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Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

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They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Dolly Alderton – Everything I Know About Love

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…And indeed the things scribbled out.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 358
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-98210-5
First Published: 1st February 2018
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Dolly had a privileged upbringing, living in the suburbs north of London. As she becomes an adult, life changes; in a number of non-linear chapters she tells us the stories of her twenties from the early days to her thirtieth birthday, the drinking, partying, drugs, sex, that in the course of time led to her maturity and growing wisdom. And throughout it all she chronicles her friendships, the steadfast women who have helped her through the rough times, those whom she has helped in return.

Everything I Know About Love is Alderton’s first book, a memoir bringing us to her present day (the paperback includes a new chapter). Most often a love letter to female friendship, the book includes romantic love but more often short relationships – Alderton has said that we think so much about the spark that keeps romance going but that we don’t spend enough time on our friendships in the same way. A journalist, writer for television, and podcaster, Alderon’s book also includes the early days of her work in the industry, the backdrop of many escapades.

Alderton begins her book with little introduction; most likely the book will appeal to those already familiar with her work and thus this won’t be a problem. However, to anyone who may otherwise be interested (as I was, having heard her speak at a festival) this is a work that can grow on you – the first chapters may be difficult, lacking in detail, but you soon become familiar with the writer enough that the ‘requirement’ to know about beforehand becomes a lot less important. More to the point is the ability to relate to her childhood – Alderton acknowledges the privilege herself on various occasions – the attendance at a boarding school, and relative ease of access to the places she begins to work (for example she gets a placement on a TV show with no details included as to how); again, though, there is a however – as the years pass and she has to network and so on, there are more details of this kind included. The details by themselves may not affect every reader but will help a good number.

The writing is casual and the pages fly by. It’s conversational, Alderton preferring ease of understanding over perfected prose. The content of the chapters tends to be compiled by subject matter rather than timeline, leading to a slice of life effect, however it’s not hard to find your bearings in any given set of pages.

Alderton is adept at imagery, and you become well-versed in her friendships over the course of the book; she’s also good at making it easy to keep track of who’s who – the book has a large cast of characters with enough detailing and stories to remember. You start wanting to hear more about some people and, obviously allowing for the natural changes that will affect it, Alderton’s choices in narrative correspond to this.

A lot of Alderton’s experiences in adulthood are average, very everyday – this is where her concept for the book and her stories of her friendships comes in. She includes some moments of her life that have impacted those she loves more than they impacted her, making a fair amount of the book about others rather than herself (this sounds against the idea of a memoir and may not always be apparent when reading, but it’s true). There are some stories of particular depth and heart in them. One person in Alderton’s life was Florence, her best friend’s sister, who sadly died of leukemia before she entered the excellent adulthood that was clearly awaiting her – Alderton has dedicated her book to Florence as well as a whole chapter that looks at Florence’s early achievements, the love of her family, and the ripple affects of her death. The writer includes an extract from an article Florence wrote that contains this fantastic piece of advice:

Be the person you wish you could be, not the person you feel you are doomed to be. (p. 203)

Amongst the various prose chapters are dotted recipes (skip-able), a chapter of silly or drunken text messages (also skip-able), lists of things learned (good to read), and some very on-the-mark pretend missives to groups of people (bridal parties and wedding guests, baby shower invitees) that show the reality behind plans made without self-awareness that often cause minor conflict. A paraphrased example: ‘please don’t feel you need to bring a present… but here is where we are registered… for expensive items’. These on-the-mark missives are pretty brilliant to read.

Alderton’s awareness of issues naturally progresses as the book continues and she displays openly the problems as well as the changes made to fix them:

‘Why did you do it?’
‘I don’t know. To feel close to people? To make conversation? Maybe to feel powerful,’ I said. ‘That’s the only reason people gossip. I obviously did it to feel powerful.’ (p. 234)

The best part of the book is the last section, wherein Alderton ends her stories to write an extended reflection on what she’s learned. In a way, it’s a pity the stories end, but this is where everything comes together and you see just why she wrote the book and why people have been excited about it. Alderton puts into words things we often think about but rarely put into words ourselves. She gives a voice to things that are a part of many people’s lives that are things we don’t really think about (or think about at all). It’s a beautiful conclusion and makes more obvious the structure of the work. The only problem here is that the reflections go on a bit – whilst already a summation, the content is repetitive and could have done with more editing.

Everything I Know About Love might not look like it’s a book for the many, but it is. It’s a book with a lot of good advice, a book that includes the low points and why things can be a problem whilst not suggesting those things be avoided (Alderton has said she wanted to talk about drink, drugs, and so on openly). Read it alongside a subscription to the magazines she writes for, or after a brief bit of research, and you’ll get the most out of it.

I received this book for review.

 
D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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Sex and industry.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: N/A (there are a few different editions)
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-44149-8
First Published: 1928
Date Reviewed: 29th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Connie married a baronet; now back from the war, Clifford is different, his newly-acquired disability changing their marriage. More to the point, however, Connie is becoming bored by him, his clique of quasi-intellectual friends, and the pomp surrounding his titled heritage. After a brief affair with one of the friends, and following a conversation in which Clifford suggested that it wouldn’t be bad if Connie became pregnant by another man so that the baronetcy could continue, Connie meets the her husband’s gamekeeper. Like Clifford, Oliver, too, was at war. His experience situated him somewhere in between the social classes. He is distant and cold, but Connie becomes attracted to him.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel of many themes. Most well-known as erotic fiction, the book also looks at class, and the progression of industry over traditional English life.

Lawrence has a lot he wants to say and it’s evident early on that his object is to make his opinion clear, and hopefully easy to emphasise with. Most often when detailing his thoughts – through his characters, looked at in a philosophical manner – he repeats words and phrases until the thought reaches an almost ‘post-‘ level of discussion. Perhaps he saw no other way to get his points across, to rail against the new norms of his day; it’s not hard to liken him to others who behoove their point in a literary manner.

What’s perhaps surprising is that industry is Lawrence’s biggest point, the sex taking second place in this regard. By Lawrence’s time the industrial revolution had reached a particular level; in this book we see the slow but sure change in social make-up, where those who were always rich were starting to sell off their inheritance. Lawrence – of a working class background, the child of a coal miner and a teacher – details the breaking up of estates, the land reused for cheap housing for those who do the literal heavy lifting. The author isn’t too worried, here, about the aristocracy – his sadness lies in rural life changing, in coal mines washing away the peace and beauty of the countryside; if more people had thought as he did perhaps we would have more historical estates remaining today.

The author uses his characters’ minds to spread his opinions. In this respect the book is rather like Anna Karenina – where Tolstoy spreads his thoughts on agriculture enough that his farmer, the rich Lenin, is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the author himself, so too does Lawrence use Connie and Oliver to ‘think’ his own thoughts. Had they been around at the same time, the two writers may have had much to debate.

In talking of industry and as a topic in its own right, Lawrence discusses the class system. He shows how class isn’t always easy to delineate – Oliver, a working class man, has two modes of speech, that of a high-ranking member of the British army, and the dialect of his home and background. Interestingly, Lawrence makes Oliver’s regional dialect the one that is secondary, or at least that’s the effect of it – it seems Oliver’s army English, which is similar to his employers, is now his default; Connie moans at him for speaking in regional dialect because she sees it as affected and not him; part of his character is his struggle between his different lived experiences.

Lawrence discusses the upper class, those with inherited wealth; he dislikes Clifford’s place in the world but is very lenient towards Connie. Connie’s background is somewhere between middle and upper class; in marrying Clifford she’s risen a level, enough that she’s far from Oliver in terms of society but not too high that Lawrence can’t use her for his ‘isn’t the countryside beautiful and industry is ruining it’ monologues. It is unfortunate that Lawrence uses disability – Clifford – as an easy way to justify Connie’s move away from him (though she does care about Clifford), but it is a reflection of the attitudes of the time.

Connie’s desire for sex, that which accompanies love but isn’t necessarily ‘making love’, is fulfilled by Oliver’s arrival in the story. The book is absolutely littered with sex scenes and other references to the act; there’s a reason the title is synonymous with sex and it’s difficult not to argue that despite the theme of industry, the sex shouldn’t be first and foremost in any discussion of the book. (I’ve included it last to subvert this.) Lawrence was not able to publish the book openly in Britain; the publication date of 1928 is the initial, private publication, and the date when it was seen in France and Australia. There was a court dispute in the 1960s; finally Penguin won the right to publish the work in its entirety, years after Lawrence’s death. The sex was still shocking in the ’60s, and it’s still somewhat shocking today. When it comes to these scenes, Lawrence’s phrasing is more poetry than anything else – at least that seems to be what he was going for, with his leaning towards purple prose; there’s a layer of dissociation to it as well. The scenes can verge on being philosophical, like the industrial musings. And it does verge on being too much, unnecessary; it’s both erotic fiction and surprisingly not sexy.

Part of this is down to that dissociation, the gap that exists between Lawrence and his characters. Whilst he writes from Oliver and Connie’s perspective, most often Connie’s, the text reads as though it’s the narration of someone watching and describing what he sees. And a lot of that is down to Lawrence’s writing of Connie herself. The general portrayal isn’t bad, in fact often Lawrence captures her well, but there are unfortunately occasions when he applies the male gaze to her thinking. That Connie thinks about sex in detail works. The way and the how, however, is sometimes at odds, so to speak. This in turn extends to her development as a character – she develops a trait that does not quite fit with who she is; it’s more about Lawrence moving the plot to where he wants it to be.

Lastly on this subject, there is a very minor LGBT element to the story, included in memories of the past. It’s not detailed – understandably, given the era – but it’s there, just enough that Lawrence could probably include it without question.

I haven’t mentioned plot – that’s because it’s very thin, a minor element. The story also doesn’t end in an expected way, instead Lawrence leaves you to decide exactly what happens, and whether or not that’s satisfactory depends on your thoughts thus far.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is both of its time and eternal, with its thoughts of changing times. The stereotype of the book is there for a reason and it’s not a book you can get lost in. It’s best in the context of its fame and publication, and as an eyewitness account and opinion of the era. As a historical document and example of various attitudes, it has a lot to recommend it.

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Monica Ali – Brick Lane

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Left To Her Fate.

Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60484-0
First Published: 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th March 2019
Rating: 3/5

At birth Nazneen was left to fate; she survived. As an adult she is married to Chanu, an older man, and leaves Bangladesh for London. She arrives to a burgeoning community of diaspora, the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets laying roots and working to make a new life. But Nazneen is still leaving things to fate; as the world moves around her she watches; she is the wife Chanu wanted, she’s a friend to others, but she remains somewhat outside, as life continues.

Brick Lane is a novel about the life of an immigrant to London from the 1970s to the early noughties.

Ali’s lengthy book rests on the overall concept of fate, a story the younger Nazneen heard over and over again, called ‘how you were left to your fate’. As such, Nazneen does not often get involved with social events or even friendships when she could if she wanted to; the book is both a reflection of an immigrant’s experience, and the story of Nazneen’s particular life as affected by her mother.

This latter aspect means that Nazneen is a particularly passive character; away from the understandable case of isolation early on, Nazneen has ideas of things she’d like to do but never does anything about it. If this passivity is Ali’s way of writing cultural difference it could have made sense, but Nazneen is among people who are actively part of their local community, and whilst Chanu doesn’t teach her English and does expect the home kept nicely rather than encouraging her to be out and about, he involves her in his educational ideas, discussing neighbours and friends, and invites people over to socialise with them. Effectively, as much as Chanu doesn’t offer active support, it’s Ali herself who puts up the biggest barriers around Nazneen, creating isolation which in the context of the rest of the book is unnatural.

Chanu is an interesting character, at once compelling and utterly irritating. His story is of a potential success; he knows a lot – or, rather, he knows he knows a lot. He can do intellect, but moving forward from that and incorporating the opinions of others, is difficult; he does not get the jobs he wants and misjudges how others think of him. His personality and education means a lot of his dialogue is academic lecture – he’d be at his best in front of a room of students, though he might succeed in sending most of them to sleep.

With Nazneen being the character the book revolves around, there is little story and many dull pages. Due to Ali’s continual application of passivity, the moments that offer real promise are passed over almost as soon as they’ve begun. This is a problem because these moments are to do with conflict – the book’s timeline includes 9/11, the people on the estate are Muslim, and you hear enough from what Nazneen hears about to realise that if Ali had let her be a proper part of her community, like all the other characters, this book would have a lot to say. Where there is a bit included about rioting, most of what happens is missed out.

Nazneen’s life gets a bit more interesting when she meets the young man who brings her clothes to repair, but this is also short-lived and fairly unremarked-upon. That something happens between them doesn’t fit her character – perhaps it serves as a push against fate, but due to Ali’s construction of her personality, it’s effectively a contrived reversal of a contrived character. The ending of the book is what was needed, but coming so late in the day it’s difficult not to wonder whether it wasn’t simply a case of the author noticing she needed to do something with her story if she was to finish it.

The one area where the book is interesting is the letters Nazneen’s sister sends; in Hasina there is good story, and it’s sad that more wasn’t included because Hasina does not let fate run her life. (This is likely the point of the inclusion, to show difference.) It is told in a strange fashion, however, written in broken English when Hasina would have surely written to Nazneen in their mother tongue – and if it is the mother tongue Hasina is writing in, why would it be broken?

A potentially fascinating character and her family are given short shrift, the community seen only through her eyes and thus only seen vaguely, the knock-on effect of a major world event is not given the time it needed. There are plenty of books that cover the various aspects of Brick Lane to better effect.

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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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