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: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

David Mitchell’s latest Booker Prize longlisted nominated novel has been dubbed a metaphysical thriller, a genre-bending tale that spans oceans and eras, a book that makes Cloud Atlas look like a kitchen sink drama.

The Bone Clocks is like several different novels by several different authors of several different genres all rolled into one big fat tale that is simultaneously one woman’s ordinary story of guilt and family, a tale of a feud between other worlds and an apocalyptic future in our own.

For the bulk of it, I loved The Bone Clocks. The tale starts in Gravesend, Kent in 1984 where 17-year-old Holly Skyes is slamming her front door after a row with her mother, storming off to boyfriend Vincent Costelloe’s (who makes a later, brilliantly cast cameo). So far, so normal. But Holly has been hearing voices all her life and was visited by the mysterious and beautiful Immaculée Constantin until she was taken to a certain Dr Marinus who silenced the chatter and banish the interloper.

While on the run Holly is party to a deadly fight between people from two other universes (the memory of which is wiped by the ‘goodies’) who we later come to know as Horologists and Anchorites (led by Miss Constantin), the background oddness that bubbles under the surface in the first four chapters, revealing itself in the novel’s fifth section.

Holly’s flight from the family home is cut short after she’s tracked down by Ed Brubeck, a boy in her class (who pops up a couple of chapters later where he’s a war reporter, dodging bombs and angry American soldiers in the Middle East), who tells Holly her little brother Jacko has gone missing, a mystery that the novel spins around.

In true Mitchell style, there are six sections, all narrated, or focused on, different individuals whose lives are intertwined with each others. There’s Holly, and later Ed, and between we hear from Hugo Lamb, a pompous, possibly psychopathic Cambridge student (uncannily like the title character in Sebastian FaulksEngleby that I haven’t long finished) and a great section narrated by the Martin Amis-like author Crispin Hershey, who is all hard intellectual edges and a softish heart.

With each chapter there’s a shift in tone and pace before we settle down to the latest installment in this globe trotting tale that has Holly and Jacko’s mysterious disappearance at its core.

But the fifth section is more than just a change of gear, it’s like getting into a Ford Fiesta and finding yourself on the moon as we land in another story where Mitchell Does Fantasy. We are introduced to the metaphysical element early on – the fight that Holly witnesses – and there’s an dollop – some large, some small – in each intervening chapter. But in this section the fantasy button goes OFF as those Horologists and Anchorites who have been buzzing about in the background take centre stage for a showdown that will destroy one side for good. It’s completely daft, deliberately so I assume, I mean “The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass?” It probably should be fun, but I felt as if you’re wading through a muddled outtake from the Harry Potter cast having a spat.

We’re back in grim reality in the final section as Mitchell Does Cormac McCarthy. Holly is now in Ireland, it’s 2043 and the world is scorched and depleted, the idea of 24/7 electricity has become mythical. Holly lives on a windswept peninsula, with her granddaughter and adopted grandson struggling against the increasingly medieval conditions. Mitchell’s vision of a near future without fuel, electricity or democracy is as unpleasantly realistic as the preceding chapter was fantastical – and far more fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Us by David Nicholls

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

I’ve always stayed clear of David Nicholls’ novels out of sheer prejudice, not letting actual plot facts get in the way of his reputation for bouncy, implausible romantic storylines. I dismissed One Day as schmaltzy and unrealistic without even reading a synopsis. And having seen the film of Starter for Ten, I believed my quota for warmly funny, quirky stories about happiness against the odds had been fulfilled.

But Us sounded harder nosed, it had after all been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and we all know that novels don’t get a whiff of a Big Prize without a dose of misery to elevate it to Proper Literature status.

Us is very far from Thomas Hardy-bleak, but it’s a novel that combines humour with life’s harder moments, a half smile with teary eyes. Us is Douglas Petersen’s story of his relationship with Connie that at the beginning of the novel is on very shaky ground after she announces her intention to leave him after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage. Can a pre-planned family Grand Tour of Europe persuade Connie not to throw in the martial towel? It’s unlikely, but Douglas isn’t about to let the woman he adores slip from his life. So off we pop to the continent as we follow the Petersens on their often chaotic, but hugely entertaining journey across Europe’s great cities.

Douglas is a proper – not a trendy – geek, a biochemist with a real zeal for fly-fires. Connie is – of course, we are in Nicholls’ land –  the complete opposite, a free-wheeling artist who is late for flights and leaves the dishes until the morning. I came to realise quite quickly that Nicholls has no interest in challenging stereotypes. All the characters behave true to form from the anally-retentive scientist to the boho-artist, while Connie and Douglas’s teenage son, Albie, is moody, messy and often malicious (to his father anyway). This adherence to stereotype isn’t as annoying or as formulaic as it sounds because the story that Nicholls conjures up around this cast of cliches is heartwarming, engaging and occasionally embarrassing-yourself-on-the-bus funny.

Petersen doesn’t get it all his own way. Nicholls has given his one-personal narration enough rope to hang himself at times (see the ‘the glitter wars’ chapter ).  Like all the best storytellers Nicholls allows Douglas to develop without telling the reader what he’s like and as such, you’re never quite sure whose side you are on. Connie can be smug and self-obsessed. Her dismissal of science as boring and her frustration at Douglas’ struggle with culture (he does try) smack of an art school try-hard and for all her bohemian ways she seems rather priggish and unopen to ideas outside of her arty box. But, god, Douglas must  be a hard man to live with, despite his good intentions, his moodiness and self-righteousness emanate from the pages. In short, these are all too human characters and you feel their trials keenly.

Like Douglas Petersen, Nicholls isn’t a showy writer, but his style is far from pedestrian. It’s a brilliantly structured novel that flips between the present and the past, giving the reader enough clues to the outcome of both in the oscillating chapters to keep us eager for more details and givs the narrative a crucial structural reality.

I loved Us, it could be frustrating, it could be a little bit cutesy and slightly too ‘nice’ (the ending feels right in the context of the novel, but the outside world wouldn’t be so kind ) but it’s an ultimately joyful, funny exploration of a successfully, unsuccessful family.

Us by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: An Experiment In Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

While I wait impatiently for the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I decided to make a start on her back catalogue. Her French Revolution tome, Place Of Greater Safety, waits enticingly by my bed, but before I embark on that adventure, I decided to start with one of her slighter books, her 1995 novel, An Experiment In Love set closer to home and one of Zadie Smith’s choices in her fiction seminar at Columbia University.

Mantel is a master writer, who tackles huge subjects in a quiet and thoughtful way. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies she told small, human truths within a big story. In An Experiment In Love she gently tells big, social issues in a small story.

Set in the 1960s and early 70s, An Experiment In Love is the story of Carmel McBain’s childhood and teenage years. It oscillates between the working class Lancashire town she grew up in and the maze-like streets of London’s Bloomsbury where she finds herself aged 18, studying law at the University of London, living in a hall of residence with a bunch of home counties ‘Sophys’ and two of her school ‘friends’, the self-assured Julia, and Karina, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who are in even more reduced circumstances than Carmel’s parents.

An Experiment In Love may not be a flag-waving political novel, but feminism and class are evident themes throughout the book. In the late 60s women were finally being educated to degree level en masse, and working class girls like Carmel began to break the class and gender barrier. But Carmel’s generation were struggling with their identities as intelligent, educated women. Carmel looks on, peering up from her law books, baffled as these clever girls playing housewife to their various ‘Rogers’ (Carmel’s name for the identikit boyfriends of these similarly non-distinguishable ‘middle class ‘Sophys’), ironing their shirts and dreaming of marriage and babies. These women aren’t leading the march for female equality, despite benefiting from feminism (something that still rings all too true these days).

It’s not all playing house. The lives of these girls, bar Carmel, who struggles to feed herself on her student grant, and Karina, whose stoicism hides a cruelty that even Carmel doesn’t see coming, are untouched by the vagaries of life before they came to university. The early days of adulthood bring with it tragedy and adversity.

This coming-of-age tale also touches on Carmel’s relationship with food, although she herself stresses that this is not a novel about anorexia, but about appetite. Even before she leaves her strict Catholic school and the confines of her mother and her cold house with its outside loo, Carmel needs cultural and political nourishment.

There are unmistakable whispers of Jeanette Winterson, both in the working class northern town and the tough angry mother, as well as in the dreamlike quality of her writing. Mantel may not veer into magic realism, but there’s an bewitching quality to her works. There are also shades of Anne Enright, another writer who is able to elevate the everyday to poetic truths.

Mantel’s characters remind me of ink-soled ghosts that tread lightly over the pages but leave an indelible mark on the story and the imagination. They are laid before us lightly, revealing themselves through Mantel’s words that don’t force feed a very different picture of the character than the one that is laid before the readers’ eyes.

An Experiment In Love may not have the gravitas and epic sweep of her two Booker Prize winning novels, but it’s an exquisite, perfectly drawn tale of women on the brink of a revolution that they don’t know they’re living through.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan published by Vintage

If I was forced, at pain of being thwacked over the head with a hardback copy of War and Peace, to name my favourite contemporary author, I would say Ian McEwan.

I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, when I picked up a copy of The Cement Garden, attracted by a tale of messed-up and cooped-up adolescents whose lives were ALMOST as depressing as mine. What I was probably hoping for was a British Flowers In The Attic, what I got was far better; darker and more disturbing, less sensational, more emotional, but stripped of any sugary sentimentality.

As I came to discover, McEwan’s powers lie in crisp, sharp prose, with not a mis-placed word. Like all great authors he can say more in a sentence than lesser writers can in a chapter. He never gets into a tangle of adjectives or sounds like he’s hurling long words at the reader in attempt to upstage you.

From The Cement Garden, I entered the even murkier, more sinister worlds of McEwan’s first two published works, both collections of short stories – First Love, Last Rites and In Between The Sheets. These were strange worlds, where women had relationships with orang-u-tans and fathers and daughters fought for survival in post-apocalyptic nightmare where lone tower blocks survived like cement cockroaches. McEwan’s late ’70s world made J.G. Ballard‘s look like an Ikea ad.

Over time McEwan’s literary landscapes slowly shifted from shadowy suburbia and grubby bedsit land to the professional urban middle class and love across the class divide in upper crust country piles. But while his protagonists moved up the class ladder and his settings became more aesthetically pleasing, there was still a dark heart at their core, pumping poison through Sunday supplement lives.

But my love affair with McEwan’s novels hit a speed bump with his 1998 novel Amsterdam. I laboured over it for weeks and over the years, as the memory of it became fuzzy, I came to hate it even more. I would tell people to read him, but beg them to skip his Booker prize winning novel. Was it reverse snobbery? Perhaps, I was studying for an English degree at the time and, like a typically smug undergrad, loved dismissing huge swathes of critically acclaimed works, much like McEwan’s hero in Sweet Tooth.

As the years passed the book became a blur of expensive red wine, white carpets and two middle aged men jabbing accusatory fingers at each other. Beyond that, I couldn’t remember much, the plot was lost to me completely, and as I continued to read and enjoy McEwan’s books (except Saturday, which I also dislike and which I should also revisit) I wondered what it was I so despised about Amsterdam.

So I went back and read it. And gobbled it up in one weekend. Because, of course, it’s great. Sure, there’s a rambling pile in north London with a wine cellar stuffed with expensive Beaujolais, but it’s a house whose heart’s been ripped out of it, where the composer, Clive Linley lives with his fading past, shuffling between unloved rooms amidst a pile of discarded scores and dirty wine glasses. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Clive’s best friend, reached his professional apex through sheer luck and his ability to slip through life unnoticed. They are not men to envy, and they are certainly not mocking you with their (un)fabulous lives.

The novel opens with a funeral, Clive and Vernon standing in the rain, remembering the coffin’s occupant, their former lover Molly Lane. Molly isn’t the only thing they have in common: Clive and Vernon are also united by a hatred for her most recent lover Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary, a man who Molly’s husband, George, would also like to see destroyed. This rain-soaked meeting sparks a chain of events that set off a deadly cocktail of grief, fear, hatred, passion and jealousy.

In other author’s hands, Amsterdam would have been an hysterical thriller, racing along at speed and hitting the odd plot-hole along the way. But McEwan writes with a precision that hides the true horror until it confronts you with its steely honesty. Seemingly inconsequential, microscopic moments that writers have a tendency to smother in heavy-handed SYMBOLISM, those spots in time that turn the whole story on its head, are told with less fuss than the description of the wine Clive chooses for dinner. These are the moments that drive the story to towards its fatal end, but it’s not until later that we – like the characters – come to understand the consequences.

I’m currently finding my way through Barbara Kingsolver‘s overblown Flight Behaviour and missing McEwan’s sharp prose. When I’ve crawled my way to the end, I’ll need to dig out my copy of Saturday and see if the neurosurgeon and his marble staircase can win me over this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

In her latest novel, Pat Barker re-visits the same time and territory that she captured so compellingly and powerfully in her Regeneration trilogy.

Regeneration, The Eye In The Door and the Booker Prize winning The Ghost Road told the story of First World War soldiers, amongst them war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, receiving treatment for shell shock at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart hospital. Toby’s Room, a non-sequel sequel to her 2007 novel, Life Class, shifts the attention from the mental anguish of the Great War to its physical impact, and focuses too on the fallout for those left behind in Britain.

The Toby of the title is a doctor and an officer who is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ on the battlefield. We first meet him in 1912 at the rambling family home in the bucolic English countryside where we’re also introduced to his sister Elinor. The pair have a claustrophobically close relationship that becomes inappropriately intimate one scorching hot summer’s day (English summers are always so wonderfully hot in novels, oh, if only life imitated art more often).

Skip forward five years to 1917 and Elinor and the Brooke family receive the telegram that everyone with a son or brother in France dreaded. Elinor, a starchy, tenacious and rather unsympathetic character, finds grief almost impossible to succumb to without knowing how, or if, her brother died.

She sets out to unearth the truth and in the process becomes entangled in a war she was hoping to ignore. In her search for answers, she is also forced to rekindle a dying friendship with the abrasive, and now, nose-less, Kit Neville, a contemporary of Elinor’s at the famous Slade art school where they studied under the tutelage of the formidable Henry Tonks. Elinor also enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Paul Tarrant, now a war artist, all three lives now fated to be forever messily and painfully intertwined in Elinor’s search for answers.

While Elinor may never end up on the frontline of the Sommes, she is forced to confront the horror of the Great War when she becomes an artist for Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, an institution that specialised in re-building the shattered faces of soldiers, including Neville’s.

As in Barker’s previous First World War novels, real life people get walk on parts. Elinor briefly spends time in the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell where she does little except insult the ‘conchies’ and annoy Virginia Woolf who looks on with her acerbic eye. There’s also a nod to the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, whose face has a particularly startling starring role at one point.

Unlike Sasson and Brooke, Barker is no poet. Sometimes her prose is plain banal and clunky. Eleanor’s diary, a rather odd occasional narrative device that serves little purpose other than to fill in some unexplained (if you haven’t read the unofficial prequel, Life Class that is) background, is a jarring change in pace and tone.

But complaining about Barker’s occasional heavy hand is like moaning at Woolf’s aversion to full stops. Barker has never been about delicate prose; her power for storytelling and unflinching truths is what draws you in and sucks you in like a quagmire on a battlefield. The pace (bar the slight derailment at each of Elinor’s diary entries) is cracking, the story fizzing along with growing expectation. In anything, rather than stripping the novel of emotion and tension, Barker’s no nonsense style heightens the drama. Importantly (and this is far rarer than it should be) Barker doesn’t disappoint as the novel reaches its climax. The characters remain solid; they may never reach Mrs Dalloway levels of realism and depth, but they are people you can believe who don’t dissolve in a weary puddle as the author panics at the looming deadline.

Toby’s Room may not hit the high notes of the Regeneration trilogy, but it’s still a wonderfully evocative, gripping novel that is taut and tight and utterly compelling.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

I devoured Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize nominated novel, in hours, diving straight into its murky, disoriented chapter and allowing Levy’s beautiful prose to lap over me as the novel’s tension built to a sad crescendo.

Levy’s novel covers some well trodden ground – the middle class family villa holiday in a hot country (this time, France); the successful parents as lost in the world as their adolescent offspring – but the powerful poetry of her words takes the cliched and adds a beauty and depth.

The story is slight; set in the mid-90s the novel follows two families in as they holiday in a villa in the south of France. There’s Joe JacobsJozef Nowogrodzki – a successful poet, damaged by his horrifying past and empty present, his war-correspondent wife Isabel and their daughter, Nina. Awkwardly accompanying them are Laura and Mitchell (a wonderfully, grotesque, comic character) who own an ‘ethnic’ shop in Euston and remain largely shadowy, background figures to the drama unfolding in the hazy heat.

The bomb that these family-holiday-gone-wrong novels need arrives in the skinny form of damaged and beautiful Kitty Finch, who has used her connections with the villa’s owner (her mother was her cleaner) as a way to meet her hero/obsession Joe.

Isabel, despite, or because, she recognised Kitty’s obsession with her philandering husband invites Kitty to stay with them in the villa’s spare room, ultimately pushing Joe and Kitty together. Coming off the antidepressant Seroxat, Kitty’s behaviour is volatile, erratic and frightening with an underlying naivety which makes her even more dangerous

Swimming Home’s greatest achievement is Levy’s prose that evokes a dense, dreamy sinister atmosphere punctuated by perfectly timed humour. The detached underwater feel of the novel and the quality of dreamliness that she evokes captures the tensions and emotions of the characters without any of them having to articulate how they’re feeling.

But it’s not a flawless novel, largely because Levy is guilty of one modern literary convention that irks me, that of the characters wearing their wealthy middleclassness like some kind of green flag metaphor. Like Ian McEwan’s more recent works (Saturday wore me out with its hummus soaked overtones) Levy’s characters are successful, wealthy urban middle class – farmers’ market-shopping, swearing-in-front-of-the-children types who probably smoke weed to a soundtrack of Cat Power at dinner parties. Why couldn’t Joe have been a struggling poet who was forced to write celebrity gossip for a website inbetween stanzas to make ends meet? Why the large house in west London? Couldn’t they have lived in a flat in an unfashionably area south of the river? Couldn’t Mitchell and Laura have been estate agents? I understand that the comfortable, affluent, successful lifestyle was meant to juxtapose with the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction (news flash! people with big kitchens can be unhappy too), but I think that their circumstances diluted the point. If these characters had been more every day, their suffering would have been greater, more personal to us (me). I couldn’t see the worth in setting Kitty Finch’s background against the weathier characters, or, rather, I could, but Levy didn’t take it anywhere. Kitty was briefly angry that her mother cleaned rich people’s houses, but she didn’t install any class warfare into Nina, who she took under her wing for a few pages.

But none that has stopped me already beginning to re-read it; I’ll always take beautiful prose over character-quibbles…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

ImageNot for the first time, I found myself unconsciously reading two books with very similar themes, characters and bombshell endings back-to-back.

The last time it happened, when I read The Sea by John Banville and Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying in tandem, both plots followed middle-aged men looking back on their lives, trying to come to terms with the past. And the hooks of both Sense of an Ending and The Go-Between, the book I read immediately after? Yes, two late middle-aged men looking back at their lives and…

Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel is a slip of a book that deals with big ideas. It was one of those novels that the clichéd, and clumsy, ‘unputadownable’ was first uttered for. I devoured it in a day only to be left… I don’t really know how I felt as I closed it for the final time. There is little sense of the ending, or, if you think about it too much as I did, sense in the ending. Was I disappointed? Surprised? Confused? I didn’t, don’t, know.

But it was certainly a gripping read, beautiful realised by Barnes, a writer I’ve always found too cold and studied for my liking. The story is told through the eyes of the now late-middle aged Tony who’s being forced to dig out pockets of memory from the furthest reaches of his mind after he becomes the unlikely recipient of a legacy from his ex-girlfriend, Veronica’s, mum that includes the diary of a school friend who committed suicide that Veronica is refusing to hand over. Tony becomes obsessed with retrieving what is legally his, and his hunt unearths some dark and dangerous secrets and long forgotten memories.

The Sense of an Ending flits in-between now and the 1960s when we’re introduced to Tony and his group of pseudo-intellectual schoolboys, amongst them the super-serious Adrian Finn.

Tony is that well used literary device, the unreliable narrator. We naturally see the events unfolding through his eyes, both literally and metaphorically. But Barnes gives us enough outside insights – the odd knowing comment from Tony’s ex wife; a letter he sent to Veronica and her then boyfriend – Tony’s former good friend Adrian – to learn more than Tony allows us.

The story bounces along, told in Tony’s jarringly upbeat voice, but there’s a sinister undertone that runs through what is an ultimately a rather depressing and sad tale. I found Tony unnerving in his emotional detached, he seemed so distant from his actions and unaware of the damage could do to others with his emotional flippancy and, despite his slight character, he was all too real.

The ending continues to haunt me weeks after finishing it. There are so many unanswered questions. I’m not even really sure what I think happened, happened. As enthralling and thrilling as this book was, I was left slightly frustrated; it’s nagged at me almost as much as Tony’s desire for that diary.