Review: Famished by Anna Vaught (2020)

Blurb

In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes.

Famished: seventeen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.

Review

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Anna Vaught’s brilliant novel Saving Lucia (out now from Bluemoose Books), and I was so taken with her style and skill that I jumped at the chance to read her new collection of short stories, out in September with Influx Press. Thank you again to Anna and to Jordan Taylor-Jones for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Saving Lucia dazzled me with its intellectual and linguistic acrobatics, and the short stories in Famished left me similarly breathless and impressed. The notes here are darker, and Vaught takes full advantage of the short story’s potential for sharp shocks and gut punches, showing masterful control of some wonderfully outlandish plotlines. The theme of food is approached and exploited from a multitude of angles, so that the collection is at once cohesive and varied: a veritable feast of literary exploration.

The standout stories for me include the two opening stories, ‘Cave Venus et Stella’ and ‘Feasting; Fasting,’ with the second feeling almost like a continuation of the first. Both are related in the present tense, by a powerfully idiosyncratic narrative voice which reappears throughout the collection, addressing the reader from a position both authoritative and collusive. The sly horror of the fluted cups and “umbrageous inhabitants” of ‘Cave Venus’ finds an echo in the ghostly presences in the French house in the second story; and later, in ‘Bread and Salt’, I felt as if I was meeting the same beings again, in Russia. There are patterns circling here, which warrant careful rereadings to fully uncover. ‘The Choracle’ is another of my favourites; an entirely unexpected and original take on the familiar ‘judgement at the school gates’ faced by the protagonist, Donna, who is wonderfully described as “the jarred pickled egg to your smashed avocado on sourdough.” Her sweet, magical revenge provides the same kind of delicious humour as the ending of ‘Hot Cross Buns, Sharp Teeth and a Tongue.’ ‘Trimalchio Jones,’ a gloriously lavish and chilling combination of Petronius and and F.Scott Fitzgerald (such fizzing intellectual leaps no longer surprise me with Vaught – her brilliance is gleaming and entirely her own) is very nearly my favourite piece in the whole collection, allowing as it does for some of the most excessively gorgeous descriptions of the bounties of the table and the bubbling unease of such feasting.

The trio of sweetshop stories scattered through the collection again provide a clue to the clever tapestry that is being woven here – there is a subtle sense of revisiting without repetition, which is mirrored in the way phrases and language, often deliciously archaic, are repeated in different stories. The final story, ‘Sweetie,’ reminded me strongly of the section in Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy, in which he and his friends play tricks on the horrid sweetshop owner, a reading memory I probably haven’t thought of in twenty years.

Memory and past experiences are incredibly important in this collection, particularly in the four most ‘personal’ stories, as I think of them: ‘What He Choked On,’ ‘A Tale of Tripe,’ ‘Shame’ and ‘Shadow Babies’ Supper’. The author’s assertion in the acknowledgements that “more of this book is true than you might imagine” is really quite poignant, and adds to the depth of feeling in these stories in particular. In ‘What He Choked On,’ we move from the present tense of the first two, more apocryphal stories into the “multi-layered suffering” of the past. The metaphor involving trifle is moving and profound, which are not words normally associated with the layered dessert. This is Vaught’s skill: like the narrator of the seriously creepy story ‘Shadow Babies’ Supper,’ she breaks through the “veneer” of daily life, of the ordinary, and reveals the “dull horror” beneath, but also the truth.

I was captivated by these stories, wrapped up in Vaught’s extraordinary imagination, and in utter agreement with the young man in Cave Venus who has “a tiny flutter in his heart for the unusual patina of her syntax” – this is exactly how I feel about Anna Vaught’s classical yet unsettling style in this collection. Her novel was more joyous, and perhaps more hopeful, but in these stories I feel as if the author is giving generously of herself, cultivating a relationship with the reader that is best expressed in the final lines of ‘Nanny Lovett and Pop Todd’:

“Come sit down, my darling. I believe in complicity and its special heat.

See what I have. Eat.”

Do it: eat, devour this book – you will not be disappointed by the magnificent feast provided.

Famished will be published by Influx Press on 10th September 2020, and is available to preorder here.

Review: Tapestry by Beth Duke (2020) @bethidee @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

Blurb

Twenty-one-year-old Skye Willis lives in Eufaula, Alabama, a tourist mecca of stately homes and world-class bass fishing. Her childhood friends are either stuck at dead ends or have moved on to accomplish Big Things.

Skye’s grandmother, Verna, insists on being called “Sparrow” because she suspects her ancestors were Muscogee Creek. She dresses in faux deerskin and experiments with ancient Native American recipes, offering a myth or legend to anyone who will listen.

Skye has no idea what to do with her life. She’s smart as hell, but she has no faith or knowledge there’s something out there she was “born to do.” Nor does she know much of anything about her father, who died in Afghanistan when she was a toddler. He and his family are a mystery her mother won’t discuss. But when Sparrow sets out to confirm her Creek ancestry through genetic testing, Skye joins in.

The results hit like a DNA bomb, launching them both on a path filled with surprises and life-changing events. Skye learns a harder truth than she ever expected.

Alternating chapters between Skye’s Alabama life and an intertwining tale of greed, deceit, and control in Texas, this story offers proof that all life is a woven tapestry of past, present, and future.

In Beth Duke’s uplifting and soul-singing voice, TAPESTRY is Southern Fiction at its best; you will cry, you will laugh out loud, and you will wish you were a member of the beautiful, matriarchal family Duke has created for her readers.

This book is a must-read for fans of Fannie Flagg, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Rebecca Wells.

Review

Thank you to the author and to Emma at Damp Pebbles for my spot on this blog tour. I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed this book. I have read some quite serious, dark fiction this year, and it was a refreshing delight to follow Skye and her family on their quirky, twisty journey. I loved the characters, especially Skye’s grandmother, Verna, whose devotion to her possible heritage is more than just an endearing eccentricity: it is an assertion of identity. But even the more minor characters are wonderfully drawn, from Skye’s mother’s new beau to his mother, each is given care and attention. This is a very loving book – you can feel the author’s big heart in every page.

Large themes are given space here, but they never overwhelm the narrative, which is a fun, unexpected ride that carries the reader along. Skye’s first person narration rings true – so much so that I definitely felt the age difference between us and found myself occasionally raising my eyebrows at her twenty-something mindset, but I think that says more about my age and cynicism! She is a sympathetic protagonist, and I wished her well at every turn. Her father is a more complicated character than he initially appears, and I liked his development as the book progressed. His wife, the fabulously dislikable Kara Darling, is the only character in the book who teeters on soap-operarish caricature, but her sections allow Duke to fully indulge her excellent sense of humour, and provide some highly entertaining drama, so I actually didn’t mind at all, and looked forward to Kara appearing on the page to stir up more trouble!

Tapestry was great fun to read. It is almost like reading two books in one: an uplifting, sweeping tale of a wonderfully idiosyncratic matriarchal family, and alongside, a comeuppance story about a Dallas/Dynasty-esque female villain. The non-traditional family values and the warmth at the heart of this book feel like a giant literary hug, and that is a beautiful thing. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good story told with a light touch and plenty of love.

About the Author

Beth Duke

Beth Duke is the recipient of short story awards on two continents and is eyeing the other five.

She lives in the mountains of her native Alabama with her husband, one real dog, one ornamental dog, and a flock of fluffy pet chickens.

She loves reading, writing, and not arithmetic.

Baking is a hobby, with semi-pro cupcakes and amateur macarons a specialty.

And puns—the worse, the better.

Travel is her other favorite thing, along with joining book clubs for discussion.

Please invite her to London…England or Kentucky, either is fine. Anywhere!

Social Media

Twitter: https://twitter.com/bethidee

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/TapestryByBethDuke/posts/

Website: https://www.bethduke.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/onlythebethforyou/

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/beth-duke

Purchase Links

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/306lErk

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3gWFnkl

Book Depository: https://bit.ly/2C2pgTl

Barnes and Noble: https://bit.ly/38NgBjC

Tapestry was published in paperback, digital and audio formats by The Art of Dixie on 8th February 2020.

Blog Tour: Champion by Stephen Deutsch (2020) – EXTRACT #Champion #StephenDeutsch @Bookollective @UnicornPubGroup

I am very excited to bring you an extract from Stephen Deutsch’s new novel, Champion. Thank you to Aimee at Bookollective for my spot on the tour. Yesterday, Linda did a fantastic interview and extract post, Staying in with Stephen Deutsch, and today I am bringing you a further taste of the book. I hope this extract gives you a flavour of this dramatic story! For more on Champion, check out the excellent bloggers and bookstagrammers on the tour, which runs until 27th July!

Blurb

Dark haired, slight, with deep-set haunted eyes, Herschel Grynszpan is an undocumented Jewish alien living in Paris. He receives a postcard from his parents – recently bundled from their Hanover flat, put on a train and dumped, with 12,000 others on the Polish border. Enraged, Herschel buys a gun and kills a minor German official in the German Embassy. The repercussions trigger Kristalnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in Germany and Austria, a calamity which some have called the opening act of the Holocaust.

Intertwined is the parallel life of the German boxer, Max Schmeling, who as a result of his victory over the then ‘invincible’ Joe Louis in 1936 became the poster boy of the Nazis. He and his movie-star wife, Anny Ondra, were feted by the regime – tea with Hitler, a passage on the airship Hindenburg – until his brutal two-minute beating in the rematch with Louis less than two years later. His story reaches a climax during Kristalnacht, where the champion performs an act of quiet heroism.

Extract

Chapter 16 – Buying a Gun

City noises jarred him awake. His immediate thought was that he should start his morning prayers. He looked for his tallis bag, then remembered that he had left it in his uncle’s flat. A disappointed shrug. God will forgive me after all I’ve been through. He rang for breakfast. After a few minutes, as he washed his face then smoothed his rumpled clothes as best he could, he heard a soft knock. When he opened the door, he found a tray of food at his feet – croissant, jam, butter, and coffee. He was hungry. Though the croissant was stale and tasteless, he ate it all. His familiar heartburn began immediately. And as usual, this gastric rebellion was accompanied by anxious thoughts, the mantra of worries which accompanied him everywhere, sometimes suppressed by diversions, but always lurking.

He removed a postcard from the inside pocket of his jacket and studied it. On the front, a formal monochrome photograph taken a few months earlier, in a busy, shabby photographer’s studio near the Pigalle, much recommended by his friends. Wearing a three-piece suit and tie, he stared straight at the camera, his attitude both serious and haughty, his black hair slicked back, an unlit cigarette resting nonchalantly between two fingers of his left hand, his right arm held behind his back. He thought the result both flattering and lifelike.

He fished the nub of a pencil from his jacket pocket and, sitting on the edge of the bed, wrote on the other side of the card:

My dear family, I couldn’t do otherwise. God must forgive me. My heart bleeds when I think of our tragedy. I have to protest in a way that the whole world will hear, and this I intend to do. I beg your forgiveness.

He signed the card and addressed it to his aunt and uncle then placed it in his wallet.

Leaving the hotel quickly, he strode along the Boulevard de Strasbourg, now filling with pedestrians, lorries and buses.

He arrived at A la Fine Lame, the gun-shop he had discovered on the previous evening. A middle-aged woman was raising the door shutters, the metallic clatter breaking through the noise of the traffic. He followed her into the shop. She studied him warily. He seemed to her a contradiction; well dressed, wearing expensive clothes, poised – yet unkempt, creased, unshaven.

‘Monsieur?’ she enquired, her eyebrows betraying her uneasy curiosity.

He needed some time to formulate what he intended to say into the best French he could manage. He looked around the dark shop, crammed with a large display of handguns in glass display-cases, mostly pistols and revolvers. Rifles and shotguns were mounted on the walls behind the counter. Satisfied with his inner rehearsal, he turned to her.

‘I need to buy a gun. It is because my father often…’

‘If you will excuse me for a moment, Monsieur, I’ll call my husband, Monsieur Carpe, who will be happy to advise you.’

Monsieur Carpe arrived before she could fetch him; stocky, sporting a moustache which Herschel thought was slightly too fulsome for his face. His wife went to open the window shutters. Morning light fell onto the wooden floor. He smiled at the young man.

‘Why do you need a gun?’

‘Well,’ he replied, calming himself so that his voice didn’t quaver, ‘my father is a German merchant who has me to carry large sums of money for him, so I need something to protect myself, things in the world being as they are.’

‘What sort of gun are you looking for?’

‘I was thinking a 45. Like in the movies.’

Carpe scowled. ‘The movies are not real life, Monsieur. A 45 is too heavy. Not for you, my son. What you need is a weapon that a person of your build could handle more easily. Something small, which, by the way, will also not spoil the lines of your jacket.’

He removed a small ‘hammerless’ pistol from the display case, demonstrating its lightness by passing it nimbly between his hands.

‘It holds five rounds, perhaps a bit cumbersome to reload. But I don’t expect someone like you will be in any gun battles. It’s easy to use and accurate at short range, maybe up to twenty metres, depending, of course, on how well you aim.’

Carpe then explained the safety mechanism. He loaded then unloaded the weapon. He demonstrated the ease of the trigger mechanism, then handed the pistol to Herschel, who pointed the gun at the ceiling and pulled the trigger five times. This all fascinated the boy. The gun seemed simple to him, far less complicated than any sewing machine.

‘This particular item costs 210 Fr, plus 35 Fr for a box of 25 bullets.’

He removed the three one-hundred-franc notes from his wallet and pushed them across the counter.

Carpe smiled, pushing the money back. ‘Not quite yet, Monsieur. There is no hurry. It’s early in the day, not so? First I need to take down your name and address and to see your identity papers.’

He handed Carpe his German passport, and stated his address as 8 rue Martel. After completing the registration form, he passed it to Carpe, who stamped it and handed it back, after writing the details into a ledger.

‘You are required by law to take this form to a police station, which as it happens, is just around the next corner. In France, every weapon must be registered.’

‘Yes, I understand.’

He handed the three 100 Fr notes to Carpe, and received his change, which Carpe removed from a drawer in a maple bureau behind him, having opened it with a small black key, one among many dangling at the end of a long silver keychain. Carpe wrapped the gun and ammunition in brown paper sheets and secured the packages with string. The boy put the packages into his overcoat pocket and walked to the door, nodding in the direction of Mme Carpe, who was busy dusting display cases.

‘You turn left at the next corner. You’ll see the police station ahead of you,’ Carpe reminded his agitated young customer.

He left the shop, closing the door quietly. He turned left and walked purposefully down the busy street in the direction of the police station. After a few steps, he abruptly changed his course, almost colliding with a surprised pedestrian. He hurried towards Tout va Bien. Entering the café quickly, he mutely acknowledged the patron, who was fiddling with an ancient coffee machine. Relieved that none of his friends were there, he walked to the washroom and was instantly assaulted by the acrid smell of recently applied disinfectant. He breathed deeply, entered a cubicle and unpacked the revolver and ammunition. He loaded the handgun – this isn’t as complicated as Mr. Carpe said – and put it into the left pocket of his suit jacket, smoothing the bulge as best he could. He placed the box of ammunition into his overcoat pocket. As he reached the Metro station, Strasbourg Saint-Denis, he threw the wrapping paper into a bin.

‘A return ticket, please,’ he asked at the counter.

‘It’s too early. No return tickets until after 9.30,’ he was informed by an already bored cashier.

‘A single then.’
He rode line 8 to the Madeleine, then changed to line 12 to Solférino.

He arrived at the German Embassy at 9.35. He was unsure about what to do next, but then the gun in his pocket reminded him of his mission.

About the Author

Stephen Deutsch was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. He was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of his career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film.

He has been a lecturer in film sound and music, and has edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. He is the co-author of a coming book Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound. He has written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC. For 25 years he composed the music for all stage, film and TV works of the playwright Peter Barnes.

Champion is out now, published by Unicorn, and is available to purchase here.

Review: Dancers on the Shore by William Melvin Kelley (1964; republished 2020)

Blurb

A collection of seventeen stories, from the author – and the world – of A Different Drummer.

‘There is no need of prophesying that Mr. Kelley will one day be among the best American short story writers. Dancers on the Shore proves that he already is’
New York Herald Tribune

In 1964, two years after the critically lauded release of his debut novel A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley published his first collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore. Reissued in a new edition by riverrun, these seventeen stories expand Kelley’s literary world, revisiting many of the locations and characters his readers first met in his explosive debut. These powerful stories showcase his bold imagination and spotlight his inimitable talent, further cementing his reputation as a lost giant of American literature – now rediscovered at last.

Review

I was delighted to receive an advance copy of Dancers on the Shore from Ana Sampson at Quercus/riverrun Books in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ana and the publisher for my copy. I have been keen to read more short story collections this year, having realised that my reading is very novel-heavy. This re-issue of a 1964 collection is both timely and brilliant, and I am so grateful to have had the chance to discover William Melvin Kelley. As soon as I finished this collection, I ordered his novel, A Different Drummer, which is also published by riverrun, and which I am very much looking forward to.

Onto the stories: the first thing to say is that they blew me away. In a really good short story collection, there might be two or three stories that give me what I call the ‘pang’ – a feeling in my chest towards the end of the story which is like a sucker-punch of truth. It is not about an unexpected twist, necessarily, but a line of dialogue or a gesture that has such authenticity to it that it seems to come from real life and not fiction, that sums up the heartache of the story, that reaches into the core of humanity. I don’t know if I am the only one that gets this feeling, and if this therefore sounds like Ellie-nonsense, but it’s a physical sensation, and as I say, it is rare. Almost every story in this book gave me the short story ‘pang of truth’.

It is easy to say that Kelley’s collection is particularly relevant now, in the light of the BLM movement, but as he states in his preface, “An American writer who happens to have brown skin faces this unique problem: […] his readers begin to search fervently, and often with honest concern, for some key or answer to what is happening today between black and white people in America.” He goes on to say a writer “should depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people.” Kelley is a keen-eyed observer of the dynamics of race in America, and of course these issues are prevalent in his stories, but he is first and foremost a chronicler of human nature, able to build deeply convincing characters, and to use the short story form to create whole worlds in a few pages.

The opening story, ‘The Only Man on Liberty Street,’ is told from the third person view of a child, Jennie. Her father defies convention and comes to live with his mistress, Jennie’s mother. In ‘Enemy Territory,’ the story which follows, Jennie appears again, much older. The interlinking nature of these stories, in which characters recur at different stages in their lives, and with greater or lesser roles depending on the story, adds to the realism of the story world. The way in which Kelley dips in and out of generations gives a swooping, sweeping feeling of continuity which is comforting and unsettling in equal measures, for while there are changes, they are not always enough, and there are repeated patterns that circle back. As the reader becomes more familiar with characters such as Chig and Peter and Connie and Mance, watching them face all kinds of challenges, sometimes growing as people, sometimes coming up short, the complexity of Kelley’s skill as a writer is gradually revealed. This collection builds to something almost greater than a novel, and it has left me excited to see how A Different Drummer compares.

‘Not Exactly Lena Horne’ is one of my favourite stories in the collection: Wilfred and Stanton are friends who have decided to live together in their old age, and their relationship is poignantly and perfectly depicted in the way they are so familiar with each other’s irritating habits. As Stanton grows more and more frustrated with Wilfred’s hobby of spotting car license plates, a very real sense of tension is created between the two men, despite the humour of the situation. (A small gesture at the end of this story caused a particularly big pang, by the way). Other standouts for me were: ‘What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?’, ‘Connie’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Legs in the World.’

Kelley is an outstanding writer, and I am so grateful to have been introduced to his work. I highly recommend this collection – for me, Kelley is right up there with the very best American short story writers I have read, and I can’t wait to read more of his books. (Just as I finished typing this, my copy A Different Drummer was delivered, so I won’t have to wait long!)

About the Author

Born in New York in 1937, William Melvin Kelley was an African-American writer known for his satirical explorations of race relations in America. He was just twenty-four years old when his debut novel, A Different Drummer, was first published in 1962, earning him critical comparisons to William Faulkner and James Baldwin. Dancers on the Shore, published in 1964, is his first collection of short stories. Considered part of the Black Arts Movement, Kelley was in 2014 officially credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with coining the political term ‘woke,’ in a 1962 New York Times article entitled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’. He died in February 2017, aged 79.

Dancers on the Shore will be published in paperback and ebook by riverrun on 6th August 2020. It is available to preorder here.

Review: The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley (2020)

Blurb

you want to scream and cry, and cry some more, but you don’t because if you start, you’ll never stop…

A first time mum struggles with her newborn baby. An alien examines the lives of Earth Mothers. A baby sleeps through the night at long last.

Written with raw honesty, Laura Besley’s debut flash collection exposes what it really means to be a mother.

Review

Flash fiction has been growing in popularity over the last few years, and I’m delighted to see this powerful form getting the recognition it deserves. Flash is so difficult to write well – I have tried and failed many times – and this collection shows off the very best of what it can achieve. I follow Laura on Twitter, and have been meaning to get hold of her debut collection for a while. I am so glad I did.

Obviously the theme is very relevant to me: anyone who knows me or even follows me on Twitter will be aware that motherhood is a pretty defining part of my identity (indeed, at times over the last five years, it has felt like my entire identity), but what Laura manages to do so well in this collection is to display the huge range of what motherhood can look like, to take it beyond its basic biological definition and show that being a mother is not the same as giving birth to a child. One story in particular, ‘Near and Far,’ expresses this idea so succinctly and beautifully; in just over a page, it manages to be deeply moving and to hint at so much more than is directly expressed. In this and other stories, there is a heft of narrative behind the glimpse that we see which shows the author’s skill with this form.

The stories broadly fall into two categories: the realistic, sometimes raw and sometimes amusing portrayals of ‘mum life’ on the one hand, and imaginative journeys into dystopian futures, alien observations and guilt-dusting fairies on the other. I really enjoyed the variety of these two ‘modes’. Stories such as ‘That Face’ and ‘Supermum’ are as familiar to me as breathing; while pieces like ‘Breakthrough in Motherhood Programme’ and ‘How To Grow Your Own Baby’ provide a slantwise perspective which illuminates the dark corners of the subject of motherhood. One of the great pleasures of reading a themed flash collection is watching the author’s imagination spark off the central idea in both relatable and entirely unexpected ways, and Laura’s ability to prise open the kernel of a story and draw in the reader over such a short space is an utter joy.

The author makes excellent use of flash’s potential for humour and for the ‘sting in the tale’ – there are dark laughs and gasps of shock to be had aplenty here. But what will stay with me is the truth and honesty of this slim volume, which pierces to the heart of what it means to be a mother, or to want to be a mother, or to NOT want to be a mother. This book is a small gem, and I would highly recommend it to all except those for whom this topic could be triggering. I have to admit I think there are points in the past when this book would have struck home too strongly, but that just goes to show how insightful and honest the writing is. I am very much looking forward to seeing what this talented writer produces next.

The Almost Mothers is published by Dahlia Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (2020) @fleetreads #ReadFleet #SeaWife #SeaWifeTour

I am delighted to join the blog tour for Sea Wife. Thank you so much to Grace Vincent and Fleet Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Blurb

When Michael informs his wife Juliet that he is leaving his job and buying a sailboat, she is taken aback. And when he proposes they and their two young children take a year-long voyage, she is deeply apprehensive. But Michael is persuasive, and eventually she agrees to his plan. The family set off for Panama, where their sailboat awaits them – a boat that Michael has named the Juliet.

Initially, the experience is transformative: their marriage is given a gust of energy, and each of them is affected by the beauty and wildness of the sea. But slowly, the voyage begins to unravel.

Juliet’s account of the life-changing events at sea is spliced with Michael’s captain’s log, which provides a riveting slow-motion narration of those same inexorable events.

Sea Wife is a gripping novel about marriage, family and love in a time of unprecedented turmoil. It is unforgettable in its power and astonishingly perceptive in its portrayal of optimism, disillusionment and survival.

Review

I am going to try and resist the temptation to fill this review with nautical metaphors, which won’t be easy, as this book carried me along as effortlessly as the tides (sorry). I was absolutely hooked from the start, and stayed up till stupid o’clock two nights in a row gripped by Juliet and Michael’s story. What struck me most about this novel is the way in which Gaige manages to perfectly balance the interior lives of her characters with the epic adventure that they find themselves on. There is a stunning mix of psychological insight and pure, thrilling action – a very difficult trick to pull off, but one which is beautifully and skilfully done here.

Both Juliet and Michael are complicated characters. Initially I was much more sympathetic towards Michael, whose sense of adventure and love of his wife and family are more immediately attractive qualities than Juliet’s introspective, doubtful questioning. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Juliet is suffering, and Michael’s gung-ho enthusiasm comes to seem less admirable when the burden his wife is carrying seems to go largely ignored.

I am sure many of us harbour (sorry) secret fantasies of disappearing off the grid, undertaking an adventure such as the sea voyage that Michael persuades Juliet to go on (there was a TV series about families living in the wilderness a few years ago that left me slightly wistful), but the cliche that you can’t run away from your problems is unfortunately true. Though Michael and Juliet do, at times, discover the kind of closeness that had been missing from their relationship, they cannot ignore the cracks, which follow them across the sea.

The structure of the book, with Juliet’s narration punctuated by extracts from Michael’s logbook, worked very well for me. At first, the two parallel narratives seem jarringly disconnected, but gradually the stories interweave and become more like a conversation. As the truth of the events of the voyage unfold, Juliet seems to come closer to a sort of understanding and acceptance, though nothing in this book is simple, and there are no easy answers.

The descriptions of the voyage, from the scenery to the sea itself to life on board the Juliet, are precise and gorgeous, and I was completely immersed in their journey. In all honesty, the storyline involving the police officers who show up at the house after the voyage is over was not necessary for me as a reader: it didn’t detract from the novel at all, but I was quite happy for the mysteries of the story to remain emotional rather than potentially criminal. I actually felt like this about another book I read this year, Where the Crawdads Sing, and I think it is just an indication that the emotional power of both books were enough for me – I didn’t need an added ‘plotline’, as I was already sold! But it certainly didn’t lessen my enjoyment. Similarly, the postscript to the book was a nice addition, but I didn’t need it to feel as if the story was complete. It did, however, show off Gaige’s incredible range as a writer – I am very keen to read more of her work.

Sea Wife is a fascinating book: a combination of a psychological thriller, an adventure story and a literary meditation on the complexities of relationships. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes compelling literary fiction with a strong hook and plenty of insight.

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige is published by Fleet and is out NOW.