NEVERHOME by Laird Hunt


neverhomepicSet during the American civil war Neverhome tells the story of gallant Ash Thomson, a married farmer who joins the Union Army in search of adventure. What makes Ash’s story stand out from the thousands of young men who followed a similar path is the fact that Ash is a woman.

Referring to her husband, Ash reasons: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic,” Leaving him behind to tend their farm, Ash is driven to fight by the memory of her formidable mother and a wanderlust which taunts her like an itch that can’t be scratched.

Passing as a man isn’t too difficult for Ash given her fondness for arm-wrestling and facility with a firearm. She soon enlists and undergoes training.

On the way to battle Ash earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” by giving her coat away to an overexposed young lady who has suffered a wardrobe malfunction whilst cheering on the troops. This exploit is made into a ballad which follows Ash throughout her travails.

Over the course of the novel Ash experiences the horrors of soldiering first-hand and finds the possibility of switching between genders strategically useful. Her dual gender roles also give her more access to female perspectives and what their wartime experiences entails.

Along the way she encounters a heroic former agoraphobic, a professor of classics who is a reluctant colonel, a village where the soon to be dead bear witness to each others indiscretions in a public forum, and a widow who keeps an outdoor bed beneath the stars.

The story is told from Ash’s perspective so we have to take her word for truth in regards to the veracity of what transpires, although at times we are left to wonder whether our narrator is embroidering certain aspects of her tale.

As a result of experiencing the story through Ash’s eyes we are party to what may be hallucinations as war takes its inevitable toll on her psyche. A memorable moonlit bath with confederate soldiers ending with asphyxiation is one of the events of uncertain provenance.

Throughout the novel allusions are made to different tales about war, most obvious are the references to Odysseus. Similar to the Odyssey, the plot of Neverhome is as much about Ash’s homecoming as it is about her going to war.

Ash’s post-war encounter with Bartholomew, an inconstant Penelope as it transpires, is as important as her decision to go to war in the first place.

Neverhome is a very enjoyable novel. This is due, in a large part to the character Ash who is a well realised and genuinely interesting character. She is a pragmatist who does what she must to get by. While her actions are radical in terms of women’s expected roles at the time, Ash proceeds without an ideology, preferring actions over words. She doesn’t politely insist on equality but instead takes it using her cunning and her pistol.

Interestingly the physical aspect of Ash’s transformation is not dwelt on by the author. An occasional reference is made to certain precaution Ash must take to avoid discovery but it is not a central preoccupation of the novel. We are spared over-long depictions of breast binding and “gosh darn yer a girl!!!!” moments.

For the most part other characters accept Ash for what she presents herself as, her superiors perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to details like gender in the case of such a capable soldier.

By avoiding the temptation of stock gender switching clichés the author is free to create a genuinely original and engaging character who breathes new life into an almost  worn out old trope.

I have not read any novels by Laird Hunt prior to Neverhome but I intend to rectify that in the near future.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru


GIANTThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru features themes of memory and forgetting playing out against the type of vague backdrop so beloved of the author.

A great mist has descended on the populace of ancient Britain obscuring the memories of the indigenous Britons and their Saxon neighbours alike.

The novel follows the fortunes of a pair of pilgrims, Beatrice and Axl. Both native Britons are haunted by their lack of memories.

They inhabit a dreamlike post-Roman Britain which is populated by half-imagined monsters such as ogres, pixies and an amnesia inducing dragon.

Determined to regain their past, the pair resolve to undertake a journey to their son’s village where they hope they will be welcomed and find refuge from the mist.

Along the way the couple cross paths with some fellow wayfarers, an exiled Saxon boy who carries a terrible wound, a warrior whose skilful swordplay is matched only by his impeccable politeness, and an aged knight in rusting armour accompanied by his clapped out steed.

These characters, seemingly drawn together by chance, are niggled by a sense that they may know each other. As is often the case with quests, the journey soon evolves into something beyond the characters’ original intentions.

Much controversy, and of course publicity, has greeted Ishiguru’s disavowal of the fantasy genre, with heavy-weights like Ursula Le Guin giving their two cents about the author’s perceived sniffiness towards fantasy.

While I do find more ‘literary writers’ resistance to being identified as having produced genre fiction amusing and somewhat precious, this time I feel myself siding with Ishiguru.

The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Readers of the novel can, and will, argue the toss endlessly, but one particular point disqualified The Buried Giant as fantasy for me. That was the seemingly intentional unreality of its supernatural beings.

To my mind, fantasy seeks to convince us of the literal reality of its monsters. Not that monsters in fantasy are necessarily without a metaphorical dimension, but that the metaphorical dimension functions alongside a sense of the reality of the monster within the text.

When the Nazgûl were hunting Frodo in The Lord of The Rings I could feel them breathing, if ring-wraiths do indeed breathe, down the back of my neck as they mercilessly sought their quarry. The danger they represented in and of themselves seemed very real to me as a reader. In The Buried Giant the fantastical beings are more hallucinatory and less consequential than in fantasy novels.

Some readers have reacted with frustration at the marginal role which Ishiguru has granted the supernatural creatures, perhaps agreeing with Chekhov’s maxim regarding guns:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” The rifles being ogres in this instance.

I for one found these creatures all the more intriguing for their elusiveness and lack of consequence in the story.The monsters in the novel act as beautiful scenery which helps to construct a pleasing  phantasmagoria for the characters to inhabit. I found it liberating to walk by ogres, admiring them in passing, without dwelling too much on them.

The Buried Giant borrows some of the clothing of the fantasy genre but underneath its surface lies a very different beast.

The fantasy elements are a backdrop for the human drama central to the story. Of course fantasy can feature human drama, but in The Buried Giant the novel is almost exclusively concerned with its themes of collective memory, psychic repression and the nature of love and forgiveness. The dragons and sword fights really don’t matter much at all, whereas in fantasy proper, for better or worse, they do.

Literary references ranging from The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Greek myth are interspersed throughout the tale. These references and fragments contribute to building the novel’s peculiar  kaleidoscopic atmosphere.

I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguru’s work and enjoyed The Buried Giant. Perhaps my familiarity with his previous work inoculated me against the disappointment others may have felt with the book.

I never expected balls to the wall fantasy from Mr.Ishiguru, but rather restrained melancholic prose and bitter-sweet musings on memory and forgetting. All of which I found present in abundance.

While The Buried Giant is certainly not the author’s strongest novel, it still has enough going on in it to warrant a reader’s attention. It seems to be a novel which pushed the writer outside of his comfort zone.  The result is this wilfully odd genre bender which is hard to pigeon-hole, and as such worth a look.

I’ve included the link to the original article which sparked the fantasy/not fantasy furore below:

STALIN, PARADOXES OF POWER 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin


STALINTrotsky lived on his armor-plated train, which had been thrown together in August 1918… It required two engines and was stocked with weapons, uniforms, felt boots, and rewards for valiant soldiers. The train acquired a printing press (whose equipment occupied two carriages), telegraph station, radio station, electric power station, library, team of agitators, garage with trucks, cars, and petrol tank, track repair unit, bathhouse and secretariat. It also had a twelve-person body-guard detail… Trotsky’s living quarters… had previously belonged to the imperial railroad minister. Conferences were held in the dining car. The men were clad in black leather, head to toe. Trotsky then with jet black hair to go with his blue eyes, wore a collarless military style tunic… While on board, he would issue more than 12,000 orders and write countless articles, many for the train’s newspaper (En Route)… Trotsky’s train would log 65,000 miles, mobilizing, imposing discipline, and boosting morale. It also evolved into an independent military unit (taking part in combat thirteen times) and took on mythic status.

The above chunk of text is taken from Stephen Kotkin’s recently published biography of Stalin. I have quoted it because I am gobsmacked that I have lived to this point in time having never heard tell of Trotsky’s battle train.  His own bloody battle train!

Why a Hollywood style CGI extravaganza directed by Micheal Bay hasn’t been made about Trotsky’s locomotive exploits, is beyond me.

STALIN, PARADOXES OF POWER is part one in a three-part biography of Stalin, the original “man of steel”. It seeks to situate Stalin and his apparently inexorable rise from Georgian peasant to Soviet dictator in its proper context.

On completion, the trilogy’s trajectory will span the collapse of Czarist Russia through to the end of World War Two. One certainly can’t fault Mr.Kotkin on the scale of his ambition.

PARADOXES OF POWER covers Stalin’s youth and rise to pre-eminence. In it, Kotkin gives us a portrait of the dictator as a young man. We are told about his childhood, his education in a Tiflis seminary and his gradual emergence as a Bolshevik big shot.

Rather than presenting Stalin’s rise to power as a pre-determined inevitability, as is often the problem in biographies, the author gives us a pan global picture of the broad historical forces at play.

As Kotkin notes, “For a Georgian from small-town Gori… to rise anywhere near the summit of power, and seek to implement Marxist ideas, the whole world had to be brought crashing down. And it was.”

Throughout the book Kotkin efficiently uses information to illustrate global realities; “New production processes boosted world steel production from half a million tons in 1870 to twenty-eight million by 1900. But the United States accounted for ten million; Germany, eight; and Britain, five.”

Telling facts such as the above are lucidly deployed to illustrate the global state of play and provide context to the broader world which Stalin inhabited. Kotkin comprehensively explains the inherent flaws and failing of the Czarist autocratic system which preceded the Bolsheviks rise to power.

Due to its broad perspective the book is useful to those who are new to the subject of Stalin and the emergence of the Soviet Union.

For veterans of the subject, Kotkin’s incisive debunking of some long-held myths will be of interest. A particular bug bear of the author is the notion that Stalin somehow usurped Lenin’s revolution, a claim which he thoroughly refutes.  Kotkin tells  us Beyond the fact that Stalin’s ascendancy inside the regime owed a great deal to Lenin’s actions, the Communist regime had come into being as a result of a coup,and, while claiming to rule in the name of the proletariat, executed those who dared to question the party’s self-assigned monopoly. It was the party that had usurped power.”

Readers who enjoy a spot of historical rubber necking will also be engaged by the parade of eccentrics who appear throughout the book, each worthy of biographies in their own right.

When Rasputin is one the more restrained personalities present you know you’re about to meet some interesting characters.

Take the Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. Descended from German aristocracy who included crusaders in their lineage, and raised on imperial Russia’s Baltic littoral, the baron also held a Manchurian title due to his marriage to a Manchu princess. He boasted that he would one day become emperor of China.

The Baron was “A staunch monarchist and hater of Bolshevism’s sacrileges.” He was also a sadistic opium fiend who commanded a “so-called savage Division of East Siberian Cossacks”.

Using his Cossacks alongside Mongol and Tibetan troops, Sternberg liberated Mongolia from the Chinese and reinstated the Bogd Gegen, “a Living Buddha, third after the Dalai Lama… and the Panchen Lama in the Lamaist Buddhist hierarchy” as Khan of Mongolia.

Hunted by the Red Army, who used his exploits as a pretext to invade Mongolia, Sternberg cut a singular figure, as described  by an eyewitness of his final march,”  The baron, with his head dropped to his chest, silently rode in front of his troops. He had lost his hat and most of his clothes. On his naked chest numerous Mongolian talismans and charms were hanging on a bright yellow cord. He looked like a reincarnation of a prehistoric ape-man”.

On his capture by the Red Army he was tried and pronounced guilty of “working in the interests of the Japanese to create a Central Asian state, trying to restore the Romanovs, torture, anti-Semitism, and atrocities. He denied only the connection with Japanese.”

I have to confess to having become rather obsessed with the monstrous grandiosity of the eccentric baron, a Baltic colonel Kurtz. It seems a definitive biography of him is yet to be written so if any passing biographers stumble upon my blog I beg them to take a moment to consider the Baron as a subject.

The scope of STALIN, PARADOXES OF POWER is breath-taking. The work is evidently a labour of love. I found it to be a exemplary piece of  panoramic scholarship and eagerly await part two.

From The Fatherland,With Love by Ryu Murakami


fatherlandThe other Murakami

Ryu Murakami’s novel From The Fatherland, With Love tells the story of a covert invasion of Japan by North Korea.

The novel, originally published in 2005, is set in the near future. It depicts a vulnerable economically stagnant Japan where unemployment and homelessness are rife.

An advance invasion party composed of crack North Korean commandos are tasked with infiltrating and taking over a strategic Japanese peninsula, Fukuoka.

To avoid bringing the wrath of the American military, Japan’s allies, down on their heads, the commandos masquerade as an independent faction who are looking to break away from North Korea and annexe the vulnerable peninsula, taking its inhabitants hostage.

When this ploy succeeds the Japanese government struggles to find an adequate response. Fukuoka is cordoned off from the mainland as the Government dithers about the correct way to proceed.

It’s up to a colourful band of misfits, who inhabit unofficial outcast colony on the peninsula to fight for Japan. The question is should they fight for the very society which shunned them in the first place?

From The Fatherland, With Love features a huge cast of characters, none of which are fleshed out very deeply. Most of the assembled sociopaths, due to their outlandish nature, resemble cartoon characters.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, and allows for a lot of gung-ho fun and some tongue in cheek stylised ultraviolence. This is done without overburdening the reader too much with ethics or consequences.

My favourite parts of the book involved the North Korean Commandos. I especially enjoyed when they were passing themselves off as South Korean tourists as part of the initial invasion plan.

The North Korean’s are consistently bamboozled by capitalist decadence. A particularly funny scene involved two of the female commandos puzzling over the impracticality of first-world women’s underwear.

The fish out of water scenario worked very well, and I felt a full novel could have been spun out of such a premise

My gripes with the novel derived mainly  from not fully understanding the cultural context in which the novel was produced, which I can hardly blame the author for.

I assume aspects of it are allegorical critiques of modern Japan, which in the author’s eyes has become too soft.

The novel seems to be a call for a more hawkish approach to Japanese military and less dependence on its military allies although I could be wrong.

From The Fatherland, With Love is a fun-filled romp, although it is perhaps a little over long. It is also a tad bogged down by the author’s over reliance on exposition as a narrative tool.

Despite these flaws I had enough of a good time reading this book to warrant taking a chance on reading more of Murakami’s novels.

The GoldFinch by Donna Tartt


Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is reputedly the most unfinished novel of 2014 with only 44% of readers making it past the finishing line. This fascinating figure comes courtesy of e-booksellers Kobo and raises the interesting question of which books would qualify for this dubious accolade were the data available down through the ages. But that’s a topic for another post with suggestions welcome.


The Goldfinch is staunchly traditional in its structure. It tells the story of Theo Decker, a young man who is violently de-mothered when a bomb explodes while they are visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

In the aftermath of the explosion the disoriented Theo has a package pressed on him by a dying old man, which he accepts out of deference to the old man’s imminent demise. It transpires the package contains the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch.

The story opens with the adult Theo in a state of disarray in an Amsterdam hotel room.   From here he recounts the previous 17 years of his life following the fateful  explosion which, unsurprisingly given the physical heft of the novel, are quite eventful.

After a brief stay with alpha-WASP’s the Barbour family following the explosion, he is uprooted from his native New York by his dissolute estranged father who has an obligatory brassy blonde girlfriend in tow, and is taken to the plastic fantastic world of Los Angeles.

The painting, which accompanies him wherever he travels, has become both a burden and a consolation for Theo. On the one hand it is a sort of Telltale Heart which may reveal him as crook at any moment. On the other it was once his mother’s favourite painting, and as such it feels it connects him to her and bathes him in a special aura.

In Los Angeles he pairs up with another semi-orphaned individual, the world weary Russian teenager called Boris. Together they embark on a series of misadventures which eventually bring Theo back to New York where he becomes a ward of the kindly Hobie who teaches him the antiques trade.

This leads to Theo’s involvement in counterfeiting antique furniture and brings the reader full circle to his eventual arrival in the Amsterdam hotel where we find him at the novels opening.

So does the Goldfinch deserve its status as the most incompletely read novel of 2014? The answer is yes. In its favour the novel is cinematic in its scope and moves along at a breezy pace. Unfortunately a breezy pace can only propel a reader for so long, and over the course of 771 pages it’s a matter of time until a reader hits the doldrums.

The bones of a good novel are present but are obscured under layers of flabby improbability. The unlikely scenarios required to keep its narrative engine running eventually exasperate. The Goldfinch could really do with some ruthless editing, perhaps by Stalin.

On top or this the novel is a tonally strange read, and not in a good way. At times it feels like it belongs in the young adult section of the bookshop. Some of the characters veer dangerously close to caricature. Specifically Hobie the twinkly eyed kindly antique storeowner is hard to swallow. He seems like a refugee from a fairy tale where he was perhaps employed as a saintly toy maker.

Tartt’s description of the Fabritius’ painting are also uninspiring, her interpretation being as conventional the structure of her novel. This is particularly apparent when compared to other books which include discussions of art such as Ali Smith’s sublime ‘How To Be Both’.

All in all I found The Goldfinch to be an unsatisfying read and after persevering to the end found myself envying the 56% of readers who had the good sense to put the novel aside at an earlier stage.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris


To Rise Again At A Decent Hour cover - Copy“Life changing” is a phrase we often use to describe a work of literature which strikes a chord deep within us perhaps altering our world view. But can we palpably quantify the extent of that change?

And how long will it be before the effect of whatever we have read wears off and we revert to our familiar way of looking at the world?

Well I had my life changed by a novel three weeks ago and this monumental shift shows no sign of abating. What was this life changing book I hear you ask? Well the book in question was Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

What changes has it wrought? I hear you ask eagerly. Well I, previously an unbeliever, am now a confirmed devotee of dental floss.

Okay, this may seem modest when compared to the metaphysical insights sometimes offered by reading the right book at the right moment, but in reality the effects of frequent flossing are probably far more enduring.

Anyway enough about my dental Damascus, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour tells the story of neurotic insomniac dentist Paul O’ Rourke and his struggle to find meaning in an absurd universe.

A curmudgeon and instinctive technophobe O’Rourke is at odds with the modern world and haunted by a gnawing sense of emptiness. He seeks something beyond himself but is persistently eluded. He is an atheist with an itch.

Unlike sneering, snarling, triumphalist Dawkins devotees this doubt filled dentist views his inability to believe as something of a tragedy, an amputation of sorts. Worst of all it makes him feel a bit left out.

He tries to fill the hole in his life with hobbies such as golf, walking tours, or learning Spanish but inevitably finds that “Everything was always something, but something – and here was the rub – could never be everything.”

Relationships are impossible for the self-involved O’Rourke and are little more than ballast for the void he feels.

His two significant romances, The first with a Catholic and the second with his Jewish secretary are little more than attempts to buy himself front row tickets into their respective faiths.

There are only two constants in O’Rourke’s life. The first is his devotion to his favourite baseball team the Red Sox. Although even his devotion to the Red Sox is waning. Since they have found success the Quixotic romance of being one of their fans has diminished.

The second is dental floss. Flossing is of the utmost importance to O’Rourke who cannot comprehend the minds of those who neglect this vital regimen.

For O’Rourke flossing is a heroic Beckettian act. One flosses in spite of ones inevitable expiration and the inherent futility of fighting decay, It’s the closest thing he has to faith.

O’Rourke’s world is turned upside down when after a bizarre encounter with a patient of a spiritual persuasion, his online identity is hi-jacked.

Suddenly a twitter account appears in his name spouting esoteric mysticism and claiming to represent the Amalekites, a Biblical tribe long believed to have been wiped out by the Israelites.

What’s worse is the public interest which this persona receives. O’Rourke soon becomes obsessed with the mysterious impostor and begins a quest to track him down and hold him to account.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour addresses interesting ideas about religion and the ownership of sacred texts. Ferris is well versed in the Abrahamic faiths and puts this knowledge to good use.

The book wears its learning lightly but contains worthwhile observations about the nature of religious faith.

It is also laugh out loud on public transport hilarious, so be prepared to irritate your fellow commuters if you pick it up.

It runs out of steam a little in its final quarter when the mystery of the Amalekites is resolved, but this is forgiveable in light of the fact that it is a genuinely funny novel.

I really enjoyed this To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. and found Paul O’Rourke to be an excellent comic creation.

On top of this my dentist will no doubt be delighted with the unexpected consequences of me having read this novel.

J by Howard Jacobson


jHoward Jacobson’s latest novel J, tells the story of two lovers Ailinn and Kevern, each unsure of their respective origins, who are thrown together by circumstance in a dystopic future Britain. Before I proceed I think it is only fair that I include a spoiler alert as it is very difficult to discuss this novel in a meaningful way without disclosing aspects of the plot which only become apparent as the story proceeds.

While I usually don’t ascribe to the notion of spoiler warnings feeling a plot should stand on its own two feet regardless of a readers prior knowledge of its outline, Jacobson has taken such care in ensuring the revelations occur gradually and has done so with such evident skill I’d feel a bad sport for ruining this experience for potential readers.

The dystopia presented in J, is of a particularly British flavour, an event of some magnitude has taken place, and is referred to as “What Happened If It Happened”. A kind of creepy super polite fascism is enforced throughout the land, performed through congenial evasion and denial.

Certain cultural artefacts are, if not outright banned, then certainly discouraged from being owned by a collective disapproval reinforced by Ofnow, the government body responsible for maintaining the collective amnesia. Ofnow are responsible for Operation Ishmael the initiative responsible for the cultural coyness.

Ofnow’s ideology is expressed through asinine injunctions such as, “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, The Over Examined Life Is Not Worth Living”, and “ Yesterday Is A Lesson We Can Learn Only By Looking To Tomorrow”.

Obtaining information about “What Happened If It Happened” is discouraged through tactful deferment; “Buildings are not barred to you. Doors are not closed in your face. ‘Yes, of course’ will be the polite rejoinder to any request you make to inspect certificates of birth or death, or voter lists, or even newspapers dating too far back. But the forms you fill in are never read by anyone. Calls are not returned, applications are lost, the person you were talking to in the morning won’t be there in the afternoon.”

The effects of this collective repression has a deleterious effect on the general population who exhibit increased aggression and seem to be buckling under the strain of their lie. Domestic violence is on the increase and people seem restless, dissatisfied and ready to tear each other apart.

J is an interesting novel as it is a piece of genre fiction written by a writer who, by his own admission, turns his nose up at genre writing. Unsurprisingly it features some of the classic problems of the literary writer dabbling in genre writing.

The biggest of these problems are that he gives precedence to literary considerations, subjugating his plot to allegorical ends, rather than building a thoroughly convincing dystopic world. Jacobson’s dystopia makes no sense economically or socially. Also the plot contains logical problems.

So here’s the spoiler. “What Happened If It Happened ” turns out to have been a pogrom where the Jewish population were set upon by the general populace. Kevern and Ailinn are of interest to the government who wishes to re-establish a Jewish population through a breeding program. The reasons for this are far from benevolent.

The logic behind reintroducing a Jewish population lies in a government sociologist’s theory that society needs a scapegoat population to vent its anger on and stop it from tearing itself apart. The reason that this population needs to be specifically Semitic are given as follows:

You have to see a version of yourself, A reflection you cannot bear to see. An echo you cannot bear to hear. In other words, you must have chewed on the same bone of moral philosophy, subscribed to a similar spirituality and even, at some point in the not too distant past, have worshipped at the same shrines. It was difference where there was so much that was similar that accounted for the unique antipathy of which they were in search. And only one people with one set of prints fit that bill.

The above quote is a good observation of how sectarian hate operates, but ignores the specific history of British sectarianism, where the primary antagonism has been between Protestant and Catholic Christians, with anti-Jewish sentiment being little more than a grotesque sideshow.

It might seem like I am nit-picking but for me this was a major flaw, and showed a lack of historical understanding, again revealing the author’s willingness to steamroller over inconvenient realities in order to make a point.

The author’s take on Middle Eastern politics are also a little simplistic to say the least, one suspects a certain element of intentional provocation.

I am also wary of fictionalised Holocaust’s, and worry that an over-accumulation of them create a cultural context where the real historical tragedy is perhaps in danger of being trivialised.

Despite the above reservations I enjoyed reading J, The novel’s eventual revelation is expertly handled and creeps up on you gradually enveloping you in the novel’s genuinely unnerving landscape.

J is a prickly and problematic book which is no doubt the author’s intention, and one admires him for his willingness to step on toes, and for this alone he should be applauded. It is an atmospheric novel filled with jet black humour, and is best enjoyed on its own terms rather than being taken too seriously.

The Narrow Road to The Deep South by Richard Flanagan


untitledTaking its title from the famous Basho poem, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize 2014 winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep South tells the story of working class boy done good Dorrigo Evans, surgeon, war hero, and national celebrity.

The novel opens with Dorrigo’s earliest childhood memories and proceeds to chronicle his life -time in a non-linear epic narrative which weaves in and out of its key moments.

We see him before, during, and after the war and watch how these strands combine to weave a story about survival and its aftermath.

The passages portraying the older Evans shows a man who has grown cynical about his renown as a war hero and feels himself to be a fraud.

We observe as he does the rounds of receiving various honours befitting a national treasure in an alcohol induced haze and pursuing a multitude of marital infidelities. He seems to be a haunted man unreconciled with himself.

The reasons for this unease with his present are rooted in his traumatic past. We learn that Dorrigo’s wartime experiences entailed being taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to work on constructing the infamous Burma Death Railway.

In the midst of the horror Dorrigo has leadership thrust upon him and finds he must inhabit the role of the “big fella” a name his fellow prisoners have given him.

Knowing he must live up to the legend created by his men, he labours under the weight of leadership. In this role his is called upon to make unimaginable decisions which his post-war self struggles to reconcile with the decisions he made.

Also playing on Dorrigo’s mind is a torrid love affair he conducted with his uncle’s young wife before the war. This passionate encounter casts a long shadow over Dorrigo’s life and haunts him for the rest of his days casting a pall over his engagement and marriage.

Unsurprisingly, I found the parts relating Dorrigo’s war time experiences to be the most gripping part of the narrative. The sections featuring Dorrigo in old age also paint an interesting portrait of a survivor’s difficulty to reintegrate into everyday life. I also enjoyed the sub plots which followed the fates of some of the Japanese guards.

The passages portraying the affair were a little bit too Mills and Boonish for my tastes and I read them cringing a little as the prose veered towards the purple end of the spectrum.

I also found the story a little dragged out, and am still puzzling about the authors decision to follow a well-managed revelation in the plot to be followed closely an unlikely chance encounter, which for me was a coincidence too far and as such rendered what preceded it false.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a staunchly conventional novel which is both its strength and weakness.

Don’t expect any avant garde innovation, the prose is common place and isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but if you are looking for a big pacey slab of narrative to get stuck into you could do worse .




How to Be Both by Ali Smith



How to Be Both is a delightful novel from the very start, beginning with its format. The book is split into two sections, and is published in such a way that either half may come first.

This innovation adds a random element to how a reader will experience the novel and sets the playful tone of what is to come.

The half which I encountered first, told the story of deceased and almost forgotten 14th century fresco painter Francesco Del Cossa, a real historical figure.

The ghost of the post-mortal painter first appears on the page in a stream of consciousness which eventually stabilises as she recollects who she is.

In Ali Smith’s telling Francesco is really a Francesca who takes on a male identity so that she may pursue her dream of becoming a painter.

We hear her recount her childhood as the daughter of a stonemason, and we watch as she develops into an renowned artist, pursues patronage, and eventually observe her untimely demise.

Francesca is a charming narrator who is hard to resist. As a character she is utterly convincing and has a personality which suits the paintings attributed to her.

Smith’s ekphrasistic elucidation of Del Cossa’s work creates an appetite in the reader to go and see the pictures described for themselves.

The paintings serve to link both parts of the novel as does the ghost of Francesca.

Throughout the telling of her tale, the ghostly Francesca describes a girl who she is observing who turns out to be the thoroughly modern teenager George. George is the protagonist of the second part of the book in the form which I encountered it.

George has recently lost her mother and lives with her family who aren’t coping well. I found this sudden switch in perspective a little jarring at first having been so taken by Francesca, but soon settled in.

George is an unforgiving grammar pedant who is devastated when her Mother dies, leaving her to live with her terrified younger brother and unreliable father who has taken to the bottle.

The precociously intelligent George struggles through the shock of her mother’s sudden departure, navigating the disorienting maze of well-meaning adults and their unasked for sympathy.

As George recounts her memories of her mother and tries to construct some sort of meaning in her sudden departure she relates her mother’s enthusiasm for the work of a certain Francesco Del Cossa, now made male by history.

George’s delivery from grief comes in the form of friendship, when she meets a kindred spirit at school. The two become firm friends and their interaction brings relief to George. The character of George convincingly conveys the worldview of an acidly intelligent, yet ultimately vulnerable, teenager to life.

The novel itself is as clever as its two protagonists. Befitting its structure it features two covers. One a detail from a fresco by Del Cossa, The other an iconic depiction of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan.

As characters in the novel repeatedly referred to these cover images I found myself repeatedly flipping the book over to scrutinise them.

Hats off to Ali Smith for contriving a way to write a passage involving a spectral fourteenth century fresco painter describing the Hardy, Vartan photo. What a stroke of giddy genius./p>

Cleverness also abounds at the end of George’s story, when we discover she is writing a school assignment on empathy.

To do this she has decided to write it in the character of Francesco/Francesca Del Cossa which may or may not be the genesis of the Francesca narrative. I myself prefer the supernatural explanation.

The novel satisfies on the level of narrative but there is so much more to it than that. Its form is a wonderful commentary on art itself and its manifold possibilities. It is an act of elegant bricolage which shows how structure and ideas are a re-combinable set of possibilities without end. On top of this How to Be Both, achieves the dazzling feat of being terribly clever without being irritating.

All That Is by James Salter


All That IsAmbitious in its scope, All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman from his youth to middle age taking in a few key moments of the twentieth century along the way. Using an impressionistic approach, Salter takes us on a tour of privileged post-war white East Coast America.

This is done by showing us formative moments in his protagonist’s life, as well sketching out a brief back story for pretty much every character we encounter in the story. No mean feat in a story which comes in at under four hundred pages. This is a condensed, vacuum packed novel.

A brief detour to Virginia thrown in for good measure, mainly so we can gawp at the awful moneyed hicks who, according to Salter, live there. Why their East Coast equivalents are any better is never really detailed. Perhaps it’s because they work in publishing.

The novel opens off the coast of Japan around Okinawa aboard an American battle ship. Here we are introduced to Bowman as he partakes in the final stages of Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Americans. We then follow his post-war life as he pursues a career in publishing and, after an unsuccessful marriage, endless affairs.

It is here that the rot, or should I say Roth, sets in. In common with Roth, Salter seems to be of the opinion that watching privileged white men, who work in or around publishing and who, like Ron Burgundy, have “many leather-bound books”, and an apartment which “smells of rich mahogany”, follow their boners is an inherently fascinating activity.

That’s not to say that a certain amusement can’t be derived from such scenarios, but a full novel? To compound the matter, Salter seems unaware of the absurdity of such characters. Because of this, he misses the comic possibilities inherent in these ridiculous vain creatures who accord their sterile, empty orgasms a cultural significance.

This kind of po-faced faux macho American writing just doesn’t do it for me. One almost gets the feeling that the authors are emasculated by their profession and feel the need to compensate for this.

The female characters function as little more than neurotic receptacles for these literary studs. They range from mouthy alcoholics to good time girls with daddy issues. Some of the descriptions of the these characters makes one embarrassed for the author. Take the following sentence for example: “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” Also every female character in the novel is secretly in love with James Salt… ahem, I mean Philip Bowman.

Salter’s descriptions of Europe are equally embarrassing, particularly the passages set in Spain, which have the intoxicated starry-eyed quality of a teenage backpackers prose. Everything is exotic, intense and “authentic”. Inevitably Lorca is mentioned, and Spanish Gypsies play guitar and sing laments. Oh dear. Not that I have anything against Lorca or Spanish Gypsies but the obviousness chafes.

The ghost of Hemingway also hovers around these passages and Salter suffers from the comparison. One could excuse such juvenile depictions of Europe were they merely the characters point of view but I could find no evidence in the text which suggests this to be the case.

All That Is seems to be a swan song for the 87-year-old Salters presumably lost virility. It is an infuriating read because one clearly see’s that Salter can write. Certain passages shine with clarity and precision, alas they get lost among the tedious machismo. All That Is, unfortunately isn’t all that.

The Erl King by Michel Tournier.


The Erl King Having previously discussed Stoner, in this post I am continuing with the theme of reviewing reissued literature. This time I am looking at Michel Tournier’s second novel The Erl King, which was first published in 1970.

The novel intrigued me from the off by opening in a diary format. I am a big fan of stories featuring aggrieved outsiders raging against the world via a diary, such as Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman and, of course, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground. This particular diary is recorded by a middle aged French mechanic in 1939, an ominous year…

The protagonist, Aubrey Tiffauges, begins by reminiscing about his miserable childhood spent as a submissive student at St. Christopher’s, a boarding school for orphans. Over the course of his recollections he introduces us to his obsession with his former classmate the ‘baby ogre’ Nestor.

Nestor is the deformed son of the school care taker. His age is undetermined and hard to judge due to his unconventional physical appearance, he appears to be a boy albeit with an oversized head, but his worldliness suggests that he is much older than the children who surround him.

Due to these factors he enjoys an uncommon prestige amongst his classmates and possesses a certain immunity from being disciplined by faculty members. When Nestor decides to take the young Tiffauges under his wing, he sow’s the seeds of his future fascination.

The aforementioned diary entries issue from the left hand of Aubrey Tiffauges. He finds that using his left hand to write has unexpected consequences. Long forgotten or repressed memories are revealed to him along with new philosophies and realisations. He collectively terms these revelations as his ‘sinister writings’.

The author uses these sinister writings to establish a set of symbols and tropes which are repeatedly reconfigured, recombined and inverted throughout the novel. The text recurrently cannibalises itself and then regenerates its narrative through this consumption, much as the main character Tiffauges consumes the imagery he fixates on and so becomes it.

The first example of this is found in Tiffauges’ belief that he is an avatar of the tragically departed Nestor who we discover died in a fire some years previously. Fitting with the author’s approach and main characters obsession with inversion, the adult Tiffauges stands as a physical and mental counterpoint to Nestor. He is a giant of a man possessed with an if not entirely infantile, certainly pubescent, understanding of his surroundings.

His impairment is hard to explain as he possesses an extensive vocabulary and expresses complex thoughts, yet he seems to be alienated from his surroundings by what could best be described as a sort of adolescent innocence. He is at once vulnerable and megalomaniacal.

Tiffauges reveals that he has taken to eating raw meat and believes himself to be an ogre or monster. That is a monster in the Latin sense of monstrum, a portent or divine warning which reveals a truth, as well as in the modern vernacular sense of large or deformed. Tiffauges is certainly large and most definitely socially deformed.

A diary entry of Tiffauges’ states: ‘if you don’t want to be a monster, you’ve got to be like your fellow creatures, in conformity with the species, the image of your relations. Or else have a progeny that makes you the first link in the chain of a new species. For monsters do not reproduce… And here I link up with my eternity again, for with me eternity takes the place of both relatives and progeny. Old as the world, and as immortal, I can have none but putative parents and adopted children.

Children play a central role in Tiffauges’ symbolic universe as is indicated by the books title The Erl-King which references the child stealing Faery King of Goethe’s poem, itself inspired by the Old Danish ballad Elveskud. The alternative title to the English translation of this novel is The Ogre one which also invokes images of children being forcibly removed from their parents by monstrous beings.

Over the course of the novel we witness Tiffauges obsession with at first children, then specifically male ones. We follow Tiffauges around Paris as he photographs children and obsesses over these images, lurking outside schools to capture his quarry on film which he later develops to pore over. Again we see the themes of inversion present in the development of photographs from negatives film to positive photographs, as well as themes of hunting which will recur.

Over the course of these outings he befriends a young girl. What happens next is open to interpretation depending on how reliable a narrator we believe Tiffauges to be. All we know is that Tiffauges’ is accused of raping the child, although there is much room in the text to believe that he is some way set up or framed.

This incident results in Tiffauges revulsion with female children a view he justifies with misogynistic argument that female children do not exist as they are all flirtatious coquettes from the get go. Could this be a paedophilic justification? Or misguided as it is does it suggest a rather more complex obsession and affinity with pre-sexual innocence? The character does not yield to easy analysis.

Tiffauges’ fascination with children is certainly sensual, he is obsessed with their scent, their sound and bizarrely their weight or phoric quality, but whether it is sexual is certainly debatable. He is for want of a better term, ‘Michael Jacksonesque’.

Tiffauges’ escapes sentencing for the rape due to the outbreak of World War Two and is sent to serve in the French army in lieu of prison time. This set a chain of events into motion where Tiffauges ends up a prisoner of war and is transferred to a prison camp in East Prussia. At this point the novel switches from a first person to a third person narrator.

Tiffauges finds his fortune changes under the chaotic circumstances of war. His skills as a mechanic enable him to begin a social ascent amidst the chaos of war, soon he is employed in Goering’s hunting lodge and then on to a National Political Academy or Napola where he becomes a eugenicist’s assistant.

Each change in circumstance moves him closer and closer to actualising his potential as an ogre superseding other ogres along the way. His employment at the Napola involves him scouring the Prussian country side looking for Aryan specimens to recruit and study; he literally steals children away from their parents. Yet there is always a larger ogre than the one he supersedes be Goering, Hitler or even Nazism itself.

Towards the end of the novel Tiffauges find a sort of redemption in the Christian trope of St. Christopher, the legendary Christ carrier. In the figure of St. Christopher Tiffauges’ finds an ogre role model of sorts and achieves quasi-atonement.

Like many French writers the author has a fascination with the ludic elements of linguistics and semiotics. And like many French writers, particularly those active in the 1970’s, Tournier relishes giving these elements free reign , sometimes to the frustration of the reader who at times may find the ludic veering perilously close to the ludicrous.

Tournier seems to want to say something about obsession, sexuality, myth, semiotics and the nature of fascism yet never quite gets around to it, opting instead for the effect of juxtaposing these elements rather than an analysing them.

The Erl King is also an uneven and often frustrating novel in terms of pace. I found the parts of the novel narrated in the first person to be much more successful than those narrated in the third person and regretted when the action moved outside of Tiffauges diary.

Yet for all these flaws it is hard to dismiss The Erl King entirely. It’s singular and odd parts add up to a distinctive and strangely haunting whole. The protagonist is one of the more distinctive and unsettling characters I have come across in a while.

I have spent much time puzzling over and pursuing the novels various thematic strands.I plan to reread it at some stage in the future to see if a second reading yields any more clarification. If one has the patience for such a book or merely enjoys the weird in life I recommend reading The Erl King.

Stoner by John Williams




I have finally gotten around to reading Stoner, the famously forgotten novel by John Williams, and find myself grateful for the set of circumstances which led to its rediscovery.Beginning in 1910 it tells the story of William Stoner a 19 year old farmer’s son.

Little does Stoner suspect the experiences which await him as a result of his father uttering, “County agent come by last week… says they have a new school at the university in Colombia. They call it a College of Agriculture. Says he thinks you ought to go”.  From such a seemingly meagre premise our story is spun.

Stoner is the story of a modest man and his modest acheivements. As readers we are accustomed to our protagonists being notable and extraordinary, we watch and cheer as their epic and dramatic destinies unfold.

In fact the vast majority of contemporary fictional protagonists vary only in most superficial aesthetic detail from the heroes of myth. This emphasis is not confined to fiction. If we look at how history has been written we can note its similarity to myth, with its focus on kings, presidents and other exceptional individuals at the expense of the masses.

This focus on extraordinary characters is understandable from a technical narrative point of view, the extraordinary are compelling to read about. But it does beg the question, are the exceptional the only people worth writing about?

The hero figure and the remarkable individual are somewhat problematic in the sense that they are ultimately elitist. Chosen ones are just that, ones, singular. Some writers such as Joyce in Ulysses or Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus decide to approach this problem by accentuating the heroic in the everyday and elevating it to the level of epic.

Williams follow a different route with Stoner. His story contains no echoes of epics. He is neither hero nor anti-hero. In fact he is utterly aheroic; his circumstances are specific to him, but not extraordinary.

The novel tells us as much on the first page: “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910…eight years later… he received his Doctorate of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.”

This is a very unusual opening for a novel. How many authors begins by indicating how forgettable their protagonist is? Yet if we continue with the novel we discover that this in no way makes William Stoner unworthy of our attention. Stoner’s concerns are trivial in comparison to the trials of Hercules or indeed Bilbo Baggins, but they do matter.

Upon attending an obligatory Arts class in University Stoner has an experience with poetry which sparks an interest in literature. This diverts him from his previously preordained role as a man of agriculture and propels him towards a career in university teaching.

While two world wars rage in the background Stoner experiences an unhappy marriage, the birth of a daughter, the intrigues of faculty life and the death of his parents. The chronicle of his life catalogues his small victories, defeats and all the things which fall in between.

The character brought to mind a certain Mr Prufock, who memorably states:”No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do, To swell a progress, start a scene or two”.

The difference being that Stoner is presented to us by Williams without the wry air of mockery in which Eliot cloaks his character, and one doubts that he would desire to “swell a progress” or even “start a scene or two”.

Stoner is no master of his own destiny. He largely responds to what life gives him and tries to make the best of it with varying results. This seems an accurate description of most people’s lives. We are for the most part not Nietzschean supermen.

By the end of the novel I was fully invested in William Stoner’s seemingly unremarkable life and marvelled at the skill with which brought this fictional wallflower was brought to life. William’s novel is achingly beautiful and bittersweet, resigned yet not cynical, reserved yet not stuffy. If you like your fiction to be reflective, meditative, and heart-felt then Stoner is for you.





Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone


Home published by Red Button Press

Home published by Red Button Press

Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone is an unnerving novel which stays with you long after you have finished reading it. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly reassuring title. This book isn’t about home in the cosy, stay in, have a pizza and watch a box set sense. The home in the title is referring to the euphemistic antiseptic institutional variety, as in care “home”.

Retired Steve has recently started working in one of the above mentioned homes for the elderly at the behest of his dying wife Fran. Knowing the kind of man Steve is, she realises that he will need something to keep him going when she is gone.

Initially things start well. The work load is manageable and being relieved of the responsibility of being a carer for a few hours a day unburdens Steve, and no doubt eases his wife’s concerns about him being occupied when she has passed. Although they have a son he is living in America and him and Steve are somewhat estranged.

Steve’s new colleagues are bearable if not entirely likable. The homes two nurses are Milos an immigrant and aspiring artist with a wife and child back home and  Sarah. Sarah is a rather bitter and hard done by figure who labours under an unreciprocated crush on Milos.  Steve’s boss is Miss Tacey, whose penchant for aggressive high heels and tightly fitted outfits provide a source of amusement for him and his wife.

Despite Steve’s UKIP like views on immigration it is with Milos that he strikes up a friendship both of them bonding over hot beverages and cigarettes, Turkish coffee for Milos and of course tea for Steve.

Things tick along well enough for Steve and a new routine is developed. Then the inevitable happens and Fran dies. Initially devastated, as time passes and Steve emerges gradually from the fog of immediate mourning, he starts notice some things don’t add up.

Why after working for months in the home has he never set eyes on a resident? Why is the home in possession of an industrial strength incinerator for cremation? And why did the care home employ Steve, an elderly man with a dying wife as caretaker? It’s almost as if they were looking to hire someone distracted who wouldn’t pay attention to their surroundings…

Steve decides some investigation is in order and uses his position as care taker to give him the access he requires in order to get the answers he needs.  But as Steve soon discovers, some questions are dangerous to ask.

Home is a challenging book which offers the reader no easy resolutions. It unflinchingly looks at the way western society treats it elderly and how they are marginalised and commodified for the sake of convenience.

The home itself is anything but that, its bleached neutrality rendering everything interchangeable and impersonal. Here individuals lose their specific histories and become part of the interchangeable mass termed the ‘elderly’ which society consigns those deemed to be past usefulness.

Ghastly families flit in and out of the home to pay perfunctory visits to their alleged loved ones, primarily concerned about easing their own guilt rather than the wellbeing of their relatives.

This novel is not easy to read, especially if you have a friend or relative currently residing in an institution, but things worth reading usually aren’t. While some people will no doubt be defensive in the face of its critique I feel that it is both necessary and compelling.

To say I enjoyed “Home” seems a little perverse given its subject matter. instead I’ll just say it left me unnerved and a little sad, which I mean as a compliment as sometimes one requires something a little more substantial than the sweet lies of happy ever afters.

Where I Left My Soul by Jérôme Ferrari




Where I Left My Soul by Jérôme Ferrari tells the story of French military man Captain Degorce. Having survived torture at the hands of the Gestapo and internment In Indochina, Degorce’s military career has landed him in Algeria amongst the events which pre-figured the fall of the French Fourth Republic.

There is unrest as disenfranchised Algerians agitate against French rule, recently radicalised by the Sétif massacre. Degorce and his unit are responsible for the capture and interrogation of members of the Algerian resistance the FLN.

Inevitably this results in Degorce becoming a torturer himself. Degorce sees himself as a Christian man of conscience, a position he had the luxury of occupying when he was the subject rather the executor of torture. Now in the role of Roman centurion rather than Christ his actions weigh heavily on him.

As a result of his situation Degorce finds himself becoming increasingly isolated, unable to communicate with his colleagues in Algeria, and family back home. His wife persists in sending him letters to which he is unable to respond, given his inability to explain the horror he has witnessed in Algeria, and the shame he feels at his complicity in its production.

Degorce finds a counterpoint in his subordinate Captain Andreani, a man who is at ease in the grimy world of ‘information gathering’.  Lacking Degorce’s compunctions in regards to torture, Andreani spouts the usual defences about necessary evils whilst revelling in the cruelty he inflicts.

Andreani and Degorce’s relationship is defined by mutual loathing. Having once idolised Degorce Andreani is disgusted by his qualms against violence and what he perceives to be Degorce’s hypocrisy.  Degorce finds Andreani’s easy cruelty abhorable.

When Degorce’s unit captures Tahar, the head of the resistance, things become even more morally murky. In Tahar Degorce finds a man at ease with violent actions due to his belief in his cause, something Degorce now lacks.

Degorce becomes preoccupied with Tahar and the peace which his impending martyrdom brings him. Eager to play the noble warrior Degorce affords Tahar full military honours .This doesn’t sit well with Degorce’s colleagues and superiors.

Where I Left My Soul features some beautiful prose and in its pages Ferrari illustrates how the logic of torture dehumanises both its instigator and subject. In one passage, reminiscent of Kafka’s torture device from InThe Penal Colony, Degorce feels that he is the caretaker of an inexorable engine of torture which must be fed “organic fuel”, torture becoming both the means and ends in a hellish cycle.

Such a topic is extremely relevant in today’s society where, due to military double speak and political wordplay, the hellish spectacle of torture is downplayed as somehow necessary for the greater good. Ferrari should be applauded for writing a serious and thoughtful novel which unflinchingly deals with the subject.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.


ISBN:  978-1-781-620 10-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-620 10-6

The thing about December is Donal Ryan’s second published novel but was actually written before his startlingly good debut The Spinning Heart. This fact made me a little hesitant when approaching it as I feared this could have been a case of a publisher digging out an inferior earlier work and foisting it off on the public on the back of the hype. Happily my fears proved to be unfounded as the thing about December is a delight to read.

It tells the story of Johnsey Cunliffe, a character whose fate is referred to in passing in The Spinning Heart. The Novel , set just before the ‘CelticTiger’ economic boom, is divided into twelve chapters each showing us a month in the life of the hapless Johnsey.

Johnsey is, what might be termed by those using the Irish vernacular, a bit ‘soft.’ He is a gentle natured man who works stacking shelves in the local co-op, and lives alone with his mother in rural Ireland, having never cut the apron strings.

The spectre of Johnsey’s deceased father, a hardworking small time farmer who was renowned locally for being both generous natured and someone to be reckoned with if crossed, comforts and torments him. He is comforted by the happy memories he has of the time he spent with his father who obviously adored him, but is tormented by a sense of not living up to his father’s legend.

Johnsey’s recollections of his early life detail the various traumas he experienced growing up and never quite fitting in. Humiliation is a routine part of his experience, usually instigated by the town ‘hard-man’ Eugene Penrose.

Penrose has bullied Johnsey since their schooldays and continues his campaign into adulthood, given ample time to pursue this project due to unemployment. Every day on his way to work Johnsey must run the gauntlet past Penrose and his cronies who are perched drinking cans of cheap booze at their favourite hangout spot.

Despite these trials Johnsey perseveres uncomplainingly, finding security in his simple routine of work then dinner and TV in the evening with his mother. Unfortunately February brings his mother’s unexpected death and Johnsey is left bereft and isolated, struggling to negotiate the world alone. Johnsey becomes increasingly marginalised relying on the indulgence of sympathetic neighbours for the occasional glimmer of compassion and company.

While at first the motivations of the neighbours seem pure we gradually realise that as a consequence of his mother’s death Johnsey has inherited some land which has recently been rezoned for housing by the local council. This renders it extremely valuable. In this light the apparent kindness of Johnsey’s neighbour’s looks a little jaundiced, a detail which Johnsey in his innocence fails to notice at first.

Johnsey’s new found wealth also causes jealousy to rear its ugly head. Eugene Penrose finds Johnsey’s good fortune unbearable which results in him and his lackey’s subjecting Johnsey to a brutal beating. Knocked unconscious and almost blinded Johnsey awakes in a hospital ward.

Such is Johnsey’s loneliness, he finds being in hospital to be quite agreeable, he is fed and there is a constant flow of people around to keep him company. On top of this he becomes rather taken with a young nurse called Siobhán  who attends to him. His days are spent in anticipation of her visits.

Unfortunately competition for her attention arrives in the form of a new ward mate, ‘mumbly’ Dave, who has the gift of the gab which Johnsey sorely lacks. Although Johnsey is initially hostile to what he perceives to be Dave’s intrusion, they soon become friends of a sort.

On leaving the hospital a tug of war ensues between Dave and Siobhán for control of Johnsey and perhaps his purse strings.The stage is soon set for a tragic denouement which echoes the infamous Abbeylara incident:

My only criticism of the novel lies in occasional discrepancies in how Johnsey is portrayed. We are never told if Johnsey is actually mentally disabled in some way or if he has just lived a very sheltered life. Either way some of his observations seem overly astute and incisive for a character who is purported to be so simple-minded. In fact at times he can sound like an author with a fine ear for language rather than a simple man with little interest in literature.

This is a recurring problem with ‘holy fool’ type characters in fiction and is inevitable given the exigencies of plot and literary style. Fortunately it is infrequent enough to be forgivable and one is seduced into indulging the author given his facility with dialogue and description.

On the strength of his first two novels Donal Ryan is shaping up to be a major figure in contemporary Irish fiction. His portrayal of modern life and the consequences of the global economy on small time Ireland are spot on, albeit perhaps a little uncharitable. I would recommend the thing about December  to anyone who enjoyed The Spinning Heart and declare myself a convinced Donal Ryan fan who eagerly awaits his next novel.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan


ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

Donal Ryan burst onto the Irish literary scene last year helped in no small part by his novel The Spinning Heart being nominated for the 2013 Booker prize. The Spinning Heart paints a picture of post boom time Ireland and features some of the most bewitching prose I’ve come across in a while.

The backbone of the story centres on the fall of local hero Bobby Mahon. Bobby is a former football star who worked as a building site foreman during the times of economic prosperity. Despite being adored by his fellow towns people Bobby is a self-effacing, hardworking man who does not like too much of a fuss being made about him.

Things begin to unravel for Bobby when his boss, the quintessential Irish boom time property developer, ‘Pokey Burke’ skips town to avoid paying debts.  Pokey leaves a half-finished housing development or “ghost estate” and a crew of disgruntled builders in his wake.

On top of all this Bobby also has to shoulder the burden of his spiteful father, an undying man who seems to be sustained by hate. His father, jealous of Bobby’s relationship with his now deceased mother, was a man who; “sat silently swallowing her claim to a life…drunk he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. Nothing was ever done right or cooked right or said right or bought right or handed to him properly or ironed straight or finished off fully with him. We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him.

Matters go from bad to worse when it transpires that the greasy Mr.Burke has neglected to pay social security on behalf of his employees meaning they are not entitled to redundancy payments or unemployment assistance. Bobby, decent man that he is, feels responsible for this situation despite being unaware of Burke’s machinations.

Amid the aftermath of Pokey’s flight a murder happens in which Bobby is implicated and the consequences reverberate throughout the town. The story is related to us from the vantage point of the various townspeople, twenty-one in total, their fragments revealing the broader story to the reader.

Ryan successfully finds distinctive voices for each member of his literary symphony, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies, and back stories which could stand alone as short stories. The only shortcoming in the novel lies in one of these characters narrative trajectories which features an ill-conceived child kidnap sub plot which fails to convince.

This lapse is forgivable in light of Ryan’s prose and highly memorable turn of phrase. The local gossips are referred to as “The Teapot Taliban,” whose aged veins run with “pill thinned blood”. I will restrain myself from quoting any more as once one begins quoting a writer of Ryan’s quality it’s hard to know when to stop.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of literary fiction or an interest in seeing a snapshot of modern rural Ireland. The Spinning Heart was one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction I read in 2013.I hope to have a review of Ryan’s second published novel The Thing About December posted by early next week.

A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride


isbn: 978-0-9571853-2-6

isbn: 978-0-9571853-2-6

Being an Irish writer is no easy thing. Who would envy a young novelist sitting down, squint-eyed and daunted, trying to write in the half-light created by the shadows of literary giants on an island where they seem to be particularly prevalent?

While the anxiety of influence can affect writers of any nationality, there is something especially onerous about inhabiting a national literary scene where the apex influence is a certain Mr.James Joyce. Both a cause for the illogical phenomena of national literary pride and an ogre who must be slain in order to proceed as a writer, what does one do with a problem like Joyce?

Well if you’re Eimear Mc Bride you write your debut novel in the stream of consciousness style made famous in Ulysess, acquit yourself with panache, and become a potential literary sensation. Problem solved.

A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride is as ballsy as it is brilliant. It tells the story of a marginalised unnamed protagonist who lives in an equally anonymous small Irish town; or rather it puts us behind her eyeballs and in her head. We get to experience her life from the age of two years old to the age of twenty.

As her lifetime unfolds we witness her relationships and the pressures they exude on her. Abandoned by a feckless father and raised by her overly pious and religiose mother, the protagonist struggles to find her place in the world.

Respite comes in the form of an older brother who she adores, a young man much affected by a childhood brain tumour and the procedures it necessitated. We soon discover her brother has not been left untouched by his childhood trauma, and is in the colloquialism of the town a little “slow”.

The hero-worship she felt for him as a child soon subsides giving way to teenage self-consciousness as she realises that he is never going to be able to be the “normal” brother she needs.  Torn between embarrassment and love, this relationship is at the core of the novel.

While her childhood is not exactly a bed of roses, things take a darker when she hits her teens and a visiting uncle takes an unhealthy interest in her. After she is abused by him she makes the mistake of confusing victimhood with control and acts out accordingly acquiring a “reputation” in the process.

Although she eventually escapes the confines of small town life and moves to the city to study, she cannot leave her experiences behind. She continues to enact her destructive sexuality, both with strangers and the uncle who originally abused her.

Her rejection of religion and small town life is not presented naively as a clean solution to all of her problems, as is the common scenario in the “small town girl moves to the big city” genre. Instead we get a convincing and sympathetic portrait of a damaged individual unanchored and alone. Seeking respite in sex and alcohol she finds herself trapped in an escalating spiral of self-loathing.

The most striking feature of A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is the virtuosic use of language employed by the author to tell the tale. Mc Bride is like a potter moulding malleable language into the form she requires to express what is necessary at that moment.

Her stream of consciousness style so convincingly approximates the fluidity of thought at times I forgot I was a reader and felt I actually inhabited the head of the character that Mc Bride had constructed. Initially some readers may find the style off-putting but if you stick with it the result is worth it.  A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is a promisingly powerful debut and I look forward to more from Mc Bride.

Hello and Goodbye by Patrick Mc Cabe




Hello Mr.Bones and Goodbye Mr.Rat are a pair of spine tingling tales which constitute Patrick Mc Cabe’s latest release Hello and Goodbye. Both tales feature dead protagonists recounting their last days and beyond. As is befitting characters created by a writer who revels in unreliable narrators we are unsure whether the stories told are confessional revelations, self-serving lies or perhaps a bit of both.

Hello Mr.Bones tells the story of Mr.Valentine Shannon a former, somewhat disgraced, Irish Christian brother now living in England with his partner Chris and her disabled son Faisal.  Having found happiness in his new relationship and teaching job it seems that Mr.Shannon is about to find some measure of peace in his new life.

Or at least it would were his story not related to us by deceased and demonic Anglo-Irish Dandy, Balthazar Bohan. Balthazar, having to his mind taken the young Valentine under his wing, is filled with indignation about the aftermath of their ‘friendship’. When certain allegations about Mr.Bohan’s imprurient interest in young Valentine and what occurs during his screenings of Betty Boop cartoons in his projector room emerge, the stage is set for Mr.Bohan’s downfall. Swearing revenge with his last breath, Mr.Bohan proves to be a man of his word.

Mr.Bohan’s machinations against Valentine culminate on the sixteenth of October 1987, the day when a Hurricane struck England despite the assurances of Micheal Fish, the famous British weatherman. Mc Cabe is an expert at weaving pop cultural tropes into his narratives in unsettling ways using them to create an atmosphere of uncanny horror. Betty Boop, Micheal Fish and a jingle from an old toothpaste advert to name just a few pop cultural touchstones referenced in this story, are used to chilling effect. A demonic clown called Mr.Bonio who has designs on Faisal adds to the creepiness especially for all those coulrophobics out there.

In Goodbye Mr.Rat, IRA man Gabriel King recounts his story for us from the confines of the urn where he currently resides. Gabriel is escorted by his friend, talented playwright Beni Banikin, back to his homeland from America to fulfil his dying wish of having his ashes spread there. Beni, a woman who has known trouble herself, believes Gabriel is a hero, a hunger striker who defected from the IRA in disgust at a particular incident in the village Altnavogue, where a bomb was placed in a baby’s cot.

Is Gabriel the principled freedom fighter he claims to be or could he be an eloquent thug duping an impressionable American with his stories of unsullied heroism and his sentimental self-justifying nationalism? When Beni arrives in Gabriel’s home town and meets the locals, including former IRA man turned Mayor, Mr.‘Dog’ White , her hero’s stories begin to unravel and tragedy becomes inevitable.

Both stories feature little in the way of the explicit anatomically detailed violence found in much modern horror. The horror instead is psychological and resides in gradual revelation and atmosphere. These gothic style stories create a genuine unease and offer no tidy reassuring resolutions. In fact the ending of Hello Mr.Bones foreshadows further horrific acts rather than cathartic overcoming of opposition.

These stories get under your skin to make you shiver. The horror resides just below the surface. Horrific acts of abuse are cloaked in colloquialisms and evasions by the self-serving narrators.  For me this is the most effective way of creating dread in a reader. When things are seen in the plain light of day they become banal and ineffective, too determined, whereas real horror resides in uncertain anticipation.  I found both stories to be excellent examples of modern Irish Gothic and would recommend Hello and Goodbye, to anyone who is looking to spend an evening or two breaking out in goosebumps.

The Anchoress by Paul Blaney


The Anchoress published by Red Button

The Anchoress published by Red Button

One of the many strengths of the novel form, when successfully executed, lies in the ease with which it can transport us to exotic, unfamiliar locations and scenarios without the need for big budgets and special effects, but rather through the simple interplay of the written word and our own mind. Whether from the comfort of our favourite armchair or aboard public transport we can open a book at any moment and be transported to  the midst of a medieval market place, walk the streets of Victorian London or even witness intergalactic warfare in distant solar systems.

Or as is the case with The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, we can find ourselves outside a walk in wardrobe wondering why a grown woman has decided to sequester herself there. While this scenario may not seem as obviously dramatic as the previous examples it is important to remember drama has as much do with the interior lives of characters as much as exterior events.

The Anchoress opens with our protagonist, Maggie, already cloistered within the closet; we know nothing about how she ended up in there. As the story unfolds we learn a little of her predicament through her interior dialogue and her interaction between the various individuals who come into her life as a result of the unorthodox action she has taken. The first of these is a pizza delivery man of a philosophical bent who mistakenly enters her unlocked apartment and ends up in conversation with her. Through their initial interaction he soon becomes a confidante who provides food for both sustenance and thought.

Then there is the mysterious neighbour whom Maggie communicates with via the thin partition wall which separates them. This mysterious voice initially sounds like a child or young adult’s, but the probing questions it unrelentingly asks soon suggest otherwise.

The other characters come in the form of Norman, an ostensibly concerned but perhaps self-serving work colleague, an unexpectedly religious policewoman, and as news of Maggie’s retreat from the world spreads, an inevitable journalist. Each of these characters tries to make sense of Maggie’s actions through the lens of their respective positions. The colleague discusses work, property values and material things and represents these concerns, the policewoman represents the state and our responsibilities to it which sometimes come at a cost to us, and the journalist represents society and its determination to categorise our actions.

Blaney presents these characters sympathetically and does not condemn them; they are all shown to have an inner life and unexpected dimensions. This shows real subtlety on behalf of the author who doesn’t condemn these semi-allegorical characters or what they represent. Blaney is possessed of enough perspicacity to realise that things such as the material and social do matter, but it is the order in which we prioritise them which is essential.

It’s clear from reading the Anchoress that Paul Blaney is well-informed about religion, philosophy, mythology, fairy-tales and ritual, as he blends ideas from these areas and intersperses ideas from all these sources throughout the novel. This is most apparent in the form of the conversations between the characters, especially Maggie and the pizza man, which follow the tradition of, and reference, Socratic dialogues.

The fairy-tale themes come in the form of the princess in the castle trope. Over the course of her various dialogues we learn that Maggie’s childhood was quite isolated, growing up as she did in a renovated Martello tower. Although she has since left her childhood home she continues to dwell there psychologically, a prisoner of the consolatory fables she had constructed to aid herself in her time of need which she has now outgrown. Instead of being rescued by a handsome prince as is the convention, Maggie must figure out how to liberate herself from her past. Her seclusion in the closet is the beginning of this process.

The walk in closet is a sacred space which offers a place for self-examination and reconstruction. It is a confession box at first where she must confront herself and the truth of the narrative of her life. Later it functions as many other things, a reference to the famous wardrobe of the Narnia chronicles, a chrysalis for growth, and an echo of the Buddha’s spot under the Bodhi where he resisted the temptations of the outside world in order to attain enlightenment, to name but a few.

The Anchoress is a generous spirited novella which approaches spiritual, philosophical and psychological topics in a refreshingly down to earth way. The character Maggie is an ordinary middle class woman who is quite unexceptional, an everywoman, rather than a wild-eyed mystic or messianic chosen one. This serves to bring topics which can appear forbidding down to earth.

While sometimes philosophy, religion and literature can seem to occupy a rarefied space reserved for the exceptionally intelligent, spiritual etc… here we see they are in essence tools for helping us to make sense of the world around us.  I think most people could identify with Maggie’s need to “work out what kind of relationship I should have with the world”.

The message of The Anchoress is a simple one which is frequently ignored in our chaotic capitalist society. Sometimes we need space from the chaos of the world, our jobs, families, phones and facebook, all the things which distract us from examining ourselves and asking hard questions. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for something a little bit different from the crowd. Accessible, engaging, full of ideas and humanity, The Anchoress won’t disappoint.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman




The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is the title of British fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman’s latest novel. It tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who revisits his childhood hometown while on his way to a wedding. On arriving there he pays a visit to the home of the Hempstocks, a neighbouring family who live on an isolated farm.

The Hempstock family are comprised of three feisty, independent minded women who represent three generations of the family. If you are familiar with fantasy/mythological tropes or know your Macbeth, I needn’t tell you the significance of a triumvirate of females who live outside society…

While visiting the Hempstock house as his adult self the protagonist takes a while to sit by a pond, the “ocean” of the title. Here long forgotten/ magically repressed memories of a childhood adventure come flooding back allowing him to revisit them from his present day adult perspective.

The narrator recounts an incident from his past involving the suicide of a lodger, who stole the protagonist’s father’s car in order to commit the dark deed. This act triggered a sinister supernatural shift which altered the benign world of the narrator’s childhood into something altogether more unsettling. Help comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the youngest, in appearance at least, of the Hempstock women.

Lettie helps the narrator battle a supernatural entity that has been causing chaos, by granting wishes in an over literal manner, tending to the baser more materialistic side of human nature. The narrator and Lettie defeat the malign entity, or so it seems. Alas the narrator commits the classic mythological error of not following instruction given to him by the magic literate Lettie down to the tiniest detail.

Gaiman is writer who has a compendious knowledge of global mythology and incorporates these tropes into all his work. Magic as presented in fairy tales and myths is mercilessly legalistic and is defined and regulated by tightly bound ritual contracts. By having his protagonist deviate from the instructions given to him by Lettie, Gaiman pays his mythological dues, and signals to us the reader that there will be consequences.

These consequences come in the form of a sinister new house keeper Ursula Monkton. Ursula insinuates herself into the heart of the narrators family by seducing those around her. To the narrator’s mother she is a young woman with impeccable qualifications for minding children, to his sister a glamorous role model, and to his father an object of sexual desire.

Only the narrator is immune to her charms, as his adult self recounts, “She smiled at us both, brightly. She really was pretty, for a grown up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative. I wonder what I would have done if she had smiled at me like that now: whether I would have handed my mind or my heart or my identity to her for the asking, as my father did.

The narrator’s immediate suspicion of Ursula Monkton soon puts him at odds with the rest of his family. With no one else to rely on he must seek out the Hempstocks for assistance, but this is more easily said than done when you are seven years old and grounded.

The Ocean At The Lane is a fun but rather slight read which is not without its flaws, the primary one being missed opportunity. By using the device of having an adult recount his childhood adventure from the perspective of middle age, Gaiman creates a potentially fascinating way of exploring the disparities between our adult and childhood selves.

Instead of being used to explore the rich psychological seam it promises, this device is used in a rather mechanical way to propel the narrative which doesn’t do justice to the premise of the novel. His narrator credulously recounts his fantastical childhood adventures without once doubting the veracity of these memories.

My other problem with the novel is a recurring one I have with Gaiman’s work, his characters seldom become more than archetypes. Perhaps this is due to the influence of myth on the authors writing where archetypes are the norm and stories are told in broad strokes in order to convey ideas rather than nuance, sadly it doesn’t work well in the novel format. The main character is an empty vessel who reacts to the exigencies of plot in a rather clockwork way.

The supporting characters, with the exception of the Hempstock women, are paper-thin, the mother in particular being an absent cypher. Her existence barely extends beyond the letters used to spell the word ‘mother’ on the page. The Hempstock women are a portrayed with a little more success. Their characters are more rounded and their interaction feels genuine.

The depiction of the Hempstock women is interesting as it reveals a certain laziness on behalf of the author. One gets the feeling that the author was more invested in thesecharacters, their magical nature making them more entertaining to write. The evidence suggests that Gaiman can write characters with a bit more depth, but only when they are of particular interest to him.

All in all, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a novel which doesn’t live up to its promise. A tangible element of auto pilot has entered Gaiman’s work and one feels a change in genre might be in order. It is hard not to feel that Gaiman’s writing has suffered since he moved away from comic books to the novel form, a feeling which is confirmed by rereading his majestic Sandman series published by Vertigo comics.

The Ocean At End Of The Lane is by no means terrible it is also not particularly memorable.  This novel will keep Gaiman’s fans happy but is hardly likely to win over the unconverted. Regardless there is a large audience for this kind of thing in our post Harry Potter cultural landscape and the book will no doubt be a smash hit. Expect an inevitable movie version.