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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Emma Cline – The Girls

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The Girls (Chatto & Windus) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced 8th May.

Under the thumb.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 353
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-74044-3
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

At 14, Evie’s life is becoming difficult. She’s got problems with her major friendship, has a crush on her friend’s brother and knows that’s a problem in itself, her father has left the family home for an apartment with his assistant, and her mother spends all her time elsewhere. Feeling the lack of love in her life, Evie is easily drawn to Suzanne and her friends, girls in well-used clothes who live on a ranch under the leadership of an older man. Evie chooses not to live with them exclusively, knowing she should go home sometimes so her mother doesn’t suspect, but the group’s influence is enough. Now, middle-aged and looking back on the time, Evie muses on the influence, her innocence and role, and the crime committed that saw the major players behind bars.

The Girls is a novel of semi-factual history, an account of a 1960s cult with a devastating end. Told from the point of an acquaintance, it is one part drugs, a manipulated idea of free love, and one part teenage anxieties and fitting in, particularly as a female.

Based on the Manson Family murders in the late 1960s, Cline’s book aligns to facts enough that her book can be considered a semi-retelling. Looking ever more closely at influence and the impact of neglect – both real and assumed – Cline’s focus on the female psych is the strongest element of the novel. Evie’s experience, enmeshed in the cult but with enough time away from it, enables Cline to study the way words, bullying, parental-filial relationships, can impact the self and the ability to be manipulated, both in general and sexually. This is of course mostly in the context of the era being studied, but Cline ensures her writing has long-term relevance, having the older Evie contemplate the experience of a young acquaintance in our present day, a girl she sees staying silent whilst her boyfriend and his friend talk, a girl who takes her clothes off to show her body when requested – though uncomfortable – in the company of both boys.

Evie’s teenage lack of self-confidence, self-worth, most terms that begin with ‘self’, is what enables her to be taken in by the group, their relative (though pretend) empathy and love for her driving her to do things that you as the reader can tell she would really rather not do – she’s always on the cusp of understanding it but lacks the forethought due to self-belief. (It should be noted this book is of a very adult nature.)

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

The title stays true to form – whilst there are a couple of men in this book who are manipulated, it is not the same – this is a book about girls and women in the ways discussed. There are few good male characters in this book; the literal good guys Cline has painted well, but with Evie’s narrative you don’t get to see them for long and they are not given much time.

Cline’s study has much to recommend it, but beyond this the book struggles to make a mark. The writing falls somewhere between excellent and too much; on a solely literary level it’s marvellous, it’s all very poetic and descriptive but on numerous occasions it detracts from the essence of the story, Cline appearing to favour words over getting her point across. Favourite words and terms of phrase are noticeable, for example, many times something ‘stipples’ something, and every so often words are made up.

It’s literary but missing a few things – it doesn’t say anything new. The background details – the hows, whys and whens of the cult – have been left out entirely; even if the book lines up with the stereotype of cults and rests on history, the details should have been included rather than the expectation that the reader already knows the story. The historical details about the hippie life do not always ring true.

This is a book where you know the ending at the beginning – on purpose – but all the action has been left until the end meaning that you must be enjoying Evie’s musings on the lackadaisical everyday to keep going. Due to Evie’s position in the group, a lot of the lasting information is relegated to paragraphs telling you what the TV reports said, which does mean it has less of an impact than it might have otherwise, and unfortunately this low level of impact is similar throughout.

I received this book for review.

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Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

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Be prepared to never be prepared.

Publisher: Oneworld
Pages: 151
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-07090-6
First Published: 2014; 10th January 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Distancia de Rescate (Rescue Distance)
Translated by: Megan McDowell

Amanda’s in hospital. David, the peculiar child of someone she knows, seated somewhere near her, is telling her she’s close to death; she has to keep talking, work out what has happened, why she’s there. It’s difficult; it’s hard to think, she can’t see very well, and David keeps telling her to move on to other things that are more important. She won’t.

Fever Dream is a novella full of circular thinking, warped perceptions, and few concrete answers – they are sometimes there but Schweblin defiantly remains vague. It’s an easy read, a small book without chapters, that asks a lot of your attention but for that it rewards you with the reality of unreality and a fair amount to think about.

The original title is probably a good place to start – a lot of the narrative revolves around Amanda’s concept of ‘rescue distance’, the maximum physical distance between herself and her small daughter at any one time that will result in immediate result in case of accident. Amanda’s ill health makes her even more paranoid and obsessive so that the distance lengths and shortens – most often the latter – over the course of the book. Her time with her daughter is detailed solely as a flashback, the report she gives David as she lays ill in bed, but gets discussed by them in the present every so often. Alongside this constant consideration are other repetitions – Carla’s gold bikini, for example – that further illustrate what Amanda, perhaps erroneously, is focusing on.

Flashbacks. Are they? Aren’t they? Schweblin never tells you the exact times when Amanda is thinking of the past and talking directly to David – it’s generally obvious but not always. This adds to the feeling of confusion for the reader, very much intended, and gives you more of an idea of the situation at hand. It is also difficult to work out the time line of what has happened in Amanda’s story but in this Scheweblin does provide an idea of what you’re meant to be thinking, as a reader, when she presents a definite dream sequence. This dream shows the topsy-turvy construction of our real life dreams, whether feverish or in good health, that confirms for you the feeling that you’re not necessarily meant to be working everything out.

David’s almost changling status is eerie. Supposedly, this child of Amanda’s friend – this child/now adult (who knows?) who is in Amanda’s room – is not the same as he was before. (In years gone by a woman said that in order to save a feverish David’s life, a switch of bodies would have to take place, David’s spirit moving on to another body and David’s body becoming inhabited by a different soul. It’s the different soul/same body that Amanda is supposedly talking to.) David’s actions are seen as strange, haunted, and whereas we can assume that some actions might have been normal in reality, some clearly aren’t. The character of David is very much up to you, the reader, to figure out.

Fever Dream is a short book; you wouldn’t want it to be longer due to the confusion and the relentless and repetitive nature of David’s questions. It’s a book you can enjoy even if you can’t quite explain it, and at times it’s the very idea of not having to understand it that allows you to enjoy it more. And with its relatively small number of pages and a narrative that doesn’t deviate, with its lack of chapters and easy language, it’s the perfect choice if you want to pick up something challenging but very accessible.

I received this book for review.

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Josephine Johnson – Now In November

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Farming during the Depression.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 198
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97075-8
First Published: 1934
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Marget and her family travel to their mortgaged land, becoming farmers. It’s a difficult time and beyond the stress of growing and selling the crops for less than hoped, Marget’s sister Kerrin is becoming more and more difficult to live with. Things start looking up when Grant arrives to help out but the worst is yet to come.

Now In November is a short novel focused on the land and a family’s relationship to it. It’s a gracefully written novel, tragedy detailed in beautiful language, that whilst often painful has a stunning atmosphere not unlike the Brontës and their moors, or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This is a simple tale, and relatively small in scope – the years both go by and stay still (there’s a sort of time-focused dual narrative going on you’d have to see yourself) but not so many as to cover too long a time, at least it seems so from what happens. It’s also not a happy book but as said above this is where the language has a lovely effect, not glossing over the events by any means but making it so that you can continue reading, so that you want to continue reading. The shortness of the novel aids in this as well.

A great deal of the book is focused on nature. In the context of its entirety, Johnson spends paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the weather, the colours, the flora and fauna. This boosts the book a little, sometimes, above its general sad atmosphere, and helps to ground you in the scene, though some may find it too much depending on mood – this is a book for which it pays to choose your reading time wisely. A story for a hectic day this is not; a lazy afternoon, as much as it may seem at odds with the text, is your best bet. There is action in the events but the language flows along softly, an interesting effect and choice which means the book transcends its subjects.

The family is a good one to read about because they are so mixed in temperament. Marget, her mother, and younger sister Merle, do a lot of the household work. The father does all the manual labour, most often with a single helper. Oldest sister, Kerrin, brings to the book a different subject – seeming first to be very obnoxious then, in turn, dangerous and finally mentally ill (Johnson writes the progression of Kerrin’s mental capability very well), the use of such a character shines a particularly almost-modern light on mental illness which when mixed with the lesser medical knowledge of the time becomes quite something. Whilst Now In November may well have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction due to the the story of the Depression, and perhaps its author’s young age, it’s the characterisation and development of Kerrin that is perhaps its strongest element for us today, something that speaks very much to our present values and discussion.

Minor points are unrequited romance, the effects of industry on farming (in the event this is a major point, it’s just that it’s confined), the integration of black people. These round the story off, adding to the atmosphere and general demonstration of the time.

Now In November can be difficult to get into and the story itself is rough going, but the whole is an excellent creation with a lot to recommend it. Its themes are relevant today and it’s an interesting source for historical study and information.

I received this book for review.

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Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

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Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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