Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant is the tale of a country in a fitful peace, Britons and Saxons living side-by-side in a tense standoff held together by a forgetfulness fog spread over the isle by a dragon, Querig.

The amnesia the dragon breaths lingers over the island and renders its inhabitants incapable of remembering all but the thinnest of memories from their past.

I know how they feel, as reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel put me into a mind numbing stupor where I found myself re-reading paragraph after paragraph in an attempt to understand what the hell was going on.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice have a sudden urge to find their son, who left the village several years before. They only have haziest of memories of him and they’re not entirely sure where he is, but they’re also miffed that their neighbours won’t allow them a candle so it seems like a good time to trek across Britain with absolutely no survival skills. Set in a pre-Saxon ruled Britain, this was a time before the island became split into three, a harsh and divided land with no Ubers, so their journey is a difficult one. It’s a Britain of myth and legend, a place where Arthur had recently galloped and where you find ogres dead in ditches, dragons snoozing in pits and pesky little pixies pulling you into the river.

Along the way Beatrice and Axl meet one of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain – without the Green Knight – now an old man who travels the land with his trusty horse Horace (Gringolet has long since gone to horse heaven). Beatrice (whose husband calls constantly – and annoyingly – ‘princess’) and Axl also pick up a young Saxon along the way after saving him from his village when his people turned on him. His presence attracts the attention of Wistain, a warrior Saxon who is rather blade-happy and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake. His quest is to find and kill the dragon Querig. Standing in his way is Sir Gawain who knows the importance of keeping the buried giant breathing.

You certainly can’t accuse Ishiguro of getting stuck in a writing rut. He’s done period romance (Remains of the Day), science fiction (Never Let Me Go) and even dabbled in the detective genre with When We Were Orphans. The Buried Giant seems to be his stab at fantasy, a kind of sub-Tolkien work that reads like an assignment for a creative writing course. Is it a parable? A comment of modern life? Or simply a rather half-hearted fantasy?

Ishiguro is a writer whose skills lies in his minimalist prose that is vivid in its sparseness and it’s a style that I’ve found engaging in the two novels of his I’ve read (Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans). But the tone of The Buried Giant is as flat as the Fens and directionless as I would be in those pre-GPS days.

Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Behind The Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson’s quite brutally in a review for my university newspaper (rather uninspiringly called Ripple). So disgusted was I by the opening page, I discarded it and consigned Atkinson to the list of authors I Will Never Read Again (this list exists entirely in my head).

Then, a few months ago, I was lent Life After Life, her Bailey’s Prize nominated novel (it was simply the Women’s prize the year of her nom) and loved it. Since then I’ve been on something of an Atkinson feast, eating up her novels in an attempt to satisfy myself after those years of wilful self-denial.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum is the latest in her back catalogue to make it to the top of my  To Read Pile (this does exist in physical form) and I can now stop admonishing my undergrad self’s disregard for it. While it’s a lush read full of wry wit and juicy descriptions, it’s definitely Early Atkinson. There’s a great deal to admire in the 400+ page novel that sweeps between generations of the Lennox family, with the youngest Ruby, born in 1952, narrating our journey through the years. There’s plenty of trademark Atkinson word play and amusing observations, but the narrative arc gets rather lost in all the cleverness in a way that she learnt to avoid in Life After Life where the complex plot is dealt with so deftly (practise makes perfect as  Behind The Scene…’s Ruby Lennox would no doubt observe).

Protagonist, Ruby Lennox narrates her life from the minute she is conceived during an inspiring union between between her permanently furious mother, Bunty and oafish father, George and we see everything through her sardonic eyes. Ruby feels adrift in the Lennox family,a family defined by tragedy, wrath and an inability to be happy, and is convinced from the minute she is dispelled from her mother’s womb that she was swapped at birth. But as she takes us back to visit her great-grandmother Alice and her large brood – amongst them Ruby’s grandmother Nell – the genetic patterns are firmly stamped in Ruby’s DNA.

There are large dramas  – the Lennoxs have a propensity to die young –  in among the smaller domestic crises.  Atkinson’s skill is not only finding the poetic in the mundane, but the mundane in the dramatic. Ruby’s life is brutal , her dissatisfied mother has a tongue as fierce as barbed wire and a heart hardened by unfulfillment, and Ruby’s childhood is strewn with grief and loneliness – I don’t think she once gets a hug. But there is a joyfulness to Atkinson’s writing, which is just as well as there’s a lot of it in Behind The Scenes… as we meander from Edwardian to post-war times and back again. And there’s so many characters, many of them dead, that they clutter the story like the ghosts that lurk on the stairs of the living quarters above the Lennox’s pet shop (Above The Shop – Atkinson loves a capital letter for effect As Do I).

The York-born author has grown into her clever yet chummy style. The humour that pumps through her novels reminds me very much of Hilary Mantel’s wry observations – I was reading the Wolf Hall author’s Beyond Black concurrently and the stories would sometimes weave themselves together in my mind so similar are their styles. And like Early Mantel, Early Atkinson is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan, even if it’s just for the chance to saw you prefer their early work best – although in my case it’s quite the reverse.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Matchbox Theatre, An Evening of Short Entertainments, Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn's Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s latest (and maybe his last) book, Matchbox Theatre, was a collection of 30 short sketches that revealed the workings of his creative output across the stage and the page over the past 50 years. Written over the course of his career, inbetween his many other projects, Matchbox Theatre smudged the boundaries between his dramatic works and his fiction. Were these sketches short stories or minute plays?

Hampstead Theatre clearly voted for ‘play’ in the debate and installed Hamish McColl in the director’s chair to bring the pieces to life with an ensemble of six actors, Esther Coles, (the very likable) Nina Wadia, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Felicity Montagu and Chris Larner.

I am a big fan of Michael Frayn (except for the dirgey Democracy that remains the only play I’ve ever nodded off in). He is a specialist at smart comedy and witty intelligence whether for theatre or fiction. His work is frantic with ideas and dazzlingly dexterous in their execution. It’s no surprise that despite his prolific output, there are enough scraps worthy of a two-hour play.

But Matchbox Theatre does sometimes feel a little too much like those metaphorical balls of paper strewn around the wastepaper basket. The pace waxes and wanes and inevitably some of the sketches work better than others. And when Matchbox Theatre catches fire it only every really smoulders with a dimmed Frayn brilliance.

I enjoyed the David Attenborough-style look at the stage hands that saw black-clad figures scurrying around a set moving props with exaggerated movements, communicating in high pitched squeaks. There was the clever Outside Story, where Hamlet is reimagined as a national news event (“there were rumours earlier that someone had seen a ghost!”). And there’s a lot of enjoyable theatre meta as Frayn breaks down the relationship between the audience and the actors, reality and the theatrical. Just before the interval we find Tim Downie and Nina Wadia in the audience (the characters don’t have names) riffing off the audiences’ interval regimes – and it’s very funny.

When the sketches don’t quite work, there’s no hiding in the exposed round with the audience as a seventh character, the actors occasionally addressing the front row and the stalls remaining partially lit. But this intimacy falls a little flat in a theatre as soulless as Hampstead where the audience always seem a little annoyed at having to be there.

Frayn likes to stretch farce and the unlikely to breaking point, his brilliant countryside set novel Headlong is a fine example of his expertise in dicing with the ridiculous with skill, but in some of these sketches don’t know when to stop. There’s a piece about a b flat french horn player whiling away his long moments of nothingness in the orchestra pit that falls as flat as flat as a b flat. Then there was the politician ranting about technology only to be called by his wife and a tabloid reporter asking him about an affair that felt a little dated and neither dark or funny enough to work.

While the characters were different in every sketch, the characteristics of each actor follow them through each piece. The cast play their parts with verve and a knowing nod to the theatrical, this is no po-faced drama, we are all in this together so bring your sense of humour – especially if you find yourself on the front row.

Matchbox Theatre | Hampstead Theatre | Until 6 June

Film review: Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

I could pick holes bigger than a haystack in Thomas Vinterberg’s reboot of Far From the Madding Crowd, but that would be churlish when I enjoyed it so much. My reasons aren’t terribly scholarly, but everything and everyone looked so sumptuous, it was as intoxicating as a balmy Pimm-drenched English summer evening.

Shamefully, I’ve never seen the 1967 Julie Christie-starring John Schlesinger film of Thomas Hardy’s brooding Dorset novel (if only Hardy had written more books along these lines). And, despite describing myself, when asked – which is never – as a Hardy fan, I hadn’t read the book. Of course, I knew about the bit with the sheep, and that shabby, handsome Alan Bates rather paled in comparison to dashing Terence Stamp as they both courted Julie Christie in her luminous prime.

What I didn’t know was that it was positively a rom-com – or, indeed a novel by David Nicholls, who wrote the screenplay – compared to Jude the Obscure. Hardy’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene is pretty badass for a Victorian era woman, especially in Carey Mulligan’s hands who relishes her character’s rebellious side. She also got to wear some terrific hats after she inherits her uncle’s farm and becomes lady of the manor, not bad for an orphan who we first meet toiling the land on her aunt’s farm in what looks like an H&M denim dress.

On her first day as mistress of the farm, her barn and harvest are saved from a ravishing fire by none other than Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who asked her to marry him in her lowly farm girl days (Gabriel looks like Matthias Schoenaerts so this was Bathsheba’s first mistake). He’s had a run of bad luck (that sheep bit) and is currently homeless and jobless. But his fortuitous fire-fighting skills secure him a job as chief shepherd on Bathsheba’s farm where he is free to look longingly at his mistress.

Bathsheba gains another admirer, her next-door-neighbour, a 40-year-old bachelor farmer, William Boldwood (played by the ever wonderful Michael Sheen). To amuse herself (these were the days before X Factor) Bathsheba sends Boldwood a Valentine’s card as a joke that misfires in typically terrible Hardy fashion. Hardy LOVES a coincidence and he enjoys the tricks that the cruel hand of fate plays on us mortals. For all of Bathsheba’s independence, she’s still a plaything for the gods, and a slave to her own fatal flaw.

Her fatal flaw arrives in the form of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a redcoat who is recovering from a broken heart after being jilted at the alter. Sturridge’s Frank is one of the haystack-sized holes I mentioned early. He is allegedly 29, but looks like he couldn’t order a pint of Scrumpy without being asked for ID. He’s a good-looking lad, but his Frank lacks the sex appeal that would lead an otherwise strong-willed, independent woman to lose her head (and knickers and farm). To be fair, it’s not really Sturridge’s fault; his Frank is almost a side note, his role cut down to one-dimensional size to fit the restrictions of a 119-minute production. This is a shame, but it’s not disastrous as it gives us more time for sun-tinged scenes of haymaking and broad-shouldered Belgium Schoenaerts making doe-eyes at Bathsheba (some might gripe that Schoenaerts’s Wessex accent is a little, erm, continental, but I’ll let that one go. See aforementioned doe-eyes).

As with all adaptations of classic novels, Vinterberg’s film of Hardy’s 1874 novel is also very much of its own time. David ‘One Day’ Nicholls’s script lifts Hardy’s characteristic gloominess to acceptable 21st century tolerance levels and Cary Mulligan – who largely is excellent – injects the odd modern intonation into some of her carefree pre-marriage dialogue. And, while it may not be a classic, leaving a cinema smiling after a brush with Thomas Hardy is as pleasant as a stroll along a Dorset cliff dusk (mad sheepdog incidents aside).

Far From The Madding Crowd | Released 1st May 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, is one of those books that lives up to the “unputdownable” cliche. It’s the kind of book you want to cancel dinner plans for, a book so good you’re glad when your friend is late meeting you at the pub, a book that you stay up until way after bedtime to read, squinting through tired eyes.

And all that love for a Science Fiction book too, a genre I generally approach with as much caution as if it were a radioactive alien. Not only that, but as a sensitive sap, I tend to avoid end of the world novels, steeped as they are in all-too familiar scenes of terrified people running frantically straight into the arms of whatever beast the author has chosen to slay humanity with.

Station Eleven is more considered, calm and measured than zombie stuffed end-of-civilisation novels and, while undeniably melancholy, there are hints of hope that lift it above the unrelenting gloom of many post-apocalyptic novels (hello, The Road). It is more than a story of human survival after the black hand of Georgian Flu picks off 99% of the human race, it’s about what makes humans tick – love and loss, art and music. It’s gripping, yet thoughtful and considered in a way thrillers can often forget to be in their hurry to tell the story.

The novel oscillates between pre-flu days and the years after it, largely missing the grittier details of the characters first troubled years following the collapse of civilisation. Mandel handles the structure deftly, giving us enough breadcrumbs of the characters’ fates for us to be eager to follow them through their journey. It begins in a theatre in Toronto just hours before the devastating outbreak of flu, where fading film star Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack while performing King Lear. Amongst the audience is Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned training paramedic (perhaps the least likely part of this story) who attempts to save Arthur’s life in vain, But his attention is caught by one of the three young actresses who, in an unusual (and really rather good) stage direction, appear to the deranged king as a hallucination of his three daughters when they were children.

One of them is Kirsten who was particularly fond of Arthur. In return, just before he goes on stage for the final time, he presents the child with a copy of Station Eleven, a hand drawn comic about a group of people taking refuge in space from a toxic Earth made by his first wife Miranda. The comic and Kirsten will outlive the flu and the devastating years following it, although both of them are battered and worn. In the intervening years, Kirsten has become part of a Travelling Symphony, a band of players who go from settlement to settlement reenacting Shakespeare and performing concerts.

As Jeevan shuts himself in his wheelchair bound brother’s flat with several weeks of supplies following a tip off from a doctor friend, Arthur’s oldest friend, Clark, is jumping on one of the last planes out of New York. Bound for Toronto, his flight is diverted to St. Deborah by the Water airport, a place he is destined to call home for the next 20 years. Amongst the other passengers is Arthur’s second wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. As the story swings between past and present, the dots between the characters are joined, with Arthur – though long gone – at the centre.

Mandel is aware of the ubiquitous nature of end of the world literature and Hollywood’s version haunts the characters’ understanding of their predicament – how many times have we heard people, grappling to find a way of making sense of an awful event, describe it as like “something from a film”? But Station Eleven avoids many of the genres’ cliches, going deeper than just the human race’s battle to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The Travelling Symphony’s motto is survival is insufficient – a phrase from Star Trek, this is a book with a humorous vein – and it can also be taken to be the novel’s main theme. Art is a bolster, a comfort blanket as well as a reflection of truth. The band of actors performing Shakespeare 500 years after his plays were first performed in plague ridden London – a country now so distant in post-flight times as to be another planet; Miranda spending hours creating Station Eleven merely to be lost in the process; Clark curating his Museum of Civilisation – this is what keeps humans alive as much as bread and water.

Station Eleven is sad and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful. Civilisation is slowly crawling its way back to some kind of order by Year 20, but there is a certain appeal in the simple way of life forced on the survivors despite some very obvious dangers. I was left wanting more, but the book lingered in my memory like a melancholy tune.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro  published by Faber & Faber

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber & Faber

With the release of his seventh novel The Buried Giant, I realised I’d rather neglected Kazuo Ishiguro’s back catalogue. The only work I’d read of his was Never Let Me Go a rather gloomy sci-fi novel that was a long way from the musty Merchant and Ivory air that I’d always rather associated with him. Conversely, When We Were Orphans appealed because I needed the bracing air of a costume drama,  a trip into the well-written past. Plus it was the only Ishiguro in the library.

Ishiguro is not a showy writer. I thought that the science fiction coolness of Never Let Me Go encouraged his brisk prose, but it turns out this is just how Ishiguro writes. His cold, odd style fits nicely with When We Were Orphans’ protagonist Christopher Banks who is a rather strange, slightly shady creature who’s, nevertheless, rather endearing. Written in the first person narrative, Christopher is our good friend the unreliable narrator. As is the Ishiguro way, much of Christopher’s true personality is hidden from us, but we do get a few clues from childhood friends (“My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school”) that reveal our narrator may not be as well balanced an individual as his smooth delivery suggests. But, then Christopher is a literary detective and so obliged to be an odd ball.

Set against the backdrop of the opium trade and the rumblings of war, When We Were Orphans is part detective novel, part love story (with, it’s true, very little romance). It reminded me of Graham Greene in his spy drama moments as well as JG Ballard, partly for the Shanghai element and partly for the prose which, like Ballard’s, is beautiful in its plainness. There’s an old-fashioned tone to it that I enjoyed and a commitment to a tight narrative even when the plot heads a little off centre.

The story starts in 1930, although we don’t stay there for long. After an early childhood in the international settlement in Shanghai, Christopher Banks is living in London, a man with an increasingly successful career as a detective. He is reminiscing about one afternoon in 1923 when he bumped into an old friend  who invites him to a party where he sets eyes on the mysterious Sarah Hemming. He is captivated by her despite being warned by a fellow party guest that he’s far too insignificant to peak her interest. She pops up several times in the novel to prove this man wrong.

Banks is presumed to be an orphan, both his parents having disappeared when he was a boy in Shanghai within days of each. His mum was heavily involved in the anti-opium campaign alongside ‘Uncle’ Philip and wasn’t afraid to challenge Chinese warlords and British big businesses about their actions that had led to thousands of helpless local addicts.  Was she killed to silence her? And what was Uncle Philip’s involvement?

Brought back to England by the kindly Colonel Chamberlain, Christopher is brought up by his aunt in Shropshire. The mysterious case of his missing parents casts a dark shadow over his life that he can never quite escape – it shapes his childhood games and choice of career. The novel revisits those years in Shanghai in the run up to his parents’ disappearance where we also meet Akira, Christopher’s childhood friend. We swing backwards and forwards between the past and present  – as the years move on, Christopher’s reputation as a detective continues to rise and, after inheriting a nice little sum from his aunt, his life is comfortable (he even picks up a little Canadian orphan to play families with). But, as he tells the Colonel during a brief reunion in the early 1930s, the past is “where I’ve continued to live all my life. It’s only now I’ve started to make my journey from it”. He must return to Shanghai to discover the truth.

Ishiguro doesn’t believe When We Were Orphans is his best work, and it’s not perfect. The plot rather descends into chaos when Banks returns to China and starts tearing around chasing ghosts and Sarah (who arrived several months before with her buffoon of a husband) in a blur of a rushed end and strange turns that set off the beggars-belief alarm. But despite the that-would-never-happen klaxon, I was taken with Christopher, his unreliable memory and his attempt to flee the past by hurling himself right at it and soaked up Ishiguro’s crisp prose with relish.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Nominated for the Bailey’s Prize longlist and winner of the Costa first novel award, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was the big publishing story of last year. The marketing campaign has been huge – piles of the book greet you at every bookshop door and even the front cover is as much a campaign as design, covered as it is in hyperbolic praise from established authors and newspaper critics.

The marketing push and the enticing cover lines all promise intrigue and an up-put-a-down-ableness so beloved of reviewers. You are going to love this book says everyone.

Only I didn’t.

Elizabeth is Missing has plenty of fans, particularly at Penguin who won a nine day bidding war to secure the rights, wooing Healy with handwritten notes from employees who loved the book (and, presumably, a nice fat advance).

I wanted to be one of those note-writing fans, mysteries with a benign old lady at the centre of them being right up my tweed-lined Marple street. But while Healey is clearly a talented writer who honed her skills on the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at UEA, her talents are no match for the overstretched plot she set herself.

Maud is a woman in her 80s who is suffering from dementia. The novel is narrated from her point of view which is clever, but difficult to pull off considering Maud has no short term memory so, um, how does she remember all the things that have happened? Of course this literary device helps enormously when her short-term memory loss allows Healey to be vague about things when she realises the plot isn’t quite slotting together.

Maud is convinced her friend Elizabeth has disappeared. Of course nobody believes her, including me (are we really meant to?), but her search for her friend stirs up painful memories of her sister Sukey’s disappearance in 1946 and the two mysteries run in tandem throughout the novel. Maud’s obsession with her missing friend unravels the clues behind her sister’s disappearance and ultimately the two stories clunkily collide and lead to a (frustrating) conclusion. The way the two stories were fused was almost laughable cartoony at times – 82-year-old Maud seeing, say a, pub and being reminded “of the time I met Frank (Sukey’s husband) for a drink”, cue a return to 1946. I expected the page to wobble in front of my eyes.

The post-war story is by far the most interesting of the two tales, although annoyingly bity, just when it hits its grove, we were jolted back to the present day where Maud is repeating her Elizabeth is missing refrain and making another cup of tea that she’ll never drink.

That’s not to say present day Maud isn’t moving, but the one character I really thought Healey caught well was Helen, Maud’s daughter, her exasperation, sadness and fear seeping through the layers of Maud’s muddled mind onto the page and right off it again.

There’s a lot of heart behind Elizabeth is Missing, but the better story is Healey’s own fairytale from 16-year-old school leaver to celebrated author via five years of hard graft where she fitted in writing around her full-time job. Are we more lenient towards debut authors? Are we so impressed by their dedication that we mistake quite good novels for brilliant ones? Maybe (incidentally, Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, which would have wiped the floor with the rest of the Costa first book award noms). Maybe in time Healey will write one as good as the marketing people told us Elizabeth is Missing is.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love was written in a flurry of creativity during Bernadine Bishop’s cancer remission and its aggressive return. The novel is Bishop’s fourth, although her first in fifty years, published in 2013 when she was 73.

Unexpected Lessons in Love is an odd little novel that’s stylistically gentle yet full of dramatic plot turns. The tone of this novel about one family and their small Venn diagram of friends and acquaintances, is rather old fashioned, the rhythm so smooth as to be almost soporific. But this soothing tempo is at odds with many of the events of the book that take in cancer, a mentally ill mother, an abandoned child, heartbreak, grief and even a rather strange and slightly half hearted kidnapping. Bishop lets these events gently unfold with such calmness that I often found the stillness immensely irritating.

At the heart of the story is Cecilia Banks, a retired psychotherapist in remission from cancer and now reliant on a colostomy – or stoma. She is married to Tim, a benign presence who loves tennis and his computer. Cecilia’s life is further disrupted when her son Ian discovers he is a father to a three-month-old baby, the product of a fling with a beautiful but schizophrenic woman who called herself Leda. It’s bad timing all round as Ian is busy falling in love with an old friend Marina and, as a foreign correspondent, he’s often abroad. Fortunately Cecilia willing takes on the baby (called Cephas, a name that tripped up every sentence it was in, a point Bishop later acknowledges) with few complaints. Completing Cecilia’s close circle is Helen, a woman Cecilia meets at cancer treatment. The two become fast friends, in fact seemingly each others only friends. In addition to this close knit crew, there are also a few other characters that drift into the story, all loosely linked by a thread that leads back to a nun called Sister Diana.

Bishop, who in her hiatus as a writer trained as a psychotherapist, is unflinching in her portrayal of humans at their everyday worse. When Cecilia, a good, little complaining woman notices the glint in her husband Tim’s eyes when he’s around the beautiful Leda, she notes he is happy and dislikes it: “it struck her as ironic that she could honestly say she loved Tim, and yet she hated the look of happiness on his face”. Later she ponders: “it is possessiveness, thought Cecilia sadly, that prevents us from wanting those we love to be happy in their own way”.

Stylishly, Unexpected Lessons in Love Bishop is endearing and it’s rare for a writer to capture the inner workings of the human brain so honestly and accurately. Bishop writes fluidly and truthfully, the novel oscillating between the characters’ inner monologues, their thoughts seamlessly drifting into the narrative – even the cat and baby Cephas’s personal motivations are expressed.

But despite Bishop’s skill as a writer, I didn’t fall for Unexpected Lessons in Love, it was like an Aga saga turned up to too high, its realism blunted by too much drama. I found the tone too languid, the dramatic events so incongruous – it was at once too ordinary and too extraordinary for it to hit the right note with me. The characters were also rather irritating, not unlikable, just rather flimsy and, well, boring. Plus Cecilia’s son, Ian, might be the most annoying man committed to paper, and in a world were Christian Grey exists, that’s saying something.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

I’m late to the Meg Wolitzer party, although it’s rather less of a party and more of the after-dinner mess, all wine-stained lips and drunken tear-streaked cheeks.

But increasingly her name cropped up on my radar that challenged my pre-conception that her novels were too domestic, too insular for my tastes. I had fallen into the very trap that Wolitzer tackles in The Wife, the idea that books written by women writers are narrower – ‘female’ – in scope than male authors whose narrative we accept as the norm.

The Wife is far larger than its domestic setting and says so about the world we live in with such composure and understanding. It’s the story of one wife’s domestic unhappiness through which Wolitzer tells the larger picture of living in a world that’s narrated by men, both in literature and in the real world.

Joe Castleman is a “man that owns the world”, Joan, his rock, his carer, in short, his wife. He’s a successful white man of a certain class and age who is at ease with the world because it’s entirely run his way. We met him and Joan en-route to Finland where he’s heading to collect the Helsinki Prize (a Lidl Nobel Prize). It’s on this transatlantic flight that Joan decides to leave her husband who has set the rhythm of her life for too long.

Joan takes us back through their life together, beginning in the 1950s when women were still tied to the kitchen sink, a baby on one hip and their husband’s dinner in the oven. Women may have broken free of the kitchen, but depressingly many of the points that Joan Castleman refers to are still relevant today, the “men who own the world” still set the agenda and how we – male and female – view it. We’re characters in the fiction that has been created where the male view is the norm. The Wife challenges the idea that the male story has to be the universal one, that fiction written by women can’t be big and far reaching.

But as much as The Wife resonates with unfailing truths, it’s a story not a manifesto and it’s a damn good one. Joe is so real with his flabby middle aged spread, smugness and wandering hands. The world is his for the taking and he’s grabbing it with two fat greedy hands. Written in the first person, Joan is no sweetheart, she’s hard-nosed, caustic and seemingly humourless (although, to be fair, she doesn’t seem to have much to laugh at) and she’s not afraid to steal another man’s husband. Her controlled, unemotional voice doesn’t hint at a love of the sisterhood. But her intelligence and tolerance evokes your understanding, if not your sympathy.

Wolitzer writing is a constant joy, it’s rich and fluid, capturing dialogue and human failings with a hypnotic ease. She hits just the right tone, blunting the sharpness with wit and an emotional heart. This is one tear-stained party I’m definitely going back to.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.

Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.

The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.

(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)

Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with a friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bell – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel, we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.

Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four-storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.

We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stairs features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.

The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.

by Suzanne Elliott