Sunday 31 August 2014

Book Review: Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

With her first book, Love,Nina, a collection of letters written to her sister while working as a nanny in 1980s London, Nina Stibbe quickly established herself as a fresh new voice with a talent for comedy, but also for suggesting hidden depths behind the laughter. 

Now Stibbe has written her first novel, Man at the Helm, and her same quirky take on life shines through. Set in the 1970s, and providing another trip down memory lane for those of us who remember that decade rather too well, it's narrated by nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, whose world is torn asunder by her parents' separation. Not that she realises this immediately, until she and her older sister and little brother Jack move with their mother from their comfortable city home, to what seems to Lizzie to be a very remote Leicestershire village.

To make matters worse, the village is not exactly a welcoming place for the family of an attractive divorcée:
Though the new house was nice and the fieldy vistas enthralling, we soon began to notice that hardly anyone in the village liked us. It was plain to see. People looked at us but no one smiled or stroked Debbie, our nice-looking Labrador. And we looked away and that probably made us seem furtive, but then again not looking away would have made us seem mad. And though I felt sure they'd warm up given time, my sister said they never would (like us, or stroke Debbie) until we had a man at the helm.
As their mother resorts to drinking and taking pills, Little Jack’s stammer is getting worse and their lives are rapidly descending into chaos. Afraid, above anything else, of being taken into care, Lizzie and her sister swing into action and draw up a ‘Man List’ of potential candidates for their mother:
We decided we'd contact, by letter, the suitable men in the area and invite them to have a drink with her and hope that it would lead to sexual intercourse and possibly marriage.  
The men under consideration are a mixed bunch, none without significant flaws, although whether they're already married is unimportant, because 'all's fair in love and war'. Writing letters, supposedly from their mother, on peach-blossom writing paper, the girls set about bringing her together with the least unsuitable; the sex part often ensues quite rapidly, but there are always unintended consequences.

Woven through the comedy is the shocking finality of divorce; Lizzie's mother might be better off without most of the men she becomes entangled with, but single parenthood isn't an acceptable option in a Midlands' village in the 1970s:
It wasn't that having a man was good, but that not having one was bad.
Their father becomes an increasingly remote figure: rarely seen, difficult to be alone with and increasingly absorbed in his new family.

Lizzie is a funny and charming narrator; striving, as a child does, to understand the world around her and make the best of events beyond her control. She's optimistic and resilient, filling the void created by the loss of Mrs Lunt, the home help, by taking on the laundry and attempting a variety of meals from her My Learn To Cook Book. Lizzie remains loyally supportive of her mother's inadequacies, acting out snippets of the bitterly autobiographical plays she spends her days writing and even proving unresentful when her mother tricks her into a fashionable but highly unsuitable hairstyle:
I looked very different, startlingly so, and ultra-stylish with the feather cut. But I was ten and lived in a small village and stylishness didn't get me anywhere. 
Man at the Helm is a hilarious, often poignant reminder of how different our lives were back then, with their reliance on the lost art of letter writing. We used to have coalmen; one is even added to the Man List, although Lizzie's mother took against him for peeing in their flowerbed. Decimalization was a recent imposition and London Zoo's acquisition of Chi Chi the giant panda was big news. And I can still clearly remember the day my old flannel sheets and eiderdown were replaced by a continental quilt - an exotic arrival of such significance that I began to remember other childhood events as 'before' or 'after' it happened.

Lizzie's mother is undomesticated and inadequate in so many ways, yet it seems she may still come through. For Lizzie life moves on; the world is bigger than one small-minded village and it's often possible to reinvent yourself. Man at the Helm is another warm and cheering read and a worthy successor to Love, Nina. Nina Stibbe, woman of letters, has done it again; creating a novel which can have you crying with laughter, yet still pondering the deeper significance beyond.

Thank you to Penguin for my review copy. Man at the Helm was published in the UK on 28th August 2014 and is available here

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Book Review: See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg

If perfect characters are boring, then Tore Renberg's latest novel, his first to be translated into English, promises to be very interesting indeed. Lifting the lid of respectability on Stavanger, oil capital of Norway, to reveal the seething detritus beneath, See You Tomorrow brings together a collection of flawed individuals in a fast-moving sequence of events, which will push them towards acts of ever-increasing desperation.

Welcome to Hell, where everybody has their own circle. Fifteen-year-old good girl Sandra is in love with handsome but dangerous Daniel William Moi, and has a fight on her hands if she's to keep him. Single father Pål is struggling to bring up his two daughters, Malene and Tiril, on his modest civil servant's salary, hiding his addiction which is spiralling into debt. Out of better options, he turns to a gang of small-time criminals he knew in his school-days; Jan Inge, Rudi and Cecilie, each one inhabiting the long, dark shadows created by their own past.

See You Tomorrow takes place over three claustrophobically intense September days of unusually late sunshine, holding the winter at bay. Stories are interwoven, with each chapter told from a different character's perspective. Sandra brings with her all the longing and insecurities of a teenager's first love; she knows who she wants, but it's messing with her head:
All she's got is heat and dread, haste and apprehension. All she feels is this drizzle within, like a strange rain falling inside her, wonderful and dangerous.
She'd love to know what Daniel really thinks of her. If only she could read his thoughts:
Wow, she's slightly knock-kneed. He hadn't noticed. She runs like that and all, knees banging together, one hands under her tits, her head sort of dancing from side to side, her other hand swinging out as though it had a mind of its own, alive, free from the rest of her. Christ she looks gorgeous, looks super sexy running along. 
Daniel and Sandra meet in the woods at night, where Pål is asking Rudi for help. A one-man stream of sex-devoted consciousness, Rudi has been totally in love with poor, damaged Cecilie for the last twenty-seven years. There's no doubt Cecilie loves Rudi too, most of the time, but she's worn out by the seediness of their life, all the petty break-ins on speed. She habitually cries from just one eye and carries her own secret; she's expecting a baby but doesn't know who is the father.

Cecilie shares her childhood home with Rudi and her brother and gang leader, Jan Inge. Obsessed with horror movies and having previously pimped his own sister for sex, Jan Inge may just be the most broken one of all. He's overweight and afraid of loneliness, yet considers himself big-hearted, living by his own warped and hilarious code of morality:
'...let me make it quite clear that we're anti-porn. We're feminists twenty-four hours a day. At your service, women!'
The fourth gang member is Korean hard-man Tong, who will be released from Åna prison just in time to take part in their next job. Unsurprisingly, the gang's solution to Pål's problems, a classic in their book, is one that Pål himself is far from comfortable with. As Malene and Tiril, preoccupied with their new friend Sandra's predicament, become aware that something is going badly wrong for their father, they may already be too late to prevent more than one life from unravelling.

See You Tomorrow is a gripping, fast-paced read in the tradition of Nordic noir. The twists and turns of the plot have you in its thrall; its shocks are not for the squeamish. The atmosphere, layered with music, is reminiscent of an Ian Rankin Rebus novel, albeit from a different source; there's Metallica and Motörhead, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, along with Evanescence for the younger generation.

Tore Renberg is already an author of repute in Norway, having published several successful books which have been made into films. He's also a charismatic speaker and, if you get the chance to see him in person, I'd urge you to do so. His work has been translated into nineteen languages and the sequel to See You Tomorrow, featuring the same characters, will also be published in English by Arcadia.

What transforms See You Tomorrow from a straightforward crime thriller into such a genre-defying accomplishment is Renberg's sense of humour, coupled with an unusual structure and powerful detail which lets the reader right into his characters' heads. You sympathise with them no matter how self-inflicted their dilemmas or despicable their actions; even a lowlife like Rudi, who in reality you'd cross the street to avoid, becomes strangely endearing in his one-note obsessiveness and furtive love of Coldplay. Only with Tong, the inscrutable Korean tough guy, was I really unable to feel any connection (but then he is supposed to be inscrutable).

Most unexpectedly of all, See You Tomorrow proves ultimately to be an uplifting read; in the shafts of light between the darkness, there's a whole lot of love going round. Life more or less damages us all and, no matter how broken, everyone in this story is in some odd way celebrating their time on earth. And that, in itself, is perfection.

See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg (translated by Sean Kinsella) is published by Arcadia Books in the UK and available in hardback. Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Book Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

When talking about her novel Honour at the 2013 Bath Literature Festival, Elif Shafak agreed with an audience member that it's still difficult for a young woman in Turkey to break away from the traditional wife and mother role. 'But don’t forget the young men,' she said. 'It’s hard for them, too. Often they don’t know what’s expected any more.'

Honour opens in London in 1992 with the voice of Esma, a Turkish-born London-bred Kurd, about to meet her brother on his release from Shrewsbury prison:
My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten, but I could never find the time or the will or the courage to write about it. That is, until recently. I don't think I'll ever become a real writer and that's quite all right now. I've reached an age at which I'm more at peace with my limitations and failures. But I had to tell the story, even if only to one person. I had to send it into some corner of the universe, where it could float freely away from us. I owed it to Mum, this freedom. And I had to finish it this year. Before he was released from prison. 
The story moves back in time to a remote village near the River Euphrates in 1945, where Esma's mother Pembe and her twin sister Jamila are born. In a family with six daughters already and no sons, they're not exactly welcome. From an early age, they're taught that modesty is a woman's constant shield; men may have honour but women only have shame.
It was all because women were made of the lightest cambric...where men were cut of thick, dark fabric. That is how God had tailored the two: one superior to the other. As to why He had done that, it wasn't up to human beings to question. What mattered was that the colour black didn't show stains, unlike the colour white, which revealed even the tiniest speck of dirt. By the same token, women who were sullied would be instantly noticed and separated from the rest, like husks removed from grains. 
The girls grow up, identical but with contrasting personalities; Pembe spirited and adventurous, Jamila quieter and home-loving. Yet it's Pembe who marries Adem and has three children, Iskender, Esma and Yunus, fulfilling her wish to travel by moving with her family to Istanbul then London and leaving her unwed twin behind.

With Adem increasingly plagued by his own demons, tradition dictates that Iskender, young and uncertain behind his bullying veneer, must become head of the household. Determined to protect his family's honour by applying a different set of standards to his mother and sister than to his western girlfriend, he makes a series of decisions which will ultimately end in tragedy.

Not only are there time-shifts within Honour but also multiple viewpoints; from early in the narrative Iskender writes in prison as the days move closer to his release. Back in 1970s London, Pembe must adapt to a world with different values, while her children forge their own identities. Like so many parents before her, she wonders at their differences;
While Iskender craved to control the world, and Esma to change it for once and for all, Yunus wanted to comprehend it.
In a parallel story, Jamila, revered as the 'Virgin Midwife', lives out her days on the fringes of Kurdish society, riven by dreams and premonitions. It's through Esma that Shafak draws all the threads together, darting back and forth between the decades, circling ever closer until she reveals the ultimate, heart-wrenching sequence of events.

Honour exposes the conflict between traditional beliefs which have remained unchanged for centuries and the greater freedoms of a multicultural society. From the very first, this novel's twisted secrets and intrigues draw the reader in and, although the fragmented and frequent changes of time-frame have the potential to confuse, Shafak creates all her characters with such compassion that the motives of each one, however flawed, can be understood. As she reveals the complexities behind the family turmoil that leads to shock headlines of 'honour killing', her words at the literature festival, that it's hard for men too, still resonate.

Shafak's prose has a haunting, lyrical quality; a fusion of magical realism and storytelling on an epic scale. Writing in both English and and her native Turkish, she's an extremely popular author in Turkey and now more widely receiving the recognition she richly deserves; Honour was longlisted for both the Asian Man Booker Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013.

Shafak dedicates Honour to ' those who hear, those who see' and makes it a little easier for us all to do so.

Honour is published in the UK by Penguin and available here. Thanks to my lovely daughter Livvy for giving me this book.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Theatre Review: Bad Jews at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

A play set in the aftermath of a funeral promises heightened emotions, family discord and most likely a disputed inheritance. When the deceased is a Holocaust survivor and three of the four characters are his grandchildren, you can add the provocative potential of lacerating, darkly comic argument to the mix.

Bad Jews begins quietly enough in the Manhattan apartment that Jonah and his brother Liam’s parents have bought for them, a tiny but well-equipped studio with a view of the Hudson from its bathroom window. Jonah (Joe Coen) is sleeping on the sofa bed and cousin Daphna has a mattress; returned from seeing their beloved grandfather Poppy laid to rest, they discuss the events of the day. Foremost in Daphna’s mind is what should happen to the one item of religious significance that Poppy has left, a memento which, as the only grandchild still upholding traditional Jewish beliefs, she believes she should rightfully inherit.
It’s when Liam arrives with his latest girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow, having missed the funeral because he lost his cell phone while skiing in Aspen, that the atmosphere becomes instantly charged. Accusations fly back and forth as Daphna and Liam revive their deep-seated enmity with diametrically opposed views about the nature of Jewish faith and identity and its place in present day America. Picking at each other’s weaknesses with echoes of the same words, the fiercely intelligent Daphna lashes out at Liam’s lack of respect for centuries of tradition while he responds by accusing her of holding ideas of racial purity more akin to the Nazis. Above all, Liam has reasons of his own for believing Poppy’s most precious inheritance is his and that he alone should be able to decide its future.
The cast is superb and Jenna Augen and Ilan Goodman in particular portray the friction between Daphna and Liam, two sides of the same spirited coin, with great conviction. The tension is palpable and, after a slightly hesitant beginning, under Michael Longhurst’s assured direction highs and lows are well-paced. Furious argument is relieved by moments of tenderness as the cousins recall a disastrous family celebration at a Japanese restaurant and pure comedy as Melody, the conciliatory non-Jewish girl from Delaware who doesn’t even know her own origins, is persuaded to demonstrate her operatic skills. The set design, a central living area allowing escape or banishment to the bathroom and angry asides in the hallway, cleverly adds to the overall dynamism of this production.
Joshua Harmon’s provocatively-titled Bad Jews was first seen in New York in 2012 and his writing delivers strong characters whose words and ideas, although unflinching, today seem more urgently relevant than ever. As the arguments circle with little chance of resolution by the next generation, by the end we’re forced to confront what has so far been overlooked.
We've become used to expecting great things of the Ustinov and their latest UK premiere of an new American play is no exception; it’s a funny and intense, savagely satisfying and ultimately moving experience to uncover the power of silence amidst the onslaught of words.
Runs until 30th August 2014, more information and tickets are available here. My original review can be found here

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Bookishness: Exposing the 'To Be Read' Pile

I shared this photo of my To Be Read (TBR) pile with some bookish friends on Twitter the other day and found it an unexpectedly cathartic experience. Despite attempts at self-control and the counselling of my family, I can't help but add to this wall of books at every opportunity. An unexpected siege might prevent me from leaving home, connecting to the WiFi or receiving post for a couple of years, but at least I'll know I'm not going to run out of reading material.

Looking at the variety of Twitter TBRs we were sharing, some smaller but others even larger than mine, I was suffused with delirium at the thought of no longer being alone in my obsession. Here was proof of others just as afflicted as me! Equally fascinating was the chance to check out their books, see what authors we had in common and yes - shame upon shame - find new inspiration.

I discovered some of my fellow addicts have neat shelves, others are more 'organic'. Some even have a system, dividing TBR books into genres; quite a crafty move this, dotting lots of small piles around the place to give an overall impression of order. Perhaps something to think about as my generic sprawl begins to spawn sub-piles (including some intended rereads) like this:

I wonder how much of the attraction is the physical book itself - the cover, the typography, the feel and smell - as well as its content? Writing for Oprah's website, Zadie Smith discusses what it means to be addicted to reading and why this is not so much a positive choice as an immutable part of your being. Even though she now owns a Kindle she recounts how, going to a friend's house for dinner, she still takes several books with her...for what? 

I suspect most bibliomaniacs can relate to this. When my car broke down recently, I was less annoyed about being late for lunch and more irate that this was one of the few times I'd convinced myself to leave home without a book. I'd squandered the perfect reading opportunity of an hour waiting for the RAC  - a mistake I've vowed never to repeat. From now on, I'm not even going as far as my local bookshop without a large, sturdy bag stuffed from one of my sub-piles - just in case.

Do you have a TBR pile? How does it compare?

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Think of forgetting so much that you might not even recognise your own daughter and you'll begin to identify with the bewildering world of Maud, the elderly narrator of Emma Healey's first novel Elizabeth is Missing. Simple things like setting the table (which way round do the knife and fork go?) or boiling an egg (leaving the gas on) become fraught with difficulty, memories slither away and words are as elusive as teenagers at sunrise. Jars become 'glass things, those things for drinking and jam' and a cardigan 'the sleeved thing, the buttoned and sleeved thing I've been trying to fold'. It seems she may be the most unreliable narrator of them all.

But Maud writes things down and, no matter how much her daughter says otherwise, her pocket full of notes is telling her that her friend Elizabeth is missing.
Helen sighs again. She's been doing a lot of that lately. She won't listen, won't take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she's thinking, that I've lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don't remember having seen her recently. But it's not true. I forget things - I know that - but I'm not mad. Not yet. And I'm sick of being treated as if I am. I'm tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused and I'm bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. 
Maud feels the frustration of not being believed any more, the invisibility of the old. She's shocked when she catches sight of her reflection, caged by the mental and physical limitations of age and enraged by the condescension of strangers. But puzzling over the whereabouts of Elizabeth reawakens memories of the past when, still living at home with her parents, she was enthralled by the style and sophistication of her older sister Sukey. Married to Frank, a furniture dealer with black-market connections and a lively temper:
Sukey often complained about the 'junk' that Frank brought home. Paintings of boats all done in brownish paint and ugly plates teeming with insects. This time it was a glass dome the size of a coal bucket full of stuffed birds. I got up, pressing a hand to the fiery side of my face, and peered in.The birds were brightly coloured, green and yellow and blue. Some had their wings spread out; some had beaks poking into flowers; others, as I moved round, pointed straight at me. Their glassy eyes seemed not to fit quite in their sockets and their feathers had a dullness to them which made me think they'd been dyed. I couldn't look away.
One tea-time, Sukey appeared at the family home and suggested she might stay the night, before changing her mind and disappearing without a trace. As Maud determines to investigate what has happened to Elizabeth, she also begins to unravel the mystery surrounding Sukey which has tramelled so much of her life.

Retelling the seventy-year-old story frees Maud from the confusion of the present and Healey is equally adept at capturing the detail of a young schoolgirl's life in a post-war Britain pre-occupied with rationing and food coupons. There's the lodger with his gramophone and the mad lady who lives on the streets and connections threading between past and present; Maud unearths the compact Sukey used to own and knows there's some significance to planting marrows. Just in case a novel full of Maud's present might be too difficult to decipher, the interweaving of an earlier era adds a welcome balance to the mix.

In her remarkable protagonist, Emma Healey has created an unforgettable voice, with a deftness of touch quite startling in a debut novelist. Maud is at once both extraordinary and yet quite ordinary, the face of all our elderly parents and grand-parents with a lifetime of experience and a need to still engage with society. While understanding the exasperation of her carers, we empathise as Maud attempts to retain the shreds of her independence in a world becoming ever more alien and applaud her determination to uncover the truth, no matter how many times she's told she's wrong.

Elizabeth is Missing has already brought considerable success to its author, the subject of a bidding war between publishers, with TV rights sold and a place on the longlist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize showcasing young writers. At the heart of Elizabeth is Missing is a conventional mystery being solved by unconventional means, but the novel is so much more than this; a mix of genres which is sad, wise and often funny, an unsettling glimpse of a future we just might not wish for ourselves.

Thanks to Viking/Penguin for my review copy.
Photos courtesy of The Guardian.