Category: Fiction Reviews

The Life of Madame Tussaud: Little by Edward Carey

There is a state between life and death: it’s called the waxworks.

Apparently the 4th was Super Thursday: 544 books were published in the UK as part of the autumn rush leading up to Christmas. I’ve read just one of those multitudinous releases so far, but what a corker it was. Little is Edward Carey’s deliciously macabre novel about Madame Tussaud, who starts life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761 and loses both parents by the age of six. Known as Marie, she soon picks up the nickname “Little” at the studio where she helps Dr. Philip Curtius make wax anatomical models. When the indebted Curtius flees to Paris, Marie goes with him as his servant. Along with their landlady, a tailor’s widow named Charlotte Picot, and her son Edmond, they form a makeshift family and a successful business, making wax heads and then dressing them in wigs and clothes to create whole figures of (in)famous citizens to display in their new quarters, a former monkey house.

In the years to come Marie occupies an uncomfortable in-between position: she’s treated like a servant but never paid, and though she’s fond of Curtius and falls in love with Edmond she’s made to understand that she’s not their equal. However, her fortunes change when Princess Élisabeth, on an unannounced visit to the Cabinet of Dr. Curtius, is impressed with Marie’s art and anatomy skills and invites her to be her sculpture tutor at Versailles. Marie and the young royal make wax models of local peasants’ ailments so they can pray for them. By the time Marie returns to the monkey house, the Revolution is in full swing and there’s widespread hunger not just for wax heads in cabinets, but for real decapitated ones. It will take cunning and luck for Marie and her odd little family to survive the years of upheaval.

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(For a look inside the book, go to https://www.book2look.com/book/H8skBPiuJ9.)

The grimy picture of eighteenth-century Paris reminded me of Pure by Andrew Miller, and I often thought of Dickens as I was reading. Little starts off most like David Copperfield: a first-person “I am born”-style account with each chapter headed by a pithy summary. The characters have exaggerated physical features and recurring verbal tics, and there is an unmistakable message that whether a royal or a lowly servant we are all the same inside. Of course, as that pivotal July 14th approaches, the Dickensian echo is more along the lines of A Tale of Two Cities.

I think the novel would benefit from a more suggestive title and could stand to be a bit shorter, but it’s still a delightful piece of historical fiction and another hit from Gallic Books, responsible for two of my other favorite reads of the year so far, Salt Creek and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Part of the joy of reading it is encountering Carey’s slightly grotesque black-and-white illustrations, dozens of which appear through the text; you can see a few more of them on the postcards that accompanied my review copy.

In fact, I’ll sheepishly admit that before I read this I had Edward Carey confused for Edward Gorey, who was known for his ghoulish black-and-white drawings. Carey, an English playwright and novelist whose previous books include the Iremonger Trilogy, is married to Elizabeth McCracken and teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. After university he worked as a steward at Madame Tussaud’s in London, which is how he first came across her story. It’s an unforgettable one.

My rating:

 

With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

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Recent Bylines: Glamour, Shiny New Books, Etc.

Following up on my post from June, here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for places that aren’t my blog.

 

Review essay of Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman for Glamour UK

The female body has been a source of deep embarrassment for Altman, but here she swaps shame for self-deprecating silliness and cringing for chuckling. Through a snappy blend of personal anecdotes and intensive research, she exposes the cultural expectations that make us dislike our bodies, suggesting that a better knowledge of anatomy might help us feel normal. While 11 of her 15 topics aren’t exclusive to women’s anatomy—birthmarks, hemorrhoids, warts and more apply to men, too—she always presents an honest account of the female experience. This is one of my favorite books of the year and one I’d recommend to women of any age. It’s funny, it’s feminist, and it’s a cracking good read. (My full review is complete with embarrassing personal revelations!) 

 

Essay on two books about “wasting time” for the Los Angeles Review of Books

 In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman  &

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl: A poet’s delight in lyricism and free association is in evidence here. The book blends memoir with travel and biographical information about some of Hampl’s exemplars of solitary, introspective living, and it begins, quite literally, with daydreaming. 

Hampl and Lightman start from the same point of frazzled frustration and arrive at many of the same conclusions about the necessity of “wasted” time but go about it in entirely different ways. Lightman makes a carefully constructed argument and amasses a sufficient weight of scientific and anecdotal evidence; Hampl drifts and dreams through seemingly irrelevant back alleys of memory and experience. The latter is a case of form following function: her book wanders along with her mind, in keeping with her definition of memoir as “lyrical quest literature,” where meaning always hovers above the basics of plot.

 

Book list for OZY on the refugee crisis & another coming up on compassion in medicine.

 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews

(Their website is notoriously unreliable, so the links may not work for you). Upcoming: A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits. Latest:

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau

Chamoiseau is a social worker and author from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Translator Linda Coverdale has chosen to leave snippets of Martinican Creole in this text, creating a symphony of languages. The novel has an opening that might suit a gloomy fairytale: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man.” The novel’s language is full of delightfully unexpected verbs and metaphors. At not much more than 100 pages, it is a nightmarish novella that alternates between feeling like a nebulous allegory and a realistic escaped slave narrative. It can be a disorienting experience: like the slave, readers are trapped in a menacing forest and prone to hallucinations. The lyricism of the writing and the brief glimpse back from the present day, in which an anthropologist discovers the slave’s remains and imagines the runaway back into life, give this book enduring power. 

 

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Barry Cohen, a conceited hedge fund manager under SEC investigation for insider trading, sets out on a several-month picaresque road trip in the second half of 2016. The ostensible aim is to find his college girlfriend, but he forms fleeting connections with lots of ordinary folks along the way. Barry may be a figure of fun, but it’s unpleasant to spend so much time with his chauvinism (“he never remembered women’s names” but gets plenty of them to sleep with him), which isn’t fully tempered by alternating chapters from his wife’s perspective. Pitched somewhere between the low point of “Make America Great Again” and the loftiness of the Great American novel, Lake Success may not achieve the profundity it’s aiming for, but it’s still a biting portrait of an all-too-recognizable America where money is God and villains gets off easy. 

 

Shiny New Books reviews

(Upcoming: Nine Pints by Rose George and Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers.) Latest:

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins 

Atkins has produced an appealing blend of vivid travel anecdotes, historical background and philosophical musings. He is always conscious that he is treading in the footsteps of earlier adventurers. He has no illusions about being a pioneer here; rather, he eagerly picks up the thematic threads others have spun out of desert experience and runs with them – things like solitude, asceticism, punishment for wrongdoing and environmental degradation. The book is composed of seven long chapters, each set in a different desert. In my favorite segment, the author rents a cabin in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for $100 a week. My interest waxed and waned from chapter to chapter, but readers of travelogues should find plenty to enjoy. Few of us would have the physical or emotional fortitude to repeat Atkins’s journeys, but we get the joy of being armchair travelers instead. 

 

Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens

I was ambivalent about the author’s first book (Bleaker House), but for a student of the Victorian period this was unmissable, and the meta aspect was fun and not off-putting this time. Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. One strand covers the last decade of Gaskell’s life, but what makes it so lively and unusual is that Stevens almost always speaks of Gaskell as “you.” The intimacy of that address ensures her life story is anything but dry. The other chapters are set between 2013 and 2017 and narrated in the present tense, which makes Stevens’s dilemmas feel pressing. For much of the first two years her PhD takes a backseat to her love life. She’s obsessed with Max, a friend and unrequited crush from her Boston University days who is now living in Paris. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive. 

 

Times Literary Supplement reviews

I’ve recently submitted my sixth and seventh for publication. All of them have been behind a paywall so far, alas. (Upcoming: Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul; On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén.) Latest:

How To Build A Boat: A Father, his Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea by Jonathan Gornall

Gornall’s genial memoir is the story of a transformation and an adventure, as a fifty-something freelance journalist gets an unexpected second chance at fatherhood and decides to build his daughter, Phoebe, a boat. It was an uncharacteristic resolution for “a man who [had] never knowingly wielded a plane or a chisel,” yet in a more metaphorical way it made sense: the sea was in his family’s blood. Gornall nimbly conveys the precarious financial situation of the freelancer, as well as the challenges of adjusting to new parenthood late in life. This is a refreshingly down-to-earth account. The nitty-gritty details of the construction will appeal to some readers more than to others, but one can’t help admiring the combination of craftsmanship and ambition. (Full review in September 7th issue.) 

October Reading Plans: R.I.P. and More

For the first time I’m joining in with the R.I.P. challenge (that’s “Readers Imbibing Peril,” if you’re unfamiliar) – a spur to read the dark fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror and suspense books I own during the month of October. None of these are go-to genres for me, but I do have some books that fit the bill. To start me off, I set aside this pile early in September. I’m not sure how many I’ll get through, so I’m not committing to a particular number.

Several of my review books for the month also happen to be appropriate, beginning with one of my current reads, Little by Edward Carey, a delightfully macabre historical novel about the real-life girl who became Madame Tussaud of waxworks fame. I hope to review it here soon. I also have Deborah Harkness’s latest and an upcoming fable by A.L. Kennedy. Continuing last month’s focus on short stories, I’m going to start on Aimee Bender’s 2013 volume soon; it might just be fantastical enough to count towards the challenge.

I’ve never read anything by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, so Annabel, Laura and I are embarking on a buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness this month, too.

And then I may cheat and add in these two ‘blood-y’ nonfiction books since I’m going to be reading them soon anyway.

My other goal is to read more of the print books I’ve acquired over the past year, including some of 2017’s birthday and Christmas hauls and the books I bought at Bookbarn and in Wigtown. My birthday is coming up in the middle of the month, so it would be good to start chipping away at these stacks before the new acquisitions pile up much more!

 


I got a head start on a month of spooky reading with Sarah Perry’s new Gothic tale, Melmoth. It seems to have been equally inspired by Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer and by Perry’s time in Prague as a UNESCO World City of Literature Writer in Residence. The action opens in Prague in 2016 as Helen Franklin, a translator, runs into her distressed friend Dr. Karel Pražan one December night. An aged fellow scholar, Josef Hoffman, has been found dead in the National Library, where Helen and Karel first met. Karel is now in possession of the man’s leather document file, which contains accounts of his Holocaust-era family history and of his investigations into the Melmoth legend. She was one of the women at Jesus’s empty tomb but denied the resurrection and so was cursed to wander the Earth ever after. As Hoffman explains, “she is lonely, with an eternal loneliness” and “she comes to those at the lowest ebb of life.”

Is this just a tale used to scare children? In any case, it resonates with Helen, who exiled herself to Prague 20 years ago to escape guilt over a terrible decision. For most of the book we get only brief glimpses into Helen’s private life, like when she peeks into the under-the-bed shoebox where she keeps relics of the life she left behind. We do eventually learn what she ran away from, but by then I was so weary of dull found documents, irritating direct reader address (“Look! It is evening now … Reader, witness, here is what you see”), and toothless Gothic tropes that the reveal was barely worth hanging around for. Alas, I found the whole thing pretty melodramatic and silly, and not in the least bit frightening.

I truly loved The Essex Serpent (), but I think Perry is one of those authors where I will need to skip every other release and just read the even numbers; After Me Comes the Flood, her first, was one of my lowest-rated books ever (). I recall that when I saw her speak at Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature in 2016 Perry revealed that Novel #4 will be a contemporary courtroom drama. I’ll try again with that one.

My rating:


Melmoth is released in the UK today, October 2nd. My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a proof copy for review. It comes out in the USA from Custom House on the 16th. Sarah Perry has written an interesting article about being on strong pain medication while writing Melmoth.

 

Will you be reading anything scary in the month ahead? Can you recommend any of the books I have coming up?

Iris Murdoch Readalong: The Nice and the Good (1968)

Iris Murdoch’s eleventh novel starts with a bang: civil servant Joseph Radeechy has shot himself at the office, leaving Octavian Gray and Richard Biranne to deal with the fallout. The incident delays Octavian’s departure for idyllic Dorset, where he and his wife Kate live in community with various hangers-on: Mary Clothier and her son Pierce; Biranne’s ex, Paula, and their twins; and the Grays’ daughter, Barbara, whenever she’s home from her Swiss boarding school. I loved the initial introduction to a household so full of joyful bustle, the witty dialogue of children and servants, and a memorable dog and cat. It’s a hot summer and there are games and jaunts down to the rocky beach and an abandoned graveyard.

Gradually the focus shifts to would-be judge John Ducane, the legal advisor to Octavian’s department. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, he’s just breaking off an affair with a younger woman. He’s decided he’s in love with Kate, with whom he shares an occasional kiss. Octavian knows all about this and finds it amusing – I thought of him and Kate as the Oberon and Titania of their enchanted pastoral world, presiding in lordly yet playful ways over the other mortals’ romantic entanglements. (“Midsummer madness,” John remarks at one point.) Again as in A Severed Head, it seems everyone’s infatuated with everyone else, in different ways and at different times. A distinction is often drawn between loving and being in love – the two do not always coexist.

Gotta love/hate these vintage Penguin covers.

Ducane helps the department look into Radeechy’s death in hopes of avoiding a public enquiry. It seems the man was involved in some bizarre stuff – witchcraft with prostitutes? – and was being blackmailed for it. However, the city and country divide is stark, and so the investigation never overpowers the more low-key interpersonal intrigues down in Dorset. There are lots of important though secondary characters in this ensemble cast – so many that I struggled to pay attention to all of them (Uncle Theo?). Of these I’ll just give a special mention to Holocaust survivor Willy Kost. Thankfully, there’s a much more positive vision of Judaism here than in A Severed Head or The Italian Girl.

Liz has written a wonderful summary of the novel and its themes, set in the context of the Murdoch novels that have come before. I especially noted and liked the duplicated moments, such as two scenes of women jealously observing other mistresses; the instances of dramatic irony; and the sequences composed mostly of dialogue (e.g., Chapter 40). There’s a gripping scene where three characters are stuck in a sea cave due to a rising tide, and the book ends on what seems to be a sighting of a flying saucer. You also have to love the late lion-and-lamb moment of Montrose the cat and Mingo the dog curling up in a basket together.

I kept looking back to the title and asking myself who is really ‘good’ here and what the real value of being ‘nice’ is. Murdoch pardons Radeechy’s peculiar behavior as “minor evil” at most, while Willy’s experience in Dachau is surely the clearest example of human evil at work.

“Ducane’s so nice – ” / “He’s so good –

“The point is that nothing matters except loving what is good. Not to look at evil but to look at good.”

Meanwhile, there are brief mentions of goodness as a state of mind or a matter of personality:

 “in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible”

“I think being good is just a matter of temperament in the end. Yes, we shall all be so happy and good too. Oh, how utterly marvellous it is to be me!”

That last quote is a glimpse into Kate’s thoughts: so unrealistically optimistic you have to wonder whether Murdoch is making fun of her. And yet Kate is one of the most stable and contented characters.

This falls about in the middle of the pack for me in terms of how much I’ve enjoyed Murdoch’s novels. There’s a lot going on, perhaps too much, and the reader’s sympathy is spread thin across so many characters. Still, it’s summery, light-hearted fare that manages to also hint at deeper ethical questions.

My rating:

 

Here’s my ranking of the eight I’ve read so far:

 

Favorite: The Bell

The Sea, The Sea

A Severed Head

The Nice and the Good

Under the Net

The Black Prince

The Italian Girl

Least favorite: An Accidental Rose

 

I’m Murdoch-ed out for the time being, but I’ll keep an eye on Liz’s ongoing Iris Murdoch readalong project to see if there are other novels I’ll try to find secondhand in the future (at least The Unicorn, I think). Join in for one or more!

Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?

Short Story Collections Read Recently

This is the third year in a row that I’ve made a concerted effort to read more short stories in the alliterative month of September; see also my 2016 and 2017 performances. (I actually finished Sarah Hall’s collection in late August, but I’m going to cheat and include it anyway.) That makes for four volumes in total read recently. Surprisingly, I had my best luck with two that were published back in the early 1990s.

I read Sarah Hall’s book from the library; these three were bargains from my local charity warehouse, the Community Furniture Project.

Like many devoted novel readers, I struggle with short stories because they can feel fragmentary or open-ended, and it takes that much more effort to keep up with multiple settings and groups of characters. Yet I also get frustrated when the narrative voice and themes are too similar across a whole set of tales.

However, when done well short stories can be marvelous, of course. I enjoyed K.J. Orr’s article on short stories in the September 7th issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Among the virtues of the short story, she lists the following:

  • “the capacity to stoke questions of definition and instability, resolution and irresolution … ; to deliver its conundrums to the reader in a state of compression”
  • “The unpredictability involved means that picking up a new short story always feels to me a moment full of possibilities.”
  • “The short story can combine complexity and uncertainty with ebullience and humour. It can take on subjects and situations that risk seeming clichéd and open them to wonder. It can put the familiar and the strange in conversation.”

And yet sometimes the quality of the writing, or at least the intensity of my engagement, can vary wildly within a story collection, which often makes the books difficult to rate and respond to as a whole. That’s what I found with these first two.

 

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall (2017)

Three corkers; two pretty good; four been-there-read-that. My favorites were the first and last stories, “Mrs Fox” and “Evie” (winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 and shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2013, respectively). Both concern a fairly average marriage derailed when the wife undergoes a transformation. In the former Sophia literally turns into a fox and her husband scrambles for a way to make the relationship last. In “Evie,” Richard’s wife develops a voracious appetite for sweets and sex, and starts talking gibberish. This one is very explicit, but if you can get past that I found it both painful and powerful. I also especially liked “Case Study 2,” about a psychologist’s encounter with a boy who’s been brought up in a commune. It has faint echoes of T.C. Boyle’s “The Wild Child.”

“Wilderness” focuses on an intense episode of fear of heights during a trip to South Africa. In “Luxury Hour,” a new mother meets up with an old lover near the swimming pool they used to frequent and wonders where and why their lives diverged. This one reminded me of the first chapter of Rachel Cusk’s Transit.

As for the rest? “Goodnight Nobody” was completely forgettable, and the other three are in the vague speculative/post-apocalyptic vein that’s been done to death: “Theatre 6” = Red Clocks; “Later, His Ghost” = The Road et al.; “One in Four” = Station Eleven et al. I admire Hall’s writing in general, but The Wolf Border remains the best thing I’ve read by her.

My rating:

 

The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell (2011)

Based on the first six stories, I was planning a 5-star rating. (How can you resist this opening line? “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.”) But the second half of the book ended up being much less memorable; I wouldn’t say it wasn’t worth reading, but I got very little out of four of the stories, and the other two were okay but somewhat insubstantial. By contrast, the first two stories, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones” and “Uncle,” are gritty little masterpieces of violence and revenge.

I also particularly liked “Black Step” and “Night Stand,” about traumatized soldiers back from war (Woodrell himself was a Marine). Each has a creepy segment where the veteran gives sarcastic answers to the unspecified typical questions they always get; we have to infer that these are: How many people did you kill? What’s it like to kill someone? and What do you do with the bodies? There’s a nice balance between first- and third-person voices; lyrical and unlearned prose; and speech marks and none. I will definitely read more by Woodrell.

My rating:

 


I thoroughly loved these next two debut collections. In each case I’d read one or two previous books by the author and not been wild about the writing (White Houses; In-Flight Entertainment and Cockfosters), but these two have convinced me to try more of their work.

 

Come to Me by Amy Bloom (1993)

Bloom was a practicing psychotherapist, so it’s no surprise she has deep insight into her characters’ motivations. This is a wonderful set of stories about people who love who they shouldn’t love. In “Song of Solomon,” a new mother falls for the obstetrician who delivered her baby; in “Sleepwalking,” a woman gives in to the advances of her late husband’s son from a previous marriage; in “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines,” adolescent Susan develops crushes on any man who takes an interest in her. My favorite was probably “Love Is Not a Pie,” in which a young woman rethinks her impending marriage during her mother’s funeral, all the while remembering the unusual sleeping arrangement her parents had with another couple during their joint summer vacations. The title suggests that love is not a thing to be apportioned out equally until it’s used up, but a more mysterious and fluid entity.

Linked short stories can be a useful halfway-house for readers who prefer novels and are still unsure about reading stories. Happily, then, the heart of this collection is five pieces that orbit around the same characters. In “Hyacinths” we meet David as a boy in Manitoba and get a glimpse of him as an adult. In the next story we encounter his second wife, Galen, and her lover, Henry. “Silver Water” is about a mental health crisis with David and Galen’s daughter, and the next two stories are about Henry, his wife Marie, and the other bonds they form.

Although I read the book quickly while on holiday and so haven’t marked out any particular quotes, convincing dialogue and insightful observations are on almost every page. I was reminded most of short stories I’ve read by Elizabeth McCracken and Carol Shields.

My rating:

 

Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1990)

Simpson won the inaugural Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for this in 1991. Her protagonists are women disillusioned with the norms of marriage and motherhood. They ditch their safe relationships, or carry on brazen affairs; they fear pregnancy, or seek it out on their own terms. The feminist messages are never strident because they are couched in such brisk, tongue-in-cheek narratives. For instance, in “Christmas Jezebels” three sisters in 4th-century Lycia cleverly resist their father’s attempts to press them into prostitution and are saved by the bishop’s financial intervention; in “Escape Clauses” a middle-aged woman faces the death penalty for her supposed crimes of gardening naked and picnicking on private property, while her rapist gets just three months in prison because she was “asking for it.” (Nearly three decades on, it’s still so timely it hurts.)

I loved “The Bed,” a kind of fairy tale about a luxurious bed solving all a woman’s problems; “What Are Neighbours For,” in which each woman cattily plans what she can get out of the others; “Labour,” a brief five-act play set in a hospital delivery room; and “Zoë and the Pedagogues,” about a woman learning to drive who has two very different teachers (perhaps inevitably, this recalled Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors). “An Interesting Condition,” which takes place in an antenatal class, is like Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Bad Latch,” while multiple stories reminded me of Shena Mackay, especially “Send One Up for Me,” about a woman tiptoeing around her boarding house and trying not to anger the landlady.

My rating:

 

I enjoyed these two books so much that I plan to keep reading the short story collections I own through the autumn and winter.

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

Last-Minute Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).

 

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)

The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.

There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.

This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.

My rating:

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.

Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).

The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.

The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.

I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.

I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.

My rating:


My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.

 

*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)

 

Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.

What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?

Certain American States: Stories by Catherine Lacey

The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely

I come from a certain American state: Maryland. Before I first came to England 15 years ago, I’d never lived anywhere else. It’s the ninth-smallest state but has a little bit of everything – mountains, lakes and farmland; coast and bayfront; rough cities and pleasant towns; plus proximity to the nation’s capital – which is why it’s nicknamed “America in Miniature.” Brits say Merry-Land (it’s more like the name Marilyn, with a faint D on the end) and more than once when asked where I’m from I’ve heard in reply,“like the cookies?” No, not like the cookies!

Anyway, the characters in Catherine Lacey’s short story collection move through various states – Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Montana – but the focus is more on their emotional states. Ten of the 12 stories are in the first person, giving readers a deep dive into the psyches of damaged or bereaved people. I particularly liked “ur heck box,” in which the narrator, troubled by the death of her brother and wary of her mother joining her in New York City, starts getting garbled messages from a deaf man. Whether a result of predictive text errors or mental illness, these notes on his phone echo her confusion at what’s become of her life.

Two other favorites were “Touching People,” in which a sixty-something woman takes a honeymooning couple to see her ex-husband’s grave, and “Small Differences,” about a woman who’s cat-sitting for her on-and-off boyfriend and remembers the place faith used to have in her life. Both dramatize the divide between youth and age; in the latter the cat is named Echo, a reminder that the past still resonates. Another standout is “Learning,” about a painting teacher with a crumbling house and marriage whose deadbeat college friend has become a parenting guru. (This one reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “The Prairie Wife.”)

Many of the stories question the possibility of ‘getting over’ what’s happened and posit, instead of total healing, a stoic determination to just keep going. In the title story, the narrator goes to see her godfather, Leonard, on his deathbed. She still doesn’t like him much; the trip isn’t about achieving closure but doing the right thing when you can. The same is true in “Family Physics”: Bridget had an explosive falling-out with her family when they came to see her accept her college Physics Award. Now that she’s back in touch with them everything isn’t perfect, but she sees how family life is always a mixture of entropy and rebuilding.

I prefer this U.S. cover. How about you?

There isn’t as much variety to the narration as I often like from a set of stories, but Lacey uses a range of storytelling techniques (or gimmicks, if one was being unkind) to keep things interesting. The first story, “Violations,” about a man whose ex-wife has published a story drawing on their life together, features run-on sentences that go over the page; “ur heck box” nests parentheses inside parentheses, up to three layers; “Because You Have To,” about a woman who’s counting her blessings even though she’s newly single and surrounded by feral pets, is in short sections separated by asterisks; and “The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables,” narrated by a woman who’s sleeping with a Buddhist monk, is in list form. Lacey also uses no speech marks, setting out dialogue in italics instead.

It can be tough to assess a story collection as a whole because the parts can range from hard-hitting to instantly forgettable. I didn’t always feel that each of the parts was necessary here; perhaps I would have been better off just sampling a few of the best stories? The problem, of course, is that you never know which those would be for you before you open up the book. There were quite a number of lines that rang true for me in Lacey’s work, but no more than a few stories that I can imagine myself recalling or ever going back to in the future. The book feels very much of the moment, though. If you’ve enjoyed recent work by Julie Buntin, R. O. Kwon, Sally Rooney or Sittenfeld, you might want to spend time in Certain American States.

 

Favorite lines:

“I don’t know what to do now, a state I am so familiar with it feels like my only true home.” (from “Because You Have To”)

“Anyone can visit a graveyard, no matter what they think, and every graveyard has been seen so many times there is nothing left in them for anyone to see and that is why we all must go and look, to see again what’s been seen again” (from “Touching People”)

“I no longer understand the state I was in back then (heartsick over the idea of Jesus the way that other girls were heartsick over the idea of River Phoenix)” (from “Small Differences”)

My rating:

 


Certain American States was published in the UK by Granta on September 6th; it came out in the USA on August 7th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.