Novellas in November, Part 1

This is my second year of joining Laura (Reading in Bed) and others in reading mostly novellas in November. I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for short books, limiting myself to ones of around 150 pages or fewer. First up: four short works of fiction. (I’m at work on various ‘nonfiction novellas’, too.) For the first two I give longer reviews as I got the books from the publishers; the other two are true minis.

 

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

(translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak)

[146 pages]

I heard about this one via the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Quirkiness is particularly common in indie and translated books, I find, and while it’s often off-putting for me, I loved it here. Greg achieves an impressive balance between grim subject matter and simple enjoyment of remembered childhood activities. Her novella is, after all, set in Poland in the 1980s, the last decade of it being a Communist state in the Soviet Union.

The narrator (and autobiographical stand-in?) is Wiolka Rogalówna, who lives with her parents in a moldering house in the fictional town of Hektary. Her father, one of the most striking characters, was arrested for deserting from the army two weeks before she was born, and now works for a paper mill and zealously pursues his hobbies of hunting, fishing, and taxidermy. The signs of their deprivation – really the whole country’s poverty – are subtle: Wiolka has to go selling hand-picked sour cherries with her grandmother at the market even though she’s embarrassed to run into her classmates; she goes out collecting scrap metal with a gang of boys; and she ties up her hair with a rubber band she cut from an inner tube.

Catholicism plays a major role in these characters’ lives: Wiolka wins a blessed figure in a church raffle, the Pope is rumored to be on his way, and a picture of the Black Madonna visits the town. A striking contrast is set up between the threat of molestation – Wiolka is always fending off unwanted advances, it seems – and lighthearted antics like school competitions and going to great lengths to get rare matchbox labels for her collection. This almost madcap element balances out some of the difficulty of her upbringing.

What I most appreciated was the way Greg depicts some universalities of childhood and adolescence, such as catching bugs, having eerie experiences in the dark, and getting one’s first period. This is a book of titled vignettes of just five to 10 pages, but it feels much more expansive than that, capturing the whole of early life. The Polish title translates as “Unripe,” which better reflects the coming-of-age theme; the English translator has gone for that quirk instead.

A favorite passage:

“Then I sat at the table, which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.”


Thanks to Natalie Shaw at Portobello Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

[126 pages]

Written somewhat in the style of a bird field guide, this is essentially a set of flash fiction stories you have to put together in your mind to figure out what happens to two seemingly conventional middle-class families: the Harrisons and the Hungates, neighbors on Long Island. Frank Harrison dies suddenly in 2008, and the Hungates divorce soon after. Their son Gabe devotes much of his high school years to drug-taking before an accident lands him in a burn unit. Here he’s visited by his girlfriend, Lacey Harrison. Her little brother, Tommy, is a compulsive liar but knows a big secret his late father was keeping from his wife.

The chapters, each just a paragraph or two, are given alphabetical, cross-referenced headings and an apparently thematic photograph. For example, “Entertainment,” one of my favorite stand-alone pieces, opens “In the beginning was the Television. And the Television was large and paneled in plastic made to look like wood. It dwelled in a dim corner of the living room and came on for national news, Cosby, Saturday cartoons, and football.”

This is a Franzen-esque take on family dysfunction and, like City on Fire, is best devoured in large chunks at a time so you don’t lose momentum: as short as this is, I found it easy to forget who the characters were and had to keep referring to the (handy) family tree at the start. Ultimately I found the mixed-media format just a little silly, and the photos often seem to bear little relation to the text. It’s interesting to see how this idea evolved into the mixed-media sections of City on Fire, which is as epic as this is minimalist, though the story line of this novella is so thin as to be almost incidental.

Favorite lines:

Depending on parent genotype, the crossbreeding of a Bad Habit and Boredom will result in either Chemistry or Entertainment.”

Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as conservationists would have us believe, for without it, the Family would cease to function.


Thanks to Raphaela Ring at Vintage Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

[100 pages]

This is the earliest McEwan work I’ve read (1981). I could see the seeds of some of his classic themes: obsession, sexual and otherwise; the slow building of suspense and awareness until an inevitable short burst of violence. Mary and Colin are a vacationing couple in Venice. One evening they’ve spent so long in bed that by the time they get out all the local restaurants have shut, but a bar-owner takes pity and gives them sustenance, then a place to rest and wash when they get lost and fail to locate their hotel. Soon neighborly solicitude turns into a creepy level of attention. McEwan has a knack for presenting situations that are just odd enough to stand out but not odd enough to provoke an instant recoil, so along with the characters we keep thinking all will turn out benignly. This reminded me of Death in Venice and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

 

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

[167 pages – on the long side, but I had a library copy to read anyway]

Neve tells us about her testy marriage with Edwyn, a Jekyll & Hyde type who sometimes earns our sympathy for his health problems and other times seems like a verbally abusive misogynist. But she also tells us about her past: her excess drinking, her unpleasant father, her moves between various cities in the north of England and Scotland, a previous relationship that broke down, her mother’s failed marriages, and so on. There’s a lot of very good dialogue in this book – I was reminded of Conversations with Friends – and Neve’s needy mum is a great character, but I wasn’t sure what this all amounts to. As best I can make out, we are meant to question Neve’s self-destructive habits, with Edwyn being just the latest example of a poor, masochistic decision. Every once in a while you get Riley waxing lyrical in a way that suggests she’s a really great author who got stuck with a somber, limited subject: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light, so the outlook was torched; wet bus stop, wet shutters, all deep-dyed.”

Other favorite lines:

“An illusion of freedom: snap-twist getaways with no plans: nothing real. I’d given my freedom away. Time and again. As if I had contempt for it. Or was it hopelessness I felt, that I was so negligent? Or did it hardly matter, in fact? …Could I trust myself? Not to make my life a lair.”


 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

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The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw

Petrichor: that would be the alternative title for this book about the often-neglected human sense of smell. In avoiding that lovely but obscure word, Barney Shaw is making a specific point: we don’t have an everyday vocabulary for talking about smells; there are specialist terms and concepts, but try to depict an ordinary scent in words and you may struggle.

I had just such an experience myself the other week. We’d bought a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter at Sainsbury’s that didn’t taste or smell right, but no longer had the receipt to return it to the store. When I contacted the company on Twitter, my attempts to describe the problem were decidedly feeble: we’d bought a “duff jar,” I wrote; it tasted and smelled “off.” If pressed I would perhaps have used the word “stale,” but I had no way of conveying how exactly it didn’t taste or smell right. (Sun-Pat very kindly took my word for it and sent £10 worth of vouchers. The new jars we bought as replacements tasted better but still not the same as before: chances are they’ve recently changed the recipe to be cheaper.)

I’m intrigued by the related senses of smell and taste in general, so I was delighted to find a whole book on the topic. Shaw, a retired civil servant who served as a private secretary to various government ministers, approaches the topic as an amateur enthusiast rather than a scientist, so his language is never overly technical and he ranges between history, anatomy, literature and even self-help.

Much of the book was researched “on location,” as it were. Shaw travels to Portsmouth to grasp the signature smells of the seaside; visits a hardware store to differentiate the odors of different metals (they release no smell on their own, only in contact with human skin/sweat); returns to his hometown to discover the smells associated with suburban gardens and different types of High Street shops; and sniffs at butcher stalls, pubs, and London Underground trains. With his son, blind from birth and autistic, he sets out to capture “the smell of 3 a.m.” as early-morning market sellers set out their mushrooms and cheeses.

Shaw also travels through time, imagining what it might have smelled like in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier: raw sewage, cooking smoke, animal dung, and laundries and tanneries with their reek of stale urine. Once many of those stinks were eliminated, bad smells became associated with the working classes (as in the work of Maugham and Orwell) or with foreigners, a continuing prejudice that fuels xenophobia. The book also traces the rise of the perfume industry and other artificial smells like scent diffusers and vaping. Shaw is uncomfortable with the idea of natural scents being replaced by synthetic ones, and notes the environmental consequences of our obsession with abolishing body odor: “The price we pay for hygiene and deodorants is in the pollution pumped out by a billion washing machines and … soap, toothpaste and washing powder flowing down to the seas.”

There are fascinating facts on pretty much every page of this book; I won’t bore you by listing them, but will just say that if you’re interested in exploring the connections between smell and memory in life and in literature, in discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and in learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is the perfect introduction. I noted a bit of repetition in the book, especially at chapter openings, but that didn’t keep me from being as enthralled with the subject matter as Shaw, a passionate tour guide to the olfactory world, so clearly is.

My rating:

 

The Smell of Fresh Rain was released in the UK on November 14th. My thanks to Victoria Reed at Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

Other books referencing smell/taste that I have read or at least sampled:

  • Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
  • Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste  by Bianca Bosker
  • Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
  • The Diary of a Nose by Jean-Claude Ellena
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

 

Other smell-related titles on my TBR:

Nonfiction:

  • Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel
  • Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
  • The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
  • The Case against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Fiction:

  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
  • The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

Blog Tour Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I’m delighted to be helping to close out the UK blog tour for Little Fires Everywhere. Celeste Ng has set an intriguing precedent with her first two novels, 2014’s Everything I Never Told You and this new book, the UK release of which was brought forward by two months after its blockbuster success in the USA. The former opens “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” The latter starts “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” From the first lines of each novel, then, we know the basics of what happens: Ng doesn’t write mysteries in the generic sense. She doesn’t want us puzzling over whodunit; instead, we need to ask why, examining motivations and the context of family secrets.

Little Fires Everywhere opens in the summer of 1997 in the seemingly idyllic planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio: “in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, […] everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within.” That strict atmosphere will take some getting used to for single mother Mia Warren, a bohemian artist who has just moved into town with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’ve been nomads for Pearl’s whole life, but Mia promises that they’ll settle down in Shaker Heights for a while.

Mia and Pearl rent a duplex owned by Elena Richardson, a third-generation Shaker resident, local reporter and do-gooder, and mother of four stair-step teens. Pearl is fascinated by the Richardson kids, quickly developing an admiration of confident Lexie, a crush on handsome Trip, and a jokey friendship with Moody. Izzy, the youngest, is a wild card, but in her turn becomes enraptured with Mia and offers to be her photography assistant. Mia can’t make a living just from her art, so takes the occasional shift in a Chinese restaurant and also starts cleaning the Richardsons’ palatial home in exchange for the monthly rent.

The novel’s central conflict involves a thorny custody case: Mia’s colleague at the restaurant, Bebe Chow, was in desperate straits and abandoned her infant daughter, May Ling, at a fire station in the dead of winter. The baby was placed with the Richardsons’ dear friends and neighbors, the McCulloughs, who yearn for a child and have suffered multiple miscarriages. Now Bebe has gotten her life together and wants her daughter back. Who wouldn’t want a child to grow up in the comfort of Shaker Heights? But who would take a child away from its mother and ethnic identity? The whole community takes sides, and the ideological division is particularly clear between Mia and Mrs. Richardson (as she’s generally known here).

For all that Shaker Heights claims to be colorblind, race and class issues have been hiding under the surface and quickly come to the forefront. Mrs. Richardson’s journalistic snooping and Mia’s warm words – she seems to have a real knack for seeing into people’s hearts – are the two driving forces behind the plot, as various characters decide to take matters into their own hands and make their own vision of right and wrong a reality. Fire is a potent, recurring symbol of passion and protest: “Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new?” Whether they follow the rules or rebel, every character in this novel is well-rounded and believable: Ng presents no clear villains and no easy answers.

The U.S. cover

There are perhaps a few too many coincidences, and a few metaphors I didn’t love, but I was impressed at how multi-layered this story is; it’s not the simple ethical fable it might at first appear. There are so many different shards in its mosaic of motherhood: infertility, adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing, pride. “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” Ng asks. I also loved the late-1990s setting. It’s a time period you don’t often encounter in contemporary fiction, and Ng brings to life the ambiance of my high school years in a way I found convincing: the Clinton controversy, Titanic, the radio hits playing at parties, and so on.

Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through. This may particularly appeal to readers of Curtis Sittenfeld, Pamela Erens and Lauren Groff, but I’d recommend it to any literary fiction reader. One of the best novels of the year.

My rating:


Little Fires Everywhere was published by Little, Brown UK on November 9th. My thanks to Grace Vincent for the review copy.

The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #3

If you’ve been following the shadow panel’s progress on Twitter, you’ll know that we’re all extremely impressed with this one. Marketed as a novel in America but as a short story collection here in the UK, The Lucky Ones is really somewhere in between: it’s a linked story collection in which the 11 chapters could stand alone but are so much richer together. Each generally adds a layer of meaning to the others by filling in the background or following a certain character a decade or more into the future. The book keeps creeping backward and leaping forward to show how terror endured in one’s past never really goes away.

The title certainly seems ironic, as many of the schoolmates, teachers and hangers-on who people these Colombia-set stories face imprisonment, torture or disappearance. The story titles, too, seem innocuous, even sweet. But the first story, “Lucky,” sets the precedent for things turning very dark very fast. Stephanie Lansky’s family leaves for a weekend party at the Montoyas’ country house, but teenage Stephanie stays home, planning to smoke in secret and meet up with a friend at the mall. Scary snatches of radio dialogue about Communist rebels and bombs contrast with her escapist re-reading of Arthurian romances, but the threat becomes real when a man comes to the door to get her. With the maid missing and her parents not answering their phones, she’s effectively a hostage in her own home. The open-ended conclusion is masterly; its “could be,” “maybe” and “It’s still possible” phrases leave the reader to wonder whether Stephanie will be one of the lucky ones or not.

The stories range from 1993 to 2013, and over those two decades we zoom in and out to visit some of Stephanie’s classmates and teachers. For instance, in “Lemon Pie,” my favorite individual story, her teacher, Mr. B., is now a prisoner in a jungle camp and nourishes what little sanity he has left by teaching his old Hamlet lesson plans to groups of leaves and sticks. In the next story, “M + M,” we meet another of Mr. B.’s pupils, a scholarship student who fell out spectacularly with a friend over their differing class status. Ten years later, he’s a guerrilla commander so harsh that he orders deserters executed by their friends.

Seven of the stories are in the third person, but others add in some interesting variety: in “Siberian Tiger Park,” the third graders of Stephanie’s class form a first-person plural voice as they set their vivid imaginations loose on the playground and turn against their former ringleader, and “The Bird Thing,” a slice of horror in which a maid’s traumatic memories feed a monster, is told in the second person. And then there’s “Junkie Rabbit,” a first-person story set among a coca-consuming colony of pet rabbits gone feral. It’s Watership Down on speed. Indeed, drug use and wildness are recurring tropes, and there’s a hallucinatory quality to these stories – somewhere between languid and frantic – that suits the subject matter.

Before starting this I knew nothing about the relatively recent conflict in Colombia. It’s estimated that there were 60,000 forced disappearances on top of the documented carnage. We meet one character who has his hand chopped off for “publishing the wrong kind of articles,” but the country’s atrocities usually show up in asides, woven in so subtly and elegantly that they’re among the most arresting passages in the book:

On Saturdays … you got to run to the riverside, slide down the bank, and go swimming or throw stones or try to catch tiny silver fish with your bare hands, then feed them leftovers from lunch. Except when the bodies were floating in the water. Rumor was that men always floated face up, women face down. Sometimes there were vultures sitting on them and sometimes not. But if there were bodies, you would just go to the little stream instead and that was better. There the fish would eat rice straight from your hand, grains floating through the water like confetti thrown at a wedding.

Almost every story has at least one paragraph that striking. I thought two stories added less than the others and might have been cut to get the page count down closer to 200, but for the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing this book can’t be topped.

 

More shadow panel reviews of The Lucky Ones:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Talking ’bout My Generation? Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #2

The first thing to note about a novel with “Conversations” in the title is that there are no quotation marks denoting speech. In a book so saturated with in-person chats, telephone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, the lack of speech marks reflects the swirl of voices in twenty-one-year-old Frances’ head; thought and dialogue run together. This is a work in which communication is a constant struggle but words have lasting significance.

It’s the summer between years at uni in Dublin, and Frances is interning at a literary agency and collaborating with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi on spoken word poetry events. She’s the ideas person, and Bobbi brings her words to life. At an open mic night they meet Melissa, an essayist and photographer in her mid-thirties who wants to profile the girls. She invites them back for a drink and Frances, who is from a slightly rough background – divorced parents and an alcoholic father who can’t be relied on to send her allowance – is dazzled by the apparent wealth of Melissa and her handsome actor husband, Nick. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, and before too long Frances falls for Nick. The stage is set for some serious amorous complications over the next six months or so.

Young woman and older, married man: it may seem like a cliché, but Sally Rooney is doing a lot more here than just showing us an affair. For one thing, this is a coming of age in the truest sense: Frances, forced into independence for the first time, is figuring out who she is as she goes along and in the meantime has to play roles and position herself in relation to other people:

At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.

I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot.

What will be her rock in the uncertainty? She can’t count on her parents; she alienates Bobbi as often as not; she reads the Gospels out of curiosity but finds no particular solace in religion. Her other challenge is coping with the chronic pain of a gynecological condition. More than anything else, this brings home to her the disappointing nature of real life:

I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.

Rooney writes in a sort of style-less style that slips right down. There’s a flatness to Frances’ demeanor: she’s always described as “cold” and has trouble expressing her emotions. I recognized the introvert’s risk of coming across as aloof. Before I started this I worried that I’d fail to connect to a novel about experiences so different from mine. I was quite the strait-laced teen and married at 23, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to Frances and Bobbi’s ‘wildness’. But this is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing that you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering that sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality.

With its prominent dialogue and discrete scenes, I saw the book functioning like a minimalist play, and I could also imagine it working as an on-location television miniseries. In some ways the dynamic between Frances and Bobbi mirrors that between the main characters in Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, Friendship by Emily Gould, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker, so if you enjoyed any of those I highly recommend this, too. Rooney really captures the angst of youth:

You’re twenty-one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.

I’m working on it, I said.

This is a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did. Rooney is a tremendous talent whose career we’ll have the privilege to watch unfolding. I’ve told the shadow panel that if we decide our focus is on the “Young” in Young Writer, there’s no doubt that this nails the zeitgeist and should win.

The conversations even spill out onto the endpapers.

Reviews of Conversations with Friends:

 

From the shadow panel:

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

 

Also:

A life in books

Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.

The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.

Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.

As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?

You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.


Some favorite lines:

“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”

“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”

“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”

“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”

“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”

My rating:


Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.

On the Road with Ma: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #1

Sara Taylor’s debut, The Shore, was a gritty and virtuosic novel-in-13-stories that imagined 250 years of history on a set of islands off the coast of Virginia. It was one of my favorite books of 2015, and earned Taylor a spot on that year’s Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist as well as the Baileys Prize longlist. Her second book is a whole different kettle of fish: a fairly straightforward record of an extended North American road trip that 13-year-old Alex took with his/her mother 30 years ago.

Alex and Ma have run off from their home in Virginia and left Alex’s father behind. They travel, seemingly at random, all over – North Carolina, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, California – stopping for weeks at a time for Ma to earn enough to move on again. On the way they visit various sites from Ma’s past, mostly foster homes where she lived as a runaway teen and made fleeting connections with friends and lovers. Her five best friends were all apparently named Laura. Sometimes it seems Ma is after revenge; other times she’s making amends for mistakes from her past or attending to unfinished business. One thing gradually becomes clear: this is no arbitrary journey but a quest with a destination. It even has a Harold Fry element, though Taylor avoids Rachel Joyce’s schmaltz.

The Lauras is more complex than your average coming-of-age tale, largely because of Alex’s deliberate androgyny: a whole novel passes without us figuring out whether the narrator is male or female. “I suppose I was forgettable, came across still as whichever gender a person expected to see … being either and neither and both at once fit me more closely than the other options on offer,” Alex writes. But this chosen indeterminateness is not without consequences: there are a couple of disturbing scenes of bullying and sexual assault.

I enjoyed the mother-and-teen banter and the depiction of characters who are restless and rootless, driven on by traumatic memories as much as by uncertainty about the future. However, I had a few problems with the book. A road trip is generally a fun fictional setup, but here it tends towards the episodic and the repetitive. Moreover, Ma’s past is generally conveyed by secondhand stories rendered in Alex’s voice, which subordinates Ma’s perspective to her child’s and relies on somewhat dull reportage. Also, the metaphorical language and level of psychological understanding seem too advanced for a young teen, which only emphasizes the disjunction between the events being recounted (perhaps from the 1990s?) and the supposed present day three decades later. Those niggles explain why I abandoned this book a third of the way through on my first attempt in December 2016, and why, for me at least, it overall pales in comparison with the originality of The Shore.

I prefer this cover image.

Bearing in mind that I might be meeting these authors at the shortlist event or prize-giving ceremony, I’m not going to rate the five ST Young Writer books. (It wouldn’t take much sleuthing to find my Goodreads ratings, but never mind.) I’m still a huge fan of Sara Taylor’s work and look forward to her next book; were this to be the consensus of the rest of the shadow panel I would happily recognize it, but it’s unlikely to be one of my top two.

 

Other reviews of The Lauras:

A life in books

Lonesome Reader

 

Postscript: Taylor and I have a few neat connections: she graduated from Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Women’s College), whose study abroad program in Reading, England brought me over here for the first time, and when not working on her PhD at UEA lives with her husband in Reading. Plus a tiny mention from The Lauras made me cheer: Ma went to Hood College, my alma mater!