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Phillip Lewis – The Barrowfields

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A contemporary coming-of-age tale with a slice of Southern gothic.

Publisher: Sphere (Hodder)
Pages: 348
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63682-8
First Published: 7th March 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2017
Rating: 5/5

Henry’s father wanted to be a writer. Growing up in a house without books in a town that didn’t value reading, he struggled, achieving a little success but ultimately not getting far, in part, by that time, due to his need to get things right. Henry himself thus grew up around thousands of books, housed in a large library in a large foreboding house. As he grows up himself, he too struggles to find success, his life marred by the disappearance of his father, other family deaths, and communication problems with his family that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

The Barrowfields is a magnificent work that reads like a great work of American literature. Lewis’s writing style is subtle, beautiful, and the book feels as though it is from another time. It’s very much literary fiction, the plot simple but full of meaning. The end result is a book that is in many ways an easy read, and for all the right reasons.

At its heart are two major elements: the effect of parental neglect and loss on children, and the wonder of literature. The effect on Henry of his father’s leaving is huge but he doesn’t often confront it directly, he can’t. Lewis’ characterisation is fantastic, the author makes you second-guess for a very long time as to the worth of the story as a whole whilst simultaneously giving you plenty of other reasons to keep reading, which has the effect, particularly by the end, of demonstrating how damaging being silent can be but also showing how it can be difficult to identify problems when you are on the outside looking in. Even though you spend the entire book in Henry’s head, you are kept back from many of his deepest thoughts – what he portrays as his deepest thoughts are often layers of disguise.

It is perhaps easier to see where parental loss has an effect (I apologise for using that word so much) in the character of Threnody, Henry’s sister with whom, as a child, he had a terrific bond. Henry is very open about his sister and as Lewis’s character development shines throughout the novel, it is through Threnody that all the hurt and pain is revealed. (Lewis’s sibling relationship here, in terms of literary bonding, is influenced by his becoming a father early in life.) Yet The Barrowfields is not a depressing book. Whilst Lewis deals with the darkness of his subject, he includes a lot of humour in his description and dialogue, enough to make you laugh out loud.

This humour brings us to the second major theme of the book – this is a book about books. About books and literary studies and grammar and the classics, even book banning and burning. The Barrowsfields is soaked in references to classic works of many genres and eras – literature is what father and son bond over, what son and daughter fill their time with, and what Henry often discusses with his friends. Harper Lee. Faulkner. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe. Marion Zimmer Bradley. References are sometimes blunt (a character asks someone if their situation isn’t straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird), others are woven into the text in such a way that the book seems at its heart a love letter to literature. Many references are made to Southern literature, matching Lewis’s setting of North Carolina. It is difficult to explain just how satisfying this novel is; it goes above and beyond many others.

The foreboding nature of the house has its place, forever towing the line between being in the background and becoming a character in its own right. It’s what situates the novel firmly in gothic territory, beckoning over another couple of classic works – Du Maurier, Brontë – but remaining almost defiantly apart from them. The plot line here is often on the back-burner but it smolders constantly until Lewis gets to the place you come to realise most makes sense to explain it. Whether or not the house has or had a direct influence on the rest of what happens is left up to you to decide; Lewis, through his characters, never says one way or another. It’s the big old dark creepy house with the residents who are used to it.

The Barrowfields sometimes takes patience, holding back much for a while, but it rewards in spades. It also takes a sudden seemingly odd turn during the middle – one of those occasions where a character joins the narrative half-way through and due to experience you wonder if it’ll work; it does so with good reason. This is very much a bildungsroman, and you learn along with Henry, at his pace. It reads as partly autobiographical, the extent of the detail, the depth of the knowledge that seeps from it.

It’s just glorious. If you want to read something classical from our present day, if you want a book about books and a skilled, careful, look at heavy themes that will nevertheless make you feel positive, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review.

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Marie-Sabine Roger – Soft In The Head

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But now getting better and better.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 210
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27204-5
First Published: 2008; 9th June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Tête En Friche (Fallow-Headed – as in a field in fallow)
Translated by: Frank Wynne

Walking in the park one day, Germain sees an old woman spending time with the birds he likes to count. He’s semi-illiterate, had a neglected upbringing, and doesn’t consider himself worth much, whereas Marguerrite has been through university and worked in science; the unlikely pair begin a friendship based on their mutual interest in the park’s birds, and Marguerrite’s wish to read aloud. Slowly Germain finds himself changing.

“Well, well. Germain sitting at a bar? Now, there’s a coincidence!”
I used to think it was his way of saying, Hi, nice to see you. But, no, apparently, it meant he thought I was a pathetic drunk clinging to the bar like a limpet to a rock.

Soft In The Head is a stunning book that’s comprised of so much more than its thinness suggests. It was first written in French and adapted for the big screen, and now it’s been translated into English.

Perhaps the most important factor, at least initially: the translated text is superb. Wynne has transposed the French into the English equivalent, for example he’s used swear words and distinctively British terms, such as ‘chav’ (I’ve no idea what the French equivalent is or if there is one, but know the Australian is ‘bogun’) so that you get a picture of Germain from the first. What Wynne has effectively done is take the book and give it an English flavour meaning that the intended English-speaking market will understand the book more than they might have if it was a straight translation. In other cases you might feel a bit duped but here it just makes sense and the book is incredibly readable. It means that all the showing, rather than telling, Rogers has done, is carried over – the atmosphere and feel of the book. Despite the fact you can tell it’s a translation (the French names contrasted to British terms kind of make this obvious) you can see Roger’s text underneath. She was writing for her students and thus the translation matches this sort of concept of youthful phrasing and unimpeded speech. You can see the teacher’s mind in this book.

This book is a page-turner. It’s full of literary references and humour and observations and a beautiful admiration, a platonic love of sorts. Whilst we never get to hear from Marguerrite as a narrator, Roger has ensured we know enough about her – Germain may spend more of his time on himself but Marguerrite, as the driving force, gets a lot of time.

Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.

The beauty of the book lies in what is shown, in the way that Germain starts out believing he’s not worth much of anything, swearing a lot, using simple terms peppered with words he’s learned from the dictionary (he includes the definitions), and as the novel progresses the reader sees him become more educated, intellectual – he starts to use these words he’s learning from his time with Marguerrite, sees the conflict (that seems more an anxiety on his part than a reality) that occurs when his friends think he’s getting too ahead of himself, and sees if not a completely different future then at least a happy one. He comes to view love differently, see more to the world, and so forth. He comments on this change from time to time, as he does the learning, but it’s in the subtext and what is shown through the words themselves that the reader will discover just how much he’s achieved.

A book about books, this novel is delightfully satisfying. Marguerrite and Germain read Camus and a couple of other authors (who aren’t as well-known). They discuss the text mostly by way of Germain’s understanding; Germain, knowing more than he realises, brings in different interpretations. Marguerrite teaches him by example; it’s a friendship of equals.

By now it should be obvious – there’s a thread of the thought of tolerance in this book. It’s not a theme, more that Roger promotes tolerance towards others, in this case someone who hasn’t had the privilege of growing up book-rich, who has never set foot in a library. Germain may seem stupid but how much of that is actually true and how much does that thought depend on his own view of himself?

It’s hard to say exactly how wonderful and well-written Soft In The Head is without quoting a swath of text. Suffice to say if you like reading about reading and if you’ve even the slightest interest in education and educational access issues, you will very likely appreciate this novel.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Sarah Ladipo Manyika – Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun

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Slow and steady wins the race, but what if you’ve got a purposefully fast car?

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press
Pages: 178
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-11504-5
First Published: 1st April 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th March 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Morayo is a book-loving English Literature Professor. Originally from Nigeria, her life has taken her around the world before she finds her place in San Francisco – she thinks often of returning to Africa but feels it wouldn’t be right. At 75 years old she’s retired and loves spending time reading, darting around in her Porche, visiting friends at their coffee shops, and walking about the city. But recently she’s had letters from the DMV about incidents she thinks are minor, and on the same day she gets another of the letters calling her for a test, she falls over.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun is a beautifully written novella about the changes that come with age and the process towards acceptance when things become difficult. It looks mainly at Morayo but her acquaintances and the strangers she meets during the book are also given time.

It’s a lovely work. In a way similar to Emma Healey’s approach towards the later years in Elizabeth Is Missing, Manyika deals with her subject gently but effectively. She presents Morayo as someone who may or may not be losing her memory – you’re in the same boat as the character herself as to whether you know if it’s happening or not – and someone who has yet to realise that perhaps she needs more help. A very independent person, Morayo is confused about the sudden need for a wheelchair, for example, and does not adhere to the idea that her car must be sold, at least she’d like one more ride first. We have more ‘confusion’ to deal with upon meeting characters like Dawud, a man who seems to patronise Morayo, this older woman who will look through his flowers, rarely buying though she ‘was one of those that preferred the organic place down the street’.

To a slightly lesser degree than independence is included a study of Morayo’s sexuality. She may be old but she looks at pleasure with fondness, remembering moments from her life, relationships, and writing about her feelings. Rather than the stereotype of the older angry neighbour rapping on doors, Morayo listens to the rhythmic knocks on the walls with interest. Age and sexuality is viewed neutrally, Manyika simply saying that it happens rather than discussing it, reminding us it’s normal and that sexual pleasure is not confined to the younger years.

Brought into the book by both Morayo’s presence and the inclusion of another character – an African American who visits the care home to see his wife – there is consideration of race, of living as a black person. Morayo muses on the way a person says she looks awesome in her wrappa, in her multi-coloured clothes, and that whilst it’s a nice compliment, she’d just blend into the crowd in Nigeria. Reggie, the man who visits his wife, contemplates his being married to a white woman, thinking – aside from the way she is no longer herself and that he isn’t keen on the way the staff dole her up with cosmetics when she never used so much in her competent days – about the way her children disowned her for marrying a black man. He thinks of the way he had to stop seeing a girl because her father called him a coolie.

In addition to the subjects at hand we have other stories – the story of Sunshine, who Morayo describes as Chinese but seems to be Indian (the lack of confirmation isn’t an oversight), and the conflict between housekeeping and motherhood, and the desire to work. We have the story of Dawud and his sister, Amirah.

It’s a good book. And it’s a good book about good books. Morayo’s love for reading comes into play often and Manyika knows that going into detail is best in this case:

As you will see, I no longer organize my books alphabetically, or arrange them by color of spine, which was what I used to do. Now the books are arranged according to which characters I believe ought to be talking to each other. That’s why Heart of Darkness is next to Le Regard du Roi and Wide Saragossa Sea sits directly above Jane Eyre. The latter used to sit next to each other but then I thought it best to redress the old colonial imbalance and give Rhys the upper hand – upper shelf.

There are several of those moments. There’s a sad one too, one that book lovers will sympathise with, that demonstrates the vast difference between readers and non-readers.

If there’s any downside to the book it’s that it’s perhaps too short; whilst the ending as far as Morayo is concerned is pointedly ambiguous – it suggests something bitter-sweet without confirming it – we don’t find out what happens to the other characters.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun is a novella to look out for. The content, the approach to every situation, the writing, make reading it an afternoon very well spent.

I received this book for review from the FMCM Associates.

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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

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War comes with a price.

Publisher: Phoenix (Orion)
Pages: 216
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-753-80470-4
First Published: 1995
Date Reviewed: 23rd August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway

At the age of fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman. Hanna entices him but he notes the distance she keeps between them, the way she avoids discussing her past. A few years later, whilst studying law, Michael sits in on the trial of several women who were guards in the SS. Amongst them is Hanna.

The Reader is a fantastic book. It’s compelling, informative, and quite moving, too.

Let’s start with the history the novel is based on: Schlink introduces the reader to the way war crimes of Germans were dealt with by the German courts. You get to see the views of the everyday people of their history and the characters run the gambit – people want justice, children dislike their parents even if the parents didn’t play a role (they dislike them for not fighting against the Nazis), and then you’ve Michael who doesn’t defend the war in any sense but looks at those who participated (via Hanna) in an objective light.

Of course whether or not it’s truly objective, so to speak, is down to the reader. Because the personality and personal history of Hanna is so intrinsic to who she is at the trial, and because of the affair, it could be inferred that Michael is biased towards her somewhat. He doesn’t believe she’s innocent – she’s not – but he looks at her in light of her choices, the reasons for them. (‘No, Hanna had not decided in favour of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and had fallen into a job as a guard.’) Schlink, through Michael, then, doesn’t just question Hanna’s involvement in the war, he questions her choices away from it. He questions her as a person, questions the decisions she makes. Hanna is all about honesty when it comes to the trial – whilst the other women lie, she simply affirms or denies. Michael sees in her behaviour someone who knows this is what should happen. Where personality is involved we see the affect illiteracy has on Hanna’s answers. Beyond all else, it seems to Michael, is Hanna’s worry of being exposed as illiterate. Keeping hidden her lack of education, in a place where being able to read and write was is, is more important than avoiding jail.

This is where the idea of ‘the reader’ takes to the stage; this book is about far more, literary-wise, than Michael’s reading aloud in the bedroom. Michael realises that far from making the noted weak women of the concentration camps become her slaves, Hanna’s assigning them to read to her is an attempt to make comfortable what little time they have left. Although she later learns to read and write, Hanna is very much a reader.

In the subtext there is a question: is Hanna selfish? She provides money for a survivor to give to charities – in her, Hanna’s, name. She takes Michael to bed though he is underage and she affectively on the run. She gets those bound for the gas chambers to read to her. Are these displays of selfish or unselfish behaviour?

Both Hanna and Michael take control. Hanna controls Michael in the bedroom – not literally, but in experience – and Michael later controls their contact when she’s in jail. Michael uses Hanna’s imprisonment to atone for his guilt but only so much – he records himself narrating fiction but never goes to visit her. He exploits the literal and emotional distance between them.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance… How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?

Michael liked the idea of Hanna and the teenage view of perfect love he had, he doesn’t want to spoil it; he doesn’t want to grow up, in fact – every woman he is with in his life is compared to Hanna. And he doesn’t want to face what’s happened. When Hanna leaves Michael, the reader will note she’s (finally) doing the right thing by him, taking her past with her, letting him be a child again and not rolled up in the affects of war, but of course he doesn’t see that himself.

This book isn’t atoning for involvement; it is the case that it shows how people could be pulled in – by the promise of more pay, for example – because as we know that’s a lot of what it was. We can compare Schlink’s writing of the events of WWII with Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française: Némirovsky wrote of the war whilst she was living it as a person of Jewish heritage hiding from the Nazis. Both Schlink and Némirovsky show the human side of the Nazi party, or, rather, the human side to those who were at the bottom, the low-ranking soldiers who did what they were told to do, or at the very least did what they felt they had to do. Of course in Némirovsky’s case this is more profound, she’s giving a voice to fictional versions of the people who were hunting her down as she wrote, but both Némirovsky and Schlink write in such a way that asks for thought, does not suggest forgiveness nor ask for it.

It’s almost too obvious to state, but there is a lot of information about Auschwitz in The Reader, and about the role of women in the SS. The books ends in a way you may feel it ‘ought’ whilst showing there are far more reasons behind it than the ones on the surface.

A brief word on the writing – beautiful. Simple, to the point, and full of sub-textual imagery. The words may technically be Janeway’s but Schlink’s prose seeps through.

The Reader is a book of great magnitude. The potential for impact is high, the content hard to read but invaluable, the journey sad but necessary. It is a book for everyone.

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