We’ve come to take you Home by Susan Gandar

We’ve come to take you Home explores two characters’ lives: Sam’s, a modern day teenager with a pilot for a father; and Jess, a young girl living through the First World War.

Sam’s parents are fighting because her father is away so much. Their fighting seems to trigger strange shifts in reality for Sam. One minute she is riding a fairground ride or running down the road after her father’s car and the next she is somewhere else entirely seeing airships, bombs, bodies, her own fingers lacing up a bodice. It becomes clear quite quickly that she is slipping into Jess’s life. Why that might be takes a novel to unfold.

Jess lives in the country and at first the Great War barely touches her. Her father is too old for the initial draft and for some time Jess’s family life continues unbroken. Then her father is called up and the real hardship of life in an England of food shortages begins to take its toll forcing Jess’s mother to send her up to London. She goes into service in the house her mother worked in as a young woman. Wartime London brings hard labour, love and heartache. Will Jess ever feel she has a family again?

It’s difficult to describe this novel without giving away plot, but you can rest assured there is more to uncover. I’m certain that this is a book that will have wide appeal. The centrality of the nuclear family and the importance of loving parents will be a great draw for many readers. While I admire the writing and plotting of the novel, I found myself more interested in Jess’s story than Sam’s and unfortunately, for me, the whole book came together too neatly leaving me with questions, threads of uncertainty that seemed not to fit in the knot of the ending.

Ultimately, We’ve come to take you Home is a family love story and ghost story combined, full of intrigue and written with care. Though it doesn’t quite work for me, it may well work for you. If you like the idea, We’ve come to take you Home won’t disappoint.

Next week I’m reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

The Living by Anjali Joseph

There is something extraordinary about this quiet and gently unassuming novel. The lives of two people who make shoes are set next to each other: one story follows Claire, an English factory worker who is estranged from her family after falling pregnant as a teenager; the other story is of Pawar, a South-Indian man in his later life with prostate problems and regrets who makes chappals, a kind of sandal, by hand.

The monotony of their work, and their confused relationship to it as something meditative, grounding but also binding and wearisome, is very similar. Their struggle to communicate effectively with family is also shared and yet they are different in nationality, gender and age. This is undoubtedly the reason for the title of the novel, The Living: no matter where and who we are, the fundamentals of life, relationships, work, health, connect us.

The Living is deliberately uninterested in the grand narrative and yet, precisely because of this, ends up saying something rather beautiful about the realities of daily living that many great epics fail to communicate. It may be short, and it may seem simple – some would say it’s an easy read – but this clarity of narrative, that quietly nudges the reader to cogitate and unpick and question, is surprisingly difficult to create.

The Living is a delightful gem of a novel that I will definitely continue to think about. Anjali Joseph is clearly a very talented writer and I look forward to reading her other published novels and her future work.

The Living is published by Fourth Estate this March.

Next week I’m reading We’ve come to take you Home by Susan Gandar.

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World, ed. by Jonathan Oliver and David Moore

If you were wondering what happened to Miranda after she was betrothed to Ferdinand in The Tempest, or want to learn more about the young lovers and the fairy realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this might be the book for you. The stories are inventive and delightful, in turn playful and philosophical, full of politics and magic.

I particularly liked the first two stories, Coral Bones by Foz Meadows– in which Miranda’s life in Naples is envisaged – and The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield– where we find out what happened to the changling boy from India whom Oberon and Titania were fighting over in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but the depiction of Helena as a powerful, magical healer in Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adrian Tchaikovsky also lingers in the mind.

Of course I am unfairly tearing the stories apart when they are meant to work as a whole, each new story building on the previous one to create a wider vision of Shakespeare’s fantasy world, as the title suggests. Shakespeare’s sources are revisited and the transformative power of Ovid, Rumi and so on work within the text to deliver, among other things, an undead Macbeth and a vision of multiple parallel worlds that extend far beyond the fairy realm.

This was all very enjoyable, but however much I liked immersing myself in these new tales I couldn’t quite escape the sense that this was all an elaborate creative writing device. Julian Barnes’ final story, On the Twelfth Night, that ties the tales into a cohesive ending was particularly frustrating – though still clever and intriguing – because his second person always felt a little contrived. Adrian Tchaikovsky has a similarly devicive second person in Even in the Cannon’s Mouth. To add to these frustrations, not being a Shakespeare scholar made me feel I was missing important and witty allusions. I wanted the volume to be more than an academic diversion and yet the afterward entered into a discussion about the authenticity of the various authors’ methods as if it were possible, let alone essential, to mirror Shakespeare’s creative process and to use that as a measure of the collective tales’ success. That seems to me to be a crazy way of looking at these stories.

I enjoyed Monstrous Little Voices. I had fun romping around Italy and contemplating the power at play in human and fairy courts. Whether this adds to my understanding of Shakespeare’s work, whether it is even intended to do so, I can’t truly say. The energy of metamorphosis powers through the book and for that Monstrous Little Voices is a success; I’ll leave the academic judgement to someone else.

Next week I’m reading The Living by Anjali Joseph.