Tag Archives: Literary fiction

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

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Two Roads | 2017 | 309p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth HoganWhen Laura takes on the role of assistant to Anthony Peardew, an elderly author of short stories, she soon discovers that she has entered a house of wonders. Anthony collects lost things, storing the little bits and pieces in his study, their provenance carefully recorded on labels. His dearest wish is that one day these items can be returned to their owners. The value of such treasures has little to do with their financial worth. It has everything to do with the memories that they contain. Even a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, an umbrella or a glove can be priceless in the hands of the person who wants them back so badly. But Anthony’s death makes his wish an impossibility. And so he hands it on to Laura, leaving her his house. But with the house comes far more than a collection of lost things, including the opportunity, gifted to her by Anthony, for Laura to find herself.

Eunice has found her dream job. She works for Bomber, a publisher with more than his fair share of eccentricities (not to mention an appalling sister called Portia), and Bomber is to become the great love of Eunice’s life.

I fell in love with The Keeper of Lost Things from its extraordinary, curious opening sentence. Instantly, I knew that I was in safe hands as I found myself immersed in the two parallel stories – one taking place in a house called Padua, Anthony’s beautiful home and now Laura’s, and one in the company of Eunice and Bomber and their beloved and spoilt dogs. If I had to choose between these two stories, I couldn’t. One knows from the very beginning that these two worlds, one of which covers forty years of time, will finally converge and waiting for them to do so is exquisitely tantalising.

To call Ruth Hogan’s writing beautiful does it no justice at all. The prose is elegant and so rich in colour, but it also light and enchanting. Interspersed throughout are little short stories which tell the story behind some of the lost things in the collection. These stay on the mind. They are so gently painted that it took a while for this reader at least to realise that these stories are not entirely as you’d expect. There is an increasing melancholy and pain in these tales, which belies the charm and hope of the narrative in which they are set. It’s this that reminds us that The Keeper of Lost Things isn’t just a novel about reunion and love – although it most certainly embraces these things – but it is also about loss and grief. It isn’t just objects that can be lost. People are lost, too.

And the people in The Keeper of Lost Things are astonishing! How I loved them! Perhaps most of all Sunshine, the girl who lives next door to Padua. The way that she plays with language is superb, in quite the opposite way to Portia who tortures words in her novels. The Keeper of Lost Things is worth reading for Portia alone! But all of the characters, whether human or canine, are to be loved. They are drawn by Ruth Hogan with such tenderness and care. And the setting of Padua, with its gorgeous garden (and gardener) is perfect.

The Keeper of Lost Things is a warm, compassionate and witty novel. It cares for the reader as much as it does for its characters. At times it made me both laugh and cry. It is indeed a feel good novel – it certainly did me good – but there are shadows hiding in its corners, which enrich it. I’m so very glad I read it.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings

in Her Wake | Amanda Jennings | 2016 | Orenda Books | 366p | Review copy | Buy the book

In Her Wake by Amanda JenningsWhen Bella’s mother Elaine dies, Bella with her husband David makes the journey home, back to the Old Vicarage, for her funeral. It’s a particularly lonely event. Elaine had disconnected herself from her family and friends over the years, not liking people in her home, and so her husband Henry decided against holding a wake. Henry has something he needs to tell Bella but whenever he tries the words catch in his mouth. Finally, only a letter will do. A letter he leaves next to himself when, one night, a day or two after Elaine’s funeral, he slits his wrists, leaving Bella to find him. Faced with such tragedy, combined with the shock of the letter, Bella’s life disjoints, ripped apart at the seams. How to pull herself together, return to life, when she is in so many pieces?

And so begins In Her Wake, a novel of such beauty and elegance, I doubt I’ll read another this year that moves me quite as much. I don’t want to tell you what the mystery is. It’s not a great surprise but everything in this novel should be discovered for the first time by its fortunate reader. It takes us deep into Bella’s soul, removing her from the familiar, away from a controlling, bullish husband, and placing her in the most gorgeously painted Cornish seaside world, a place of myth and discovery. I’m a very regular visitor to this part of Cornwall and I loved its descriptions of familiar places around St Ives, especially the church at Zennor.

In Her Wake has big themes and Amanda Jennings explores them fully and with such insight. In particular, the themes of family, children, loyalty and trust. As Bella tries to find herself, great things are demanded of her and she has the choice of letting them defeat her or finding an inner strength that will shape her entire life. Bella’s character is drawn perfectly. She is so complex, her moods up and down and her thoughts in turmoil. But her interaction with others – with David and with other characters in the novel, especially Dawn – is fascinating to watch, engrossing to read.

In Her Wake isn’t just the story of Bella, it also gives us her father Henry’s tale, with extracts from his life mixed in with Bella’s. These sections are fascinating, so dramatic, and crucial for the rest of the novel. In Her Wake has an enormous emotional power but it is also a mystery and these sections add to the thrill and tension.

Amanda Jennings writes so beautifully, I can’t begin to give In Her Wake the praise it deserves. It kept me up until late into the night. I didn’t want it to end but I finished it far too quickly. I just didn’t want to put it down. For all of its heavy themes, In Her Wake is not a depressing novel – it’s one that is life-affirming and inspirational, full of hope. I did cry a fair bit but some of those tears were tears of happiness. I couldn’t have cared for Bella any more. I loved her so much, just as I did the other characters whose lives Bella alters with her stay in Cornwall.

In Her Wake is a wonderful, wonderful novel. My emotions were rung out of me. A novel of the year for me and one I will be sure to keep close.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins | Kate Atkinson | 2015 (7 May) | Doubleday | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTwo years ago, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life caused a stir that still continues. This week, its companion novel A God in Ruins is published. These two novels complement each other, you don’t need to have read one to enjoy the other, but if you have read Life After Life and you loved its tale of Ursula Todd, then I think there’s a good chance that you will be blown away by this new story of her brother Teddy. I enjoyed Life After Life very much, finding it extremely clever, but it engaged my heart far less than my head. I expected something similar from A God in Ruins. I was in for a shock. A God In Ruins turned out to be one of the most emotionally powerful novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have no hesitation in declaring that it will be a contender for my top novel of 2015. If you loved Life After Life, even if you just liked it as I did, you will adore A God in Ruins.

This review is not an easy one to write. While we are familiar with some of the characters who return from Life After Life, the emotional impact of A God in Ruins relies on you knowing as little as possible about it when you begin. So, instead of giving anything away, this review aims to tell you something of why it has left such a significant and, I am confident, lasting impression on me.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd lives a succession of alternate lives, each one ending in a different way, time or place, but always resulting in yet another rebirth, a new life living another possibility. Her younger brother, World War II bomber pilot and countryside poet, Teddy, featured incidentally but memorably in several of these lives. In A God in Ruins, we have Teddy’s story – one life but not told in a conventional manner. The novel moves through Teddy’s life, jumping backwards and forwards, chapter by chapter, but also within chapters. The story is told by a wise narrator who leaves clues to future, present and past, as we learn to know Ted Todd very well indeed, as we do everyone else in his life. The narrative moves between generations, different perspectives of the same event are provided, memories come and go, places are visited and revisited. It is organic and whole. A God in Ruins is a brilliantly structured novel, its strands knitted together expertly, beautifully.

A God in Ruins lulled me into a false sense of security. It moved gently as it invited me, the reader, to want to get to know Teddy, introducing me to a young child describing nature to his glamorous, rather eccentric aunt Izzy on a meandering country walk, before moving me on with a jolt to another generation in a much different time. But slowly and surely, everything begins to knot together and that is when the heart becomes engaged and emotions start to build. I loved Teddy – not just the child but the man he becomes, so much so that I am tearful even thinking about him!

Just like Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a novel about war. Teddy’s experiences as a pilot of Halifax bombers colours his entire life, affecting every relationship, and we are immersed in the depths of pain and turmoil that hide in Teddy’s heart.

I’m not going to tell you here about what happens to Teddy, or about any of the people who move through this novel and Teddy’s life – each of them will grab hold of you, your feelings towards them will change, you will care deeply, maybe even dislike one or two of them intensely. But I will say that one of the reasons that I loved this book so much is because it made me think deeply about how little we might really know about those we love, how rewarded we would be if we dug a little, even if it also hurt a bit. The themes here are huge – life can be short; it is important to live that life fully and well.

A God in Ruins is a melancholic novel, it has scenes that are extremely upsetting, the more so because Kate Atkinson has the gift of making us care about her characters. But there are many light moments, humorous phrases, which contribute to the novel’s intense sense of being about the lives of real people. The relationships in it are complex and so believable and recognisable. The dialogue is spot on. All linked by the knowing, compassionate and very human voice of our author’s persona.

At the heart of this remarkable, wonderful book, though, is Teddy – I’m struggling to think of any other character in a novel I’ve felt so drawn to. Prepare to laugh and cry – and possibly cry an awful lot – as you get to know this man as he lives through his life, teaching us as he goes about what the years have taught him about home, love, family, war, nature, duty and death. I am overwhelmed.

Other review
Life After Life

The Well by Catherine Chanter

The Well | Catherine Chanter | 2015 | Canongate | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Well by Catherine ChanterThe Well is a haven, an Eden almost, in a Britain on which rain no longer falls. But at this one particular farm, named for its unfailing well, the rain still falls at night, just enough to keep the grass green, trees in leaf and the farmland fertile enough for crops and animal feed. When Ruth and Mark bought The Well they had no idea that they were buying more than an escape from London. But, in the years since, as Britain dried up and life changed, their fate became tied completely to their home, keeping them there while drawing others to it as well.

The Well, though, becomes famous for more than just its inexplicable rain and fertility. As the novel begins, Ruth is returned to The Well as a prisoner under house arrest. She has been found guilty by the draconian emergency water laws but, perhaps no worse than that, she is suspected of murder. In a story narrated in the present tense by Ruth, we are slowly allowed into this troubled woman’s world and memories. We are shown The Well past and present – once the happy home of Ruth, her husband Mark, her daughter Angie and Angie’s young son Lucien and now a prison containing just Ruth and her three guards, each of whom Ruth dehumanises with imagined names.

But the past was never that perfect. Ruth is an unreliable narrator. There is a strong sense that her memories are wishful thinking and as they parade before us it’s soon clear that everything was going wrong long before Ruth and Mark arrived at The Well. To some, Ruth is a witch, a murderer or, most especially in the eyes of her husband, a mad woman. To others, Ruth is linked entirely to The Well. To them she is a saviour, someone holy, just as The Well itself is a new Eden. A succession of visitors arrive at the farm – travellers, a religious female sect, a priest, guards. We see them all through Ruth’s eyes and we witness how they change her. But it’s a blinkered, distorted vision, not least as it is revealed to us by a woman near enough destroyed by grief and guilt.

The Well is a powerfully compelling read. Its portrait of a disintegrating, destructive marriage makes for painful reading, lightened by the brief moments Ruth spends with her grandson. Ruth’s relationship with Angie is a difficult one, much of its problems not fully revealed to us. The past is not a place where Ruth feels happy. There is scandal in the past, involving Angie and another involving Mark. The Well was supposed to save Ruth from this.

Ruth’s search for salvation is a strong theme – she seeks it with the enigmatic mystical nuns and with the priest. This adds to the mystery of The Well – is it an Eden? If it isn’t, why does the rain stop at its boundaries? And why, if it is somehow holy or unholy, is it such a place of death, despite its life-giving green? Is it evil, or good or simply the place of a weather phenomenon explicable by science?

The dystopian mood matches Ruth’s depression and despair. This is not a light read. Ruth’s mind is not always a pleasing place to spend time. But it is a fascinating one. The writing is beautiful, richly evocative of this strange place and this haunted woman. Our feelings towards the people surrounding Ruth are made instinctive due to the power of the prose. But some figures are ambiguous and surprising. It’s difficult to get to know Ruth. Not surprisingly she wants to lay down her feelings but she chooses what to tell.

I felt uncomfortable reading parts of The Well. It’s a challenging read at times not least because it is so relentlessly sad. It requires the reader to be in the right mood and, if they are, then it is extremely giving. This is an intriguingly created world, full of intentional holes and blurred colours, set within the wondrous and unknowable nature of The Well itself.

Melnitz by Charles Lewinsky

Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 634
Year: 2006, this English trans. 2015 (5 February)
Buy: Large Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Melnitz by Charles LewinskyReview
First published in 2006 in Switzerland, this is a review of the English translation of Melnitz to be published by Atlantic Books at the beginning of February.

In 1871, a knock at the door of cattle-dealer Salomon Meijer changes the life of the entire Meijer family. But this will not be for the last time. Over a period of almost seventy years, strangers enter the lives of this family, sometimes with the most unpromising of entrances, but always they transform it, bringing love, marriage, business opportunities and, often disturbingly, news of life beyond the island of Switzerland.

Anti-Semitism is well-established and a part of everyday life in central Europe in 1871, although some prefer to keep it hidden, with both Jews and non-Jews maintaining a polite distance, curious and puzzled by the customs and habits of the other. But over the course of these seventy years, all this is changed by the rise of National Socialism. The Meijer family is luckier than most, safe in neutral Switzerland but, while Switzerland becomes a sanctuary for the lucky few to escape Germany, the Meiers are not alone in feeling under threat. Not all of them are safe. And whispering in their ears the entire time, through all the years of love, marriages, disappointments, achievements, births and deaths, is the voice of Uncle Melnitz, the man who dies over and over again, his sole job to remind his kin of the plight of the Jews, to take the edge off every moment of happiness, to forewarn and tease.

Melnitz is a grand family saga covering five generations of the Meijer family and divided into four sections: 1871, 1893, 1913 and 1937. When the story begins, Janki arrives on the doorstep of Salomon (to whom he is complicatedly related) half-dead and a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War. Janki is French and as he revives and is adopted into this family, stirring up the two young women of the house, he brings about his dream of opening a shop to sell the finest Parisian fabrics. But Janki is not only a Frenchman he is also a Jew and it takes time and trouble for his life to become established. As we follow Janki and his family we watch Janki endure increasing prejudice until one event happens in particular that will almost rob him from these pages. This is a true power of Melnitz – the characters engage us with their daily lives, their small adventures and their little achievements but sometimes something will happen and that will snap these people right back into their shells. Occasionally, characters will be inspired to undertake great acts of bravery – two stand out in particular, during the First World War and in the months leading to the Second – but some disappear into themselves. It is painful for us. We get to know these people. It’s difficult to watch them suffer.

Five generations come and go through the novel. Some characters stand out more than most, some disappear too soon, others prove themselves to be extraordinary while others are shown to be perfectly normal, living from day to day, engaged with their family and/or business. But then they get a jolt – the arrival of another outsider, and the small world of Switzerland is expanded once more. Repeatedly, though, there are shocking reminders of what the Jew must suffer. One can dress the same as everyone else, even undergoing baptism, but everyone will always know – a Jew is always a Jew.

I am such a fan of family sagas. I love to become involved with people through decades of time, watching them change and, hopefully, meet their just desserts, whether for good or bad. This novel is a little different because you know that events are underway that are outside the characters’ control and the shadow of National Socialism is about as dark as a shadow can get. Melnitz appealed for all these reasons and it was a compelling read. It is a very substantial book, beautifully written, and it develops slowly. It is full of daily life, revealing the eccentricities of the characters – Salomon in particular is quite a character while Arthur, a 1930s doctor, is such an appealing figure, taking years – and many pages – to know himself. The female characters are slightly less well developed in my opinion but Chanele, Salomon’s adopted daughter who is no daughter, is wonderful. Throughout we are introduced to a veritable host of cameo figures who come and go, each leaving their mark. The pace is slow at times but it is by no means dull. The banter of conversation, the telling of events, relationships and foibles is done with such delicacy and wit. And now and again Uncle Melnitz adds the slightest breath of fantasy.

The narrative is interspersed throughout with Yiddish terms. I can understand why but I did find these a little tiresome after a while, despite the lengthy glossary at the back. There are an awful lot of them. There are also more typos and errors than I would expect – they probably only number a few but I found them very noticeable. The prose itself, though, is really rather beautiful in places, in words and in structure. The English translation by Shaun Whiteside is excellent.

While the first half of Melnitz seems to be all about establishing the family, its relationships, its village life and business aspirations, the second half is about the impact of the outside world on that life. This meant that, for me, the second half was a much faster read and I got drawn further and further into these lives. But the second half wouldn’t have had the emotional impact it had without the background lovingly laid down in the first. Melnitz is a rewarding, thoughtful read. It contains frequent moments of light, shining in an increasingly and frighteningly dark world.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 585
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy and gift (thank you Ellie @ Curiosity Killed the Bookworm!)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel FaberReview
Pastor Peter Leigh has been selected to visit Oasis, a planet trillions of miles from Earth that is home to an alien species that hungers for the word of God and especially the love of Jesus. This is a fantastic opportunity for Peter, to become a missionary on a new frontier. But the cost is high. USIC, the mysterious company that has bought Cape Canaveral and finances space exploration to Oasis, has a stringent selection policy and there is a place for just Peter, not for his beloved wife Bea. Peter must cope with life on a new, very different world, with little more than his own faith to sustain him, learning to relate to his strange unearthly flock, while separated from his wife and soulmate. Left on Earth, Bea has more than enough trials to test her own faith. Earth is in decline, catastrophes increase. Bea’s letters grow more and more desolate. The separation between husband and wife becomes much more than physical as both Peter and Bea learn about the true nature of faith, communication, love and need.

The Book of Strange New Things may well be the novel that I’ve thought about most this year before I actually got round to reading it. Friends whose opinions I value didn’t like it at all while there were others who adored it. A marmite book by the sound of things. I had some concerns going in – I have a low tolerance for anything that feels ‘preachy’ or religious and I don’t get on too well with books about marriage break-ups. But there was a stronger voice in my head saying I must read it – the cover is stunning, my favourite of the year, tactile and gorgeous, and it’s about life on a colony on an alien world while the Earth that’s been left behind approaches its apocalypse. As far as I was concerned, this is irresistible. What I actually got from The Book of Strange New Things is much more than that. This book made me dream of it.

Oasis is a breathtaking planet, not necessarily because it’s beautiful (although I think it is) but because of the way that Michel Faber describes it. Rarely has an author transported me to another world that is as fully realised as this one or populated by an alien species as sympathetic as this one. The descriptions of the rain, the mud, the insects, the sun and light and darkness, the Jesus Loving aliens, their homes and church – it is all created with such care and wonder. Earth is, as Peter reflects, more stunning with so much more to marvel at but Oasis is gorgeously different. It is alien and the wonder of that is evoked superbly through the beauty of Michel Faber’s prose.

After the opening powerful scene in which Peter and Bea part, the remainder of the novel largely moves between two worlds – Peter’s time as Pastor in the alien town, C2 or Freakland as the other colonists unkindly think of it, and his days in the human habitat surrounded by such a mix of souls. In C2 Peter experiences the everyday life of the aliens, their desire for medicines which they swap with the humans for food, their slow-motion labour, their relationship to others, their apparent androgyny and, as far as one sector of their community goes at least, their deep love and trust in Jesus. These are a ‘people’ who, after their first pastor disappeared, refused to barter food with humans until a new one is fetched from Earth for them, and that is despite their strong desire for medicines. Peter is transformed during these long days and nights in the town. He tries to adapt the word of God to make it easier for these beings who cannot pronounce many of the letters in the Bible. Peter is inspired and driven. In turn, he is loved.

The world of the human colony on Oasis is a different place entirely. Peter is drawn especially to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, but she is damaged and so, Peter learns, are many of these people who have chosen to live their lives trillions of miles from home and family.

Scattered throughout is an exchange of ‘letters’ between Bea and Peter. Having grown close by experiencing everything together, they must now build another kind of relationship defined by distance and it is difficult for them both. The glimpses we see of Earth’s environmental and social collapse thanks to Bea’s letters are absolutely fascinating, the trivial mixing with the monumental, and we can feel the push and pull of this on Peter.

This is not a straightforward narrative. We experience almost everything through Peter and his isn’t a skin that is always pleasant to inhabit. He describes everyone first by the colour of their skin, he makes easy judgements, he is obsessed with bodily functions and he has a battle to overcome his other needs. But as we learn more about his past and as he changes through contact with the aliens, it becomes easier for him and us to overcome his prejudices. Bea, by contrast, was for me an enormously sympathetic character. I felt for her so strongly. I also loved the aliens – they are so different from us but Michel Faber made me care for them very deeply.

The religious debate, the discussions about family, memories and home, are powerfully done. I didn’t expect to be moved by it but I was. Here we have people laid bare while the disasters that befall Earth are Biblical indeed. The aliens’ relationship with their faith and beliefs is developed, and later explained, extremely well and in a most memorable manner.

There is plenty here that doesn’t make sense. This is a very near-future world so how did humanity reach Oasis (and long enough ago to have built such a colony)? How do the aliens speak such good English? Why is there no time lag in communications between Peter and Bea? And I could list more. But this is science fiction without the science, a book about religion that isn’t itself religious. This is a book about one man’s experience, warts and all. I may have worried that I wouldn’t like this novel but I loved it from the very first chapter. Compelling, hypnotic, really rather extraordinary and, for me, unputdownable. The Book of Strange New Things is a highlight of the year for me and will stay with me for a long time.

In the acknowledgements, Faber mentions that all of the surnames in the book are based on those of the people who created the Marvel Comics that inspired him so deeply during the 1960s and 70s. Love that!

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Publisher: Tinder Press
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Amity and Sorrow by peggy RileyReview
Amity and Sorrow are two sisters, barely into their teens, tied together by a strap and torn from their home by Amaranth their mother. Having driven for four days, Amaranth crashes the car and the three take refuge in a farm in Oklahoma, tolerated by gruff farmer Bradley. The girls are entirely innocent of the world but they know all there is to know about hellfire, the wrath of God, the iron grip of a controlling, charismatic minister father and the company of other women and children, all belonging to the man their mother flees. What should have turned the preacher’s wife number one, Amaranth, against her husband is all too apparent when we first meet Sorrow miscarrying her father’s baby in a gas station toilet. But, whereas Amity finds hope and interest in this new chance of freedom, Sorrow wants nothing more than to return to her father and his cult of fifty wives. She is the vessel that will bring forth a messiah to lead them through the apocalypse. She must engulf the world of sin in flames.

Amity and Sorrow is a tale of two worlds. In one, Amaranth and Amity begin to recover a life, breaking long-lived rules, talking to men and boys, wandering into forbidden fields, enjoying food and drink and small pleasures, learning to embrace an optimistic hope that the world will continue and that it has something in it for them, even if that is a simple life on a remote farm with a man with troubles of his own. In the other world, we journey backwards through time into Amaranth’s story, getting to know her husband who would return from every trip with yet another wife. Set against the story of the many wives learning to know and love one another is the seedy account of a man exploiting vulnerable women and girls, including his daughter. Sorrow’s tale is a different one from Amity’s and when we realise why it seems hardly surprising.

The story of the mother and her two daughters is set against that of Bradley, the farmer, his old father and his stepson, Dust. These are hardly ideal circumstances for one family to learn to adopt another but they pick their way through the barriers of religion, betrayal and suspicion and find something else, at least some of them do.

This is a novel with a fair share of fire and pain. People are scarred on the outside as well as the inside. Flames are both a punishment and a salvation. Side by side with the hellfire is farming and fertility – the nurture of crops, the stirrings of sexual desire – but the name of the crop (much repeated in the novel), rape, is an ugly reminder of the danger beyond the fields.

This is a first novel and really rather extraordinary for it. Written in the present tense, moving fluidly between characters and perspectives, hinting at hidden lies and slowly unravelling truths. It’s an intense read, not especially easy in places, and it is harrowing, but there are moments of sweetness and charm. While my sympathies were tested to the limit by Amaranth and Sorrow, I really enjoyed the character of Amity as well as the richness of the setting. The prose is extremely evocative and the way it brings us to the truth of what Amaranth has left behind is very powerful and compulsive. Amity and Sorrow is not a long novel but it has great depth.

Later in April, I’ll be returning to Amity and Sorrow with author Peggy Riley.