Tag Archives: Literary fiction

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2019 (18 June) | 368p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Big Sky by Kate AtkinsonJackson Brodie, once a police detective and now a private investigator, has moved to a seaside village in north Yorkshire where he shares responsibility for his son and dog with his ex-partner. It’s an arrangement that works, for now. Jackson is currently at work trying to prove the infidelity of a client’s husband but everything begins to shift when Jackson comes across a desperate man on the edge of a crumbling cliff.

Jackson isn’t the only person interested in this man and his life. Detective constables Ronnie and Reggie are investigating the background to a troubling case, which involves terrible crimes. And then there’s the murder. Patterns emerge, coincidences confuse, in a soup of lies, secrets and deceit.

Big Sky is the first of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels that I’ve read. How that came about I have no idea because I adore her recent novels. Here’s an author whom I trust and I knew it wouldn’t matter if I hadn’t have read the others. And it didn’t but I’ll definitely be reading them now. I need to meet these people again.

The story is brilliantly constructed and told. There are so many threads to it, so many seemingly unrelated characters. We see events through the eyes of more than one, including our man on the cliff. But it doesn’t confuse in the slightest due to this author’s considerable skill. It does, however, amaze. If you’ve read earlier novels you’ll enjoy seeing familiar faces, to catch up with them all these years later, but each of them is given such life and depth that new readers will have no trouble falling for them. Ugliness can be found here in a story that at times grips the heart. But there is also hope and innocence. I adore Reggie and Ronnie.

Jackson Brodie operates almost in the shadows, sometimes on the wrong side of the right way to do things. His methods are unorthodox and he can place himself away and apart from the emotion, but we know he cares, that he worries. There are people here that need to be worried about, who need Jackson’s help.

Big Sky is a magnificent novel, not just for its excellent plot and beautiful, elegant prose, but also for its insight into human behaviour and motives. People here can do bad things, even when they don’t want to and know it’s wrong. That doesn’t make their behaviour any less evil, but it does make them interesting. There’s a battle between good and evil – Reggie and Ronnie (so brilliantly named) are the angels. Jackson is there to mete out justice and the way in which this novel comes together is jawdropping and marvellous.

Kate Atkinson is one of the very finest authors at work today. Big Sky Shows yet again why. I’ll be sure not to let this series pass me by again and I urge you to read it. This is undoubtedly one of my top books of the year. And it’s a beautiful hardback, with no fewer than two ribbons! Irresistible, inside and out.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins
Transcription

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The Wych Elm by Tana French

Viking | 2019 (21 February) | 513p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wych Elm by Tana FrenchToby Hennessy considers himself a lucky man. He’s handsome, charming and nothing bad ever seems to happen to him. He has the talent of being able to talk himself out of blame and punishment. Then one night this all changed. After an evening out in the pub with his two oldest friends, Toby returned home to sleep it off but he is woken up by two burglars. Toby’s very badly hurt with a head injury that leaves him with brain damage. His confidence is lost, his vision of the world around him shattered and his easy ability to communicate the way he did before is gone for good. He takes refuge in his family’s ancestral home, the Ivy House, and there Toby and his girlfriend can take care of Toby’s uncle Hugh, a man nearing the end of his life. In a way it’s almost like the old days with Toby’s cousins Susanna and Leon popping in with parents and children in tow for Sunday lunches and chatter. But when a skull is found in the old wych elm in the house’s gorgeous garden, nothing will ever be the same again.

The Wych Elm (or The Witch Elm as it’s called in the US) is an outstanding novel by Tana French. Standing alone, it tells the story of the disintegration of Toby and his family from the point of view of Toby, who, due to his brain damage, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. His injury means that he finds it difficult to express himself. It also means that he has lost or re-shaped memories. He no longer knows himself. He’s a man hanging on, particularly to his lovely girlfriend Melissa and to old familiar things. Hugh is a genealogist and Toby finds comfort in helping him.

Although crime plays its part in The Wych Elm and life is turned upside down by the discovery of the skull in the tree, this isn’t exactly a crime novel. It moves leisurely and carefully as Toby tries to understand what’s happening, remembering the past, grasping for the truth from Susanna and Leon, digging up secrets. It’s an absolutely fascinating portrayal of a small group of people and it isn’t rushed. If I’d been expecting a tense novel of suspense then I would have had to readjust my expectations. But it most certainly isn’t a slow novel. The Wych Elm is thoroughly compelling and I raced through its pages. It’s the type of story that can obsess the reader. It did me. I longed to pick it up whenever I could.

There are detectives in The Wych Elm and, for me, they are one of the highlights, one detective especially. They have an oppressive, disturbing presence, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve encountered before. They are the menacing shadows of this world. Of course, we see them through Toby’s troubled eyes but nevertheless there is something about this one detective in particular that frightened me. At times this is a very disturbing novel. This beautiful old house with its gorgeous garden and happy memories is also a place of monsters.

The Wych Elm is about people and place, memories and self-knowledge, families and being alone. And so much more than that. I was completely beguiled by it. I did feel a little disappointed by the ending, I must admit, possibly because by this stage I had my own idea about how I wished the story to end, but, nevertheless, this is a novel I won’t forget. It’s a glorious achievement and such a rewarding read. It made me very sorry that I haven’t read a Tana French novel before. I know I’ll be reading more.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Doublesday | 2019 (17 January) | 420p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Once Upon A River by Diane SetterfieldIt is the longest night of the year and the men of Radcot, Oxfordshire, gather in The Swan, an ancient inn on the banks of the Thames, keeping to its winter room for warmth. There are no women among the regulars although each knows that the landlady, Margot, rules queen of this inn. The appeal of The Swan is that it is a place for telling stories. The landlord, Joe, a man who ails from damp in his lungs, is a master of storytelling and people gather to hear him and to tell their own. On this midwinter’s night they will each gain a new story, better than any. An injured stranger bursts through the door and collapses. In his arms is the body of a young girl, four-years-old at most. Rita Sunday, the local healer, is fetched but it is clear to everyone that the child is dead. But then, hours later, she wakes up.

The community of Radcot knows all about lost children. The Vaughans lost their daughter two years before, stolen by thieves. Little Amelia’s mother, Helena, a young woman who feels more at home on the river than she does on land, is bereft and her husband despairs. Might this child be Amelia? Robert Armstrong has cause to think that she might instead be the granddaughter he’s never met, a little girl feared drowned. And then there’s Lily White, a woman who is lost herself, who lives in little more than a hovel, who believes that the child can be none other than her sister, who she last saw so long ago. All of these people are as linked by their sorrow as they are by the river as it flows through their lives during the months between midwinter and midsummer and the winter once more. A time that will change them all.

Once Upon a River is a stunningly gorgeous and melancholic tale set along the Thames during the later Victorian years. This is beautiful writing. The flow of the river and its tributaries form the heart of the novel and they also weave their way through its prose and imagery. It’s a hypnotic book, albeit a very sad one in places, because this is a novel about lost children, the hope of a child found, and the folklore of a river that might be the centre of this village’s life but it is also a place of death, especially for those in despair, and superstition.

Diane Setterfield paints such exquisite portraits of the men and women who live in Radcot and its environs. We occasionally might meet dangerous predators but the majority of the people we come across are drawn with such tenderness and care. It’s impossible not to become involved in their stories. For me, the standout character, among many who stand out, is Robert Armstrong, a gentle giant if ever there was one, whose empathy for his fellow human beings, especially children, as well as for the creatures that he farms or comes across during his day is bewitching. He has something in his pocket for them all but he also gives them all his time and attention. His adoration for his pigs is something to behold. They are his friends. One, alas, like the little girl carried out of the river, is lost. I also loved the theme of photography that weaves through the novel – this is the dawn of a new age, the age of Darwin and science, which is now trickling down to those who live superstitious and relatively impoverished lives along the Thames.

We get to know these people intimately as they live their lives, suffer their griefs, enjoy their rare joys, and sometimes die, meeting the ferryman that they all believe haunts these waters. Diane Setterfield understands their motivations entirely and each of the stories we encounter here is perfectly formed. There is, though, such a sadness to parts of the novel which did at times make for painful reading but I was so hypnotised by it I could not put it down, staying up late into the night to read it. There is lightness to counteract the darkness. There is hope and there is also gentle humour as well as great kindness. A fairy tale of sorts, there are hints of something otherworldly just out of reach.

Once Upon a River is an immersive, beguiling novel from start to finish. It is also set in my part of the world and it made me feel closer to it, made me want to explore more of it. The beautiful cover hints at wonders within and they are there to discover and enjoy. I have no doubt that this marvellous book will be among my favourites of the year.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Granta Books | 2018 (20 September) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ghost Wall by Sarah MossSilvie’s father Bill is obsessed by the lives of our Iron Age ancestors. He is a bus driver, not an academic, but he believes himself in tune with the prehistoric past and considers himself an expert in that kind of subsistence living. And so when he has the chance to re-enact the past in a reconstructed Iron Age settlement in a remote part of Northumberland, he leaps at the chance. He is determined that his wife and daughter will immerse themselves every bit as much. There will be a professor and his small group of students with them, but Bill will not permit them to distract him from his obsession, although he may be able to share with the professor some of his firsthand knowledge of survival.

For Silvie, named after a Celtic goddess, there is no peace to be found in this re-enacted life. With a mother who is emotionally distant and shut down and, more to the point, an abusive controlling father watching her every move, Silvie becomes haunted by those who really did live like this over two thousand years ago and who made the ultimate sacrifice in the ancient bogs, killed by the people they knew. But, although Silvie looks back to the past, she must first survive the present.

Ghost Wall is such a beautiful written, melancholic and mesmerising novella. At about 160 pages, not a word is wasted in evoking this strange world as it exists in the minds of the father, Bill, and in his bullied daughter. Their relationship, so central to the story, is placed in such a fascinating setting – this reconstructed prehistoric settlement – and the past really does infuse the present, even while some of the students do their best to break the rules. The novella begins back in the Iron Age with the sacrifice of young girl and this sets the mood so effectively for what is to come. We spend most of the time deep within Silvie’s thoughts as she tries to carry out the role expected of her while she makes friends with the students whose lives are so very different from her own.

It’s such a tragic story and I think that there is more than enough material here for a novel much longer in length. And that would be my only ‘complaint’. I would have loved more time spent on this archaeological experiment. My background in archaeology really enjoyed this element of the story and I’d have liked much more of it. Also the story comes to a rather hurried finish and, although I found the ending very good, I thought more could have been made of it. But having said all that, Ghost Wall is such an immersive read that you’ll probably finish in one sitting, as I did. It’s haunting and elegant while also depicting something of the harshness of the Iron Age and the unforgiving nature of its spiritual beliefs. This was a time when life could be a daily struggle, lived in debt to the gods, but for Silvie modern life is hardly easier. Sarah Moss mingles so perfectly, and disturbingly, the distant past and present and the result is spellbinding.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonIn 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.

In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.

I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.

I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.

Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.

Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.

Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.

The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.

Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Doubleday | 2018 (14 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

It is 1928 and Matilda Simpkin finds a small wooden club in a cupboard and with it comes a stream of memories that carry her back to the early years of the century when Mattie fought alongside her comrades for the suffrage of women. Matilda’s past is extraordinary – her deep-rooted unease around the police is easily explained by the abuse she witnessed and suffered at their hands as a suffragette. She keeps the medals which commemorate each protest, each imprisonment, each force feeding. But the fight was in the past. Mattie is lost and she is without purpose. But when she meets by chance a fellow suffragette she discovers that her old friend has been caught up in the flame of the growing movement of fascism. Suddenly Mattie discovers a new battle to fight – the need to educate girls and women of all ages and classes so that they can vote with awareness and knowledge. So that fascism will be defeated.

We first met Mattie in Crooked Heart, an exquisitely warm novel that took us to the last days of Mattie’s life during the Second World War, a life that helped to shape that novel’s young hero Noel. In that novel, Mattie played a relatively minor role but it was an unforgettable one. How good it is that now, several years later, we can enjoy Mattie’s company again, this time during her middle years when yet again her theories about education, the establishment and individual responsibility will have such an impact on the young people around her.

As Mattie sets up her band of Amazons (young women from all walks of life) on Hampstead Heath, in direct opposition to a fascist organisation of marching uniformed boys and girls, we become caught up in the hopes and aspirations of another generation of women. Women who, thanks to Mattie and others like her, will be able to have the vote, will be able to have dreams and possibly even fulfil them. We are introduced to a number of such memorable girls and women who are all inspired by Mattie. We pop into their lives and they are all so different and so utterly enchanting.

I fell in love with so many people in Old Baggage, not least of whom is Mattie herself. Lissa Evans writes so beautifully and takes us deep into Mattie’s thoughts and worries, her passions and her love, her self-doubt, and, most poignantly of all, the great losses she suffered during the First World War. The war ended ten years before but its legacy scars those who survived it. None of this is laboured – Lissa Evans presents it all with such skill and empathy, everything blended perfectly into the whole. The result is Matilda Simpkin, a woman who deserves and wins our love, for her heroism and her flaws. She is remarkable.

There are others I fell for here as well. Mattie’s companion Florrie (known as The Flea) is so beautifully and delicately drawn – she continues to carry out work for the poor, selflessly and at great personal cost. There are others we meet just briefly but their impressions last much longer. I loved poor Aileen especially. But the tragedy and sadness works so effectively because it is often masked by wit and humour, warmth and care.

Old Baggage is one of those fabulous books that reaches the heart, that makes the reader laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page. Writing this beautiful doesn’t come along every day and I cherished it. I can only hope that we meet Mattie once again, perhaps going even further back in time to those Suffragette years. There’s so much I want Mattie to tell us about her life! But if this is goodbye, I’ll not forget Matilda Simpkin.

Old Baggage is a timely commemoration of the bravery and sacrifice of suffragettes and suffragists but it also takes a look at what happened next, once these extraordinary women were reabsorbed into society during the aftermath of the First World War. It presents a beautiful portrait of Mattie, Florrie and their comrades while also celebrating the role of women as a whole, for whom there was and still is so much to do.

Other review
Crooked Heart

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

HQ | 2018 (17 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cliff House by Amanda JenningsIt is July 1986 and teenager Tamsyn dreams of another life. Her own is difficult. She lives with her mother and brother in a small house in St Just on the coast of west Cornwall. Money is scarce, jobs are few and it seems like no time at all since Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man, was lost at sea during a rescue. He used to take Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, and a highlight on the walk was the beautiful Cliff House, owned by the wealthy Davenport family who spend much of their year in London and other more exotic destinations. Tamsin and her father would even swim in the pool when the family were away.

Now Tamsyn watches the house on her own, observing the daily lives of the glamorous Mr and Mrs Davenport during their summer stay in Cliff House. To Tamsyn, their lives are perfection. She wishes nothing more than to be part of their lives. And when Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before, catches her swimming in the pool, Tamsyn gets her wish. But sometimes the truth is even more extraordinary than the dream.

In The Cliff House, Amanda Jennings returns to the gorgeous Cornish coast that she brought to life so beautifully in the outstanding In Her Wake, one of my top reads of 2016. I know this stretch of coast, around Sennen Cove, St Just and Cape Cornwall, very well and it is one of my most favourite places in the world. It’s clear that the author shares my love for it because it is evoked here with such eloquence and warmth. It is irresistible.

The novel revolves around the two very different families, the wealthy Davenports and Tamsyn’s much poorer family – her mother is Mrs Davenport’s cleaner. When the two come together, emotions become tangled, complicated by the influence and presence of Tamsyn’s brother Jago. But the heart of the novel can be found with Tamsyn and Edie who become unlikely friends due to a shared loneliness and sense of isolation and separation from their parents. The more that we learn about Mr and, especially, Mrs Davenport, it becomes clear that their stunning art deco Cliff House is no paradise.

Both Edie and Tamsyn are wonderful characters. The narrative moves between the two girls, allowing us to see both sides of a sometimes difficult, developing friendship. Tamsyn’s life is dominated by the grief she feels for her father and we spend uncomfortable moments in her mind as she works through the pain of watching her attractive mother date. Tamsyn is laid bare and we’re drawn close to her. The Davenports, by contrast, take on an almost distorted, ugly air, with Edie struggling to free herself. There is tragedy in this novel, at contrast with the beauty of its landscape.

I would argue that The Cliff House isn’t a psychological thriller, or even a thriller at all. I would suggest that you shouldn’t go into the novel expecting that kind of read. Instead, Amanda Jennings gives us an exquisitely written literary novel about loss, love, madness, and, above all else, growing up, all set against the most stunning backdrop of this splendid house, perched on a cliff along the most beautiful coast.

Other reviews and features
In Her Wake
Guest post: The inspiration of Cornwall