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Marian Keyes – The Break

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The paperback version of this book was released yesterday.

I can’t get used to living without you by my side… God knows got to make it on my own.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 658
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-91875-6
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Amy has been married to Hugh for years. They have one daughter together, and they have Amy’s daughter from a previous marriage and a niece whose parents have never wanted her. Life isn’t perfect but they do okay and are fairly happy. But since Hugh’s father died, and then his best friend too, Hugh hasn’t been coping and one day he tells Amy that he needs to take a break from their marriage for six months, to go to South East Asia, live it up for a bit, and then return. It’s devastating news, but as her family remind her, it means Amy’s on a break too.

The Break is Keyes’ fifteenth full length novel and a whopper of a book. Standing at just over 650 pages (paperback, in shops as of yesterday) it is a fairly big reading commitment to make, but a heck of a good one.

Strictly speaking, the length of the book is too much – there is a lot of description that could easily have been edited out and parts of the story are drawn out too much – but the quality of the reading experience never waivers. It almost goes without saying after all this time, but Keyes’ is very good at taking a very ordinary situation and getting to the heart of the matter without it feeling so; whilst perhaps not as obviously funny as previous novels, the book sports that same light-hearted, easy reading, atmosphere as always, whilst digging deep into issues.

The first is of course the set up of the book. Devoting a great many pages to the consequences of not only Amy’s life during the break, but also spending a lot of time on the aftermath when Hugh returns, means that Keyes’ can spend a lot of time looking at the problems that outside of fiction we often want to sweep under the carpet for the sake of not looking to sentimental or depressive, bad company. This isn’t new, per se – Keyes’ This Charming Man, for example, dealt with even heavier issues very well several years ago – but the length of the book allows it to progress at a good pace; there will likely come a point where you wonder if the author ought not get to the ending already and whenever that occurs for you you’ll soon realise from the text the good reason. It’s a fair device that doesn’t often work – Keyes’ is a rare expert.

Whilst the main topic of the book is important but not, as said above, as heavy as others, there is an element of the plot that takes the story to a completely different level. Particularly in the context of the very recent Irish vote to repeal the eighth amendment, this book is incredibly timely; and in the context of its release in paperback yesterday, it’s worth picking up for the topic alone. Keyes’ explores the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenager living in Ireland. The author looks at the legalities surrounding the wish for an abortion, the way the medical aspects must be attended to, the threat of prison if pills are discovered when packages enter customs from abroad, and the need and subsequent hassle and trauma of travelling to England for an abortion. Keyes does not hold back – whilst she never refers to herself the views are there prominently – and she puts forth the reality of the situation for women very well. The author also looks at the problems surrounding the public voicing of a pro-choice opinion in Ireland.

The characters are pretty great; there’s quite a lot of diversity and the plot points that arise due to the diversity round the book off well. Characters are well written and presented and a lot of time is given to the family element, where a whole other range of diversities rears its head in the family dynamics.

With such a set-up as a break, the ending of the book was always going to divide opinion, no matter which way it went. This is surely a big part of why Keyes spends so long working towards the conclusion; no matter whether you agree with the way she concludes Amy’s tale, you can at least rest assured that Keyes has provided a fully-fledged reasoning for it that works for the character’s happiness. Following this ending is a short epilogue that moves the action forward several years so that the children’s lives – whilst not the main aspect, they are a constant part of the story – can also be concluded.

The Break is a fun way to spend a chunk of your reading time – it offers an easy read but with ample things to take away, and most importantly it keeps you thinking and considering whilst you’re reading; a very good thing.

I received this book for review.

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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Dorthe Nors – Karate Chop

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Spooky coincidences and horrific happenings.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 82
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27432-2
First Published: 25th September 2008 in Danish; 4th February 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Danish
Original title: Kantslag (Side Stroke)
Translated by: Martin Aitken

In this collection of very short stories (some have called it flash fiction) a person left alone by a potentially mysterious boyfriend watches and remembers a documentary about a missing person who left their wife; a grown-up remembers the stories about his grandmother told to them by their mother and aunt – two children brought up by an abusive parent; and a psychologist looks at her bruises and wonders about the way she gets into bad relationships when she well knows the warning signs.

Karate Chop is a thin book of vignettes about realisations of the self and aspects of society. Told in simple prose, the author’s style is one of subtlety – with her writing set somewhere between the almost vague and small shock, Nors’ collection delivers some poignant endings, some horrible endings, and others that are ambiguous.

These endings result in a book that can at times confuse you. Because some of the stories are easy enough to see through – well, easy enough once you’ve worked out the right amount of thinking you must do – the ones that are a lot less opaque can seem not so successful. It can be hard to decipher whether the more vague pieces are like that on purpose – leaning ever more towards subtlety – or just objectively miss the mark. It could be due to the length – no matter how literary the endings, the shortness of the stories means it can be a bit too easy to forget what came before. Make no mistake – there is something to take away from all the stories – but some will fade from memory a lot quicker than others.

The simplicity of Nors’ prose has been translated well; doubtless some changes have been made to aid the reader not familiar with Denmark but if they have they are hard to see. The text flows well and the translation reads as faithful both to the takeaway of the stories and the phrasing.

Highlights of the collection include Mutual Destruction, in which a man watches a neighbour who has previously ‘helped’ him put animals to sleep when they were ill – where is the man’s family? The Winter Garden looks at the moment children start to realise their parents might just be average; Flight looks at a woman who is close to realising what went wrong in her relationship but incapable of seeing it; and the aforementioned story about the tales of the narrator’s grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, And Aunt Ellen, is exceptional.

Karate Chop delivers more than one punch in the reading experience – the title may refer to a particular story but it could equally have been used for a few others. It is a great little collection that takes less time to read than it does to finish thinking about it.

I received this book for review.

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Sherry Thomas – The Luckiest Lady In London

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Lucky, but well matched.

Publisher: Berkley Romance (Penguin)
Pages: 276
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-425-26888-9
First Published: 5th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Felix doesn’t trust people. Neglected as a child by his mother, and having to watch his parents’ loveless marriage progress ever further into bitterness, he never lets an affair become serious. Meanwhile family rich but cash poor Louisa is looking for a husband amongst the wealthy; she’s got a few siblings, one with epilepsy, and a mother to look after; if Louisa likes her husband then all well and good but it’s not important. When Felix suggests she become his mistress with the promise of life-long provision she’s tempted but believes she can do better.

The Luckiest Lady In London is a novel that shares its society and a couple of characters with Thomas’ previous book, Private Arrangements. It’s a deftly-plotted story that shows the author’s expertise in writing what her readers want.

The romance is very well done. Thomas has created a couple that are well suited and the relationship is believable. She looks into the ways they are suited in terms of interests – quite a few pages are devoted to astronomy, telescopes, and there’s a fair amount of information to learn about the practices and scientific beliefs of the period.

But the strongest element of this book and what sets it above many others is the way Thomas deals with the requirement for conflict in a story. The defining conflict, apparent early on, is not the be all and end all of the work; Thomas uses it but keeps it realistic and reigned in – never once does it outstay its welcome. Thomas gives a clear nod to what is wrong and then the characters get on with solving the problem.

And they are good characters. Obviously there’s the fantasy of the poor historical woman gaining the hand of the wealthiest man in society, but Thomas makes it work. There is solid reasoning in everything. The story is undemanding and an easy read with a good chunk of value. The writing, as always with Thomas, is top notch.

The Luckiest Lady In London isn’t standout in the way one usually thinks of that category but it’s a good read.

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Edith Wharton – The Age Of Innocence

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Everything is awesome (caveat: when you’re part of the team)1.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51128-1)
First Published: 1920
Date Reviewed: 23rd February 2018
Rating: 5/5

1870s New York and young Newland Archer is excited at the prospect of marrying May Welland, looking forward to making their engagement official. But as he watches the opera in his club box, he spies a newcomer with his fiancée’s family; May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska has separated from her European husband and has come to stay in America. Ellen is rather different to the rest, her European ways at odds with New York society and everyone hopes she’ll reunite with her husband… everyone except Newland who is strangely attracted to her.

The Age Of Innocence is a marvellous novel with a highly ironic title. Set at a time of change, it looks at the way a society that does not favour the arts, or anything even one step away from their etiquette and mores, responds when they are confronted with a person who is slightly associated with it.

Wharton speaks of a society she was a member of and uses Newland to examine it as well. There is a lot of characterisation in the book but most of it is by rights and by design set aside for Newland. As the main character (the book is written in the third person) Wharton spends most of her time in his head. Her relative lack of characterisation of the other characters, barring Madame Olenska, is almost a theme in itself, with the society members effectively rendered as stereotypes as befitting Newland’s opinions of them, which, let’s just say, aren’t always correct (and can be frustrating at times). It’s an interesting sort of character-driven novel – there’s actually more plot than characterisation aside from Newland yet it remains character-driven.

In many ways everyone is a device for Wharton but none more so than the unsuspecting Newland who is used by Wharton to look at the perceived lack of female agency in society, as well as his own thoughts as to teaching his wife what he deems appropriate for her to know.

His own exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of arguement – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them.

The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his bethrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidence. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.)… But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.

So the story is very clever. It’s a man’s world – is it? (You might expect a woman writer in those years to question that – Wharton and Kate Chopin would have got on well – but Wharton’s craftiness will have you wondering what’s on the next page constantly and she is a master of red herrings, nay, pre red herrings.) The author gives a lot of time to Ellen Olenska, ensuring that the woman shines in characterisation away from her role as Newland’s social interest, and allows a second interpretation to take hold in Ellen’s story. The execution of the story is flawless and the ending an absolute triumph.

At once a simple story with little embellishment, The Age Of Innocence is well worth the fairly short investment of time it requires, both for enjoyment and because it’s a worthy classic. You will not regret reading this book.

1 The main line of The Lego Movie theme song seemed too appropriate not to use, however irrelevant it is otherwise.

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