Reading Round-Up: Ghosts of the Past

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is told from the perspective of teenage girl Silvie during the days she spends living in a recreation of an Iron Age settlement in Northumberland with her parents and a group of students, led by Professor Slade. Silvie’s dad is determined that things should be done authentically although he’s relented as far as pyjamas, underwear, toothpaste and tampons are concerned thanks to some intervention from Silvie’s mum. Silvie attempts to keep her dad happy but is drawn to the students and eventually joins them in sneaking to the Spar in the nearest village. As the book progresses, Silvie’s dad’s obsession with how they should be living becomes more and more rigid and the tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss uses the juxtaposition of contemporary society with Iron Age life to highlight themes of toxic masculinity and gender roles, questioning whether those men who conform to outdated stereotypes have a place in modern society. Ghost Wall is a superb book made all the more powerful by its brevity.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s third novel, contains many stories connected by Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Perry’s Melmoth (as opposed to Charles Maturin’s in Melmoth the Wanderer) is a woman condemned to wander the world haunting those who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. We meet her at the point when Helen Franklin, whose story threads through the novel, is also about to see her. Helen, forty-two, a translator living alone in Prague, is given part of a written confession by the recently deceased J.A. Hoffman. Once Helen has read the portion of the story, she returns to her friend Karel’s house where other stories in the form of letters, a journal and a testimony are given to her. But the story which really haunts Helen Franklin is her own. Through these tales, Perry explores our complicity in the sins and atrocities committed in the world. As Melmoth bears witness to these acts so do we, and while the characters are haunted by Melmoth she too appears at the edge of our vision, forcing us to examine our own behaviour. Melmoth is a compelling, terrifying, overtly political examination of humanity. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time/follow me on Twitter will be aware that I’m a huge fan of Perry’s previous novels After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent. When I reviewed Perry’s debut I said that I wished I’d written it, I feel similarly about Melmoth.

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is told from multiple perspectives: two members of the same family – Jojo, a 13-year-old boy and his mother, Leonie – and the ghost of another boy, Richie. Jojo, baby Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live with Leonie’s parents. Michael, Leonie’s white partner and father of the children, has been in prison for three years. He’s about to be released and the majority of the book covers the journey to and from the jail. Leonie is a drug user, as much addicted to the presence of her dead brother, Given, who appears to her when she’s high, as she is the substances themselves. She struggles to take care of her kids so Jojo watches over Kayla while Pop, Leonie’s father, watches over Jojo. Pop tells Jojo stories about his time in Parchman prison and a boy named Richie, the ghost of whom joins them when they arrive to collect Michael. Everyone is haunted in some way, not only by the dead who linger nearby but by the history of the treatment of black people in America. Ward shows how the effects of slavery permeate life today, focusing particularly on the intersection of race and class. Although this is the story of one family, it echoes the realities for many. It’s a heart-breaking and very necessary read.

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered contains a dual narrative, set in Vineland, New Jersey. In the contemporary strand, Willa Knox and her family have moved into a house they’ve inherited following the closure of the college where her husband, Iano, taught and the loss of the house that came with the job. Iano’s dying father Nick is living with them and their seemingly wayward daughter, Tig, has recently returned from Cuba. In the first chapter of the novel, Willa discovers the house is structurally unsound and her son, Zeke, is left to raise a baby alone following his girlfriend’s death by suicide. Needing money for the repairs to the house in order to shelter her ailing family, Willa begins some research. In 1871, Thatcher Greenwood is attempting to introduce Charles Darwin’s latest ideas into his teaching, much to the chagrin of the school’s leader. His next-door neighbour, Mary Treat, is much more enthusiastic about his plans. A self-trained biologist, Treat conducts experiments in her living room and corresponds with Darwin himself. Delightfully, Treat is based on a real woman (and reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things). Kingsolver draws parallels between the two eras through fear of change and people’s reactions to it. Willa repeatedly states that her and Iano have done everything right: they had good jobs, they worked hard, they raised a family. They expect to have property, money and stability in their 50s but those things are gone. Halfway through the novel I became frustrated at what I perceived to be white people problems – if things are terrible for the white middle class then we’re all fucked, woe is them – but then I realised that Kingsolver knows her audience. She’s writing for the white middle class pointing out how they’ve contributed to the destruction of the environment, the rise of the far right, the tyranny of capitalism. She doesn’t leave them – or us – without hope though but it comes from what might appear to be an unexpected source: Millennials. Alongside Mary Treat, the most compelling character in the novel is Tig. Unconventional, attuned to the needs of society and the planet, she – and her friends – might just have the answers we need.

Thanks to Faber for the review copy.

Books of the Year 2014 (Part 2)

As promised yesterday when I posted my Books of the Year (Part One) – those published pre-2014, here’s part two with those published this year.

There are two things I dislike about doing this sort of post; the first is I’m very aware of the books that people I trust rate highly and I haven’t got to yet – Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation; Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; Ali Smith’s How to be both, and Suri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World are all high on my TBR. And then there are the books I really enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut because I want to highlight those books that didn’t garner as much attention as I think they should have. Honourable mentions therefore to The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh; The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Here they are then, the books published this year that entertained me the most, made me laugh (to the point of tears sometimes), cry, gasp and look on in wonder and admiration at the writer’s skill. The books I want to thrust into your hands and say ‘Read this!’. (Click on the titles for the original reviews.)

 

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

A coup d’état on a island that might be Trinidad and Tobago. A bookish man named Ashes who gets caught up in the idea of revolution; a teenager called Breeze who thinks it will lead to a better life for him, and Aspasia Garland, Minster for the Environment and a hostage. A powerful book about power, poverty and leadership. My book of the year.

 

 

The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

An unnamed prisoner on death row; an attorney investigating whether a prisoner can be saved on appeal; the fallen priest; the prison warden; a guard; a white haired boy. Abuse, control, freedom. Who’s good and who’s bad. Breathtaking prose. I have no idea why this book isn’t being raved about everywhere.

 

 

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

A book that is being raved about everywhere and deservedly so. Macdonald’s memoir of training a goshawk, Mabel, following her father’s sudden death, using her own experience to reflect upon that of T. H. White. Beautiful prose and an absorbing story.

 

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Someone’s leaving letters in Wang Jun’s taxi. Letters that say they’re from a soulmate he’s had for over a thousand years, a soulmate who will take us on a journey through China’s history and lead Wang Jun to question his family and his friendship. A bizarre omission from the Booker Prize list, I have high hopes of this being on the Bailey’s Prize list.

 

 

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie

Interesting voice, interesting structure, interesting themes, heartbreaking story. How Jacob Little goes in search of Solace (a woman he lived with and loved at university but he’s also searching for inner peace). It’s clever and thoughtful but also a good story. Longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize but I’ve seen very little about it elsewhere, another one I’m hoping to see on the Bailey’s Prize list.

 

 

Academy Street – Mary Costello

The story of Tess, from being a young girl in a big house in Ireland when her mother dies, through the rest of her life in New York as a nurse. A small life, quietly told in beautiful, considered prose. Heartbreaking.

 

 

 

 

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Laura and Tyler are best friends, flatmates and drinking buddies, but Laura’s getting married to Jim who’s just gone teetotal and Tyler’s not happy about the changes afoot. There’s always time for one last bender though, isn’t there? Absolutely hilarious but with many thought-provoking moments about what it’s like to be a woman in your late 20’s/early 30s railing against society’s expectations.

 

 

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

An unlikely love story between Dave, a Bond Street shop security guard and Alena, a Siberian woman, trafficked to the UK and caught stealing shoes. Dave and Alena’s stories are heartbreaking enough but their attempts to forge a relationship through the walls they’ve built up and the cultural differences has moments I found completely devastating.

 

 

After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

John Cole, lost in a heatwave, arrives at a house in which the inhabitants are expecting him. He soon realises he’s not their John Cole but stays anyway. There he begins to discover what both he and those around him are capable of. Eerie, disconcerting and unusual.

 

 

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

The story of the Bradley family, a family of Mormons, coming to terms with the death of their youngest member, Issy, from meningitis. We move between the family members – two teenagers, Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob, and parents Ian and Claire as they question their faith and work out how life can go on. Unexpectedly full of humour with great characters.

 

 

The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney’s back in Ireland trying to write a follow-up to the best-selling novel that saw her move to New York. Her yoga loving son who hates her is in tow; her artist ex-husband, Ryan, is giving everything he owns away in the name of art, and whose phone calls is she avoiding? Funny, smart and a cracking love interest.

 

 

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

When Mattie starts forgetting things and then disappears, her godson, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans and Vee Sedge. Vee and her son, Donald, are both taking advantage of the outbreak of war in their own ways. Noel ends up drawn into both. A novel about survival with crooked characters you can’t help but fall for. Funny, acutely observed and heartwarming.

 

 

Wake – Anna Hope

The return of the unknown soldier to Westminster. The story of three women whose lives have been affected by the war. Hettie, a dancer whose brother, Fred, has PTSD. Evelyn, who lost a fiancé and a finger in the war. She’s also losing her brother who’s returned a different person. Ada, whose son Michael died but who she continues to see on the street. Their stories are connected although they’ll never meet. Devastating.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells the story of her family, quite an unusual family and the events that took place when she was sent to stay at her grandparents. Did it happen as she remembers or is she fooling herself? An unusual take on what it means to be a family.

 

 

 

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The one that converted me to Marilynne Robinson. Lila is a prequel to Gilead and tells the story of his second wife prior to and including their meeting and marrying. It’s about loneliness, not being able to see yourself clearly and fighting the urge to run away. The prose is beautiful and the story is heartbreaking.

 

 

2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Marie-Helene Bertino

Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia. Nine-year-old Madeline’s mother is dead from cancer and her father can’t get out of bed. She’s desperate to sing – at school initially but, better still, at a jazz club. Madeline’s teacher, Sarina, has dinner with her ex-boyfriend to contend with after school ends and Jack Lorca, owner of the Cat’s Pajamas, jazz club, has a relationship with his son which is in need of repair and a police fine that he can’t pay. The day that awaits all three of them is skilfully interwoven in a story that’s equal amounts grit and heartwarming.

 

After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

I wish I could use some other voice to write this story down. I wish I could take all the books that I’ve loved best and borrow better words than these, but I’ve got to make do with an empty notebook and a man who never had a tale to tell and doesn’t know how to begin except with the beginning…

John Cole is sitting at an old school desk, in a stranger’s room, writing a diary. The notebook in which he’s writing has the name ‘EADWACER’ along the bottom of the pages, a name that Cole recognises but can’t place. He writes his own name in the book, one that’s similar to the name written on the boxes residing in the room: Jon Coules.

John Cole has arrived at this strange house having tried to leave London to visit his brother on the thirteenth day of a drought. The heat has affected his mind and having found himself lost somewhere between London and Norwich, he comes across the house where they seem to know him by name and are expecting him.

They are Clare, her brother Alex, Elijah, Walker, Eve and Hester, the mother figure:

I never think much about appearance, my own or anyone else’s, and I don’t think I’d ever thought of someone as ugly before. But for her it’s the only word that will do.

They each have a story. Alex’s is prominent as he’s being tormented by anonymous letters that arrive at the house sporadically.

At the end of the first chapter, Jon Coules telephones the house. John Coles takes the call – his chance to tell the rest of the group that he’s not who they think he is – but he never passes the message on and continues to stay on at the house for a full week, a week in which a serious incident will lead to the unravelling of everyone’s stories.

After Me Comes the Flood moves between John Coles’ first person narration and third person subjective narratives that place the reader alongside several of the other characters in the house. What’s most interesting about this are the viewpoints Perry chooses not to allow us access to as these are where the biggest disparities between appearance and actuality lie.

The novel hinges on the idea of the persona we present to others versus who we really are:

‘Look, she doesn’t mean what she says. Nobody ever does…it’s just she needs to be heard saying the right things. She must have the correct feelings. D’you see?’

It suggests that we all have reasons to mask elements of our personality or behaviours and some of those reasons are very dark indeed.

After Me Comes the Flood is a superb novel. The prose isn’t showy but the sentences are constructed in a way that brings an ethereal quality to the narrative: the order of the words seems more akin to a novel written a century or so ago but feel neither dated nor modern, it’s quite unusual but compelling in its own way.

Sarah Perry’s created a novel that stands to the side of current literature; this is a good thing! It’s unusual and oddly gripping while dealing with universal issues. I’m so impressed with it, I wish I’d written it.