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Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

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Chibundu Onuzo – Welcome To Lagos

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Slice of lives.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 26th June 2020
Rating: 4/5

As Chike’s regiment prepares to do something he wants no part in, he and Yemi break ranks and escape. In so doing they meet Isoken – a young woman who has been assaulted – Fineboy – who does this and that and nobody’s completely sure about him – and Oma, who Chike finds himself attracted to and the feeling’s mutual. Together the unlikely group travel to Lagos to look for a place to stay and jobs to make money. It’s difficult – sometimes there are buildings, sometimes there are spaces underneath a bridge – but things take extra turns when they meet Ahmed, a journalist, and later a government minister.

Welcome To Lagos is an interesting novel that looks at the coming together of five different people – two already known to each other – in a way that explores both the characters themselves and the city of Lagos.

Akin to many novels, Onuzo’s narrative almost seems too easy until you scratch the surface, but unlike other novels that are akin to this, once the surface is scratched, it almost seems too clever. That may sound against Welcome To Lagos‘ favour; it isn’t. What Onuzo presents is a novel that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels; to be sure if you want to know why there is so much talk surrounding Onuzo you have to be prepared to spend a bit of time digging deeper – that surface dressing really does look easy – but if you did happen to have a bit lesser time you would still in theory get something out of it.

As you may guess given it’s very unlike me to suggest a novel should be read at it’s surface – you could do this, but you shouldn’t.

Part of the reason for this is that it would make the articles in the book seem disjointed. Onuzo employs both a regular third person narrative and the use of fictional journalism to tell her story. You have the main bulk of the book composed of the lives and short travels of Chike and ‘co’, interspersed with articles written by a secondary character who also moonlights as a primary character: Ahmed. Where Chike and his friends move around Lagos, live in a few different places, allowing Onuzo to show you around Lagos at a grassroots level, the articles show the wider story, including the politics that run the city as a whole. These narratives intersect, both through the use of Ahmed (his in-person appearances are rare) and in the later introduction of a politcian to our characters’ lives.

So to the friends – with Chike at the effective helm, the story focuses on five runaways who have joined together; Chike and Yemi have run away from the regiment, Isoken is mentally scarred from harrassment and assault; Fineboy is along for the ride; and Oma wants to leave also. The characters are both individuals and one homogenous group – in their grouping and story progression, they become one character – Lagos. They represent different aspects of it as well as creating reasons for other aspects to show, and then Ahmed, the Chief, and the various teriary characters tie everything together. And it’s more ‘parts of its sum’ than ‘sum of its parts’.

One of the book’s strengths is in the way Onuzo slowly reveals what’s going on with Isoken – you’re told from the start but with the book’s narrative generally looking at things from Chike’s perspective, it takes a bit of time. It’s done slowly, in actions rather than words.

Two other aspects of note: the conflict at the beginning of the book, and the use of religion. As Chike and Yemi decide to break ranks we get a glimpse of what they’re leaving behind – a lot of killings; it’s an interesting look at the situation, with Onuzo paying a lot less time and attention to it than you’re expecting, showing by not showing it that it may be ‘simply’ an every day thing for the company. As for religion, it’s constant but never too much; Chike reads the Bible to his friends in the evenings and there are brief discussions. It forms part of Chike’s character and informs the others in a way that is accessible to all.

Welcome To Lagos is both deceptive and open, in different ways. With the fairly diverse cast of characters it takes a few chapters to come into its own; it’s also quite its own book. Some questions remain at the end but not many; Ahmed’s role is perhaps the one most likely to cause curiosity – he may be up to interpretation; but over all this is an enjoyable read in both the usual and literary senses.

 
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim – The Whispering Trees + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with the author reviewed today, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Please note: this episode includes discussion of sexual content, and the second reading includes a sex scene. There is some noise in this episode: headphones are recommended.

Charlie and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (The Whispering Trees; Season of Crimson Blossoms) discuss Nigeria at this time, publishing a novel on a very controversial subject and reactions to it, effects of grief, and looking at cultural expectations of women as the generations change.

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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Things are not always what they seem.

Publisher: Cassava Republic
Pages: 162
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-11587-8
First Published: 1st January 2012
Date Reviewed: 13th July 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman becomes interested in the man who takes away the rubbish; a sudden, swift, illness, sweeps through the area and a couple of men look for the reported witch to save the lives of those who remain before it’s too late; a wife’s joke on her husband becomes a surprising reality; a man lives with his new disability and finds new concepts in life open before him.

The Whispering Trees is a stunning short story collection of tales set in Northern Nigeria, an example of how super the format can be.

As is the way with many authors, Ibrahim’s collection is partly composed on stories that had already been published elsewhere; this is worth noting because part of the brilliance of the book lies in how it has been arranged. The stories start out fairly quietly, at least in relative terms, the first three stories bearing small-ish shocks at their conclusion, the fourth – the title story – both diverting from the general idea and progressing it, and then beyond this the stories simply continue to climb in surprises, twists, and horrors.

This idea in itself is not unique – many collections hold surprises – but the content of the stories, their dark, magical realism, fantastical, plot twists make this collection stand out. It can be too dark, difficult to read, but utterly fascinating at the same time.

The title story stands out for its use of the first person – one of only a couple of stories to do so. Other standouts include One Fine Morning and Cry Of The Witch, mentioned above. The first follows a man who is accused of cheating, an elaborate joke that ends badly; the second looks at illness, suspicion, and, putting it mildly, selfish bad choices.

The concept of folklore and superstition runs riot in these stories to good effect, but the book is also steeped in reality, humanity, and social differences.

This is a collection of various value – it is excellent in terms of literature, voice, use of genre, and its studies of people in every sense of the word. As said, it’s stunning. You’ll race through it, though you might not want to – you might want to schedule a re-read in in advance. Incredibly, highly, recommended.

 
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.

 
Tracy Chevalier (ed.) – Reader, I Married Him

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There was every possibility of reading a book that day.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 282
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-15057-0
First Published: 7th April 2016
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2020
Rating: 4/5

For this anthology, twenty-one women writers, some very well known, others less known but no less great, come together to tell various short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular the famous line that comes towards the end.

This collection is pretty special. Not only are the stories on the same theme but on the same sub-theme, the same sentence. It’s true that many of them do not deal closely with the subject itself, but they do all revolve around it, just at different distances.

Reader, I Married Him explores the variety of ideas that accompany all our personal experiences of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s union – some look at it in terms of love, just love; some look at it in terms of the thoughts that have been explored in our more modern times of Rochester’s personality and the difficulties with his ‘woman in the attic’, as well as in terms of Jane’s beliefs in herself, and her experiences in childhood. Others look at it in terms of how it might play out today, others in a modern day context in general. Some look overseas, in countries Charlotte Brontë had possibly never heard of, and some look at same sex romances that would have been completely off the table.

The variety is, both by its nature and simply by fact, the best aspect of this book. You get enough stories about Jane Eyre and other characters from the novel to be satisfied with the literary context and classical exploration, and then there are also enough stories that are close enough, too, in that way, which means that the others – far more loosely based – become an excellent palette cleanser and are highly interesting in themselves. (Because, suffice to say, if you’re picking up this book, you’re either picking it up for Charlotte Brontë or for the authors.)

Chevalier’s compiling of the stories has been done well; the contributing editor has arranged them in such a way that even if you tire of any one particular story, you’re still very interested to read the next. And this is no mean feat when there are twenty-one to get through.

No surprise – there are plenty of standouts. Standouts for you, yourself, are necessarily going to depend on what aspect of the exploration intrigues you most, so this paragraph may be more subjective. Standouts in terms of this review include Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog, a very loosely-based story that centres on a woman who comes across a group of teenagers hurting a pit bull and tries to show them it’s not a horrible creature; Joanna Briscoe’s To Hold, where a woman marries three men for different reasons but loves Mary; the titular Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill, a fictional narrative concerning the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (though they are not named as such); Francine Prose’s The Mirror, which looks at Jane’s story as a repeating pattern in Rochester’s house; Elif Shafak’s A Migrating Bird, loosely-based and concerning a young Muslim student who falls for an effective exchange student who, friends say, will return home; Patricia Park’s The China From Buenos Aires, incredibly loosely based but fantastic, a tale of a young Korean Argentinian woman who moves to America and misses home; Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me which is exactly what you would think it is; and Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset Gap, where a guy joins a literature student on a walk post-pub (public house) visit and tries to emulate her idea, of signing a book for passing ramblers, to poor effect.

Certainly a few of the above stories are better than the others in the paragraph but there isn’t a ‘bad’ one in the whole bunch; it’s simply the case that when you find the one or two that speak most strongly to you, be that in the literary context or otherwise, the others just can’t quite match up to them.

But that is to be expected; with the variety of debates on the various themes and topics in the original, some will speak more strongly to you than others. This is where the more average, more ‘plodding along’ periods of your reading will take place, when you want to be done with your current story so you can see what the next one is like. The book can also seem longer than it is because of the need to reset your expectations so often and so much, what with differences in closeness to Brontë’s work. Inevitably the work you have to do to understand them in context changes, too.

Reader, I Married Him does really need a reading of the source work behind it to get the most out of it; it doesn’t matter whether you read it once years ago or whether you’ve studied it over and over – you just need to have read it. And every reader will take away something different from it; interestingly, if we were to say that everyone’s opinions of the classic are branches of the same tree, then these stories and our opinions of them are further branches, from each of the first. It is effectively a secondary or tertiary source. And it’s a good one.

 

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