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Zoë Duncan – The Shifting Pools

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What you see will be.

Publisher: Lightning Books (Eye Books)
Pages: 346
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-63036-1
First Published: 6th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 14th July 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Eve’s family lived in a country that was torn by war; in childhood Eve lost them all and suffered further trauma. She moved to England where her well-meaning aunt never stopped trying to cover up any news of the war and never referred to the family. Now in her adult years, Eve is yet to confront her memories and her grief continues as strongly as ever. Her dreams are nightmares and she’s not living anywhere near her potential, but her imagination believes it’s time to heal.

The Shifting Pools is an incredibly moving novel about grief and learning to live despite it. Using many different styles of storytelling, referencing, and ideas, Duncan has created something very different and very special.

This is a slow-moving book. The pace echoes the way utter loss, grief, can take over a life, and Duncan never moves the narrative away from it. Every detail is examined, every thought spoken, in the way it naturally occurs in life, Duncan doing away with the very notion that being repetitive in fiction is bad – she shows well how it is important to delve into grief and give it the time it needs.

One of the first things of note is Duncan’s writing – it’s wonderful. It keeps the pacing constant, it stays steady during tense changes, and it brings something very beautiful to the work. It’s not difficult to fly through this book, despite the subject, and the writing and Duncan’s overall handling of the situation is why. And there is a lot of wisdom here that anyone who has lost someone or been in an awful situation will be able to relate to.

The style of the text as a whole is intriguing. Sections about Eve’s childhood are narrated in the third person. The first person is used for everything else: the ‘present’ as Eve lives through her days and details her thoughts; the vignettes of dreams dotted throughout the book, that explore Eve’s mental state in various imagined situations; the sections in war-torn Enanti, the fantasy world that may or may not be real. And then there are several well-known and not so well-known poems, generally a single verse of each, spread throughout, included in the text as vignettes in their own right. It’s almost of collage, a multi-media project, full of different ideas and voices, and works very well. The term ‘fractured narrative’ comes to mind.

The Shifting Pools uses nature, drawing comparisons between it and the themes of the story, and using its beauty as a way to help Eve. Of note is the character’s name, which, after you have spotted potential influences of other texts and concepts (including Narnia and The NeverEnding Story) does bring forth the question of Eve’s faith. Is there a comparison to be drawn between Eve and the Eden of the Bible? Of Heaven? Quite possibly.

Eve is always at war with herself; as much is said in one of the sections. Her dreams concern various war or battle or prison situations. Of the war that tore apart her family, little is said. Duncan never tells you which war – if any, in reality – she refers to, though there are glimpses of a couple of possibilities; it’s more the basic idea of war that is important.

Reading this book is something of a honour, and a surreal experience. It feels fantastical from the very first page and the amount of research, knowledge, and detail Duncan has included is excellent. She unapologetically runs straight past the border between what we are told is the ‘right’ amount of time and energy to spend grieving to show that the idea of a ‘right’ time never works. This said you can see the thought that’s gone in to getting it right in terms of the reading experience, empathy, and not repeating what has been said unless to view it differently – something that wouldn’t work in many cases but does here.

The only thing that may work against the book is the amount of time spent on the journey in Enanti. It depends on your enjoyment of the fantasy world being included alongside the real world, how much you’re invested in that genre, and how much you personally feels it all relates.

The Shifting Pools is a fantastic reading experience, full of care, love, and, ultimately, hope.

I received this book for review.

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Marie-Sabine Roger – Get Well Soon

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Doc, Grumpy, and perhaps one day, Happy.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 213
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27216-8
First Published: March 2012; 29th June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th June 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: Bon Rétablissemnent (Good Recovery)
Translated by: Frank Wynne

Jean-Pierre is in hospital; dragged out of the Seine, no one as yet knows what happened, least of all Jean-Pierre himself, but whatever it was, his health has been set back and he needs to recuperate. Being in hospital isn’t great – the food’s very bland, it’s noisy, and no one ever closes the door to his room, but more to the point there’s an irritating 14-year-old girl, seemingly over-fed, who thinks she’s entitled to his laptop. There’s the young man who saved him with whom Jean-Pierre is having trouble communicating; thank god – even if you don’t believe in him – for the policeman who has taken a liking to him and visits all the time, even if that’s strange. At some point they’re going to have to find out what happened and hopefully Jean-Pierre will be allowed to get out of bed and get away from it all.

Get Well Soon is a fairly fun, short, novel. Completely character-driven, it’s a book that combines thought with the idea of a quick an easy read, a fairly literary book that will interest those who might not have time at present to invest into literary fiction.

This is a book about a slight mental and emotional journey. Jean-Pierre is a grumpy old sod – a description that suits his own word choices – grumpy enough you’d think he was older than he is, and Roger’s aim is to fully acknowledge this and allow it to continue whilst slowly introducing the character’s better qualities and a gentle change of heart. Her characterisation means you start out disliking him intensely before liking him a bit more and then becoming content with feeling somewhere in between.

There is a lot to like about the author’s way with words in regards to characterisation. Building a character slowly, with full attention paid to how the reader experiences it all seems to be, if this book and last year’s translation of the excellent Soft In The Head is anything to go by, Roger’s focus. However in the case of Jean-Pierre Fabre here, it’s perhaps too slow, to the effect that you feel something has been missed; there was potentially more of a change going on in Roger’s imagination of the character than has been marked down on the page. This is where ‘no plot’ and ‘slight journey’ comes in – this is a book full of gentle humour and heart but whilst reading Jean-Pierre’s musings on his life is fun, there isn’t much to them.

But let’s look at the humour – it graces most every page. Roger can be brusque, and never shies from presenting a person steeped in their own social and age-related context. Jean-Pierre meets enough of a stereotype for Roger to explain the basics quickly and then move on to the details. The cheeky jokes. The descriptions. The thinking behind Jean-Pierre’s actions, and the thinking done for thoughts’ sake. The process of a sort of everyday prejudice that starts to untangle itself as Jean-Pierre sees how things aren’t as they appear, or that for all that something may sound unpleasant, perhaps uncouth, there are reasons to be considered. It is the dissection of social constructs together with the humour, that make this book. It’s very much one small person’s considerations that won’t change him on a general level, but it’s a good read.

The translation is good – albeit that Wynne is aided by the French names and the references to French locations, Wynne’s choices ensure you never forget this is a French book. As such you won’t forget it’s a translation but that’s no matter as Wynne has let Rogers’ words shine through.

There is a bit to think about and much to enjoy; Get Well Soon is a quiet book, a nice example of Rogers’ writing ability. You likely won’t remember the character but you will remember the author’s technique.

I received this book for review.

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Tom Malmquist – In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

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Sudden changes.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 277
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64000-9
First Published: August 2015; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: I Varje Ögonblick Är Vi Fortfarande Vid Liv (In Every Moment We Are Still Alive)
Translated by: Henning Koch

When poet Tom Malmquist’s fiancée became very ill late in her pregnancy, the couple thought it was flu. But when her breathing starts to become affected, Karin is taken to the ward. In the horror of the idea of loosing his lover, Tom must get to grips with the idea that he will be bringing up his daughter on his own.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a sobering memoir told in a rush of words that communicates the effect of the events on a person’s mental state. I have termed it non-fiction but it’s also considered fiction – the events are real but the style of writing, beyond the words themselves, means the book is somewhere between the two.

Looking at the words and the style together, Malmquist has opted for stream of consciousness and a sort of distancing. In view of the communication of his mental state, both the lack of full stops and the lack of quotation marks mean that you, the reader, are inundated with the information Malmquist received in the same way he received it, putting you in his shoes. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to see what is happening – fairly, not completely – and other times it’s almost impossible but in this book your incomprehension is paramount to your understanding of the way Malmquist is feeling. It is frustrating to read on a literary level, especially considering the text never stops rushing towards you, but it plays its part – it might seem to be a book with a lot of telling but actually, it’s all about showing.

The length of the book is part of this display of showing, too; it’s fairly short – just like the few weeks that pass – but feeling longer than that – again just like the few weeks that pass. In terms of the action of reading it’s a swift one, easily read in a few hours, but it will feel longer.

Karin is going to miss so much, Livia was a black-and-white ultrasound photo, Karin only knew her something that moved inside her.

One can’t really review the story itself; suffice to say it’s told very well and Malmquist often looks back on his life with Karin. There are no clear time changes so sometimes it’s difficult to work out when a scene slots into the timeline but that doesn’t take much away from the overall experience.

Something that must be touched on, however, is the bureaucracy Malmquist details. Because the author was not married and because Karin was too ill and everyone too busy to so much as think about any paperwork, despite the obviousness of the author’s paternity he has to go through Tax lines – yes, makes no sense – in regards to his baby daughter. He has to call Social Services and courts and various other places to try and change her surname to his, to get reports, all that sort of stuff; you don’t get to hear the result, how it ends up, but suffice to say Malmquist now has custody of his daughter, however, according to what is written in the book, he has to check in often until she reaches her majority. The author’s writing style, that deluge of information, further shows just how bizarre the whole thing is. And this all happens whilst he’s reeling from the death, making it even worse. As far as the book goes, Malmquist’s examination and peeling back the layers for all to see, is brilliant.

This is a difficult book in many ways, and a bit more so when you know you’re dealing with a translation. The translation is okay but there are some grammatical choices and turns of phrase that are so English (language) it’s hard to forget you’re reading a translation. But the heart of the story, or, rather, hearts – that communication and fight for parental rights – is very good and well worth your time.

There have been books that have dealt with similar topics before, but In Every Moment We Are Still Alive puts you in the author’s head in a very different and meaningful way.

I received this book for review.

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Joanna Cannon – The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

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Please note: I talk about who started the fire in another blog post.

Lambs (and kids) of god.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13217-0
First Published: 28th January 2016
Date Reviewed: 10th May 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Mrs Creasy has disappeared and no one on the avenue knows anything about it. They’ve only two things to go on – the police don’t seem too interested, and Mr Creasy says his wife will be back given time. Grace is interested in the disappearance but more so in the idea of God – if the vicar says God is with us then God must be somewhere on the avenue. One of the neighbouring houses must host him; together with her many-jumpered friend, Tilly, she’s going to find him.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep is a wholly character-driven dual-narrative novel that looks at the way groups of people deal with individuals who aren’t like them. It’s also about how exclusive a small community can become.

Cannon’s backdrop is the British heatwave of 1976, a time when rain ceased entirely for a couple of months (we had 4 weeks here recently, which was weird enough), the temperature shot to a still-unbeaten record high, and water had to be rationed. This backdrop allows Cannon to look at emotions and personalities pushed to their relative limit. It also ensures that for the sections relating to that year, the neighbours spend a lot of time together by virtue of being outside.

The neighbours are insulated by their unchanged residence; whether by personality or through time (it’s mostly personality but the author covers both bases) these people are very set in their ways; as the then Conservative leader and later Prime Minister is known for saying, they are “not for changing”. There are some rather unfavourable characters here. To name but a few: Harold – a man full of hate who has convinced his wife that she forgets, making her create lists of tasks for the day; Sheila, who heartedly joins in on verbal attacks and is generally unable to see beyond her misconceptions; Grace’s parents who don’t take responsibility for what they’ve done and thus enable bullies to pursue others.

The person they hate, because ‘dislike’ is not a strong enough word, is a man who keeps to himself. You don’t find out if social circumstances were ever different, but the neighbours have turned their backs on Walter completely. In interviews, Cannon has said she wrote the book to shine a light on the situation of people on the edge of society and it is through Walter that she accomplishes this. Walter has supposedly stolen a baby in his time and everyone was secretly happy when his house went up in smoke – from the first, Cannon shows the reader how it’s more likely that Walter is misunderstood… not that anyone on the avenue would care that they got it wrong. The author doesn’t answer the question of the stolen baby until the end – it’s one of the whodunnit elements of the book – but what she says before that is enough for you to conclude that if Walter did steal the baby, it likely wasn’t malicious. Walter may have a learning disability and/or social anxiety – the what, if any, isn’t important, it’s the idea of difference that Cannon focuses on. The neighbours don’t like difference. Intolerance, arrogance, and as it happens, racism, is best in their books. Cannon tends to lace this with clever comebacks:

‘How exactly should they have prepared themselves?’
‘Got used to our customs.’ Harold pulled at his shoelace. ‘Learned a bit of our language, you know.’
‘I’m fairly sure they speak English, Harold.’
‘Well if they do, it’s only thanks to the Raj. You can’t just go marching into somebody else’s country and expect them to follow your rules, you know.’
‘India?’ said Dorothy.
‘No, Britain.’

As this is a character-driven novel, you spend a lot of time with these people – the entire time, in fact – but Cannon makes it worth your while. Aside from providing a reprieve in the form of Grace, who is a caring soul, the author takes time to de-construct how the neighbours’ personalities and biases can lead them to take action when most people would simply shrug and move on.

In terms of the whodunnit elements, the book sports rough pointers as to who might have caused the house fire that killed Walter’s mother, which is revealed at the end. (Have I said how awful these people are?) The mystery isn’t at the forefront and in fact the revelation, which is a bit murky and requires some thought, isn’t much of one – it does answer the question, but it’s only slight in terms of impact.

The ending itself, which returns to the mystery of Mrs Creasy, like the answer to the fire isn’t particularly interesting – Mrs Creasy’s non-presence is more akin to Du Maurier’s Rebecca – an off-stage character, no lines, yet nevertheless managing to make a sizeable impact.

In case all the nastiness is wearing on you, Cannon offers moments of humour. Seen most prominently near the beginning in order that you start the book knowing the deal straight out, there is a chapter that is almost entirely dedicated to making you laugh.

The hall filled with people. It was far more crowded than the church had been, and pairs of jeans mixed with Sunday best. It appeared that Jesus pulled a much bigger crowd if He provided garibaldis.

[…]

No one mentioned Jesus.
In fact, I didn’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked into the room, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Arctic roll.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep has a lot going for it. The detailing is excellent, the characterisation and dialogue spot on; many aspects of it are objectively very good, the subjective aspect falls firmly in the personalities. It’s altogether a well conceived and well-executed book, you just have to pick the right moment to read it.

I received this book for review.

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Helen Irene Young – The May Queen

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Women and war.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 214
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-99706-1
First Published: 25th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

May lives in the Cotswolds with her family, but one day Sophie leaves and life changes; May can’t shake the feeling that the boy she likes, Christopher, is the reason for Sophie’s disappearance. Deciding to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, life in London results in new friends and new tragedies, but also the potential for marriage – it’s just that May can’t quite see herself married to John while thoughts of Christopher linger in the background.

There is a lot to like about this book. Looking at World War Two from the point of view of a female member of the military, Young’s research is evident and there’s much here that isn’t often discussed in fiction at the moment. You’ll take away a few things you’ve learned but it never feels as though you’re being told too much.

The story itself is good, too. Besides the tragedies, which in view of the page count do happen quite often (besides the fatalities of war), Young presents a great little study of home life. May’s relationship with her mother is fraught by criticism and what seems to be a lack of love from mother to daughter, yet at other times Ma gives much; the effect is such that Young provides you enough to really ask yourself what is going on – it’s up to you to decide the dynamics of the relationship.

Besides this, there’s a good balance of other domestic and social points – runaway sisters and illicit affairs looked at alongside the every-day of war, basement parties, being out and about when sirens could sound at any minute.

Unfortunately there is a lack of detailing in the book. The May Queen does not have any filler sections but the writing is disjointed. The book reads as an extensive plan for a novel, so you’ll have a fair sense of what’s going on but because the scenes aren’t fleshed out enough there can be confusion. The writing is bare in the same way as the detailing.

Where do the characters stand in this? Some are mostly developed, others less so. The book shines best during the second section, set in London, where the story moves with the new location, separating May from her family and allowing you to get to know her better.

This is a good look at the Wrens and the way people lived through war, just a sparse look. It will appeal most to those wanting to read about women’s roles in the war and the way life continued throughout.

I received this book for review.

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