Category Archives: Review

Review: The Cook by Wayne Macauley

The CookI don’t want to work for a boss who props me up just above drowning I want to work for a customer who knows I am below them and who knows that I know. This is my shame it is a shame I want to be proud of. The money is elsewhere it’s always been elsewhere that is the truth of our lives someone else somewhere above is holding the string dangling it in front of our eyes do we jump like dogs for a treat and try to grab our little handful or do we flatten our ears say I’m your dog you’re my master give him shame out of every pore make him feel so big and special that he can’t help dropping something down for you. It’s not up to us to change them our job is to lick their boots kiss their arses let them make the money they’re the ones who know how to and let’s be thankful for what trickles down.

It’s been a long time since I read a novel I enjoyed as much as this one. The second I finished it I told the person next to me they should read it. Then all my friends. Then anybody who mint be unfortunate enough to ask me about books. Then people who went even foolish enough to that. Read it! Everybody read it! You have to read it too!

Zac, a 17-year-old young offender, is given a choice: prison, or a celebrity chef school. Zac sees a chance to make something of himself, to give himself up into the service of others, and to make himself great – whatever the cost.

There’s an enormous sense of foreboding running throughout the book. Zac’s narration ventriloquises an uneducated, obsessive young man – sentences run together, there is little in the way of grammar, and it’s peppered with slang and asides. You can see from the above quote that the voice is really distinctive. Some readers might find this hard to get on with, but after half a page I found I no longer thought about it. It draws you inexorably inside his head, you feel his desperation and his preoccupation, even as you can see (as Zac can’t) that it leads him to decisions and actions of great cruelty, both to himself and others.

Part of what makes this novel so gripping is that you’re not quite sure what you’re supposed to think you’re reading. Is this a satire on celebrity culture, as you see the TV chef who runs the schools as increasingly flawed in contrast to Zac’s dark, determined idealism? Is it a satire on the narrative perpetuated by these kind of shows, where ‘following your dreams’ and ‘wanting enough’ is the only yardstick by which other people seem to measure success? It it a lambasting of the haute cuisine world and the trend of ‘conceptual dining’ taken to extremes? Is it a story of self-destruction, as you see Zac lose himself further and further in his obsession to create perfect meals to impress ever-absent guests? And through it all, as he leaves a trail of butchered animal carcasses in his wake, you’re wondering, will anybody else will be destroyed by his quest for greatness?

Read it read it read it.

[Full disclosure: I freelance for the non-fiction arm of Quercus (the book’s UK publisher) which is how I got my mitts on a copy. However, this review has got nothing to do with them and I wouldn’t be raving about it if I didn’t mean it! ]

Rating: 
First line: (I don’t actually know because I lent this book out the SECOND I finished it.)
In a tweet: Masterchef’s dirty little secret.

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

20121019-181015.jpg

The Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty is in trouble. In the fading resort of Swamplandia!, the family is reeling from Hilola Bigtree’s death from cancer, and as the Chief’s debts mount up, the children each find their own ways to deal with their terror of the unknown and save the park that is their home. But Kiwi has gone to work for a rival theme park, Ossie has found a boyfriend who may or may not be a ghost, and the Chief has gone AWOL, so it’s down to plucky, 13-year-old Ava, her red alligator, and the mysterious Bird Man to enter the swamp and fix their family fortunes. But the swamps are treacherous, and not everything is as it seems…

Told from both Kiwi and Ava’s perspectives, this is a darkly innocent narration. I love Ava’s voice, her bravado and her bizarre frames of reference that only a girl who grew up in an alligator-wrestling theme park could come up with. Lines like: ‘I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel.’

Her grief about her mother is expertly woven into the consciousness of a girl who does not know how to express it, manifesting itself not in passages about how she misses her mother, but in nervous tics, a lack of assurance about what to believe, and a desperate search for affection when she meets the Bird Man.

The gator-swamp is an excellent, other-worldly setting that makes it impossible to know what we as readers can and can’t believe in. Perhaps ghosts are real, if they can create such a lasting impression on a family. Perhaps men can commune with animals, if the Bigtree legacy is to be believed. It reminded me of Life of Pi, the way that the line between magical realism and traumatic experience were blurred.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving, that one heartless reviewer on Goodreads who clearly likes her stories flat and dull and obvious from the outset, was brilliant. Like an orphan from a fairytale, Louis was only adopted to serve as cheap labour on a Florida farm. His background is so starved of love and opportunity that the Depression is, to him, a blessing.

Happiness could be felt as a pressure too, Louis realised, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even… in fact he’d been so poor in Iowa that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for- a real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles. Happiness like his was real; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it.

And once you’ve followed Louis’ tragic, wasteful, pointless story to its conclusion, you’ve fallen a little bit in love with him too, just like Ossie. Whether or not he is a ‘real ghost’, you are brought face to face with the injustices of poverty, bad planning and a lack of accountability. That’s why we get the ‘unbelievable’ story of Kiwi going to Harvard, because he could never go – the system is rigged so that of course he could never go. It is a notion more fantastic than a 13-year-old alligator wrestler. In its own, dreamy, teenage way, Swamplandia! is as furious as a much more explicitly political book.

A lot of reviewers have criticised this book for being too dark (stupid), for not properly explaining one of the climaxes of the book (stupid, because everything in life comes with an explanation) and for stranding us with an implausibly happy ending. But if you try to pick out what is ‘plausible’ about this book you entirely miss the point – it is getting tangled up in this problem that makes the book so compelling. And I defy you not to care about these kids. I couldn’t put it down.

Rating:
First line: Our mother performed in starlight.
In a tweet: A dark, murky, terrifying tale of adolescence.

Review: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell SimMaxwell Sim is a man struggling. He’s the wrong side of 40, his wife has left him, he doesn’t understand his daughter, he’s estranged from his father, and he’s suffering from clinical depression that he tries desperately, but unsuccessfully to hide. In an effort to reconnect with the world, Maxwell takes up a job on a PR stunt, travelling across the country to promote ec0-friendly toothbrushes. Primed with his Prius and his strangely seductive SatNav, Emma, he embarks on his journey to Scotland. On the way, he tries to reconnect with various people from his past, only to find that things don’t go as he had planned.

As in most of Coe’s novels, Maxwell’s journey is interspersed with various other conveniently-appearing texts that cast the important events of his life in a new light. A personal essay by a holiday-romance-that-never-was, his father’s memoires, his ex-wife’s short stories, and, most disconcertingly, a documentary about the real-life Donald Crowhurst, all make him question the foundations of the life he has built for himself.

In What a Carve Up!, probably his most famous and definitely his greatest novel, Coe uses almost exactly the same techniques (an insanely lonely protagonist, an apparently insignificant moment in his past which radically alters the path of his life, a remote real-life figure – in this case Yuri Gagarin – and patterns of bizarre and sometimes upsetting connectivity) to make a scathing satire on Thatcher’s government, and the way that distant figures in government have indelible, tragic results on others’ lives. Here, Coe’s satire is directed at the banking culture – Maxwell’s father has a strange, intense infatuation with a trader in the 70s that ends with his father memorably accusing him of thinking himself ‘A cross between Leavis, Midas and Gandalf’ (haha) – but the satire falls a little short. Although the rickety nature of bad trades is cleverly illustrated with a complex, ultimately disastrous spread bet that Maxwell’s father is embroiled in, Coe doesn’t seem to have the same targeted, frustrated fury that makes What a Carve Up! so phenomenal. Instead, that becomes part of a wider circling around ideas about connection and isolation in the modern world, and also our ideas about what our lives should be – Maxwell’s narration takes us down plenty of dead ends  that trip up our own expectations that lives should be lived with the structure of a novel. It’s perhaps not as successful as What a Carve Up!, with meandering themes that are a nod to The Dwarves of Death (which I was much less enamoured with), but I don’t think these dead ends are to blame.

I’m always a bit suspicious of reviews that start by talking about other reviews, but I was amazed by how infurated this book made people. Reviewers have pointed to the slightly baffled commentary on modern technology – Maxwell’s unfamiliarity with text messaging etiquette, Facebook friends and mumsnet – but I think that’s a fairly convincing bafflement for a man in his 40s trying to grapple with the new technology, as are the slightly slower passages of Prius manuals and SatNav programming. One memorable review berated it for not being entertaining enough, but can you really spend 300 pages with a middle-aged man in the depths of desperate loneliness and have it convincingly be an action-packed laugh a minute? No. Don’t be an idiot.

Also, the ending has outraged so many people! ‘It’s too META’, they cry! ‘You aren’t the first person to invent postmodernism, Jonathan Coe!’ Since when did you have to be the first person to do something for it to be interesting? Without giving the game away, I thought it was a brilliant spanner in the works – I would challenge anybody who suggests it’s any less valid an ending than the one you were probably expecting, which while more familiar, are just as artificial. I was heartbroken – and in that reaction, you as a reader become the kind of connection with Maxwell that he’s been searching for.

Rating: 
First line: When I saw the Chinese woman and her daughter playing cards together at their restaurant table, the water and the lights of Sydney harbour shimmering behind them, it set me thinking about Stuart, and the reason he had to give up driving his car.
In a tweet: The terrible book reviewers of Maxwell Sim.

Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the BodiesThis is a quote-heavy review, because really, the best review I could possibly write would just be to transcribe huge chunks of the prose and roll around in them all day. The thing about novels about Henry VIII is that you know the plot – you come to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies knowing full well this is not going to be happy ever after for Anne, and it really doesn’t matter. (The endpapers of Anne’s neck in the hardback edition are a nice touch, after all, that’s what it all boils down to!)

Where Wolf Hall followed Anne Boleyn’s play for power and the legal and political divorce of Katherine from Henry, Bring Up the Bodies shows Henry’s waning interest in Anne, her increasingly hysterical attempts to keep him, and the rising star of the Seymours. Thomas Cromwell is again the man at the centre of it all – keeping balls rolling, plates in the air, tales spinning, kitchens running – and it is a delight just to be in his presence, to feel his mind working through Mantel’s masterful free indirect narration. The novel is steeped in historical research but wears it so lightly you barely even notice. People swear by saints you don’t recognise and talk about festivals and clothes and places you don’t really understand, but you never feel lost.

Indeed, the prose skips along so vividly and deceptively easily, you don’t realise you’ve found yourself immured in a single-minded plot for revenge until it’s too late. When Cromwell anticipates the King’s desire to be rid of Anne Boleyn, he sees the perfect opportunity to rid himself of those men who mocked the death of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, in Wolf Hall, dressing up as demons and carrying him off to hell. It is so officiously done, so scrupulously enacted, that you can almost miss the fact that you are witnessing the calling in of a debt the debtors had forgotten. What is scary is not only Cromwell’s unflappability in his accusations, nor his bloody mindedness to get at the truth, but also the idea that somewhere, beneath Cromwell’s apparent unruffled feathers and within the games of politics and strategy at court, that you can strike a blow on Cromwell that will not show and to which he will not retaliate, but which he will not forget, and which seven years later will be called to account.

Bring Up the Bodies not only alludes to the phrase used to describe prisoners taken to the Tower of London, but to Cromwell’s own settling of those debts. The bodies he is haunted by – his wife and daughters, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey – and how they return in subtle, unexpected ways. Both Henry Norris and Anne recognise that despite the talk of marriage and annulment, adultery and witchcraft, this boils down to payback.

Cromwell says time and again, that once you have set your mind on a course of action, you must follow through without hesitation. And most powerfully, we have the rare glimpse of, not remorse or unease, but acknowledgement that these complex legal machinations boil down to something bloody and murderous.

Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed,  you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

Yet Cromwell does not stop, and shows no regret for his actions. Bring Up the Bodies so vividly encapsulates a world in which subtext is everything, anticipation is key, and where the courtly manners, rituals and titles are underpinned by the ever-present threat of ruin or death. In this, Anne Boleyn is more Cromwell’s equal than he recognizes.

One thing she set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. He has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an impostor, like a child or a court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen and now ordered to live in the queen’s rooms. She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these.

[…] He says ‘Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.’

But with the first steps towards reformation, the changing fortunes of Cromwell’s enemies (and who at court is really a friend?) and the ever-changeable, unpredictable King Henry, we can be pretty sure trouble will show up elsewhere for Mantel’s third book of the trilogy.

Rating: 
In a tweet:
 ‘Give him a dirty look and he’ll gouge your eye out…But he’ll stand anybody a drink.’

Review: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

It starts with a Click, and George Harvey Bone is walking with no idea of where he is or what he’s doing.

It was a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases: it had a temporary deafening effect. It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead. And yet he was not physically deaf: it was merely that in this physical way alone could he think of what had happened in his head.

This confusion, disjunction and disorientation serves as a framework for the novel as a whole. George has fallen in with a bad crowd, and spends his days getting drunk in various Earl’s Court pubs with a variety of shady characters in an effort to impress the beautiful, cold-hearted, slatternly Netta. But Netta is only interested in George for his money (of which he has very little, but more than the rest), his tenuous connections to an acting agency, and the opportunity to use him as dogsbody. The novel’s action is a litany of tiny acts of humiliation, all at ‘poor Bone’s expense. Little does she know that in his ‘dumb moods’, as these fugue states are termed by the gang, George’s sole impulse is to free himself of Netta – by killing her.

Participating so closely in George’s consciousness, we can’t help but desire Netta’s death, too, sharing his desperate idea that if she could only be got rid of, George could leave and go to Maidenhead – the childhood town he holds up as a talisman of better times. Hangover Square toys with our ideas of a thriller, and of a villain. It is also held up as a classic ‘pre-WWII’ novel, capturing the essence of the tension and bleakness of the months leading up to war in 1939. Various characters flirt with fascism including Netta (who is aesthetically attracted to it more than anything else – and in that she has some interesting parallels with Jean Brodie) and her occasional lover Peter. But it is not a schematic metaphor for the failures of appeasement and the advent of war. Whatever George does, whether he follows the path of peacefulness and submission, or violence and anger, he is damned. Maidenhead is a lost idyll, an unattainable ideal, that George will never be able to return to.

It is a hard read, often unpleasant, but it is not the hopeless dirge a novel with this kind of story could so easily have become. The writing is fantastic, atmospheric and encourages you to keep working at the character: one chapter ends ‘He felt his way down the stairs – slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.’ I’ve heard varied accounts of how realistic a portrayal of schizophrenia or split personality disorder Hamilton manages, but I found it singularly realistic in its warped logic and fixation.

What also struck me about is how relevant (is that a horrible turn of phrase?) this book remains to the London of today? Earl’s Court is perhaps not the den of iniquity it once was, thanks mostly to its notorious conference centre that just means that lost-looking tourists are constantly clogging up its incredibly confusing tube station, but this vision of a no-man’s land of a lost, unemployed underclass trying to get on with their lives in the shadow of an impending war certainly rings true in 2012. With the UK’s shocking levels of unemployment, its withdrawal of state support (particularly in areas of mental health) under the guise of Big Society, and the government’s struggle to create a coherent identity for Britain – Olympic good-time city, financial capital, cracking-down on corruption with Leveson while turning a blind eye to the never-ending banking crisis – it seems to have plenty of say about the country’s split personality 70 years on, and the pressures it places on a still unacknowledged, downtrodden section of society.

Earl's Court: still kind of a shithole.

Rating: 
In a tweet:
 Slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.

Review: An Ice Cream War by William Boyd

Having only read Any Human Heart before, and loved it, I was surprised by the tone of An Ice Cream War, which takes a comic and vaguely satirical look at the First World War as waged on its African borders, while also making a poignant comment on the arbitrary and often devastating effect of larger political and societal changes.

The book follows three main characters – Walter Smith, who finds his farm near Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the first casualties of war, commandeered and burned by his apparently affable neighbour Erich von Bishop. Walter signs up with the British Army for revenge, and four years of total chaos ensue. Felix Cobb is an earnest Oxford student, champagne socialist and greatest of disappointments to his military father. When his strapping brother Gabriel abandons his honeymoon to sign up and is posted to Africa, Felix develops a strange and dangerous closeness with his sister-in-law. As for Gabriel –relieved of the curious and unfamiliar pressures of his new marriage, he finds himself similarly unsuited to the poorly-managed combat and soon becomes a prisoner of war, tended by none other than von Bishop’s buxom wife, Liesl, with whom he becomes obsessed in a way that he has never felt with his wife.

Crossed paths and missed connections seem to be the motif in this novel, both between individuals, whose relationships are never quite what they could have been, and in the war itself, which is shown as a farcical endeavour run by almost comically incompetent leaders. But it avoids Oh! What a Lovely War! territory with touching humane insights, whether that is Smith’s despair at losing his precious decorticator, or the devastating results of Felix’s quest to find his brother.

Sometimes felt a bit slow going, but I think that was in part due to the confused and frustrating nature of the war Boyd is writing about. I wasn’t nearly as interested in Walter as I was in Felix and Gabriel, and to an extent it seems like Boyd felt the same, as Walter fades out towards the latter half. And for the stunning moments that are also in this novel, it’s completely worth it.

Rating: 
In a tweet: War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing nothin’ nothin’

Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

I remember the hype around this when it came out, as the first major work from Pullman after His Dark Materials and promising a similarly inflammatory reading of religion. It was available in two simple-but-beautiful editions from Canongate, suggesting a choosing of sides or an aligning of allegiance (I’d be interested to know which sold better, the black or the white. My money’s on the black).

The Good Man Jesusand the Scoundrel Christ

Anyway, when I finally settled down to read it, it was in a much less imaginatively designed paperback and on loan from a theology graduate friend who described it as ‘really disappointing’, but who also acknowledged that she has a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than your average reader and thought she might have been giving Pullman a bit of a hard time.

Not so, theology friend! For somebody who had obviously done his homework on religious literature for The Amber Spyglass, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredibly simplistic retelling, and I say this as somebody with a pretty limited Sunday School grasp of the Biblical stories, plus whatever you pick up in English Lit class along the way. I wasn’t offended by it in a religious sense, but I really thought it smacked of a kind of adolescent storytelling – ‘Wouldn’t it blow everybody’s minds if Jesus wasn’t one person….BUT TWO?!’. There used to be an old drunk guy who would regularly get on my bus and tell everybody ‘IF YOU SPELL LIVED BACKWARDS, YOU GET DEVIL’ and then stare at you like he’d proved an infallible conspiracy about the universe. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but he definitely wasn’t as clever as he thought, either, smelling of Special Brew on the 143. And I feel like he and Philip Pullman have been to one too many Tennants-flavoured theology seminars.

The novel is written in a pared down style which I guess is supposed to be redolent of Biblical writing, although why people insist on suggesting that people 2,000 years ago all narrated their own inner monologues in this sparse way I have no idea. Christ is the black sheep of the family, intelligent, sensitive to moral ambiguity, and distinctly non-miraculous whereas Jesus is all impassioned earnestness and miracles. Christ becomes Jesus’s history writer, and inevitably starts to edit some of the occurrences for the sake of posterity, neatly bringing in a debate about the difference between History and Truth (and often helpfully telling you that’s what it’s doing at the same time. Just so, y’know, you don’t miss the significance). The man who encourages Christ in his endeavours is a shadowy figure (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe he’s the devil) who seems to be preparing the way for the church (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe the church is bad) – an institution that Jesus himself is against (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: doesn’t that just blow your mind, man?). We all know how the story is going to end, and surprise surprise, Judas and Christ are in cahoots, only it’s Christ that gets the 30 pieces of silver (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: exhausted).

It isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, and for fans of Pullman it’s another bit of writing to gobble up by him. But where His Dark Materials offered some really challenging ideas with a bit of Milton thrown in, I found this to be a bit facile in comparison, and without the gimmick of the religious retelling, not a very compelling novel in its own right. I kept thinking about one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita, which contains a retelling of Jesus’ story through the eyes of Pontius Pilate in a much more nuanced, interesting, beautiful way. This just didn’t compete.

 Rating: 
In a tweet: Sunday school’s out for summer.

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesMaybe it was the fact that it was a retelling of the Iliad, but I wasn’t expecting this book to be quite so trashy. I don’t mean in a bad way. It has been described as Homeric fan fiction, which is probably a bit unfair, but the exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’s burgeoning attraction and love has a distinct whiff of YA about it. Historic romance, is probably the best way to describe it, and if you’re on board with that then you’ll not be disappointed by The Song of Achilles.

The premise of the novel, which took Miller 10 years to write, came from her fascination at Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death. While I think the upshot of the scholarship about the Iliad is that you’ll never know whether Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship as we would understand it today – given the various homoerotic practices in Greek armies of the day, and also the tradition of married men indulging in boys with no apparent censure – Miller gives their love full rein in her version of events.

Her writing of the infatuation is beautiful and lyrical, if bordering on the teenage poetry: ‘He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.’ But against the backdrop of one of the most legendary wars of all time, the romance starts to wear a little thin. I started to find the moments that Patroclus has to himself, learning to tend to the wounded, or his relationship with Briseis (although you can see that coming a mile off – I guess the downside of reworking a classic legend is that its plot twists aren’t exactly unexpected) a relief from the constant tortured adoration of Achilles. Take this example of when Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon as part of a defence of his wounded pride:

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is as hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew.

Patroclus’s fury was a welcome relief from the adoration, but it is also an example of the very teenage passions that course through the novel’s veins – and it’s still all about Achilles.

And this was the major downside for me in this book: Miller has committed to a retelling of the relationship, not the war, through Patroclus’s eyes, and so things that you would expect to be part of a fully fleshed out character’s story –the fighting, his relationship with the other men, his feelings about the politics – all this is sidelined if not downright neglected; everything is refracted through the lens of his love for Achilles. Maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic, but I don’t believe that’s actually how relationships work – even epic ones – and it’s that that gives it its slightly angsty, YA feel. That said, it is an eminently devourable read, and I definitely wasn’t above shedding a tear at the end – it is definitely good angsty YA.

It did make me question whether the book would have won the Orange Prize for a similar telling of a modern-day relationship, and I suspect it wouldn’t. Once you remove the glamour of the ‘untellable story, retold’ angle, it becomes just another tortured romance (see The Forgotten Waltz for another shortlisted romance that was much more interestingly written, but without the benefit of famous characters). But as the ‘original’ tortured romance, it manages to sidestep accusations of unoriginality and instead becomes a ‘modern retelling of a classic’. Nifty.

Rating: 

In a tweet: Beautiful men, feeling beautiful feelings, in beautiful bronze. Also a war happens.

Review: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The story of an Irish woman’s lapse into adultery, this could have been the plot of any Marian-Keyes-molded chick lit, but was a refreshingly different take on the story. Gina is a difficult narrator; she changes her mind, she unapologetically misremembers things and uses this account as a simultaneous working out and defence of her actions. She glosses over some things and dwells on others, and frequently we get the sense of another part of the story developing just out of sight.

In fact, reading this novel felt for the life of me like going for dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, don’t know that well, and haven’t quite worked out if I liked. Two bottles of wine later and she’s pouring out the one-sided story she’s woven out of this drama, knowing you don’t know any of the people involved, knowing it’s a cliche, and trying to defend herself about the accusations she imagines you making.

It’s a hit and miss narrative strategy, because Enright has created a set of characters who you’re not sure whether you’re rooting for or furious at, and as these middle class Terenureans get more involved in their domestic dramas and economic worries, you’re not entirely sure why in that case you’re even reading it. But it’s a very human portrait of some very human characters, and every time I got a bit frustrated – for example, Sean’s epileptic daughter Evie appears at significant moments like their first kiss, and you think that she ought to serve more of a function in the novel, but then she gets kind of sidelined – it’s a result of Gina’s inability to quite make the story she’s telling work. Her mother’s death is dealt with in a kind of rambling aside that nevertheless forms the central part of the novel, in a way that makes you work to flesh out your own conclusions about how it’s affected Gina, and whether it’s connected to her affair with Sean or whether it just forms another event in her confused suburban life. Gina herself admits there’s no real way of knowing:

This is the real way it happens, isn’t it? I mean in the real world there is no one moment when  a relationship changes, no clear cause and effect.

Or, the effect might be clear, the cause is harder to trace.

The effect walks up, many years later, when you are out to dinner with your new partner and she says, ‘My goodness. Would you look who it is.’

Not to everyone’s taste, then, but I was refreshed to find a novel that tried to honestly tell a woman’s experience, and wasn’t afraid to stop at admitting that that woman might be a flawed character, and narrator.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Breaking up is hard to do. So is writing about it.

Review: Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

A coming-of-age novel that doesn’t pull many punches, Ten Thousand Saints opens with Jude and Teddy getting high under the bleachers of their Vermont high school in 1987, dreaming of escape. When Teddy’s half-step-sister, Eliza, arrives for New Years Eve from distant, thrilling NYC, events are set in motion that will change all of their lives forever, as an unfortunate cocktail of drugs at a party means that Teddy doesn’t live to see ’88 (not a spoiler – this is given away pretty early on). The repercussions of Teddy’s death are far-reaching and in Eliza’s case, perhaps a little bit contrived. Jude moves to New York to find Teddy’s half-brother and gets involved in the straight-edge scene, rejecting the drugs that killed his best friend, the drink he had never been that into, and the sex he wasn’t having anyway. Meanwhile, we see Teddy and Jude’s parents, half-parents and broken families – each with their own baggage left over from their 70s hippy history – make clumsy attempts to steer their children to safety, without any real idea of what that might be.

The title is a reference to Saint Jude, for whom Jude is named, as well as Johnny’s flirtation with Hare Krishna, and suggests the redemptive qualities to be found in the most unlikely of places. The apparent ‘saintliness’ of the straight-edge scene is shown to be just as desperate, addictive and motivated by darker emotions than drug addictions, and its violence is offset by the more timid, hippy sensibilities of their parents. And while there might not be ten thousand of them, the book overflows with characters, following Jude, Eliza, Johnny, their parents, and a host of excellently drawn supporting characters a vibrant, gritty portrait of New York.

Henderson’s obviously done her research, about the protests against the gentrification of Brooklyn at that time and about straight-edge culture, and it was genuinely pleasurable to learn about a period of NYC’s history through her writing. But there is something a bit rag bag in her inclusion of all the Big Hitting Issues of the 80s – we’ve got the policing, the teen pregnancy, the AIDS crisis, the straight-edge scene, the young angry teens – and while the novel’s too well written for them to really feel like they’re competing, the novel can sometimes sound exactly like the clamouring adolescent hormones of its characters, without much sense of respite. I read a really interesting review that compared it to Peter Pan in the total absence of adult authority, the chaos and exuberance, but also the slight sense of unreality. But I think that helps. Like the pregnancy that emerges, each character goes through their own gestation period, a crazy and sometimes desperate incubation that forms and forges them. And I think once you get on for the ride, and accept that some of the freewheeling plot is a bit ridiculous, then the novel becomes a very powerful portrait of adolescence.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Masterful, but not a masterpiece.