Julie Fowlis – Uam


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Uam, Uam, thank you ma’am

uamOn the cusp of Scotland’s historic vote, it seems only fitting to post a review of one of my favourite ‘daughter of Scotland’ singers, Julie Fowlis, who sings traditional songs – in Gaelic. Her voice is as ever, properly sweet (not cloyingly so) true and clear. I have several albums by Fowlis, first encountered some years ago in a festival in Galway.

I had no idea what she was singing about in terms of precise detail or story but the emotional places she sings from are outwith the need to understand the words. Music can really be language enough

Julie Fowlis, as she always does,  continues to inhabit a musical space of passion, generosity and joyfulness. On this album she also shares songs with other chanteuses of an older generation, Mary Smith and Eddy Reader.  This follows Fowlis’ belief that a song is a gift (Uam means from me) which is passed to the listener, and if that listener is also musical they may pass it on to another listener in performance. So there is the sense of this music being handed down through the generations.

I’m not Scottish, but the sense of ancientness and ‘in the blood’ness in this music is palpable. Maybe its just Fowlis’ own inhabiting of the music with such integrity.

As well as the wonderful strange vocals (but here is a link to the page of her website which lets you read the lyrics in translation into English there are the complex musical rhythms and textures of the instruments to delight the listener

As ever, she’s produced a haunting album, even the songs of sorrowful yearning speak of joy at feeling itself, and the joy of music. Fowlis may indeed be something of a star on the Celtic music scene, but to listen to her albums, and indeed to see her live, is to experience a performer who serves the music, and the audience for that music, not her own ego. All the musicians shine!

Uam Amazon UK
Uam Amazon USA

David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks


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David Mitchell, flawed, is still a far finer writer than many writing at the top of their form

The Bone ClocksDavid Mitchell is a curious writer – he has the ability to effortlessly inhabit many different kinds of voices, of differing character, and believably writes first person narrative from a male or female perspective, from young and old, from different cultures, places and indeed from different times. (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas)

He can also plagiarise himself, mock himself, and write concertedly in a single voice (Black Swan Green)

He is an author who is always best read with focus and attention, as even when he is being most flashy, most showing off his writerly ‘bling’ the reader will suddenly be dropped into playfulness with words, juggling voices and genres, pastiche, and – when you think you have this man’s measure as a sleight of hand merchant, a music-hall master only of illusion and cleverness which needs admiration (and might evoke a little envy) , he drops you down into darkness, suffering, existential terror and pain, despair, cruelty, soulfulness and all the unbearable truths that make the glitter and legerdemain necessary as a foil to the depth.

The man is almost TOO clever, and I sometimes wonder if his refusal to be pigeon-holed creates a certain distrust of him, from certain quarters. He is an unpredictable writer – except that he is always an excellent one.

Here, he is back to the voices of several narrators, with the linking devices of major and minor figures from previous sections of this book (or previous books) turning up as major or minor characters in later stories.

As in Ghostwritten ‘interconnection’ is a major thread. And so is writing itself – Mitchell’s ‘cleverness’ asks you to look at the illusions art creates – he pulls you into the story, and pushes you out, effectively saying ‘this is illusion’ The deliberate Alienation Effect’

The central image which floated, always, through for me, was the image of a poem by Shelley, Ozymandias’. Death stalks, ‘look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ Ozymandias builds a monument meant to give him a legacy through the ages, and that is the inscription. Time, and entropy, has caused the monument to crumble, and the inscription is what remains. Ozymandias is the mighty who despairs, in the end. And this is a theme, the desire to avoid aging, the helpless, hopeless desire to avoid that end, to live for now, as glitteringly as we can

So, this major theme – cheating ageing and death, the desire for immortality, – for us as individuals, or collectively as a species, is explored severally.

Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark……as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither and fall in irradiated tufts…DNA frays like wool, and down we tumble; a fall on the stairs, a heart-attack, a stroke; not dancing but twitching. This is Club Walpurgis. They knew it in the Middle Ages. Life is a terminal illness

The central, linking character who starts off the journey in 1984 is Holly Sykes, a 15 year old from Gravesend (Hah! Mitchell slyly peppers his novel with reminders, obvious and subliminal, of his themes) She is stroppy, tremblingly in first love, and full of attitude. Holly also has a younger brother aged 6, strange and wise beyond his years. At this point, Holly’s voice is pretty well normal for a 15 year old lovelorn girl with some lip and feist to her nature. BUT, there are strange incursions from a mysterious set of people who could almost have strolled in from the hinterland between the two incarnations of Mr Banks – that is Iain, and Iain M.

Love is fusion in the sun’s core. Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object. The difference between its presence and its absence is the difference between life and death

And these incursions do re-occur, throughout the book. Yet, it is in no way ‘magic realism’. The real is very real….and yet, reality is not quite solid, not quite fixed. Neither does this sit as science fiction, nor fantasy. Mitchell resolutely eschews the neat pigeon hole of genre. Yet he picks and weaves in genre stock in trade as he chooses. And, for my money, he does this consciously, precisely, and largely, well.

The second section, 1991, in which Holly also makes an appearance (as indeed does another character from that first section) follows the journey of a sharp, amoral, upwardly very mobile young man, Hugo Lamb, and stands as a critique of early 90’s Thatcherite inheritance – ‘there is no such thing as society’ Hugo fits right in. Yet there is more, and underneath the razzamatazz and the fierce partying he has a clarity about this ‘Ozymandias’ legacy, of all comes to dust – there is a wonderful section on this where Mitchell dazzles, as he so often does, as a sleight of hand, magician of words, and the reader (well this one) enjoyed hugely the demonstration of linguistic delight and playfulness

The third section, into 2004 sees us back in ‘the Holly fold’ and she and her family, 20 years older, are gathered for a family wedding. The narrator of this section is someone we have met before, now an acclaimed war reporter, embedded in Iraq, and back briefly to attend that wedding. The reporter is deep in the here and now of events at the wedding party, but is having also another internal dialogue (as we do, since often most of us are both in our here and now AND either reliving memory or imagining future memories) That other dialogue concerns war torn Iraq, and there are many arising conversations and thoughts which demonstrate Mitchell’s ability to get underneath and inside black and white viewpoints into nuance. He is, as ever, much more than merely a clever writer. He is a writer with emotional subtlety. Empathy, compassion and tenderness, as well as intelligent analysis and a display of dazzling skill in working with words, all guide his writing

The fourth section brings us to now, and to a little ahead of now. And our central narrator here (oh dangerous, Mitchell, this game, but how WELL you walk the tightrope) is a dark and bitter version of the writer you might have been – one passed over several times for a thinly disguised version of the Booker (as Mitchell has of course been, several times, and again most recently) and moreover a version of the Booker now bankrolled by a thinly disguised Sir Alan Sugar. There are vengeful little cracks made by our narrator (part of the peripheral circle from section 2) about the incestuous world of publishing, writing, literary fashion. In many ways Mitchell is setting himself up as his own fall-guy in this section. But it’s lovely, audacious stuff

Again we meet Holly, and, again there is a sustained influx of what some might call ‘fantasy supernatural elements’ Except – Mitchell reminds us that there are other cultures who take some of this quite seriously. There is a section set in Australia where Holly taps in to Aboriginal myths, Aboriginal ways of interpreting the world. This feels quite important – Mitchell himself has been castigated from some quarters for his usage of ‘fantasy’ when he is a serious literary writer. And yet….IF he had been a writer from some cultures, I have no doubt the ‘mythic culture he is writing from, would not have been dismissed. It is as if a serious twenty-first century literary writer, not a genre writer, who is British, should NOT BE DOING THIS.

I riff on notions of the soul as a karmic report card; as a spiritual memory-stick in search of a corporeal hard-drive; and as a placebo we generate to cure our dread of mortality.

The fifth section, set in 2025, is the one where the ‘fantasy elements’ really bite hard, with some psychic battles between the forces of good (Horologists) and bad (Anchorites) are played out, with Holly Sykes again, now in her 50s, with a grown up daughter, being played for, or being played with. Here is the section where I believe Mitchell’s risk-taking does not really quite work. Elemental battles between the forces of dark and light have of course been part of many great pieces of classical literature, but also have a tendency to reek of Komik Kuts, and I don’t think Mitchell makes a completely clean escape from the latter.

At this point, I was veering towards a 4 star. Until:

Radiation Logo

The final section, Sheep’s Head, is set in 2045. Holly is in her seventies, living in rural Ireland. We are in the period of the Endarkenment, heading towards the end of days – not through any supernatural agencies, only through our own neglect, greed and wastefulness, our ‘live now and let future generations pay later’ mindset. Climate change has, as the warning voices insistently tell us, created many changes, much of the earth is uninhabitable. Elderly nuclear reactors have sprung leaks, political instability and the emergence of new power bases, the collapse of the global economy, the rise of militia, the end of taken-for-granted-endless-supplies of fossil fuels, gas and oil, and thence electricity has ended everything we take for granted. The technological advances of recent decades are gone. Mitchell presents as brilliant, bleak, and heart-breaking a future, with small lights bravely attempting to keep the kindness of humanity, still flickering, as I have ever read.

People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burnt our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing – while denying – that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

For sure, this is not by any means a faultless book. But flawed Mitchell is a far more David Mitchellrewarding read, to my mind, than many writers at the absolute top of their form.

Finishing this book, puts me back in the same place as every previous one of his books – other reads, will for a while feel curiously empty and lacking.

I’ve probably made this given the graphics, seem far too gloomy whereas Mitchell as ever marries vitality, lushness and a celebration of livingness in his writing, a vigour, a dizzying delight, with that darker undercurrent of what happens when life itself, in all its teeming forms, is held cheap

The Bone Clocks Amazon UK
The Bone Clocks Amazon USA

Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus


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Deft, sly and playful reworking of the Odyssey story – from the woman’s POV

penelopiadThis is a sharp and acerbic story, examining what it might be like to be the ‘patient woman who weaves and waits for her husband to return from derring-do and being heroic’

Atwood wears her learning and her feminism lightly, but the sharp examination of what it might have been like to have been female in Ancient Greece, just prior to the Trojan wars, is nevertheless pointed and stark.

Penelope, Odysseus’ ‘patient wife’ is stuck in Ithaca whilst he roisters about for years, being a hero. Atwood cuts the myths about the Sirens and Circe down to human size, slyly suggesting Odysseus and his men have just bigged up some prolonged stays in brothels.

Penelope tells her story from the Underworld, occasionally casting a jaundiced eye on the 21st century. She looks back at her girlhood and marriage to Odysseus, what it was like to be a minor princess and political pawn. There’s a fairly large cast of Classical gods and heroes, all given the Atwood treatment – for example, Penelope’s mother, a Naiad, is predictably a little short on maternal feelings:

she preferred swimming about to the care of small children…..there she sat on her throne….a small puddle gathering at her feet

Helen of ship launching fame (Penelope’s cousin) is vapid and self obsessed.

John William Waterhouse - Penelope and The Suitors (1912)

                John William Waterhouse – Penelope and The Suitors (1912)

The story is told with dry wit by Penelope herself, and also is commented on and burlesqued by her 12 maids (who were all savagely hung by Odysseus’ son Telemachus) – this is no spoiler, its all in the Odyssey, and anyway Penelope alludes to the end of the story at the start.

This isn’t an Atwood with the weight of The Blind Assassin, or Alias Grace, but very >Margaret Atwood has   extolled the virtues of the   social media site, Wattpad.present underneath the light touch humour and playful illusion, the laying bare of the results of patriarchy are as uncompromising as ever

The Penelopiad Amazon UK
The Penelopiad Amazon USA

Jake Wallis Simons – The English German Girl


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English German Girl

For about the first 2/3rd of the book, I felt the author did not put a foot wrong. This was an absorbing, and beautifully written novel based on the Kindertransport, where Jewish children, with great difficulty, were weaved through impossible bureaucracy to safety, before Britain and Germany went to war, after the invasion of Poland. Simons writes most beautifully; he has a real flair for the surprising image – ‘ravens of guilt’, – without becoming self-consciously literary. He is excellent at the nuances of character, can evoke time and place brilliantly and precisely, and the narrative is good – for most of the time.

The evocation of the slowly gathering forces of fascism, and the inability to believe that the seriousness of its threats were real, were carefully and realistically handled, in this story of an upper-middle class, Jewish intelligentsia family, in Berlin. The feeling of despair and dislocation of the central character, Rosa, once she arrives in the UK as part of a Kindertransport group, is also beautifully and believably handled.

Kindertransport Arrival, London 1939, Wiki Commons

Kindertransport Arrival, London 1939, Wiki Commons

However (can’t say too much, in order to avoid spoilers) I felt that once the novel moves from the Norwich setting, and indeed the reason for that move, the story itself became more formulaic, and Simons began using coincidence upon coincidence in order to get a nice tidy ‘wrap’. The complexity and reality of his characters deserved a less predictable outcome, a greater ambiguity. Life has a habit of being untidy, unfinished. More could also have been made of the fact that German nationals – even escaped Jewish German nationals, were often suspected of being spies, and thus faced an even more desperate time as asylum seekers. This is certainly hinted at, but could have steeped a little more clearly into Rosa’s daily consciousness.

I felt some red-pencil work would have benefited the book, and prevented a bit of the Jake Wallis Simonsrather drawn out sequence in the blackout, on the streets, whilst bombs were falling. The ending was always obvious, and its length unnecessarily contrived.

Simons, despite a faltering towards the end of the book, is certainly one to watch.

The English German Girl Amazon UK
The English German Girl Amazon USA

Susan Hill – The Soul of Discretion (Serrailler 8)


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Just when I thought the Serrailler series might be running out of steam…….

The Soul of DiscretionSusan Hill was a fabulous and thoughtful writer of complex and often dark psychology long before she embarked on the crime genre

So when, all those years ago, she joined the ranks of detective novel writers, with an on-going cast of characters, to appear novel by novel, she was never going to abandon her initial writerly strengths and vision, and would instead bring these to her interpretation of the genre.

She begins with a particular person DCI Simon Serrailler, as her detective to follow and over the years (this is outing 8) traces the development not just of Serrailler himself, and relationships he has as a professional, the development of and relationships of individuals within his team, but also looks at Serrailler within his immediate and wider family, and their development. That family of course also being set within a particular time and place ‘Lafferton’ a small cathedral town, somewhere in Southern England.

This gives, as the series wears on, Hill a chance to explore much wider themes, within the lives of her characters, and the culture of the times. The particular ‘crime’ which may be the page turning element of the plot will spread out into the lives of the community at large, and Hill may also investigate further ethical and philosophical themes and sub-themes in each novel, as well as charting how decisions from Central Government may be filtering down onto the ground. These will obviously be around policing and judiciary, and may deal with issues such as economic migrants and how they are viewed, but, as Serrailler’s sister Cat Deerbon is a doctor, the exploration of the changing face of health-care and policies relating to this, are also, increasingly, at the centre.

This might make her sound dry, white-paper minded and pedantic. Anything but – it adds depth, integrity and interest. Continuing readers of the series know all the above, and my advice of course for the first time reader would be that though this (book 8) is absolutely fine, as they all are, to read as a stand-alone first book, if you enjoyed it, go and explore, in order, the rest of the series, from book 1, and work your way through, then reading this again, for even more enjoyment.

Later books in the series have explored strong meta-themes.

Broken dolls, Wiki Commons

Broken dolls, Wiki Commons

In this one, we are back into the territory of sexual crimes – and the wide context is about consent, and who is capable of giving consent; sex without consent is always violation. Centrally, we are in the horrid territory of organised paedophilia, but there is also another story going on around adult rape, and issues of power between the sexes. Hill is never salacious, there are no accounts designed half to titillate as they repel, but she does not hesitate to make the reader understand difficulties, injustices, ambiguities and still bleak challenges within the legal system

She also continues to explore a theme which surfaced in Serrailler 6, around terminal care, and assisted dying, death itself – both un-natural, visited through violence by one on another, and the process itself which comes to all, which in the main we find so difficult to engage with. As a contrast to the difficulties in Serrailler 6, we have here, through Cat Deerbon’s medical practice, an exploration of what proper hospice care could offer, what is being lost through cost-cutting policies, and indeed a humbling (for Deerbon) and revealing series of conversations with a patient in the process of dying (this is no spoiler, it is very obvious, immediately, known to Deerbon, known to the family) This is part of the ‘heart’ of the book, an exploration of communities, both what is supportive about communities – and of course, that flip-side, the community of perversion which the police story is all about.

Initially, I started this book with a sense that maybe the series had run its course, that there was nowhere else to go. I do believe Hill proved me wrong. There are very certain developments, and onwards, not to mention an ending which has beautiful poise.

So yes, I will be interested in Serrailler 9, should Hill want to take us from that poise, onwards.

Her books are not really about guessing plot, we know who, we often can surmise, through the meta-themes, ‘and who else’; we often also know generally why (the litany of human chosen wrongdoing often comes down to simple motives), but the trick, or the point, is to get down to the particular weft and weave of individuals.

I received this as a digital ARC, via the publishers, Random House Vintage, complete susan_hillwith a few strange vanished sentence or clause endings, and the odd typo, which I assume will be corrected by an eagle-eyed and diligent final proof reading. That aside, recommended

Publication date in the UK 2nd October, Stateside has the same date for Kindle, but next year for the ‘proper bookie book’
The Soul of Discretion Amazon UK
The Soul of Discretion Amazon USA

Matthew Quick – The Silver Linings Playbook


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Warmth and tenderness about mental illness, family dysfunction, relationship breakdown. And American football.

The Silver Linings PlaybookIf you have no interest in the latter, you may still appreciate this book, despite perhaps learning much more about the Eagles than you never wanted to know anyway! As this becomes a delightful, frustrating, sometimes (to a female) incomprehensible, irritating but wildly funny example of some of the frankly WEIRD ways in which chaps bond!. And if you adore American football, and even more if you are an E-A-G-L-E-S! EAGLES! Fan, delighting in making the shapes of the letters with your legs and arms when with your buddies watching at home, or being present at, a game, you will love this.

Pat is a man in his mid-thirties, though he believes he is some years younger, having spent more time than he realises in a ‘neural health facility’ in Baltimore (a psychiatric hospital). Pat committed some sort of violent act, and has an obsession with his ex-wife. He is an incurable optimist, dedicated to happy endings in films and determined that the silver linings on clouds, and the happily ever after, must happen. Following his release from the hospital, engineered by his loving mother, he must agree to regular therapy, and a regimen of psychiatric drugs. He has returned to living in the parental home. He has agreed to all of this, and is working hard on shedding the weight he put on in hospital, his goal being to become again the sports and history teacher with a great body which he had when he met and married his ex-wife. He is convinced they can get together again. He is also an absolutely dedicated Philadelphia Eagles Fan. As are all the males in his friend and family network. The women feel rather differently. As a non-American, and as a woman who is supremely uninterested in teamsports games, whether from this side of the pond or any other, the making-of-the-E-A-G-L-E-S with the legs and arms jokes made me laugh a lot and pull superior womanly faces

In his life he has : a loving mother, a great and supportive and successful brother, a best friend, whose wife has a sister with mental health issues of her own, the kindest and in some ways most unprofessional of therapists, another great friendship with a fellow inmate in that ‘neural health facility’. He also probably has Asperger’s – at least, this is what accounts for his voice, which sounds not cold, but without emotional nuance and subtlety. Pat, despite being prone to a violence he barely understands when he hears smooth jazz music, particularly a specific piece of music played by Kenny G, is a ‘good person’ with a warm and open heart. He is actively working on ‘being kind’. He also has an extremely dysfunctional father, who is deeply depressed and emotionally cold.

Part of Pat’s journey to try and get re-united with his ex-wife, an artistic, intellectual literature major and teacher, is to begin to read through some of her favourite books, particularly those she taught to her students. So he reads, and responds to such books as The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Catcher In The Rye, The Bell Jar, responding to them with approval or dismay according to his ‘Silver Lining’ philosophy, and need for the happy wrap. There is a lot of warm humour in the author’s use of this.

I held back from the final star because the overall tone of this warm, charming and Matthew Quicksweet book, despite the bleakness which appears along the way at times, is perhaps a little too anodyne and Hollywood. This did not quite equal my first acquaintance with Matthew Quick: Forgive me Leonard Peacock, which I preferred. Nonetheless, recommended.

This was made into a film, which I haven’t seen, and didn’t know about, so my review is from someone coming new to the book, purely from my appreciation of Quick’s writing in Leonard Peacock’

The Silver Linings Playbook Amazon UK
The Silver Linings Playbook Amazon USA

W. Somerset Maugham – Ashenden


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A cool, clipped narrator narrating tales of espionage, spliced with sudden, deadly bleakness.

W Somerset Maugham was one of the most commercially successful BritishAshenden ‘popular literary authors’ of the first half of the twentieth century. His tone combined a certain waspishness, and indeed emotional coldness (no doubt a result of an emotionally cold childhood) with sudden, unexpected displays of heart. There is a cool precision in his writing, an absence of fussiness, that tells a narrative cleanly and simply, and describes character incisively.

This particular book, ‘Ashenden’ recounts the third person story of a writer, during the First World War, recruited by the Intelligence Department to go to neutral Switzerland, glean information, run Intelligence Operations, trap agents working for Germany, and later to travel to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, to prevent the Russian Revolution and to keep Russia engaged in the war on the Allied side. The book consists of short chapters in which our hero, urbane and observant, plays the espionage game with Bond like suavity (reputedly this book did exert some influence on Fleming) Though Ashenden himself is not the one who dispatches those agents who are spying for Prussia, he certainly lays the traps which will end in their executions by firing squad or dispatching by other means.

Wiki Commons, Martini Makings

Wiki Commons, Martini Makings

What is however the real hook for the modern reader is that Maugham himself was that writer, recruited by the Intelligence Agency, sent to neutral Switzerland and to Russia, with those goals, and the stories told here are factual, ‘from his case-book, as it were, though shaped and tidied, as Maugham explains in his foreword, for ‘the purposes of fiction’ :

Fact is a poor story – teller It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion

By all accounts, Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn some of the stories which WERE to have appeared in this book, originally published in 1928, as they breached the Official Secrets Act.

These are beautifully constructed stories, though perhaps Maugham’s/Ashenden’s in the Maugham_facing_cameramain rather chilly, mildly amused urbanity does tend to hold the reader also away from emotional engagement. Having said that, this is a device which then works brilliantly in the ‘wrap’ of 2 or 3 of the stories where Ashenden’s rather emotionally inhibited, intelligent, ironic, cultured persona temporarily reveals a sombre, bleak acknowledgement that playing the undoubted game of espionage can create collateral damage in the lives of innocents. The story called ‘The Hairless Mexican’ would be an excellent fictional story, but the suspicion it may not be completely fiction delivers the killer punch to the reader.

Maugham’s disciplined writing, refusing to emote, merely displaying an event dispassionately, without comment, letting the reader make the judgement, gives the kick to the solar plexus. I think it is the uneasy knowledge that these stories are not really quite fiction, which is responsible for that kick

Ashenden Amazon UK
Ashenden Amazon USA

Sarah Moss – Night Waking


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Following my read Of Sarah Moss’s current novel Bodies Of Light which was a wonderful book, I decided to fish out my original review of her previous novel, which I then (and still do) recommend highly, but I felt had some flaws which prevented my complete surrender at the time. A surrender which WAS complete, on my part, with Bodies of Light.

Night Waking (1)Racked between self-realisation and biology,

There were times, early on this book, where I could read no more – for all the right reasons.

The overarching drive of this book is the painful, lacerating tug between `being a mother’ and `being me, and the need and right to be me’ The conflict of parenting, and the drive to be properly `there’ for the vulnerable, developing new being, without the entire loss of that self that is more than the parental role, is one which, in the main, is most intensely experienced, most intensely felt, by mothers.

The reason I had, continually, to stop reading, was because the struggle Anna, intellectual, academic, creative mother of two, had between being at times torn apart by the necessary, totally selfish, biological needs of the infant, and her own sense of self and history, were rendered so visceral, so empathised with by the reader, that I felt physically sick and anxious. She evokes brilliantly the water torture of the endless sleepless nights, with how to deal with a precocious, demanding, potentially always at risk ball of fearless, inquisitive, demanding two year old toddler life, whilst also balancing an older child with different needs.

Leaving Lochmaddy, Wiki Commons, photo from geograph.org.uk

Leaving Lochmaddy, Wiki Commons, photo from geograph.org.uk

Add to this the fact that father, Giles, mother Anna and children Raph (aged 7) and Moth (Timothy aged 2) have decamped to an ancestral Hebridean island, with no other residents. Both parents are loving and caring, and both have academic work which needs to be engaged in. Which of the two will find it less easy to switch off the demands of the child, and which will be able to do their work leaving the childcare to the other? No contest here! But this is more than a book about middle class angst, feminism, equal opportunities and high end problems within the chattering classes

Anna is researching attitudes to child rearing, from Freud onwards – but, through the discovery of a small child’s body on the deserted island, gets drawn in to investigating economic history – in a sense, there is a subtextual battle going on between Marx and Freud, which takes in the history of the Highland clearances, class, industrialisation and politics of our past.

Lest this sound incredibly dreary and worthy, the mix is given spice, warmth and humour by Anna’s own, mordant wit, and by the unintentional humour of what small children say, the monologues they have, and the way parents become able to switch instantly between childspeak and adult conversation. Raph, the older child, although clearly highly intelligent and precocious, actually seems to be closer to what one might expect of a 9 year old, and I wasn’t quite convinced by him as a 7 year old.

I had a few hesitations which stopped 5 stars – there was a little too much padding and repetition of the Moth interchanges, which began to get rather irritating. Perhaps that was the point, so that the reader inhabits the mother’s mixture of reaching a dangerous screaming point of wondering how far she might go to get a bit of peace and quiet away from the 2 year old funnies-when-you-hear-them-once, but wearing when they have been repeated. There was also too much repetition of Raph’s fears and thoughts, as well as FAR too much Moth inspired `Want Gruffalo’

I wished for a more tightly edited, slimmed down book – and better proof reading to have pushed me to 5 stars. There were various sentences which just didn’t make sense, had sentence order inverted (by adults, not by the wee ones) almost as if errors had happened in the galleys, in cut and paste, which had not been spotted.

However, the ending, and the way in which various strands of this generally absorbing, intelligent, well written, humorous and thought provoking book were pulled together, worked extremely well

A very interesting writer indeed and I hope her future books pair her with a better editor and a better proof reader

………………..And, armed with my high fives for Bodies Of Light, this one will get placed on the To Be Re-Read list AND I Sarah Mosshave bought her account of the year she spent in Iceland. She is a writer with a great sense for place and time, and, as someone who has a great fascination with (and fear of) the frozen Northlands, (me, not Moss) and the near endless days and endless nights, I know this one will be a ‘for me’ read!

Night Waking Amazon UK
Night Waking Amazon USA

Author Interview – Rebecca Mascull: The Visitors


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The VisitorsFollowing my review of Rebecca Mascull‘s wonderful first novel The Visitors, the previous posting on here,  I was delighted to be offered the chance of doing a Q + A with her. as her book gave me much to think about, and curiosity about her authorial process. So……..with my question marks neatly polished, here we go:

I was particularly struck by the sense of kinaesthetic awareness you brought to Liza’s experience. How did you get inside the inability to express, the being locked within oneself, and then the explosive newness of each experience she has?

I think the turning point for me in trying to understand the condition of not seeing and not hearing was when I read an account of the deaf-blind experience which explained that reality for a hearing/seeing person has memories related to what they have seen and heard which help to create a solid sense of who they are, where they are and their life up to that point. For a deaf-blind child this sense of reality is thin and splintery, creating a kind of chaotic and sometimes frightening existence in relation to themselves and the world. That sense of confusion and frustration was so heart-rending to me and made me feel so lucky to have my senses in good working order, and made me determined to represent some aspects of the deaf-blind experience as faithfully as I could. I researched a couple of key deaf-blind personalities. Firstly, Helen Keller, by reading her autobiographies; and also Laura Bridgman – the first deaf-blind child to be formally educated in America – particularly by reading an almost daily account of her education at the Perkins Institute. I also spent time with some staff from the deaf-blind charity Sense, who showed me videos and talked a lot with me about the unique needs of deaf-blind adults and children. Years ago, I read an astonishing account of a blind woman who had her sight restored in later life: ‘Emma and I’ by Sheila Hocken, and her description of the moments after the bandages were first removed was mind-blowing. This new sense of wonder at the world was highly influential in rendering Liza’s experiences. I believed it was crucial to convey the idea that the lack of senses such as sight or hearing were not Liza’s problem in themselves, but her real obstacle at the beginning of the book was that of being unable to communicate – once she is given the key to this by Lottie, there’s no stopping her, despite her limitations. That was a message I wanted to come across very clearly, that with determination and help, one can overcome almost anything.

Without wanting to give any spoilers away, for readers who haven’t read the novel, I was fascinated by the explanation you gave in a previous interview, printed at the end of the novel, where you talk about the characters beginning to take over and insist on their own journey. How do you explore that, how do you ‘get inside’ character and inhabit character?

That’s a fascinating question. I do believe the creation of character and fiction writing itself is a very mysterious process. I can’t really explain it, other than describe what happens when I write. I am a very methodical writer in some ways, in that I plan narratives in a lot of detail once I’ve got a plot arc more or less worked out. I write detailed synopses and chapter plans and work from them. Not all writers do this, of course; it’s a very individual process. Having said that, amongst these best laid plans, characters do seem to take on a life of their own. They can be most awkward and muck up all your intentions for them. Pirandello explored this beautifully in ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’; it’s so very true. Once created, they do march around and call the shots. They are probably different aspects of the writer’s personality yet I like to think there’s something more magical going on, a kind of channelling or curious act of empathy. The act of writing a fictional narrative does include a bit of magic which you can’t really analyse or explain. One example is the way plot problems resolve themselves by actively NOT thinking about them consciously. I’ve found that ideas for plot and character percolate in the brain and work themselves out with little input from my conscious mind. So, I don’t believe I really do inhabit the characters as much as watch them present themselves, fully formed, and yet sometimes they allow me the kindness of jumping inside their heads once in a while and looking out.

What I very much pick up from this book, is a sense of quietness and waiting – from you as a writer. It made me wonder about how you work, whether you are someone who has background music or whether you are someone who needs space and solitude?

That’s such a beautiful thing to say, thank you. I think part of my previous answer relates to that, the act of watching characters to see what they’ll do next. I absolutely do prefer to write in solitude and silence, whenever possible. I do most of the actual prose itself during the school day, when the house is empty and mostly very quiet. But life sometimes intercedes and I have to write with stuff going on around me now and again. My ideal writing conditions are in my house, alone, whilst it’s snowing outside; thus the world itself is quiet and muffled too, and there’s something eerie and magical about snowfall. But I don’t get that very often, so school days have to suffice. The silence helps me listen to that inner voice that does all the really good bits of writing, all the subconscious stuff where the flow comes from. Sometimes I do close my eyes and bend my head to let it in, to hear it. I’m starting to sound a bit odd now, I think…

The only note within this book which I could not quite understand, was, very early, when Liza is still within her having no one to communicate with, before she learned the palm signing, there is mention of how touch, smell and taste are preternaturally sensitive – and that she gets sent out by Cook, Nanny or a maid to gather particular herbs – and I couldn’t imagine how that request might have been imparted to her. How did you envisage that being communicated?

Ah, well spotted! My mum pointed this out to me in the first draft too. My answer then was that I thought Cook would give her a sprig of the herb to go and find or perhaps merely the scent of it somehow. But I liked the flow of that sentence and didn’t want to add more detail in. Perhaps I should have done now! It’s an example of how the deaf-blind in this early period before education were able to circumvent their limitations and get by, such as making up their own signs for hunger and thirst etc.

The Visitors, at least what Liza means by The Visitors, as opposed to the wider context of the meaning of the book’s title, are a very integral or natural part of the story, and Liza has always been aware of them. They are of course frightening to others, or possibly thought of as being indicative of madness. Liza senses she must keep the secret of them close. Because the reader primarily identifies and sees the whole story through Liza, I believe we accept the reality and normalcy of them too. I wondered whether they were pure imagination for you, or whether you had awareness of another dimension?

I’m really glad you felt like that about the Visitors. I wanted them to be part of the fabric of Liza’s world and yet not overpower it. It was important to me that the focus of the story be Liza and her development as a person, with the ghostly aspect an interesting addition yet not the whole point of the book, despite the book being named after them! You’re quite right to mention the wider context of the title and I’m glad too that you did, as I wanted the term ‘visitors’ to apply to all the different kind of outsiders we find in the story, such as the English in South Africa and even the Boers themselves, and the hop-pickers on the Golding farm, and Liza herself in the Crowe household. It is a theme of the story, of being on the edge, looking in. As for the ghostly aspect, my answer is that I don’t really believe in ghosts as such, yet I’m a pretty open-minded person and my general philosophy in life is – what do I know? I was always into the idea of ghosts and mediums – I read Doris Stokes as a teenager – and loved ghost stories and movies, especially ‘Poltergeist’ which I was terrified of and obsessed with in equal amounts. Later I became fascinated with stories of alien abduction too! Yet I’m also a very rational person and adore science, though I don’t have a very scientific mind. As a writer, anything that is unexplained and mysterious is fun to play with and I did relish working out the rules of how the ghosts would behave i.e. who they can and cannot see, what they understand about their own condition. I think deep down they are probably a metaphor for our fears and about holding on to the past, but, as ever with writing, that wasn’t something I thought consciously of when writing about them. I just enjoyed them!

I was intrigued, at the very end of the book, looking forward to Liza’s and Lottie’s future plans and ambitions, there is a very subtle placement of them, almost as a throwaway onto a particular real location that has quite a curious and oppositional history (difficult to describe this without spoilers!) I thought there was something a little (deliberately) ambiguous about this. Are you drawn to open-ended rather than neatly tied–up?

Yes, let’s not include spoilers, but you’re right – this place does have a wonderful history and I do have an idea of what will happen to them in the future. I do have a sequel story in mind, but who knows whether it’ll get written or not – we shall see! As for types of ending, I remember someone saying once that endings should be unpredictable yet feel inevitable. That’s a great standard to aspire to and I would always try for that. I would want the reader to feel that the main plot points have been resolved enough to feel satisfying, without being too neat and tidy. I also like the idea of the characters living on in the imagination after the end of the book, that is, of a reader thinking, I wonder what they’ll do next? I love books like that, where the characters are still alive in my head and going about their business. So, I think my perfect conclusions are always a bit open-ended, though I can’t be doing with what I’d call unfinished narratives, where everything is unresolved in a very modernist way. At the very least, I’d want some sort of epiphany for the characters, so that something has changed irrevocably in their lives. And after all, these are novels we’re talking about, not real life, and so I feel a little bit of resolution is in order, to give the reader a prize for going on that journey with you, a destination of some kind, instead of leaving them stuck on a road to nowhere…

Finally – and forgive me if somehow I missed something – in your acknowledgements, you thank a couple of people for loving or defending ‘Daniel’. I can’t remember a Daniel in this story and wondered perhaps if the central male character had been re-named – or, is this perhaps a character who will feature in your forthcoming novel. And could you give a bit of a tease preview by telling of the general territory which it inhabits….

Ah, Daniel. I wrote three novels before ‘The Visitors’ and one of them was about a character called Daniel. It was turned down by a lot of publishers but it did secure me my agent Jane Conway-Gordon, who loved that book and stuck with me whilst I wrote ‘The Visitors’ next. Several friends and family members also read that book about Daniel and loved it and still talk about it now. So, he is very dear to me and I do hope to rewrite it one day and improve it, so that perhaps he’ll get his story heard. It was a very ambitious novel, set during WWII in London and Poland and I think now I was probably just too inexperienced to do justice to it. I think I’ll wait a while until I’m a better writer – and a bit older and wiser – and tackle it again.

My forthcoming novel is called ‘Song of the Sea Maid’. It’s about an C18th orphan girl who is educated through a benefactor and becomes a scientist. She defies the conventions of her day to travel abroad and makes a remarkable discovery.

I’m about to start my next novel which will be set in the early C20th. I will be a bit secretive about that one, as I’m never quite sure myself where it’ll all end up, so I’ll keep it under my hat for the moment…

Well all I can say, after getting Rebecca’s fascinating and thoughtful answers to my questions is, if I HADN’T read the book I would be racing over to do the one-click/buying/download thing! HAVING read the book her responses deepened my appreciation even more.

There were some lovely images and ideas in her answers. Solid reality formed by visual and auditory memory, and a thin and splintery reality when parts of sensory experience and memory are lost. were responses which absolutely underlined my sense that Rebecca really inhabits the reality of what she is writing, and because of that, can take the reader into inhabitation of her characters and world too.

I’m delighted Book 2 is ‘forthcoming’ and a book 3 is being written, and even the possibility of a Rebecca Mascullfuture for Liza and Lottie, not to mention the mysterious Daniel. (books 4 + 5?) But no doubt there will also be other characters waiting for Rebecca to listen for their voices……………

Thank you Rebecca

The Visitors Amazon UK
The Visitors Amazon USA

Rebecca Mascull – The Visitors


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A quietly written, surprising, delight

The VisitorsRebecca Mascull’s debut novel, first of all, reads nothing like a debut novel. The author writes with subtle, understated assurance this fascinating, alluring story of a deaf-blind girl, in late Victorian England, then later in South Africa during the Boer War.

I have to admit I nearly missed this one, as the combination of publisher blurb and the rather muted pretty cover had me mistakenly convinced that this would be a slightly fey and marshmallow book. Whilst not averse to fey, I don’t do soft-centre that well.

However………never judge……and all that

I’m so pleased I gave this one a try (after being offered a copy for review by the publisher, Hodder)

This is most surely a book ‘about stuff’ and whilst it is very clear Mascull has done much research into the time, place and subject matter of her story, she is a writer who wears that research extremely lightly, and almost instructs the reader subliminally, in a very natural and easy way.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan 1888 Wiki Commons

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan 1888 Wiki Commons

Adeliza Golding is born almost blind, the daughter of a successful Kentish hop farmer and his wife, the only surviving child after a series of miscarriages. She is deeply loved by her sorrowing parents. An early illness leaves her completely blind, and also deaf. By the age of three she is enraged and half-feral. Fortuitously, one of the seasonal hop-picker families, oyster fishers (another seasonal industry) from Whitstable, had a deaf-blind daughter themselves, and had come in contact with a clergyman who was aware of the technique of palm signing. The oldest daughter, Lottie, is the first person to break through Liza’s rage – a rage born not of feebleness or savagery, but of her inability to communicate:

For many years, my deaf-blindness was like a monster from myth. My aim was to overcome it. Every monster has a weakness exploited by the hero to win the day. In my darkest memories, I see my early self as a blind monster crashing through the wilderness. But it was not my disability which kept me there. It was my ignorance. Once I found language, the spell was broken and I assumed human form. One does not need sight and hearing to be fully human, only communication. My lack of sight and hearing were not the enemies, only my lack of connection was my monster, my isolation

The early part of the book, describing Liza’s journey out of that isolation, and the relationship which develops between Lottie as teacher and Liza as pupil, and the almost overwhelming nature of the world which can finally be revealed for Liza, as more and more refined ways of communication tools become available, are stunning, and wonderful.

Liza’s world soon becomes even more expanded, as she develops a wider relationship with Lottie’s family.

Liza does have a secret however – she has spectral, ghostly communicants ‘The Visitors’ which no one else can see or hear. Within the book, the Visitors are far from some sort of fey authorial device, yet this is not primarily ‘a spooky story’ either. Liza herself, like the reader, grows in understanding the nature of these communicants.

Boers at Spion Kop 1900 Wiki Commons

Boers at Spion Kop 1900 Wiki Commons

In the broader world, war is on the horizon, (the Boer War) and this becomes also a central part of the story, with some of the potent historical issues playing out in the lives of Mascull’s fictional characters.

This brings me to something else in her writing. There is a major relationship which develops in the story, and at a couple of points I found myself thinking ‘oh no, oh no, please don’t say this fine and truthful writer is going to start moving her characters around like pawns in order to satisfy some plot-shock’.  She doesn’t. No spoilers revealed here, but what I will say is that there was a sense of absolute authenticity to the complex, layered characters Mascull had created – and I was intrigued, in her afterword, an interview conducted with the author, she discovered that what had happened for her in the writing was that magic, where though she had intended her characters to have one journey, somewhere, they up-sticked and said NO.

My sense, all through reading this book was that here is a writer of authenticity and listening. One not showy, one not ostentatious:

I just want my reader to be able to enter a different world and to care about the characters. I don’t want the story to be directed before it is told. I want the characters to do what they want and not to be restricted by genre. Genre is a useful tool but I prefer to use it lightly

(from an interview with the author, included in end-notes)

A wonderful, thoughtful piece of writing, which is about a lot, yet says it all economically, without indulgence, without Rebecca Mascullhistrionics, and with humanity and precision.

However – reader beware, I note with some surprise that no less than 3 novels, by 3 different authors, were published early this year, with the self-same title. This one is by Rebecca Mascull, and I shall definitely be looking forward to her second book, whenever that shall be.

The Visitors Amazon UK
The Visitors Amazon USA


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