Wednesday 29 January 2014

Personal Picks: The Independent Bath Literature Festival 2014

The Independent Bath Literature Festival is always a shining beacon in the winter gloom round these south-westerly parts and this year it runs from Friday 28th February to Sunday 9th March. There's a new artistic director in the shape of writer and comedian Viv Groskop, and her inaugural theme is Bliss

The feeling you get as a child when you're presented with an unexpectedly large stick of candyfloss. Or as an adult when you realise they haven't called last orders just yet. Or when you're reading a great book and you realise the author is expressing something you've always known but never quite put into words.
I've never been a fan of candyfloss and all too often have to drive home from the pub, but that rare frisson of connection, when an author crystallises something you've always known into words, now that I can recognise as Bliss. It's that spontaneous bridge between the world of reader and writer and one of the most fundamentally rewarding reasons for picking up a book.

Viv is already bringing a real difference in the lead up to this year's festival with her active use of social media. She's promoting events on Twitter and Facebook and has established a book group on Goodreads to discuss this year's Big Bath Read, The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter.

This is a story of the parallel lives of an estranged mother and daughter caught up in very different circumstances and the truths they must both face up to. I've started reading it for the Big Bath Read on 6th March and have quickly become intrigued by the reasons for their estrangement and whether they'll be resolved.

In keeping with the headline theme of Bliss, there's a series of lectures from writers and thinkers on their passions, from Rowan Williams talking about Tolstoy to Patrick Barkham on badgers (a controversial subject round here). I like the sound of Val McDermid discussing Jane Austen, following her reworking of Northanger Abbey into a 'suspense-filled teen thriller'. Val and Jane must combine to make quite a formidable duo.

This year, as you might expect, there's a greater emphasis on comedy. Being averse to those aggressive, ranty comedians with misogynistic tendencies who still seem to dominate TV panel shows, I tend not to watch a lot of stand up. But hang on, there's a whole host of the more cuddly variety coming to Bath - from Jennifer Saunders and Viv herself to Count Arthur Strong and Gyles Brandreth. I particularly liked the look of Austentatious or the Great Big Comedy Night, but so did everyone else as they've already sold out. James Mullinger and his Bad Boy of Feminism slot caught my attention, but I'm a little scared he might be ranty, so I'm picking instead Bristolian Mark Watson who, wearing his author's hat, will be discussing his latest book The Knot on Friday 7th March.

There's a Thought Leaders strand out of which I have to pick Tim Harford , as a devotee of his Radio 4 statistics-busting show More or Less. I'm also intrigued by 'Tiger Mother' Amy Chua, but afraid of feeling like a totally inadequate parent (rather than my usual state of only partial inadequacy). Then there's news and current affairs - the Great Bath News Debate is in the Forum on Saturday 1 March and in Chinese Whispers with Ben Chu on the following Sunday you might find out why everything you heard about China is wrong.

My husband wants to see the Incredible Spice Men, I love Turner and also, having read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet am fascinated to learn about this ancient city and its culture. The more you delve into the brochure, the more there is to catch the eye; there are workshops, family activities, spoken word and free events too. As a Bath Festivals volunteer, I'm eagerly awaiting news of the stewards' rota and - most importantly - whether our sashes will be red or green or even replaced by a lanyard this year.

I'd love to hear what your top picks are too. And I have one final suggestion - how about an event featuring book bloggers and their influence? I could make myself free in 2015. Just a thought...

The 2014 Independent Bath Literature Festival runs from Friday 28th February to Sunday 9th March and tickets are available from the website or by calling Bath Box Office on 01225 463362.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

It was the table laid out with books in the English department at my daughter's Sixth Form evening that did for me. Questions about the 'A' level literature syllabus were thrust to one side as, like a locust before the grain, I feasted on the riches. There were set texts like Great Expectations and The Kite Runner and other novels suggested as broader reading for Years 12 and 13. Good luck with the Murakami, I muttered, grimacing at the monochrome cover of Norwegian Wood.

One of the teachers shot me a glance and agreed she'd struggled with him, but mentioned her colleague loved his books. 'A Marmite writer. But have you read this?' She picked up What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn.

A few days later, browsing in a charity shop, I spotted What Was Lost on the shelves. Surely the Fates have nothing more important to do than intervene in my reading choices? I took this as a sign and snapped it up.

What Was Lost is Catherine O'Flynn's debut book, published in 2007 and winner of the Costa First Novel award. It begins in 1984 with ten-year-old Kate Meaney absorbed in the world of her imagination, as a child detective with her own agency.

From the first, Kate springs off the page as we're drawn into her stake-out of the Midlands shopping centre Green Oaks; to the casual visitor it may seem that all's calm, but Kate knows differently. As she follows a strict schedule of surveillance accompanied by Mickey, her toy monkey, we learn more about the losses she's already endured and her troubles at home and school. Despite her solitary existence, Kate is bright, quirky and always industrious, also observing the shopkeepers in her immediate vicinity, including the increasingly desperate butcher:
...the fewer customers Mr Watkin had, the less meat he stocked...The previous week Kate had passed the window to see it contained only a single rabbit (and Kate was sure the only person alive who still ate rabbit was in fact Mr Watkin himself), some kidneys, a chicken, a side of pork and a string of sausages. This in itself was nothing too remarkable for Mr Watkin but what caused Kate to stop and stare was an apparent new marketing initiative by the butcher. Evidently he had become a little embarrassed by the minimalist nature of his window displays and so perhaps in order to make them seem less odd (and this is where Kate felt he'd really miscalculated) he had arranged the items in a jaunty tableau. Thus it appeared that the chicken was taking the rabbit for a walk by its lead of sausages, over a hillock of pork under a dark red kidney sun. 
Just when it seems Kate might be on to something with her detective work, O'Flynn transports us to 2003 and a new chorus of voices associated with Green Oaks. This cast of isolated characters includes Lisa, who has a dead-end job at Your Music and a dead-end relationship and Kurt, the centre's introspective security guard. They exist in a sort of half-life, where the sense of something missing is augmented by disconnected notes at the end of the 'Voices in the Static' chapters; from an anonymous male with a video obsession and an increasingly unhinged mystery shopper. Skilfully, O'Flynn weaves all their stories together, to resolve the central question of what has happened to Kate.

This is a novel which gets hold of your heart strings early on and never lets them go. Kate's voice is completely engaging and her childhood so identifiable, that I was initially disappointed when the story switched to a new set of adult characters. But I quickly found myself absorbed all over again, by the world of modern day security guards and shop workers; these, surely, are the people Dickens might be writing about if he were around today.

Beautifully observed absence and regret is threaded through What Was Lost; it's haunted and haunting but also funny, fresh and emphatically relevant to contemporary society. There are echoes of Ali Smith's writing here and O'Flynn is a talent to be reckoned with. I need to warn my daughter's Sixth Form English department; I'll be back for more recommendations.

What was Lost is published by Tindal Street Press. Pictures courtesy of  The Guardian.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Lucky Child by Loung Ung

Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father was testimony to an unimaginably harrowing childhood, lived under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, when an estimated two million Cambodians (a quarter of the country's population) were killed by this brutal regime.

Loung was one of the survivors and in her sequel Lucky Child describes the next chapter of her life, as she leaves her refugee camp in Thailand with eldest brother Meng and his wife Eang, destined for a fresh start in America.

This book has a different tone and less immediate impact than the first, but ten-year-old Loung's new life brings more challenges, as she acclimatises to being a stranger in a strange land. Meng and Eang have been sponsored to come to Vermont, but are only able to bring one child with them. This means leaving Loung's two other brothers, Kim and Khouy, and surviving sister, Chou, behind in Cambodia. Chou is only two years older than Loung and the sisters have always been close, so their separation once more, after the trauma of life under the Khmer Rouge, is heartbreaking for them both.

Lucky Child alternates chapters between Loung's own story and her account of Chou's continued life in Cambodia, interpreted from Chou's own words in the years since they were reunited.

Meng, Loung and Eang in the Thai refugee camp
Loung new bedroom is next to a cemetery - not the ideal beginning for a child who has already seen too much of death. She has to cope with the plague of recurring nightmares, a stomach still distended through malnutrition, the stigma of food stamps and the problems associated with trying to fit in at school
At times, it all still seems so strange. One year ago, I was afraid of being killed by soldiers, now my big fear is that the teachers will call on me to answer a question. When I do get called on, my mind swirls and jumbles up all the grammar rules in my head. Then slowly I have to work my thoughts into a sentence and force my tongue and mouth to speak it.
Kim and Chou
Chou, by contrast, is living with her uncle and aunt in a village still regularly raided by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. The land is full of mines and she fears for the safety of her brothers as well as missing her sister. Chou longs to go to school herself but has many domestic duties to perform, which keep her away from an education
Since the school opened three years ago, Chou has dreamed of attending. But eight months before, Aunt Keang gave birth to her seventh healthy child, a baby boy she named Nam. Though the family rejoiced, Chou was not smiling very widely that day because she knew there was yet another baby she'd have to take care of.
The cultural gulf between the day-to-day existence of Loung and Chou is one of the great fascinations of this book; they could so easily have been in each other's places. Although there's a huge contrast in the trajectory of their lives, they both experience joy and despair, the repercussions of what was lost and a void that won't be filled until they can be reunited. If like me, you came to care deeply about Loung and her family through First They Killed My Father, this sequel picks up where it left off; a still riveting triumph of determination and the human spirit against the greatest of odds.

Lucky Child is published by Harper Perennial. Pictures courtesy of Harper Perennial and Loung Ung.

Sunday 5 January 2014

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

Until recently, the only Elizabeth Taylor I'd heard of was the film star with multiple husbands, and therein lies the problem for the overshadowed writer of the same name, according to Sarah Waters in her introduction to A View of the Harbour.

Yet Elizabeth Taylor, the writer, published twelve novels and several collections of short stories from 1945 right into the 1970s and, although since neglected, is today finding recognition as one of the under-valued novelists of the twentieth century. I first became aware of her when her name began to crop up regularly in some of the book blogs I follow and settled on reading her third novel A View of the Harbour.

The story opens with Bertram, an out-of-season visitor to the coastal village of Newby, who thereby casts a fresh perspective on its jaded post-war harbour and inhabitants. Ostensibly, he's there to paint the views but takes much greater delight in insinuating himself into the everyday lives of residents like elegant divorcee Tory Foyle and infirm busybody Mrs Bracey. The viewpoint shifts to other protagonists, as we begin to discover the burgeoning relationship between Tory and Robert, the doctor who lives next door and happens to be the husband of Tory's best and oldest school-friend Beth. A writer immersed in her stories, Beth primarily views real life experiences as material for her books, which leaves her ignorant of what's going on under her nose, unlike her more observant daughter.

Superficially, there may not be all that much happening in this novel, but there's a great deal milling about just beneath the surface, in the little looks and sideways glances, the dynamics of relationships between families and so-called friends. At the beginning, so many characters are introduced in such a short space of time that I found myself confused, particularly as they're all too often peering out of an upstairs window onto the harbour below or going to, or thinking about going to, the pub.

Gradually, the characters take on more rounded, well-defined shapes and, as Taylor inks them in with a wryly expert hand, many develop an inner dialogue at odds to their actions. Mrs Bracey may appear a coarse and demanding invalid with little sympathy for the drudgery she's inflicting on her daughters, but turns out, in struggling with her own mortality, to be a surprisingly complex and intelligent interpreter of the motives of others. And there's a feeling that Taylor is having fun with some of her minor characters, such as Tory's son Teddy and his delightful notes home from boarding school, or the never-named librarian
an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate, erratic campaign against slack morals. His censorship was quite personal. Some books he could not read and they remained on the shelves in original bindings and without the necessary stigma 'For Adults Only'. Roderick Random stood thus neglected, and Tristram Shandy, vaguely supposed to be children's books. Jane Eyre, bound and rebound, full of loose leaves, black with grease, fish-smelling, was stamped back and front. Madame Bovary had fallen to pieces.
I loved the readers '...bewildered, misled...' searching for the pornography in Jane Eyre and the librarian's fixed standards where
Murder he allowed but not fornication. Childbirth (especially if the character died of it) but not pregnancy. Love might be supposed to be consummated as long as no one had any pleasure out of it.
Interwoven with Taylor's humour there's a pervading theme of loneliness in this book. Losses sustained in the Second World War are still raw; widowed Lily Wilson now lives with only a ghoulish collection of waxworks of serial killers for company, a seasonal attraction which she opens to visitors in the summer but has to endure every evening as she returns from her lonely bar-side vigil. She of all residents is most flattered by Bertram's attention and let down by his butterfly ways.

Although we never find out the location of Newby (but it's close enough to London for day trips) there's a great sense of place in this novel and of a livelihood slipping away, eclipsed by the new town just around the headland.

As first, I didn't think I was going to enjoy the claustrophobic, small-town atmosphere of this book, with its considerable cast of characters watching and being watched, gossiping and making do. But as I got to grips with their individual personalities, I started to empathise with their dilemmas and revel in the fine writing. Elizabeth Taylor creates nuanced, often humorous, characters but is not afraid to strip them bare and expose their souls. On the basis of A View of the Harbour, she deserves her renewed recognition.

Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour with an introduction by Sarah Waters is published by Virago Press and is currently available from The Book People  for £4.99 as part of a three book set.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy 2014 to everybody and special thanks to my lovely friends and family for this splendorous new pile of reading material.

I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing them all very soon, although I'm already imagining that The Wretched (Les Miserables) could take some time...

I'm also excited about more theatre watching and reviewing in 2014. So far I have Donmar Warehouse's Coriolanus (via satellite) and Bristol Old Vic's Jane Eyre in the diary but there will be more, hopefully much more. I plan to continue working my way through my Shakespeare bucket list as well as seeing more literary adaptations and new theatre in the South West and beyond.

Wishing you all a healthy, prosperous book-filled and theatre-going New Year!