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Caroline Lea – When The Sky Fell Apart

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And the ground and the people too.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 363
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-23107-3
First Published: 24th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Britain leaves the Channel Islands to fend for themselves and the Nazis order surrender or else, the people of Jersey must make their decisions – evacuate or remain? Maurice feels he has no choice at this time – his wife is too ill to travel. Edith, a healer, feels the need to stay in her homeland and tend to those who require help. Claudine has no choice – her mother will not leave. Dr Carter, an Englishman, should leave but feels similarly to Edith. As the Nazis swarm in those residents who chose to remain try to make the best of the situation whilst staying low and staying safe, but, as they know from news of France, it will be nigh on impossible.

When The Sky Fell Apart is an extremely harrowing, brutal tale of Nazi occupation, a book that offers a few laughs to keep you going but stays true to its objective (assumed) of showing just how bad the war was in places not often considered. It’s a book that is impossible to say you enjoyed but is important.

On that ‘assumed’ objective it is best to comment further – whilst this is fiction, you can see Lea’s mission throughout. This book is a very, very, well crafted, structured, tale that shows what life was like. If The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society showed the aftermath of life in Guernsey, then When The Sky Fell Apart looks at the occupation – yes, a different island but similar location – at the time. Indeed if you’re at all interested in the effects of World War II on the Channel Islands, you should look at both books as each provide something different.

It’s important to remember the objective when considering the elements of writing Lea has included. This book uses many devices, in particular one near the end that is very frustrating because although Lea has provided the necessary background to allude to the possibility that the character would do such a thing – to use a vague example – you want it to be different. It’s a case that in real life it may or may not have happened but Lea has chosen the possibility that it would in order to take her story where she wants it to be. The characters are manipulated but with good reason, and it’s never a sweeping change, never not believable, just frustrating.

Of this particular plot point, the good reason is that Lea wants to demonstrate just how far people might go to save themselves and implicate others. She puts in place a couple whose lives have previously literally been saved by two other characters – those saved do not have any qualms about gaining information and harming those who saved them. There is also an element of straight out hatred.

Lea never holds back on the horrors of war, delving into it enough that it’s traumatic. There are, as said, a few laughs – very much laugh out loud, in fact – that remind you of the daily life the people were still living. They aren’t quite enough to make you feel comfortable again but they do help character development – almost all Lea’s characters feel very real. The focus on this little group of people means that you may well forget that they are living on a populated island – it’s easy to picture an almost barren land (aside from the effects of occupation) – which is unfortunate but not necessarily a drawback – to focus on a larger group or the population in general would have just diluted the horrors, made individuals into numbers, an element of war that Lea comments on.

The book does not follow the path you may have expected. It remains horrific to the end – given the subject matter it’s worth saying that this book does not follow any sort of positive outcome. We all know the eventual outcome of the war and so Lea sticks firmly to the events during.

The author stays objective when detailing troops; the horrors are numerous but like authors before her – Irène Némirovsky comes to mind on this point – she includes good people, or, more specifically one person to demonstrate, who get caught up in it. In this case there is a focus on disability among the ranks.

The text itself is solid. The book is written in the third person and whilst there are narrative sections that use very modern wording, the dialogue is authentic – instead of being jarring, the book simply reminds you that it’s historical fiction. There are times when things are repeated unnecessarily – the author’s choice of metaphors in particular – that are noticeable and there are a few times when things are explained that aren’t needed, but these don’t impact the story enough to change your overall experience.

When The Sky Fell Apart is exceptional. Its lasting images, in particular, may well haunt you for a number of days. It’s one of those books that is difficult but nevertheless important. Do not go into this when you are needing to escape, don’t read it when you’re down. This book should be approached with an attitude to study, learning, rather than any sort of literary enjoyment.

But you should most definitely read it.

I received this book for review.

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Paul McVeigh – The Good Son

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The Milkybar kid is strong and tough.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63023-2
First Published: 15th April 2015
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Mickey Donnelly lives in Troubled times. Northern Ireland is at war and he can’t go too far from home or he’ll end up on the wrong turf; he has to be careful of the Protestants. Living with the shadow of a new, unwanted, school in front of him he tries to get to grips with girls and with being cool, particularly as the other children believe him to be gay. And there’s always his Da upsetting his Mammy, the parent he loves most.

The Good Son is a book set some time during the 1980s and 90s that looks at the conflict but concentrates on its coming-of-age storyline, blending profound commentary with the ordinary.

It would be quite natural to expect this book to hinge on the conflict but whilst it doesn’t quite do that, there is a fair amount in it that shows how life was, how split the country. McVeigh never shields the reader from the violence and he makes it clear in the way the fighting effects Mickey, physically most often, that he’s going to be blunt. Mickey takes a lot of metaphorical and literal punches, including from his mother. McVeigh also includes raids and the British – English – actions in the conflict, the disturbance of the regular people due to the worry, often founded in truth in the case of this book, that there were weapons and IRA members around.

But McVeigh’s setting acts more as context, as the difficult background information that shows what fuels Mickey’s behaviour. Violent evenings preface run-of-the-mill days in the streets, skipping and playing chase with the neighbours. Neighbours who may be harbouring army members. Just as Mickey’s family could be.

Mickey is ten years old so there are a lot of sudden changes of scene and a lot of talking about things that he doesn’t understand. McVeigh has written the book in the first person in full Belfast dialect; it’s quite unusual especially when joined by everything else and makes the book a little like Marmite – you will likely either love this book or dislike it (‘hate’ is a bit too strong). What’s true across the board is that Mickey comes across clearly, enough that one could speculate some autobiographical elements to his character. And the rendering of a ten year old is perfect in all its minor pomposity and silliness.

The drawbacks to the book rest in the structure, that use of childhood amongst the conflict. It’s that Mickey’s story takes place during one summer and whilst there is an ending the relative shortness of the book means that it’s relatively minor. It’s more ten-year-old character study than story, the voice being superb but the plot – away from the conflict – being pretty average; whether it works for you will rest on how much more you want to hear about the social history rather than the growing up. It’s your evening television series rather than a film destined for the cinema, an apt comparison to make considering the number of then-popular cultural references included (there are enough that one could argue there are too many even if it does show Mickey’s love of television).

The Good Son is good but as is often the case in situations where labels are assigned, there are also not-so-good times. It is best to go in with few expectations so that what works will work very well.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Magda Szubanski – Reckoning

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Baa ram ewe.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 371
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-24043-6
First Published: 30th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

British-born, Polish and Scottish rooted, Australian household name Magda Szubanski writes about growing up as the daughter of a man who rebelled against the Nazis – leading him to want the best for his children – finding herself as a comedian after years of academia, working through her sexuality, and the stories of her ancestors.

As the purposefully long heritage-detailed sentence hopefully shows, Reckoning is a book of both Szubanski’s own life, and the life of her Polish relatives living during World War Two. It’s a stunning book that is all the more poignant for the historical information Szubanski includes and it’s a bit of a literary experience to boot.

Szubanski, known best outside Australia for her role as Esme Hoggett in the film Babe as well as Sharon in Kath & Kim, details her life as her family made the move from gloomy Britain to brighter Australia right up until recent professional work. Weather differences, A-grade tennis, convent school. The author sports an open, easy writing style that shows off all her influences. It’s a text full of general cultural and more specific references – films old and new, classical literature – that help to bring clarity to what she says and makes it very readable. Brontë spars with black and white Polish cinema and the book is soaked in philosophical references, the latter in particular owing to Szubanski’s educational choices.

One of the themes is sexuality; in Szubanski’s telling of her life story you see the contention and confusion of a lesbian woman – or, as she puts it, ‘gay gay gay gay gay not gay gay’ – growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way Szubanski came to understand her feelings and the changes in society’s views. It’s a constant element that looks right back to childhood and right up to her coming out during which she details what was going on in her head, the confusion, her discomfort and later embrace of terminology. Another theme is Szubanski’s weight, as she talks openly about the way her size has often corresponded to the goings on in her life and also the way she has and is happy with her weight, indeed feels more like herself. Szubanski’s career in comedy lends the book a certain slant; the way the humour is written, opinions conveyed.

The book is also harrowing. One of the most important aspects of it is the look at the German occupation of Poland. Szubanski’s Polish heritage and in particular her father’s life, means that her work is full of information of the sort that is often forgotten.

We arranged to meet up again and I rejoined my family. As we shuffled through the cemetery, something caught my eye. A long line of wonky headstones, uniform and yet misaligned.
‘What does it say? Who are they?’ I asked Uncle Andrzej.
‘Girl scouts,’ he replied. ‘Among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Enemies of the Reich. This is how they frighten people. Killing girl scouts.’

Szubanski’s telling of the occupation and her father’s role in the Polish resistance is hard-hitting and superbly told. She leaves out nothing; there is a lot of shocking violence in this book that puts the spotlight on things that get lost in amongst the publication of the larger scale happenings. The killing of children, the choice to kill or be killed, the constant acting required of young people delivering anti-German information. To see this solely as a memoir of a modern day icon would be a mistake.

‘…a very evil man put this number on me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because he wanted to kill me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because I am a Jew.’
I didn’t really understand what a Jew was. Or why anyone would want to kill such a nice lady. Was she related to the Little Jewish boy Dad was always going on about?
‘I am telling you this, Magda, because it must never happen again.’
I nodded. I felt bad that this had happened to the nice woman. And I agreed it should never happen again. And I remember now – as I looked up, the other women all held out their arms and showed me their numbers.

At least on the face of it, Reckoning is bound to appeal more to Australian readers and those outside Australia who are familiar and interested in its popular culture, but if there’s one memoir you should read this year regardless of whether or not you know the author, it’s this one.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Shan Sa – Empress

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Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…

Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-14787-6
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.

Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb to past death (it’s told in the first person). It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.

Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.

Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. So Sa gives the woman what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)

Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.

The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that we can assume in it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.

And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.

You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.

Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.

But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.

This may be ironic.

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Tahmima Anam – The Bones Of Grace

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One epic love letter.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-67977-2
First Published: 19th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Zubaida was studying in America when she met him: Elijah, a man she came to know for just a few days; she had to leave for Pakistan when her university department’s hopes of uncovering an ancient fossil were realised. But when the project came to an abrupt halt, Zubaida went back to her native Bangladesh and married her childhood friend, effectively bringing an end to her acquaintance with Elijah. Years later, after meeting and splitting from him again, she has chosen to tell him everything in a letter.

The Bones Of Grace is a somewhat epic story that also includes another story within the story. It’s the sort of book you’ll likely either love or hate (very difficult to rate!) but either way appreciate the background detailing.

What first strikes you is Anam’s writing – it’s sublime. There are no two ways about it. It’s the sort of writing that is so wonderful, so well put together, so constant, that it has a very real affect on the novel’s flaws. You won’t dismiss the flaws, but you will feel as though you want to dismiss them. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t necessarily Anam’s natural writing style, it’s all Zubaida – during the story within a story, where we hear directly from Anwar (and it’s just that Zubaida has included his words in her letter) the writing is very different. More… male, appropriately. (Anwar is a man looking for his past love who puts his search on hold when he runs out of money.) Zubaida’s words, the flow of her writing, does make up somewhat for what could be called a frustrating narrative.

And I could imagine almost every day of your childhood, because it would have been documented in films or on television – in that way, you had probably lived a deeply unremarkable life, had experiences without specificity, and that had bothered you, the way my own past grated at me. All the things that irrritated you were things that I longed for, and all the things you longed for were things I took for granted.

I want to tackle this narrative before moving forward (hopefully the above extract exudes the quality and how the narrative can be both beautiful in what it says and, to use a word from the extract, grating). Whether Zubaida is annoying is really up to you, your personality, and, likely, down to your own experience of love and heartbreak. That Anam has captured her particular tale in a very honest way is hard to dispute – I think we’ve all had times when we’ve realised we’re dwelling too much on something and need to stop discussing it, and that that doesn’t always mean we stop thinking about it – it’s just a case of whether you’re happy to spend 400 pages on it and, indeed, whether you believe in this woman, Zubaida, writing a 400 page letter of excuse and apology.

Of course without the number of pages, we wouldn’t have a novel, we’d have a pamphlet, a novella at most, so this is where the background and ship-breaking comes in.

“It’s a cruel industry. For years we’ve been working slowly, patiently with the owners. Suddenly she comes and tells us how terrible things are. A film isn’t going to change anything.”

Anam uses Zubaida to look at the end-of-life of ships, in this case a cruise ship. There is the time when the ship is created – overseas – and sets sail, multiple times – overseas – and then, when it’s deemed too old, it comes to Bangladesh where men work for little pay, breaking it into pieces to be sold on. Zubaida comes to the beach as a translator for a western reporter who is looking to make a film (and possibly press charges against the management). Through Zubaida, Anam shows the horrors of the situation – the lack of safety, the deaths, and the exposure to chemicals and other toxic ingredients the workers face. It’s a uniquely-realised story. The inclusion of Anwar’s story, in which he comes to work at a ship-breaking beach, adds to the level of detail involved.

Then there is the palaeontology. Zubaida’s passion is the study of the fossil of a walking whale – a creature that slowly evolved to live under water whilst other creatures evolved to live out of it. Her journey is set around her attempts to get access to the fossil, first overseas then through the removal and sending of the bones to America. The journey shows the conflict between work (the will to, in this case) and relationships. Anam is an anthropologist which means you get a lot of detailing, but her writer self stops it becoming too much.

Amidst this is Zubaida’s lifelong mental conflict – she was adopted, lives in a well-off family and her fiancé is rich, but she doesn’t know anything about her birth mother and starts to feel a need to know where she came from. This is where privilege and class enters, where the underlining of Zubaida’s poorer beginnings limits what there is for her to know. It’s there in the background when she begins to question, no matter what category the question comes under; her thoughts of love, duty, and Elijah are informed by her adoption. In meeting Elijah she finds herself thinking of things she’d never thought about before and quite possibly never would have otherwise, and family duty and a general lack of mental strength hold her back from taking it further. She has all this luxury in consequence of being with Rashid, she’s lucky, she shouldn’t be thinking of Elijah. But she is thinking of him.

And amidst this turmoil is a minor story – minor in how much time it takes up (it’s big in terms of real-world impact) – of war, of the effects of it and of war crimes coming to light. Zubaida’s mother has spent her years working towards justice. Her father’s work and business has been ethical. You see glimpses of the Bangladesh war.

Now the ‘twist’, if it can be called so, that you start to see when Anwar makes his entrance (because if a stranger becomes involved you know there’s got to be a connection somewhere), isn’t as predictable as you might first think. It’s quite likely you’ll guess correctly, and, yes, of course this part of the narrative could be considered a device because how likely is it that it’d all happen in real life and so on, but it’s a novel after all. The reveal is pretty satisfying – it won’t blow your socks off but it may well make up for any frustration you had been feeling due to the way Anam goes about it. Make no mistake – don’t go assuming the twist the main reason for the book. It’s not – the book is all about the journey, the writing, the history, the palaeontology, and the ship-breaking – but it does give it an extra lift.

The Bones Of Grace is a slow-paced book. There’s not really any action in it; certainly that it’s one long letter should suggest this as a possibility. It’s very much a literary book, an issues book, wherein the pleasure is in its bookish sensuality.

If you like the sound of that and if what’s heralded as good about it hits the right notes for you, it’s likely you’ll fall completely in love with it. If it doesn’t hit the right note, you’ll likely still appreciate it but it may take you a while to get through.

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