Monday, 18 March 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 -

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. 

Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert

A multi layered crime tale, Death Has Deep Roots fuses WW2 and the Resistance with a compelling court room drama that keeps the reader guessing until nearly the end. Plenty of action and plenty of thinking in this competently written offering from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Michael Gilbert was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, now chaired by Martin Edwards (who writes the most informative forewords to all these Crime Classics. They wouldn’t be the same without his input)and displays considerable expertise in this story. A thorough knowledge of police procedure and court room protocols guide the reader through a convincing labyrinth of leads and clues and ultimate conclusions. 

The story dips between the trial of Victoria Lamartine and the investigation of the murder she is accused of, creating a pleasing balance between the measured and even pace of the Central Criminal Court and the less even and much more tense events unfolding in France with Nap the solicitor’s son who is responsible for the Gallic enquiries. The legal sequences aren’t nail biting but they have a satisfying solidity about both the prosecution and defence arguments. 

I found this to be very much an events driven story rather than a character dominated novel. In this respect I found it quite unusual since it is usually the other way round!! There’s plenty to absorb the keen reader and those with an interest in WW2 will not be disappointed with those well researched sections of the book. And for those who enjoy the tempered wrangle and civil thrust of the judiciary there’s plenty here to encourage your thinking.

This is the first Michael Gilbert book I have read but I have two more courtesy of the British Library and I’m curious because apparently a feature of Gilbert’s writing is his propensity to use the same characters over again in varying degrees of importance within each book. Watch this space!!

As ever my thanks go to the British Library for continuing to satiate my unceasing appetite for this series of books. 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Richard III

Okay, so I know this is primarily a bookish blog but a memory trigger today got me thinking about a trip I made a few years ago that meant a great deal to me. So I made a blog post about it.

It was March 22nd 2015, a Sunday afternoon. I was watching Channel 4. Richard III's coffin was being driven from Bosworth Field to Leicester Cathedral. I had followed the story of the king in the car park avidly so this was essential viewing. While I was watching I received a text message from a friend, also watching, who has a similar interest in history. The message read, 'Do you fancy driving up to Leicester to see the coffin?' I didn't hesitate. 'You bet.' was my reply.

So at some ungodly hour on March 25th we set off for Leicester. We arrived just before 8.00 in the morning and we parked at the first opportunity in this unknown city. Too early to get our bearings or ask anyone. It was a shopping mall car park. Practically deserted at this hour.  We descended in the lift.  A young girl was waiting to go up in as we left so we asked her if we were anywhere near the cathedral. She looked horrified and told us, 'No, it was quite a way away.'

This wasn't what we wanted to hear so we wandered around at ground level and stood bewildered in the street needing to make a decision. One of us, and I think it was me, spotted a grand ecclesiastical looking building far down a lone avenue. Something about the road looked familiar from the TV programme. So we started towards it. With each step we became increasingly less confident that this was the right direction. We saw some people standing by a bus stop.  We asked if we were heading the right way for the cathedral. They just shrugged or shook their heads. A  lady walking in the opposite direction to us clearly heard the word 'cathedral' for she enquired if that was where we were headed. When we said yes she agreed to take us! She explained that she was only popping out for a coffee and it was no real problem to show us the way. We learned that she worked in the visitor centre but because all the activity of the last few days she taken the day off as she was exhausted. She bombarded us with information on our walk which was fascinating. She been witness to the progress of the excavation of the bones and had seen Phillipa Langley. 

Because of a fall I'd had previously in the week, as a precautionary measure I'd taken a walking stick with me. One reason was because I wasn't sure how long I could manage to stand before we could get in to see the coffin. The news had suggested that the queues were 3 or 4 hours long. So I asked our guide, who we learned was called Kath, if the queues had quietened down at all and she said no, quite the opposite, they had got longer and longer. My heart sank but she smiled and said. 'There is some provision for disabled people, let's go and ask.' Okay, I'm not disabled. I did feel bad. It seemed like false pretences. But my intuition said just go along with it. So we continued to follow her .

We passed numerous personnel in high visibility jackets, some of them seemed to know Kath. She asked one where disabled people should go. She was told there was provision round by the Chapter House. We went on none the wiser but Kath clearly knew exactly where that was and confidently led us forward.

We rounded the corner past, some grey stone buildings we'd been walking alongside for some several metres and saw the cathedral and the green and the outbuildings and the crowd snaking their way back through the cobbled streets and alleyways of Leicester. Kath approached one of the official, uniformed guides and asked again where disabled people should go and the guide said, 'Just go straight in!' 

So we went in the cathedral door and stood right next to  the coffin of King Richard III.

The time on the photo was recorded as 8:49 on March 25th. We'd barely been in Leicester an hour and we'd seen the coffin! Rather than drive straight back south again we decided to visit Bosworth Field. It all felt so right. As if that's what we 
had been destined to do. The next day I watched the funeral on TV. And I made a thank you card and sent it to Kath c/o The Richard III Visitors Centre, Leicester. 

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Burning Chambers - Kate Mosse

One of the first things that always strikes me when I read Kate Mosse’s historical fiction books is what a deep love she has of the Languedoc area of France. The passion shines through both the fiction and the fact. As always the historical research is thorough and plausible.

The Burning Chambers details the riots of Toulouse in 1562 between the Huguenots and the Catholics. Mosse creates a palpable picture of the carnage that occurred during those riots and the atmosphere of mistrust that ensued throughout the region.

But this is a book that’s more than ‘just’ the history and we would expect no less from Mosse, a master story teller and weaver of fictions. The story of Minou Joubert is the backbone of this tale and the unfolding of the secrets of her past. It’s cleverly done with little clues scattered throughout that interweave with the unfolding tale of the escalating conflict. 

Minou is a strong female lead character who primarily dominates the narrative for much of the book and when she doesn’t it is the male lead Piet Reydon who keeps it all going. I am loathe to detail too much of the plot. The book cover blurb contains all you need to know before reading. And once you start reading I’m pretty sure you won’t want to stop!

The story is beautifully constructed, setting a scene, allowing the reader to engage with the characters and throwing into the mix all manner of doubts as to the ultimate integrity of some of the players. There’s plenty of excitement and a tense conclusion as the survival of some of the key characters hangs in the balance. Finally the ends are tied together if the astute reader hadn’t already figured for themselves the secrets of the past. The narrative flows easily and although it is a 500+ page book you can read it as effortlessly as you might a more slender volume. Nothing is superfluous, the pace is maintained and engages the readers’ attention right through. 

Scattered throughout the book are some well observed truths that endure in out 21st century world,

You will know that if the lie is repeated often enough, in the face of the clearest evidence to the contrary, even the most level-headed of men start to believe it.. Falsehood easily becomes accepted truth.

‘…. human beings have learnt rather to repeat the mistakes of the past, and more vilely.

Of the arms dealer Pierre Delpech, ‘Which ever side won, he was in profit. His weapons killed without discrimination.

An possibly most pertinent of all, ‘How was it that, in more than three hundred and fifty years, so little had changed? So much suffering, such waste and cruelty. And for what?’

I personally enjoy historical fiction very much   I believe it fulfils an important role because it can present history in a palatable way to those disinclined to pick up a factual history book initially. But I  think there is a fine line between a believable fiction running alongside the history because the potential for contrivance is ever present. So a balance needs to be struck which I think Kate Mosse does. There are one or two instances here which strike as purely fictional devices but then it IS a work of fiction. But I think the real icing on the cake is when an historical novel sends you googling the actual event(s) in history. Did I do that, reader? Yes, I damn well did!! 

I also enjoyed my own personal serendipity; for having little or no knowledge of the Huguenots I’ve read two books already this year where the Huguenots feature. This one, obviously and Sonia Velton's Blackberry and Wild Rose.

It seems that this is the first in a series of books and I will look forward to furthering my acquaintance with these characters. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and entertaining read. My thanks to Nudge/New Books for a copy. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Libraries - A Reflection

This article originally appeared on the Nudge/New Books website. I regularly retweeted it on Twitter when discussions about libraries came up. Unfortunately when they revamped their website  articles and reviews of more than a few months old disappeared and cannot be accessed. So I am posting it to my blog because it is still valid and pertinent for me. 

Photo by Louisa Hennessey via Flickr

I can't remember how old I was when I first visited the library but it was before I learnt to read. I know that because the books I chose I begged and begged my mother to read to me at most inappropriate times during the day. Our local library was a typical 50/60s build. A one story building with a glass elevation at the front.  It had an undefinable but most distinctive smell.  My late mother continued to use this library until a few months before her death and I remember taking her there once and finding that despite all the changes to the library the smell remained. 

We went to the library every Saturday, usually in the morning and usually with my father. I used to take out the maximum number of books that I was allowed. As a young child it just amazed me that I could come into this building and come out with an armful of books that I didn't have to pay for and they were mine, all mine for the whole week. And then the following week I could go back return them and take out another load. It got to the stage where by bedtime Saturday I had usually read the lot!  And I think that's where I developed the habit of rereading because I knew I would have to wait a whole week before I could get any more so I just used read them all over again. The system used was very different from the computerised, digitised systems of today. The books you borrowed were ticketed and date stamped to show when you had to return it by. Oh, how I loved those date stamps! My grandmother bought me my own with an ink pad once and I took immense pleasure from stamping all my own books. Playing libraries was a favourite game of mine. 

The library was the first place I was ever allowed to go to on my own. I don't remember how old I was but I do remember walking there and walking back with a bag full of books.  I felt pretty good about it. When I grew older I used to cycle there and fill my saddle bag to overflowing with books.  There was a generous bicycle park there which was quite unusual at the time. It would have been rude not to have used it! I used several of the libraries in the area where I lived  and I continued using those libraries thoroughly and regularly until I left secondary school. 

Sadly since then my use of libraries has been fairly sporadic. There was a time when professional commitments didn't actually allow me a lot of time for personal reading. A midlife change of direction which caused me to turn my back on my professional career and take up a clerical job rejuvenated my love affair with libraries. The office I was working in was directly opposite the town’s library. And I spent many a lunchtime in that building. I came back from lunch with armfuls of books much to the amusement of some of my less literary colleagues.

But now…… I struggle to remember the last time I visited my local library. I’m ashamed of that. I was a giver for World Book Night a few years back and the books were delivered there for me to collect. I went in a couple of years ago for a specific reference book.  And my local library is a truly wonderful space. (See picture above.) It's an old Victorian rectory of warm, red brick and it stands in beautiful grounds with a scented garden for the visually impaired, an enclosed childrens’ playground, seats aplenty where you can see the sea and watch the squirrels, so tame, they will sit by your feet to be fed.  It's a very peaceful place. With the local government cuts a few years back they wanted to close the building down but opposition and petition saved it. Even my brother who now lives in Shropshire signed the petition from all those miles away. The library remains open, manned entirely by volunteers.

So why don't I go to the library any more? Is it because I've joined the ereader/kindle generation? NOOOOO. I loathe them. It’s real books I love.  As a child growing up the family didn't have money for new books. So the library was a treasure trove. What’s changed? I buy books now. I guess as soon I started earning and there was any sniff of disposable income I’d buy a book. People gift me books for birthdays and Christmas. People pass books on to me. I buy from charity shops and jumble sales and second hand book shops. And of course there are the wonderful review copies of books I receive. And so my To Be Read shelves groan under the weight of the books there. I feel I must prioritise my reading. I know that if I went to the library I would not be able to resist the books there. I would emerge with the full complement allowed to me and struggle to read them by the return date because of all the other books I ‘need’ to read. 

I am fearful that ultimately, we may lose libraries altogether. And I have to take some blame. If I'm not using the library how can I bemoan its demise? So I’ve made a decision. I’m going to try and visit the library maybe once a fortnight and take out just one book. It’s going to be hard but I’m gonna try and do it. Because I think libraries are wonderful, valuable places. I don't want to see them go. I have so much to thank them for. Would I be the reader I am now without them?

Whilst I haven't managed the 'once a fortnight' I anticipated I am pleased to say that since I wrote this article I do now visit my library regularly. I go every three weeks but often I renew the books! But it's becoming a habit to go in there again. And that can only be a good thing. 

Saturday, 9 March 2019

A Letter from Sarah - Dan Proops

I struggled with what to make of this book, initially, to be honest. It was clearly a debut novel, a narrative that spoke of an author trying to find a voice. But I did wonder whether the work had been a victim of stringent editing as there was a lack of flow to the structure of the narrative in some parts. Short, simple sentences that often contained prosaic detail but didn’t further the story overall. As I progressed though I began to wonder whether it was actually a very clever piece of work constructed very deliberately to highlight the protagonist’s fragmented state of mind, a consummate study in loss and despair. Clever too is the writer’s ability to manipulate his readers emotions towards the various characters in the book. I’m thinking particularly of Nigel and to an extent Darius. 

Adam’s sister has been missing for seven years. Both he and his overbearing father, Darius, are distraught at her loss. Unexpectedly on the seventh anniversary of her disappearance Adam receives a letter purporting to be from her. She is apparently alive and well and living in Brooklyn and demands his secrecy as to her existence. I don’t want to divulge anything else except to say Adam’s search takes him across the Pond a couple of times and back again. 

The story deals with themes that include grief, loss, faith, belief and the extreme anxiety that these states can provoke. It’s an interesting story because it goes beyond the mere missing person scenario and hints of something more which certainly made me keen to read on to see if what I suspected was accurate. It also highlights the strain that relationships on all levels can suffer and how an individual’s ability to function on a day to day basis can be compromised.

It’s not a feel good book, there’s a lot of sadness in it although there are sporadic attempts at positivity.  I found the ending inevitable, predictable to a degree although you’re never quite sure. There’s something compelling in the story but I struggle to agree with the inside blurb critic who claims it is ‘a literary masterpiece’. If you buy the book on that basis I think you would be disappointed but if you want a compelling, contemporary and compassionate story you’ll be satisfied.  Another part of me feels there may be a hint of catharsis in this story? It clearly means a lot to the writer and for that reason alone it is a worthwhile piece of work. And I thank Urbane Publications for the opportunity to read this story.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Last Ones Left Alive - Sarah Davis-Goff

I never did like the word ‘zombie’. It’s too Marvel/DC comics and Lichtenstein for me to the extent that it’s hard to take seriously. So I applaud the invention of a different word to describe the ‘z’ creatures in this debut novel from Sarah Davis-Goff. What’s the word? Oh, no!! You read the book and find out. I’m not telling you. 

But zombies by any other name will smell as rank and pose the same threats with a biff, a pow and a bang. So how do you make a zombie novel retain some credibility and not let it deteriorate into Zombie Apocalypse the Musical on Ice? Well, you let Ms. Davis-Goff write it for starters. 

In a dystopian landscape where Cormac McCarthy meets James Dashner, Goff seeks not to explain the hows and whys but to describe the nows and thens. Orpen is our girl, part Katniss Everdene, the rest completely  herself and synthesises the contrasting narratives between the tranquil but unexciting life on Slanberg, an Irish island, to the epic survival strategies on the Irish mainland. Part of you wills her never to leave Slanberg but the other part of you urges her to find out what else is out there. Ostensibly she travels to the mainland to find help for Maeve. Who is Maeve? Read the book!!

If you think you’ve read it all before, then be patient. Yes, there are hallmark elements of any number of post apocalyptic and dystopian fictions. But this one’s different. 

Firstly, I may be wrong, but much of the dystopian fiction written, certainly, in the last twenty years has been predominantly set in the US. I think. If that’s unfair I apologise. These stories are set in the UK.

  •  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
  • The Children of Men by P.D. James
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
  • The White Mountains by John Christopher.
  • The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing.

Last Ones Left Alive is set in Ireland. So right away it implies a specific dynamic from an historical and political perspective that eliminates the need for the author to waste time with the hows and whys. Toss the Brexit conundrum into the mix, which is surely incidental as I doubt it was in the writer’s mind when she began writing this, and it’s perfect!!

Secondly there’s a strong feminist bias in the book that’s more The Power than The Handmaid’s Tale. Orpen is raised by her mother and Maeve. Their relationship is tacit. In the rest of the book there’s is only one male character. Orpen seems to be running the gauntlet in one form or another her whole life. And there’s a curious sense of her journey running full circle in a way but it’s the last thing you expect. I’m loathe to develop that any further for I would have to offer spoilers. It’s clever though! By jove, it's clever. 

The sense of isolation is strong and developed well in terms of a physical isolation and isolation within groups. It is only towards the conclusion that the you get a sense of the inclusive for Orpen. 

Some ‘catchy’ mantras - Beware Tall Buildings.
Watch Your Six
                                    Remember your JIC (Just in Cases)

This is a very laudable debut novel. It’s a confident piece of writing. A strong narrative that flows evenly building up to some nail biting sequences. The characters are few so it was crucial to render them believable. The reader isn’t spoon fed, there’s much to conjecture but not so much that you feel you’ve been short changed.  And there’s a vague optimism at the end. It’s exciting.

My thanks to Georgina Moore and Tinder Press for a proof of this book.