Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh 2016. Published by Vintage ISBN 9781784701468
To say that twentyfour-year-old Eileen has not had the best start in life would be a colossal understatement. Undernourished, lacking affection and forced to witness the venomous arguments between her parents at every mealtime, Eileen ends up being the sole carer for her alcoholic father after her mother dies. With no friends or support, Eileen endures the dismal existence of a squalid homelife and an offbeat job in a boys’ prison by harbouring fantasies of escaping to a new and glamorous life in the big city.
When enchanting and beautiful Rebecca arrives in the town to take up her new post at the prison, Eileen senses things could be about to change for the better. But there is more to charismatic Rebecca than meets the eye, and Eileen is soon sucked into a surreal and frightening scenario for which even her own vivid imagination has not prepared her.
This is a book unlike any other I have read. Shocking, grotesque and unsavoury by turn, Eileen’s story will be a stomach-turner to even the most open-minded reader. But even at its darkest, there are hilarious moments, and even a promise of light at the end of the tunnel.
Latecomers by Anita Brookner 1988. Pulished by Grafton ISBN 0586205225
Hartmann and Fibich are partners in business and also partners in life. Both having arrived in England as child refugees from Germany, they were fostered together, educated in the same school and apprenticed to the same printer before setting up on their own. Now middle-aged, they both live with their respective wives in the same building, and enjoy the fruits of their lifelong good business decisions. But while Hartmann rejoices in his prosperity, his beautiful wife and daughter and the luxuries he was able to indulge in, Fibich still suffers the unhappiness of an unresolved past, and longs to return to his roots to discover who knows what.
As we learn more about their domestic arrangements, however, it seems that all is not as perfect as it first seemed. For Fibich, the shadows of his past are becoming more pronounced as he grows more perplexed by the outlandish behaviour of his own son. Hartmann prefers to let bygones be bygones, concentrating instead on his ambitions for his daughter, Marianne. This seemingly gentle saga of family affections has its fair share of drama, revelations and disappointments. It’s biggest strength is Brookner’s ability to show with huge depth and compassion the complexities of the human nature.
” …nobody grows up. Everyone carries around all the selves that they have ever been, intact, waiting to be reactivated in moments of pain, of fear, of danger. Everything is retrievable, every shock, every hurt.”
Full of beautiful prose, this book was a real pleasure to read, while moving me to tears at times. I’ll definitely pick up more Anita Brookner books if I see them.
Thinking About It Only Makes it Worse and other lessons from modern life by David Mitchell 2014. Kindle Edition (Guardian Faber)
A collection of writings formerly published in the author’s weekly column in The Observer. David Mitchell is one of Britain’s top comedians; he is well known as our best-loved nerd, a writer of the hit TV show Peepshow, a panel show regular, BAFTA winner, and husband of the marvellous Victoria Coren (professional poker player cum writer and broadcaster. Mitchell’s forté is satire, and this book has plenty of it. Taking a sideways look at a wide variety of topics such as childhood, daytime TV, Downton Abbey, horsemeat, Lion Bars, Ryanair, Amazon and politics (among many more), Mitchell had me laughing out loud many times at his sarcasm and cynicism dressed up as good sense.
Money by Martin Amis 1984. Published by Vintage ISBN 0099461883
John Self is 35, rich, and sorely lacking in self-control. With a voracious appetite for alcohol, junk food and porn, he seems to stumble from one embarrassing fiasco to the next in his seemingly far-fetched pursuit of success in the film business. Narrated by John Self himself, this is a somewhat incoherent account of his encounters with women, various colleagues and hotel workers on both sides of the Atlantic, generously peppered by inventories of obscenely life-threatening quantities of food and drink. Apart from huge quantities of money changing hands, very little actually happens. 300 pages in (approx ¾ through), Self has persuaded a woman to move in with him, then lost her, hopped over to the USA a couple of times, and had a couple of conversations with a struggling novelist by the name of Martin Amis. By this stage, I have pretty much given up on any plot developing or story evolving. Although Self does show occasional (brief) moments of eloquent perceptiveness, (“We came lancing in over the bay, just in time to see the stretched arcs of silver and slack loops of gold, the forms and patterns that streets don’t know they make”), his boorish and sometimes monstrous nature is the dominant trait.
This is where I left the book. It’s very rare that a book hasn’t hooked me after the first chapter, so I’m very disappointed to be feeling this way ie I just don’t care enough about any characters in this book to want to finish it.
Heart Songs and other stories by E. Annie Proulx 1994. Published by Fourth Estate ISBN 1857024044
Short stories of rural life in New England.
Here are families who have lived in Chopping County for generations; eking out a living in the harsh environment, alongside “incomers” from the cities, eager to have a taste of the hunting and fishing life. They discover in time that there is little glamour in the lifestyle they have dreamed of, and they are not necessarily welcomed with open arms. We learn how an entire family is wiped out in one fell swoop after eating a celebratory hog roast; a visitor from the city spends thousands on grouse shooting lessons but remains a hopeless shot; with dreams of making it big in the music business, Snipe jams with a local band, but lands in hot water after seducing the singer. There are eleven stories collected in this volume, full of sharp characterisations, humour, horror, life-long grudges, exploitation, lust and vengeance. Most stories show the worst of human nature but in a non-judgemental way. What really made this book special for me is Proulx’s use of language to describe her settings and characters – there is something very American about it. “It was a rare thing, a dry, warm spring that swelled into summer so ripe and full that gleaming seed bent the grass low a month before it’s time” could be the narration at the beginning of a film about mid-west pioneers.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri 2003. Published by Harper Perennial ISBN 0006551807
As a teenager in Bengal, Ashoke Ganguli was a passenger on a train in a serious accident. Barely conscious when help arrives on the scene of devastation, he is about to be left for dead, when the single page of the novel he had been reading, gripped in his hand, flutters in the breeze. The movement is enough to attract the attention of one of the rescuers. Thus, Ashoke survives, thanks to The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol.
This brush with death spurs Ashoke on to do something different with his life, and he decides to complete his education in America, bringing his Bengali bride, Ashima, over to join him. The young couple become parents to a baby boy and call him Gogol as a stop gap while they await a letter from the family elders giving them something more suitable. Grandmother unfortunately dies before she can choose a name, so Gogol sticks. A sister, Sonia, follows, and the family slowly creates a network of friends, all Bengali families, with whom they celebrate national and religious holidays, christenings, birthdays and other milestones. Gogol is desperate to get away from what he feels is a restricted life, and desperate to change his name. An opportunity for both comes when he enrols at Yale. Now Gogol’s new life as an American can really start.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a natural storyteller. There’s a beautiful rhythm and lyricism to the book; the author conveys everything the reader needs to know without getting waylaid and bogged down in unnecessary information. Such a breath of fresh air after The Corrections. It was a joy to read from start to finish, and I’ll be looking out for more from Lahiri, this being her first novel.
The Namesake follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Gogol and the Ganguli family from 1968 until 1998, giving the reader a valuable insight into the challenges faced by families wanting to integrate into a new society while still keeping their own culture alive. I don’t want to give away the story, but suffice to say there are plenty of moments of great joy, regret, devastating sorrow and ultimately hope.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 2001. Kindle Edition (Harper Perennial)
This was possibly the most frustrating reading experience I can remember. I tolerated it and hated it by turn, often on alternate days; I was half way through when I almost started enjoying it. Now that I’ve finished it, I can see it’s not a bad book, it’s just that there are so many things wrong with it. It’s far too long and needed a jolly good edit to discard unnecessary passages. It’s full of cultural references from the USA, quite a few of which I didn’t understand. The Kindle dictionary also didn’t understand them and I don’t have my laptop by my side when I read a book, so some things are still a mystery to me. What is a button-down? ……. I didn’t like any of the characters until the very end, when several of them seemed to have a complete personality change and became pleasant human beings.
So….this is a tale of modern American family life. The Lamberts senior live in the midwest, 600 miles from the nearest beach. Albert is suffering from Parkinson’s, dementia and depression; his wife, Enid, is a social climber desperate to have the three offspring home for Christmas, for one last time. Oldest son, Gary, lives in Philadelphia with his spoilt wife and three sons – it is a nightmare life, with Gary drinking to endure the grimness of being the brunt of his wife and children’s private jokes. Middle son, Chip, is a college lecturer, supposedly a Marxist, but having sexual relations with his students, drinking, taking drugs and wearing leather trousers (!). Daughter, Denise, is a top chef, an emotionally cold serial non-committer/abuser in relationships with, among others, her boss AND his wife. So far so unpleasant. After a lot of long-winded meanderings involving deception, cruelty, coercion, thieving, and a long tumble overboard a cruise ship, the family finally comes good (well, almost) in the last few pages. Enid gets her wish for a longed-for family holiday and the younger two siblings start to behave like caring adults.
I still don’t understand why this book received huge critical acclaim; well, at least in the USA. The author clearly has a talent with words, and an insight into the minutiae of the human condition, but there is too much here that clouds all that. The book took such a long time to get going – I want to be hooked in the first five pages – that I considered more than once giving up.
Once again, I encountered annoying glitches in the Kindle edition. The names of several colleges, companies etc. were written as D______, G________ Electric, C______ Jeans, E____.com, W______ Corp. and so on – how would one read this aloud? Also, a couple of characters from the Lithuanian alphabet (which were quite frequently used in some chapters) were not properly reproduced, instead being huge, pixelated grey images taking up almost a whole screen for just the single letter, breaking up the rest of the text. Not good, and just added to my frustration with this book.
The Last Resort by Alison Lurie 1998.Published by Vintage ISBN 0099275791
Jenny Walker has dedicated her life to her husband’s work. He is the famous author, Wilkie Walker, though a rather fading star 25 years her senior; she is his wife, secretary, PA, editor, mother of his children and love of his life. Worried about her husband’s health and how it may be adversely affected by the approaching bitter winter of Northeastern USA, Jenny persuades him to agree to a sojourn in Key West where he could finish his last great work in relative comfort and warmth. Begrudgingly, Wilkie agrees, but only when he realises this could be the perfect location for his grand finale…..suicide. You see, Wilkie is convinced that he is dying, and, too vain to be able to contemplate a decline into undignified sickness and dependence, but also not wanting to become an unbearable burden to Judy, he sees the taking of his own life as the best way out.
Once in Key West, Wilkie becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative as his planning for the end consumes his waking hours. Judy misreads the signs, convinces herself of her husband’s waning interest, and finds her own distractions.
Described in the blurb as a comedy of manners, there is also something of a comedy of errors about this highly amusing tale. Alison Lurie’s characterisations are sharp and witty with just the right amount of compassion and sensitivity. You would be hard-pressed to find a better observation of the human condition and its frailties.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale 2015. Kindle Edition (Tinder Press)
The shocking opening pages of this novel depict a man being forced into a Turkish bath against his will, seemingly as some kind of psychiatric treatment. Later, the same man arrives in an altogether more agreeable and benevolent facility; a kind of sanctuary, although he is still a patient.
From this rather disturbing and unsettling beginning, we are transported back to the beginning of the twentieth century into the lives of the two Cane brothers, comfortably wealthy following the deaths of both parents. Stammering Harry, the elder, lives a life of gentlemen’s club lunches and polite gentle pursuits, not needing to work or worry about his future financial situation. Younger brother, Jack, is a gregarious, fun-loving adventurist. They take care of each other, marry sisters and seem to have perfectly stable futures mapped out for themselves. That is, until a chance encounter with a speech therapist signals the start of a chain of events which will drastically change affable Harry’s life for ever….
Here ends the first chapter of Harry’s life; here begins a new era, a new continent and the fears, hardship and eventually joys that our protagonist is visited with. Without wanting to give away any of the plot, the Winter of the title is a fledgling town along the railroad in Canada; the railroad inching its way westward across the plains. As each station is developed, it is given a name according to which letter of the alphabet is next in line.
The story is loosely based on a mystery in Patrick Gale’s own family. His mother’s grandfather, absent since shortly after his daughter’s birth, was known as “Cowboy Grandpa”, and although cousins’ stories painted him as a bear-slayer, Indian fighter and the like, the author’s discovery of his grandmother’s handwritten memoirs, decades after her death, helped to uncover the truth. Lots more of the fascinating background to A Place Called Winter can be discovered on Patrick Gale’s own website.
I adore this book. It is beautifully written, with the sometimes spare language somehow able to convey huge emotional and physical suffering, but also powerful feelings of love. The main themes in the story are shame, femininity, homosexuality and love.
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood 2011. Published by Picador ISBN 9780330513364
It’s 1986. England is ruled by the Church. Between 1951 and 1977, those who protested against enforced Christian practice by burning churches were transported onto The Island where they were to live out their days in exile. Apart from weekly shipments from the mainland during summer months only, the islanders survive on what they can grow or catch in the sea. A gang of bored teenage boys, the Malades, has taken it upon themselves to root out any who they deem to be “Gots” or church sympathisers, and are starting to make more than a nuisance of themselves with their shaved heads and strange clothing, somewhat reminiscent of the Bovver Boys of the early eighties.
Into this surreal community comes Sarah, a stowaway on the penultimate supplies boat of the year, looking for the mother she believes to have been sent to the island in 1977 for her part in the attack on a church. Frustrated by the lack of information she is able to gather in this fearful atmosphere, Sarah is almost ready to give up when she is spotted by the Malades’ leader, Nathaniel. At first suspicious of her motives on the island, Nathaniel falls in love with this exotic being and plots to prevent her returning to England on the last boat, meaning she will be forced to spend the entire winter on the island. Passions are intensified when Nathaniel’s second in command finds out about Sarah and seeks revenge for his leader’s subterfuge.
Occasionally bringing to mind Tess of the D’Urbevilles and Lord of the Flies, this is a book full of very real tensions, love, grief, hopelessness and despair, but I’m glad to say that there is a happy ending for two of the islanders amongst the unfolding tragedy. A thoroughly intense and gripping read.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels 1997. Published by Bloomsbury ISBN 9780747534969 MY TOP PICK FOR 2016
“During the Second World War, countless manuscripts – diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts – were lost or destroyed. Some of these narratives were deliberately hidden – buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors – by those who did not live to retrieve them.
Other stories are concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken. Still others are recovered, by circumstance alone.
Poet Jakob Beer, who was also a translator of posthumous writing from the war, was struck and killed by a car in Athens in the spring of 1993, at age sixty. His wife had been standing with him on the sidewalk; she survived her husband by two days. They had no children.
Shortly before his death, Beer had begun to write his memoirs. “A man’s experience of war”, he once wrote, “never ends with the war. A man’s work, like his life, is never completed.”
So reads the preface to this book. What follows, however, is not strictly the memoirs of Jakob Beer, per se, but a collage of memories, imagery from the head of a troubled boy, and later the narrative of another man altogether.
As a small boy from a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Poland, Jakob witnesses the killing of his parents but is able to escape to the forest and hides by burying himself up to his neck in the earth. He is discovered by Athos, a Greek geologist excavating in the area. Athos manages to smuggle Jakob out of the horror of his existence, and back to the (relative) safety of a small Greek island. There Jakob must remain hidden for his own safety, receiving daily lessons from Athos. Here is also plenty of food for thought for the reader, as there is a mine of information offered on geology, nutrition, Polar expeditions, extreme weather, how smoke and mirrors won the war. One favourite snippet of mine was “Two rules for walking in Greece…….never follow a goat, you’ll end up at the edge of a cliff. Always follow a mule, you’ll arrive at a village by nightfall.”
At the end of the war, Athos and Jakob leave Greece behind for a new life in Canada. Athos resumes his academic life, while Jakob struggles to integrate, still haunted by imagery of his terrifying past, and the disappearance of his beloved sister.
The second narrator, Ben, is introduced as a young academic from a family of holocaust survivors. He has previously met Jakob, now a celebrated poet, and after Jakob’s death becomes obsessed with his story and the search for his memoirs.
This book is beautifully written; gentle and lyrical, it reads like a poem. It was no surprise to learn that Anne Michaels is best known for her poetry. I don’t for one second believe I’ve done this wonderful book justice in my rather clumsy review. Highly recommended.
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan 2015. Kindle Edition ( Faber and Faber)
The early 21st century. Confused Anne lives in sheltered housing somewhere in Scotland. Her neighbour, Maureen, knows Anne has an interesting past and is trying to tease it out before it’s too late. But Anne’s past is the cause of great bitterness in her daughter, Alice; resentment and jealousy feature strongly in Alice’s life, or so it seems at first. Meanwhile, Anne’s grandson, Luke, is on active duty with the British Army in Afghanistan.
Finally back in Scotland and finished with the military, Luke starts to look into his grandmother’s mysterious past; her life as a pioneering photographer in America; her return to Glasgow to fulfill family responsibilities; the elusive Harry, and that bolthole in Blackpool. On a short trip to said bolthole with Anne, Luke discovers much more than he had expected, and he is finally able to empathise with his mother, Alice.
I found this a fairly difficult book to read; the parts set in Afghanistan especially so. As well as the jocular/abusive banter between a group of men living in extremely harsh and stressful circumstances, the descriptions of their daily lives were shocking and horrifying.
I also struggled to find a flow or rhythm in the book, but sense that this somehow mirrors Anne’s gradual yielding to dementia, her increasingly infrequent spells of lucidity, and the frustrations felt by her friends and family.
The Lives of Women by Christine Dwyer Hickey 2015. Kindle edition ( Atlantic Books)
Now in middle age, Elaine has arrived back in her childhood home town in Ireland for the first time in many years. Her disabled father is in need of support while his carer is on holiday, and Elaine has come to fill in. From the outset, it’s clear that there is little warmth between them, but the reason why is not revealed until the very end, and even then in a quite cryptic way.
Slowly the reader is able to piece together fragments of Elaine’s past. Some new residents in the close open the eyes of the women and children (the men being pre-occupied by jobs and the like) to the possibilities of a life without repression, but instead martini-soaked afternoons and sexual freedom. As Elaine tries to be an adequate carer to her father, the memory of something momentous and horrific, something that happened when she was just 17, is bubbling under the surface once more.
I thought this was a really well-written and well-constructed book. The characters are believable if not loveable, and it kept me gripped until the big reveal at the end.