“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.” (Virginia Woolf)

When I was searching for quotes about libraries I really liked this quote by Libba Bray but it was too long to use for a title:

“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.”

This week’s theme is libraries, because one of the unforeseen benefits of my 2018 book buying ban is that I have rediscovered the joy of the library. You may well be wondering what kind of moron I am not to foresee this, but I really didn’t. The purpose of the book-buying ban is to get through the piles of unread books I own. It’s working, but not quite as well as I hoped because I’ve realised my library has novels. Up until this point I’d mainly used it for non-fiction books. It’s taken the ban for me to realise I can get in the library queue for new releases and get hold of rare books I’ll never be able to afford. Libraries are amazing!

Firstly, I finally reached the top of the queue for Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which was published before my book buying ban last year, but I hadn’t got a copy. McGregor is one of my favourite authors and I didn’t want to wait another year before reading this, so I got on a long waiting list at the library.

Disclaimer: McGregor is never going to get anything but gushing reviews from me. I’ve loved his writing since his first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and as far as I’m concerned he can do no wrong. I understand this novel has divided people and I think its because the premise sets up certain expectations. A 13 year old girl, Becky Shaw, disappears from a village where she and her parents are holidaying for new year. However, this isn’t a thriller. It isn’t about the search for the girl, or what happened to her, or who may have taken her. What it is about is a community, the people in it, how their stories touch on one another. If like me, you’re a fan of McGregor, this won’t greatly surprise you. Although the rural setting is unusual for him, the themes are not. But if you come to it expecting a missing person puzzle to be solved, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

There are many recurring phrases and details in the book. Becky is 13, the village has 13 reservoirs, the story is set over 13 years and divided into 13 chapters. The chapters begin “At midnight when the year turned…” At intervals we are reminded “The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex”. The effect is to show how things move on within the familiar; village lives continue but they also change. Meanwhile, Rebecca/Becky/Bex is held in a stasis, forever 13, the questions around what happened to her left hanging.

I associate McGregor with urban settings, but he writes beautifully of rural life. Old traditions are dying out: only one of the residents bothers collecting nettles for tea or elderflowers for cordial. The butchers – like so many local shops – closes due to lack of demand. Yet the seasons in their distinct beauty are there:

“On Bonfire Night there was a heavy fog, thick with woodsmoke, the fireworks seen briefly like camera flashes overhead. In the beech wood the foxes prepared their dens. The vixens dug down into old earths and reclaimed them, lining them out with grasses and leaves. In the eaves of the church the bats settled plumply into hibernation. By the river the willows shook off the last of their leaves. At night the freight trains came more often a single white leading and the wagons shadowing heavily behind. The widower asked Clive for advice over pruning his fruit trees and Clive was surprised to see the state things were in.”

McGregor does this throughout the novel, going straight from describing the natural world into a detail about the lives of one of the villagers without a paragraph break. In doing so he weaves the lives into the world that surrounds them and shows how one cannot be understood without the other.

I thought Reservoir 13 was absolutely stunning. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf in the use of repeated phrases and the focus small but significant details. In his usual unshowy style, McGregor captures the beauty and fragility of everyday life.

After I finished Reservoir 13 I went straight to the library to see if they had a copy of Reservoir Tapes, the sequel of sorts, and I didn’t even have to put my name in the queue for it. Reservoir Tapes is a series of short stories connected to Reservoir 13, originally broadcast on the radio. You can listen to them here.

Secondly, I found my library had a copy of Rhododendron Pie, Margery Sharp’s first novel from 1930, which is practically impossible to find and which you pay hundreds of pounds for online. There was a copy just sitting there – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked before.

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Image from here

Rhododendron Pie tells the story of Ann Laventie, whose natural leanings towards conservatism mark her out as different from the rest of her family. Her sister Elizabeth begins the birthday tradition of inedible floral birthday pies of the title, while little Ann would prefer an apple pie.

“It had once been said of Mr Laventie that he was a traditionalist in wine and a revolutionary in morals; and indeed, this capacity for making the best of both worlds was an outstanding characteristic of the family. They combined the extremes of old-world elegance and modern freedom, tempering a belief in free verse and free love with an equal feeling for societal decorum.”

As the children grow up, Elizabeth becomes an intellectual forever having essays published in journals while her brother Dick becomes a sculptor. Ann is at a bit of a loss. She is good at admiring what the others do and she is well-liked, but she flounders in working out what she wants and where she fits in. Sharp captures how society is changing for the interwar generation; one of Ann’s friends is perfectly open about the men she lives with on occasion. While there is discussion around this which seems remarkably forward-thinking and would sit well with readers today, Ann does not want a bohemian lifestyle.

“ ‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards  and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.

‘Where does Gilbert come in?’

‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’”

Ann doesn’t come across as remotely priggish or boring though. She is authentic and truthful, and struggles with her knowing, arch, ironic family

“ ‘One of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas so to speak, just to see what it feels like.”

What Rhododendron Pie is about is working out who you are and what you want from the world, and how tricky this can be when you seem to be at odds with your family and the section of society you live within. Without any didacticism, Sharp captures how this is especially hard for women. New freedoms are opening up, but women are still judged more harshly by society and have their actions further circumscribed by law.

“These were the things they understood, patient hope and quiet brave endurance: these were the woman’s part.”

Rhododendron Pie is remarkably accomplished for a first novel. Sharp would hone her skills further in future novels – particularly characterisation, which is a bit weak here – but her wit is here, her warmth, and her wisdom.

 “‘That’s what you clever people never understand. You talk about life as though it were something rare and surprising that one had to be careful of. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s ordinary. And it’s only when you’ve accepted it as ordinary that you begin to see the wonder of it. That a swallow or a green field should be beautiful is nothing, but that they should be common as dirt is a miracle. I am continually amazed…at the casual beauty of things.’”

To end, a woman whose name helpfully rhymes with her profession, and an annoying man who won’t shut up and let people read in peace:

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“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” (Seamus Heaney)

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff – do join in!

I’ve decided to make debut novels featuring a crime the theme of the post (the first choice isn’t quite a crime novel, hence that rather cumbersome explanation). It was with regret that I decided the following quote – so thematically apt – was too long to pick as a title:

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the piss.” And that’s where the police sweep in.” (Dara O’Briain)

Firstly, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel which won the Bailey’s Prize in 2016 (the 2017 longlist was announced yesterday). Set in Cork, it tells the story of Robbie O’Donvan’s death – an almost homeless drug addict who theoretically could disappear with few people noticing – and the fractures that radiate out across the city from this one act.

McInerney is interested in the members of society who are simultaneously vilified and ignored. So the people affected by Robbie’s death include a teenage drug dealer, his alcoholic father, their paedophile neighbour, Robbie’s prostitute girlfriend. If this sounds depressing, it really isn’t due to McInerney’s comic voice and eye for beauty where there should be none.

“The rain cleared off in the evening, Tony walked down to the off-licence and stood outside it like a child with tuppence to his name outside the toy shop. If he pressed his nose to the glass, he may well have been able to smell it. The heady warmth of the thought seeped through his hell and into his bones and lifted his onto his toes and rose off him like holy water off the devil’s shoulders.”

She doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation, but presents it in a complex way, so Tony’s alcoholism is seen through his own eyes as self-medication for the pressures he is under, and we also shown the catastrophic impact this has on his son, Ryan. All the people in the novel are self-aware enough to know the damage they are doing to themselves and others but they are powerless to stop it:

“How could you be two people in five years? How could you undergo such a metamorphosis – whore to saint – and paint the slattern back over the scar tissue only a few short years later?”

McInerney manages to covey insight without ever sitting in judgement on her characters. This moment stood out for me as the tragedy of people who are in so much pain, yet unable to articulate to themselves or others:

“And for the beat before he wordlessly left her she grasped something of what he was trying to say, And that it might have been nice to have someone like him, someone who got it, someone who might have stood by her and bawled her out of it when she stepped out of line.”

The city of Cork is an additional, pervasive character in the novel, surrounding, influencing and directing all the other characters:

“Jimmy had watched the city long enough to know that it would right itself, sooner or later, and that the silence following Robbie O’Donovan’s death was just a long, caught breath”

“The city runs on macro, but what’s that, except the breathing, beating, swallowing, sweating agonies and ecstasies of a hundred thousand little lives?”

I haven’t mentioned much plot-wise regarding The Glorious Heresies, because to me this was the least interesting part of the novel (but still excellent).  How Robbie O’Donovan’s death is dealt with in practical terms is the bare bones of what McInerney is writing about. As a series of characters studies of people and their city, The Glorious Heresies is warm, affectionate, brutal, bleak and incisive.

Secondly, In the Woods by Tana French (2007), the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, focussing on detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the murder of 12 year old Katy Devlin. I’m not a great one for crime novels but I was persuaded by Lady Fancifull to give French a try. I’m glad I did, but first I had to make it through an appallingly overwritten prologue; I have no idea what French’s editors were thinking, letting her start with a passage which includes a description of a forest thus:

“It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises”

Having waded through such pretentious nonsense, I was rewarded with an accomplished debut crime novel. Rob Ryan is asked to investigate the murder of a child in his home town just outside Dublin, his superiors unaware that when he was twelve, he was found in the same woods as the victim, bloodied and amnesiac, with his two best friends lost forever. If this sounds a bit clichéd, French has fun with it:

“And I suppose, if I’m being honest, it appealed to both my ego and to my sense of the picturesque, the idea of carrying this strange charged secret through the case unsuspected. I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.”

Maverick coppery 101

As Rob and his partner Cassie investigate Katy’s murder, they discover family secrets and political conspiracies, but did these lead to the death of a twelve year old girl, excited to be going to ballet school?

“All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.”

In the Woods was a good read and filled with believable characters, which bodes well for the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels as French focusses on a different person each time. Some quibbles: it was too long and (I feel like I say this all the time) could have done with a heavier-handed edit. The voice of Rob Ryan sometimes felt distinctly feminine but at least he wasn’t an alpha-male detective type. This aside, French’s talent is evident and I’m sure she’s gone from strength to strength in her subsequent novels.

To end, the cop with the least convincing Irish accent of all time, but the performance still won an Oscar, because it’s Lord High Commander Sir Sean Connery 😀

 

“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993)

Trigger warning: this post contains strong language and discussion of gruesome violence. Enjoy!

For almost two weeks (count ‘em: TWO WEEKS) I’ve had no computer.  It died 4 days before I had 12,000 words due for my Masters course so stress does not even begin to cover it, dear reader.  Once I’d got my essays done on my mother’s computer (which seems to view formatting as an opportunity to express a whimsical avant-garde approach to functionality  – don’t tell me they’re not sentient) I felt like I was back in the nineties.  Admittedly I had my phone made by a popular fruit-branded organisation so I wasn’t entirely offline, but it severely impacted my digital activity.  Now I have my preferred method of interweb access back, I thought I’d embrace twenty years ago:

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Now, for some people, their memories of the 90s are that it was like this:

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But let me tell you, people were angry in the 90s. My proof for this is the wave of new writing that emerged in British theatre at the time.  Sometime referred to as ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, writers like Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber wrote dark, challenging plays that usually involved protagonists waging psychological warfare on one another. So to start I thought I would look at one of the plays written by this new generation of dramatists; Jez Butterworth would go on to a work of genius in Jerusalem, but back in 1995 he had just written his first solo play, Mojo.

Mojo is set in a Soho nightclub, the Atlantic, in 1958 (unusually, as most new dramatic writing was resolutely contemporary. I remember seeing an interview with Butterworth at the time, where he said he did it to avoid being labelled ‘the voice of the generation’ which I thought staggeringly confident).  The owner of the Atlantic, Ezra, is locked in a power struggle with a fellow gangster, Sam Ross (neither of whom we ever see), over management of a pop ingénue (can you have a male ingénue? There are resolutely no women in this play) Silver Johnny.  Ezra’s employees Sweets, Potts and Skinny, his damaged son Baby, and the older lieutenant Mickey are stuck in the club, antsy with drugs and fear:

MICKEY. He’s out there. (Pause.)

POTTS. Out where? Out the back?

SKINNY. Fucking hell. Now?

SWEETS. Fucking hell.

POTTS. It’s a joke.  It’s Mickey’s joke.  It’s Mickey’s morning joke.

SWEETS. Out where?

SKINNY. Don’t you listen?  By the bins. That’s what they said. ‘You’re finished’ and ‘Look by the bins’.

SWEETS. You said ‘By the bins’. Mickey said ‘In the bins’.

POTTS. By the bins in the bins. Is that the issue here? If it’s ‘by’ are we safe?  If it’s ‘by’ is there a deal?

SKINNY. Mickey. Okay, okay. Indulge me. Please. Are you sure? Are you ten times out of ten sure that he’s passed away?

MICKEY. He’s fucking cut in half. He’s in two bins. (Pause.)

With their leader definitively dealt with, the boys are afraid to leave and stay sweating in the increasingly oppressive environment of the club, trying to hold things together while Baby, the deranged son of Ezra, completely unravels:

MICKEY. They’re going to come here…

BABY (overlapping) I wish I was more like you Mickey. I wish I was less like me, and more like you.

Pause.

MICKEY. Listen to me. They’re going to come here.

BABY. They’re going to come here.

MICKEY. Yes, I think they are.

BABY. Yes, I think they are.

MICKEY. If…Listen.

BABY. If…Listen.

MICKEY. Baby –

BABY. Baby –

Pause.

MICKEY. You think you’re in a book.

BABY. I am. I’m Spiderman.

Needless to say, it all falls spectacularly apart as power struggles intensify, betrayals are realised, and weaknesses exposed.  The feel of it is very reminiscent of Butterworth’s mentor, Harold Pinter’s, ‘comedies of menace’. The fast pace and punchy dialogue sweep the audience along to the violent end, as helpless witnesses to the carnage as the characters themselves.

I saw the revival of Mojo in 2013 (at the Harold Pinter theatre), and while the total absence of women in the play felt even more apparent, generally I felt it had stood the test of time (the 1997 film I found less successful, but it’s still worth a look for some wonderful performances). Butterworth’s avoidance of being the ‘voice of a generation’ seems to have paid off with longevity.

Secondly, another debut, which I chose because it won a prize that began in the 1990s, the IMPAC.  Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain follows James Dyer as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is incapable of feeling any pain.  Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, James is an “unnatural child”, one who never cries, even at the moment of his birth. He disconcerts those around him even if they’re not entirely sure why. While James’ state may seem enviable, while he cannot feel pain he also cannot feel its opposite:

“Pain, pleasure. He has glimpsed their coast, their high cliffs; smelt in dreams the loaded offshore breezes. But still he is surrounded by a calm insensate sea; his ship high-sided, inviolable, its great grey pennants streaming. How could it be otherwise?”

James is oddly remote, unable to relate to his fellow beings, a detached observer that suits the present tense narrative. He is an unlikeable yet tragic figure:  used by conmen and collectors who are interested only in his freakishness. He knows something is missing but he is unsure as to what.

“She sobs, cannot stop herself from asking if he loves her, truly, as she loves him, utterly, for ever, ever and ever.

[…] Agnes is on her knees beside him.  He does not know what she is saying.  Is she happy, afraid?  Frankly she seems drunk.”

He joins the navy where he kills without feeling, and becomes a highly accomplished surgeon, servicing the friends of Lord Byron.  What is said about James could almost definitely have been said about the mad, bad peer himself:

“He appears to have been born without a soul.  What, then, has he to lose?”

Ingenious Pain is clearly based on meticulous research but the novel never falters under the weight of it all.  It is beautifully written, tightly plotted with a strange, compelling anti-hero at its heart.

To end, something that for me just is the 90s:

“There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.” (Julian Barnes)

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of upsetting sexual subject matter.  Please do not read if you are not an adult or if you will find such discussion traumatic.

I’ve picked a rather disturbing theme for my post this week, as you may have guessed from the title quote. I try and pick a theme based on what’s been happening at the time, and for me this week it’s incest.  I feel I should qualify that statement rather rapidly: I went to see Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – that Oedipal family drama to end all Oedipal family dramas – and then I saw A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.

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(Images from: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/21/hamlet-maxine-peake-royal-exchange-review-delicate-ferocityhttp://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout9-a-view-from-the-bridge )

Then in my early modern literature class, someone pointed out that Tis Pity She’s a Whore (where a brother and sister are in a relationship) had warped her mind because when we read A King and No King (where a brother & sister struggle with their mutual attraction) she couldn’t see what the problem was & why they didn’t just get on with it.  Don’t get an education kids, it will put your moral compass on permanent fritz.

But if you can cope with the upsetting subject matter, there’s been some wonderful novels written about circumstances where incest occurs, so I hope you’ll stick with me.

Firstly, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992).  This is the first of the Patrick Melrose quintet, St Aubyn’s series of autobiographical novels (the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was nominated for the Booker in 2006).  In this first novel , Patrick is five years old, living in France for the summer with his alcoholic mother and controlling, cruel father.  As Patrick explores the garden, creating adventures for himself, St Aubyn brilliantly evokes the microscopic view of a child:

“As Patrick approached the house, climbing as usual the right–hand flight of the double staircase because it was luckier, he turned into the garden to see if he could find the frog that lived in the fig tree.  Seeing the tree frog was very lucky indeed.  Its bright green skin was even smoother against the smooth grey skin of the fig tree, and it was hard to find it amongst the fig leaves which were almost the same colour as itself.  In fact, Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes…above all at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewellery, but greedier for breath.”

The third person narrative enables St Aubyn to shift between the various Melroses so that while the parents are reprehensible (the mother) and downright repugnant (the father) you understand why they are the way they are; how damaged they are and how they continue to inflict damage on all who surround them.

What makes it bearable is St Aubyn’s beautiful, intelligent prose; the delicate way he approaches the Melroses to capture this moment in family history.

“’What did you do today?’

‘Nothing,’ said Patrick, looking down at the floor.

‘Did you for a walk with Daddy?’ asked Eleanor bravely.  She felt the inadequacy of her questions, but could not overcome the dread of having them scantily answered.

Patrick shook his head. A branch swayed outside the window, and watched the shadow of its leaves flickering above the curtain pole.  The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like deflated lungs.  Down the corridor a door slammed. Patrick looked at the clutter on his mother’s desk. It was covered in letters, envelopes, paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, and a profusion of different-coloured cheque books.  An empty champagne glass stood beside a full ashtray.”

SPOILER: And now, to quote the vampire Lestat, I’m going to give you the choice I never had. Never Mind is a great novel.  Edward St Aubyn is a hugely talented writer.  He was also repeatedly raped by his father as a small child and his novels are autobiographical.  In Never Mind, there is a scene where Patrick is raped by his father. I didn’t know this when I was reading the novel (I read the scene on a train, and had to get off at the next stop because I genuinely thought I was going to be sick), and I’m telling you so you can decide whether or not to read it. I would urge you to do as it is such a brilliant novel, but go in prepared.

Phew!  Let’s pause for a moment and go to a happy place:

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Secondly, The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (1997) which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997.  Set in Guyana and spanning most of the twentieth century, Melville uses the lives of generations of an Amerindian family to explore large themes: colonialism, the nature of love, religion and progress.  In contrast to Never Mind, this is a tale told with vivacity, serious but not depressing.

“Where was I? Oh yes. My grandmother.  She still refers with rage to a man called Charles Darwin who wandered through the region with the slow-motion frenzy of a sloth, measuring and collecting.  No one round here likes measurers, collectors and enumerators.  We cannot hoard in the tropics.  Use it or some other creature will eat it.  Sooner or later everything falls to the glorious spirit of rot with its fanfares of colours and nose-twisting stenches.”

The narrator/ventriloquist tells the story of the McKinnon family: Scottish Alexander McKinnon who builds a life in Guyana with 2 wives; his incestuous son and daughter; and the present day Chofy McKinnon, drawn back to Guyana through a love affair.

“It was confusing for McKinnon. He settled into the life well at one level, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of a world he did not understand at all.  He tried to discuss things with his father-in-law who was something of a philosopher and who explained to McKinnon that there was no point in trying to do anything about everyday life.  It was an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”

These themes of The Ventriloquist’s Tale are heightened by the heady environment that challenges what is real:

“It was night and the deer was hiding somewhere in the tall grasses. Danny lay on the side of the sloping hill.  The rough grass under him felt like the pelt of an animal.  He almost imagined he could feel it breathing.”

Reading this novel engages all the senses: you can see, smell and taste all that is happening.  There’s a strong current of humour too; Melville has accomplished a novel that would be astonishing at any point in a writer’s career, but all the more so as a first novel.

001 (41)

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” (W. C. Fields)

For those of you that have put up with my posts over the last few months where I’ve banged on and on and on about finals, I promise this is the last time I’ll mention them.  I’ve received my results and I feel like this:

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Hooray! So I thought this week I’d look at times when authors may have felt a similar way: two debut prize-winning novels.

Firstly, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) which won the Goldsmiths Prize last year, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize, both this year.  If you have any interest in books, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this novel.  Aside from all the breathless reviews, I’ve seen buses trundling along with huge posters commanding us to “Read it and be changed” (from Eleanor Catton’s review). Written in about 6 months when the author was 27, she struggled to find a publisher due to its inventive style and uncompromising subject matter.  She shoved it in a drawer, but 10 years later sent it to a small independent publisher.  Galley Beggar Press published the novel, and plaudits galore followed. I hope this signals a less conservative approach by publishers, but I’m sceptical…  Still, at least as far as AGIAHFT goes, they got there in the end (Faber and Faber have partnered with Galley Beggar Press to publish it on a much wider scale).

McBride is a huge fan of Joyce, and the novel is written as a stream of consciousness.  However, while most people find Ulysses unreadable, AGIAHFT is only 200 pages long, and much more approachable.  It is, however, a tough read, both in style and content.  It details the narrator’s relationship with her brother, who is partly disabled from an operation on his brain as a child.

“I sneak. I snuck. I listened at the door. I heard them. I pondered you should send him to a special school.  Those marks aren’t fit for a boy that age.  Oh such clucking and glucking. Snob and preen herself. I hear my two are off to the convent.  Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance.  Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think.  Listening listening.

Life is hard, and although her brother’s scars are visible to all, the narrator has scars of her own.  The stream of consciousness gives her experience an immediacy, unmediated by considered use of language, which places the reader right alongside her, and that is not an easy place to be.  She decides to use sex to get her classmates to leave her brother alone; she is raped by an uncle; she has a fractured relationship with her mother; and through it all is her tender but ambivalent relationship with her brother.

We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped.  I didn’t help it from that time on.  You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no.  That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted.  To be left alone.  To look at it.  To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done….Who are you?  You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

AGIAHFT is as unique and extraordinary as all the hype would have you believe.

Secondly, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, 2003) which won the Booker, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003. Let’s get my wholly unoriginal but unavoidable observation out of the way first: this novel really reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye.  High praise indeed. Vernon Little is a teenager disgusted by the hypocrisy of the society he sees around him “I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge”. He is desperately looking for a place to belong, but it’s not the barbeque sauce capital of Texas where he lives. His best friend Jesus has shot dead their classmates and taken his own life. Vernon is left to take the blame, as the society of the small town look for answers without listening to anything Vernon has to say.

His overbearing mother and her friends are all fat and obsessed with diets, “Leona’s an almost pretty blonde with a honeysuckle voice you just know got it’s polish from rubbing on her last husband’s wallet.”; his psychologist is corrupt and abusive “the shrink’s building sits way out of town; a bubble of clinical smells in the dust.  A receptionist with spiky teeth and a voicebox made from bees trapped in tracing paper, sits behind a desk”; there’s a manipulative journalist unconcerned with truth, setting himself up as puppet-master.  Vernon God Little is scathing in its treatment of contemporary society: its focus on the easily discarded, the scandal-mongering and superficiality of the media, the ineptitude of those in power to exercise it with any integrity.  All this is bound up with a great deal of humour and truly inventive use of language.  As I hope the quotes so far demonstrate, the images throughout the novel are startling and evocative. Pierre uses the adolescence of his narrator to demonstrate how versatile language can be and how it can be reformed for individual expression.  One of my favourite lines was this:

“I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.”

Funny, sad, original and thought-provoking: the entire novel of Vernon God Little held in a single sentence.

I know I said I wouldn’t mention finals again, but permit me, if you will, just one final milking of it:

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Happy weekend everyone!