Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Everything Under is a beautiful book. Sentences twist and burble with an elegance that nonetheless feels etched in stone. That old stories can turn so neatly within a modern world brings a sense of connection to myth, to the land, to the fallibility of supposed progress.

Gretel is a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries. A call from a morgue tugs at her forgotten past and sets her on a quest to find her mother and uncover what happened all those seasons ago.

They lived on the river once and shared a language of words forged to suit only themselves. They spoke of what frightened them as the Bonak.

As Gretel wanders closer and closer to the land of her childhood, she finds another missing person whose story is curled tightly within her own. Continue reading

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

It’s 1857 and a young woman of middling birth named Audrey travels to the Isle of Skye to help the lady of the manor collect and edit a collection of Scottish Folk Tales. She is going against her father’s wishes and the advice of her step-mother. She hasn’t even told them where she is going. They consider it unladylike to take a position but would be more horrified that the position was in Skye where her birth mother died.

In part Audrey is running from an experience that clouds her conscience, in part she is running towards information about her mother whose death her father refuses to mention and whose passion was also to collect and record local folk lore. Continue reading

The Choice by Edith Eger

The Choice isn’t the kind of book I usually review. I don’t often write about autobiography or about psychology, but Edith Eger’s story is remarkable. Sent to Auschwitz at sixteen, Edith is a survivor of the Holocaust whose journey to freedom is all about the choices we as individuals are free to make. She recounts the story of her time at Auschwitz, her rescue by American soldiers, and her journey through life as she has her own family and emigrates to America.

Despite the seeming freedom that the end of the war brings, Edith does not feel free. She feels imprisoned by feelings of guilt and fear but it takes her a long time to realise this and to take steps towards a fully-fledged sense of freedom.

Now a clinical psychologist and speaker intent on helping others to help themselves, Edith’s book is full of energy. Once forced to dance for Mengele, she still ends her talks with a high kick. Continue reading

Mother by Hannah Begbie

Dave and Cath have been trying for babies for years. They had pictured a large house bustling with the noise and clatter of a happy family—several children, four perhaps?—and as the months and years of failed attempts build up the distance from their dreams feels suddenly shorter at the birth of their daughter, Mia. But Mia isn’t all right. Her little face grimaces at feeds. Her sweat tastes of salt.

At only a few weeks old, Mia is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Continue reading

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox is a very powerful and timely novel that follows hot on the heels of books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It is set in a near future in which the Christian religious right has taken control of America. With The Pure Movement, the government seeks to return America to a state of grace in which the family and the patriarchy are key. Women must understand their place as home makers, supporting their husbands through deed and not word.

Bracelets are introduced for all women and girls that count the number of words they can say in a day. Once they go over 100 they are given a mild electric shock. Keep talking and the severity of the shocks increase. Continue reading

Subjunctive Moods by C. G. Menon and Book Giveaway

C. G. Menon is a multiple prize-winning short story writer so it comes as no surprise that her collection feels so accomplished. Not only do the stories range across different countries and counties, they cross into the magical real world of myth and mystery as much as the mundane. From Malaysian vampires – pontianaks – to mermaids and magical mountains filled with trolls, Subjunctive Moods is nonetheless a collection that feels very grounded in the real narratives that we use to shape our identities and journeys through life. Continue reading

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

A novel about the children of the Holocaust, either survivors or children of survivors, Fugitive Pieces is a thoughtful, intellectual and stylistically rich novel built upon the necessity and pain of memory.

The main bulk of the narrative is about Jacob who witnessed his parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis and got away before he could discover what happened to his sister, Bella. He was found hiding in a bog by a Greek geologist, Athos, who smuggles Jacob into Greece hidden beneath his clothes. Athos gives Jacob all the love and learning any child could want. He is gentle, kind, loving and has an understanding of what it means to suffer tragic loss.

All of this I found deeply compelling. It was Jacob’s later life and the latter part of the narrative which is taken over by Ben, a child of Holocaust survivors keen to help find Jacob’s diaries in Greece, that I found harder to engage with. Not because there was any less examination of identity and memory, of carrying the unspoken and unlived in our present bodies, but because of the novel’s exploration of sexual and romantic journeys.

Jacob, a troubled translator and poet, takes a second much younger wife and finds peace in her forgetting the presence of her limbs. Ben writes about his wife and his lover, focusing on physicality as if it will save him from drowning in his own misery. Suddenly I found myself walking into the pages of a different sort of novel, one which my younger self might have responded to better. The exploration of sexuality and romantic love, for me, lacked the subtlety of the earlier novel, felt too heady with sentiment and left me feeling frustrated. A hard thing to feel reading a novel about the smiling face of fascism and the ease with which we can slip back into a society where the other is dehumanised for political gain (hard not to think of the way we – not just Trump’s America – treat refugees); a novel about the importance of remembering the past. Yes, bodies are important, our thoughts and memories live within our organs, and yes, romantic love is a powerful life affirming force, but somehow the writing of these truths felt verbose in a way that Ben’s description of his father weeping as he ate, or Jacob’s description of feeling Bella’s ghost enter his body and live within him, or even the love Athos has for Jacob, don’t.

Regardless of this quibble of mine, Fugitive Pieces lives up to its hype. It is a significant work. Bella loved Beethoven’s fugues and Jacob and Ben could be seen as two voices speaking against and in imitation of each other. Just as the novel could be said to be about a collective fugue state in which we attempt to retrieve the memories and identities of the dead in order to refind ourselves. And indeed, all survivors or surviving diaries and correspondence can be said to be fugitives. This kind of play on words and meaning runs throughout, challenging the reader to think beyond the plot into the story of their own lives within the world.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Lucia by Alex Pheby.  

Transit by Rachel Cusk

I found Transit, the second in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy,  just as compelling as Outline (which I review here).

The ostensible plot – action, as in Outline, not being the driving force of the novel – is about the narrator moving to London and having her house renovated. Her children are forced to move out for two weeks. Her neighbours, who live below, are aggressive in the extreme – something she was warned about by the previous occupier. She teaches, goes on a date, and visits her cousin who bullies his new wife. This doesn’t tell you what’s actually happening in the novel, however, which expresses a significant shift in the outlook of the narrator.

The distinction between the two novels can, for me, be summed up by the narrator herself who says the following in conversation on a dinner date: Continue reading

Outline by Rachel Cusk

I’ve come to Rachel Cusk late. Having heard so much about her and her work before even turning the first page, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a very compelling novel almost of absence. It was as if the main character existed only to hear and record what others said to her, as if she herself were only an excuse for others to express themselves and show their best theories and thoughts. Of course, what I read was actually what the narrator chose to tell me. The self-effacement was a choice which I couldn’t be certain existed for the other characters. Perhaps this character was as verbally present as they were, but that part of the story was elided for the purposes of retelling.

It’s delightful to read a novel that has a sense of movement but no discernible plot as such. The narrator goes to Athens to teach creative writing. She teaches, meets some friends and acquaintances, then prepares to travel back. There is no great moment of epiphany (apart perhaps from the moment at the end with the other woman coming to teach screenwriting and live in the apartment that the narrator has been renting), and the dramatic moments fall quietly into the fabric of her days, so that a verbal attack by a student and an attempted kiss from her neighbour on the airplane she flew in on, aren’t the central moments, as they might be, but are instead part of the stories of these other people’s lives who seem to have taken all the drama, all the comedy and tragedy for themselves. Continue reading