance, giving as it does a detailed, but completely comprehensible, explanation to go alongside the images that are still, it has to be said, very vivid in my mind.  As someone with no science background beyond a very general interest, it’s always a bit disappointing to pick up a book on a subject you’re keen to find out more about, only to find it way beyond your capability or stuffed full of equations only comprehensible to someone with an advanced degree.  Happily, this book is extremely informative but also accessible to just about everybody, both describing the wondrous and utterly alien worlds that make up our solar system, and also doing a fantastic job of drilling down into why and how they have evolved over billions of years to be so different to our home planet.  As well as the physics and chemistry, it also covers many of the exploratory missions that have been launched over the decades to further our understanding of these mysterious worlds; the human ingenuity these represent is almost as fascinating as the planets themselves.

You can tell that both Cohen and Cox are supremely passionate about their area of interest, and their desire to share this enthusiasm really brings the science to life.  For anyone who has even a passing interest in space science, or found the TV series left them wanting to know more, then this great introduction to the subject comes highly recommended.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield review

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Although my return to blogging was meant to be a guided tour of the books I was reading during these weeks of lockdown, I have to confess that for my first review I’ve cheated a bit and gone back to a book I read a few months ago.  Since I waved goodbye to Girl, Reading and launched This Girl’s Book Room, I’ve come across some amazing books that have made their way onto my list of favourites, so it seemed to make sense to share them here by way of recommendation for anyone finding themselves at a loss as to what to read next!

“Once Upon a River” is the first of these.  I loved “The Thirteenth Tale” by the same author, and one look at the cover made me pretty confident I was going to fall in love with this one too.  If you enjoyed “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry or “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue, then this is in a similar vein in the sense that the main plot device is a mysterious event that may or may not be supernatural, and that it features a cast of characters whose opinion is divided as to whether the weird goings on can be explained by science, faith or superstition.  The story starts with the shocking appearance in a rural inn of a stranger carrying what appears to be the corpse of a girl found drowned in the nearby river.  None of the onlookers can be left in any doubt that the child is dead; however, after some hours have passed, the body miraculously stirs…

From that point onwards, the mystery piles on thick and fast.  The girl becomes the focus of a missing child case that sees different parties vying for her custody and claiming her as their own, and in the midst of it all, local nurse Rita is trying to uncover the truth of the strange evening that apparently saw a body rise from the dead.  Many of the locals are convinced that it’s all the doing of Quietly, the otherworldly ferryman, who appears to those in trouble on the river and chooses either to return them to the safety of dry land or carry them off to the next world.  Not everyone is convinced, Rita, included, but a more logical explanation seems just as elusive.

In this nineteenth century setting, society is at a something of a crossroads, with ancient superstitions still keeping a firm foothold in people’s minds even as the new sciences of biology and psychology are becoming ever more prevalent.  The result is a melting pot of ideas and beliefs old and new that rub up against each other and battle it out for supremacy, and it’s this mix of the magical and the rational that Diane Setterfield evokes so beautifully.  As readers we’re also asked to contemplate what it is that makes something true or untrue, and to reflect on the nature of storytelling itself.  As the events of the mysterious resurrection spread through the community and get repeated over time they take on a life of their own, and each newly moulded tale becomes the established truth every time it’s told.  Is any listener, then, ever in a position to judge with any certainty where reality lies?  For all the characters in this novel, their version of the truth is also dependent on their own pre-established beliefs:  Rita in science, Joe the innkeeper in the powerful myths of the river and its ghostly guardian.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; Rita is a likeable and engaging heroine, and the balance of a realistic setting with hints of the supernatural was perfect for me.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll know I love historical fiction anyway, but the folklore element was what really made this novel stand out for me.  If you’ve read it let me know what you thought!

“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – review

I can’t quite call this a novel.  I can’t describe it merely as a story.  It’s a beautiful oddity, an experience, a sensation.  Reading it was a bit like being in a dream where the mundane is periodically punctuated by the surreal and you find yourself shadowed by a vague feeling of menace despite the familiarity of the everyday surroundings.  I bought it a few days ago knowing nothing at all about either book or author, but it’s a title I’m going to be championing for some time to come.

Poland: the early 1980s.  The country is a one-party state known officially as the Polish People’s Republic, with a communist government under the influence of the Soviet Union.  Following a succession of challenges to the state’s authority, the Military Council of National Salvation seized power and imposed martial law.  Everyday life for millions of Polish citizens is now fraught with difficulty: there are frequent power cuts and a shortage of many basic necessities, with shop shelves often bare.  This brief political context is provided by the translator in a short explanatory section at the back of the book and if, like me, your knowledge of 1980s Polish history is non-existent, it’s a useful addendum to give a bit of background to some of the novel’s references.

Our tour guide through these challenging times is Wiola, who is a young child when the book begins.  Everything that happens we see through her eyes as she grows up on the family farm in the tight rural community of Hektary.  The real cornerstone of the book is the way in which wider events creep into Wiola’s life yet all the while it’s the smaller, more personal and immediate happenings that most colour her impression of the world.  A lost kitten, a llama on show at the church fair, the humiliation of her first crush seeing her at the local market as she helps her grandmother sell cherries; these are the things that stick in the little girl’s mind most clearly, as we move through her life in a succession of vignettes, fragments of memory that combine to form her sense of self.  The author nails precisely how we all see ourselves and make sense of our existence; when we look back at our past it’s never a simple linear progression but rather isolated memories, often with significant gaps in between – and why we remember certain events so vividly and forget others is a mystery.  What’s also incredibly clever is the way in which Wioletta Greg ensures her readers have a level of knowing way beyond that of her narrator.  If any of you have read “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep”, then this works in a similar way: the young protagonist mentions things in passing that we as adults realise have a far greater significance than she can yet comprehend.  On the very first page there’s a quick, matter-of-fact reference to the fact that Wiola’s father was imprisoned for deserting the army just before she was born and remained inside for almost two years, but the emotional impact this would have had on him is beyond the scope of a child’s understanding.  When it becomes clear a few years later that he has a problem with alcohol the connection is never made in writing, although it most certainly is in our heads.  Some episodes are terrifying to us while merely mystifying to Wiola, the most striking example being the school art competition that attracts the sinister attention of the government authorities.  Wiola paints a picture of Moscow but unfortunately the ink cartridges in her schoolbag burst and the painting in ruined.  Too late to be withdrawn, it gets sent off to the provincial authorities for judging and Wiola forgets all about it, until a month later when two officials turn up at the school wanting to speak to her.  She assumes they’ve come to award her a prize, and is completely nonplussed when they start quizzing her on who gave her the idea to depict Moscow in such a way, deface (deliberately they believe) with dark ink.  Of course Wiola has no conspiracy about which to tell them, but we turn cold as we read, horrified by the level of state scrutiny, the intimidation of a child and the very real threat of arrest for perceived treasonous acts that dog this surveillance society.

There are many more episodes like this throughout the novel, and Wiola suffers some truly horrendous treatment at times by a number of unpleasant characters.  It seems bizarre to say then, but I found the book absolutely beautiful.  To see the wonder a child finds even in a world we know to be brutal, cruel and dangerous is quite humbling and immensely moving.  It’s also about the places we call home and the love that ties us to them even when logic tells us that circumstances could be so much better elsewhere.  It’s a very short book but it has an intensity meaning it punches well above its weight in terms of lasting emotional impact.  It hasn’t had widespread reviews or lots of publicity as far as I know, but it’s become my personal mission to get as many people reading it as I can.  I do hope this review is a good start.

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“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue – review

I had a job interview and assessment day last week, which meant a very long train journey to Birmingham during which I was somehow going to have to distract myself from the horrors to come.  The book I shoved into my handbag on a whim was “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue; by the time I’d reached my destination I was almost halfway through, and even the hideous claustrophobia of a Virgin train carriage and the prospect of the next day’s Powerpoint presentation couldn’t draw my mind away from this most mesmerising story.

Anna O’Donnell is an eleven year old girl living in nineteenth century rural Ireland who’s become something of a celebrity.  Her family claim she hasn’t eaten a single bite of food for months and yet is thriving, a fact attributed to a religious miracle.  Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked in military hospitals under Florence Nightingale, is sent on a mission along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, to watch the girl round the clock and find out whether she is indeed blessed by God or whether it is in fact a clever hoax.  Lib arrives in Ireland a confirmed sceptic and is convinced she’ll uncover foul play within days.  Things, however, prove to be much more mysterious than she’d anticipated.  She’s been given fourteen days to observe before reporting her findings to a local committee, and as the clock ticks down she finds herself much more emotionally involved with the case than she could have imagined.

The novel’s simplicity is striking.  There aren’t huge numbers of characters vying for your attention.  The setting is pretty much limited to Anna’s cottage, the inn in which Lib is staying and her walk in between the two.  Even the events are repetitive (although I must stress that, very cleverly, they never read as such) in the sense that Lib’s routine is to sit or stroll with Anna, watch her sleep, read or pray and then get some brief rest herself before doing it all again.  There’s a metronomic quality to the march of the days, yet they are always punctuated with just enough disquieting moments to give us an uneasy feeling about the way events may unfold.  Even the most mundane of incidents take on an air of foreboding inside this strange bubble: the accidental breaking of a Virgin Mary figurine or the incomprehensible prayer that Anna mumbles over and over again.  In fact, as the novel goes on, more and more references to superstition, if not quite the overtly supernatural, creep in, to the point where I started to wonder if what I had in front of me was developing into a horror story.  The touches are always subtle – the locals’ fear of the “little ones”, the mischievous sprites who would cause untold havoc if not placated; the mysterious tree outside the village hung with decomposing rags; the disturbing photograph in Anna’s room that isn’t quite what it seems – but the sense of fear, and of something otherworldly potentially being involved here, is palpable.  Even religion, which features very heavily in the story, is not the comforting presence you would hope, since Lib strongly suspects that the Church and some of its loyal, blinkered followers are actually conspiring to put little Anna at risk for the sake of publicising a supposed “miracle”.  Whether or not there is any supernatural activity at work or whether there is in fact a very human, worldly explanation for everything is not something I’m going to give away here.  What I will say is that by hinting at multiple possibilities, the author evokes in her readers the same sense of doubt and disorientation felt by Lib as she grapples with the confounding mystery laid before her.

The fact that I, with my notoriously poor attention span and butterfly-like approach to reading, managed to finish the entire book in just two sittings is a ringing endorsement of its compelling readability.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a novel sucked me in so completely.  Maybe it’s because the setting is the same chapter after chapter that you feel you’re actually there in the hovel, watching the girl who has now become so familiar to you it’s as if you know her for real.  The fact that Lib and Sister Michael have been given a time limit of two weeks to verify or disprove the miracle also drives the book forward as we know that, for good or ill, a conclusion is coming.  I must confess that, when I read the final chapter, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the ending; on reflection though, I’m pleased the author chose the outcome she did.

This has got to be up there with my top reads of 2017 so far.  Five stars, full marks and any other accolade you can think of, this book gets it.  Oh, and I didn’t get the job – but since it would have meant leaving my beloved book trade behind, I think I’m okay with it.

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