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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

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Absolutely… positively… really…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 381
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-17211-4
First Published: 9th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 4th February 2019
Rating: 5/5

Eleanor’s life is orderly, if dull – breakfast, work, dinner, The Archers or television, and bed – but it works. She’s been through a lot but now has her own place to live, and apart from the irritating visits from the social workers who gawp at her when she speaks about her history, and the co-workers who joke behind her back, she reckons life is okay. She has her dependable clothes and her shopper bag/trolley, her plant from her childhood, and her mismatched furniture. But when at a concert she ‘recognises’ the singer as the man she’ll spend her life with; she also meets a new co-worker who takes a genuine interest in her, which is difficult for Eleanor to accept because he dresses far too casually and smokes. Life is about to fall away from its schedule and potentially become a lot better, and Eleanor’s not used to that at all.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a book about the effects on adulthood of childhood trauma and a lack of support.

This is an incredibly well-told story. It offers both a first-hand source (if fictional) and a lot of sub-textual information for the reader about what it’s like to be apart from society for reasons that the person in question has had no control over. It offers a glimpse of how ‘othering’ such situations can be, and requests more emphatic assessments of the wider, factual, world.

Honeyman’s book is powerful, showing all the different factors of Eleanor’s life – the upbringing via memories and impact, the here and now, the pitiful ‘support’ she receives. However it is in the plotting itself and the ‘showing’ in the larger sense – show not tell – that the book is so effective. Through the use of the first-person narrative and never wavering from displaying all the socially awkwardness, ignorance, and learned-intolerance that Eleanor has, you get a complete picture of everything – why Eleanor is as she is, how others react and why. (Eleanor describes people’s reactions to what she says, enabling you to see and fully understand what’s happening even when she doesn’t – which is the usual situation.) Honeyman does all this slowly; never losing sight of the fact a novel should provide entertainment of some sort, she ekes out the story itself whilst being bit swifter when it comes to describing who Eleanor is; even if you get a solid idea early on as to what’s happened, not everything is provided until the end, which leaves Honeyman able to show Eleanor’s progression towards healing and remembering exactly why she was put into care.

Of the foster care and children’s homes of Eleanor’s past, Honeyman is blunt, detailing situations that would still warrant question, such as a child being moved on because her grief and trauma manifested in ways that people couldn’t – or wouldn’t – handle. Honeyman does not analyse the receptions the young Eleanor received, instead her focus is on how an unstable home life continue to impact her. Of the support the character receives in adulthood, Honeyman states clearly in subtext: not good enough. Eleanor’s been given a flat, filled with second-hand, often inappropriate, furniture. She found her own job. The social workers don’t actually do anything beyond showing up infrequently to check she’s okay and – as it’s often a new person – to simply gawp in surprise at what they read in their files. It’s down to society, who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience, to actually help her, and as Honeyman shows, Eleanor is a lucky one, finding people who truly care.

It’s difficult being in the character’s head – her mother taught her intolerance of many different types of people and Eleanor struggles to push away that programming – and for a while in the book, Eleanor’s life is dull, but the writing keeps you going. Due to her mother’s programming, the English is an interesting mix of language, beginning in a fashion most correct and slowly progressing towards a combination of very correct English and very modern phrasing.

Needless to say the characterisation is top-notch, the main characters in particular brought fully to life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is difficult to take in but not difficult to read, the author wanting her readers to understand everything clearly. And it’s worth every moment, the literary features culminating in a fantastic whole but each being enjoyable – in a literary way – in themselves.

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Eloisa James – When Beauty Tamed The Beast

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Tale as old as 2011.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-02127-4
First Published: 25th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th January 2019
Rating: 3/5

Linnet is ruined; having chosen for a social event a dress that she didn’t notice bulged in a particular area, society now assumes she is pregnant, and not without reason – she’d been flirting with a prince. Now with a non-existent baby on the way, she has to marry fast, but who will have her? The sole option is the Earl of Marchant, an impotent doctor whose father is desperate for a grandchild and obsessed with royalty. But Marchant is known to be a difficult man, and Linnet decides she’ll make him fall for her swiftly and then she’ll try to get over the whole thing.

When Beauty Tamed The Beast is James’ 1700s (or so) romance adaptation of the classic story. The second of a series, it’s a standalone amongst other fairy tale re-tellings.

This book is split roughly 50-50 in terms of adaptation content, where half the time the story falls in line with the rest of James’ work, and the rest of the time is spent conforming to the adaptation enough that it switches between very-loosely-based-on and fairly-faithful retelling. It’s often funny, there are truly silly moments, it’s well-written, and time is spent developing the relationship. Some of the literary devices to create the fairy tale come naturally, such as the old castle, which James’ chosen time period gels with well, but there are a noticeable number of elements and scenes where the classic tale is shoehorned in, such as the hero’s exclamations of “I’m a/the beast!”.

‘Hero’ is open to interpretation here – many will love Piers, who is James’ bookish take on Hugh Laurie’s character, House; others will perhaps take a step back, often. (This reviewer had not seen House M.D. until reaching James’ acknowledgements, but 3 minutes on YouTube was enough to see that Piers and House are one and the same, history aside.) The Hugh Laurie context by itself works very well, and if you read the book with that in mind it may be easier, however with the romance and ‘uninspired’, so to speak, heroine, it may give you pause – Piers is not a great person, and whilst the backing of the fairy tale says a lot, he can go a little too far. Linnet, whilst not a great person to begin with, very quickly falls in beside Piers, so you’ve effectively got two not-great characters but with an added vibe to Piers that can be difficult to read about.

The inclusion of a physical disability, another aspect of House, is well presented in terms of reality, and James tends to balance the pain and upset (and, in this case, in keeping to the tale, anger) with your regular personality. There is a point towards the end where it gets a bit too… inspirational (and the heroine’s plight only adds to this), but that’s at least a short section. More to the point is the penultimate conflict towards the end, the chapters of illness and making the heroine ugly to help inform the balance of the relationship – unnecessary, given the conclusion is hardly going to end on a sad note. It’s also too long.

The best part of the book is the first half – though humour runs throughout, it’s in the first half that the story works well and the literary devices for the sake of the re-telling aren’t hammered home.

However, for all it could have been a bit more original in its re-telling – oxymoron intended – When Beauty Tamed The Beast succeeds in being an enjoyable quick read. Just consider Beauty and Beast to be a mere idea, the library (of this book) bog standard compared to Disney’s 1991 version, and replace ‘Tamed’ with ‘Gamed’ for a better fit.

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Jenny Colgan – Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop

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Couldn’t miss this one this year.

Publisher: Little Brown (Hachette)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-55180-8
First Published: 7th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2018
Rating: 4/5

Rosie is looking forward to Christmas. Having moved from London to a small rural town (having broken up with her non-committal boyfriend and finding someone better), she’s ready to experience the season in her little house and community. But Stephen’s mother, the lady of the manor, is still frosty towards her, and, now adding to the stress, Rosie’s family want to visit from Australia. It’ll be a trial fitting her family into the house and ensuring her shop stays afloat with the prospect of snow on the way.

Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop is a cute story that, given its advent setting, makes a great book for the weeks prior to Christmas.

Colgan exploits all the stereotypes to good effect: snow; little town; big cold houses; a bustling community. She even throws in the idea of Australians experiencing snow. This she does well, using easy language that’s nevertheless not nonliterary, and getting the balance between conflict and good company just right. It’s all very cosy, down to the traditionalism of the big glass jars in the sweet shop and the joviality of most characters. Development happens but suffice to say that whilst the plot works and the characters are the main aspect, you don’t mind not being blown away by either. The plot devices bring people together and are well solved; one device works as it does precisely because it’s in a Christmas book.

There are but a couple of low points. Firstly, the arrival of Rosie’s family means the arrival of some difficult characters, smarmy people with smarmy children who it’s hard to reconcile with the rest of the novel. And secondly, there is the use of the derogatory term ‘mong’ (‘a person with Downs Syndrome’; Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘a person who is stupid or who has learning difficulties’). This word is used by Stephen when he’s recovering from an accident and is in hospital, high on pain reliever – what we’d now call ‘out of it’. This obviously brings in prejudice where it was not needed and does not gel with Stephen’s personality (otherwise incredibly emphatic).

Besides this, and in general, the book is a really good seasonal read, and exactly the kind of chick-lit you want at Christmas; it’s the second in a series but stands fully alone – you may want to read the first (either before or after would work equally well) but you certainly don’t have to.

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Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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A subway before there was a subway.

Publisher: Fleet (Little, Brown)
Pages: 364
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-708-89840-6
First Published: 2nd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 29th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Caesar approaches Cora to ask her to run away from the plantation with him, she considers it for a short while before agreeing – it’s an incredibly dangerous idea but even her fellow slaves are against her and she feels it is worth the likely death to escape. What she doesn’t know is that Caesar has chosen her due to her own mother’s escape and presumed freedom. They may be able to make it to an underground railroad station and hitch a ride on a locomotive that will take them on the first leg of their journey. The railroad has various stations dotted about the country, and it is up to the individual runaway as to whether they stay in a particular place or return to the train and keep travelling.

(The ‘underground railroad’ is a widely known fact of history in the States – any readers who are from other countries that do not cover the railroad in their general curriculum and don’t know about it, will want to read up on it whether before or after having read the book1.)

The Underground Railroad is a historical fantasy about the American slave trade and slavery, and about the country’s history with race as a whole. Using both history from the slavery era and the further racial discrimination that followed in the decades after abolition, Whitehead’s book is both a stunningly creative look at the country’s growth as a nation, and a fantastic commentary and criticism of the same.

This is very much a plot-and-commentary-driven novel. Whitehead has himself said that his initial idea was of what would happen if the underground railroad had been a real train2. He has also said that this choice to make the fantastical railroad the central element of the book allowed him to play with time and different elements of history3.

The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.

The book starts at a plantation and shows not only the violence and hatred of the slave owners (the book in general is very violent, with Whitehead including various punishments in a way some primary sources do not, his novel making up for the relative censorship in those books) but the hierarchy and violence that arose as a natural consequence of a situation that caused everyone to be focused on their own survival at the detriment of others. As the train takes Cora – the narrative mostly concerns her – to different Southern States, Whitehead uses these assorted pauses to look at different ideas and acted-out discriminatory practices that were not a part of the exact historical time Cora is living in but were a part of the future decades.

This altering of history creates another fantasy thread in the book, though not nearly as close to ‘fantasy’ as the railroad; Cora steps into situations that you’ll rightly see are at odds with the places that came before it. In one such case, the technology in the State seems too far advanced for a short train journey away. Here, mandatory regular health checks for black people in a state that gives them education, housing (if in a dormitory), and relatively lowly jobs, seem at first a thoughtful acknowledgement of escaped slaves’ trauma… until the doctor offers Cora a not-so-elective-as-described sterilisation, discussing how the state is working on health ideas and performing surgeries on black women who have had a couple of children.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.

Stolen bodies working stolen land.

Whitehead’s commentary on this and other subjects is incredibly blunt yet never leaves that element of fantasy out; it’s safe to say he’s providing a damning criticism but he does what he can to make you question the reality of different concepts. (Though again, as with the railroad, if your knowledge of American history is solid you’ll probably see a lot more of the facts amongst the fiction without having to look them up.)

And then Whitehead returns to the train and gives you a break for a moment so you can consider what you’ve read and consider what might lay ahead. In a similar way he uses chapter breaks for the different States, and changes the character discussed from Cora to a variety of secondary characters. The novel is written in the third person – with one excellent diversion into first person for Caesar’s story – and mainly concerns Cora; Whitehead changes perspective to give details of a scene that Cora is not privvy to, scenes that further explore the purpose of the novel and add different voices and historical perspectives to it. There are notes about laws, and chapters begin with ‘reward’ notices for anyone who turns in the escaped slave discussed within – these appear to be primary sources.

Backing up the story and the commentary is an unsurprisingly good use of language. Whitehead uses controversial words when warranted; as with everything else this book uses extremes in order to display the history correctly and get to the point.

Certainly you have to suspend some belief for the book – a railroad that stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, created by slaves and only shut down in sections a long time after it was created (the creation itself being a metaphor) – but no more so than at the end, which will produce in you one (or more) of a few possible conclusions as to what has happened, each in turn adding to the various metaphors and making you question everything you’ve already read.

It’s astounding.

The Underground Railroad is not a book to read with a cosy cup of tea and it’s not one to be rushed (as this library user did when the return date crept up on her). It requires your attention, your time, and in a few places your willingness to search for third-party information. For your efforts you will be handsomely rewarded.

Footnotes

1 The historical reality of the railroad, far from Whitehead’s fantastical re-imagining – that many readers have likened to their initial, childhood, conceptions of it – was a secret network of black people, both free men and women and escaped slaves, as well as supportive white people and Native Americans, who aided the escape of slaves from plantations in the Southern States to states further north, and often as far as Canada. The railroad was a network that traded coded information to allow the movements of escapees to pass between them so that various people could aid their escape – the network had people who would themselves visit plantations, people who would house escapees along their route, and people who would work to disrupt the success of any slave owners or slave catchers from using the law to get people back. I’ve written the basics here – the information in the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad should suffice in terms of understanding the background to Whitehead’s re-imagining of the network.
2 ‘Before there was Cora, or any other possible protagonist, I was sittin’ around thinking “What if instead of a metaphor, the Underground Railroad was a real train?” So the concept came first before the characters.’ (Whitehead, 2018)
3 ‘…Once I made the choice to have this central fantastic element of a literal underground railroad, it allowed me to play with time and bring in elements of The Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and things like that.’ (Whitehead, 2016)

Online References

Whitehead, Colson (2016) Colson Whitehead’s Subterranean Odyssey, Electric Literature, accessed 28th October 2018.

Whitehead, Colson (2018) Re: I’m author Colson Whitehead – just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams – AMA, Reddit, accessed 28th October 2018.

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