Still Life with Breadcrumbs – Anna Quindlen

A few minutes after two in the morning Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot and sat up in bed.

So begins Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel. And after that opening you’re surely racing to your local bookshop and I can end my review here. No? Well here’s more reasons why you should read it:

Rebecca Winter, 60, photographer, has moved into a cottage in rural upstate New York. Not because she wants to ‘find herself’ as you’d expect most artistic types to be doing, she has a much more prosaic reason than that: she’s skint.

…if she rented out her apartment at the accepted exorbitant New York rate, she could afford the cottage, pay the fees for her mother’s nursing home, manage the premiums for her own health insurance, put something into her retirement account, help with her father’s rent, give a hand to her son, Ben, when he was short, and still put away some money each month for the surprises and emergencies that always seemed to arise.

The irony of all this is that Rebecca’s recently become not only the youngest ever recipient of the Bradley Prize, but also the first woman to win it. However, as the award ‘was meant to be the apotheosis of an artist’s lifetime work’, Rebecca thinks this means she’s done.

Once, Rebecca took a series of photographs which became a show titled ‘the Kitchen Counter series’. The photos were taken following an evening when her then husband, Peter, had arrived home with some colleagues and expected her to entertain them.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs [was] a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.

Winter became a female icon and the picture was reproduced on a variety of merchandise. (It’s the sort of thing Athena would have made in the late 1980s/early 1990s.)

However, sales of the picture have dried up and she’s struggling. This isn’t helped by the cottage, which is run down, and the reality of country life when you’ve been a city dweller all your life.

Things aren’t completely lost though; when Rebecca starts walking on the land that surrounds the cottage and begins to discover roughly made white crosses with trinkets underneath, she photographs them, creating a series over a period of several weeks.

Life also becomes more interesting with the arrival of Jim Bates who helps her with odd jobs around the cottage and also offers her some work photographing the birds that he monitors for the State Wildlife Service.

As she trained her camera on the bird it occurred to her that she had known much of her life in two dimensions: raccoon, eagle. She had learned to know what things looked like but not what they really amounted to. This three-dimensional life was completely different.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a wonderful novel about life not being over when you get to 60. It’s also about the stories behind the art and why sometimes they’re more important than the work. It looks at being a female artist, aging, love, family, money, fame and whether we can change our views and our life, regardless of our age. The two threads of Rebecca’s life – her photography and the life she’s beginning to create in her rural bolt hole – are skillfully brought together by Quindlen with a brilliant and shocking twist.

I loved this book so much, I devoured it in one sitting. Storytelling at its best.

Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.

All the Birds, Singing opens with our unnamed (as yet) female narrator discovering her second dead sheep in a month. She is a sheep farmer on a remote (also unnamed) British island where she keeps herself to herself having only a dog, named Dog, for company. She thinks the killings are being carried out by the local teenagers. Don, another farmer and the person she bought the cottage from, thinks another animal is taking the pickings from an already dead sheep, ‘But I’ve never seen anything round here flense an animal like that’.

As a reader, we are not entirely trusting of Jake’s theory (our narrator reluctantly reveals her name on page 36 when she goes to the local police station to report the killings). Partly because she doesn’t really seem to believe it either and also because she’s obviously fearful of something herself:

Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the safety of having no one nearby to peer in at me – that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.

Jake’s story prior to her arrival on the island is told to us in alternating chapters and is set in her native Australia. However, it is told backwards, a device that can leave you confused for a page or so while you position the tale being told within the existing narrative. What’s clever about this though is the way that it forces you into believing one particular person is behind her flight and possibly the death of the sheep, only for the narrative to move on and for you to realise you’ve been misled.

The structure of the narrative allows Wyld to keep the tension high throughout. This is a brutal and sometimes scary story. However, it is not without moments of tenderness and also humour to break the tension. Early in the novel, Jake’s returning to the house when Dog pricks his ears. As they enter the cottage, Dog shoots upstairs while Jake arms herself. The intruder turns out to be a racing pigeon with a broken wing. Jake telephones the owner:

The man sighed. ‘Pop her in a shoebox, keep her warm and watered. If she makes it through the night she’ll tell you when she’s well enough to fly home.’

He hung up.

‘Dickhead,’ I said to the pigeon. Any shoes I bought came in a plastic bag. I took another look at the bird, saw that its bottom eyelid had closed and its head was slack on its neck, and that talking to the man on the phone, I’d squeezed it too hard and now it was dead.

Jake takes the pigeon down to the shore to give it a burial at sea:

…she went further and further out and then sank, like the sea had swallowed her. I hummed the song from Titanic.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that a very good book is one you want to read again; one that you know hasn’t yielded everything it’s got on first reading. As soon as I’d finished All the Birds, Singing, I wanted to start reading again. I wanted to start reading again to put the story together in chronological order, to spot all the clues that Wyld gives us as to what is killing Jake’s sheep, and to revel in such a well written story.

All the Birds, Singing is a great book. I can see why its supporters were very vocal about its lack of inclusion on last year’s Booker Prize longlist.



Thanks to Evie Wyld for the review copy in return for a fair review. 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

‘It was wonderful. It was awful. It was ten years. It was everything.’ – Donna Tartt, November 2013, Manchester, U.K.

Donna Tartt’s comment about writing her third novel The Goldfinch could equally have been said by the book’s protagonist, Theodore Decker. Opening in a hotel in Amsterdam, where we know he’s in some sort of trouble, Theo begins to look back over the events that have led to this time and place. These events begin with the death of his mother when he’s thirteen.

In trouble at school, Theo’s mum takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, prior to a meeting that will decide Theo’s future. They don’t make the meeting as a terrorist bomb explodes in the museum and Theo’s mother is killed.

She’s taken him to the Met to see an exhibition titled ‘Portraiture and Nature Morte: Northern Masterworks of the Golden Age’.

…“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few things…”

Her voice drifted away as I trailed behind her up the Great Staircase – torn between the prudent need to stick close and the urge to slink a few paces back and try to pretend I wasn’t with her.

“I hate to race through like this,” she was saying as I caught up with her at the top of the stairs, “but then again it’s the kind of show where you need to come two or three times. There’s The Anatomy Lesson, and we do have to see that, but what I really want to see is one tiny, rare piece by a painter who was Vermeer’s teacher. Greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of.”

The ‘tiny, rare piece’ is, of course, ‘The Goldfinch’ from which the novel takes its title and when the explosion takes place, Theo happens to be in the same room as the painting. He comes round close to a man whom he’s been watching walk around the gallery with a girl who appears to be his granddaughter. Unbeknownst to Theo, this man – Welty – is to be the catalyst for the events which drive the rest of his life.

Don’t leave it. No.” He was looking past me, trying to point at something. “Take it away from there.”

Please, lie down –

“No! They mustn’t see it.” He was frantic, gripping my arm now, trying to pull himself up. “They’ve stolen the rugs, they’ll take it to the customs shed – “

He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.

“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”

“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.

I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.

Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust.

I crawled over and put the painting in the nylon shopping bag, just to get it out of his sight, it was upsetting him so.

And so, when Theo leaves the museum some time later, he does so with Fabritius’ painting as well as ‘a heavy gold ring with a carved stone’ which Welty has pressed upon him with the words ‘”Hobart and Blackwell…Ring the green bell.”’

The events of the day change Theo’s life in three main ways. Firstly, he needs a guardian while either his errant father is found or his grandparents can be persuaded to take him in. For reasons unknown to Theo, the first people he mentions to the authorities are the Barbours, a Park Avenue based family whose son Andy is a school friend of his. The Barbours introduce Theo to a particular type of lifestyle, one that includes collecting art and antiques. Secondly, taking Welty’s ring to Hobart and Blackwell leads Theo to Hobie, an antiques restorer, who will play a significant role in the rest of his life. At Hobie’s, Theo also discovers Pippa, the girl he’d been watching in the museum whom he thought was Welty’s granddaughter. She also will play a significant part in the rest of his life. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, is Theo’s connection to ‘The Goldfinch’. By taking it, he’s committed a crime that will tie him to the painting forever. This illuminates a key theme in the novel, that of ‘captivity and the ways we try to escape’. (Donna Tartt, November 2013, Manchester, U.K.) Theo is tied to the painting and the day his mother was killed, as the goldfinch is chained to the perch it stands upon. His life is destined to take a particular route because of the extraordinary circumstances he has to deal with at such a young age and the decisions almost forced upon him by Welty.

What’s wonderful about The Goldfinch is the detail with which Tartt explores each scene. She describes herself as ‘a miniaturist’; her first published writing was poetry and she says she maintains the habits of a poet. This allows the reader to become completely immersed in the scene – we live Theo’s life with him, seeing what he sees, doing what he does.

The plotting’s also (almost) perfect. It’s incredible to see all the strands that Tartt runs through the novel and how the moment you begin to wonder what’s happening with the painting or where a particular character is, that thread weaves its way to the forefront of the narrative again.

I do have two problems with the novel though and they’re both with the ending (don’t worry, this will be spoiler free). The first is that events towards the end of the book take a turn for the ridiculous. I can buy into Theo finding himself in the middle of a bombing and, in the aftermath of the event, leaving with a priceless painting that he ends up never wanting to be parted from. However, the final twist, as Theo remains in that Amsterdam hotel room we meet him in at the beginning of the book is too fast-paced and absurd.

The second is that at the very end of the book, we’re told a lot of information about the painting – its creation; the extraordinary circumstances of Fabritous’ death and the survival of the painting, and what the painting might represent. This is problematic because, to me, it didn’t sound like Theo’s voice anymore, it sounded like the author’s, and it felt as though Tartt wanted to give us this information from her research and felt compelled to include it.

However, despite these issues, The Goldfinch is one of the best books I’ve read this year and, the last fifty pages of the novel aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Theodore Decker’s coming-of-age and the cast of characters that populated it. A novel to immerse yourself in over the holidays.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

In the midst of all the column inches generated by Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize win this week, there were two burning questions on my Twitter timeline: one, should I be bothered to read something 832 pages long? Two, is it all structure and no story. In short, the answers are yes and no.

The Luminaries opens with the arrival of Walter Moody in Hokitika, a gold mining town in New Zealand. It is the time of the gold rush when every man arrives believing he will make his fortune. Moody has had a dreadful crossing on a barque named Godspeed:

…Moody had witnessed an event so extraordinary and affecting that it called all other realities into doubt. The scene was still with him – as if a door had chinked open, in the corner of his mind, to show a band of graying light, and he could not know wish the darkness back again. It was costing him a great deal of effort to keep that door from opening further.

Having taken a room at The Crown Hotel, Moody has positioned himself in the smoking room in an attempt to calm himself. However…

Moody’s entrance had been something of a surprise to the twelve assembled men, who had taken considerable precautions to ensure that they would not be disturbed.

The twelve men assembled in that room are residents of Hokitika, there to discuss the apparent attempted suicide of Anna Wetherell, the local prostitute. The men assembled hold prominent positions in the town: banker, newspaperman, hotelier, goldfields magnate, chemist, shipping agent, justice’s clerk, hatter, chaplain, commission merchant, greenstone hunter and goldsmith. Each knows a different piece of information that they hope will help them to piece together the reasons as to what led Anna Wetherell to attempt suicide; where Emery Staines, prospector, has disappeared to; why and how Crosbie Wells, hermit, died, and what part Francis Carver, captain of Godspeed, has played in all of this.

During the first half of the novel, we sit in the smoking room alongside Walter Moody and learn about him as well as the rest of the cast. There is a lot of information to take in and, of course, we cannot expect all these men to be telling the whole truth. When we reach the novel’s midpoint, we are three weeks on; things begin to unravel and mysteries and crimes are solved.

I worried during my reading of the first half of the novel that there was too much information to hold in my head while reading – I found myself wishing I’d made much more detailed notes as to who did and said what. However, in the second half of the book, information came just as quickly but as it was looking at what we already knew and dissecting it, I realised my earlier concerns were unfounded. What also helped enormously was being aware of Catton’s interest in ‘box set TV’ and how she wanted to use the idea of the long character arch. This element worked very well and provided a sense of accomplishment at the end of the novel. I felt bereft knowing I’d no longer be spending time with these characters.

As for the structure in terms of the astrological elements of the book – if no one had mentioned them, I probably would have had very little awareness of them at all. Each section starts with the astrological chart for that period of time and includes the influences on the twelve male characters present in the smoking room in the first half of the novel. Catton says these are accurate for the time and that she used them to determine the character’s behaviour. Does it make the story read as though the author has a firm hand on events? No. It reads like a cracking good crime novel.

What is interesting about the structure though is the way it feeds into a theme of the novel: is our fate predetermined or does coincidence lead us along paths we otherwise would never have taken?

The Luminaries is a bold book. It demands we give it our sustained attention and pays us for it with a narrative drive so compelling I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough in the second half of the novel. I only hope that any requests for film rights are given short shrift and instead I’ll be spending time with the box set, watching the events unfold again.


Thanks to Little, Brown and Company US for the review copy.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

If you’re a regular reader of the UK literary papers, or if you follow a number of bookish people on Twitter, chances are you’ve already heard of McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. She’s garnered an impressive set of reviews in the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books and earlier this week was included on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize. Not bad for a book that after years of rejections was finally published by the small independent Galley Beggar Press earlier this year.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is set in an unnamed part of Ireland. The narrator – the girl of the title – tells her story and that of her older brother. In the short, first chapter it’s made apparent that all is not well:

I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.

The girl’s brother has something ‘…through his brain like the roots of trees’. The sister addresses the story to him, telling him about his own life as well as the things that are happening to her.

She begins ‘Two me. Four you five or so’, moving through a childhood oppressed by people’s religious beliefs, particularly their maternal grandfather’s and the local church goers who begin having Bible meetings in their house:

They polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue or black and green coats if the day has rain. Their boots in the hallway, crusty with cow dung or wet muck. If in Sunday skirts, every pleat a landscape of their grown-up bodies. Tired. Under-touched. Flesh having run all night after the cows. Flesh carry sacks of turf up lanes from the shed and spurt out child and child and child. Son he wanted. Girl he did not. Making frys at all hours and smell of cigarettes called fags by them. Lily of the valley and Vaseline. This country’s awful in the winter. Brown skin nylons. Leatherette shoes.

The girl and her brother live with their mother. Their father, it appears, has long since left the family home. The mother struggles with raising her two children, especially, as time progresses, her daughter.

The daughter’s story takes her to the cusp of adulthood and is one of poverty, of being beaten by her mother, of being sexually abused by her uncle, of rebellion, of seeking out dangerous situations seemingly as a way to numb herself to the utter bleakness of her situation. It is a story that leaves the reader feeling battered, bruised and broken.

What’s most impressive about A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing though is McBride’s prose. Formed largely of stuttering sentences – some short, some merely fragments – she builds pictures of people and of incidents whose impact is all the more forceful for this lexical brick-by-brick approach. It is an impressive feat for any writer to experiment with language to this degree, never mind a debut author. It marks McBride as a talented individual unafraid to take risks and challenge traditional methods of storytelling. Her career will be one to follow very closely indeed.


Thanks to Galley Beggar Press for the review copy.

The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s second novel – her first to be published in the UK – seems to have created somewhat of a kerfuffle. Proofs arrived adorned with glowing comments from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and lots of critics agree that The Flamethrowers is a bloody good book.


However, Adam Kirsch writing for The Tablet suggested that the reason for this praise was due to the book being ‘a macho novel by and about women’. What Kirsch appears to be suggesting is that Kushner deliberately chose to write about motorbikes, land speed records and activism as some cynical ploy which would see her hoisted into the big boy’s realm of ‘The Great American Novel’.

In a period which has already seen A.M. Homes take The Women’s Prize for Fiction with May We Be Forgiven (a definite contender for The Great American Novel), a book which concerns itself with the domestic sphere as a microcosm of contemporary America, and Hilary Mantel claim a double Man Booker Prize win with the first two installments of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, you’d think we’d have moved away from the idea that women are only interested in, and therefore can only write about, marriage and babies.

Kushner’s protagonist, Reno (nicknamed after the place she’s from), has been riding motorbikes since she was 14. As the novel opens Reno’s on her way to take part in the land speed records, a venture that is as much about art – ‘I was bringing to that a New York deliberateness, abstract ideas about traces and speed…’ – as it is her love of speed:

American legend Flip Farmer had shot across these flats and hit five hundred miles an hour, driving a three wheeled, forty-four-foot aluminum canister equipped with a jet engine from a navy Phantom…

Growing up, I loved Flip Farmer like some girls loved ponies or ice skating or Paul McCartney…

When I was twelve, Flip came through Reno and gave out autographs at a casino. I didn’t have a glossy photo for him to sign, so I had him sign my hand. For weeks I took to the shower with a plastic bag over that hand, rubber-banded at the wrist.

Reno assumed that her move to New York, a move which she sold her Moto Valera motorbike to finance, would lead to her losing interest in bikes and speed. But her move sees her meet and enter into a relationship with Sandro Valera, one of the sons of the Valera motorcycle manufacturer.

Sandro has left the running of the family business back in Italy to his brother, Roberto, and come to New York where he’s established himself as a successful artist.

The novel is set in the 1970s and also concerns itself with the social and political unrest of the time. An entire chapter’s dedicated to a group active in New York in the late 1960s, calling themselves Motherfuckers:

“Because we hated women…Women had no place in our movement unless they wanted to cook us a meal or clean the floor or strip down…We saw a future of people singing and dancing, making love and masturbating in the streets. No shame. Nothing to hide, Everyone sleeping in one big bed, men, women, daughters, dogs”.

While in Italy, industrial action by workers grows throughout the novel, playing a major part in the book’s denouement.

The Flamethrowers is a meaty, ambitious novel. It is not a book that asks you to empathise with its characters but to stand back and consider its themes and ideas, to assess it as work of art, in the same way that the art created by the characters within its pages is assessed. It is a work that demands to be taken seriously. And it is deserving of that demand, regardless of the gender of its author.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.

The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout

One of the things recent events in Boston has highlighted is that people can be quick to jump to conclusions based on very little evidence, or – as some puppets on Avenue Q sang – ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’. Maybe ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Ignorant of Other People’s Cultures’ might have been more factually accurate but often the outcomes are very similar.

Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel explores this idea through a wave of Somali immigration to the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine on America’s east coast. Shirley Falls was once home to the Burgess family – older brother Jim and twins, Bob and Susie. Jim left for New York as soon as their mother died, with Bob not long behind him. Susie has remained in Shirley Falls where she lives with her son, Zach, his father having left them and returned to his ancestral country of Sweden.

Early in the novel, Jim receives a telephone call from Susie which he relays to his wife, Helen and brother, Bob.

“Our nephew, Zachary Olson, has thrown a frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque. During prayer. During Ramadan. Susan says Zach doesn’t know what Ramadan is, which is completely believable – Susan didn’t know what it was until she read about this in the paper. The pig’s head was bloody, starting to melt, it’s stained their carpet, and they don’t have the money to buy a new one. They have to clean it seven times because of the holy law. That’s the story, you guys.”

Helen looked at Bob. Puzzlement came to her face. “Why would that be all over the papers, Jim?” she finally asked, softly.

“Do you get it?” Jim asked, just as quietly turning to her. “It’s a hate crime, Helen.”

So the novel gains two major themes – that of immigration and ignorance, on both sides – and of family and what it means to be part of one, whether that be from the point of view of a spouse, a parent, a child, or a sibling.

The Burgess family is an interesting, although I would suggest fairly typical, family. Jim is a hot shot lawyer, still living off a big televised case some years previously. He married into money and continually feels the pressure to make sure that he’s earning and paying the family’s way. Bob works in legal aid and is the butt of the family’s jokes – particularly Jim who continually jibes him, referring to him as ‘slob dog’ and calling his apartment a ‘graduate dorm’. Bob was responsible, aged 4, for a tragic accident which killed their father, something he has had to bear all his life. Suzie works in a shop and has a lodger – Mrs. Drinkwater – to help make ends meet.

The Burgess Boys is a mature novel that successfully explores the actions and reactions of a family in crisis. Through the family members and the people closest to them, Strout creates a group of fully rounded humans who bicker and support and hurt each other and love. The focus on the family means that the issue of immigration and cultural understanding never threatens to overwhelm the novel and make it feel as though Strout is preaching to us as opposed to telling a story. This is an engaging novel well worthy of a few hours of your time.

Thanks to Random House (US) for the proof copy.