The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

Review of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. (Granta Books)

The Topeka School by [Lerner, Ben]

Born from a Cambridge University publication in 1989,  Granta Books is a prestigious independent literary publisher which publishes about 25 titles a year.  From their website I note that an original launch list included works by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Martha Gellhorn and Salman Rushdie.   The website lists prizewinning works they have since published,  including Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

To be published by Granta is to be part of an important literary conversation.

The Topeka School  is a book with a number of literary conversations and they are not always easy to follow.  At the centre of the narrative is a family: Dr. Jane Gordon,  second wife to her psychologist husband Jonathan (“a Jewish long-haired hippie from New york”) and her son Adam a brilliant debater and migraine sufferer.  The book charts the years as Adam heads through school in a patchily brilliant way to college.  The Gordon family comes to Topeka where the parents work for ‘The Foundation”, a mental health facility.   At school Adam becomes  a questionable friend  to Darren, a traumatized teenager completely ill equipped for life in modern America.

Darren is jeered at, laughed at, punched and beaten for no seeming purpose other than he is what he represents and what he represents is

“ … the bad surplus.  The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure. “

A group of Darren’s ‘friends’ including Adam drive him to a lakeside spot then abandon him, drunk, drive off and leave him asleep.  Darren wakes confused the next morning and has to walk home as best he can.

The key that unlocks this otherwise rather confusing narrative I believe is a response given by the narrator to Darren’s mother –  a nurse at The Foundation (and therefore a colleague of Adam’s parents) – when she questions the ‘dumping Darren’ episode: surely these children of professional families knew better?

“Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state; you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life; the travesty of inclusion they were playing out with Darren-their intern- was also a citation and critique of the Foundation’s methods…”

It’s hard for people to behave outside the norm.  We cannot behave any old how and yet somehow  expect our children to perceive what their parents are doing wrong – all the cock ups they’ve made –  and distance themselves accordingly.    Sometimes that happens.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  Nature or nurture.

The account of Darren trying to find his way home on foot from this unfortunate escapade is interesting less for his state of mind than for the reactions he encounters or rather doesn’t encounter.  No-one stops.  No-one asks if he’s OK.  When he is spied limping and  dishevelled  and walking into (the wrong) town by a woman  she pulls her own children closer towards her, while completely ignoring the distress of someone else’s child.

The book seems to highlight the callous and sometimes appalling treatment of these young people by each other,  but it also asks where are these exalted and professional parents while their senior school kids are beating each other up?

The answer:

“Watching Friends or Frasier… doing desk work… reading Adrienne Rich or “Non Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy”.   Some were eating or opening a window or just walking dully along on a treadmill.  Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei…”

Lerner’s book manifests the US as a country in some sort of hypnotic slide to the road crash that will become the Trump era; it is almost as if they can see it coming but are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  Or maybe they think that the power of psychoanalytic theory or linguistic pyrotechnics will save them, as some rather naively now think that technology will save us.

Much attention is given within the story to the skill of debate – a subject in which Adam excels.  Yet the ‘linguistic overkill’ of the cleverness of debates, does nothing to address human understanding and particularly nothing to address relationships.  Debate is adversarial.  Someone wins and someone loses.  Debate is not dialogue.

“We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”  Adam’s father says, pointing up the limits of psychology, as a science, as a medical approach. And the limits of language.

No-one in The Topeka School does transcend their feelings, nor surmount them, nor transform them.  They just dose their feelings up with alcohol and drugs,  both of the prescription and non-prescription variety.   –  Unsurprisingly this does little to halt the underlying tension and violence in which the story finally erupts.    The building in which The Foundation is housed, itself ends up empty and comprehensively trashed and no one could claim to be sorry.

The Topeka School is work which is concerned with the legacy of toxic masculinity – a legacy of which we are all in some way survivors.

Dr. Jane Gordon says:

“Once I asked another senior analyst why he referred to male postdocs as “Doctor” and female postdocs by their first names, and there I was, on the couch again, getting the penis envy lecture.”

Her response is “…the Foundation’s unexamined Freudian tradition, which pathologized women’s experience when it didn’t fit the great man’s theory.”

The book incorporates dizzying time switches and changes of narrative viewpoint often within the same chapter.    There are disintegrations everywhere, hidden, revealed.  Marital collapse. The mess of politically correct parenting, the inception of abusive parenting.  The sexual fantasies of those who write books on how to control the mind.  It is a book about about the human cost of trying to survive within an arid monoculture.

Thank you to #Net Galley and #Granta for this review copy.

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.

 

 

 

 

The ground is shaking as the giant stirs

Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth?  If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.

It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_5Y6ekUEw&feature=youtu.be

The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.

It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.

Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.

After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World

“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”

A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.

The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.

These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.

Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.

During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?

This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember.  Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).

Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.

 

 

 

 

Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.

 

 

 

Literary separations – children with vanishing mothers

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman (Penguin, Random House)

Sal, Mick Kitson (Canongate)

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden (DelRey)

How to write for, of and about children and young people in an increasingly dysfunctional world? Finding a balance between an adult sounding narrative voice (and character arc) to make a book of interest to as wide a readership as possible  and yet maintain a sufficiently age appropriate voice is a difficult task. Then too how to write parents? Our world of parenting is becoming savagely complex like some sort of demented computer game with so many traps  one wonders who would ever want to start playing. Many writers with child protagonists in their stories avoid parents altogether by using orphans, or they turn parents or other carers into wicked stepmother style clichés in order to exaggerate a malign influence.  I have just polished off three books which in their different ways grapple with these issues.

The Book of Dust, Volume One. La Belle Sauvage. Philip Pullman

This first volume is intended as a prequel by Pullman to the His Dark Materials trilogy but I found I couldn’t live it or believe in it the same way as the original books.  The plot is based around unprecedented rains which have caused the Thames to burst its banks.    This saga which picks up the story 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights concerns the trials and tribulations of one Malcolm Polstead as he attempts a journey by boat – through the inundated landscape which was once Oxford towards London – to protect baby Lyra from the forces of the scary sounding Consistory Court of Discipline and other baddies who are chasing them.

Against this post-apocalyptic background, sinister forces gather and only poor Malcolm is there to sort it all out. Like some sort of Blyton-esque adventure on steroids, he and his friend Alice get into increasingly surreal scrapes and escapes from witch haunted islands, a graveyard, a masque in a grand house where the intrepid heroes go to beg food but find themselves utterly invisible to the assembled gathering. A good metaphor at least for how young people are treated in 21st century society.

But here was the problem for me.  That Malcolm at the age of 11 (or it may be 12) comes across as an insufferable know it all who never puts a foot wrong.  Fortunately for him, his friend Alice gets taken along on the journey so he doesn’t actually get to change Lyra’s nappies himself.  Heroes don’t change nappies, do they?

The second book is Sal – the debut novel of Mick Kitson. Sal (short for Salmarina) is a 13 year child from a highly abusive and dysfunctional family background. She finds herself on the run with her ten year old sister, Peppa, and the two are forced to live wild in a forest in Galloway, at least for as long as it is feasible to do such things in the 21st century where every bus ticket is a digital footprint and every visit to town an occasion for surveillance.

Sal is much influenced by, and no mean interpreter of, the SAS survival handbook, building shelters, fires, trapping rabbits and generally, well, surviving.   Both this novel and Pullman’s use the trope of taking the child/adult heroes and heroines outside of the real world – or at least a recognisable everyday version of it – and casting them into situation where they must survive by their own wits and largely without assistance from outside sources.

This is nothing new in literature, for children who must constantly refer back to some adult for instructions don’t make very interesting protagonists.  But author Jenni Fagan points out in her review of the Kitson book[i] that there is another angle to this separation of children from the adult world and one that does not relate to narrative convenience. That is children or young adults are finding ways to separate themselves from a world that neither understands nor seeks to protect them. Fagan notes too that 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK.[ii]  That’s 30% or 9 out of every class of 30. Child poverty is a form of abuse is it not? Even if it is a systemic one rather than a familial.

Fictional representations of mothers are not faring well in these particular novels.  Malcolm Polstead’s mother is a homemaker, a bringer of ample puddings and comfort.  Sal’s mother on the other hand is a drunk, a bringer of random men home at odd times of the day and night, one of whom turns out to be an abuser.  Both women exist at either end of the cliché spectrum and neither is a fully developed character.  Women are not stereotypes guys. It really is time for authors to give up reaching for the lazy allusion shelf of puddings and vodka bottles when writing mothers.

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden

has an intrepid young heroine called Vasya who has been cast out of her home and is alone or almost alone. As this is Russian folktale territory, there is no SAS survival handbook.   Instead Vasya has the assistance of a frost demon who can make fires from snow and diamond like ice combs and knives and who brings food when she runs out.  Such a demon we should all have.  She also has a talking horse called Solovey with a weakness for porridge laced with honey, all so exquisitely drawn that it really doesn’t seem like cheating.   In order to survive her chosen life of travel, Vasya has to pretend to be a man.  Plus ça change. But this is a great story with lyrical descriptions of a frozen, semi-mythical Russian forest, perhaps long since eradicated.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/14/sal-mick-kitson-debut-review-sisters-children-runaways Accessed May 2018

[ii] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

Eleanor Oliphant is completely magic realist

Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Harper Collins 2018

This deceptively simple narrative charts the rise and rise of a thirty year old woman from somewhere she didn’t know she was, to somewhere she didn’t know she needed to be. I’m trying not to give the plot away but the book primarily concerns itself with skewering our 21st century culture of not giving a damn.

The Eleanor in question is a thirty year old office worker who appears out of step with the modern world to a startling degree. She doesn’t even own a mobile phone at the beginning (although, phew! she does by the end). The book sections are divided into ‘Good Days’ and ‘Bad Days’ and ‘Better Days’. It is slowly revealed throughout the course of the narrative just how bad the bad days were for our poor heroine and why she behaves somewhat oddly. There is a distressing backstory which slowly reveals itself, but this is not at all a distressing or depressing book. Upbeat rather with its message that even if you are falling apart from loneliness you can still be fixed.

Within the pages of this fixing there is a degree of magic realism. Eleanor makes a friend along the way who appears well cut out for Sainthood. Influenced and quoting from Olivia Laing’s fast-becoming-iconic study of loneliness The Lonely City

‘…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.

Surprisingly this is a page turner – with a twist at the end which I half saw coming. I finished it over two days of rain and snow in a half–empty hotel near Caernarvon, waiting to attend the harp festival.

This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.

Poetry makes everything happen

A review of Larchfield

by Polly Clark

Not only do we have Terence Davies film of Emily Dickinson as well as a film about Neruda, the excitement of new letters by Plath making headline news and now a young W.H. Auden is brought compassionately to life in the pages of Polly Clark’s novel Larchfield.

The name is taken from a boy’s public school in Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland where the young W.H. Auden taught for two years in his twenties, after leaving Oxford. It is not a posting the young poet much relishes.

“It’s not his choice exactly. His trust money is about to run out, and he needs a job. His friend Cecil Day-Lewis has nominated him for this post of schoolmaster at Larchfield, though he has no experience of teaching and a severe mistrust of the school environment.”

The book covers his life during these two years partly on a fictional and partly factual basis, showing how Auden fares in the run up to the second world including visiting his University friend Christopher Isherwood in Berlin where the two have a frightening encounter with blackshirts.

 Christopher Isherwood and Wystan Auden
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 6 February 1939

Alongside this historical narrative, is a modern story in which the protagonist is a young woman called Dora, whose life so far has consisted of a PhD, a job offer at a University publishing house as a lexicographer and the beginnings of a career in poetry, finds herself married, pregnant and moving to Helensburgh very near the school where Auden taught. As she unpacks her belongings in her new home, a divided house ironically entitled ‘Paradise’, she places her small volume of published poetry on the shelf and prepares to adjust to a very different life.

But that adjustment is hard

Things quickly fall to pieces as they can do when a new baby arrives. To add to her problems the neighbours in the flat upstairs start acting up horribly and Dora becomes isolated, stressed and depressed. Finding solace in Auden’s poems and in tracing details of his life she decides to pay a visit to the site of the old school at Larchfield and so the mystery begins.

The gate was tall and wrought iron, with the name Larchfield looped in gold. Ivy crept along the front of the building, and the tall windows looked out over a Helensburgh that was essentially unchanged in appearance since his time. She could imagine the poet emerging from the stone porch, the sounds of children.

The book is based on the author’s real experience. Indeed it is hard to see how this book could have been written without that experience so genuinely is the suffering of the young female protagonist felt.

The novel treads a high wire act between the real, the  possible and the imaginary; what is imaginary in the mind of an unhappy and isolated young woman with no visible means of support other than a well-meaning but absentee husband may be real.  As real as the feelings of loneliness and otherness which everyone can experience to some degree.  The book also – dare I say it – deals with the redemptive power of poetry.  That one can run and run.  But the only person who is qualified to say if poetry redeems is one who feels him/herself redeemed by it.

The author says:

“Some years ago I moved to Scotland. I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went, I couldn’t drive and became very isolated.

“When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read ‘The Orators’ by Auden — and this poem changed my life.

“It’s a thrilling meditation on paranoia and repression, set in Helensburgh.

“I set about recreating Wystan Auden, from his notebooks, biographies and artistic details in ‘The Orators’, and paired him with Dora, my modern-day woman losing her mind in the suburbs.

“Finding human connection to Auden in our shared place of Helensburgh saved me.

The theme of isolation continues in Auden’s part of the narrative.

“And the future? What of it? He cannot imagine a future where he fits.”

Auden finds himself alone, both as an Englishman and as a new school teacher. When he tries to protect one of the youngsters at the school form the routine and institutionalised abuse that was part of the public school system at that time, he finds that his compassion is easily and wilfully misunderstood.

Auden was a homosexual at a time when to be so was a criminal offence. He was also just another lonely young man. Lonely enough to cast a message into a bottle and toss it into the sea in the hope someone would find it. In the book someone does, but perhaps it is not the someone any of us expect.

As Dora is friendless, most of her story is internalised and the author occasionally makes us doubt her as a reliable narrator.  This acutely reflects how other characters around Dora are doubting of her. If enough people doubt us, then do we not begin to doubt ourselves? Is this kind of mistreatment an all too common form of abuse of women? And is it often perpetrated by other women in positions of power over new mothers?   One of the ideas lying behind the novel is to point up a general failure of society to even recognise let alone deal with the fact that the shock and trauma of childbirth – even a medically ‘normal’ childbirth which Dora’s is not – can last for years. Decades even.

Larchfield is at its most disturbing as a picture of the pressure placed on vulnerable young mothers to conform to some hypocritical health visitor’s idea of happy families, pointing up that the borderland between protection of the child and abuse of the parent is a line which is disastrously ill defined in modern day Britain.

However this is not at all a depressing book – quite the opposite it is a hopeful book – by a writer who thoroughly understands that life can be lonely and difficult, but it can also come liberally laced with snatches of sublime poetry.