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Nicholas Royle – Mother: A Memoir

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A memoir and then some.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 209
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40857-3
First Published: 14th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

Owing to the title of this book and in addition its contents (necessarily discussed below) I’m leaving my usual synopsis paragraph to this one sentence.

Royle’s third narrative book, his first narrative non-fiction (I say ‘narrative’ because the author has also written many academic works), does both what it says on the tin and what it implies on the tin if you were to look at the tin more closely. Mother: A Memoir is a mixture of straightforward memoir about the author’s mother but also a book about the concept of a mother – particularly, of course, his mother – and the concept both of writing a memoir and of memoir as a written form. It’s about writing. What this means in brief, is that this is a highly experimental, artistic, and language and linguistics related book that is nevertheless also a standard memoir.

But ‘standard’, in any quantity, doesn’t really explain this book. The only book that this one comes anywhere close to being similar to, at least to my admittedly limited knowledge, is the Royle’s previous book, An English Guide To Birdwatching. The book succeeds in being something very special: from the title, it’s a memoir of the author’s mother, Mrs Royle. (I’ll be referring to Nicholas Royle as ‘the author’ from now on to limit any confusion.) However as you read through it you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s only half about Mrs Royle, until you’ve read enough to discover that in actual fact it may be more of a memoir and more of a tribute to her than you could have imagined.

The book is also about a love of reading and literature in general; some of the best passages discuss times when the author and Mrs Royle conversed about texts, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the many references to novels and poems that are included without further comment. It can take a few pages to get into it, with its various versions of wordplay, but it’s very easy once you’ve got the hang of it. It’s very appealing and often quite fun.

The writing style is great; there are stylistic choices deliberately chosen and accounted for. The most obvious is in punctuation; the book is devoid of commas, there are none except in quotations, because, as the author says on page 25 (bracketed text mine):

But in writing about my mother I have been compelled to respond to what was quirky and singular about her own language. I have experienced a kind of unfettering. And stumbling into a new closeness to her in the very reaching out to shape words and syntax – idioms and ironies – in the wake of her voice and her laughter. In the remembered tricks and turns of her vivacity. I discovered I had to write – for better or worse – without commas. Things linked without notifications or signposts. Continuous but broken. Making more use of dashes. In sentences sometimes lacking main verbs. Or subjects. Discandying flux. Even if at the same time I cannot write a sentence without wanting to pay homage to my father’s lifelong Maxwellian [both Royle’s and his brother’s word for their father’s passion for the English language, based on his name] vigilance as Grammaticality Enforcement Agency.

(The extract shows the other effect of the lack of commas – the book is quite often very poetic. It also quite often changes the ‘natural’ emphasis in a sentence to highlight what is truly important in it.)

Perhaps – likely? – the author’s father wouldn’t have appreciated the way the book was written, which in the context of the family and the addition of Mr Royle’s letters to newspapers, is an interesting idea in itself. But there’s also an interesting question that this reviewer found herself asking – does the author’s focus on his mother’s language, given the father’s was the language deemed more correct (and thus important), question the traditional ideas of the relative values of men and women’s work and so on? (I should point out the author never says this, it’s just something I took away with me.) It certainly questions whether Mr Royle’s use of language is necessarily better (employed in Mrs Royle’s correspondence, his corrections in the letters she wrote are shown in the author’s discussion and reproduction of one of them).

This is perhaps the time to also note that Mrs Royle was a dedicated, passionate nurse who was well loved by many. Stories of her work are many, are lovely, and are spread throughout the book. (The narrative is not linear – the content is divided into chapters each on a theme – and scenes and elements of Mrs Royle’s life are returned to.) Quite a number of the photographs show Mrs Royle at various stages of her career.

It’s also perhaps the time to note that as much as the book is about Mrs Royle, it’s also about her husband, the author’s brother, who sadly passed away at a young age, and many other members of the family. There’s a lot to be said for the cover photograph showing the nuclear family. This book covers the affects of a mother on lives – the affect of Mrs Royle on the author, his father, his brother, and inevitably somewhat the whole family on who the author is.

To be sure, despite the small number of pages – just over 200 – Mother: A Memoir is a book you will probably want to take a bit of time with; it’s a good one to savour. That’s related to the major point to make – this book is brilliant.

I received this book for review.

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Caroline Lea – The Glass Woman + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Zoë Duncan! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Zoë Duncan (The Shifting Pools) discuss coping with and healing from war trauma in reality and fiction, the use and power of dreams, employing various styles and formats, and how fascinating reader interpretations can be.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Will not shatter.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 400
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-93461-9
First Published: 7th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 11th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

In order to ensure the health of her aged mother, Ròsa agrees to marry Jòn, leader of another village a fair way from home. In doing so, Rosa not only leaves her mother but her childhood friend, Pàl. But life isn’t ‘simply’ going to be more difficult – it’s going to be far beyond that. Jòn is secretive; his first wife, Anna, died in mysterious circumstances and his manner seems controlling – he wants a meek wife; then there’s the villagers who say that Jòn killed Anna – and Ròsa isn’t allowed to talk to them. And Ròsa isn’t allowed into the loft of the home, from which strange sounds arise, haunting her sleep.

The Glass Woman is Lea’s second novel, set in 1600s Iceland, a generally wintry place that offers much for those looking for intrigue and a thrilling tale. Set wonderfully in its history, the book offers a lot of information about the time period that will appeal particularly to those more versed in the medieval continental Europe – the weather makes things a bit different in Iceland compared to Britain, for example. The history is good and pretty immersive.

But it is the story itself that holds the most interest; the novel sports parallels with two classical novels that are in themselves heavily influenced one to another – where Anna’s mysterious death is concerned and where Ròsa naturally starts to question the refusal Jòn gives her when she wants to go into the loft, the book turns towards the concept of the Mad Woman in the Attic, that concept that is a mainstay of Jane Eyre; and in its furthering of this – Anna’s apparent haunting of the place – it looks too at Rebecca.

Whether a deliberate nod by the author or not, the parallels with Brontë and Du Maurier are fantastic, both just far enough away as to not be too similar (as to repeat) and close enough to be a study of the concepts in themselves. The idea of a lingering ghost remains almost until the end (when you necessarily get answers) and the handling by Ròsa also similar enough to warrant further thought; there is – of course? – no question of race here, nor of envy, but the same concept of identity that informs the second Mrs de Winter is at play in Lea’s story.

On the subject of identity – altered here to be personal agency and control (suitable for the time and setting) – it’s well structured. The question as to whether or not Ròsa is at all truly meek, an obedient wife, and in various meanings of the idea, is looked at throughout to great effect, in itself a possible further nod to Du Maurier’s tale – however Ròsa has more leave to change her circumstances than Max’s wife ever did. Lea’s choices of history and place lend themselves well to the study, weaving in tradition and culture from the northern island nation, allowing perhaps for a stronger backdrop to the subjects at hand.

The further use of the classical works cannot be discussed without spoiling Lea’s story; suffice it to say the parallels become weaker at points but also stronger at others, and Lea’s situation as a writer in the 21st century allows for much more. The author is excellent at making you constantly question where she is taking her tale.

Other themes, somewhat related but far more the novel’s own, are the ideas of fragility and purity. These are looked at frankly in dialogue, but perhaps best in the element of the glass woman itself, an ornament Ròsa receives from her husband. There is a lot to be said for symbolism in the novel.

So the novel is thrilling in a good few ways, ‘inherited’ and brand new alike. The style and structure of the book aids in this; there are two narratives – Ròsa’s, told in the third person, and Jòn’s, told in the first person and set a month after that of his wife’s. It is a constant – and intriguing – quest for the reader to work out what has gone on; you’ve got Ròsa’s tale wherein she becomes fearful of Jòn, and you’ve Jòn’s that speaks of a different character to the one you’ve come to expect; the study of perceptions and reality is good. Despite the short time lapse between the narratives and the knowledge of how you have to read them and sort the information, Lea only allows it to be easy once you’re past a certain point, and that point is near the end.

The Glass Woman is a highly interesting one; on the surface you have a novel that is full of the day-to-day necessarily repetitive routine in an isolated, work-dependent place, laced with a burgeoning mystery. But as to be expected, once you look under the surface – and the possibilities are plentiful in an icy place – you’ll find it’s anything but.

And you’ll leave 1600s Iceland, however much Ròsa’s story matches others of her time or not (I can’t pretend to have much knowledge in this respect), with not only a particular set of ideas to think about but also a new approach to some age-old literary ponderings.

 
Fran Cooper – The Two Houses

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Connected and disconnected.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64159-4
First Published: 22nd March 2018
Date Reviewed: 5th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

For the good of Jay’s mental health, she and husband Simon move from London to a northern area that has had its day – resident numbers are few, and those that remain are wary of the newcomers. The couple have purchased the place known as Two Houses, two buildings that were originally one; the middle was removed after a death. As Jay and Simon are to discover, there are many secrets in the place, and in order to work them out they’ll have to work with the others. And it may cause tensions between them.

The Two Houses is Cooper’s wonderful second novel that looks at hauntings, history, and, broadly speaking, the various impacts they can have on the present day.

It seems inspired by These Dividing Walls; where Edward, the ‘starting’ character in that novel, spoke about a scary time in which his sibling danced in between two houses that had seen a death and a demolishing of a middle, so does The Two Houses appear to take up the mantle. But that is only the starting point; whilst there is a haunting in this, the second publication, the further story is very new.

It’s also very different. Whilst the same fantastic prose seen in These Dividing Walls is here, too, as well as the lovely balance of plot and characterisation (characters are perhaps most important in Cooper’s work but the plots aren’t far off – they’re fabulous), The Two Houses is different in genre, idea, and general feel.

The book starts with the future; Jay finds a bone in the grounds by the main house, and we then go back to when she and Simon were looking to purchase a second home. It covers the issues with mental breakdowns, the recovery from them. Jay is broken. She moves into a house that’s been separated into two. The mending of Jay happens with the mending of the house’s situation.

The mending of what is broken reaches further into the narrative – relationships, prejudice, feeling apart from the community; all these are looked at and form aspects of the plot, some more so than others. Interestingly, the differences between London, a big crowded city, and the relatively extremely modest community Jay finds herself in, isn’t as big a focus; you might have expected the idea of a quieter place being more productive to health to be a focus, but it’s a very small element. It is people rather than place that is studied.

On that word – ‘studied’ – it’s worth noting that whilst this is a fairly literary book it is less so than others; the balance between literary and pure enjoyment leans more towards the pure enjoyment, ergo there’s a lot to appreciate in the structure and themes but there’s just as much escapism.

Discovering the new in the old, the old in the new, and changing one for the other is part and parcel here. It is a wonderful story with just the right amount of ghostly goings on, a great cast of characters (including a lovely dog), and a great setting. And whilst the threads are all nicely tied by the end there is enough to think on further, too.

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April 2020 Reading Round Up

As discussed last week, I have a number of books on the go, so it’s not surprising that I finished very little this month; beyond a small reading slump that has coincided with the onset of rain (I’d been reading mostly outside) reading a number at once means I’m in right about in the middle of a few.

In unrelated news, I watched My Fair Lady on bluray yesterday and it was like I’d never seen it before. If it’s a film you enjoy, I very much recommend the bluray – it makes the theatrical aspect far more obvious and somehow brings more clarity to the slightly ambiguous (wholly ambiguous?) ending. It was like it was released yesterday.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Dan Richards: Outpost – The author travels to various buildings and locations around the globe that are isolated, seeking to discover why they draw us, and what their various roles in creativity are. Good stuff; some of it is unexpected but that does round it off well.

Fiction

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Caroline Lea: The Glass Woman – A young woman in 1600s Iceland agrees to marry the leader of another settlement so that her mother will always have money, but the man seems to hide a secret, and they say he killed his wife. This one creeps up on you – the story goes along fairly steadily for a long time, with some Brontë/Du Maurier aspects before turning into something rather spectacular; it’s a well-written, haunting, last several chapters.

No thoughts of favourites; I’m looking at reading in terms of enjoyment – did I enjoy my reading, as an interest? Yes. The variety definitely helped and my laid back attitude to it all did, too. Looking forward, I’m going to continue as I have been [pauses typing as a massive booming firework goes off and after a shock I realise it’s 8pm on a Thursday in UK lockdown], just perhaps not add any more books to it until at least one is finished…

Due to our present situation, I’d like to note that Nicola Cornick’s The Forgotten Sister (link goes to my review) was released yesterday. On 14th May, Nicholas Royle’s memoir, Mother, will be released (he wrote An English Guide To Birdwatching – awesome literary fiction with a lot of meta content). Finally in late May, Isla Morley’s The Last Blue will be published.

What kind(s) of stories are you drawn to at the moment?

 
Dan Richards – Outpost + Podcast

Monday’s podcast is/was with Dan Richards. Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Dan Richards (Holloway, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Climbing Days, Outpost) discuss asking to join well-known people for lunch and producing fascinating interviews for your book, travelling the less beaten paths of your mountaineering great-great aunt, finding society in isolated places, and looking ahead to how we might continue to approach humanity’s harming of nature after the benefits to scaling back have been shown by this current crisis.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Isolation before it was cool.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 295
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-89155-6
First Published: 24th April 2019
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2020
Rating: 4/5

Richards looks into the value of various isolated buildings and places – sheds, Svalbard, a Martian research centre, a Japanese temple high in the hills – seeking to find out why we are drawn to them and how they inspire creativity. The book includes elements of Richards’ previous books on art, nature, and travel, pulling the subjects together.

I’ve always been drawn to simple structures (p. 57).

The places Richards visits sometimes gel with what you might expect – a small building in the wilds of Iceland; Desolation Peak in America which Jack Kerouac visited and wrote about – but others are very much the opposite; when looking at isolation, you might not think of those places that inspire community. Chapters focused on the research centre in Utah – which Richards spends mostly on an interview (some chapters are more about his own experience, others focus on other people) – and in Svalbard, where the author is never alone, call into question our inherent need for society.

The Svalbard chapter is particularly poignant – as it shows the requirements for others (away from the tourism people need to be careful given the danger) so too does it show how society, humanity, can have a detrimental effect. As much as we may enjoy the isolation, the impact of it – the continual movement of people through it – so too does the ecosystem become impacted. Perhaps the most notable part of the book is Richards’ contemplation and further discussion with the reader of the role humanity plays in the life of the polar bears, in which he recounts the story of bears drowned in the sea as they have to go further and further out to find slabs of ice; having memorised where the slabs were, there comes a problem when they are not found. The irony in being able to witness the movement of polar bears whilst being a part of the problem is not lost on the author.

I believe the more we know about our world, the more we see, the more deeply we engage with it, understand its nature, the more likely we are to be good custodians and reverse our most selfish destructive behaviour (p.10).

Shedboatshed – the chapter about the modern artwork of the same name – will likely divide opinion; it’s certainly one of the more prominent examples of the unexpected. The art work, by Simon Starling, is covered in an effective two step process – a museum visit and an interview with the artist – marking a change in the proceedings. It’s a different travel and a wholly new concept of isolation – the piece is, both in short and literally, made up of a shed that was then dismantled and recreated as a boat, taken to the water, and then rebuilt into a shed; if you like modern art or are even just interested in the idea from afar, it’s a fascinating chapter, but nevertheless may take some getting used to. If it’s not your sort of thing, it may feel like you’ve started a different book. Whichever side you fall on, however, you will probably appreciate Richards’ motive for discussing it, as well as the various extra ideas surrounding it. (One such is the idea that the display of the piece as well as its practical use adds to its history and conversation). The spin off mid-chapter to briefly cover Roald Dahl’s writing hut also helps provide more context, however much it may seem fairly far from Shedboatshed.

The book’s language and general structure make it an easy read. Richards very much takes the reader with him, always addressing them, and the focus on a few core concepts for each location means an in-depth look at what the author deems most important and interesting to relate; you don’t always get a ‘full’ feel for everything but the attention to the overall theme means a more coherent book.

Richards’ enthusiasm for the places and the travel ensures you come away from Outpost with a fair amount of knowledge, and serviceable knowledge, too. It is in many ways – inevitably? – escapist, but the various points of poignancy in it leaves you with much to think about.

I have interviewed the author.

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