The Illiterate by Agota Kristof

TheIlliterateI was meant to be reading a different novel this week, but when I picked up The Illiterate, by chance, I found myself unable to turn away.

The Illiterate is a short memoir that tells the story of Agota Kristof’s journey into writing and storytelling. It is not surprising that she was a child who read voraciously, who insisted on telling stories. But when she is forced to move away from her country of birth, to travel from Hungary and seek refuge, eventually, in Switzerland, the description of her battle to learn French is very moving and the reason she considers herself an illiterate. She writes:

I have spoken French for more than thirty years, I have written in French for twenty years, but I still don’t know it. I don’t speak it without mistakes, and I can only write it with the help of dictionaries, which I frequently consult.

It is for this reason that I also call the French language an enemy language. There is a further reason, the most serious of all: this language is killing my mother tongue. (p20)

You can feel her passion for what was once the only language for her, Hungarian. You see her frustration with communicating and writing literature in another language, one she has to labour over. And yet, it is partly her struggle with French that creates such interesting prose. Continue reading The Illiterate by Agota Kristof

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough


I really enjoy Sarah Pinborough’s work. I’m not in love with every novel – I haven’t even read every novel as she is impressively productive across a range of genres – but more than her sharp dialogue, honed plot lines, and moments of beautiful observation, I love her ideas. This is a writer who sees something, writes about it, and makes you think. All this whilst the pages pass in a blur as you read eager to find out what happens next.

Ideas and thrills, it’s a tough combination and one that I expect will lead to Sarah Pinborough being much more highly acclaimed than she already is. Though I’m delighted that Behind Her Eyes will be BBC Radio 4’s book at bedtime from 20th March – this could lead to some unnerving dreams – and it is already a New York Times bestseller. So perhaps this will be the book to make Pinborough a household name. This would be well-deserved.

Behind Her Eyes is all of the things I mention above. You could argue there is a magical real or science fiction element to the novel, and it’s probably in the psychological thriller genre, but categories don’t really sit well with Sarah Pinborough. Behind Her Eyes is simply the novel it is: an obsessive love story with four characters at its heart. I’m prepared to say that lucid dreaming is central to the plot, but I don’t want to say more because uncovering what might be behind whose eyes is what propels us through the book and saying more would spoil the joys of discovery.

One of the characters says ‘people are only out for themselves’ and there is a natural savagery to this book that puts our acceptance of reality in question. As I said earlier, this is where Sarah Pinborough is so pleasing to read: she shows us that what we think we know about the world around us is only a tiny fraction of what is out there, or even what is in here (inside our heads). Being able to point this out in a dynamic page-turner makes Pinborough playful, clever, provocative and fun to read.

I don’t want say a lot more about the novel because I simply would like to know what you think. Read it. See if the characters of David, Adele, Louise and Rob come alive for you. Watch them have their affairs, keep their secrets, grow increasingly complex relationships. Then get back to me. If you enjoy it, you will definitely want to read The Language of Dying, my favourite of her novels that I’ve read so far.

Next week I’m reading Blind Side by Jennie Ensor.

The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw

9781785079191Set in the second world war in Lithuania, Yael is a young Jewish woman who happens to be outside her village when all the Jewish people are crowded together and shot in a mass grave.

She doesn’t know where her brother is and is certain her parents have been killed. She wanders the woods with an old woman, Rivka, who dies of exposure.

What will she do now? Where will she shelter? How will she ever find her brother again? How can a world so torn apart be salvaged? Continue reading The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw


I have been thinking for some time about the nature of this blog. I love having a space to reflect upon what I read but many of my writer friends are uncomfortable about writing reviews and I do understand their position.

I feel it is important to be honest about how I react to a novel, but at the same time criticising a contemporary is never easy. I don’t ever really say how much I acknowledge the difficulty of writing to begin with. Finishing a novel, a short story collection, a book of poetry, a graphic novel, these are all huge achievements and it is all too easy to reflect upon something created than to create something oneself. This is before I even begin to bring in taste (though hopefully, it’s pretty obvious by now what kinds of books I like, and that should make it easier for people to see where my reviews are coming from).

I have also made a conscious choice not to be overly personal in my reviews. I don’t often mention my family, or my own writing. I suspect I would get more readers if I did, but I have an instinctive desire to keep things at a distance. It might be more honest to talk about the number of times my reading gets interrupted by all the usual chores of being a 40 year-old married woman with a portfolio career, children, and a rather self-indulgent love of over-analysis. Perhaps people would like to read about what memories my reading evokes. Perhaps they would love an anecdote or two about how one of my young daughters (eight and six) read the current novel over my shoulder and made a witty remark about the prose. It is distinctly unmodern of me not to want to share all the nuances of my daily life with my blog. But, sorry folks, I just don’t think I can do it.

What I really want to express in this post is a note of apology to any fellow writers who feel my reviews don’t do their work justice. I know how hard writing can be and I try to acknowledge all the hard work whilst being truthful about what that work produced in my reading of it. I hope I would have the grace to accept similar truths from others.


Stronger Than Skin by Stephen May

Stronger Than Skin is an oxbridge novel that those who love to read about the hidden world of academic privilege will undoubtedly relish.

Mark has everything: a loving, attractive and pregnant wife, two wonderful children, a fulfilling job. But Mark also has a past and as he cycles home thinking of supper and the joys of family life, he sees the police at his front door and decides to cycle past.

So the novel begins.

We wonder what can Mark have done? Why doesn’t he simply turn himself in? Why doesn’t his wife know what he did? Continue reading Stronger Than Skin by Stephen May