Book review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry’s lyrical tale of an imagined John Lennon trip to the West Coast of Ireland hits all the right notes.

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Beatlebone by Kevn Barry, published by Doubleday Books

In 1967, in a bid to escape Beatlemania and find his own shangri-la, John Lennon bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. Dorinish Island – nickednamed Beatle Island – is one of hundreds (legend says 365, but there’s a little Irish story-telling in that myth) of islands overlooking Clew Bay that are actually hills flooded by the raging Atlantic that have formed an archipelago of uninhabited, weather beaten sanctuaries for birds – and the occasional Beatle.

Lennon only visited his island once, but in Kevin Barry’s wonderfully imaginative tale, the Beatle slipped in a second visit in 1978. This was a time in Lennon’s life when he was deep in dough and diapers, forsaking creativity for domestic bliss. But the former Beatle’s happiness was costly him artistically. In Barry’s story, his visit to this wind-battered, bird-shat on part of the world was an attempt to unlock his past and unleash his musical demons once again.

Lennon doesn’t find a great deal of musical inspiration on his journey, but he does meet Cornelius O’Grady and a dog called Brian Wilson. Cornelius’ unlikely relationship with Lennon – he becomes his chauffeur, his fixer, his enabler – forms the centrepiece of the novel. There are some wonderful moments between the two of them, my favourite, which I read three times in a row, was John trying to get Cornelius to unravel the meaning behind Kate Bush’s ‘wiley moor’ in Wuthering Heights as he crudely mimics her vocals.

The novel’s plot is thin – Lennon’s quest to get to the island is really a springboard to life’s greater issues – death, love, the past, family. Barry’s Lennon is haunted by his childhood and his absent father and dead mother. Despite his success and present happiness, he still feels the gaping hole of the abandoned child.

Barry captures Lennon’s acerbic wit, his brooding bitterness and eye for the absurd. You can hear his Liverpudlian drawl in the lyrical beat of Barry’s dialogue. The novel has elements of magical realism, at times it’s a trippy stream of consciousness, like a literary I Am The Walrus. In one chapter about half way through the novel, Barry breaks through the novel’s fourth wall and writes about why he choose to tell this story, detailing the research he carried out to follow in Lennon’s footsteps. It should be jarring, but it only fuels the story and adds another interesting stylistic element to a novel not afraid to stray off the narrative path.

Beatlebone is a warm, funny, charming novel that’s thick with insight and humour. Barry captures voices and dialogue with a poet’s ear, from Lennon’s old-fashioned Scouse to the music of Cornelius’ ramblings. You can taste the salty tang of the Atlantic and feel Lennon’s tension as he hunts desperately for his piece of privacy followed by the press, doused with whiskey and side-tracked by primal scream advocates (of the therapy, not Bobby Gillespie’s bunch).

Beatlebone is a joy, an exhilarating, fantastical, witty tale fused by Barry’s wild literary imagination and intoxicating lyrical language. 

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This huge literary hit may not be pretty, but it’s one hell of a page turner

Editorial Producer - Suzanne Elliott

The Girl on the Train was the book smash of 2015. A stonking success for former journalist Paula Hawkins and the publishing industry. Dubbed  the “British Gone Girl”(yawn), Hawkins’s debut was the latest amnesia thriller, riding the page-gripping wave of Before I Go To Sleep and Elizabeth is Missing.

Always a bit slow to the hype party, it took me until the end of the year to read it, managing to avoid spoilers and hyperbole until the bitter end of 2015.

The titular girl on the train is actually a thirty-something women called Rachel Watson. Don’t expect to like her. She’s a woman soaked in gin, wine and self pity. She travels on the 8.04 to Euston every day to a job she was sacked from to avoid having to tell her flatmate, her only friend who she doesn’t really like, that she’s unemployed. Her lodgings in a far flung London suburb has been her home since her divorce from her ex husband, Tom, who Rachel pines for with a force that borders on the obsessive.

Rachel clings onto her old life and still hovers on the cusp it. On her fruitless daily train journeys to London, Rachel passes the house she lived in with Tom and where he still lives with his new wife, Anna, and their baby daughter. Rachel has also become a little mentally over invested in the couple who live a few doors down from her former address, cultivating a narrative for them despite never having met them. After a particularly drunken evening, Rachel finds herself on the other side of the train tracks, embroiled in the lives of the people she’s been watching silently for months, in a tale of lies, madness and murder.

There is nothing pretty about The Girl on the Train. Hawkins’s prose is as lumpy as Rachel’s badly fitting polyester suits (I don’t know that she wears badly fitting polyester suits, but you can almost hear the scratching from the pages). The characters are messy, the narrative repetitive (the constant to-ing and fro-ing on the train gets tedious) and it’s written in an odd journal-style from the point of view of Rachel, Anna and the missing Megan that is half-heartedly confessional but, so as to give nothing away too soon, unconvincingly opaque.

But the novel’s power lies in its ability to suck you in. I read it in two days and, while not terribly invested in it, admired how Hawkins’s plot weaves itself to its conclusion convincingly and unhysterically. There are, of course, niggles in the story – no thriller is without its plot tripwires – largely the over reliance on Rachel’s mangled booze memory. Much of the plot relies on her not remembering this one particular evening on which the whole book spins rather too conveniently (there’s a small thread where Hawkins attempts to cover her tracks using Google and Science).

There were interesting elements in among the hectic plot, I thought Hawkins highlighted the precariousness of our lives well – the novel is in many ways a story about how easily our lives can crumble –  the hard slog of being a single woman in her 30s and the difficulty of every really knowing anyone (I would like to have had at least a tidbit on how Rachel and Tom met). Hawkins also captured the quiet mundanity of commuting with few words. In those moments when she evoked the stale sweat, the simmering frustration and sighs, I was the girl (woman) on the train.   

Read it, enjoy it, don’t expect it to change your life (unless you’re Paula Hawkins or her editor).

Book review: Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 by Vera Brittain

A stunning, vital, often gruelling memoir that retains its stiff upper lip while punching you in the stomach

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in the 2015 film of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

Kit Harington as Roland and Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in the 2014 film adaptation of Testament of Youth

 

Reading a first hand account of the war that was meant to end all wars just as the UK steps into another conflict made Vera Brittain’s fascinating, terrifying, heartbreaking memoir even more poignant.

Written 13 years after the end of what became the First World War, Testament of Youth records not only the huge loss of life that affected Brittain and Britain (and her allies), but captures the lives that were left shattered – by grief, by injury, by despair and shell-shock – in cool-headed yet determined prose.

Brittain’s story begins in the almost pastorally perfect, peaceful Edwardian era. Even as a teenager, Vera is not content to stay contentedly within the very narrow boundaries set out for middle-class women in the early 20th century. As a woman in pre-War Britain, Brittain was expected to keep house and keep quiet, but Vera never intended to do either. From the beginning she is a fearsome force – resolute, self-possessed, tenacious – her fierce intelligence drives her to Oxford, overcoming the many hurdles thrown in the way of women at the time.

Vera has a close relationship with her kind, musical older brother, Edward who sees her as an equal in a way women were rarely viewed by the opposite sex. Men aren’t hugely romantically interesting to Vera, she sees her future in literature not love, but despite having her head in a book, she falls in love with a friend of Edward’s, Roland, a serious, poetic young man cut from that almost cliched, chivalrous, romantic  Edwardian cloth. Their romance is intellectual rather than lusty, only revving up a gear, much to Vera’s distaste, after Roland is sent to the Front. She is not a woman for whom an engagement ring is a replacement for a matrimonial lobotomy.

Her first enrolment at Oxford doesn’t last long after the outbreak of War. With Roland and Edward – along with their friends who Vera becomes increasingly connected to, Geoffrey and Vincent – away doing their bit for King and Country, Vera becomes dissatisfied with a staid academic life and longs for a practical role in this new world. She signs up as a VAD (voluntary aid detachment) nurse. Her training takes her first to London, but after the first of a steady stream of tragedies, she asks to be transferred abroad, into the heart of the blood, mud and danger, and is sent to Malta and then France.

The fact that the First World War and it’s revenge-driven rubbish peace process were a monumental fuck up that had catastrophic and far reaching results, both personally and worldly, is news to no one, but Vera’s great skill is building the suspense in her stiff yet ornate prose, so that we’re standing in her sensible nursing shoes, experiencing a little of her seemingly endless punches to the stomach. I cried several times reading this book, yet Brittain was never trying to manipulate my emotions; her writing is level-headed, free of histrionics or wallowing. The sheer, startling facts are enough to have you bawling on the bus. Sure, there are bitter laments, Vera is angry, not just at all she’s lost, but how the War – started by and badly managed by an older generation –  left her generation shattered, their youth – along with their brothers, lovers, friends and husbands –  snatched away from them.

Brittain’s book teaches us so much more about war than history text books. The sheer wastefulness of it somehow feels even bigger told from someone who saw the fallout of the trenches without being in them (she rather plays it down, but the injuries Vera stoically treats are staggering). Her personal assaults are more harrowing than many a history book because they’re so personal and so all too easy to imagine.

Vera’s voice may grate on some, her tone is a little Downton’s Lady Mary side-eyeing Edith. She is unapologetically snobbish about her upbringing in conservative, uptight Buxton, although I relished her put-downs of small town life with guilty glee. Her prose is old-fashioned, but I found that her reserved, borderline priggishness only heightened the catastrophe that befalls her and her contemporaries.

This is not an easy read – I put it down a couple of times to read other, less painful, books. But it’s a hugely affecting memoir about a lost people who fought and lived through a War that for them never ended. Perhaps their on-going trauma is best summed up in this sentence Brittain wrote in 1933, recalling the dreaded telegram death knock: “Even now, I cannot work comfortably in a room from which it is possible to hear the front-door bell”.

This book should probably be handed to every MP faced with a war vote.

Testament of Youth is published by Virago Classic

Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s second novel sees her sketching out ideas she’ll revisit again, but with less compelling results

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Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (published by Black Swan)

What was meant to be my year of non-fiction also became my year of Kate Atkinson. During 2015 I rediscovered Atkinson after a nasty brush with her second novel, Human Croquet as a student. This year I was finally sucked into her magical realistic world via Jackson Brodie’s brooding presence in her more grounded Case Histories series.

I had read all of Atkinson’s work, including her latest (and, in my opinion, best), God In Ruins, by the fag end of 2015, only Human Croquet remained, the novel that had derailed me from Atkinson’s books 17 years ago.

Human Croquet was Atkinson’s second novel, following the success of her Costa Book Award winning debut Behind The Scenes as the Museum. She’s since published a further seven novels and this 1997 book has been repackaged by Black Swan in light of Atkinson’s more recent literary success (Life After Life won her a Bailey’s Prize nod and a South Bank Sky Arts award) .

It’s interesting reading an author’s work backwards, you can see the outlines of more recent books in the earlier works, see their craft in action, the sketches that will one day become their masterpiece. This is particularly apparent in Human Croquet where Atkinson examines themes she later revisits in Life After Life, and to a lesser time-traveller extent – God In Ruins.

I gave Human Croquet a through bashing in my university paper, but I don’t think I actually read past the first page. Already overburdened with modernist poetry and Virginia Woolf’s novels, the opaque opening page was too dense a word forest for me to venture into the story beyond it.

Human Croquet is the story of Isobel Fairfax, a sixteen-year old girl who lives in ‘Arden’, a damp ridden mock-Tudor house on the site of the ruined Fairfax Manor on a street of trees that was once a dense forest.

Isobel’s family are fairytale-like gruesome. Her mother ‘disappeared’ when she was small, closely followed by her father who at least had the decency to return albeit with an uninspiring New Zealand wife, Debbie. Her Aunt Vinny is a chain-smoking ugly sister while her brother Charles has dubious parentage and an unfortunate face.

Isobel discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she can slip between time when she briefly finds herself in what will become Hawthorne Close, a man running past her with house plans shouting “soon there are going to be houses. everywhere you look, there will be houses, young lady”.

The novel swings trippingly between the past and the present, Atkinson erasing some of the events for another scenario, although sometimes with the same results. As I’ve discovered during my Atkinson book binge, her novels are deceptive, she writes with a lightness, littered with literary references, puns and (sometimes annoying) asides, but the subjects she explores are the stuff of Martina Cole thrillers- murder, incest, child and domestic abuse, rape. Human Croquet is a rich stew of nasty ingredients wrapped up in a magical world and sparkling language.

Human Croquet isn’t Atkinson’s best work, at times it’s sluggish and, yet, jarringly, manically busy with characters and alternative realities that aren’t as tightly drawn as Ursula’s in Life After Life. The weaving in and out of other characters’ lives and the dropping into time pockets distracted from the far more compelling backstory of Isobel’s family and, if 2015’s taught me anything, it’s that Kate Atkinson is at her best when she’s writing about humans and our  funny ways that are every bit as baffling as time.

Book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This tale of a family reunion seething with resentment and disappointment may not hit the heights of Enright’s finest, but is still a literary joy

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright excels at the sort of novel where everyone hates each other, but who are all ultimately bound by a shared history, communal self-loathing and, even, love.

Enright’s novels are usually set within the raging heart of a family where the protagonists seethe silently – and sometimes not so silently – with unresolved jealousy, unspoken traumas and petty feuds. I love her novels, seeped as they are with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Real life in other words, but told so much more eloquently than our own; in Enright’s novels, the everyday is elevated to art.

As in all the best novels, little happens in The Green Road. Like other Enright books it’s character led, although the plot is always on the cusp of kicking off, that simmering resentment within the nuclear family threatening to explode. The Green Road, in Enright tradition, doesn’t follow a neat narrative cliche; when you think you know what’s going to happen, Enright changes down a gear and the result is far less dramatic – and yet somehow more dramatic – than you think it’s going to be.

Everyday life and its blandness is reflected back at us with Enright’s illuminating prose. In The Green Road, the spotlight falls on the Madigan family. There’s Constance, overweight, kind, put-upon; the youngest (and the prettiest) Hanna who finds solace for her shattered dreams in a sherry bottle while second son Emmet tries to heal real wounds in the developing world, but can’t mend his. (I wasn’t convinced by Dan, the gay oldest son who runs off to the New World, he seemed a bit uneven, a little lightweight).

Their backstories lead us to a reunion at the family house in County Clare in 2005, herded back home by their infuriating, magnetic mother, Rosaleen. Her character is established at the beginning of the novel, set a couple of decades before the ill-fated Christmas reunion, when she takes to her bed after Dan tells her he’s going to become a priest (mothers in literature Who Take To Their Beds is one of those Things That Happens In Novels, like it always being a hot summer). Rosaleen is a childlike, snidey woman who her children are desperate to run away from (New York, the developing world, the bottom of a bottle, biscuits) but are so shaped by her that they can never truly escape.

Despite great acclaim (including another Man Booker Prize nod) The Green Road fell a little flatter than her previous novels, the wonderful The Gathering and the equally startling The Forgotten Waltz (her selection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, is also excellent), it never quite pulled me into its snare in the way her other books have. But with Enright’s writing as its star, it’s still a novel that is as lush and stimulating as the Irish countryside.

Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  (Vintage)

Flashes of genius can’t prevent The Interestings from too often getting stuck in a word bog 

Meg Wolitzer’s modern classic The Wife is a gripping, thought provoking and provocative novel that has become one of the defining feminist fiction books of the past few years. I loved it and, after taking so long to discover this great American writer, was delighted to see she had a back catalogue I could explore. The Interestings is her latest novel, published in 2013. It’s in the great American tradition of family sagas – a story for the sake of a story, the lives, loves and loses of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in the 1960s and – with an ironic wink – call themselves the interestings.

The plot is largely discarded for character, something I’m usually all for, but there was something a little meandering about The Interestings that never quite held me hostage to it in the way The Wife did. It seemed to be missing a heart;The Wife was cold and impersonal but that suited  the narrative. The aloofness of The Interestings meant I never felt I was there on this journey with the characters. I don’t believe in having to like characters to enjoy a book, in real life people are flawed so why can’t fictional humans be as irritating, self-obsessed and vacuous as we are. But when the characters are the novel’s driving force, it’s imperative that they’re, well, interesting. And I found them rather underwhelming

Jules – in many ways the story’s narrator and centre – should have been larger than life, a teenage misfit who finds herself in with the cool gang, including the beautiful, ethereal Ash Wolf and her brother, the beguiling if troubled Goodman. But instead she sat flat on the page, never quite pinging to life. I liked her husband, the great, hulking Dennis, the ordinary male provider and protector in a book full of creative dreamers.

Jules’s life is set on its path when she arrives at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp a geeky, suburban, awkward teenager and leaves an aspiring actress with a newly discovered funny side. Her and Ash will be life long friends. Ethan Figman, ugly and talented loves Jules, but marries Ash. He will become widely successful as an animator and creator of a Simpsons’s style show, his life becoming all staff and houses in the country while Jules and Dennis struggle to pay the rent on their one-bed apartment. Then there’s Jonah who drifts in and out of the story, a beautiful gay boy who becomes an increasingly wisp of a character as the novel progresses. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored by a character.

Maybe the novel’s lack of commitment is writing about friendships – and this is essentially what The Interestings is – is like breakdancing to town planning – it can never quite tell the whole story. Wolitzer tries to capture these complex relationships that are so full of happiness, sadness, secrets, simmering anger, pettiness, loyalty and compassion and yet are never as fiercely bonded as family. In fiction, friendships are often so perfect, devoid of the dramas and jealousies that bind you to people. Wolitzer does tap into the envy and the divide money creates between old friends, both socially as well as materially, but even she seems to chicken out of confronting it full on.

On form,Wolitzer’s prose is as arresting as ever, although there were pages when I felt the sentences got stuck in a word quagmire, some of the themes laboured intensively over a few chapters, before being left fallow (the friends with money thread being the obvious one, did I miss the point it suddenly went from being A Major Issue for Jules to her being totally fine with it?). And there were some fascinating paragraphs when Wolitzer speaks so eloquently about the human condition that it punches you hard in the heart. These parts are an absolute joy to read and the reason why the rest of Meg Wortlizer’s back catalogue remain mid-table in my TBR pile.

by 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

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 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