“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.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – review

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin – review


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 Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – review


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


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.

“His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet – review

On a summer’s day in 1869, Lachlan Mackenzie is found brutally murdered at his home in the tiny Highland community of Culduie.  The perpetrator, 17 year old Roderick Macrae, confesses to the crime within minutes, but although there is never any question or who, there is still the all-important question of why.  This clever novel takes the form of a compilation of documents – medical reports, journalists’ articles and so on – that are brought together with the aim of finding an answer.  And the answer matters, because if he is found to be insane, Roderick will be spared the death penalty; if it can be proved that he was in full possession of his mental faculties he will hang.

Right from the start, the author gives us a very clear indication that this will not be a straightforward case with a selection of witness statements that variously describe Roddy as a wicked boy, an amenable and polite young man and a strange loner.  Then comes what we would imagine to be the most valuable testimony: that of the murderer himself.  Roddy’s story, as he tells it, is quite a sorrowful one.  Following the death of his mother his already morose father becomes even more emotionally inaccessible, alternating between brooding gloom and flashes of violent rage, ruling over his children in their tiny crofter’s cottage with an iron fist.  Life in the hamlet of Culduie is pretty insular and the prospect of pursuing a life elsewhere is practically non-existent, with the crofters’ lifestyle being passed down through the generations.  The local schoolmaster spots a sharp intellect in Roddy that is missing from his provincial classmates, but the boy is unable to imagine any future other than taking on his father’s trade.   Life goes on and the monotonous days blend into one another without major incident, until something happens that turns life in Culduie upside down for everyone: Lachlan Mackenzie becomes constable of the community.  The constable is responsible for enforcing order and maintaining standards on behalf of the laird on whose land the crofters live and work, and it’s a system that has always been regarded by the inhabitants as reasonable and fair.  Lachlan, however, is power-hungry; a combination of intimidating physical strength and a calculating mind, and the Macrae family – for various reasons that have accumulated during a lifetime of living side by side in Culduie – become the target of a vicious campaign of oppression.  When Roddy develops an attraction to Lachlan’s daughter it proves to be the final step on a steady climb towards the inevitable: the confrontation between the two men that results in the constable’s death.

There are brief but significant flashes of disquieting behaviour during Roddy’s narrative that set momentary alarm bells ringing in our minds – his eerie detachment during the mercy killing of an injured sheep, the unsettling coolness with which he listens to his sister’s suicidal thoughts – but by and large, the overwhelming feeling I was left with as this section of the book drew to a close was one of pity.  Lachlan’s bullying campaign was, I felt, an incredibly astute piece of writing in that it succeeded in stirring up genuine physical feelings of anger on my part towards the character such as I haven’t felt for a very long time.  The author pinned down with uncanny accuracy the way in which so many bullies go about their business; when Roddy and his father try to describe to a superior official the things that have been said and done to them, out of context they sound feeble and no cause for complaint at all.  Lachlan is smart enough to operate in a way that ensures his victims know precisely what is being done to them while those looking on would never see the malicious intent behind his actions.  To be brutally honest, I couldn’t wait for Roddy to kill his tormentor – until the murder itself, which I won’t spoil but which didn’t unfold in quite the way I’d imagined.  At the moment of the killing, an unanticipated shockwave of doubt explodes out of the book, and in the space of a couple of pages you’re suddenly left wondering whether your judgement has been skewed all along.

Fittingly, Roddy’s account ends as he is still standing over the body of his nemesis, and the (deliberately) jarring insertion of a glossary of Scottish dialect creates a much-needed pause as we come down from the fraught heights of intense emotion back to the detached practicality of deciphering the linguistic quirks of his testimony.  This marks the start of the second part of the novel, and a brisk change in tone as we move from a first person narrative to series of professional documents pertaining to the case.  We will hear from the doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims, the surgeon who was called in to psychoanalyse Roddy following his arrest and finally the witnesses who took part in the trial, their words recorded in various newspapers at the time.  Not everyone I’ve spoken to has appreciated the changes in style throughout the book, with some finding the format off-putting, but I actually felt a sense of relief as I embarked on the latter half, which is more impersonal and less emotive, after the more visceral nature of Roddy’s story.

If I thought that these new points of view were going to lead to certainty and closure, however, I was wrong.  If there’s a message to be taken away from this book it’s that it is almost impossible to claim there is any such thing as absolute truth where the actions of human beings are concerned.  There are revelations in the second section that come as a shock, and cause you to start re-evaluating everything you thought you knew from Roddy’s confessional account – but is that the same as saying he was lying?  Could those making statements about him be lying too, or at least fabricating a version of events that fits in with their preconceived ideas about the people involved?  It’s quite a philosophical novel in many ways; once the author starts playing with our sense of right and wrong, truth and untruth, the questions spiral.  The conclusion I came to is that humans are not for the most part calculating liars: we genuinely believe that our interpretation of events is accurate.  We create our own life story in our head, and that’s the one to which we hold fast.  And that being the case, is it ever possible for anyone else to tell us unequivocally that we are wrong?  If a madman believes that his motives, even for the most vicious crimes, were pure, is that not true in the sense that it’s his truth?  Given all this, the idea of one man presiding as judge over another becomes ever more uncomfortable.

I think it’s fair to say I was disturbed, gripped and given an intellectual workout by this novel in equal measure.  Every now and then a book comes along that messes with your head a bit, and “His Bloody Project” is definitely one of those.  And just when you think you may have made up your mind about what has occurred, the last few lines will plant a seed of doubt in your head once more.  Hats off to the author – this novel is very special indeed, and a striking achievement.


“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley – review

It’s been a while since I’ve read such a magical literary concoction as “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”.  Part steampunk, part Victorian gothic, part crime thriller, with splashes of the fantastical thrown in, it’s an endlessly intriguing kaleidoscope whose patterns never fall quite as you expect them to.  I don’t even want to talk about the plot as to do so would be to somehow dull the shine of a book sparkling so brightly with imagination.  If I tell you, however, that it involves bomb plots, exiled Japanese nobility, Gilbert and Sullivan and a clockwork octopus called Katsu you’ll start to get a small sense of the eclectic pick-and-mix that makes this book such enormous fun.

With so many ideas flying about it could easily have turned into a bit of a disjointed muddle, but this isn’t the case.  Yes, it’s a whirlwind of a read, but a very tightly controlled one.  Keep your concentration, because it moves between timeframes, countries and characters, and by the time the action-packed denouement arrives you’ll need to have your wits about you to keep track of what’s going on.  In fact, there was one section towards the end that I had to go back and read again in order to get my head around what had actually happened – but truthfully, I’d rather have that any day than a story professing to be a mystery but whose ending is signposted a mile off.  I would never have guessed how the story would end, and I was glad to have been wrong-footed.

I like my fantasy firmly grounded in a believable reality (Ben Aaronovitch, Erin Morgenstern and Sergei Lukyanenko all do this incredibly well) and for me the novel’s great success lies in the seamlessness with which it blends the surreal with the everyday.  Keita Mori’s quasi-magical clockwork emporium on Filigree Street sits perfectly congruously alongside the earthly drudgery of the Home Office telegraphy department where his soon-to-be friend Nathaniel Steepleton works.  This is a London beset by terrorist bomb threats such as those within living memory that make even fictional ones seem all too real; yet the concept that within this very recognisable city there exist individuals with the ability to pre-empt future events by picking up disturbances in the ether caused by human though never seems at all improbable.  I suspect many of us would like to believe there’s something a little bit magical lurking just around the corner from our everyday lives, and Natasha Pulley delivers on this promise.

She’s an extremely elegant writer, who delivers dry wit and deep-seated emotion with equal finesse, and it’s to her absolute credit that she took me to paces I never thought I’d go at the novel’s start.  This is definitely one for those who love relishing the dexterity of the written word as much as they do a great story; it comes highly recommended from me on both counts.


“The Virgin Blue” by Tracy Chevalier – review

I read “Remarkable Creatures” by the same author a few years ago and absolutely loved it, yet somehow had never got round to reading any of her other books until now.  “The Virgin Blue” is one of those novels that have a historical and a modern day storyline running side by side, but it was – as it usually is for me – the historical element that drew me to it.  This strand of the novel tells the story of Isabelle du Moulin, a young woman living in rural France in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Times are changing: Calvinist beliefs are starting to spread through France and other parts of Europe, overturning the Catholicism that has until now been the foundation of mainstream society.  When the new religion, “The Truth”, arrives in her village, Isabelle finds herself regarded with suspicion – nicknamed La Rousse as a child because of her likeness to the painting of the Virgin Mary above the door of the parish church, her association with the Madonna suddenly becomes a potentially dangerous one.  Calvinist doctrine sees the Catholic devotion to Mary as an impediment to the worship of God, and Isabelle is now a tainted woman in the midst of the reformist frenzy surrounding her.  The Catholic forces, however, are not far away, and Isabelle eventually flees with her husband’s family, followers of the new religion themselves, to a place they hope will bring them shelter from persecution at the hands of those who would enforce the old religious ways.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, her troubles are only just beginning.

In the present day, American Ella has just moved to France with her husband Rick, a move that was meant to see them attaining the idyllic French country lifestyle that so many crave.  However, Ella soon starts to be plagued by a mysterious recurring nightmare that haunts her waking hours as well as her sleep.  She is at a loss to interpret its meaning, and is only able to articulate the overwhelming sense of oppression and anxiety with which it leaves her.  Most inexplicable of all is the vivid colour she sees again and again: a rich, multi-layered shade of blue.  Life in the small French town is not quite what she hoped for either, with a community suspicious of outsiders and days that seem increasingly lonely as her husband immerses himself in a new job.  To distract herself from her unhappiness, Ella starts to research her family history, spurred on by the knowledge that she has cousins in nearby Switzerland, and before long she finds herself engrossed not only in her family’s turbulent past but also Jean-Paul, the town librarian.

Out of the two stories, I have to admit I preferred the historical one, but that’s personal taste rather than any shortcoming of storytelling.  I’ve always found Europe’s religious reformation to be a fascinating time in history, and I felt the author really captured a sense of what an immense upheaval the emergence of Calvinism would have been to a society and individuals.  On the one hand, the saying that there’s no-one as zealot as a convert holds true; and yet there are elements of the old religion that are still so ingrained in people’s hearts and minds that it’s almost impossible for them to be erased completely.  Isabelle may be living as the dutiful wife with her fiercely pro-reform in-laws, but secretly she finds comfort in the old, familiar rituals and in particular the reassuring image of the Virgin that she finds in her place of exile in the local church, but dares not be caught looking at.  Hers is an incredibly sad story, persecuted as she is from all sides – though it must be said the distant threat of Catholic forces bearing down on her pales in comparison to the abuse of her thuggish husband – and at times I found her tale quite difficult to read.  In the twenty-first century Ella has her own troubles to be sure, but sad though some of them are I never feared for her happy ending the way I feared for Isabelle’s.  What I did really enjoy was the subtle sense of mysticism linking the past and present.  It was never overblown, but there’s something enticing and magical about the idea that we are all somehow connected across the centuries to those who have gone before us.  It’s not giving too much away to say that many of Ella’s unexplained feelings and visions are a reflection of those of the woman who walked in her footsteps four hundred years before; I found a warming sense of reassurance that whatever befell Isabelle, her life, her loves and her tragedies would not become insignificant casualties of the passage of time, but would live on in the hopes and dreams of another woman many centuries later.

I already have another Tracy Chevalier book on my shelf waiting to go; if the two I’ve now read are anything to go by it will be a very enjoyable read.  If you’re a fan of dual timeline novels – or any novel with an historical element come to that – do try “The Virgin Blue”.  I can’t promise there won’t be some heartbreak but I will guarantee a good read.


“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang – review

Before this review gets underway I should say that it does contain a few spoilers.  I always try really hard to write my reviews without them, but it was just too hard to even begin explaining this complex novel without giving something away!  If you don’t mind that, then read on…

So, how to explain the weirdness that is “The Vegetarian”?  It’s a book that I can’t compare to any other I’ve read, a unique journey into the un-probed recesses of the psyche that shocks, saddens, disturbs and bemuses in by turns.  It comprises three sections, almost like three acts of a play, each one of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story (although not always in the first person).  As the acts unfold, new layers are added that force the reader to re-evaluate events that have gone before – the issue being that we were never sure how to interpret events to begin with, such is their strangeness and ambiguity.

The novel begins as Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian.  This being Korea, such a decision is an almost unheard of break from social norms and is greeted with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and outrage by members of her family.  Most peculiar of all, though, is that her reason for suddenly shunning all meat is a dream, an explanation that sounds like lunacy to those around her.  The rationale behind her turn of mind never becomes completely clear to us either; intermittently throughout this first act we find ourselves in Yeong-hye’s head, but her voice is a stream of consciousness journey through sensations and visceral images, not explanations.  We see blood, animal skulls and flashes of ambiguous violence, all of which pass in an instant and leave us wondering: where have all these macabre mental images come from?  And how do they connect to this abrupt, mysterious vegetarianism?  There are no answers provided – yet.  But we do see real and shocking violence erupting in Yeong-hye’s present, real life; the poor woman’s treatment at the hands of those you would expect to care for her leaves us feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Then suddenly, it’s on to part two.  At the time of reading I found it a bit of an unexpected, and somewhat unwelcome, jolt to move on to another character and a completely new part of the story before the questions of the first part had been answered; hang in there though, because when you’ve got to the end of the book and are able to look back on all three chapters together, the separate sections feel much more cohesive than they do while you’re actually reading them.  Whereas I came away with the impression that part one is all about supressed trauma, part two is about supressed desire – supressed temporarily that is!  This section focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who we came across fleetingly in the first chapter.  He’s an artist, and after his sister in law converts to vegetarianism he becomes more and more obsessed with her sexually, a fantasy that turns into a desire to use her in a piece of erotic performance art.  It’s just as strange and unsettling as the first episode, but in a very different way.  After the earlier drama, violence and mental collapse of the bullied, victimised vegetarian, when Yeong-hye appears in this chapter she is eerily passive.  No longer privy to her inner thoughts, it almost seems to the reader as if she doesn’t have any.  Whether she is genuinely numb, an empty shell drained of emotion by the trauma she’s suffered, or whether her exterior blankness is merely a product of how others (predominantly men) see her we do not know.  She could be a metaphor for the invisible woman who has been rendered meaningless by a male-dominated society, or she could simply be an isolated individual who has become a victim of her own mind.  Either way, the role she takes in the increasingly bizarre imagination of her brother in law is no less troubling than the abuse she endured before.

The final act is in many ways the most straightforward of them all, and it’s the one I felt most at ease reading.  The writing loses a lot of its earlier dreamlike quality ad becomes more storytelling in its style.  Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, her sister in law In-hye is separated from her artist husband, and we finally start to find out what’s driven the troubled vegetarian from giving up meat to a state of near madness.  In-hye too, in between emotionally draining visits to her sister, is re-evaluating her own life and feelings.  Is it significant that it’s only now, when removed from the influence and dominance of men, that the two sisters are able to work towards achieving emotional peace?  It certainly seemed that way to me; I felt very much that the whole novel is about the control that society allows men to have over women, both explicitly and tacitly.  Yeong-hye ends the novel wanting to stop being human and to connect herself to the earth, living as a tree does – the ultimate extension of the vegetarianism that started the whole story.  It could be insanity, or it could be the ultimate means of gaining control in a life where others have constantly tried to take it away from her.

What the book is trying to say is a question that there is perhaps no need to answer.  The act of reading it in itself was an incredibly intense experience that I suspect will differ greatly between every individual who picks it up.  It’s no bad thing to be shaken out of your reading comfort zone every now and then, and this novel certainly achieved that for me.  Don’t read it for a realistic story with a satisfying conclusion, but do read it for an intellectual and emotional thrill-ride.  It’s different – and really quite remarkable.

“The Muse” by Jessie Burton – review

When you’ve enjoyed an author’s debut novel as much as I enjoyed “The Miniaturist”, the arrival of a second book is a time not just of excitement but also a tiny bit of trepidation that perhaps this novel won’t quite reach the heights of the first.  Jessie Burton’s tale of the mysterious dolls’ house and its owner will always have a special place in my heart as I’d never read anything quite like it before, so it’s with some surprise that I’m able to say without hesitation that “The Muse” is actually a better novel.

The book is split fairly equally between two stories and time periods.  In 1967 Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, thinks she has fallen on her feet when she lands a job at a London art gallery; before long, however, the arrival of an intriguing painting with a questionable history draws Odelle into a world of secrets for which she is completely unprepared.  In 1936, in a large house in rural Spain occupied by Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his family, the provenance of the picture starts to come to light.  The family have not long moved in when two local youths, Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, come to the finca looking for housekeeping work.  Teresa quickly becomes friends with Olive, the Schloss’s daughter, but Olive’s attention is drawn towards Isaac, the artistic, volatile elder brother, who is politically passionate and as handy with a gun as he is with a paintbrush.  Spain is on the brink of the horrific civil war that will tear it apart, and the Schloss family’s involvement with left-wing revolutionary Isaac is about to become a very dangerous one.

One of the joys of this novel is the way the pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together to tell the true story of the aforementioned painting, so with that in mind I’m not going to give away any more details of the plot here.  What I do want to talk about is that magical something that makes Jessie Burton, in my eyes, such a compelling writer.  It seems a slightly bizarre thing to say, but what I loved most about this novel was the subtle but almost universal sense of sadness underpinning each character’s existence.  The arrival of the civil war in the latter part of the book brings with it vivid and grotesque horrors, but the author absolutely nails the face that suffering is not in any way confined to the big, key moments of grief or fear that periodically punctuate our lives.  Sadness hovers constantly about her characters, whether it’s two friends gradually growing apart, loneliness kept at bay with drugs and alcohol or a love affair that never quite turns into the grand romance that it should, the spectre of disappointment is always there.

So can the determined pursuit of artistic endeavour assuage this sense of disappointment?  Or is it in fact our demons that drive our artistic impulses and lead us to produce our best creations?  Isaac Robles, the angry freedom fighter, can undoubtedly paint with skill, but his true passion lies in creating not a beautiful piece of art, but the Spain that reflects his political ideology.  Olive Schloss is also a talented painter with an as yet unfulfilled desire to study at art school in England; but until she meets and develops passionate feelings for Issac, she has never found the raw soul to put into her work.  It goes without saying that the path of her love for this fiery young man will never run smoothly, but it is undoubtedly love’s torment that unleashes the talent she has always possessed.  Back in the 1960s, gallery administrator Odelle is nursing a creative spark of a different kind.  She’s an aspiring writer whose work has only been shared with friends and family until matriarch of the gallery Marjorie Quick spots her ability and encourages her to start thinking bigger.  Like Olive some thirty years before her, Odelle falls in love, but for her the relationship between love and creativity is a more ambiguous one.  On the one hand she recognises that for her, writing is in many ways akin to love; and yet love can also get in the way, preoccupying the mind that needs to be left free if one’s best work is going to come.  “The Muse” is more than the story of one painting; it’s a fascinating exploration of art’s place and purpose in life.

I really appreciated the fact that, although there is a genuine element of mystery to the novel, Jessie Burton is never out to completely fox her readers; she lays enough clues that you can start to work out where the story is going, and the plot is not so wilfully obscure that there have to be any bizarre twists in order to reach a resolution.  Yes, there are a couple of revelations left right to the end, the final one of which wrapped everything up so neatly that I wanted to punch the air in satisfaction.  The one issue I had with “The Miniaturist” was that it left a couple of pretty significant questions unanswered – or at least not answered adequately for me – but I had no such issues this time round.  I really felt that everything about the story had bene meticulously thought out, and the result is an extremely fulfilling read.