Love across a broken map. An expanded book review

I was lucky enough to be given Love across a broken map by Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Publishing. Through Byte the Book and the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society, I’d been invited to the All Party Writers Group (APWG) Summer Drinks Reception at the House of Lords. The APWG helps to raise matters that affect writers at a parliamentary level and the theme for this reception was the lack of diversity in the publishing and TV industry. Farhana was in the queue with us to get into the House of Lords and we finally chatted, beyond brief introductions, over a cup of tea having just listened to Baroness Floella Benjamin and Shai Hussain talk about their vision for a diverse publishing and TV industry in which every voice could be represented without stereotype or prejudice.

Baroness Floella Benjamin was a particularly hard act to follow because her fervour for representing our country of diverse peoples in our stories on and off screen was very moving. Don’t we want to project a world in which young people feel included, their voices valued and opinions sought? Shai Hussain had to follow her passion with a story of his own, asking the publishing and TV industries to listen to stories that stand outside typical patterns and that are written by people whose voices have yet to be given a chance to shine.

When Farhana said she ran a small publishing company, Dahlia Publishing, which manages The Asian Writer and Leicester Writes, and that they had a new book coming out that week, Love across a broken map, I quickly offered to review it. How do small presses, often those most interested in publishing diverse writing in all its forms, get their books noticed? How do they get the big reviews? As we know from the recent series of Literary Salons held by Something Rhymed, even getting books written by women, let alone any other diverse group, read and reviewed in mainstream newspapers is a struggle. #readdiverse2016 is a good place to start, but as with #readwomen2015 what happens the following year? Why aren’t good books, why isn’t good writing, rising to the surface as it really should? Continue reading

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

Imagine a world in harmony, the days ordered by a music that everyone shares. It sounds idyllic but this order comes at a cost. The harmony can’t account for everything and can’t safeguard everyone. Outside the citadel where the chimes are made and sent out across the country, order erases the individual through the decimation of story.

Simon, not much more than a boy, is told by his dying mother to go to London in search of a woman. His mother says this woman will help Simon, but she doesn’t say how or why and with every passing day the music of the chimes soothes, distracts and trains thought in one shared direction. Everyone reminds Simon to ‘keep your memories close’ but he must do more than that to understand his mother’s mission and remind everyone of their past.

The plot is of course more complex than this, but to say more would spoil the journey. Though it took me a few pages to feel immersed in the vibrant world of the novel, once I was there I was hooked and quickly read to the end.

Though the novel has much to say to adults, placing memory at the very heart of narrative and identity, The Chimes reads like a young adult/cross-over novel. This isn’t to denigrate it, this is simply to describe my feelings as I read it.

I found The Chimes gripping, I enjoyed unravelling the various threads of the book but the mysteries uncovered weren’t revelations for anyone outside of the novel; there was nothing that challenged my world view or questioned my outlook. I had fun, though.

If dystopian fantasy with young protagonists sounds like your kind of thing, or you like mudlarking or music (or all of these), then you will definitely enjoy The Chimes.

Next week I’m taking a break from the Man Booker 2015 (after all, are prizes always the best arbiters of taste?) and will be reading The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

I enjoy and admire Sarah Pinborough’s writing and looked forward to reading The Death House. Set at some distance from today, in the stable aftermath of wide-spread disease in which those with defective genes turned into something monstrous – what is never made clear, but it’s implied to be something like a zombie – most of the population are healthy. Most.

Everyone is tested and some, like Toby, are found to have the defective gene that leads them to the Death House. As all those above 18 are safe, all the tested are young. They are taken from their families and locked up in a kind of boarding school in which nurses, particularly Matron, watch for any sign of sickness.

Toby is the novel’s protagonist. As one of the older boys, he has taken charge of Dorm 4. He does his best not to engage with others, not to form bonds, but just to pass the time until he’s taken to the sanatorium. He sleeps in the day and wanders the house alone at night, having refused to take his ‘vitamin’.

Then new inmates arrive and everything changes. Clara, both beautiful and rebellious, brings a new spirit to the house. Toby is forced to question his disdain, his distance and his night-time domain.

I raced through the book waiting to discover more about the disease, more about its role in society, whether even it was a disease at all or just a method of population control and, whilst I enjoyed all of these uncertainties and found them compelling, the book ended before I’d really had my fill. I wanted the ideas to have deeper foundations. I wanted the novel to stretch beyond the children’s sphere, using confrontations, overheard adult conversations, or evidential discoveries to lend greater insights into the wider world of the novel. But this didn’t happen in quite the way I wanted and left the novel feeling that more could have been invested in it.

I think readers who like exploring human nature in isolation and under the pressure of immanent death will still enjoy the book – the writing is as fluid as ever – but I feel Sarah Pinborough could have pushed these ideas further. The Language of Dying, which if you haven’t read you should, remains my favourite of her books as it isn’t afraid to stretch out beyond the confines of the novel’s setting. I’m sure some might say that The Death House would be a great novel for young adults, but my reservations would remain. Children and adults are all deserving of fully realised ideas and even though The Death House is a fun and thought provoking read, I think it could have been more.

Next week: I’m reading The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher; I’m very excited to be hosting a guest blog by Melissa Bailey; and my new venture, Authors QH, launches today with the wonderful Heidi James. Watch out for another blog post later this morning.

The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev

It is a real joy to pick up a book by an author I have so far admired and feel that admiration deepen. The Remains of Love is the second novel I’ve read by Zeruya Shalev, and though Love Life has a very different tone Shalev’s talent for transcribing the jumps and spirals of thought and emotion is eloquent and intense, as if you really are stepping into someone else’s mind. I find her writing intoxicating, such that it’s hard to tear myself from the page.

The Remains of Love follows the last year of Hemda’s life through her own and her children’s voices and, despite the lack of marked labelling, each voice is so distinct there is no confusion over who is speaking.

This last year of Hemda’s life is full of the emotional turmoil that terminal illness brings. Hemda and her children, Avner and Dina, re-evaluate their lives in the face of death: Hemda revisits her childhood and her decision to leave the kibbutz with her family; Avner confronts the difficulties of his marriage; Dina faces the menopause and a teenage daughter with a longing for intimacy.

It is easy to describe these plotlines in such a way as to make them banal. Even when you add in the problems of inter-familial relationships that exist in abundance between the three characters one could still approach this topic with a sentimental touch, but The Remains of Love is so much more. Longing and desire are not just about a need to love and be loved, to create bonds stronger than law, they stretch out into the politics of identity of the self as well as the state. The writing is sharp and bursting with all the vivid turns of consciousness.

I want to write more about what happens to Hemda and Avner and Dina. I want to share the beauty of Shalev’s family myth in which death and life spring from each other, and the brilliance in which nature and nurture are compared at all levels from leaves in the breeze, empty fishing nets and drained lakes, to children and adults locked in the chains of their upbringing by both parents and state. Were I to do this the unravelling of the plot would be spoiled so I merely promise you an engrossing and intelligent read.

For people who love writing to transport them into the minds of others, who want their experience challenged and expanded, who want to live through others’ eyes, this is your kind of book.

As I read The Remains of Love I felt myself returned to my adolescent self, reading the classics for the first time, indulging in an intensity of shared experience that left me with a kind of ecstatic mania. There are few writers capable of this combination of intellect and raw emotion that creates works whose beautiful shape and form carries emotional and philosophical punch. If I were part of the Nobel Prize literary team, I’d put Zeruya Shalev’s name on my list.

Next week I’m reading The Death House by Sarah Pinborough followed by Gospel Prism by Gerald Weaver. My Authors QH starts this week too. Watch out for updates.