May 2020 Reading: Ordinary People; Watermarks; You Will Be Safe Here; Love Me To Death; This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin; Saving Lucia; What Doesn’t Kill You; I Wanted You to Know

It has been another fantastic month of reading. I’ve read eight books, which means I am right on track for my target of reading 100 books this year. I think I have decided that between eight and ten books a month is about the right pace for me – any more, and I would feel under pressure!

As an aside, I am so pleased that I have got my reading mojo back. Last year was the first year since having kids that I managed to do any substantial reading (and indeed writing), and this year I can feel my neural pathways being twanged back into life, allowing me to tackle more complex books than I have been able to read for a long time. As some of you may have gathered, I’ve been a stay-at-home mum for the last three years, and while that has taken on a rather-too-literal meaning in the past couple of months, it is a choice (and a privilege) which works extremely well for our family for the moment. However, I know I am not alone in feeling as if my ‘self’ has been subsumed by this role (especially in my son’s first year, when sleep was a mere pipe dream) and it is an extraordinary sensation to feel ‘Ellie’ returning to the fore. Books have always saved me, and they’re doing it yet again.

Anyway, onto this month’s reading!

Ordinary People by Diana Evans (2018)

This was a joyous start to the month: a funny, profound, moving novel in which nothing happens quite as you expect it to. We follow Michael, his partner Melissa, and their friend Damian at a point in their lives when the choices they have made conflict with a rising desire for freedom, for something different from life. Evans slips effortlessly between the three points of view, and I was deeply drawn to all three complex, nuanced characters.

There are underlying themes of important issues such as race and gang violence, but these are a hum and not a shout. The main focus seems to be the sad, poignant way in which relationships can disintegrate over time. As we dive into their consciousnesses, the three protagonists let us in on their innermost fears and desires, and it is a thrilling experience. I was particularly struck with the way in which Evans uses music, most notably, of course, John Legend’s, to create a kind of soundtrack to the novel (indeed, I think there is a playlist that goes along with the book, which I will be investigating). There is also a very interesting final section, which may not work for everyone, but which I thought was brilliant. I don’t have much more to say about this book as I thoroughly enjoyed it – I love writing detailed reviews, but sometimes when I read a book ‘for fun’ (they are all fun, really, but my fellow book bloggers know what I mean!) I like to just be able to say ‘I loved it. The end.’

Watermarks by Lenka Janiurek (2020)

I reviewed this wonderful memoir for a blog tour, organised by @damppebbles. I highly recommend it – you can check out my full review here. Lenka’s story is utterly unique, and the vivid present tense narration plunges you into her world from the opening page.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (2019)

I have written a full review of this astounding novel here. It is a staggering achievement, and a novel that will stay with me for a very long time. This was the first of a couple of books I read this month that stirred a forgotten urge in me to write an essay – fortunately for you, I haven’t done so yet! (I miss studying.)

Love Me to Death by Susan Gee (2020)

I don’t tend to read a lot of thrillers, but I had read Gee’s debut novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, and was struck by the quality of the writing and also the slantwise approach that she takes to the genre. Love Me to Death is even more chilling than her first novel, but it shares the same fascinating angle: what if, instead of focusing on those trying to solve the crime, we delved into the psyche of the shadowy figure at the edges of traditional, procedural thrillers? In both of her books, the killer is revealed very early on, and the focus is not on the ‘who’ but the ‘why’. This appeals to me greatly as a twist on the genre, and it is bolstered by Gee’s crisp, precise prose.

The snowy setting of Love Me to Death adds greatly to the atmosphere of the book. Mr Anderson is creepy, unsettling, and occasionally utterly terrifying. Gee makes a bold and intelligent choice in creating parallels between the criminal and the ‘hero’ of the novel, Jacob, a sympathetic, endearing character whose growing connections with Mr Anderson ramp up the tension to almost unbearable levels. For a book in which the crime seems clear-cut from the start, there are an impressive amount of twists and turns – Gee knows how to hook her readers. I can’t wait to read more from this talented writer. If you are a fan of psychological thrillers, this is definitely one for you. It is published by Aria Fiction and is out now.

This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin by Emma Darwin (2019)

Emma Darwin writes SO well about the act of writing itself. Her book Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction has been invaluable in my attempts to, well, get started in writing historical fiction, and her blog, This Itch of Writing, is packed with insightful advice. This non-fiction book is something of an oddity (in the best possible way) – it is a detailed account of her failure to write a novel about her family. It is a hard book to describe, as it is so resolutely its own creature – part confessional, part writer’s notebook, and also a record of a truly brilliant mind.

It is almost intimidating how exacting Darwin is in terms of her research and her quest for the right story for her novel – there were definitely points where I wanted to tell her to give herself a break! But I sense that is not her style. This is an absolutely fascinating – and generous – insight into a writer’s process, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a glimpse of what is really involved in creating the books that we as readers love so much.

Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught (2020)

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I am newly converted to the brilliant world of Bluemoose Books, who published the beautiful Leonard and Hungry Paul last year, and who, this year, are exclusively publishing books by women. Saving Lucia is one of the most intellectually exciting books I have read this year, and another one that I would happily spend hours writing an essay about! I have reviewed it in full here – you don’t want to miss this book.

What Doesn’t Kill You by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska and Others (2020)

My third non-fiction read of the month, which is quite a high ratio for me! This collection, published by Unbound, is absolutely stunning – a must-read book for anyone who experienced mental health issues, or who knows anyone who has, which I would imagine pretty much covers all of us. You can read my full review here – I think this book is deeply important, and I hope it is very widely read indeed.

I Wanted You to Know by Laura Pearson (2019)

I wanted you to know that I was going to write a longer review of this book, but that I only finished it last night and I am still reeling. I wanted you to know that it is one of the most affecting, emotional, devastating stories I have read for a long time. I wanted you to know that if you are a mother, or, in fact, if you have or had a mother, or if you didn’t have a mother for whatever reason, this book will make you sob. I wanted you to know that the tears will be worth it, because the message of human kindness and love is so strong in this book that it will heal your broken heart. I wanted you to know that this is the best I can do in terms of a review of this book, because it is too precious and real and raw for my poor attempts at analysis. I wanted you to know that you should read it, and that it will change you.

Laura Pearson is brave and brilliant and this book is so moving. That is all.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, well done and thank you! I’ve got some wonderful books lined up for June, and would love to hear what you are all reading at the moment. What books have you loved this month? What are you planning to read in June? Sending bookish good vibes to all. Ellie x x x

Review: What Doesn’t Kill You by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska and Others (2020)

I am very pleased to share my review of this powerful and important non-fiction collection published by Unbound. Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Blurb

“A stellar cast of writers and thinkers.” Nathan Filer

An explorer spends a decade preparing for an expedition to the South Pole; what happens when you live for a goal, but once it’s been accomplished, you discover it’s not enough? A successful broadcast journalist ends up broke, drunk and sleeping rough; what makes alcohol so hard to resist despite its ruinous consequences? A teenage girl tries to disappear by starving herself; what is this force that compels so many women to reduce their size so drastically?

In this essay collection, writers share the struggles that have shaped their lives – loss, depression, addiction, anxiety, trauma, identity and others. But as they take you on a journey to the darkest recesses of their mind, the authors grapple with challenges that haunt us all.

Review

In her foreward, Elitsa Dermendzhiyska asks the following questions:

“How can we live with our demons? How can we grow from our wounds? How can we write another story when the one we wanted is taken away from us?”

As anyone who has struggled with mental health issues knows, there are no easy answers. But one thing which is becoming increasingly clear is that the first step is breaking the silence and having open, honest, often painful conversations about our demons and our wounds. Personally, I am so much more open about my own battles with depression and anxiety than I used to be, partly – and I cannot stress this enough – because others are also more willing to share their stories. This project, clearly a labour of love by Dermendzhiyska, is of vital importance not only for those of us who may have experienced these kinds of issues, but also, I think, for those who have not. Revealing what goes on beneath the surface of the ‘self’ which we present to the world is hugely illuminating in terms of helping us to understand each other a little better, and to treat each other with more compassion and kindness – qualities we need now more than ever.

The book is divided into three sections: ‘Struggle,’ ‘Self,’ and ‘Striving’. Each contains essays by different authors, representing a huge range of experiences and opinions. Every essay deserves its place here, and I took something from all of them. Together they form a record of human experience which is profoundly moving. I was particularly struck by A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight,’ in which she recounts in vivid present tense her first ever panic attack; Irenosen Okojie’s beautiful, almost fable-like ‘Three Wise Women,’ telling of how she was saved by her grandmother when she was a baby; Hazel Gale’s incredibly powerful ‘The Last Fight’ and Ben Saunders’ brutally honest ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ These latter two essays are particularly shrewd inclusions in this collection as, on the face of it, Gale and Saunders have both completed physical achievements (in kickboxing/boxing and polar exploration respectively) that outwardly seem to represent a kind of ‘success’ unthinkable to those of us for whom getting out of bed is sometimes more than we can manage. There is a lesson here about challenging our assumptions and respecting the fact that we can’t judge the interior lives of others based on what we can see from the outside.

The final point I want to make about this collection is an aesthetic one. Many of these essays are written in gorgeous, startling prose, sometimes experimental, representing the very best of creative non-fiction. The talent on display adds a bittersweet layer of pleasure to the pain of the experiences recounted, and got me thinking deeply about the connection, explicitly mentioned in several of these essays, between creativity and inner struggles. This is a beautiful, affective, important collection that delves into what it means to be an imperfect human. I highly recommend it.

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound and is out in June. It is available for preorder now.

Foyles: https://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/biography/what-doesnt-kill-you-fifteen,elitsa-dermendzhiyska-rory-bremner-9781783527649

Review: Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught (2020)

Saving Lucia is the first book of indie publisher’s Bluemoose’s year of publishing women only. Bluemoose is one of my most exciting Book Twitter discoveries – this is the second book published by them that I have read, and I have three more waiting on my shelf. Do check them out on Twitter @Ofmooseandmen. They do brilliant things.

Onto the book itself: I have only just finished it, and my mind is still fizzing. It is, quite simply, a true work of art. I am hugely concerned that I won’t be able to do this brilliant book justice here, so I am tentatively (and perhaps appropriately) subtitling this review “Initial Impressions From an Over-Stimulated Mind” as I guarantee you now I will be revisiting this book, and it will be in my thoughts for a long time.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel so intellectually excited. The premise, as laid out in the blurb, is in itself enough to set my thoughts spinning:

“How would it be if four silenced women went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went?”

Well, let me tell you, it would be a literary rollercoaster, a delicious journey through some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time. Vaught teeters gracefully on the boundary poetry and prose, building in motifs and refrains that bring to mind music, visual arts, and the very best of literary traditions. The book reads like a classical work, richly woven with references and wide-ranging knowledge, and yet it is also something entirely new. We do not so much follow the four women, psychiatric patients all, as enter into their consciousnesses, and it is a thrilling experience.

Lady Violet Gibson, who once attempted to assasinate Mussolini, is an engaging, funny, utterly unique character, and I was as eager as Lucia Joyce, forgotten daughter of James Joyce, to join her on her imaginative adventures. This is an intellectual book, but it is also brimming over with love, and the friendship between the two women at the heart of the book is beautifully depicted. The trust they place in each other as they, along with Bertha and Blanche, dash through time and space, seemed to me to absolutely capture the essence of the best of female friendship. We see each other’s flaws, but we love each other full-heartedly anyway – unlike with a lover, we do not have to internalise those flaws – they do not hurt us in the same way. (Oh, how I miss my female friends! V, A, M – I love you!)

There is also such a spirit of generosity in this book, built into its very structure. Violet asks Lucia to set down this story, trusting her implicitly to do right by these women who have been so wronged and silenced by society. And Lucia rises to the challenge: the first person voice used by all four protagonists blends into a beautiful harmony. At first, it requires intense concentration to follow who is speaking, but gradually the reader’s attention is rewarded by it becoming easier and easier to know whose voice we are in. This is a marvellous achievement by Vaught, and I am going to have to go back and puzzle out how she pulls it off.

This is a book that demands close reading, but that attention more than pays off. I had a couple of instances of feeling so deeply connected to the text that I felt it like a tug in my chest: the first was when I was doing my usual thing of trying to work out what the book reminded me of – it is highly original, but I had just begun to think that it called to mind The Waves, which I finally read last year, when on the next page I read the phrase “a room of one’s own” and then a few pages later Woolf herself was referred to. I honestly get so excited by these psychic coincidences when I am reading! And I had another one – I had been thinking all the time I was reading that I wanted to write an essay about this book, to make notes, to research the background which is so richly mined by Vaught, and then Lucia herself gave gentle permission for the scribbling of notes in the margin, and, I admit, I thanked her out loud. You get me, Lucia.

There is so much I haven’t even touched on here – the nuanced exploration of mental illness and the destructive objectifying of these women by their societies, the astounding depth of the historical research which lends Vaught’s book authority even as she subverts and plays with the official historical narrative, the recurring motif of the passerines whose wingbeats echo throughout the story…I could go on!

As you can no doubt tell, this book has left me buzzing. It hits that sweet spot for me that the work of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood does – imaginative flights of fancy combined with so much profound truth and beauty that my mind and my heart feel full. This book is a gift.

Saving Lucia is out now and is available to purchase directly from the publishers here.

Anna Vaught’s website has lots of fascinating information about the book and the history behind it: www.annavaughtwrites.com

Twitter: @BookwormVaught

PM Press Submission Call: New Crime, Thriller and Dystopian Fiction Imprint @PMPress1 @damppebbles

I am really excited to share this amazing opportunity with you all! Read on to find out details of how you can submit your crime/thriller/dystopian novel or novella to this inaugural imprint!

About PM Press:

We are a Kindle-First imprint of Holland House Books that specialises in crime, thriller and dystopian fiction. Phaidra Robinson and Mia Skevington set up PM Press in April 2020 in order to pursue their respective loves of true crime and detective fiction. Our background of Literary Fiction at Holland House Books means that we bring an expectation of and experience in producing high quality books to these genres. An inaugural imprint, this is the time for authors to submit their work for the chance to be one of our founding book releases.

Call for Submissions:

We are looking for most types of crime and thriller fiction, from the classic English whodunit through to police procedurals, or classic noir through to mind-bending psychological thrillers. Maybe you want to introduce us to a dystopian future. We want well-written, satisfying work – a good twist and convincing characters are the ways to our hearts. It may be cosy and comfortable or dark and disturbing… or something completely different.

If you have a completed novel or novella which you believe may fit, then send us:

1) The first fifty pages of your work.
2) A synopsis of your work (maximum two pages).
3) A covering letter with a brief overview – we do NOT need you to do a brilliant ‘pitch’ or the kind of blurb which would go on the back of the book. The basic story, main character(s) and the general themes is all we need.

These documents should be Word Documents, size 12 in a standard font, with a line spacing of 1.5.

Please email us at pmpress@hhousebooks.com and address them to the Editor Phaidra Robinson.

PM Press Social Media Links:

Email: pmpress@hhousebooks.com

Website: https://pmpress9.wixsite.com/pmpress
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PMPressHHB 
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/pmpresshollandhouse/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/PMPress1

Good luck to everyone who submits their work! Thank you to Emma at Damp Pebbles and PM Press for inviting me to take part in this exciting call out!

Review: Watermarks: Life, Death and Swimming by Lenka Janiurek (2020) #Watermarks @LenkaJ12 @AllisonandBusby @EmmaFinnigan @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

I am really excited to share my thoughts on this moving and beautifully written memoir by Lenka Janiurek. Many thanks to Emma at Damp Pebbles for my spot on the blog tour, and to Emma Finnigan and Allison and Busby for providing me with a proof copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Blurb:

Lenka Janiurek’s story really begins with the death of her mother when she was nine. She is the daughter of a Polish immigrant father, and one of eight children. Across the years she is plagued by the rage, addiction and despair of the controlling men she is closest to. This memoir grapples with identity, of trying to find a place in a world and within a family, that don’t feel like your own.

This remarkable story from the 1960s to the present day, describes the loss of her mother to her relationships with 2 stepmothers, early success as a playwright, extensive travel, and encounters with both extreme wealth and poverty. Throughout Lenka explores and celebrates the beauty and tragedy of living life to the full.

Watermarks is a stunning evocation of alienation, searching, and the restorative power of nature.

Review:

Truth, the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction, and one of the main things that struck me about Lenka Janiurek’s compelling memoir is what an utterly unique journey she has had. If this were a novel, you might begin to think that no protagonist could undergo so many transformative experiences, both painful and healing, but the depth of emotion and honesty that Janiurek reveals in this remarkable story could only come through lived experience. The other thing that is clear from the outset of the book is her talent with words. Her prose style is lean and supple, and wonderfully descriptive, and I was drawn in right from the opening passages. The use of the present tense creates a sense not so much of remembering but of reliving, and it is immensely powerful. I was captivated by her story, following Lenka through her life as she negotiates the ebbs and flows of her curious and difficult path, immersed in her beautiful words.

There are many different elements to Lenka’s story, and I don’t want to divulge too much information in this review, as one of the joys of reading a memoir by someone whose life story is not common knowledge is discovering its twists and turns for yourself. Suffice it to say that plenty happens in this book: childhood loss, early success, unhappy relationships, travel, motherhood, spiritual and artistic exploration – the list goes on. I doubt Janiurek ever had the problem that many of us would encounter on considering whether to write our memoirs: “But what on earth would I write about?”

Losing her mother at such a young age is obviously a pivotal moment for Lenka, but what follows is far from a universal story of grief. The idiosyncracies of her scattered upbringing are brought to life through the disorientating but effective jumps in time and location that occur in the spaces between the chapters. This technique creates the sense of rootlessness, of contradictions, and a kind of desperate searching that seems to me to be at the heart of her book. She veers between places and situations in a way that reminded me of theatrical scene changes: when the lights come up on the stage of each new chapter, we are often in entirely new surroundings. From lavish country mansions to basic lodgings, from luxury to only the necessities, Lenka’s story is one of contrasts. The one constant is swimming: water is her element, it is where she feels most at home, and her descriptions of wild swimming in beautiful locations are stunning.

While the narrative drifts in an almost dream-like way from location to location, it is rooted by Janiurek’s sharp, clear-eyed prose. Her language is spare and piercing; the nouns anchor her descriptions in reality: stones, water, buildings, places. As a reader, I felt as if I was seeing through her eyes, which is surely the sign of an incredibly effective memoir. There is a raw honesty here that is brave and deeply moving, but it is tempered by what I came to see as a really strong sense of respect, both for herself and for others: whether she is grappling with her spiritual side (which she approaches with a dose of cynicism, even as she joins a guru in India and free-thinking camps of hippie artists) or examining her fraught relationships with troubled men, it is her story she is telling, not that of her family members or her destructive partners. This is emphasised by the fact that the men in her life are referred to euphemistically, as ‘the tall man’ and so on; the story is not about them, it is about her, and she never attempts to infer the thoughts or feelings of others. There is nothing intrusive about this memoir in terms of those surrounding her – even the men who might seem to deserve harsher treatment in the narrative are not given that power over her story, and this left me full of admiration in ways that I am still thinking about.

Watermarks is an appropriately immersive experience; a dive into a bright, original consciousness whose lived experiences are uniquely and beautifully described. It was a pleasure to see the world through Lenka’s eyes, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in exploring different ways of being. It is a thoughtful, honest, at times almost meditative book, and it had a profound impact on me as a reader. I am grateful that she chose to share her incredible story.

About Lenka Janiurek:

LENKA JANIUREK was born in York. At the age of 17 she won the prestigious Young Writer’s Competition at the Royal Court Theatre and subsequently had three plays on at the Royal Court Theatre, a platform play at the National Theatre, and one at the Other Place with the RSC in Stratford-on-Avon. She has facilitated workshops in writing, drama, art and well-being, in schools, colleges, at camps, and in a women’s prison. And worked as a baker, fundraiser, caretaker, green builder and researcher. She has four children. She lives close to the sea in Wales.

Social Media

Twitter: @LenkaJ12

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Watermarks-Death-Swimming-Lenka-Janiurek-ebook/dp/B07YVQJ74K/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1588939919&sr=8-7

Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/watermarks/lenka-janiurek/9780749025953

Foyles: https://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/biography/watermarks-life-death-and-swimming,lenka-janiurek-9780749025953

Hive.co.uk: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Lenka-Janiurek/Watermarks–Life-Death-and-Swimming/24757566

Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (2019)

First of all, there is a bit of a backstory to how I ended up reading this book this month, and since, to misquote Lesley Gore, it’s my blog, and I’ll share if I want to (share if I want to), do please indulge me. In terms of obtaining my physical copy of the book, it was a perfect example of everything I love about Bookish Twitter. I’ve only been active on Twitter for a few months, despite signing up 5 years ago (it seems I signed up and then forgot about it, which may have had something to do with the two small humans who have joined us in the meantime), and it has been a joyous revelation of tribe-finding. Honestly, I love it. And so, briefly: as part of the Stay At Home Litfest, the wonderful @writerlynds ran a competition for a ‘tweet story’, I was one of the winners, and the prize was a book of my choosing. You Will Be Safe Here had been on my radar for a while, and a brilliant review by Ellie (Number 1!) @ReadtoRamble sealed the deal.

I promise I will get to the actual book in a second; I just want to share why this book attracted me. I spent part of my childhood in Namibia, and we visited South Africa often as a family, both from Namibia and for many years after we left. That part of the world means a lot to me. My own novel-in-progress is set in southern Africa. When I was at university, I had the option to study a module on commonwealth and post colonial literature, and, thanks to a wonderfully supportive tutor, I was able to explore some brilliant South African writers in quite a lot of depth. My essays for him were always at least three times the prescribed length: he wrote on one of them: “I see what you mean about having been ‘carried away’!” but he was kind enough to assure me that the content justified the length. The months I spent reading writers such as J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, Njabulo Ndebele, Andre Brink, Damon Galgut and others represented the first time I had felt totally free to explore my own interests academically, and it was very important to me. So Barr’s book (to cut an overly-long story not terribly short) was not a random choice by any means. Its South African setting made it a must read for me.

You Will Be Safe Here is a beautiful and powerful book. It opens with teenage Willem being taken from his home in Johannesburg to New Dawn Safari Camp by his mother and her boyfriend, a place where they ‘make men out of boys’. After this brief prologue, we are plunged into the past, back to 1901, through the diary of Sarah van der Watt, a Boer farmer’s wife whose husband is fighting the British and who finds herself and her young son taken to the concentration camp at Bloemfontein as part of the British ‘Scorched Earth’ policy during the Second Boer War. During the first half of the novel, Sarah’s gripping story details life in the camp with all its horrors and contradictions – the squalid conditions, the expectation of gratitude towards the British officers, the changing allegiance of the black servants, who realise that for survival they need to be on side with the British. There is an awful lot going on here, and Barr handles it with a delicate, almost poetic touch, never losing sight of the personal stakes. I was fully immersed in the world that the author creates – the use of sensual detail is exquisite, and his metaphors are visceral and surprising. I would have read an entire novel of Sarah’s first person narration quite happily, but Barr has even more spectacular designs with this novel.

From 1901, we jump towards the 21st century in Part Two, pausing to take in key moments from the lives of Willem’s grandmother, Rayna, his mother, Irma and from Willem’s early childhood. Rayna is a fascinating character, a woman who lives on the verge of being an outcast due to having two children by two different men, but whose tenacious survival instinct sees her through. Irma is less sympathetic, particularly as her relationship with Willem grows more fractious, but she is equally complex and intriguing. One of the many things which is extremely well done in this novel is the careful handling of the attitudes of the Afrikaner characters not only towards race (Barr refuses to fall into the trap of giving his older characters more pleasingly enlightened opinions than is realistic – the tangled issue of racism cannot be ignored so easily) but also towards language (Afrikaans vs English), homosexuality, and ideas of masculinity. When Rayna expresses concern over Willem’s ‘softness’, it is clearly a genuine worry, and when we see the repercussions of being regarded as a ‘moffie’ by his peers, this concern seems justified. Irma’s decision to send Willem to New Dawn seems callous, and certainly when the true goings-on at the camp come to light, it is hard not to feel fury towards Willem’s mother, but there is the question of how much we can hold her responsible for responding to the reality of the society they live in. I still haven’t come to a firm conclusion on this one – like all the best books, You Will Be Safe Here will have me pondering such questions for a long time to come.

Again, I would have read a whole novel in the more contemporary Johannesburg setting and thought it quite brilliant, but what Barr achieves with his dual narrative is something absolutely extraordinary. I am probably going to get a bit passionate here, so do excuse me. Literature which shines a light on the dark corners of history seems to me to be absolutely crucial. At school I studied history and learnt about the Tudors and the Nazis on repeat, but it wasn’t until I studied South African literature and other post colonial literature that I started to get any kind of understanding of just how brutal my own country’s recent past had been; the utter devastation of British colonialism came as a shock. And it was fiction that brought it home to me, so to speak. When people dismiss fiction as escapism, I take strong issue with that: I have no doubt that I would know far less about the world without literature, and literature always shows me how much more there is to learn. Damian Barr’s book is essential reading: it is brave, beautiful, gripping and so intelligent about the ripples that reverberate out from history into our present. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I am sure I will be rereading this book.

You Will Be Safe Here is published by Bloomsbury and is out in paperback now.