Tuesday, 21 May 2019

An Interview With Elizabeth Lowry

NB: This is  'pinned' post to facilitate navigation from Elizabeth Lowry's website.

Dark Water, Elizabeth Lowry’s second novel, was published on September 6th to great acclaim.
The Guardian’s Book of the Day, The Times’ Critic’s Choice and Book of the Month. Historia Magazine included it in their list of best recent historical writing. Numerous bloggers, including myself, and other publications are running out of superlatives. With good reason. It is a work of depth and substance that only comes along once in a while. 

I am thrilled beyond measure to have had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present - An Interview with Elizabeth Lowry.

 Dark Water has left a lasting impression on me. There’s been so much to think about long after I closed the book. My mind boggles at the thought of how you approached the planning and plotting of this story. Can you give us some insight into the initial motivation for the book and how the idea for it first came to you?

Well, I’m interested in questions of identity and how we define personality. After you asked me this I went back to my very first notebook for Dark Water (I had three in the end) and found I’d scribbled down this remark by Primo Levi: ‘Man is a mixed-up creature; and he becomes all the more confused, we might add, the more he is subjected to tensions: at that point he evades our judgement, just as a compass goes wild at the magnetic pole’. William Borden sprang out of that, I think, and out of a love of Melville’s sea stories.

 The novel is offered as an historical novel, although I found it to be much more than that. But you must have had to do some extensive research. I found the narrative to be so realistic and convincing, I never doubted for a moment that I WAS back to 1833 Massachusetts. I also wondered if you actually spent some time below decks on a ship, the descriptions were so palpable? Can you tell us a little about the research you undertook?

I didn’t know much at all about ships (though unlike Hiram Carver, I don’t get seasick!) before I began to write Dark Water. It was quite an education. I had before me the painful example of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket without doing his homework. A scathing early review pointed out that in Chapter One the jib of a ship in a storm is still mysteriously flying even though the mast has been ‘carried away’ by the waves just moments before. (The jib is a small triangular sail that is set ahead of the foremast and is usually rigged to a stay extending from it. Oops.)
I found Melville a good teacher – his memoir White-Jacket about his stint on a US man-of-war was written expressly to explain the ins and outs of life at sea to landlubbers like me. We also share some source material. The route steered across the Pacific by Borden following the Providence mutiny draws on the real-life story of what happened after the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk by a whale in 1820. On losing the ship the survivors made for the coast of South America in open boats. An account of this disaster and their journey was published by the first mate, Owen Chase, and was used by Melville as the basis for Moby-Dick (though he was much more interested in the whale). I had help too in the form of marvellous sea-going accounts by other sailors of the time, such as Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast describing his experiences as an ordinary merchant seaman. Dana was a gentleman sailor (like Melville) who enlisted for the adventure of it, rather than from necessity. Once he’d had enough he could afford, unlike your average tar, to go home and retrain as a lawyer. That’s why his book isn’t called Ten Years Before the Mast!
I didn’t get to tour a real wooden man-of-war until I’d already written the early scenes on the Orbis, and took a trip to Boston, where the USS Constitution is kept in dry dock. It was useful to be able to check if I’d got the physical details right. You know, though, when approaching Dark Water I wasn’t drawn so much to the technicalities of ships or sailing as to what a nineteenth-century man-of-war could represent – an enclosed community with a rigid hierarchy and its own inflexible rules. The metaphysics of ships, if you like.

 Geographically that part of the USA is one of my favourite parts, especially Martha’s Vineyard. There is an indefinable thrill associated with those islands and I always feel that affinity when I read about them. I regret never visiting Nantucket. It seems crucial to the book. It conjures the ghosts of Melville and Moby-Dick, adding another atmospheric layer to the story. Are those places familiar to you or did you make some special trips?

I was born in Washington DC but left at a very early age, and hadn’t been back to the east coast at all until I tackled this book. I’d written a good chunk of Dark Water when I decided I’d better go and take a look at the places in it: Boston, of course, but Nantucket especially. It’s easy to get a sense of Boston and its history from paper sources; Nantucket was more slippery. An island has a totally different sense of space to the mainland. I spent about two weeks in Massachusetts in the summer of 2016, walking around Boston’s Beacon Hill and climbing all over Old Ironsides, as I mentioned just now, before staying in a tiny grey shingled cottage in Sconset on Nantucket – pretty much as Carver does, except that I didn’t have a Mrs Bunker to cook my meals.

Hiram Carver? He is the supreme paradox of us all! He behaved abominably at times, especially towards his own sister and her happiness. Yet in spite of it I simply couldn’t bring myself to dislike him. There’s something within him that seems to be within us all maybe? He and Borden seem to be two halves of a dichotomous whole. How did you go about creating such characters? Or did they eventually start to develop themselves!? I’ve heard some writers speak of how once created the characters do go on to develop their selves almost as if the writer has no part in it!

I’m so glad you don’t completely dislike Carver. I don’t either. The challenge, as with William Borden, was to write someone who couldn’t be pinned down too easily. I felt I had to give him some significant redeeming features, in the form of his youthful anti-authoritarianism, his willingness to question the mores of his time and place, and his instinctive sympathy for the social outcasts he is treating at the asylum. Once I got going he added his own flourishes. But of course he is the worst cannibal in the book. By the end he has consumed Ruth Macy as surely as he consumed Richard Mansfield, Frank Goodwin, Adam Thornton, his sister Caro, and William Borden. The irony is that he’s also trapped himself. By achieving a position of supremacy in the society he once despised, he has – as he knows full well – given up his last chance at freedom. 

 The sea as a metaphor is wonderfully sustained throughout the book and together with considerations as to the real meaning of madness encourages the reader to ponder the frailty of the human soul. When Hiram suggests to Ruth that all we’ve created out of freedom is a prison it struck such a mournful chord with me because it’s so inviolably true. I found it a pivotal moment in the story and I wondered whether it was your intention to throw these metaphysical ideas out there in the hope that the reader might ponder some solutions?

Yes, absolutely. And if anyone can find a solution, I’d love to hear it.

 The book has much to say about the invisible line between sanity and insanity. The passages set in the asylum were both fascinating historically and sociologically. All too easy to ‘get it wrong’ but you didn’t! How did you set about writing these sections of the book?

Writing the asylum sections was tricky because I was hoping to show how fine that line can be, and how common, even ordinary, mental disturbance is – but couldn’t use any of the vocabulary we have at our disposal in the age of psychiatry. When I was reading the memoirs of some nineteenth-century asylum patients it seemed obvious that a few of them suffered from maladies which would now be quite easily treatable with psychodynamic medication, and this got me thinking. I wanted to approach these scenes through a sort of double perspective. In the book Adam Thornton, for example, clearly has what we’d today call bipolar disorder, with a two-to-three-week depressive phase, followed by a month-long build up to mania. Richard Mansfield insists that Thornton is mad, but Borden and Carver sense that something else is at play here, and the modern reader will too. What is ‘madness’, anyway? The doctors and attendants aren’t exempt: Richard Mansfield is a morphine addict; Felicity Joy exhibits a form of OCD when washing the asylum floors; Frank Goodwin is a binge eater. The younger Carver himself, whose refusal of food is really a rejection of his overbearing family and everything they represent, is anorexic.

 Suffering, whether oblique or realised, physical or emotional, play a huge part in the book. So many contemporary parallels, for example Richard’s dependence on drugs, Frank’s relationship with food, Hiram’s confusion with his sexuality take this beyond the historical. Was it emotionally demanding to write?

I wrote the book during a period of great personal stress and sadness and the wonderful thing was that I knew, while writing it, that it was acting as a very real life preserver for me. So yes, it was demanding, but not more demanding than actually getting through that time. 

 For me the most uplifting characters are the patients in the asylum! They seemed to have ‘got it right’! Was that your intention or am I… insane?!

You are quite clearly bonkers. Just joking – spot on. As Carver says, they’re at liberty to express the sorts of foibles and idiosyncrasies the rest of us have to keep in check. That can be quite appealing.

 Quite coincidentally as I was writing these questions I noticed that you had referenced Janet Frame on one of the social media platforms. I’ve always found Faces in the Water to be a seminal work regarding sanity, insanity and institutions and wondered whether her work had any influence on your writing?

Janet Frame is an expert at rendering mental anguish. I recently tweeted an excerpt from the second volume of her autobiography, An Angel at My Table, because I’m including it in a feature for the Guardian on my ‘Top Ten Books’ about psychiatric institutions. Her story is truly horrifying. She was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic in 1945 and spent eight years in and out of mental hospitals in her native New Zealand. In spite of this she managed to write a collection of short stories, The Lagoon. In 1954 she was scheduled to have a lobotomy, when the doctor who was due to perform the procedure read in the paper that her book had won a national literary prize. He cancelled the operation and she was released from hospital. In her autobiography she says, without any exaggeration, ‘My writing saved me.’

 How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?

At the moment writing is my day job, though this hasn’t always been the case. I write between dropping my children off at school and picking them up again, a working day of about six hours. It never seems long enough. I was a teacher for many years and I’ve written while taking detention and before registration in the mornings. When I’m away from home I set my laptop up on a bedside locker and write there. You can’t afford to have special rituals or be too fussy about your circumstances when your next thought is liable to be interrupted by someone saying “Mu-uum”. (Hello kids, I love you too.)
 I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

Not sure if I can pinpoint the very first book that moved me to tears, but I do recall, with weird immediacy, learning the alphabet itself. I was at the Walworth Barbour American School in Israel and must have been about five years old. We were taught the alphabet with an ingenious story flip-chart. In this story you were taken on a journey through a jungle, over mountains, across seas and deserts, and each day, as you travelled, you met a new letter. An audio cassette tape played alongside and made it all seem doubly real (there were no interactive whiteboards or DVDs then – this was the 1970s). I really had no idea what came after A, or B, or C, so every day was a total cliff hanger. I lived for these sessions and I was forlorn when we reached Z and they stopped. The excitement I felt for those 26 days is still vivid to me – I’ve probably never known anything like it since. Just thinking about it has made my heart thump.

 And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it?

Soon, I hope. I’m working on a novel about Thomas Hardy, set in the weeks immediately following the sudden death of his first wife, Emma. In the thirty-eight years they were married their relationship had become very strained: though they were living in the same house they only met once a day, over dinner, and had stopped speaking to each other. But he is shattered by the loss of her. Then, while he is still overwhelmed by grief, he finds a record she has written about their life together in which she accuses him of a very specific and very terrible thing (you’ll have to wait and see what that is), and he has to start re-evaluating their entire marriage – and himself.
The novel is called The Chosen, after one of Hardy’s poems. While describing it to you I’ve realised that like Dark Water it’s a story about suffering and the unknowability of the other, even the people to whom we’re supposedly closest. And about memory and identity and the mystery of human motivation. Which brings us back to where we started our interview, doesn’t it?

My heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth for this frank, informative, erudite  and entertaining interview. If you’d like to hear more of her I include a link to a radio interview Elizabeth did for BBC Oxford with Kate Orman - https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06k5d8w

And my thanks, yet again, to the wonderful Ana McLaughlin at Quercus books for introducing me to this book in the first place and for facilitating  this interview. 

The Stone Soup Book of Poetry

I should blog about poetry more than I do, I feel, but sometimes  a single poem is like a single book and I could end up writing about every single poem in an anthology! It requires a different style of reviewing in many ways. But I jumped at the opportunity to secure a copy of this delightful volume of verse. 

Stone soup is an international literary magazine and website publishing writing and art by young people under the age of 14. Founded in 1973, it’s published more creative work by children than any other publisher selecting the very best from thousands of submissions every year. I am extremely grateful to Librarything for sending me this copy.

You can find out more about the work of Stone Soup here - https://stonesoup.com

This anthology of poetry is a diverse collection covering a variety of subjects. As might be expected from children their insights can often touch a truth that elude the wisest of adults! And it can be expressed so succinctly and with such feeling. 

‘To live in this moment
Is to be grateful
For what I have and love and am’

From ‘’Morning Walk’ by Mark Roberts 13

What is astounding and humbling is the depth of emotion and mature perception expressed by poets of such tender years. It all but takes your breath away. Many an adult would be proud to have created something reaching half the depths of some of these works. 

‘Leaving Papa
resting in his grave
made me dispirited, made me despairing.
I miss him
Listening to Louis Armstrong,
Reading the poetry of Leopold Senghor,
 calling me his cherie.’

From ‘Homesickness’ by Soujourner Salil Ahebee 10

The 120 poems in this book were written by poets between the ages of 4 and 13. They were originally published in Stone Soup Magazine between 1988 and 2011. But for me they are timeless. The poems are fluidly arranged into thematic sections, Seasons, Friends & Family, Animals, Night, Nature and Reflections. 

‘Alone is the homeless man looking at all the goods
in the grocery market that he cannot have
Alone is the refugees leaving all they ever knew behind,
their friends, their houses
Alone is the single pillar
Standing in the rubble of a bombed building
Alone is the Iraqi mother whose children have died
From lack of medical care
 Alone is the turban among a thousand baseball caps’

‘Alone’ by Brendan Grant 11

The temptation is to quote from every single poem so rich is the language and so pure the expression. What also amazed me was that reading through the poems it was impossible to guess at the age of the poet. From the youngest to the oldest there was imagination, a reverence and understanding of the power of language to express our innermost thoughts from the simple to the complex. There’s a celebration and respect for our natural world alongside the confusion surrounding complex emotions of loss and the dynamics of people.

Does anything exist at this hour,
when my footsteps crash,
and my breathing screams?
When every slight movement I make,
Feels like a leap?
When I'm all alone,
my house is quiet.
Outside the streetlights blur, 
and twist themselves into shapes that
spotlight on the patch of gravel, 
that's empty.
No one is there,
to stand in that spotlight, 
and listen to the applause,
of the grass, blowing
in the wind.
And I am inside,
looking out,
at an empty place,
that I wish were

Empty spotlight by Cora W Busher 13

This collection of poems demonstrates an instinct for language and an understanding of the medium of poetry to express ideas and feelings that feels so natural. I wonder if these children, many of whom must be adults by now, are still writing? It's made me wonder whether the younger we are the purer and more instinctive we are about using language to express our deepest thoughts and feelings, maybe children are less self conscious too? I would be proud to have written any of the poems in this collection. 

My heartfelt gratitude to Jane from the Stone Soup Foundation for giving me permission to quote from this anthology. You can find this book and others at the Stone Soup Store.
stonesoupstore.com but there are several available from Amazon UK too. 

Thursday, 16 May 2019

After Auschwitz - Eva Schloss

I was privileged to attend a talk given by this remarkable 90 year old Holocaust survivor recently. As time marches inexorably on there are fewer and fewer survivors of this most heinous Nazi atrocity around. I believe it is important to carry these testimonies on if we are to keep awareness of the Holocaust alive and prevent anything like this happening again. 

This book, published in 2013, is an account of Eva Schloss’s life, before the Holocaust; her childhood in Vienna and her refugee life in Belgium and Holland, during the Holocaust; her arrest and incarceration in Auschwitz, Birkenau and after the Holocaust; in London and how she came, after forty years of silence, to speak of the ordeal she and her family endured. 

It’s an honest, informative account. It seeks not to sensationalise, dramatise or overstate anything that happened. Yet it is full and detailed allowing us to glimpse into the life of a girl of fifteen arrested (on her fifteenth birthday too) by the Nazis for being Jewish. Any survivor story is a harrowing read, how could it be otherwise? Any survivor account is special but what makes Eva Schloss’s story slightly different is the fact that she knew Anne Frank, lived opposite her in Amsterdam. As fate intervened Eva became Anne’s stepsister after her mother, who also survived Auschwitz, married Otto Frank, Anne’s father after the war. They worked tirelessly to tell Anne’s story and  refute the claims that the diary was fake. 

Eva’s honesty is direct. When speaking of the atrocities perpetrated by Russian soldiers against German women she struggled to feel sorry for them because of there regime they supported. 

‘You will have to understand that I cannot be objective about this subject - my own suffering and loss will always be too deep and raw. Intellectually, however, I do believe that human rights apply to everyone, and that atrocities committed against anyone are wrong.’

The acknoweldgement of her survival is pragmatic,

Mutti and I had survived through luck, willpower and the protection of Minni. We had outlasted what I believe was the most evil ideology of ethnic cleansing and killing in history.’

(Minni was a friend in the hospital at Auschwitz).

It’s astonishing to comprehend as you read the book that this lady kept silent about what she endured for forty years! She carried it all inside her. I have read of this before and Im sure that there were survivors who never spoke of it all. I remember my parents had a friend who always presented as little odd, a little off balance. The story was that he had been in a Japanese POW camp but had never spoken of what he had experienced even to his family. In her talk Eva spoke of PTSD and the help available today but there was no such strategies in place at the end of the war. 

Fortunately for us in 1986 when Eva was involved in an Anne Frank exhibition she was in the position of having to speak and that seem to open the valve and the silence of the years dropped away and she’s told her story ever since.

‘I wanted to talk to those people about the bitterness and anger that made them blame others. Like them, I knew just how hard and unfair life can sometimes seem. For many years I was full of hate, too.’

For students of the Holocaust it’s a must read. . The voice of Eva shines through and the narrative style and pace is easy to read. 

‘This book is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and genocide who could not tell their own stories.’

This blog post is dedicated to all survivors with gratitude for them having the courage to tell their stories.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Death in Captivity - Michael Gilbert

I have resisted the temptation to binge on the trio of Michael Gilbert books I received from the British Library. I’ve been pacing myself. Inadvertently I seem to have left the best until last! This one is a corker if I may slip into the vernacular of the period. Double delight; a crime/mystery story and a prison camp escape story! Both beautifully interwoven by the skilful pen of Michael Gilbert.

It’s a complex labyrinth of a mystery plot with so many possibilities of what might have happened. as to what actually happened, well, the final denouement is scrumptiously unexpected. All the way through the reader is led down so many different paths that you end up suspecting everyone, even the dead man! It slots neatly in the locked room mystery genre which seems somehow very fitting for the setting is that of a prisoner of war camp. The research is so convincing you never doubt for a moment that you are in an Italian POW camp trying to escape with sand in your nostrils and under your fingernails.

An ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic is a given in such a setting but the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are maybe not quite as clearly defined as would seem obvious. I guess Henry ‘Cuckoo’ Goyle is the stand out good guy, he’s one of the main camp tunnellers and takes up the mantle of amateur sleuth as well. I should point out that I did suspect him too but very, very briefly! 

It’s  marvellously sustained piece of writing, evenly and, I would say, perfectly paced with an authentic cast of characters that you can hear as well as see to the extent that you believe you would recognise them if you found yourself in their company. I found myself as interested in whether they escaped or not as to whether the crime was solved! I’m still not sure if that was intentional on the part of the writer!

It’s one of those books that when you’ve finished you feel lost because you’ve been so absorbed in the characters and the story that you want it to go on forever. 

My thanks to British Library Publishing not just for this Michael Gilbert book but for all three!! Reader, I loved them!

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Stanley and Elsie - Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson wasn’t a writer I was familiar with although I was aware she had written some detective stories. This novel caught my eye because of the art theme and because it was historical fiction. I was aware of the work of Sir Stanley Spencer and the love he had for his home village of Cookham. But I was unaware of the details of his life and if this novel has done anything it has me scurrying to further explore the work and life of this great British painter. 

The title is bit of a misnomer for whilst the thrust of the book does clearly examine the relationship of Elsie Munday, housemaid to Stanley Spencer that relationship is a catalyst to put Spencer’s other liaisons under the microscope, namely his marriages; first to Hilda Carline and then to Patricia Preece. The ‘secret’ bonding of Patricia Preece and Dorothy Hepworth is sensitively and compassionately portrayed in the book as well. Elsie is the solid, pragmatic and unifying presence in the lives of these people. Her observations lead the reader to learn much of the man who was Sir Stanley Spencer.  

But you get the feeling that this fictionalised account is merely touching upon Spencer and his eccentricities. It’s a book that makes you want to find out more. Since finishing it I have subsequently googled the Spencers and their children, googled Patricia and Dorothy, and the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere which I am now desperate to visit and view the murals Stanley painted! If that’s not the mark of a good book I don’t know what is!

The book is divided into three parts with a prologue. Part 1 which is the longest part is seen primarily from Elsie's perspective. The second part is from Dorothy’s perspective mainly and the final part is a conclusion of sorts. Each part is prefaced with a pertinent quote from Stanley Spencer. 

‘We blew about five years like a couple of rooks in that cottage in the field by the railway cutting.’

‘Love is the essential power in the creation of art and love is not a talent.’

‘All things seem to have to be memorials for me to love them.’

There is an underlying poignancy in the book for the portrayal of Spencer sees him as a paradox, infuriating and egocentric one minute, childlike and loving the next. It is a fascinating portrayal of the man and there was a point where I wondered if PTSD from WW2 affected both his creativity and his eccentricity, his painting was a way for him to try and understand what war had done, not just to him 
but to others as well.  However it would be wrong to view him as ‘just’ a war artist and I think the book does a good job of persuading the reader to consider his entire oeuvre. 

The writer’s research of Spencer is thorough and it is be easy to focus just on that aspect of the book but it would be a disservice to overlook the social history that examines the protocols of the age. The research here is also extensive and convincing. The appeal is therefore broadened to art lovers and history lovers.

I always think it is a brave writer who tackles an historical character and subject within the framework of a work of fiction. Get some salient fact wrong and the world can come down upon you! But to enjoy a work of fiction any desire to go fact checking is perverse in my opinion! So convincing was Ms. Upson’s narrative I swallowed it all. The writing has a flowing, easy pace to it. The characters are engaging, you care about them (even thought at times I could have slapped Stanley!).  I conclude as I began; I have a desire to seek out Spencer’s paintings and find out more about him. 

Thanks Nudge for a copy of this fascinating fiction. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna - Juliet Grames

Reminiscent initially of Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains because of another family growing up in a pre Mussolini Italy, and Angela’s Ashes because of emigration to the United States, this is a family saga of an Italian/American family with considerable depth. Spanning several generations the titular Stella Fortuna is the heroine or maybe anti heroine of this impressive debut novel.

Stella takes being accident prone to a whole other level as we learn the details of her deaths. The reader is lured hypnotically into the novel right from the start because we learn straight away that Stella and her sister are alive and well and elderly and living in Connecticut! So the concept of the seven or eight deaths is tantalising as you really don’t know if this going to be some kind of spiritual, karmic, reincarnation story  - or not! And I’m not saying, you’re going to have to read it!

What I can tell you though is that it is extremely well written. It’s a pithy narrative that doesn’t falter, with some well-defined characters you either love or hate. You get a palpable picture of a poor Calabrian family surviving in a picturesque part of Italy.

To try and escape the worst of the poverty they eventually relocate to America. So geographically the story is in two parts, life in Italy and life in the States. And that would make quite a story just in itself but this is much, much more. This book has a lot to say about the place of women in a society, about those who accept their lot, and those who try to kick against the conventions laid down for them. The attitudes of generations are examined. Considerations of a patriarchal household play a big part. And various types of abuse are detailed which make for uneasy and uncomfortable reading but the incidences are crucial to the plot. I sometimes thought that the deaths referred to a living death for Stella given the situations she found herself in. 

There was a sense sometimes of the autobiographical. There is a narrator who synthesises the story and so palpable were the descriptions and the understanding of the various characters that I suspect this author is retelling scenes from memory. Not all, I fervently hope. Something in the narration style reminded me a little of a quirky Marcus Zusak type commentator.It served as a viable contrast to the third person narration of Stella and her life. 

It is Stella who is the lynchpin and the driving force throughout the story. For after all, it is her story -  the story of her deaths. There is something very sad about her and not the death aspect at all but the sense that she spends her life being unfulfilled, it’s quite heartbreaking. But I think that is the point of the story. 

‘Was she just going to let it happen? Let her whole life be the choices other people made for? But she never made a choice for herself -  that had been her mistake. She never knew what it was she wanted out of life, only what she didn’t want. People can’t understand negative convictions.’ 

That sums up very concisely Stella’s dilemma. But also sprinkled throughout the book were some though provoking maxims which appealed to the philosopher in me.

‘What if we said the power of human faith in making things real even when they’re not - that by giving imaginary entities our credence we allow them to assume power over us - to step into being? Because what is faith but a willingness to believe?’

‘You step on the boat knowing it is forever, one way or another. But understanding what forever means - that is something your heart tries to protect you from.’

Mention needs to be made too of the arrangement and naming of the parts and chapters. Easy to overlook them in a readers’ zeal to read on but I thought they offered a clever summary of the whole book in a way that headings and chapter namings don’t always. 

In some ways it seemed an overlong book but on reflection I found the length another device to suggest that life itself is sometimes overlong? 

It’s an impressive debut with an unusual premise and a moving conclusion. My thanks to Louise Swannell at Hodder and Stoughton for an advance proof of the book.

Monday, 6 May 2019

The Fourth Courier - Timothy Jay Smith

(This was part of a Love Reads Blog Tour for Nudge Books)

Hold on to your hats for this is a snappy and speedy ride into the murky world of a post cold war Eastern Europe. FBI and CIA join forces to solve a series of related murders that suggest a plot of atomic proportions, quite literally. 

Timothy Jay Smith has penned a gripping, intelligent thriller, atmospheric, and effectively creating an uneasy picture of a Poland emerging from the last war. Palpable portraits of ordinary people living in this environment and all dealing with it in their own way whether turning to the wrong side of the law or harbouring dreams of a better life elsewhere provide an energetic background to the main thrust of the tale. 

Nothing is quite as it seems and the reader needs to keep abreast of all the characters and their six degrees of separation and happenstance. The reader also needs to fully absorb each event in order to make sense of the unfolding dramas . The characters are boldly imagined, some flawed, victims and aggressors but all have a functional part to play in the narrative. Most of the action take place in Warsaw, so much so that the city becomes an additional character, too, almost. The writer’s affinity with the country is obvious and immediate and infectious.

The book is obliquely informative without that information obscuring the fiction. Said fiction contains several subplots with themes of greed, romance and sex that also do not detract from the main intention of the story, rather they complement it but give the reader an opportunity to think as well. Although blurbed as an espionage thriller any spying aspects were underplayed and it was more about greed, corruption and ambition from the highest to the low that fuelled the thrills. 

Brutal in places there is an underlying humour that lightens the mood too and the balance works. It’s a satisfying, no punches pulled read that drags you willingly through to its conclusion.