Devilspel by Grigory Kanovich, trans by Yisrael Elliot Cohen

Devilspel tells the story of the inhabitants of a small rural town, Mishkine, in Lithuania in the early 1940s. Though not all of the characters that we follow are Jewish, the novel explores the shifts in attitude towards the local tailors, doctors, farmhands and gravediggers, as the incoming wave of anti semitism wipes the town’s Jewish population from the map.

This is part of the wider story of Lithuania’s Jewish population, a very personal story for Grigory Kanovich who is one of only 5% of 200,000 Lithuania Jews who survived the war. Continue reading

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Tariq is a teenager from Morocco who longs to travel to Paris. He knows his mother was born there, that one of her parents was French. He doesn’t know what happened to her and partly from a desire to learn more, and partly simply from the desire to escape the routine of his school life, he takes his passport and travels into France on the back of a lorry.

Hannah is American and just over thirty. She’s been in Paris before. It was there she met the man who broke her heart all those years ago. Returning now is a chance not only to generate new research for a history book being written by her professor back in the states about women’s lives during the occupation of Paris by the Germans, but also to confront that earlier version of herself, the more carefree Hannah who was open to new experiences and people, whose suffering forced the older Hannah to disconnect from the present and pursue a love of the people of the past. Continue reading

What Red Was by Rosie Price

Kate and Max become friends at university.

Kate comes from a single-parent home. Her mother suffered from depression and Kate’s journey to university is by no means a foregone conclusion, though she is smart.

Max has well-connected and rich parents and his mother is a famous film director.

Kate and Max build a close, platonic friendship whose limits are tested (spoiler alert) when Max’s cousin rapes Kate at a party. What this does to Kate, her ability to confront the experience, who she confides in, turns a fun coming of age comedy full of parties, drugs and alcohol, into something much more complex. Continue reading

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I devoured this book, reading it incredibly quickly, eager to discover what would happen even though the outlining story itself is one we all know. Pat Barker tells the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, Achilles prize for taking the Trojan town Lyrnessus in battle. Briseis gives us an alternative view of the war and how it affects the women of both sides. For this fact alone the novel has won huge interest and acclaim and I’m glad to have read The Silence of the Girls and to join my voice with those who praise the novel.

However, despite the need for such an alternative viewpoint, despite the pace of the action, the depth of thought, complexity of character and beauty of the language, the novel still didn’t quite push far enough for me. There was still a need to hang the story on the history of the great male Achilles. This was hugely frustrating and whilst that frustration is, no doubt, intentional, meant to be there to irritate the reader, to press them to desire narratives untethered from the grander male, birth-of-literature narrative, it niggled and nagged at me. Why not leave the wider story untold but from Briseis’ viewpoint, or have another female figure take up the story? Why take us into the histories of Patroclus and Achilles? This is, after all, a story that we know well. Continue reading

Doggerland by Ben Smith

The waters of the world have pushed back the land, driven over it, covered the earth leaving a sea of particles, plastics and life built upon the waves. The Boy is stuck with the old man repairing the turbines on a huge wind farm. Is there still land? The novel doesn’t really ever say definitively.

What we do know is that Boy’s father disappeared when his contract was unfinished, leaving Boy to fulfil it. They watch the system to alert them to faults and they take the maintenance boat and try and fix the turbines, try and keep them generating electricity. Continue reading

From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

This is a beast of a book, beautifully tight despite suggesting multiple interpretations and readings of the Jack the Ripper murders. Everything about this graphic novel teems with an overflow of possible meaning. That makes it simply delightful to read.

I don’t know a lot about the Ripper murders or Masonry and From Hell’s exploration of both gives London itself a new shape. Darkness and chaos are cut against providence and godliness. Visions war with the tried and tested hierarchies of society. Victorian culture, the peak of British Empire is riddled with the signs of its own demise. We see the chasm between rich and poor, the exploitation of difference and poverty for the sake of the rich that we have been unable to escape from even in the twenty-first century. It’s dirty and ugly and sad and also beautiful and filled with longing and hope. Continue reading

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

It’s hard not to be drawn to a title like this. Everything it suggests to the imagination is explored as we follow the life of Alva Smith who became Mrs William K. Vanderbilt and later Mrs Oliver Belmont.

Society and its views on behaviour are put under the microscope. Sometimes stepping outside of the generally accepted rules of conduct, is the best course of action even if it goes against what most consider well-behaved.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Alva manoeuvre her way from a respected family fallen into poverty, to acquiring money through marriage and then to conquering high society. I enjoyed seeing how Fowler imagined she had learned her emancipatory views on equality of the sexes and races.

The novel refers to popular novelists of the times and there is a sense in which the sensibilities of Henry James, Edith Wharton and others ripple through the novel, creating a kind of sentimental outlook generally at odds with Alva’s character, but enticing nonetheless. Fowler doesn’t allow her to escape romance, though society would certainly have restricted her access to it. Romance, as understood by Alva, is a luxury that rarely has positive outcomes. Continue reading

The Snakes by Sadie Jones

Bea has spent her whole life remaking herself as an individual separate from her family. She has forged her own career, found her own relationship with Dan, a man without connections or money, born and bred in Peckham, London. She lives as honestly and cleanly as she can, away from the corrupting influence of her father’s money and her mother’s shame; a shame Bea has done her best to bury deep inside. Continue reading

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

My Name is Monster is divided into two parts in which two women, both with the name Monster, tell their tale. To describe the book, even only a little, will involve some plot spoiling, so if you don’t want to know, don’t read on.

The Monster of Part 1, has the name as a nickname, given to her by her father. She is a woman who prefers things, mechanics, to people. The novel begins with her walking towards her home having been stranded somewhere on the Scottish coastline after the world wars and the sickness have seemingly wiped out all human life.

She walks towards her parents home because it is as good a direction as any.

Slowly, as she walks, our sense of what happened to the world becomes clearer and we see this new world through the eyes of a person who has never really, until now, missed human contact and always sought solitude. Continue reading

May We Borrow Your Country by The Whole Kahani

May We Borrow Your Country: an anthology of short stories and poems has a forward by Preti Taneja, whose novel, We That Are Young, won the Desmond Elliot Prize 2018 for the best debut of the year. This forward discusses the need for a whole story told by multiple writers, referencing Arundhati Roy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This collection is the beginnings of telling a whole story by The Whole Kahani (handily, in this context, this means The Complete Story), which is a collective of British novelists, poets and screenwriters of South Asian origin. The stories and poems form the beginnings of a picture of what it means to be British and of South Asian origin, what it means to have more than one set of cultural expectations, more than one home. Though the stories and poems offer many different perspectives, there is an overall feeling of pensiveness – I wanted to say melancholy, but the causes of this feeling are all too overt. As Reshma Ruia puts it in her poem ‘Dinner Party in the Home Counties’:

‘Is female infanticide still common?’

‘Are you going for an arranged marriage?’

‘How long before you go back?’

The questions fly like arrows thick and fast

Wounding me until my skin is a battleground

How gratified they look

This well-meaning, thoughtless racism floats through many of the stories and poems of the collection. ‘Lost and Found’ by Shibani Lal has a protagonist who acquires the contents of some lost luggage and discovers memories of childhood in the saris and scarves inside, that reawaken a forgotten identity smothered by her adopted Britishness, especially in the face of an English charity worker totally uninterested in listening to her.

This photograph by Jags Parbha is of The Whole Kahani: Reshma Ruja, Kavita A. Jindal (co-founders), Mona Dash, Radhika Kapur, CG Menon, Shibani Lal, Deblina Chakrabarty and Nadia Kabir Barb. Continue reading