The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma Whittaker, is born on the 5th of January 1800 to Henry, a botanist and Beatrix, conversant in seven languages and an expert in botany too. Being a woman, however, Beatrix uses her talents to run the household while Henry is the ‘public face’ of his business.

To mark the occasion, Henry harvested a pineapple from his largest greenhouse and divided it in equal shares with everyone in the household. Outside it was snowing, a perfect Pennsylvania winter, but this man possessed several coal-fired greenhouses of his own design – structures that made him not only the envy of every plantsman and botanist in the Americas, but also blisteringly rich – and if he wanted a pineapple in January, by God he could have a pineapple in January. Cherries in March, as well.

The first section of the book acquaints us with the story of Henry’s youth, how he made his fortune and how he came to marry a Dutch woman most definitely his equal. It’s very entertaining.

The focus then moves to Alma.

She wanted to understand the world, and made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance…

Alma had been born to the correct parents for these sort of restless inquiries; as long as her questions were respectfully expressed, they would be answered.

As a result, Alma grows up a clever girl and is allowed to sit next to her father at the dinner table from her being four years of age. This is a privilege as the Whittakers often invite philosophers, scientists, inventors, translators and actresses to dine with them. ‘She was allowed to ask questions, so long as her questions were not imbecilic.’

Two other females come to share in Alma’s life. One arrives in childhood and the other in early adulthood. The first is Prudence, the daughter of the head gardener on her father’s estate. The gardener murders his wife, seemingly after she’s cuckolded him one time too many, and then hangs himself. The Whittakers take Prudence in as their own.

Prudence’s arrival changed everything at White Acre. Later in life, when Alma was a woman of science, she would better understand how the introduction of any new element into a controlled environment will alter that environment in manifold and unpredictable ways, but as a child, all she sensed was a hostile invasion and a premonition of doom. Alma did not embrace her interloper with a warm heart.

The second is Retta Snow who Alma finds wandering in the garden at White Acre after Retta’s family mov into the new estate two miles down the river. Retta helps the sisters communicate in a way they are unable to without her presence.

Life moves on and while Prudence and Retta marry, Alma stays at home carrying out scientific studies and – after discovering a book titled Cum Grano Salis, an account of one man’s lifetime of erotic adventures – exploring her own body. Alma is lucky enough to not just have a room of her own, but to have two contrasting rooms.

While the rest of White Acre flowed along in its customary activity and combat, these two locations – the binding closet and the carriage house study – became for Alma twin points of privacy and revelation. One room was for the body; one was for the mind. One room was small and windowless; the other airy and cheerfully lit.One room smelled of old glue; the other fresh hay. One room brought forth secret thoughts; the other brought forth ideas that could be published and shared. The two rooms existed in separate buildings, divided by lawns and gardens, bisected by a wide gravel drive. Nobody would ever have seen their correlation.

But both rooms belonged to Alma Whittaker alone, and in both rooms, she came into being.

But shortly after, tragedy strikes when Beatrix dies unexpectedly. On her deathbed, Beatrix makes Alma promise she will never leave her father and with that, her dream of being an eminent scientist dies.

It’s far from the end of the story, however, but I’m not going to spoil it by telling you what comes next.

The Signature of All Things has much I loved: Gilbert uses the three women – Alma, Prudence and Retta – to explore three different potential outcomes for women at that time; Alma’s a fabulous character who refuses to allow the life she’s ended up with to conquer her; there are several key themes explored which highlight the inequality of the time – women’s rights, racism, homosexuality, missionaries; her father Henry’s story is hugely entertaining, and the ending, where Gilbert allows a significant real scientific finding to converge with Alma’s fictional, one is superb.

However, the novel was just too long for me – I felt it sagged in the middle – and had I not been reading it as part of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlist, I just might have given up on it. I’m glad I didn’t because, as I said, the ending was superb, but I felt like I’d slogged through a couple of sections to get there.

Overall, this is worth reading, it’s a work of feminist literary fiction with a formidable woman at its forefront.

The Dogs of Littlefield – Suzanne Berne

No one was surprised when the signs began appearing in Baldwin Park. For years people had been letting their dogs run free in the meadow to the west of the elementary school and no one had said much about it; but once an authorized off-leash ‘dog park’ was proposed and a petition presented to the Littlefield Board of Alderman, fierce arguments erupted over whose rights to the park should be upheld and the town broke into factions, those who loved dogs and those who did not, at least not in the park.

Suzanne Berne uses the residents of Littlefield’s views of dogs and actions towards them – from producing ‘Leash Your Beast’ signs to poisoning – to explore a middle class American community; their lives, their desires and their concerns.

The novel focuses on the Downing family – Margaret and Bill and their daughter, Julia. Bill works for a finance company; Margaret, a former teacher, gave up her job to have a child, a child who arrived after several miscarriages. This has left Margaret in a permanent state of worrying:

…some imbalance in her that had become permanent, something unreasonable, morbid, a persistent boring dread. When Julia started middle school, he’d suggested Margaret find an outside interest, get a job, do volunteer work; she’d seemed almost frightened at the idea of leaving the house.

‘Well, wish me luck,’ she often said, even when heading to the store for milk. Thank God for that dog. At least it got her out of the door.

She was still Margaret. She loved him. He loved her.

But he couldn’t bear it.

At the beginning of the novel, two things happen that will spark change for the residents of Littlefield and Margaret, in particular. Firstly, Margaret finds a dead dog in the park – the first of those poisoned. The dog, a white bullmastiff, belongs to George Wechsler, a former high school teacher turned writer who’s recently separated from his wife. Secondly, the Downings get a new neighbour:

A small plump black woman met them at the door wearing a green turban, feathery pink mules and a peach-colored silk robe embroidered with dragons. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. She smiled broadly, revealing large front teeth with a gap between them, and introduced herself in a supple gravely voice as Clarice. Then she thanked them for the cookies and said that they’d have to excuse her, as she was just about to have her bath, thanked them again and shut the door. Margaret and Julia walked back through the hedge.

 

‘Well,’ Margaret says as they reached their back steps. ‘She seems interesting. I feel like I’ve met her before.’

‘She’s black,’ noted Julia.

‘African-American.’

But Julia wanted to know what if she wasn’t American or African? What she should be called then?

Margaret opened the back door to the kitchen. ‘I suppose you’d say person of color.’

‘But who says that?’ Julia loitered in the doorway, voice rising. ‘Who says, “Hey, guess what, today I met a person of color”?’

‘Let’s talk about this inside,’ said her mother.

Dr Clarice Watkins is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, in Littlefield to study the ‘good quality of life’ after the town was listed in the Wall Street Journal as one of the ‘Twenty Best Places to Live in America’.

The Dogs of Littlefield turns the concerns of the middle classes into something quite humourous. We recognise that their worries and attempts to maintain the status quo are petty and ridiculous against the backdrop of current world events. Berne creates characters who we can empathise with over issues that affect us all – death, divorce, loneliness – so those moments when the characters are completely self-absorbed and out of touch with their privilege stand out (or at least I hope they do, otherwise we are in trouble).

This is a really enjoyable novel, although deliberately cringe worthy at points. It’s Anne Tyler with a serrated edge.

Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies

Pearl is a young girl who lives with her mum and dad and her little brother who she refers to as ‘The Blob’. She’s growing, learning and experimenting. Sometimes this means that she does bad things like puts her baby brother on the sixth step of the stairs in their house to see what will happen to him or makes friends with Fee after giving her a Chinese burn and making her eat insect cakes made from mud. Sometimes she simply makes mistakes:

Pearl’s found her mother’s sharp scissors and is cutting an old jumper, but it won’t keep still….The Blob sucks his thumb and plays with a carpet tuft. Then he wants to get on the chair so Pearl bunks him up. Immediately he starts to scream. She grabs him. Blood is blooming on her dress, leaking from his leg. Pearl slaps her hand over his mouth so violently he stops, and realises that a point of the scissors has gouged a lump of flesh from his bare thigh.

Pearl’s punishment for this is her mother fixing a lock on her bedroom door. Pearl counters this by refusing to speak. It soon becomes evident that Pearl’s mother is struggling with issues of her own:

Pearl glances at her mother, who’s in her slippers, nightdress billowing out from her half-undone coat. Pearl thinks the flimsy pink fabric looks rude in the shop. As her mother picks up a bag of sugar, Pearl can hear her talking in an undertone, asking the sugar questions….Pearl lets go of the trolley and slinks off as her mother cradles the sugar and sings to it…

The relationship between Pearl and her mother forms one of the core elements of the book; as Pearl grows up and her mother’s mental health deteriorates further, their attachment becomes much more complex.

Going through adolescence is another key theme and Pearl’s sexual awareness is acknowledged at several different points in her development, as is her recognition of a dark presence lurking in life; this is illustrated by the skeleton girl who begins to visit her.

Reasons She Goes to the Woods is told in page-long, single paragraph vignettes. For most of the story, we are not told how old Pearl is, this information only being given to us once she reaches her late teens. This gives a sense of childhood passing in seeming timelessness, only those days where something important, upsetting or key to development earning a place in the story of youth.

I’ve written before about my ambivalence towards novels told from a child’s point of view, but I think this one works for two reasons: the child grows throughout the novel and it’s third person subjective, giving Davies license to write beyond the thoughts and sights of a young girl.

I thoroughly enjoyed Reasons She Goes to the Woods, I think it’s a brave book, in many ways. Unfortunately I think it will be overshadowed by Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing which covers similar territory while being more stylistically daring. It’s a real shame as Davies’ book is definitely worth a read.

Eleven Days – Lea Carpenter

“…my job is room-looking-into. I look into rooms, and I see what goes on in those rooms. And when I see something not quite right, and sometimes it takes hours – or even days – to catch something not quite right, sometimes it takes weeks or months or years to see something’s just a little, let’s say, uncomfortable, then I go into that room. I go into that room at night, without making a sound, and I take out the one thing that made me just a little bit stressed, that think that wasn’t quite right or quite good or quite clean. And no one will ever know that I was there”.

Jason, a 27-year-old SEAL, has been missing for nine days following an operation somewhere in the Middle East. His mother, Sara, is at home in Pennsylvania with Sam, one of Jason’s colleagues, while she waits for news of Jason’s whereabouts.

The novel’s written from a third person subjective viewpoint which switches between Sara and Jason. Sara’s narrative is used to tell us about Jason as a boy and both her and Jason’s relationship with Jason’s father. Jason tells us about SEAL training, his girlfriend and life in the military.

Despite Jason’s father, David, buying him a ‘Boss sixteen-gauge’ as a baby present, Jason grows up more interested in art and writing than guns. His father’s death when he’s eight doesn’t seem to influence his life plans but, when they happen, the events of 9/11 do:

…anyone who met him today would say, Soldier. Fighter. They would want him on their team. As a mother she was willing to engage in pride over fear and to admit the possibility that his sacrifice was hers, too. His sacrifice was something she had been able to give her country.

Jason gives us a different perspective. Firstly, the absence of his father has had an impact – we see how he used books to try and get closer to him, reading on the topics he knows interested him; he shares his understanding of his mother’s need for her son in David’s absence and how he feels his own absence will help her be stronger and live her own life, and we understand his motivation for becoming a SEAL:

…having grown up without a man in his life, he was now determined to pass the world’s hardest test for becoming one.

Which leads us to the second difference in Jason and his mother’s viewpoints: Jason doesn’t really consider becoming a SEAL a sacrifice. He enjoys it and when he’s on leave, he’s desperate to get back to it. There’s also a conversation with a superior officer which makes it clear that they see their choice as a career which gives them a sense of fulfilment. It’s an interesting view to offer and it makes the plot Carpenter gives ambiguous in terms of our feelings about Jason’s plight.

Eleven Days is a well-written novel in two ways. Firstly, the prose is simple and smooth making it easy to read – an underrated skill – and secondly, it’s very provocative. The dual viewpoint is designed to make you question the sacrifices that have been made: who’s sacrificed what? Is it a sacrifice if you don’t consider it so but others do? Does country come before family?

I think it’s an interesting book – I raced through it, desperate to know what had happened to Jason – and it left me with plenty of questions and ideas to consider. It’s a perfect novel for book groups.

The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter

William Avery is a junior officer in the East India Company. Based in Calcutta, his experience of the place has not lived up to expectations:

But as time passed the notions I had harboured about the beauty of the place, and my hopes of distinguishing myself, had been replaced by an intense and bitter homesickness for England and the realization that it was more than likely I would never see it again. The odds – well understood but never spoken aloud – were that most of us would die before we ever returned.

Avery went to India inspired by the writings of Xavier Mountstuart, a poet and prose writer who produced tales and essays about a country which seemed to be exotic and romantic.

The novel begins with Avery delivering a message from the Governor General’s office to a civilian named Jeremiah Blake. Although the journey across the city is relatively short, Avery’s lack of comfort is evident in the ninety-five degree heat of a filthy city. His meeting with Blake does not leave him feeling any further comfort either:

Wrapped in a large cotton blanket, he shuffled into the courtyard, apparently oblivious of my existence. He was a poor thing, grizzled, puffy-eyed, wearing a mangy beard, and barefoot. Beneath his blanket I could see an unkempt muslin shirt and a pair of dirty white pyjamas.

‘Fuck off, lobster,’ the man said.

Unfortunately for both of them, they end up being sent on a mission together, a mission to find Xavier Mountstuart whose latest work Leda and Rama is the talk of Calcutta. The man himself, however, has disappeared on an excursion to discover more about the Thugs – gangs of outlaws who cause terror in certain regions of the country, strangling their victims with a rumal, a long knotted orange scarf.

Neither Blake nor Avery want to go – and especially not together – but Blake has a personal connection with the poet and Avery is offered a free pass home to Devon if he spies on Blake and reports any problems to senior officers along the route.

What follows is a treacherous and violent journey; danger seems to be present at every turn from a range of expected and unexpected sources. The Strangler Vine is a brutal and bloody book with twists and turns which had me turning pages and gasping frequently.

It works well as a ‘crime/detective’ novel with a fast pace and plenty of intrigue; however, it’s also a comment on class and the workings of government. This is shown most obviously in the pairing of Avery and Blake – one middle class naïve, one working class self-educated and savvy. It’s also highlighted though in the discoveries the duo make along the way and the East India Company’s style of rule draws some interesting – and scary – parallels with our current government and their treatment of the poor, as well as more brutal events happening around the world.

The Strangler Vine is a good read that works equally well as a page-turning detective novel and as a comment on society. I’m already looking forward to Blake and Avery’s next case.

 

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said that I stole breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

Agnus Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland; Burial Rites is a fictional account of her story, based on – and incorporating – existing documentation.

Magnúdóttir was found guilty, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir of the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson at Natan’s farm. Agnus and Sigrídur worked for him; Fridrik did odd jobs, helping the women when Natan was away, and was engaged to Sigrídur.

The novel begins with Agnus being moved to Kornsá, to the house of Jón Jónsson, a District Officer, a house he shares with his wife Margrét and their daughters, Lauga and Steina. The decision to place her in their home has been made by Björn Blöndal, District Commissioner:

…I decided they should be placed on farms, homes of upright Christians, who would inspire repentance by good example, and who would benefit from the work these prisoners do as they await their judgement.

This is an unsatisfactory arrangement for them but the family need the compensation that will be paid for the task.

Part of the novel is seen from the family’s point of view; we see how Agnus’ presence affects them and the way they are viewed by other residents of the area. But we are also privy to Agnus’ thoughts and to those of a priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur.

Reverend Thorvadar Jónsson is chosen by Agnus to be her spiritual guide for her remaining days; she selected him after recalling him showing her kindness on a rural path some years earlier. Kent uses him to allow Agnus to talk about her childhood and some of the events leading to the murders.

The most interesting voice though is the one Kent gives to Agnus who is allowed to speak to us in first person:

If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.

There’s much that I liked about the novel – the way Kent evokes the isolation of the Icelandic countryside; the juxtaposition of the accepted view of Agnus’ behaviour and personality with the Agnus the reader sees; the emotive (without being overblown) writing in the chapter when Agnus is led to her death. However, I did have a couple of issues that, while not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book, are significant enough to discuss. Firstly, the use of Reverend Thorvadar as someone for Agnus to tell her story to began well but in the later stages of the novel seemed to become merely a device rather than a realistic conversation and secondly, the book being based on real events seemed to restrict it as a work of fiction. That might sound like an odd thing to say but if you’re being brought back to the fact it’s a fictionalised account, the treatment of it’s not keeping you immersed in the story.

I’d been looking forward to reading Burial Rites – many people whose opinions I trust rate it highly – and although it didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped it would, I do think Hannah Kent’s a good writer and I look forward to reading her next book.

Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

‘Men leave. Children leave. All that is left is death.’

Almost English tells the stories of sixteen-year-old Marina, her mother Laura and, her grandmother (Laura’s mother-in-law) Rozsi. All three live in a flat in Westminster Court, Bayswater, along with Rozsi’s sisters, ‘virginial Ildi and beautiful Zsuzsi’.

If you happened to come across them taking their cold constitutionals in Hyde Park this afternoon, they would have seemed perfectly normal elderly Londoners, looking forward to a quiet night in with a cup of tea and a chop and the Radio Times.

At least that is how they think they seem.

But come a little closer. ‘Dar-link’ is their usual form of address.

The ‘three old women’ are Hungarian. Laura and Marina moved in with Rozsi when Peter, Laura’s husband, disappeared. The other two women soon followed.

Laura sleeps on the sofa, her clothes in the sideboard, leaving her with no privacy as the three older women wander past to use the bathroom. It’s quite incredible that she’s managed to keep her lover a secret from them, although it’s a secret she needs to keep as she’s having an affair with her employer, Dr Alistair Sudgeon.

Laura’s biggest concern though is Marina. Marina’s recently started attending Combe Abbey, a boarding school in Devon, an event which has left Laura feeling raw:

Can it be normal to cry in department store toilets, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine?…without Marina, a layer of resistance has started to peel away.

Did it happen in the run-up to Marina’s going, or on the day she left? In either case, it is Laura’s own fault; she should have stopped her. It was a test of motherhood, which she failed.

Marina, meanwhile, is having a miserable time. She has a crush on a boy who doesn’t know she exists; the girls she shares accommodation with are vile, and no one’s given her a nickname, which suggests that no one’s that interested in her – the ultimate insult for a teenager. Worse than all of this though is her opinion of her mother:

There was a question buried in the middle, like an aniseed ball: did her mother know her, love her, enough to refuse to be parted from her child? Apparently not. She just let it happen, flicking through prospectuses, trailing around with Marina and the great-aunts at open days, and did not once protest.

Mother and daughter in a prime example of failure to communicate, believing they’re doing what the other wants. Add to this the secrets they’re both keeping – there’s a whopper in there – and you’ve got a cracking story.

In Almost English, Mendelson explores the mother/daughter relationship during a period that proves difficult for most – the late teens. It’s an astute portrayal of the desires parents have for their children, what teenagers really want from their parents and the mismatch between the two.

Beside this, the setting of Combe Abbey allows Mendelson to lampoon the bombast of the English upper class, for starters, and then expose the thinly veiled hideousness behind it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel; its tone is fresh and often playful, using humour to highlight ridiculous and inconsistent behaviour and the ending’s an absolute joy.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither no one knows what to do with you.”

Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu is living in America (where she’s been for thirteen years). She writes a blog called Raceteen or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, which has been successful enough for her to make part of her living from public speaking. She also has a fellowship at Princeton and is in a relationship with a professor, Blaine, from the same university. However,

…there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into piercing homesickness.

As the novel begins Ifemelu’s fellowship has ended, she’s written her last post on Raceteen and ended her relationship with Blane; she’s moving back to Lagos.

Obinze lives in Lagos and has become rich through his association with ‘the Chief’ whom he fronted a deal for undervaluing properties, buying them and selling them on at their actual market price.

Obinze looked at the tan colonnaded house. Inside was his furniture imported from Italy, his wife, his two-year-old daughter, Buchi, the nanny Christiana, his wife’s sister Chioma, who was on a forced holiday because university lecturers were on strike yet again, and the new housegirl Marie, who had been brought from Benin Republic after his wife decided that Nigerian housegirls were unsuitable. The rooms would all be cool, air-conditioner vents swaying quietly, and the kitchen would be fragrant with curry and thyme, and CNN would be on downstairs while the television upstairs would be turned to Cartoon Network, and pervading it all would be the undisturbed air of well-being. He climbed out of the car. His gait was stiff his legs difficult to lift. He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired – the family, the houses, the cars, the bank accounts – and would, from time to time, be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

Ifemelu and Obinze were childhood sweethearts, separated when Ifemelu chose to join her auntie in America and attend graduate school. Obinze should have joined her but he was denied a visa. Eventually, Obinze ended up in England but Ifemelu remained unaware of this, events in America having led to her ignoring any attempts by Obinze to contact her.

Adichie uses Ifemelu’s time in America and, to a lesser extent, Obinze’s time in England to explore the West’s attitude to race. Indeed, the fact we have an attitude to race is the main issue, as Ifemelu states at a dinner party she attends with Blaine:

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Adichie has much to say on the issue, her exploration of it demonstrating the complexities we have created around race and the lengths to which we will go to avoid the discussion. There are several perceptive examples of this but the one that occurs not long after Ifemelu’s arrival in America best highlights the ridiculousness of the situation: Ifemelu is shopping with her friend Ginika. When they reach the checkout, the sales assistant asks who helped them with their purchases to ensure they receive their commission. After a number of questions which fail to establish the identity of the woman, Ifemelu and Ginika leave:

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, “I was waiting for her to ask ‘Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?’ Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?’ ”

Ginika laughed, “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”

In Americanah, Adichie moves the discussion into territory I haven’t seen in a novel before (This may be a fault on my part, please leave suggestions in the comments if there’s others that explore similar ideas). She looks at race via the educated immigrant experience, using Ifemelu’s blog and discussions with both her and Obinze’s family, friends and employers to highlight the West’s ignorance and the impact that has on the behaviour of black African migrants and the appearance of black women, in particular.

However, what makes Americanah an exceptional, rather than a great, novel is the way Adichie marries her key theme with the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship. The book could have fallen into the ‘pretentious’ category but it is driven by Ifemelu’s return to Lagos and the will-they-won’t-they scenario this presents for her and Obinze. This kept me turning the pages, emotionally invested in the pair’s fate. (I might have had something in my eye when I reached the final page.)

The more you read and the older you become, the more difficult it is to discover books that floor you; books that change your perspective of the world and books you become emotionally attached to. Americanah gripped my head and my heart; it altered my view of the world and made me invest in the love story at its core. It’s a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Harper Collins/Fourth Estate for the review copy.

The Undertaking – Audrey Magee

‘I had no choice.’
‘We all have choices…’

Peter Faber is in need of a wife. The reason Peter Faber is in need of a wife is that he wants leave from the army. It is 1941 and the German push to take Stalingrad is underway.

Through a marriage bureau, Peter chooses Katharina Spinelli because he likes her hands. She has signed up to the bureau because

‘My mother said it would be a good idea. A bit of security, I suppose. The title of wife. Other girls are doing it.

As Peter says his vows in front of a chaplain and three drunk comrades, Katharina does the same, a thousand miles away in Berlin, in front of her parents. Her father approves of Peter – a soldier fighting on the front – while her mother wishes she’d married one of the other four men she was offered, ‘a doctor’s fat son’.

While Peter’s home on leave, Katharina’s father introduces him to Doctor Weinart, a member of the SS and one of Hitler’s inner circle. Weinart has Peter’s leave extended so Peter can join him rounding up Jews.

The following nights, he smashed soup tureens and china clocks, irritated that he had to leave Katharina to drag snivelling children from attics and cellars. He shouted and screamed at them, struck their legs and backs with the butt of his gun, slapped them across the face when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas for mercy.

Katharina was always waiting for him afterwards, always warm. On the seventh day, as the sun rose, he took a wide band of wedding gold from an old woman. Later he slipped it on his wife’s finger.

‘I need you, Katharina.’

Surprisingly for both Katharina and Peter, they find there’s real attraction between the two of them and when it’s Peter’s time to return to the front he is reluctant to go.

The story then divides in two as we follow Katharina and her family in Berlin and Peter and his unit on their journey to Stalingrad.

The Undertaking is mostly told in dialogue, the sentences simple, conveying just the amount of information needed. It’s a powerful technique which places the action directly in front of the reader and allows us to observe and make our own judgements.

By taking a detached tone, Magee shows her characters’ behaviour and attitudes without placing any authorial judgements on them; this makes for some uncomfortable moments. You would expect the sections that focus on Peter and his colleagues in Stalingrad to be grim – and they are, there are some incredibly upsetting events – but it was the goings on back in Berlin that made me squirm on several occasions.

I often think that both World Wars have had so many pages dedicated to them that there can’t be any more angles to take and again and again writers prove me wrong. Audrey Magee is the latest of those writers. The Undertaking is a powerful novel focused on two very unpleasant scenarios that destroy a family. I would be delighted to see it on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize shortlist.

Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy.

The Bear – Claire Cameron

In 1991, Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe went on a three-day weekend camping trip to Bates Island, Lake Opeongo, Algonquin Park, Canada. Friends contacted the police on Monday when they failed to return. On Wednesday, their partially eaten remains were found, a large black male bear standing over them. There was no reason for the attack.

Cameron has taken this event as her starting point and given the couple two children, Alex, nicknamed ‘Stick’, aged two almost three and Anna, our narrator, five almost six.

The novel opens with the bear attack, during which ‘Daddy’ places Anna and Stick inside ‘Coleman’ the family’s cool box. Anna imagines that the animal she can hear outside is Snoopy, the dog that lives next door to their house in Toronto:

The sniffing gets louder. Snoopy is coming to see me. I stick my fingers out to say hello because I have one hand that isn’t holding Gwen [Anna’s stuffed bear]. There is a bad smell. I pull my fingers in to plug my nose up because my nostrils don’t like the smell. Snoopy needs a bath. It smells like the rotting leaves under the cottage and when there were fish guts in the boat. Yuck. Snoopy comes and I see his nose sniffing in the crack but his smell is wrong and it gives me the shakes and I don’t know why except the smell of fish. I don’t like fish to eat. The crack goes dark and there is hair coming in the crack. It is not like Snoopy’s. It is more prickly hair and fills up the crack and turns out the lights and I can’t see.

It’s difficult to say any more about the plot of the book without spoiling the tension and fear that drives it. So I won’t.

 

There are several things that work well in the novel: the moments when Anna tells us something unaware of the gravity of her words/what she’s seen – there are two or three really powerful images created this way; the difficulties that the children have to deal with besides the bear, some of these also add a much needed touch of humour which bring some relief, and the use of the bear as a metaphor for the terror Anna feels, at two points in the book, it’s difficult to tell whether the bear is really there and this is effective in ramping up the tension.

However, the book is not without flaws and how much they affect your enjoyment of the story really comes down to one thing: how much you like child narrators.

The more novels I read told from a first person, young child narrator (by which I mean twelve or under), the more frustrated I become with them. This is not to say there aren’t some great books with children at the helm and it doesn’t make The Bear a terrible book either, as I pointed out earlier, there are some very good things about it. But my problem with child narrators is this: their viewpoint and their vocabulary are limited. Sometimes the viewpoint limitation works well and Cameron exploits this a few times in her book. Sometimes it’s boring; as an adult, you can find yourself several steps ahead and unless you’re about to be wrong footed, as a reader, this isn’t where you want to be. It’s also very easy to be put-off by a word used which you think a child that age wouldn’t know. When that happens, you’re taken out of the fictional world and the fact it’s a creation is all too obvious. I also suspect this becomes more of a problem when you have kids of your own or you work with children. Do you want to listen to your own young child for three hours?

The Bear is an interesting concept with some great moments; there’s much to enjoy/terrify the hell out of you here. How much you enjoy it as a whole will depend on your opinion of five almost six-year-old narrators.

Thanks to Vintage Books for the review copy.