Book Review

Review: This Family Of Things, by Alison Jameson (2017)

This Family Of Things was quite a surprise to me. In spite of the blurb implying that lives would change forever, I still underestimated intensity of the emotional rollercoasters (yes, that is meant to be plural) that Alison Jameson would take us on in this, her fourth novel.

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Let’s start at the beginning: The Prologue. What a fantastic opening! It draws you right in, watching a woman (no spoilers) arrive at a house in Oregon, U.S.A., and contemplate this moment in her life. I’ve heard that getting the opening of a novel right is often a difficult aspect of writing that for authors, but Jameson strikes exactly the right tone and balance, catching our attention without revealing too much.

The narrative shifts, in time and location, to a cold, November day in 2013, in the town of Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. By the time this day ends, the wheels have been set in motion for the relationships, attitudes, hopes, and ambitions of the central characters to change completely.

In the rural outskirts of Tullyvin, the Keegan family own a farm and surrounding fields. Passed down through generations, Bird, Olive and Margaret feel like they belong to this land and the surrounding landscape. They understand it, they feel ‘at home’ there. Their lives are in tune with the changes that nature’s seasons bring. This regularity, unchanging year after year, is a source of comfort to them, but now, as each feels their lives somehow slipping away from them, it also feels like a trap. As the novel opens, each of these siblings wonders in their own way if there might not be more to see and experience in the world than the peaceful seclusion of their family.

In the more urban centre of town resides Midge Connors, a young woman fast losing hope of a life that does not include violence or despair. She is the last of her siblings living at home, watching her parents tearing (quite literal) pieces out of each other day after day. After a particularly brutal confrontation with her father, Midge finds herself alone and injured in a cold, wet field.

A field, we discover, belonging to Bird Keegan, who finds her there in her confused state, and takes her back to the safety of the farm.

The collision of these two worlds – the Keegans’ and Midge’s – is the catalyst for the lives of these characters being taken in new, unexpected directions. It’s as though an electric shock runs through each of them, giving them the motivation and confidence to take action.

By the stage at which we are returned to 2016 in Oregon, a lot has happened. These characters experience love and loss; tenderness and violence; poverty, illness, romance. They encounter fear and hope; the comforts of home and the excitement of travel. Yet Jameson masterfully structures the narrative and portrays the characters in a way that grounds these events so much in real, human emotion that it never, in my opinion, feels melodramatic. It could easily have felt chaotic and over-saturated, but it didn’t.

The pace is rather slow initially, but I think this is necessary to really get readers involved with these characters. When I’m reading, I want to understand characters, to be given reasons to stay with them on their journeys in the story, and Jameson does that in the opening chapters of This Family of Things. This initial calm pace also reflects the regularity of the Keegans’ lives, which then provides a fantastic contrast to the upheavals that occur later.

The rural Irish landscape surrounding the Keegan’s farm is a beautifully imposing and particularly memorable feature of the narrative. The simultaneous brutality and peaceful seclusion it conveys makes it part of the stories being told, reflecting and influencing the lives of the characters. I also adored the humour running through the novel: it lightened the tone at important moments, but I also recognised it from some of my own Irish relatives.

Though there are moments in this novel that are incredibly dark and brutal, there’s always a sense of hope in every character that they will find happiness, freedom, or simply peace with the way they have chosen to live their lives. I think that’s incredibly important, and one of my favourite aspects of Jameson’s narrative here: that no matter how many knocks these characters take, they somehow find the strength to move forward.

Full of joy and heartbreak in equal measure, this is a wonderful novel that, I hope, will have you turning the pages with intrigue as I did.

Book Review, Text Post

Review: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (1969)

It feels strange calling this a review. Partly because Angelou is recounting her own experiences, but also because her way of telling those stories just swept me away along a rollercoaster of emotions. I guess it’s hard to review something that moves you so deeply. 


However, I will say that it is a must-read. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, and when I did, it was genuinely so hard to put down that I was nearly late for work a couple of times.

Angelou’s autobiography covers seven volumes; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings being the first installment. She recounts experiences from her early childhood – living with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas, developing relationships with her (separated) parents who lived in different parts of California, and her education.

Be warned: there are some truly harrowing memories narrated, things that should not happen to anyone, let alone a child. These experiences alone are moving for a reader, but the effect it evidently had on Angelou’s childhood, her interactions with others, her understanding of herself, I found to be heartbreaking.

There’s also something so powerful in ‘witnessing’ aspects of American society at that time through a child’s perspective. To show the realisation in young childhood that she will be treated differently because she’s a girl and because she’s black. It somehow makes the kind of injustices and violence experienced (even today) that much more infuriating because alongside those, Angelou recalls those universal aspects of growing up, like her dreams for the future and her understanding of her sexuality. It brings home how unjust it is that she was taught to limit her own ambitions because ‘society’ wouldn’t let her go to certain places or do certain things. There are many moments in this installment where I was so angered by how she and her family and friends were treated.

Throughout all that though, Angelou weaves in a very distinct humour, like a witty aside about a quirky aspect of her childhood behaviour or a funny event. This not only reflects that life is full of ‘significant’ moments, positive and negative, and they can be recalled with equal intensity, but it makes her ‘voice’ so vivid. It feels like she’s sitting next to you, telling you these things. 

My favourite aspect was definitely the final few chapters. To keep this as brief and spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say, Angelou’s determination is nothing short of inspiring. 

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is one of those books that people talk and talk about, and now I understand why. I’m only sorry that I haven’t read it sooner. 

It’s emotional, moving, empowering, and beautifully written, and I could not recommend it enough that you pick it up and read it.

Book Review, Text Post

Book Review: A God In Ruins, by Kate Atkinson (2015)

“A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood.”

I adore this quote from ‘A God In Ruins’. It’s so simple but it’s a beautiful and profound elucidation of life and meaning. Atkinson makes use here of the bird and flower imagery that runs through the entire characterisation of Teddy (Edward) Beresford Todd, our protagonist in this novel. I found it particularly affecting considering the pivotal moment of the narrative it relates to but it’s also a great example of Atkinson’s skill as a writer. She brings ideas like this to bear within her characters’ lives, making them human and relatable rather than simply ‘types’.

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Kate Atkinson’s writing -her wit, intelligent plot structures, and unique methods of characterisation – has been celebrated since her debut novel, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ (1995), won the Whitbread First Novel and Book of the Year award in the year of its publication. In 2013, she was awarded with the same accolade (now renamed the Costa Book Award) for ‘Life After Life’, in which we follow Ursula Beresford Todd through multiple versions of her life.

‘A God In Ruins’ is a ‘companion piece’ rather than a sequel to ‘Life After Life’ according to Atkinson. The primary focus is on Teddy’s role as a pilot in a Bomber Command unit during the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War. This aspect of Teddy’s life has a lasting affect on his attitude and experience in the aftermath of war. Certain sections of the narrative focus on characters close to Teddy and their perspective of his influence in their lives. I think it’s a really great way of disrupting the boundary between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, between a person’s understanding of themselves and how other people understand them.

Each ‘part’ or ‘chapter’ of the novel is dated, and so give insights into Teddy’s childhood, his life as a young pilot, in middle age, and in the final stages of his life. He is a son, a nephew, a friend; a husband, father and grandfather. The entire narrative is non-chronological – the parts are not ‘in order’ and within each ‘Part’, we seamlessly and continuously move from ‘present’ events, back several decades through thoughts and memories, or ‘forwards’ as the narrative presence (not a character in itself, but providing a unique tone and commentary throughout the novel) hints at future events.

The little ‘windows’ into the future are particularly good for maintaining intrigue: signposted by such phrases as ‘Teddy would have been surprised to learn that in twenty years…’, these brief time-hops make you want to read on in the hopes that all will be detailed further as the novel continues. Even if she does not expand on the events, this unusual structure gives the sense of the scope of influence that one person, Teddy, can have on the world in the form of other people. It shows that legacies take greater forms than inherited wealth and property: it is revealed in behaviours, words and actions.

This is one of the many ways in which Atkinson’s novel is a ‘page-turner’, because you’re constantly anticipating ‘where’ and ‘when’ you’ll be taken to next. I really enjoyed how Atkinson blends past, present and future times throughout the narrative, using Teddy as the central ‘thread’ connecting all the other characters together.

As the title suggests, one of the central themes is ‘Man’s Fall from Grace’. Teddy, a kind compassionate man throughout his life, has his morals and attitudes challenged repeatedly. As a pilot in the Bomber Command Unit, as a husband, father, grandfather, as a friend, and indeed simply as a human being, he is confronted with difficult choices whose consequences he is forced to live with. Even those with the best of intentions can cause pain to others. In war especially, be it face-to-face combat or dropping bombs on economic strongholds from the sky, the distinction between ‘good’and ‘bad’ is not absolute – at least not in terms of civilians and ‘foot soldiers’ (for want of a better term). In the aftermath of war, especially when Viola begins making pointed remarks about his morality, Teddy is forced to accept the fact that he was responsible for the loss of innocent life in the same way that the German air force was. In his role as husband and father, too, Teddy makes decisions that will haunt his future relationships and perspectives.

The fraught relationship between Teddy and his only child, Viola, is a highlight of mine: it is so unashamedly difficult, with neither father nor daughter able to fully communicate or appease the other. Seeing Teddy, one of five siblings and his mother’s favoured child, trying to form a meaningful relationship with his distant, prickly daughter is so interesting.There’s so much dark, almost gallows humour in their relationship:

“He imagined she wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d badgered him into his coffin.”

Such instances running through the novel energise it, and I think it makes Viola, a difficult, antagonistic presence in Teddy’s life (and in the lives of her own children) more relatable. There are certain events which shape her, influencing her attitude towards her father and to her own parenting methods, and at her core, she is incredibly lonely. There’s a sadness to her life that, while not making her wholly endearing, at least makes her more human.

Though the war effort is perhaps the most significant focus and thrust of the plot, well-researched and portrayed by Atkinson, she also explores the way in which society, and countries as a whole, change in a relatively short space of time on a grander scale. We see that through Teddy, a man who grows up between two world wars (becoming a pilot in the second), who approaches middle age in the 1950s and 1960s as Britain was attempting to recover culturally and economically; his daughter becomes involved in drugs culture, in political activism concerning the environment, gender equality and economic policy; he helps to raise his grandchildren in the 1980s and 1990s. He experiences electricity being installed in his childhood home and the rise of social media in the twenty-first century. It’s something that has been fascinating to me for a while – the vast changes that can occur over the course of a lifetime – so I really enjoyed seeing it here in ‘A God In Ruins’.

There’s a fantastic plot twist at the end of the novel. It’s a brilliant narrative sleight of hand that connects with the idea that is central to ‘Life After Life’: the impact of one person’s life and decisions on those around them, and the world as a whole. The twist really brings home the how fine the line that exists between fiction and reality can be; how ‘truth’ and ‘imagination’ are in many ways not mutually exclusive or opposite concepts.

I think the final words of the novel are great too. It wouldn’t really be considered a spoiler, but I’ll leave it to you, if you read ‘A God In Ruins’, to find out what they are. The line made me laugh more than it probably should have and I just think it’s a great way of bringing the reader ‘back’ to reality.

All in all, I would say this is a great read. It’s funny, it’s tense, it’s dramatic, and it has an emotional resonance that really grips you. Teddy is an exemplary protagonist: watching him grow from childhood until his final days as a 98 year old man, you understand his attitudes and behaviour, however frustrating he may seem at times. As a reader, you appreciate the difficult challenges and choices Atkinson confronts him with, and I felt that because I cared about him, it made me reflect on how I might act or think in similar situations. You care about each of the characters, even the antagonistic ones, because Atkinson makes them human rather than just character types. It’s fairly long, just over 500 pages, but it never felt like a slog to read. I was gripped from start to finish. It’s a great ‘companion piece’ to its predecessor, Life After Life, but Atkinson creates such a rich tapestry of characters and events in A God In Ruins that reading the first installment isn’t a necessity for following the plot of the second. I would really recommend this novel to those who like stories about war time experiences, because Atkinson has clearly done extensive research to make her portrayal of the bombing operations over Germany as accurate and sensitive as possible. In addition, though, it’s just a fantastically constructed plot dealing with love, family, morality, society, and traumas of many kinds and degrees.

Enjoy!

Book Review, Text Post

Book Review: Unsung Heroes, by Elizabeth Darrell

Rating: 3/5 stars

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I haven’t read any work by Elizabeth Darrell before, so I had no prior expectations for this novel. It was nice to approach a work with a completely unbiased or unprepared mind.

This is a ‘historical’ novel, focusing on the life and work of Helicopter Squadron 646 throughout one year in the early 1990’s. (I’ve put historical is single quotation marks there because, as a 90’s baby, I’ve always understood historical to mean anything set pre-1990’s, and I can’t quite resolve myself yet to this new development) We see how new recruits, Dave Ashmore and Maggie Spencer, adjust to life with the team: we follow them on rescue missions in mountains, training exercises in deserts, as well as personal tragedies and obstacles.

I thought the plot was good, mostly engaging with many cliff-hangers or points of tension throughout. Some of these moments were genuinely shocking and unexpected, and Darrell evidently showed skill in characterisation because I was quite moved by the situations they found themselves in. It was also incredibly interesting to find out more about these ‘invisible’ aspects of life in Helicopter Squadrons – the rescue missions, the training exercises, and so on. This was definitely something that is highlighted in the narrative – that the work of these people, highly dangerous and requiring skill, courage and quick-thinking, go largely unrecognised by the general public, partly because such work doesn’t seem as interesting to media outlets.

Giving us snapshot-style insights into each character’s life and their perspective on events in each chapter was a good technique – it certainly allowed me to properly engage with and understand characters, their motivations and their flaws. Randal Price, I think, is a compelling flawed hero. He has a short fuse, especially where his wife is concerned, but he also cares deeply about his children, about his team, and about the work he does. The fate allotted to him is heart-wrenching, and I was genuinely moved by his struggle.

Some aspects, though, were a bit distracting – the pace was off in some parts of the story, so reading was rather slow, while the ending felt rushed. The resolutions to certain character strands could have been tighter and more detailed – some rather big conflicts seemed to resolve themselves too quickly for my liking.

I also think I was meant to empathise with one character in particular more than I actually did. While it could be simply my personal character preferences, I just couldn’t help thinking that this character was someone readers were being actively encouraged to really care about – we were meant to identify with their struggle against the odds, take their side in disagreements with family and colleagues – whereas I found them to be selfish and rather too defensive. I couldn’t engage with this character at all.

Overall, though, it was good. Randal Price really is a wonderful flawed hero, and the story itself, revealing the thrills and dangers of flying professionally, allows for a lot of dramatic tension to be built up in some places. It’s definitely worth a read.

Book Review, Uncategorized

Book Review: The Birds & Other Stories, by Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne du Maurier has been my favourite author since I read Rebecca 4 years agoI think reading that novel is the way most people first encounter du Maurier’s writing, and it should be. Nothing can ever prepare you for the power and magic contained in that first sentence. Since then, I’ve read most of her novels, but only recently did I consider reading her short story collections.

I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had made a film adaptation of ‘The Birds’, along with Rebecca, the former in particular being a highly regarded psychological thriller. Considering how well known and praised Hitchcock film continues to be to this day, I must say I expected more from the original story, ‘The Birds’, and it wasn’t until I did some research afterwards that I learnt that Hitchcock had basically taken the title and the basic concept of du Maurier’s text and allowed the screenplay writer to create his own story around that. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – Hitchcock’s film is great, and really taps into some dark psychological concepts through this adaptation. But I definitely fell for the assumption that films stay faithful to the original story, which meant that my already high expectations of du Maurier’s storytelling were raised further.

That’s not to say that ‘The Birds’ isn’t a good story. Du Maurier very skillfully captures a real sense of the main character’s fear, isolation and, in the end, hopelessness when flocks of birds unexpectedly begin attacking the town in which he lives with his wife and children. She created in Nat Hocken a very real protagonist – by real, I mean that I read and understood the emotional integrity of his actions and reactions, which allowed me to engage with his plight (to the extent that I felt almost desperate for a means of escape to appear). Although not written in the first person, she attaches the reader so closely with Nat’s consciousness that the claustrophobia and entrapment he experiences seeps through the page. I certainly felt that I was sitting right there next to him, waiting for a government message of hope through the radio while the relentless sound of the birds seeking entry to the house continued.

I think du Maurier’s evocation of the threat posed by the birds primarily through oral imagery (focusing on the sounds of their wings beating as an example) was highly effective, and in fact works better than any overt visual description could. Although they pose a very violent, physical threat, du Maurier’s narrative also drives home the psychological terror of the situation. The sudden mobilization of the birds, large and small, into a group intent on attack, is left unexplained, highlighting the terrifying unpredictability and violence of the natural world, a fact that is easy to forget.

I won’t lie. I was expecting a more definite resolution to the story, but on the other hand, I can see the motivation behind ending the story where she does. Sometimes, allowing the reader’s imagination to take the reigns increases the tension, the terror and the fear. Whether this is achieved is based entirely on each individual’s immersion in the story.

Overall, a decent suspenseful narrative with a likable protagonist, but there is something missing or jarring that I can’t quite describe that left me feeling a bit let down once I’d finished reading. I can definitely see why Hitchcock was inspired by the basic concept, and also why he saw that there was scope to elaborate on it.

 

The other stories in this collection continue in the vein of wreaking psychological havoc:

  • Monte Verità, on the surface, is a story about what is assumed to be a female cult that kidnaps and imprisons young women in a monastery-style building high up on a remote, twin-peaked mountain. As the narrative continues, it soon becomes a story of freedom, of unrequited and unattainable love, and I suppose it could also be read as an exploration of what it means to be an an enlightened and liberated woman, and of understandings of femininity and masculinity (issues that were fiercely debated in du Maurier’s time, and continue to be so today). Much use is made of lunar imagery (being called to the mountain by the moon), and there is much focus on conceptions of female magic and mysticism. There is a rather strange, almost psychedelic sequence towards the end of the story, and some of the dialogue is frustratingly confusing (like someone talking in riddles). I thought that the pacing was strange, as though du Maurier was trying too hard to create suspense but the plot was too predictable for this to be achieved. Some of the descriptions, however, are truly stunning, and it is in these that the reader can truly appreciate du Maurier’s skill and creativity with language.
  • The Apple Tree I found to be a very humorous story, with a very pompous, self-important protagonist. One is never quite sure whether this man really is being haunted by his dead wife in the form of an unusually shaped apple tree or whether it purely his imagination, a result of some form of repressed guilt about the changes in his feelings and behaviour towards his wife (and vice versa) in the years before her death. It’s a very enjoyable story, albeit one with a rather predictable ending. As with Monte Verità, du Maurier explores the link between femininity and the natural world, and how men interact with or alter that dynamic.
  • The Little Photographer involves adultery, murder, and blackmail, all the result of one woman’s desire to satisfy her vanity and alleviate her boredom whilst on holiday in France. On the one hand, one may read the Marquise as independent, forthright and in control, not the stereotypical emotionally vulnerable, naive woman or well behaved wife. On the other hand, however, she is rather emotionally abusive, I felt, incredibly vain of her own beauty and position in society. I know not all characters can be sympathetic or likable but something about this character, or maybe the way the story was told, stopped me from properly engaging with it and enjoying it.
  • Kiss Me Again, Stranger – female empowerment reigns again in du Maurier’s story. We encounter the story through a narrator whose sudden infatuation with a cinema usherette leads him into an almost fatal encounter. I found the narrator’s lovesickness rather creepy, and wasn’t sure whether we were meant to find his metaphorical blindness/naivety endearing (I didn’t). The revelation at the end seemed a little clichéd but that may be the intervening decades separating my reading of the story and du Maurier’s writing of it. I’m guessing it would have been shocking to her contemporary readers.
  • The Old Man, although only 10 pages long, is my favourite story in this collection, purely for the skill in narrative deception on display here. I was speechless when I read the final paragraph. The narrator’s gossiping tendencies provide an effective humorous counterbalance to the dark, sinister portrayal of parent-child relations. I don’t trust myself not to reveal the ending so I’ll leave it here.

Running through all the stories are displays and evocations of psychological terror and manipulation, be it of characters or readers. All except ‘The Birds’ deal explicitly with the power dynamics in romantic relationships between men and women, and supply us with various imaginings of masculinity and femininity. Some stories are more well written and engaging than others, but as a group, the fit very well together.

Daphne du Maurier is still my favourite author, and I found many of the elements so intriguing and effective in Rebecca present here also. For me, her writing is more effective when she had to sustain a narrative for novels, bringing greater definition to her characters and imagery. Or maybe I just prefer novels to short stories in general.

Please feel free to leave a comment.