March 2020 Reading: The Silence of the Girls; Milkman; Spark; The Animals at Lockwood Manor; Middle England; Where the Crawdads Sing; Kilo; Finding Clara

The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker (2018)

I am an absolute sucker for anything based on Greek mythology, and The Iliad is particularly close to my heart (Book 16 was one of my A-level Greek set texts many hundreds of years ago), so I was predisposed to like this retelling of a part of the epic. Having read both Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and David Mahlouf’s Ransom, however, I was hoping that this version would have its own special voice. And it certainly does. Mostly told from the first person POV of Briseis, enslaved and awarded to Achilles after the Greeks sack her home town of Lyrnessus, this book reminded me more at times of Euripides’ The Trojan Women than of Homer’s epic poem.

The details of life in the Greek camp, and Barker’s clever mixing of poetic and coarse registers rang true for me, and for the most part I fully bought into the reality of the story she creates. The way in which she tackles the existence of the gods, always a tricky issue for modern readers, worked for me, though it is possible that others might find it distancing. At times I did find the moral elements of the story slightly heavy-handed, and although Achilles was well-drawn, I was less taken with the sections presented from his point of view – I would have been happy to stick with Briseis throughout. This is a vibrant, bold retelling of a classic, however, and Briseis as a character more than earns her turn in the spotlight that Barker shines upon her.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

It would be an interesting experiment to read this novel with absolutely no background information and see how far the reader gets before they realise that this is not a completely invented dystopia, but a specific place, Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, during the Troubles. The vague naming of both people and places, almost allegorical in tone (‘the Milkman’, ‘third brother-in-law’, ‘the land over the water’) adds a kind of universality to the story which makes it all the more chilling, and calls to mind all kinds of global totalitarian regimes both historical and fictional.

The biggest strength of this powerful novel is the voice of the (also unnamed) narrator. The 18 year-old protagonist is an amazingly unique creation, and her voice is original, funny and at times utterly surreal. The Milkman himself is all the more sinister for hovering behind the scenes, on the periphery of the novel, like a shadow in one of the creepy no-mans-land areas described in the book. There are some fantastic secondary characters, particularly Maybe-Boyfriend and third brother-in-law, as well as the eccentric cast of ‘beyond-the-pales’ who are judged by the all-seeing eye of the community. This is a tense, absorbing, incredibly intelligent book. And I will never look at a sunset the same way.

Spark by Naoki Matayoshi (translated by Alison Watts, 2019)

I have reviewed this in full here, but I really enjoyed this short, fresh story that takes the reader on a journey through the strange world of Japanese manzai comedy. The ending is one of the most shockingly unexpected finales I have seen in fiction!

The Animals At Lockwood Manor by Jane Healy (2020)

This also merited a longer review, which you can read here. This is one of my top reads of 2020 so far. Highly recommended – a gorgeous book.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe (2018)

I have to say, I never thought I would be looking back nostalgically on the time when all we had to worry about was Brexit. This novel, which rejoins characters from The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle, covers the years 2010 to 2018, and who would have thought that those were the good old days? It was actually a real relief to spend some time in Coe’s world, to enjoy the cheeky British humour and sense of fun that pervades this novel. Although politics forms the backdrop, it is the personal journeys of the characters that are most important. Benjamin Trotter has become unexpectedly successful as a novelist; Doug is a centre-left newspaper columnist torn between his political sensibilities and his inevitable rise to the middle classes; Sophie is a university lecturer who falls for a driving instructor at a speed awareness course.

For me, it was the relationship between Sophie and Ian, with all its divisive complexities, that formed the heart of this novel, and which was a reminder of the day our country split in two. Their differences are handled well, and I think Coe subtly weaves in some lessons for us all. This book is gentler and milder than a lot of the fiction I have read this year, but it was a soothing and comforting read at a time when such relief is most welcome.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)

It is going to be very hard for me to talk about this novel without getting emotional, because Delia Owens has now written not one but two books that will always hold a place in my heart. Growing up, and spending a very fortunate three years in Africa as a child, I was obsessed with the book that Owens wrote with her then-husband, Cry of The Kalahari, documenting their studies of lions and brown hyena. I had all but forgotten just how important that book was to me when I started seeing Crawdads everywhere, and I was both excited and anxious to see whether her fictional debut would hold the same magic for me.

Luckily, it most certainly did. There is so much that I love about this novel. Owens skilfully jumps between the dual timelines of 1952 and 1970, and sets up enough intrigue at the start of the book that there is no question of doing anything other than reading on. Kya Clark, the ‘Marsh Girl’ whom we follow as she grows up, mostly alone, in a shack in the swamp lands of North Carolina, is a hugely successful creation. Original, sympathetic, fierce – she is someone to root for whole-heartedly. The other huge success of this novel is, of course, the natural description. The marsh is a character in its own right, and Owens’ use of the cycles and rhythms of the landscape and its wildlife is a wonder to read. The lushness of the prose had me so hooked that I honestly don’t think I even needed the trial towards the end of the book to maintain my interest, even though it was very well-written – I was more than happy watching Kya in her element in the marsh. I think there probably are small technical flaws in this novel that I could pick apart, but I don’t want to, because sometimes it is enough to love a book whole-heartedly, give thanks to the author, and leave it at that.

Kilo: Life and Death Inside The Secret World of the Cocaine Cartels by Toby Muse (2020)

And now for something completely different. I was so thrilled to be on the Damp Pebbles Blog Tour this month for this outstanding work of investigative journalism. I read far more fiction than non-fiction, but when non-fiction is this good, I start to question that decision. You can read my full review here.

Finding Clara by Anika Scott (2020)

My last read of the month was a surprising and page-turning historical novel that upends some of the usual tropes of the genre. Set in Germany in 1946, it deals with the aftermath of World War Two in an intelligent and complex way, focusing on a protagonist who is by no means innocent herself. If you want to find out more about this intriguing debut novel, see my full review here.

I have read some great books this month, an eclectic selection, which is just how I like it. Please do drop me a comment if you have read any of these, or if you plan to, or if you have any recommendations for me! I’ve got lots of good stuff lined up for April, but am always happy to grow my TBR list!

Review: Kilo: Life and Death Inside the Secret World of the Cocaine Cartels by Toby Muse (2020) #Kilo @tobymuse @EburyPublishing @EmmaFinnegan @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

Book Blurb

“Join the deadly journey of cocaine, from farmer to kingpin.

Meet Maria. Maria doesn’t see herself as a criminal. She’s just a farmhand picking the crops that never lose money: coca.

This is Cachote. He prays to the Virgin of the Assassins that his bullets find their target. If he misses, he’ll have to answer to the cartel who pay him to take out their enemies.

Pedro works in the coca labs. But this laboratory is hidden deep in the jungle, and he turns coca leaves into coca paste, a step just short of cocaine.

And finally, here is Alex. Alex is a drug-lord and decides where the drug goes next: into Europe or the US. And he wields the power of life and death over everyone around him.

Following one brick of cocaine from Colombia’s jungles to the Pacific Ocean as it races to join global underworld economy, Kilo is an unprecedented journey to the violent heart of the cocaine industry. On the way we will meet drug lords, contract killers, drug mules, cartel witches, as well as the Colombian police and US Coast Guard who are desperately trying to stop the kilo reaching the consumers in the world’s richest countries.

Toby Muse has been on the ground in the drug war for over a decade, earning the trust of those involved on all sides. Telling the human stories of how the world’s second most popular drug gets from the Colombian jungle to the London street corner, Kilo is a devastating account of a multi-billion-pound business whose influence reaches across the world.”

Review

Kilo plunges the reader straight into the action. We begin in the jungle, as the peace brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2016 reveals its weaknesses. Without the stability of a single, known rebel organisation, new armed groups sweep in, and the fighting escalates. The author is fully aware of just how complicated the situation is in the jungles of Colombia, and does not waste time trying to explain the various different groups in detail. For the majority of those living in the countryside, it matters little who the perpetrators of ‘the Violence’ are anyway; it only matters how many people are being killed at any one time. Muse deftly articulates the feelings of the coca farmers, most of whom would love to escape from a life of growing this illegal crop, but who are offered no viable alternative. Coca is all they know, and the help promised by the government never materialises. The author’s access gives us an insight into the reality of life in rural Colombia, and the scene is a desperate one. Attempts to stop the spread of coca farms seem futile; the authorities risk their lives to pull out bushes they know will be replanted almost immediately. The farmers know better than to look to the government to help them. Muse talks with men and women who sound utterly defeated by their circumstances, and it is harrowing to hear the hopelessness in their voices.

In the small towns, their product, now in paste form, is passed on for a modest sum that is still more than they could earn by any legal means. The farmers celebrate with drink and prostitutes and return to their farms. Already it is clear that Muse excels at character, painting beautiful, haunting portraits with a few words. Of a nineteen-year-old prostitute in La Gabarra, Muse says:

“So much life has passed across this face, through this body. This woman has seen more of humanity in this ghastly cell than I’ll see in several lifetimes.”

From the countryside, we move to Medellin. As an avid fan of the series Narcos, I felt on more familiar territory here, in Escobar’s old stomping ground, but Muse delves far deeper than any fictional account could. Cachote, the assassin, is described by the author with the deadpan humour that is scattered throughout this book:

“He’s not cursed with an abundance of smarts, but he’s got the malice and the balls to do this job.”

One of the many aspects which make Kilo such an original and engaging read is how effectively Muse allows his personality, or at least his personal thoughts, to leak onto the pages. I read more fiction than non-fiction, and have occasionally found journalistic writing to be too dry for my own taste. There is no such problem here; not only is Muse a wry, thoughtful and often amusing guide, but it is also clear that the journey he is bravely undertaking has a profound effect on him. He wrestles with the big questions: “How many live honestly only out of fear of the law?” and he does so with an openness which made me warm to him as a narrator, even as I felt awed by his courage.

War correspondents are fully entitled to a certain amount of swagger; but while Muse does have moments of being shockingly blase in dangerous situations, there is a strong recognition of the line between his role as witness and that of the participants in this endless war. He does not let his interview subjects off the hook for their crimes, but he recognises that this is a society in which many young men do not expect to live past thirty; in which murders are not “solved in forty-two minutes by attractive cops on the small screen”, but are instead a fact of daily life. I experienced a very small jolt of my own when I realised that the book that Alex, the drug-lord, considers his ‘self-help bible’ The 48 Laws of Power, sits on my husband’s shelf with his other management books. The phrase ‘accidents of birth’ springs to mind.

As the kilo rolls out of Medellin, destined for either Europe or the US, Muses’s focus shifts to the authorities engaged in the endless war on drugs. At the airport, he witnesses the arrests of drug mules, and the stories of how drugs are smuggled make for some grim reading. But it is the section in which he joins the Coast Guard in the Pacific that provides some of the most thrilling and dramatic prose in the book. Muse is a fantastic writer; his short, punchy sentences contain a sparse beauty, and as he rides the high seas with the crew of the James, the exhilaration of successful drug busts and the despair of failed attempts are captured in exquisite, gripping detail:

“As the adrenaline slowly rises in the blood, the teams joke and banter in the darkness. Electricity flows through the air. Excitement. Anticipation.”

Here in particular, the narrative pulls you inside it, lets you feel the spray of the ocean and the almost unbearable tension of the endless cat-and-mouse games played out across the vast expanse of the Pacific.

Reading Kilo is an immersive, thrilling and deeply engaging experience; this is not a book to sit back and read passively. In terms of the narrative drive, the conceit of following a single kilo of cocaine from the coca farms through the small towns to the cities, and from there on its way abroad, is simple and elegant. It works exceptionally well, providing natural shifts from one setting to another, creating the effect of a series of linked short stories, each one as vivid and richly populated by memorable characters as the last. The relentless movement urges you on, with barely time to pause for breath between each captivating instalment in the kilo’s journey. This is aided by Muse’s visceral writing style, which makes the reader feel as if they are diving head-first into cold, murky water with every new chapter. His writing is almost a physical sensation; it chills the blood with its bare, spare honesty.

It is difficult to express quite what an impressive feat Kilo is. Toby Muse takes the very best of investigative journalism and combines it with a huge talent for character, description and good old-fashioned story-telling. Habitual readers of both non-fiction and fiction will find themselves compelled to read on, to follow the kilo on its fascinating and often terrifying journey. It is a voyage of discovery masterfully helmed by a writer who has given so much of himself to tell us this story.

I had initially decided not to mention the current global situation in my review, but on reflection I feel it would be remiss of me not to emphasise that if you are looking for a book that will take you on a wild ride straight into the heart of a completely different, far longer-term crisis, this expertly crafted work will block out all other noise and occupy your thoughts for a good long while: an achievement that cannot be overstated in these strange times.

About the Author

Toby Muse is a British-American writer, television reporter, documentary filmmaker and foreign correspondent. He has reported from the front lines of the conflicts in Colombia, Iraq and Syria. He has embedded with soldiers, rebels and drug cartels, producing exclusive reports from cocaine laboratories and guerrilla jungle camps. He lived in Bogota, Colombia for more than fifteen years, reporting across South America and the endless drug war.

Social Media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tobymuse

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tobymuseauthor/

Website: https://www.tobymuse.com/

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kilo-Inside-Secret-Cocaine-Cartels/dp/1529106753/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1585081472&sr=8-5

Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/kilo/toby-muse/9781529106756

Foyles: https://foyles.co.uk/witem/biography/kilo-life-and-death-inside-the-secret-w,toby-muse-9781529106756

Book Depository: https://www.bookdepository.com/Kilo-Toby-Muse/9781529106756?ref=grid-view&qid=1585082186016&sr=1-2

Hive.co.uk: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Toby-Muse/Kilo–Life-and-Death-Inside-the-Secret-World-of-the-Cocaine-Cartels/24507810

Publishing Information:

Published in hardcover and digital formats on 26th March 2020 by Ebury Publishing

With many thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review, and to #damppebblesblogtours for letting me be a part of the tour.

Review: Finding Clara by Anika Scott (2020)

The blurb on the back of the proof copy (which I was kindly sent by Klara Zak at Cornerstone, Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review) states that: “this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance,” and it is absolutely clear from the opening pages of this book that the author is presenting us with something quite new here. This is far from yet another historical novel set in World War II. To start with, the story opens in 1946, with the protagonist, Clara, in hiding in Hamelin, Germany. The war is over, but its effects loom large; everyone is hungry, everyone is struggling to survive. Deceit is all around, from Clara’s false name and papers to her relationship with a doctor whose past, it is quickly discovered, is stained in horrors. Immediately the reader is presented with the idea of a reckoning, of actions hidden under the cloak of wartime being dragged into the light. It is hugely confronting, uncomfortable and above all, impressively unique as an opening. I could feel myself recoiling from the Doctor almost physically, and even from Clara herself. It is a bold writer who casts such doubt on her protagonist so early in a novel, but it pays off.

Guilt and culpability are important themes in this book, as Germany comes to terms with the actions of its citizens during the war years. Scott handles this immensely fraught issue with a skilful touch – characters wrestle with their consciences constantly, and there are no easy answers for anybody. Clara’s story is intercut with that of Jakob, a black marketeer who, for me, provided an anchor, a character who, though by no means perfect, is less troubling than Clara herself in terms of someone to root for. There is also another character who has short, effective chapters dedicated to his experience, but to say more here would be a spoiler. When Clara returns to her hometown of Essen, where she once ran the Falkenberg iron works and became a wartime icon, the tension is ramped up. Pursued by Captain Fenshaw, who has discovered her true identity, Clara must try and discover what has become of her best friend, Elisa, and her son Willy, before Clara herself is caught.

There are plenty of twists and turns as the story rattles along, and Scott is adept at both vivid description and action-packed scenes. The plot is complicated without being convoluted, and although it initially frustrated me that we only hear second-hand about many of the ‘big events’ of these characters’ lives, eventually I came to see this as a real strength of this book. The sense of ‘the aftermath’ hangs on every page, and makes for a unique narrative experience. Though part of me was deeply curious to see Clara running the iron works, or Jakob at the Russian front, I realised that there is something incredibly true-to-life about having to rely on people’s narrated versions of significant events. To a great extent, that is how history works.

This is a book which approaches its historical period at a slant. It does not dive into the action of World War Two, but takes the time to methodically and intelligently dissect the problematic ‘what comes next’ that is not often dealt with in fiction. I have to say that I applaud Scott for not writing about Clara’s wartime experience, for choosing this hugely complicated arc for her character. There were occasions when I would have liked Clara’s inner struggles to be more directly linked to the plot, but again, I think it is more natural and nuanced to have the two running parallel rather than just being cause and effect. This is a book that really got me thinking. It is both a gripping, character-driven story and, I believe, a novel that offers a profoundly courageous alternative to traditional historical fiction tropes.

Finding Clara was published by Hutchinson on 5th March 2020. It will be published in the States by William Morrow as The German Heiress on 7th April 2020.

About the Author: Anika Scott lives with her husband and two daughters in Essen, Germany, where her debut novel is set. She grew up in Michigan, USA and has degrees in International Politics and Journalism. She began her career wanting to be a CIA agent and had security clearance from an internship at the State Department in Washington, but CIA applications included never being able to write stories or keep a diary. Anika loves stories too much for that, and so became a journalist instead. She was staff on the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune before becoming a freelance journalist in Germany: her work has appeared widely in the US and European media. She runs an online resource about post-war Germany at www.postwargermany.com

Guest Post by Paul Hawkes: Reading List Top Ten

In a very special blog post today, I am handing over to my dear father-in-law. Currently in isolation in Tenerife, he has so far been my most diligent student by a very long way (my five year old has already rebelled and taken over the ‘school’ at home) and has been sending me daily answers to the ‘Big Fat Isolation Quiz’ I sent out to my parents and parents-in-law.

So, without further ado, here are his answers to Question 3: Reading List: List 10 books that are important to you, fiction or non-fiction, and why I should read them.

Paul: “I have cheated here in two ways. First, the books that I am recommending are not necessarily the best by each author; and I have not read one of the books on the list! Read on to discover why…

1.Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre (1974)

John Le Carre, like Graham Greene, is an author to be savoured. He has a very distinctive style, in that he rarely ‘introduces’ characters, they just appear. This can be initially disconcerting as you wrestle with ‘Who, where, why, WTF…?’ . However, afficionados/as (now that I am learning Spanish!) just let it all wash over them. JLC will see you through!

Tinker Tailor is not his best book, but you must start here. To understand JLC’s cold war spy masterpieces, they are ideally read chronologically as the characters evolve and develop.

Unfortunately, you will probably not have seen Alec Guinness play George Smiley, the ‘hero’ of the stories. as the brilliant serialisation of a later novel, Smiley’s People, was broadcast in 1982. However, once you have a picture of him, nobody could be more George Smiley.

If you decide to embark, watch this clip to see the definitive Smiley:

But of course, the cold war ended and JLC moved on, arguably becoming a better writer and storyteller. If you don’t fancy Cold War thrillers, go for one of the later books such as The Night Manager or The Constant Gardener.

2. Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (2016)

Operation Mincemeat is a true story from the Second World War. It reads like a thriller and, indeed, it is a thrilling story. If you want to lose yourself in a tale of incredible ingenuity which was of massive importance to war in Southern Europe, this is a must. And Macintyre has a whole range of other books detailing some of the more astonishing, and until recently, unpublished aspects of Britain’s secret war.

3. Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Philip Green by Oliver Shah (2018)

Oliver Shah clearly lays out what an odious and amoral character Green really is. No business knowledge is required. You will never shop at Top Shop again!

4. The End of The Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

A beautiful and evocative book, written by one of the greats of the 20th Century. I am sure that you have read many Greene’s, but if you haven’t, start now. So many diverse stories, wonderfully told. And it was a great film, too!

5. A History of 20th Century Britain by Andrew Marr (2011)

Extremely well-researched and written, this book by Andrew Marr leads you step-by-step through the century to where we are now. I found it fascinating as I lived through half of it! If, however, you are simply curious, read it now. I have encountered no better modern history of Britain.

6. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start up by John Carreyou (2018)

This is the story of Theranos, the blood-testing start up that attracted massive investment, and the support of some of America’s most powerful people, based on lies and hubris. Whilst there are many very good business books, this one stands out for me because of its sheer scale and the (undoubted) psychopathy of the start up’s founder.

7. The Bat by Jo Nesbo (1997)

This is the book that I haven’t read. It is the first book in the Harry Hole series. I started with Book Two and missed an opportunity! Harry is an alcoholic detective working in Oslo (read it with Google Maps open beside you). The books should be read in order if possible. Once you’ve met Harry, it’s difficult not to want to follow him, his personal story and his tales of dark deeds under Norwegian skies.

8. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015)

Why are world politics and economics as they are? You will never look at a map, or consider countries, in quite the same way after reading this geographical insight into world history.

9. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (2008)

I worked for much of my career in (what was then called) Direct Marketing (DM), i.e. direct communications to consumers in the attempt to persuade them to buy goods or services by (what was then called) mail order.

DM was built upon the statistically robust testing of different aspects of direct communication (i.e. the offer, the price, the medium, the copy/design), such that the skilled practitioner began to understand the foibles of human nature. Of course, it helped if you worked for a large company as more money allowed for more testing, which brought greater learning, faster.

Offering consumers choice is a good thing, right? Wrong! The more choice you give someone, the less likely they are to make a buying decision.

Did you know that if you offer three variants of a product with escalating commitment periods (say 3 months, six months or a year), or increasing features, (Base Product, Product + and Product ++), the vast majority will choose the second option?

There used to be books written about DM by some very clever people with years of experience, as it was very different to ‘traditional’ marketing and advertising. John Wanamaker, the founder of Macy’s, famously said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Direct marketers knew what worked and what didn’t because they had developed their techniques to measure it.

For various reasons that are beyond my remit here (happy to explain at some other time), these skills were lost – not just in the UK but around the world. (I sound a bit Nicholas Parsons on Just a Minute there!). However, some clever academics (of which Ariely is one) decided to mathematically test human buying behaviour using experiments to replicate the live buying decision. They wanted to understand (not simply measure) the differences between what people say they will do and what they actually do. The science of Behavioural Economics was born.

If you want an entertaining and very readable insight into this ‘new science’, Ariely’s book is one of the best.

10. The Second World War by Antony Beevor (2012)

Quite simply, a tour de force written by one of Britain’s foremost historians. If you’ve ever wondered about the chronology of the War and how all the pieces fit together, this is the book for you. Masterfully researched and brilliantly written.”

A massive thank you to Paul for letting me share this. I really would suggest giving this a go and getting your friends and family to send you their Top Ten Reads – you can learn a lot about someone from their favourite books (and it might even save you writing a blog post or two…!)

Review: The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healy (2020)

I had a very good feeling about this book. A historical novel, touted as appealing to fans of Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry, two writers I adore, and featuring a director of the natural history museum (my spiritual home) as one of the protagonists, it sounded right up my street. I was sufficiently intrigued to preorder the absolutely beautiful special edition, and I didn’t wait long after receiving this treasure of a book before diving in.

I was not disappointed. Hetty, who has been promoted due to the outbreak of World War II, is entrusted with the task of evacuating the museum’s mammal collection to Lockwood, a rambling manor house full of dark corridors and empty rooms. Her first person narrative is intercut with that of Lucy, also recently “promoted” to lady of the manor by the deaths of her mother and grandmother in a car accident. Healy uses the contrasting narratives to brilliant effect, countering Hetty’s rational pragmatism with the swirling anxieties of Lucy’s nightmares and uncertainties. I was immediately drawn to Hetty, whose strength of character and independence is tempered with highly realistic insecurities about her role in a male-dominated world, but it was Lucy who worked her way into my imagination as I continued reading this sensitive, beautiful book. I felt so sorry for her, I almost cried at points, and I shared Hetty’s desire to protect her from the mysteriously sinister house she is bound to.

The developing relationship between Hetty and Lucy is one of the best love stories I have read for a long time, perfectly capturing the gradual realisation of romantic and sexual tension, the joy of discovering each other’s bodies, and the anguish of separation. If I was a bit younger, I’d probabaly say I was “shipping” them or some such (no idea if I am using that right).

The Major, Lucy’s father, is a fantastically odious character, and I enjoyed hating him alongside Hetty. As the story unfolds, he becomes increasingly sinister, and I thought his transformation from cantankerous old man to full-blown antagonist was extremely well done. Lucy’s late mother also casts her shadow over the book, and is a beautifully mysterious and complicated character, putting me in mind of Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea. (The Major, too, has echoes of Rhys’ Mr Rochester.)

The novel’s finale is both surprising and somehow inevitable, and it had me riveted. This really was a book that I felt very sad to reach the end of, not only because of my affection for the two protagonists, but because of the way in which Healy manages to turn both the manor house and the museum animals into major characters in their own right, leading to an immersive and almost visual reading experience. And I am definitely going to start using Hetty’s quirk of classifying people as animals, no question. I think I’m an African small-spotted cat. And you?

Review: Spark by Naoki Matayoshi, Translated by Alison Watts (2019)

I am absolutely fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of comedy. The complex, delicate relationship between comic and audience, and the contrast between the inner lives of struggling comedians and the persona they project on stage has always struck me as a gold mine for fiction, though not necessarily a humorous one. Last year I read David Grossman’s powerful novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), and there are some parallels with this Japanese novel, though Spark has a lighter touch. I was very intrigued to read it, and jumped at the chance to receive a copy from Pushkin Press (a publisher I have loved ever since discovering one of my favourite translated novels, Journey By Moonlight, through them) in exchange for an honest review.

In Naoki Matayoshi’s short novel, we are thrown into the world of manzai comedy, a double-act tradition involving the classic straight-man-plus-fool combo. The main characters, Tokunaga and Kamiya, are not comedy partners, but kohai and sempai, pupil and master, each part of their own separate comedy duo. The novel is narrated by Tokunaga, who is a sympathetic guide to the manzai circuit, a flawed individual, certainly, but possessed of a self-awareness and empathy that make him a pleasant protagonist to follow over the course of the book. The narrative fast-forwards through the stages of Tokunaga’s career, slowing down at intervals to explore his years-long friendship with Kamiya, mostly in the context of drunken nights out in Tokyo. Their relationship is absolutely central to the book, and it is beautifully drawn. The bond that they forge stands in contrast to the isolated existence of these two men, who are both young at the start of the novel; they seem to have little connection with their family, and even their comedy partners are colleagues rather than friends. Romantic interests are limited to Kamiya’s friend Maki, who lets him live with her but whom he keeps at arm’s length, saying that she deserves better. The delicate exploration of Tokunaga and Kamiya’s friendship is all the more affecting in the light of the absence of other bonds.

Kamiya, as presented through Tokunaga’s tender portrayal of his friend, is a fascinating, utterly original character; the image I couldn’t shake while reading about him was of a Janus-faced man wearing both the comedy and tragedy masks, though in fact it is his authenticity that stands out above all else. Tokunaga admires his friend’s courage, despairs at Kamiya’s inability to fit into the mould even a little bit in order to make a decent living, and, rather wonderfully, rarely tips over into jealousy of Kamiya’s flashes of brilliance. There is a strong lesson to be learned here about the importance of artists supporting one another, and it is handled with grace and beauty. As with much behind-the-scenes comedy, the novel is not laugh-out-loud funny – the dissection of humour is never as comic as the actual comedy itself – and it takes a while to get used to the specific style of back-and-forth repartee that manzai involves. I experienced the best kind of culture shock with this novel, the same unfamiliarity and almost other-worldliness that hits me when I read Murakami, who is shamefully pretty much my only other experience of Japanese literature. The translation, by Alison Watts, is skillfully done, with the touches of Americanisms bringing a subtly hip, edgy quality to the writing.

The ending of this book kicked it onto another level for me. I gasped out loud: the absurdity of the final ‘twist’ was funny, sad and quietly devastating. I certainly won’t spoil it here, but instead I would whole-heartedly recommend that you read this fast-paced, fresh, and surprisingly tender novel. And yes, I will be checking out the Netflix series.

February 2020 Reading: The Incendiaries; Freshwater; Motherhood; Tin Man; Melmoth; The Golden State; Crudo; Fruit of the Drunken Tree

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)

I have had an absolutely brilliant month of reading this month, and it kicked off with this understated and intelligently slantwise examination of a cult group named ‘Jejah’ in a fictional East Coast college town. The protagonist, Will, watches helplessly as his ex-girlfriend is drawn in by a former missionary, John Leal, a mysterious figure who drifts around campus barefoot and tells stories of dubious reliability about his past.

There is so much that is well done here, but what I enjoyed the most was the fact that we see Phoebe’s entrance into the cult from the same point of view as Will – like him, we are unable to enter fully into the world of the group. We are on the periphery, watching her disappear into it. Will’s frustration at being ‘left behind’ is echoed in the reader’s own feelings – we see glimpses of what goes on in Jejah but nothing more than that. Will himself is a slippery character, too – he lies about his lack of wealth and shape-shifts to fit in according to the people he is with. His relationship with Phoebe is not some grand love story, and the novel is stronger for it. This is confident, layered writing that manages to be both restrained and highly detailed. I look forward to reading more work by Kwon.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)

I am going to find it hard to write a coherent review of this novel, because I loved it so much, but I will try. It tells the story of Ada, a girl born to a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother, who starts life in her father’s homeland and then leaves home at sixteen to attend college in Virginia. Ada was born with gods inside her, and if that isn’t the most perfect, blisteringly fierce premise for a novel, I don’t know what is. She is an ogbanje, a spirit child who would not normally have survived childhood. The novel starts with the collective ‘we’ of the gods inside her, lyrical and almost gentle, but other voices join in: a traumatic event releases Asughara, who seeks out sexual pleasure through Ada’s body, but loves and defends her as she does so.

There is so much I enjoyed about this book, but one thing that stood out was the way that the author tackles head-on the notion that this might be a clever metaphor for mental illness. Ada herself wonders if she is mad, until she meets another character who also has a god inside her, and she realises that her experience cannot be explained in terms of schizophrenia or a similar condition. I could practically hear Emezi shouting: “No, she ACTUALLY has gods inside her!” and I loved it. This is a book that grabbed me by the heart and squeezed tight, until I began to wonder if this could be true. I wish I could read it again for the first time and experience afresh its painful, funny, modern-and-yet-ancient beauty. I will be rereading this A LOT.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)

Normally, when I hear a book described as Important with a capital letter, I tend to shy away a little. However, Heti’s book had such an impact on my thoughts for days after I finished it that I am very glad I gave it a go. In basic terms, it is a kind of auto-fiction, in which the narrator is trying to decide whether or not she wants a child. She goes on a three year journey, and the writing of the book itself becomes a crucial part of the process. She uses a form of divination involving coins, constructing a kind of Platonic questioning process where she herself provides the answers.

I had some challenges to overcome with this book: the narrator is not exactly likeable, which was a struggle for me at the beginning, but then I realised that this was actually a crucial aspect of the novel – like My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a brilliant book I read last year, the unlikeable female protagonist performs an important role in questioning our assumptions about women. As I mentioned when reviewing Moshfegh’s book, literature is chock-full of absolutely despicable men that we read about with glee – unpleasant women are far rarer. And the narrator of Motherhood isn’t exactly horrible – I just found it hard to empathise with her, and that is absolutely fine in this case. I am sure part of this is due to finding the subject matter confronting: as a mother of two, I probably have to confess that I did not give the question of whether or not to have children very much thought at all, and I suppose it reminded me of how blindly we stumble along doing what is expected of us. (Disclaimer: I do not regret having children, they are my sun, moon and stars, and may also some day read this. Love you, darlings). This was the first of two very different books I read with motherhood at their centre this month, and it is well worth the discomfort I felt at certain points.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

In any other month of reading, this beautiful novel would have been an absolute standout. As it is, it was yet another gem in a month of gems. The first narrator, Ellis, a widower who works in a car plant in Oxford smoothing out dents, is a hugely sympathetic, well-drawn character, whose ‘what-might-have-been’ list is tragically long. Memories of his childhood friend, Michael, and his wife, Annie, form a delicate tracery around his mundane existence, ghosts weaving a gossamer pattern that is both beautiful and haunting. When the novel switches to Michael’s point of view, I was reminded at times of Makkai’s The Great Believers, though the mentions of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s are not as central here.

The relationship between Ellis, Michael and Annie emerges as a rare and gorgeous thing, tragic and tender, fragile as butterfly wings. This is a complex novel that is emotional but never overly sentimental, and I certainly want to read more from this author.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)

Yet another hit for February, this is a carefully constructed novel that uses ‘found’ texts to add extra layers to a complicated story that has the same mythic stature as Perry’s The Essex Serpent. Melmoth is doomed to wander the earth, seeking out atrocities and bearing witness to the worst actions of mankind. In modern-day Prague, Helen, a woman who denies herself life’s small pleasures as penance for past sins, is living in self-imposed exile when she comes across the story of Melmoth. The book, like Melmoth herself, wanders far and wide, from Czechoslovakia in World War II to Manila to England to Turkey.

Full of fantastic characters, gothic settings and a sense of past and present jostling for prime position, this book possibly contained one or two too many sub-narratives for me, but only because I loved each story so much I wanted to spend more time there. The sub-plot set in Turkey towards the end of the book was beautiful and moving, but by that stage I was slightly resentful about being torn away from the main narrative yet again. On the whole, though, I thoroughly recommend this book – Perry is fast becoming a firm favourite of mine.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (2018)

The second book this month which focuses on motherhood – it was really interesting to read this not long after reading Heti’s novel. It is quite different, having more of a conventional narrative and a more relatable, sympathetic protagonist. Daphne walks out of her job in San Francisco, takes her toddler Honey and heads off to her family’s mobile home in Northern California, drawn by an unknown longing and the scent of juniper bushes.

I have never read such a vivid and accurate (by which I mean commensurate with my own experience!) portrayal of motherhood in fiction. The way in which Kiesling uses run-on sentences and harried, breathless prose to list the endless small tasks of caring for a baby/toddler felt almost painfully real to me. The mundane, tedious nature of this phase of parenting is probably rarely depicted in fiction because it just is so dull, but here the author skillfully manages to convey its swerving highs and lows, and the tedium in between, while maintaining the pace of the story. It is quite a feat. Alongside this is ‘real life’: Daphne’s husband is stuck in Turkey because of a green card issue; there are radicals in Altavista who want to secede from California; she befriends Alice, a great character, elderly and fierce and full of stories that reveal themselves piece by piece. I just loved the way that the thread of caring for Honey is carried through every dramatic event, every plot twist and turn – it really highlights how this job of motherhood cannot be put aside, even when things seem to be falling apart. The ending was ever so slightly overdone, for me, but all in all I thought this book was brilliant.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (2018)

This novel had me at the title. Based on events from the author’s own life, this stunningly written book relates the story of the Santiagos, a middle-class family who live in Bogota during the narco-terrorism reign of Pablo Escobar. I have to admit, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with Escobar since watching the excellent series Narcos, and it was really interesting to see the story from a completely different perspective. Escobar is a shadowy but ever-present figure who looms large in seven-year-old Chula’s imagination, and the violent events caused by his dominance shatter the family’s delicate equilibrium more than once.

The book is narrated in turns by Chula and by Petrona, the Santiago’s maid, who lives in the poverty-stricken invasiones. The story opens with Chula in the States, contemplating a photograph sent to her by Petrona, setting up the connection between these two characters. Chula is a fantastic narrator, and the author uses her childish naivety to explore the terrible events of the novel from a more innocent perspective. Petrona is given fewer, shorter chapters as a first-person narrator, and this worked really well for me – it subtly highlighted that this is Chula’s story, and that she is in some way trying to ‘give voice’ to Petrona, who cannot speak as freely. There are strong memoir-ish overtones, which reminded me at times of the excellent Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, but Rojas Contreras is also a beautiful prose-writer, and the images, particularly those involving the ‘Drunken Tree’ itself, are poetic and tinged with just a gilding of magical realism in this very realistic story.

It has been the most wonderful month of reading, and I hope I’ve managed to convey how much I have enjoyed all of these books. Do let me know if you have read or plan to read any of them in the comments, and of course, reading recommendations are always welcome!