A lesson in positive thinking: ‘All the Good Things’ by Clare Fisher

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I make no apologies for being mainly drawn to escapist comfort reading at the moment.  It has hampered my reviewing though, a real problem with most literary fiction is that it tends to depict sadness more than joy, despair more than hope.  It’s a rare book that manages to deal with weighty literary issues without getting drawn into the misery of it all.

‘All the Good Things’ by Clare Fisher is a delight in that it succeeds in playing both sides. The contents page reads as a list of ‘good things’ experienced by our narrator, including ‘When your mum wraps a scarf around your neck,’ ‘How cats can find sun to lie in, even on a cloudy day,’  ‘Friends you can be weird with’ and ‘When you’re so happy it hurts.’  It’s a list to warm anyone’s heart, as is the very first paragraph of the novel:

Of all the good things that have ever been in in me, the first and the best is you.  Every single part of you, from your stroke-able earlobes to the hope curled up in your toes.  Remember that.  Remember it when the dickheads say you’re a bad or a so-what thing.  Remember it when you’re convinced the good things are jammed behind other people’s smiles.  Remember it the hardest when you feel like no thing at all.

As the opening lines show, this is a book about love and joy, with the knowledge that such moments are all the more precious for existing within a complicated, difficult world.  Our narrator Bethany is in prison, and consumed by guilt.  She is writing at the insistence of her counsellor; the exercise in positive thinking appears to be working for her, though it may have a very different impact on the reader.  It doesn’t take long before the narrative reveals the pitiful modesty of Beth’s accumulated ‘good things.’  The love she felt for her first foster father (before he and his wife conceived their own child and she was passed to another family), her timid exuberance on finally making a real friend at school (before being moved to Somerset on a ‘Fresh Start’ scheme), her pride on getting a minimum wage job at the Streatham Odeon are all evoked with delicacy and precision, making you question the traumas that make the lives of most literary narrators so difficult.

There are so many things to admire about this debut, from the skilful management of the dual time frame to the sensitive presentation of social services to the brilliant depiction of South West London.  What I’ll be taking away however, is the power of a positive narrator describing distressing times and subject matter.  I’m well aware that I often delve into fiction in order to avoid facing the problems of life in the 21st century.  ‘All the Good Things’ has not been an escapist read, but it has been a valuable one, helping me see my world through new, and maybe better, eyes.

I received a copy of ‘All the Good Things’ from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Period escapism: A Dance to the Music of Time (Part 1 – Spring) by Anthony Powell

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As I wrote earlier in the week, I’ve been very drawn to escapist literature at the moment.  Normally, this would mean binge-reading Agatha Christie, but I rather overdid things with the Queen of Crime during autumn (by which I mean, I’ve already re-read every book by her that I own).  Fortunately, lurking in my to-be-read pile was the perfect answer to my problem.

Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ is dated, elitist, concerned entirely with the problems of privileged white men and yet somehow it managed to utterly charm rather than infuriate me.  It may have been down to the hypnotically complex writing.  The incredibly long and involved sentences (often demanding re-reading) were somehow wonderfully reassuring.  There was no way I would be able to race though these novels as I too often do with period escapism.  Once I’d unpicked all the clauses, the paragraphs revealed themselves as mountains of gentle satire, politely but inexorably mocking everything described.

The main character in these books seems to be the unpopular but obstinately ambitious Widmerpool, a pitiable outsider at school who is nonetheless an object of fascination for Nick Jenkins, the narrator.  After the ‘Stalky and Co’ antics of the schooldays, we next meet Widmerpool in France, where he and Jenkins end up in the same boarding house.  Remaining true to unpopular, obstinate type, Widmerpool insists on them taking advantage of the educational opportunity: ‘In spite of inherent difficulty in making words sound like French, he had acquired a large vocabulary, and could carry on a conversation adequately, provided he could think of something to say; for I found that he had no interest in anything that could not be labelled as in some way important or improving, an approach to conversation that naturally limited its scope.

During the next two books that make up the ‘Spring’ volume of the twelve novel series, Jenkins’ adventures in the adult world are punctuated by encounters with Widmerpool.  Whether falling in love with 1920s ‘bright young things,’ causing social embarrassment at his employer’s country home or giving the worst after-dinner speeches in a novel filled with pontificating bores, Widmerpool is an important if charmless antidote to the laissez faire confidence of most his peers.  I’m already cringing at the though of what could happen to him in the ‘Summer’ trio of novels.

Aside from this clumsy anti-hero, the books luxuriate in a wealth of incidental characters.  The cast of lovers, benefactors, eccentrics, wastrels, millionaires and snobs are worthy of Dickens or Thackeray.  The literary parallels are nearly unending, with university scenes that could have been lifted straight from Evelyn Waugh and musings on memory that deliberately evoke Proust.

I can’t wait to move on to the Summer novels, the sudden heat-wave only makes such reading more appealing!  I’m going to pace myself though.  Handled with care, I reckon on ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ lasting me all year, at the measured rate of a book a month.  It’s certainly been the perfect period read for 2017 so far and I have every confidence that each volume will only add to my enjoyment.

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Past and present: ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant

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With the exception of prize shortlist reading, the only books that seem to be grabbing my attention at the moment are those promising cosy escapism.  I want to spend my leisure time in a different time, where the problems seem less pressing and the concerns refreshingly removed from those of 2017 England.  Based on this premise, ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant, set nearly entirely within a 1950s TB sanatorium, seemed to be the perfect bridge between my Bailey’s and my comfort reading.  Or so I told myself when I started the novel.  Of course, this being Linda Grant, nothing is quite that simple, and her novel makes it clear quite how much the past can be seen reflecting and impacting on the present.

Reminding us that we aren’t the first period of Brits to be consumed with discontent, the book begins with a precise evocation of the post-war setting:

London.  Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too.  Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.

For all the depressing sameness of it all however, there are clear indications that times are a-changing.  For a start, when the colourful Lenny and Miriam are diagnosed with TB this no longer means a slow death in the East End slums, but a chance to escape the smog and the rationing through entry to a TB sanatorium down in Kent, recently taken over by the one-year-old NHS and forced to open its doors to non fee-paying patients.

As anyone familiar with such institutions in literature will know, along with the promise of treatment come all kinds of emotional and physical restrictions.  From ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to ‘The Magic Mountain’ we are conditioned to expected frightening controlling staff and disturbingly passive patients.  True to its literary roots and to Grant’s exemplary research, the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculos (‘Gwendo’ for short) is is a nightmarish place.  Built to be modern and comfortable, it is nonetheless imbued with the fatalism of its inmates, from the mortally ill Air Force officers to the ‘mothers’ club’ (who even have their own additional rules, number 1 being ‘never give way to self-pity’).

Lenny and Miriam are unusual patients.  As well as being ‘common as muck‘ they refuse to join the tradition of accepting, patient patients.  It is also clear that they are only part of a change in society that even the insular Gwendo cannot avoid.  A sexy American merchant seaman arrives, with a suitcase of hit music, a taste for anarchy and a refusal to be cowed.  Meanwhile, in the wider world, there are rumours of a cure for tuberculosis – threatening to bring down the Gwendo from without.

Echoing the way the plot straddles the claustrophobic life within the sanatarium and the new possibilities outside it, the book itself seems to balance precariously between the 1950s and 2017.  If there is a hero in the book, it has to be the NHS which in 1957 ‘embarked on one of the greatest public health programmes the country had ever known … the sick – men and women and children who didn’t even know they were ill … were identified, sent off for treatment and the disease was on the verge of complete extinction.‘  Given the current crises in the NHS, this is a timely reminder of how it started and the wonders it has achieved.  All that, and a brilliant take on the classic claustrophobic institution narrative.  A timely, and extremely engaging, way to round off my Bailey’s shortlist reviews.

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A Modern Classic: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

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Every now and then you come across a book that feels like a modern classic.  It doesn’t happen often.  The only real example I can think of is when I encountered ‘Citizen‘ by Claudia Rankine; I knew I was reading a book that would feature in Literature and Culture university courses in years to come.  A book that not only captures an era but will also speak to future generations about what that era felt like to those living within it.

I had not expected anything on this level from Alderman’s latest novel.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t have faith in her ability to tell a story and to write brilliantly, just that an explicitly Feminist work of speculative fiction (written by an author who has been mentored by Margaret Atwood), didn’t, on the surface, seem all that new.  I couldn’t question the importance of the themes, but I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced that the argument had moved on, at least not for reader like myself, who spent her teenage years steeped in second wave Feminist classics.

‘The Power’ is framed by a series of letters in which ‘Neil Adam Armon’ writes to ‘Naomi’ from ‘The Men Writers Association,’ sycophantically pitching his historical novel.  It’s all extremely knowing and clever, and it’s very hard to ignore comparisons with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’  Once the body of the novel starts however, Alderman shows that she is writing her own story, and it’s very different, though no less disturbing, than Atwood’s 1980s dystopia.

The premise is simple.  Girls around the world have suddenly developed a power which means they are now stronger than boys and  men.  They can transmit this power to women, and the novel begins to set out a very convincing case that all our concepts of gender come down to who has the strength to hurt the other.  Without going into details, the tables are also turned when it comes to sex, with women being easily able to threaten and abuse men.  Thus one of the four protagonists, an ambitious male reporter, realises that it takes a whole new level of courage to run towards a conflict when there is a very real probability of rape if you end up separated from your protectors.  We’re soon shown that this new power isn’t just physical, but an emotional, spiritual and cultural force.  The book covers cults, internet trolls and high-stakes players in power politics, looking at the terrifying ways in which they respond to this new reality.

I don’t want to spoil the conclusion the book reaches, or even all the fascinating questions it asks.  All I’ll say is that it made me question the world I live in and the assumptions it is so easy to take for granted.  It will be for future students to write essays on ‘The Power’, exploring the characters, themes and plot twists.  Alderman seems to take in every facet of modern life, from the terrors of slavery and the sex trade to the pretty young man who does the human interest stories on the news (‘The network had found him.  Just trying something out.  While we’re at it, Kristen, why don’t you wear your glasses onscreen now, it’ll give you gravitas.  We’re going to see how the numbers play out this way’).  ‘The Power’ is a book which knows its literary heritage, but also knows that there are new stories to be told and new places for novels to go.  It deserves to win The Bailey’s Prize and, whether it does or not, it is going to a book with a lasting legacy and an important message for readers today and in the future.

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‘Stay with Me’ by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

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‘Stay with Me’ by Ayọbámi Adébáyọ is about so many things it’s hard to know where to begin.  From themes which are generally familiar to UK readers (difficult in-laws, neglected childhood, bereavement and infertility) to issues rarely covered in British fiction (I’ll get to them in a bit), I suspect each reader will take something different from Adébáyò’s accomplished novel.

Personally, it will be the unfamiliar culture so sensitively evoked that will stick with me.  Although readers are prepared from the first pages to learn how things soured between our narrators, Yejide and Akin, it never occurred to me that the practise of polygamy would cause an early fracture in their marriage.  The only other book I have read that dealt with culturally sanctioned polygamy is Paulina Chiziane’s ‘The First Wife,’ a challenging and shocking novel from Mozambique, only recently translated into English and published by Archipelago books.  ‘The First Wife’ is a disturbing and difficult read, not just because of the subject matter but also because, written by Mozambique’s first female novelist, it is written for a home rather than foreign audience.  I have been waiting for an English language author to deal with the issue, and Adébáyọ tackles it masterfully, with delicacy and nuance beyond what you would ever expect for such a potentially sensational topic.

The reason behind the ‘second wife’ is Yejide’s failure to get pregnant.  I say it’s her failure because for all the characters, herself included, the accountability is clear.  In the first part of the novel her attempts to deal with the situation, attempts which take in a range of Western and Nigerian ‘solutions’ and explanations, drive the plot.  Echoing the ongoing turbulence of the country in which she lives (the novel’s 1980s setting is far from incidental), Yejide seems doomed to failure every time she appears to have finally earned respite.

One of Adébáyọ’s many achievements is the realism of her characters.  Although recalling the plot makes it easy to see Akin as a boorish villain, his own narrative grants him the position of protagonist in his own right.  The numerous side characters, from poisonous relations and irritating neighbours to famous witches and respected doctors come close to stealing the show, until the tragedy of the central relationship moves the focus back to the devastating main story.

‘Stay with Me’ offers a view of Nigeria I haven’t seen before, and it does so with compelling confidence and precision.  It will be for individual readers to find out for themselves which themes or moments from the action-packed plot will most resonate.  Adébáyọ’s debut is brave and exciting, and I’m delighted the Bailey’s shortlist gave me the push I needed to read it.

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A Potential Great American Novel: ‘The Sport of Kings’ by C E Morgan

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‘The Sport of Kings’ is a book that demands attention.  It stood out in the Bailey’s shortlist due to its size – at 560 pages it physically dwarfs all the other nominees; it also probably has my favourite cover on the list (not that literary prizes should be judged along these criteria).  From the sheer grandeur of its physical presence, Morgan’s novel is an exciting prospect; when you consider it’s also been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the James Tait Black Fiction Prize, was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Kirkus Fiction Prize the weight of expectation increases yet further.

Along with ‘weighty,’ ‘ambitious’ is probably the adjective most used to describe the book in the reviews I’ve read.  It’s certainly a word that kept returning to me as I planned this post.  Morgan’s novel has an epic scope, starting with a boy running away from his father through the green corn of their Kentucky farm and then following the themes of escaping and breeding, land and the American Dream through hundreds of breathless pages.  It’s not long after this aborted flight that the young Henry Forge finds his vocation, he is determined to abandon his father’s lifestyle as a gentleman farmer and set up as a horse breeder.

This is only a part of the novel.  Later sections will concentrate on Henry’s beloved daughter and the stranger who threatens to destroy their disturbing, claustrophobic relationship.  Interrupting each long chapter are interludes which will teach you more than you might expect about horse breeding and the insidious ways in which the sport can be read as a commentary on American history and society.

Ultimately you may breed for color just as you may breed for conformation, speed strength, &etc, but the organism itself exerts no will to form.  The natural dispersal of color is neither random nor intentional.  Which is all to say there may be tyrants with no ambition for power.’

The quotation above came from the first interlude (between chapter 1: The Strange Family of Things’ and chapter 2: ‘The Spirit of Lesser Animals’).  It is possible to read the whole novel as one man’s quest for the perfect horse – who arrives about half way through the book ‘inbred to perfection‘ – but I can’t imagine anyone wishing to so limit themselves.  As the layers build up, the legacy of slavery overshadowing the rhetoric of evolutionary superiority and ideas of taming and breaking applying to humans as much as to horses, it is a testament to Morgan’s writing that the novel doesn’t implode with its own cleverness.

With so much going on, it may have been inevitable that some characters and ideas work better than others (I think this may be why the word ‘ambitious’ is so appropriate to describe the overall effect).  The sincerity and skill of the novel however keep it on track and give it the momentum so demanded by the title and topic.  The novel sets a high bar for itself and, by implication, for its fellows on the Bailey’s shortlist.  I’m very interested to see what Morgan will write next, and what the judges’ final verdict will be on 7th June.

I received my copy of ‘The Sport of Kings’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

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2017 Bailey’s Shortlist!

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Hooray!  Prize season is upon us yet again, and I’ve been steadily working my way through the Bailey’s Shortlist.  I will say upfront that I personally think the winner should be Yewande Omotoso’s superb novel ‘The Woman Next Door‘, which was one of top reads for 2016, but inexplicably did not get past the Bailey’s longlist.  Working with what the judges have chosen, I have strong, and mostly positive feelings about the shortlist and in the reviews that will follow I’ll be working though which book I’d personally pick if I could have my say on 7th June.

Stay-With-Me.jpgAyòbámi Adébáyò’s novel begins with the protagonist Yejide writing ‘I must leave this city today and come to you.‘  The ‘you’ in question is Akin, her husband, but it will take the whole novel to understand why the couple have separated and exactly what the reunion means.  ‘Stay with Me’ deals with universal themes, such as love, family and loss, but is also highly specific to its 1980s Nigerian setting.  This means that the trauma of infertility leads to ‘solutions’ including polygamy and witchcraft.  Though we begin with the most committed and loving of couples, inner forces (like Sickle Cell disease) and external conflicts (it’s Nigeria in the 1980s) combine to put unbearable stress on Yejide and Akin.  A powerful and accomplished debut.

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When I write my full review I will expound further on the importance of not dismissing this book as retreading Feminist dystopian plot-lines you’ve seen before.  I nearly did – and I couldn’t have been more wrong.  In Alderman’s latest novel, teenage girls suddenly find what it’s like to be physically more intimidating than their male counterparts.  Whatever ‘the power’ is, it is soon spreading to women around the world.  Through four protagonists, Alderman follows her premise through to its violent, disturbing and wonderfully realised conclusion.  Even before I was completely sold on the concept, I was won over by the accomplished skill of Alderman’s prose.  Then the story started to work on me; now I would be very happy for ‘The Power’ to win.

The_Dark_Circle.jpgIt was great to see Linda Grant on the shortlist once again.  Her excellent ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ won the (then Orange) Prize for Fiction in 2000 and throughout her career she has been a familiar figure at awards ceremonies.  In ‘The Dark Circle’, once again her acute ability to bring a historical period to life is coupled with believably complex characters from the past.  In this case, the setting is a terrifyingly claustrophobic 1950s TB sanatorium.  The characters’ dark journeys though illness and institutionalisation are traced with humour, sympathy and real insight.  Like the best historical fiction, the novel both explains and critiques the era in which it is set, while holding important messages for our own times.  A highly recommended read.

The_Sports_Of_Kings.jpgI was so excited to see ‘The Sport of Kings’ on the Bailey’s Longlist.  This doorstopper first caught my eye when it was published in 2016, because the cover, title and premise were just so enticing.  2016 being what it was, I never quite got round to reading it, and here the Bailey’s Prize was, telling me my initial impression had been right all along!  ‘The Sport of Kings’ is a sprawling, ambitious epic about horse rearing, heredity, racism, the American South, the American dream (and so on, you can see how the themes merge together, each evoking and yet subtly undermining the next).  ‘The Sport of Kings’ has all the ingredients for a Great American Novel, and I can see it being a favourite to win on the day.

love-220x328.jpg‘First Love’ is a deceptively slim novel, whose title in no way prepares you for the angst it contains.  The narrator Neve, is a writer married to an older man.  At the start of the book, this sounds almost idyllic; for at least one paragraph we learn of the affection between the couple.  As Neve’s story continues though, the pet names and the ‘other names‘ become less and less comfortable.  Moving fluidly between Neve’s present and her memories, we learn of the destructive relationships in her past and see how these are echoed in her current situation.  This may be the shortest book on the list, but it is a far from easy read, as every insult and opportunity for neglect hits and lasts.  Enjoyable is certainly the wrong word, but I can see this book finding fans amongst those with a high tolerance for and appreciation of writing about the subtleties of poisonous relationships.

Do_Not_Say_We_Have_Nothing.jpgI actually read ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ last year, when I was convinced it was going to win the 2016 Man Booker Prize.  It may have lost out in the end to ‘The Sellout’, but Thien’s novel went on to make a highly respectable showing on end of year ‘best read’ lists.  It takes as it’s topic China’s cultural revolution, following a the fate of musicians through a combination of realist and fable-like narratives.  The plot and characters are interesting in their own right, but the real draw of this novel is the setting, which is powerfully evoked, educating and translating the horrific events for a Western audience.  It’s an excellent introduction to a period of recent history rarely explored in contemporary English language fiction and I wouldn’t be surprised if Thien will soon be able to add ‘Bailey’s Prize winner’ to her list of accolades.

I’ll be reviewing as many of these books in more detail as I can in the run up to the prize-giving.  In the mean time, which have you read and which do you want to win?  Do you think the Baileys got it right in their final year with this sponsor for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction?

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