‘The One in a Million Boy’ reviewed

‘The One in a Million Boy’ is a novel by Monica Wood, telling the story of unlikely protagonists, misfits who become close to each other, finding out about themselves as they explore new relationships. Ona Vitkus is 104 years old and her friendship with the eponymous unnamed boy is the central focus: he is interviewing her about her life, on tape, and encouraging her to aim for records in the Guinness Book. Ona has lived since the beginning of the 1900s,so she has fascinating stories to tell, and it is through the flashbacks to her recollections that we learn about her experiences and how she has become a complex and rich character.

Perhaps the other most interesting central character besides Ona is Quinn, the boy’s father, who is as compulsive a guitarist as his son is a collector of data.Early in the novel, the boy dies of a rare illness and it is the people  who loved him- Ona, Quinn, his ex wife, Belle- who develop and learn from the legacy of the eleven year old boy who touched their lives. Quinn is paying the penance for being a bad father: his need to play his guitar has kept him away from his son and Belle is wrecked by grief.

Quinn: playing guitar was the single occasion in his slight and baffling life when he had the power to deliver exactly the thing another human being wanted.

Some readers will compare this book to ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ because it is about an old lady. I enjoyed this book much more: ‘Elizabeth’ did not work for me so well in terms of the main characters but Ona is no stereotype: she is complex, charming and brave. She is flawed but not frail and she has learned to be resilient throughout her life and her past stories are utterly credible.

It is rare that we see Ona as simply an old lady: she is an independent and feisty woman, but Monica Wood carefully intersperses her strong moments with reminders that Ona has an ageing body. As readers, we respond with admiration but never pity.

What sets ‘The One in a Million Boy’ apart from many other novels in the same genre is how well written it is and how it never resorts to labels or stereotypes. The presence of the boy, with his love of facts and figures, is with us throughout the novel and it is his death which sets the other characters on the path to self discovery. Monica Wood’s story goes beyond loss and grief, though. Ona is an intriguing personality and her background story of immigration and integration is one which shapes her present day character. She may be old in years but she is always learning:

Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning

Wood tells us about the boy who visited her and helped her feed her birds:

He reminded her that she’d once found people fascinating. That she’d lived more than one life.

The boy’s interviews with Ona are one sided- we can only guess what he has asked her and that makes his presence, and somehow his absence, more poignant.

Although I found Quinn’s professional stroke of luck at the end of the story, and the result of ‘the song’ written by Ona’s husband a little implausible, the last few chapters of the novel make the whole book exceptional. There are readers who will be emotionally moved by the ending: it is surprising and cleverly contrived.’The One in a Million Boy’  is a layered story which charts the reconstruction of  three people who believed their lives were damaged beyond repair. The final pages are inventive and shrewd and I was thrilled by Monica Wood’s dexterity in making the ending of the story very resonant.Ona says:

You know, one meets so many people, the years pass and pass, but there are certain times, certain people— . . . They take up room. So much room. I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory. A little nick. But certain others, they move in and make themselves at home and start flapping their arms in the story you make of your life. They have a wingspan. . . .

This book comes highly recommended: it flies in the face of tokenist novels about characters who are ‘different’ and celebrates the real and valuable friendships which can come from people whose lives may appear, on the surface, to be incompatible.

Image result for one in a million boy monica wood

McEwan, Cannon, Kent: it’s all in the writing.

A writer never stops learning. I always feel that I have so much more to learn about the skill, the art, the craft of writing, and reading widely is always a good way to prompt thinking, learning and  improving.

I’ve just read three books, each good in its own right, each very different. Ian McEwan’s Saturday was recommended to me by another writer I met in a networking situation. I’d read Enduring Love and Atonement so I added Saturday  to my bookshelves. I also bought Joanna Cannon’s debut, The Trouble with Sheep and Goats. I know very little about the popular genre, Scandi Noir, so I also read Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. All three books were clever, well written and , of course, as the old ingredient of subjectivity comes into play, I appreciated them all but loved only one.

All three writers can put words together skilfully; they can create a character and tell a story, and each of them possesses a unique talent. The author’s voice becomes a voice inside our own head, we are reading the story and suddenly we are seeing it, believing it, living it. That’s a sign of a good writer.

McEwan ‘s language is sinewy and taut and he doesn’t waste words. He strives to be astute and his characters are led by action, circumstance and background rather than emotion. His main protagonist, Henry Perowne, is a neurosurgeon and McEwan describes Henry’s skill with neuro operations in detail, his neat incisions, his efficient hands, his erudite diagnosis. McEwan could be describing his own writing, operating brilliantly with words, an accomplished practitioner. Henry and his lawyer wife Rosalind were not characters for whom I felt much empathy but I read and admired the book for all it’s  assured poise and honed skill.

Joanna Cannon’s novel, The Trouble with Sheep and Goats is a clever story which spans the summer heatwave of 1976. It  is a coming of age story from the viewpoint of a ten year old girl but the prose moves smoothly from first to third person narration. The novel reminds me of so many others: Jeanette Winterson’s Why be happy when you could be normal? and Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. Cannon even echoes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the central character of a growing girl learning about life amid prejudice, and the community’s harsh misunderstanding of Boo Radley is mirrored in the discrimination against Walter Bishop. However much I felt the novel was contrived or derivative, however much I didn’t really care about the central characters’ situations, I still enjoyed Cannon’s book, because she writes so engagingly. She pulls the reader in with humour and a wry smile. Even the chapters where the Kapoor family move into the estate and are received with well-meaning ethnocentricity, however predictable the situation, resonated as credible and I cheered at the put-downs, even though I saw them coming. Cannon moves skilfully between character, setting, time and I admired her book for it’s control and creativity.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is set in Iceland and the changes of weather and the bleak harshness of the landscape parallels the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a prisoner awaiting execution for stabbing a man and burning a house. The story is told through Agnes’ ‘confession’ to a naive priest and also through a more objective third person narrative. Agnes is housed and made to work on a farm after her trial and we see her through the eyes of those who don’t doubt her guilt. It is a gripping story, in which information, action and  background seep skilfully  through each chapter and we are always in touch with the characters’ feelings. We grow to like the hardened Margret, we understand the complex Natan. Reverend Toti’s dilemmas and their effect upon his faith are completely credible and there is a little of Agnes in us all: we admire her wilful passion, her independent spirit, her strength and ability to survive and her internal monologue is always informative and loaded with impact. It is because I could visualise and empathise with the many complex characters that I liked this book the most.

There is much to be learned from talented authors: the way they write, their choice of style and words, the way they evoke setting, character, action, time, is always fascinating and it is so helpful to analyse techniques used by popular authors. McEwan is a talented writer whose prose is effortless on the page. Cannon writes with wit, mischief and is entertaining while keeping her novel’s tension tightly bound. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a page-turner: she has written a whirlwind of a novel which, for me, fuses character and action and tension in such a way that my imagination is illuminated like a technicolour screen.

All three books are highly recommended. They are, each in their own way, complete and powerful. One is the work of a maestro conductor who has performed many times and can continue to perform with his eyes shut: one is a witty, smart solo debut which promises much more in the future; one is a memorable night at a rock concert which leaves the audience danced out, sweaty, sublimely happy and smiling for days to come.

 

‘Game Girls’: a tough tale for today’s young readers.

I read Game Girls by Judy Waite in two hours, trying to imagine myself as a fourteen year-old reader. I was lying in a hammock in the sunshine and there was nothing to disturb me but a few tweeting birds, yet I still managed to slip from my idyllic setting into the whirling world of sixth formers, Fern, Alix and Courtney. Three girls, very different in nature, are united in their new hobby, to make easy money as sex workers.But they are very naive:

 ‘It’s actually better to charge for sex than it is for cooking. You need certificates and inspections and things to sell cooked food.’

Recently, at a writers’ conference, I signed up for a class on ‘using visual stimuli to improve  writing’. Judy Waite was the tutor. It was last thing in the afternoon – the graveyard slot – and I’d just been to one of those lazy sessions where the person leading it had prepared nothing. We were simply asked to ‘ask questions’ and I was bored.  An hour later I was thinking about going down the pub instead, but I’m so glad I went to Judy Waite’s session. Swirling around the room in a white dress, she offered us all a variety of stimulating visual images to work with and she led the group through a process which had us all writing in superb detail. She knows her stuff and she is an inspiration. I bought her book.

Game Girls is a story which will worry some school librarians in terms of its content: it’s a fast paced tale of three girls who think raising money for designer clothes and fun through paid sex will be perfectly safe. Of course, it doesn’t turn out that way, and it’s a clever story about risk and danger and Waite is warning her YA market of the pitfalls involved.

I researched readers’ response to this book – (since I’m not fourteen) – and the reception was very positive. ‘Game Girls’ benefits from the slightly risqué content.  I remember reading Go Ask Alice (by Beatrice Sparks) as a teenager for its content about sex and drugs. Novels which fill in a lot of gaps about the changing world are fascinating to youngsters. Mind you, I read the Miller’s Tale because I was told not to by an English Teacher at A-level: a bit of spice and the odd expletive will always make a story more appealing.

My research suggested that some readers found the ending of ‘Game Girls’ a bit disappointing or surprising. I read the novel from the perspective of learning from a skilful and experienced writer, so I was constantly asking myself ‘How is she going to resolve this?’ or ‘How will she deal with the next scene?’ I think the ending works very well.

Judy Waite writes with detail and flair and her characters and their dilemma are absorbing. The three central protagonists aren’t very likeable. Alix is selfish, Fern is weak, Courtney is confused. I don’t think that matters too much: the characters are deliberately flawed and written to entice the reader to enter into their lives. Waite is to be congratulated as she is unafraid of facing  important issues: she touches on child abuse, a dying parent, sexuality, bullying, rape, and she is to be lauded for her gutsy take on presenting these aspects of life to teenagers in such a way as to provoke thought.

The ending is very satisfying in some ways. Courtney meets a charming character called Elroy and he instigates a change in how she views life, offering hope. Fern and Alix, however, have different stories. I was a bit surprised about what happened to Fern and  yet it served to shape the rest of the story, leading to an ending which, like it or not, crackled with tension and resolved the action very cleverly.

Waite writes with confidence and a real understanding of character and purpose. She is also able to create setting well and bring a scene to life. For me, the strength of ‘Game Girls’ is her determination to face important issues while creating a safe platform for readers to explore the world and the potential consequences of risk. Teenagers for whom sex is a new and fascinating subject will be drawn in by Fern’s character: she is an ingénue with little confidence, a girl who finds it difficult to say no, and her experience with an on-line date at the opening of the novel is poignant and shocking, and sets the pathos of the character up for the rest of the novel.

Young people will empathise with Courtney, who is more likeable but suffers from the trauma of her past secrets and has no real respect for herself. Alix is the instigator, a spoilt rich girl for whom money is more important than the love she has been denied. All three girls learn lessons in the book and teenagers will find their experiences gripping. The consequences, too, are hard hitting enough to be thought-provoking.

Judy Waite is a good story teller and I would recommend the book to teeenagers of both genders. Her novel is part of a huge debate about banned books in school libraries and the dilemma that exists for teachers. Teenagers want to read edgy books which reflect their lives and their interests: this includes books with expletives, sexual content and issues which concern them.

Parents, however, worry about their child being confronted with material which may confuse or frighten them; parents worry about their child’s innocence being taken away, or that their child will be exposed to something which contradicts their parents’ beliefs or lifestyle. Parents have the right to monitor what their child reads but there are so many good, award winning books which may be edgy or sexually explicit which reflect the adolescent’s world back to them in a meaningful way. Certainly, I’d have read this novel as a teenager to explore a world outside my own experience..

I think Judy Waite gets it right: it’s well written, almost credible and with the right balance of explicit content. ‘Game Girls’ is a coming of age story which brings with it a warning of the dangers of the world from the safety of the desk, the armchair, the bedroom or the hammock.

‘The Fishermen’: everything about Obioma’s novel is superb.

In the blurb on the back cover of The Fishermen, New York Times suggests that ‘Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.’ I read Things Fall Apart years ago and loved it: it was the archetypal ‘modern’ African novel and the title comes from a wonderful W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.

Achebe died three years ago and, if there is a second coming, there would be no more deserved nominee than Obioma. But comparisons can be irritating. Obioma is a brilliant novelist in his own right and his story The Fishermen is ripe with the themes and tensions which make a great story crackle.

The narrator is Ben, one of four brothers who are the central protagonists, although the family has two younger siblings. We quickly understand the boys’ characters, hierarchy, rivalry and filial loyalty. Obioma transports us to a Nigeria we assimilate very quickly due to the power of his visual imagery and his ability to evoke the family relationships, local characters and the vibrant sounds of nature around their compound.

The story takes wings when the brothers go fishing in a local river and a madman, Abulu, prophesies that Ikenna, the oldest brother, will be killed by one of his siblings. Despite their strong bond, the boys’ loyalty is challenged and events unfold and things really do fall apart.

Ben’s narrative is fast paced and one chapter’s haunting and harrowing events lead to another. The story is set in 1990s Nigeria and Obioma shows us a background of social disintegration and change. There is a strong sense of the Nigerian cultural belief in faith, prophecy and myth. Ben’s strict father does all in his power to control and stabilise his family’s future but, on their doorstep, there is a wild madman who masturbates in public, rapes a corpse and fries refuse in a wok. The central role of the family is clearly established and then broken apart. Ben’s close-knit unit  which once held so much promise and hope is challenged and fractured by a sequence of unavoidable consequences: the tension is palpable and thrilling.

The story is poignant but there is no excessive sentiment. Ikenna’s fate is played out and events are set in motion in a way which can’t be avoided and each brother’s story, in turn, becomes a central focus. The novel deals with Ben’s rites of passage and of him coming to terms with dilemmas which face us all: the central unavoidable question is, where does loyalty end and vengeance begin?

In chapter after chapter – and I won’t create spoilers – every member of Ben’s family is deeply affected by what happens to Ikenna and consequences heap on former consequences to create tragedy and a shocking story which makes the novel hard to put down.

Obioma’s style is always evocative, clear and never indulgent. He writes with the lucid understanding of the changing world through the eyes of a growing boy, but there is always a rich landscape of characters and setting which brings the context of modern Nigeria into sharp focus. The story accelerates with perpetual breathlessness towards a thrilling ending and it is beautifully told and always credible.

This is Obioma’s first novel and I loved it from cover to cover. It is richly imaginative, with an original voice and it’s a gripping read. Goodreading Magazine has called it ‘African Kite Runner’: I assume this is because Obioma’s ability to weave a haunting story is, like Khaled Hosseini’s, powerful and it makes for a stunning read. I will buy all of his books.

Book review: Diski and Rosoff

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I’m still on my quest to read books by authors I wouldn’t usually choose, looking at genres which are new to me, discovering what I can learn as a writer from them. I recently heard a keynote speech by Meg Rosoff at a writers’ conference and I decided she clearly knows and can explain fluently how her creative mind works as an author, so I bought her novel ‘How I live now’ and I read it last week.

I then read ‘Apology for the Woman Writing’ by Jenny Diski. She is my sort of writer. I’ve read half a dozen of her books before. Diski, the unofficially adopted daughter of Doris Lessing, died this April and I’ve always admired the way she writes and her conviction to delve into any subject, taboo or otherwise, so I read ‘Apology’.

Meg Rosoff is a really ‘neat’ writer. I use the word about her work, not only in deference to her American birth and the implied meaning of both ‘terrific’ and ‘undiluted’, but also to suggest the more universal meaning of her writing being  ‘well ordered,’ ‘smart’ and ‘adroit.’

Diski writes beautifully: her phrases are muscular and intelligent and she paints pictures with words which not only evoke a character or a setting but do so with conviction and flair.

I read ‘How I live now’ in two days. I discussed Rosoff’s work with a friend who has boundless insight into YA novels and she shrewdly recommended that I read this one first. Rosoff’s story is about an American girl, Daisy, who comes to stay with cousins in the UK: the country is ravaged by civil  war. Daisy has her own teenage issues which she brings to the story and she falls in love with her cousin Edmond and they live a blissful and natural existence until the war rips the children’s home apart.

Rosoff is strong on issues: Daisy has a problem with eating and it is an integral part of who she is, and it is a direct result of her past. Rosoff does not provide fairytale stories or easy answers but when Daisy is on the run for her life with her young cousin Piper, her needs change and new resolutions begin to occur in her life as other problems arise.

This is a book I wish I’d read as a teenager. The characters are natural and imperfect and I believed in their lives and shared their problems. Through Daisy’s eyes, we understand her background, her passions and the horrors of the war which she must learn to deal with and surmount. The tragedies, killings and heartaches which stem from the war are never diluted and the result is that the story has impact and there is tension throughout.

Jenny Diski’s ‘Apology for the Woman Writing’ is a third person account of the life of Marie De Gournay in the 17th century. It deals with a young woman who shirks the three choices she has available to a person of her class and gender: to become a wife, a housekeeper for her ageing mother or a nun. De Gournay discovers as a child the secret pleasures of  her father’s library: she reads the classics and she teaches herself about translation, then she encounters the work of essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne. On meeting him, she stabs herself with a hairpin as a gesture of her devotion. This is the beginning of her obsession and her ambition to become a writer

Of course, the journey is difficult for Marie who is awkward, spontaneous and determined, and Diski shows us the hazards which lie in wait for her in a world where intellectual discussion and writing exist only in male-dominated society.

Diski writes with clarity and accuracy and we quickly understand the pressures which lie in wait for Marie. The story begins with her as an older woman, wheezing on her death bed, attended by an ancient cat and an impoverished servant. Marie’s story is never going to be easy reading.

Nor is Michel de Montaigne a perfect mentor for Marie. He is conceited and inflexible, entrenched in his gender and cultural expectations, so he views her as an oddity, impressed by her mind but but not able to fully accommodate her intense desire to learn.

Both books make fascinating reading. Rosoff’s novel is a quick read with a younger audience in mind, and Diski’s story is a study of a slice of history from the perspective of a gifted but eccentric woman. It is a novel which, of course, makes us consider gender politics today with regard to women’s intellectual contributions to society.

Diski and Rosoff are important writers and I enjoyed both books. Rosoff writes a romping good read for young adults but her work goes beyond that, as she is a driving force for youngsters to accept who they are and to deal actively and positively  with the hand life offers them. Diski shows us a woman with potential and how a male-dominated society fails to take her seriously.

Both women write brilliantly in their own genre and there is much to learn from their style, from their incisive minds and the content of their books.

Review: ‘The Shock of the Fall’ and ‘Thursdays in the Park’

I’m on a quest to read popular novels that aren’t the type of thing I’d usually read. Novels which might make one of my most respected literary  friends wrinkle her nose and push it aside if I offered to lend it to her. The sort of writing I’m not steeped in. I’m doing this because, as a writer, I want to know what readers of commercial fiction read and what’s popular and then I’ll try to analyse why.

I’m steeped in Amis and Achebe, Brontë and Bashevis Singer, Camus and Carter, De Beauvoir and Dostoevsky and I love modern writers like Matt Haig and Paul Kingsnorth, Sunjeev Sahota and Emma Donoghue and Sarah Winman and Roddy Doyle. So it’s probably fair to say that I’m going to struggle with Hilary Boyd’s ‘Thursdays in the Park.’ I picked it out because it’s about an older protagonist, and I’m interested in how writers create the older protagonist, as I have one in in my first novel.

Boyd’s central character defies the stereotype of young heroines:she offers readers a role model or a lifestyle they can look forward to when they’re older, or she simply champions the older reader. So I read Hilary Boyd’s novel about 60-year old Londoner Jeanie who falls in love with Ray the Aikido teacher and is fed up with her sexless marriage to dull, rich, controlling George.

It’s a romance and that’s pretty much what the book is about. I never felt particularly close to Jeanie who was, to me, a middle-class heroine, attractive, popular, just like all the other stereotypical romance heroines, but older. That, in itself, was disappointing. Jeanie and I never bonded, although I did feel a bit of sympathy when I found out poor George had been abused as a child. Well done Hilary Boyd for not being scared of that one.

The signposting was a bit of a problem for me: I knew what would happen next on every turn. And then I struggled with the holier-than-thou perfect daughter Chanty and the silly spoilt son-in-law, and Jeanie’s unbridled passion for the man she chats to in the park who mistakes her for the two year old’s mum, rather than her Granny. (Oh yeah, right?)

I’m not really the target audience for this book. I noticed that Hilary Boyd had the usual difficulties making the romantic or sexy scenes different or unique – a problem we all share, where the protagonists look at each other with heaving hearts and sigh a lot and shrug a lot and shake their heads with disbelief. I did learn something from Boyd though; she’s empathically behind her character all the way and she creates feasible human dilemmas. I suppose Jeanie wasn’t enough of a feminist protagonist for me; she didn’t rebel enough, and her acceptance of the views of others, especially George, didn’t convince me to care about her sufficiently.

I wouldn’t want to be Jeanie and I couldn’t make the leap of sympathy but I’m sure ‘Thursdays in the Park’ is  popular with the reader who likes her novels easy to read and happy at the end. On my masters’ course we were often asked: what does the central protagonist want and what stands in the way? This one was simple. Jeanie wants Ray and George is blocking her path to ultimate happiness with a man.

I read ‘Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer and the blurb told me that Filer’s novel follows in the footsteps of Mark Haddon. Filer is a mental health nurse so it’s clear he knows his background. The book is written from the point of view of Matt, whose unhappy situation stems from his brother’s death earlier in the story and we follow Matt’s progress as we are quickly hooked into the idiosyncrasies and dilemmas of the character.

Nathan Filer does two things I like a lot. First of all, the voice which tells the story is really engaging. Matt’s character is unique, surprising and speaks to the reader as someone we come to understand and know and like, unlike Jeanie whom we know everything there is to know about from page one.Secondly, the novel is well shaped, not linear and although it leads the reader to where you know you’ll ultimately end up, the journey has a few surprises on the way and this deepens the reader’s compassion for Matt and his family and we care about the impact of what has happened to brother Simon.

This is definitely a ‘safe hands’ book:  Filer’s story is so well organised and his character speaks with such clarity and credibility and authority that the novel is captivating. Add to that the bittersweet humour and the contrast between the harrowing scenes and the touching moments, and it makes for a memorable read. Cleanly written, cleverly contrived, ‘The Shock of the Fall’ works well on the levels of both a story well told and a learning journey for the reader.

I’m glad I read both books, although I enjoyed one much more than the other. But my journey isn’t just for my own reading pleasure: I’m building an understanding of what is popular, of what readers want and what works for them. And then it all goes into the writer’s bag of learning to be sifted and synthesised, so that I know what to aspects to reject and what techniques will work for me as I continue to develop my unique voice.

Beasts of no Nation: a novel about a boy and a gun

Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of no Nation is a brutal story about a boy who is forced to become a soldier. I read it in an hour and it has real impact. It’s written in the present continuous tense, which  gives it a sense of immediacy and the voice of the character is omnipresent, youthful and naive,. His language is idiosyncratic and optimistic, despite being faced with a horrific and life-changing experience.

Agu, the narrator, is a bright boy and a promising scholar with an ambition to become a ‘big man,’ a doctor or an engineer; then civil war breaks out and his family is dissipated and he is taken to become a soldier.We are never told in which country the story takes place: the fact that it is in an unnamed part of West Africa hints at the ubiquitous prevalence of child soldiers.

The author Uzodinma Iweala is a Harvard graduate who has worked with the rehabilitation of  Nigerian child soldiers, and his story is expertly written from the boy’s viewpoint, a simple story which focuses on each moment Agu experiences, using language which graphically but simply describes incidents, emotions and reactions.

At times there is an almost comic- book style to Agu’s speech, emphasising his lost childhood, in phrases like ‘War is coming and you are seeing airplane and hearing GBWEM GBWEM’  and ‘I am liking sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head.’

The novel bursts with realistic characters: the tragic Strika who first finds Agu and becomes his friend; the ‘Leftenant’ who comes to a bad end in a brothel, the wild Rambo and the callous Commandant who abuses Agu and terrifies him.

‘Agu, I am not bad man, he is saying softly and putting hand on my back.’

Agu is offered  the simple choice of death or life as a soldier: he joins the rebel troops and he is given a knife. We are with him as he marches, as he is given ‘gun juice’ which takes away the terror of killing. We experience his wretchedness, his efforts to survive, his omnipresent fear, loneliness, hunger and the contrasting pride and degradation of being a guerilla soldier.Throughout, Agu provides us with his own philosophy as he is forced to murder, rape and question his own humanity, and we see the pointless repetition of sacrifice, starvation and slaughter through his eyes.

Using flashbacks, Agu contrasts his life as a soldier with the happiness of his former life, remembering his hopes for a future to become a man of importance, and recalling the tragic loss of his natural  lifestyle where feasting and warrior dancing was a part of his family experience.  He tells of how he often played with makeshift guns with friends, a sharply ironic image against his premature coming of age as a soldier.

The story ends with Agu and the rest of his dishevelled soldier band walking home. Agu is found by missionaries where he is supported towards recovery, and helped to become physically  stronger. He is encouraged to talk about his feelings and his experiences as a soldier but he is a changed boy, still  ambitious to become a respected professional and to regain self esteem but he is damaged, haunted by nightmare scenes of war, and he is changed, with a bitter lack of faith in the Bible which had once been  his comfort.

Last year, a feature film adaptation of Beasts of no Nation was released, starring  Abraham Attah and Idris Elba.The book is a story of survival and hope but,.mostly, it is a horror story of fractured childhood and a travesty of human rights. It screams out to be read.

 

Laddish literature? Not in Germaine Greer’s book.

I have just finished reading ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’ by Germaine Greer. It is the most superb read. I love the way Greer becomes a voice in your head when you’re reading this book: you can hear her firmness, the way she is sure of her facts and how she isn’t afraid to proffer an opinion. And this is a book which demands that the writer has an opinion and shares it with conviction.

Shakespeare’s wife is, of course, Ann or Agnes (pronounced Annis) Hathaway, much maligned by the people Greer calls ‘bardolaters’. Ann could not, according to critics, ever have been good enough to be the wife of the great Will. Eight years his senior and pregnant when they married, she must surely have trapped him into an unhappy marriage, been ugly, illiterate, then she was doubtlessly dumped by him when he went off to London to become the greatest English writer ever. As Greer puts it, ‘Shakespeare could not have been great if he had not jettisoned his wife.’ She goes on to demonstrate exactly what she means, suggesting former critics’ opinions have been biased against wives: ‘Literature was a particularly laddish enterprise…’ The rest of Greer’s book cleverly takes each myth about Hathaway’s shortcomings and blasts them apart.

Greer is a researcher, an academic and a sleuth. She cites historical records and Shakespeare’s own works, finding evidence that Ann Hathaway was no ball and chain who held back her brilliant spouse. Greer’s book is lively, erudite and mischievous, a stimulating read full of evidence. It inspired me to want to return to an academic life and study Shakespeare further.

Germaine Greer knows so much about sixteenth century England, the  social conventions, the dates and records, and she strongly puts aside prior assumptions and fantasies about Ann Hathaway and deals with new supposition, hypotheses and likelihood in a way which makes her case absolutely viable.

The treatment of Ann Hathaway by earlier critics is inherently misogynistic or superficial; Greer shows us another Ann, who was independent, strong and an influential partner in Shakespeare’s work.

Greer creates an interesting picture of the courtship between Ann and Will,. citing one of his sonnets, number 145, which she claims was written for Ann. She calls it syntactically  ‘baggy… almost dropsical’ which made me laugh aloud, but she’s right.

‘I hate’ from hate away she threw

And saved my life, saying ‘not you’

Greer throws in a mischievous ‘Hurrah’ in at the end of this poem; of course, ‘hate away‘ refers to Hathaway and she suggests that Will courted Ann with his sonnets as it was possibly the only way he could solicit her affections, his family being impoverished at that point.

Greer goes on, citing plays such as Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream  to demonstrate Shakespeare’s attitude to women, exploding myth after myth, using and reinterpreting historical evidence to create a balanced and complex picture of Ann. She covers Hathaway’s  looks, the marriage, Ann’s pregnancy before marriage, and she even suggests that it was Ann who sent Will to London to seek his fortune. Greer tells us how Ann  handled Shakespeare’s last illness and she also mentions his will, the infamous second-best bed and then she boldly suggests that ‘Ann Shakespeare could have been involved in the First Folio project.’

This is beautifully paced and informative book. It is well written: it is always stimulating, entertaining and provocative, as Greer  challenges the current thinking, mostly skewed, outmoded male perspectives, so engagingly. Her writing is confident and persuasive and I read this book in days, enjoying every page and every detail. Brilliant and highly recommended. ‘Shakespeare’s Wife.’ The exposé!

 

When to stop and when to read on until the bitter end?

A few days ago, I began reading a book which didn’t immediately grab my attention. Like all readers, I encounter novels which work for me and some which don’t.

Even among  novelists whose work I love, there are books which don’t do it for me. Donna Tartt is a great example- I loved The Goldfinch and The Secret History but couldn’t – or wouldn’t –  finish The Little Friend.

This brings me to the dilemma. At which point does a reader decide to stop reading a book? Shouldn’t we give it more opportunity to pull us into the story? Maybe the next page will be the one where the narrative clicks, where we engage with the character, where we sink into the sofa of suspended disbelief and we are carried away on a heroic journey to a place where our feet don’t touch the ground until the last line?

I have ploughed through page after page of some difficult books, grimly determined that I would read every word and get to the end, hoping that I’d change my mind. And at times it has paid off – Joyce, Dickens, Proust – I reached the final chapter, closed the book and smiled, feeling pleased that I persisted.

As a kid, I used to read the books my Mum borrowed from the library, sneaking a peek at the narrative when she was busy and then accidentally reading the whole thing. Catherine Cookson, Jean Plaidy, Sven Hassel – books set in particular historical periods, usually about working class people, usually girls (or soldiers), and how they fought against gender expectations and class expectations and, due to their grit and determination, made something of their lives or were embroiled in a powerful tale. I could see why my Mum loved the escapism and the small personal victories of the characters in these books, especially against her own background. They weren’t for me, though.

So when I read ‘The Dressmaker of Dachau’ by Mary Chamberlain, I was reminded of these novels, and it is probably because of Plaidy and Cookson- and my Mum- that I read the whole novel until the end. My Mum would have loved The Dressmaker of Dachau. It wasn’t my sort of novel.

The main protagonist is Ada, an ambitious seamstress from working class London in 1939, and how her life changes during the war. She meets a man, she makes a wrong decision, she copes with her situation as well as possible and the usual string of events follows a naive girl with a little talent and not a lot of luck: abuse, pregnancy, imprisonment, abuse, injustice, prostitution, abuse.

I never really got to grips with Ada’s character. She was so passive perhaps she didn’t have one. I assume women during this period were expected to meld into their male counterparts? Ada survives the war and systematic maltreatment from everyone she meets, it seems, because she can sew beautiful frocks.

I have a longstanding trauma with sewing, which began in school. I hate sewing and Ada’s subservience, bent, blinking and sore- eyed over a machine, trying to make everyone else look ‘modish,’ didn’t change my views.

Mary Chamberlain, the author, is a great historian: she has a good factual knowledge of the period, not just in terms of events and places but also she understands the social position of women in the wartime. She uses lots of vernacular to create the flavour of the people and the era and perhaps it was her evoking the characters and their setting which alienated me, all the Germans and the working class English seldom straying from the stereotype.

My Mum would have loved the way Chamberlain writes: War marched with hobnail boots, left, right, left, right.

And:

Stanislaus laughed, a cruel mocking ha ha. She had never known him like this.

It wasn’t for me, though.

The Dressmaker of Dachau was a fragmented story which never pulled me in. The narrative was well-paced but I never engaged with the style, nor did I have empathy with Ada, whom I never got to know any better by the end of the book.

Much of the story is told to the reader, rather than shown, and there is little internal monologue which might have enabled the reader to empathise more with Ada.

How long would this war go on? She scored off another month on her calendar under the table. March 1944. She had been in this house for over two years.

I wanted to know what Ada felt, to feel what she was feeling beyond the hunger and hardship, to really get to know her, but that never happened. She slides into prostitution and even into the terrible events which occur to her at the end of the novel with a kind of passive acceptance. A bit of the Cookson grit and pluck, the ability to fight back and change events rather than to go under, was what I’d hoped for. However, Chamberlain’s book is a tragic one: Ada is something of the  working class everywoman my Mum would have believed in – ambitious and beautiful who is reduced to a victim and a plaything by two evil and abusive con-men, both of whom were not English.

I read to the end and gave it every chance. This book didn’t deliver what I wanted in a heroine or in a narrative.It was not for me.

My Mum would have nodded sagely at the fate of poor Ada. Too often, Ada lay back and thought of Britain when she should have punched the bloke in the face and run away. Maybe that is the moral of the story- women like Ada couldn’t escape the constraints of gender and class and, in wartime Britain, perhaps that was sometimes the case. But I wanted a heroine with more to her than a sewing machine, a fancy frock and a ridiculously optimistic trust in men, offered from the vantage point of lying on her back.

I probably didn’t need to read to the end to realise that poor Ada’s sad story was not my sort of novel. I think there are readers out there who will relish the historical setting and enjoy the tragedy of a slim and beautiful seamstress who dares to have an ambition beyond her class. Ada is a tragic figure, a melodrama queen, tied to the railway tracks of her gender and class while the moustache-twirling  villains ride off into the distance laughing.

Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker is a novel with a similar theme – a woman who sews sassy dresses and wants to improve her life despite being enmeshed in tragedy – but it is much more satisfying, written with panache, the mischievous and raunchy Tilly planning her explosive escape from behind the treadle.

Juxtaposing Tilly with Ada puts it all in perspective. Ada’s Mum tells her not to ‘darken her doorstep’ again. Tilly’s Mum is Mad Molly, with a bad reputation all of her own, and Tilly rescues her. One is a fighter and the other is beaten down, a victim of misplaced trust, ignorance and misogyny until the final page. Out of the two, I prefer heroines to behave with a little more anarchy and disobedience, to rise above gender or class expectations and to think and act outside the box! I’d rather be a Tilly than an Ada but, more importantly, I would rather read about a Tilly than an Ada.

Why ‘The Bone Clocks’ took my breath away

David Mitchell’s novel, The Bone Clocks, passed me by last year although several of my writer friends raved about it. But I am on a writer’s quest to read even more widely than I used to. Everything is inspiration: popular novels, YA, book club novels, clever writing, predictable writing, and – above all – successful writing.

David Mitchell is a writer who defies convention and breaks basic rules and that is the first thing I admire about him. His novel spans decades and jumps from one character to another, each character a tangent away from the main storyline and the central protagonist.

His first persona in The Bone Clocks is a 15 year old girl who runs away from home after an argument with her parents. A predictable scenario which would usually persuade any reader over 17 to skip pages, but not with writing of this quality. Mitchell delves straight away into the persona of Holly Sykes and he is very clever at signposting: the reader knows there are bigger issues out there, just waiting to happen. Holly is the protagonist of the story and we meet her again through the eyes of other narrators. She is the character around whom the cosmically strange stuff is happening. (No more spoilers.)

Another persona is the amoral and irritating Cambridge rat, Hugo Lamb who meets Holly at a ski resort: the subsidiary characters in this section are a little stereotypical, mildly amusing but the section really works because of the narrative style and the fast-paced action. Mitchell interweaves reality and surreality. The result is never predictable or boring and the reader is always carried forward towards what we know will become an inevitable clarification of this strange ‘atemporal’ world and it’s effect on the other characters.

Each section is fascinating in its own right. There is a narration by Holly’s partner, Ed Brubeck, who is a war correspondent in Iraq. Mitchell shows us tender scenes with Brubeck and his  family at a wedding and then whisks us to action-scenes in Iraq which are chilling and all too credible, making Brubeck’s dilemma excruciating. Then a satirical section follows, where an arrogant author called Crispin is at a book festival in Hay-on-Wye. His interviews are hilarious and we realise his career is failing. The subsequent section is a complete contrast, delivering up an ongoing battle between immortals.

Another skill Mitchell has is his ability to bend genre: is this book YA, fantasy, literary fiction? Yes, it is all of them. It is a really accessible book but this brings me to talk about Mitchell’s greatest skill. His writing, at times profound, always interesting, offering up apposite descriptions, is exceptional. He possesses the ability to select a superb descriptive phrase, a pertinent word.

Writing in the role of different personae demonstrates his stylistic skills: we believe readily in the different characters by their voice, their idiosyncrasies, and their backstories. Mitchell is an imaginative and intelligent writer but, no matter how outlandish and surreal his ideas, we accept them as real. His creations of fictitious beings and strange worlds or unexpected actions  are complex but they are never clumsy: we are always in safe hands with his writing.

He is also mischievous, and this is a great quality in his writing. Subtextually, he hints at his own literary reputation, and has an occasional nod to other writers. He is able to bring in characters from his earlier writing almost unnoticed and he obviously enjoys trickery within his writing to amuse the reader. But, above all, he is a teller of stories which are cleverly conceived and brilliantly interwoven. His writing is smooth but detailed and rich. His characters are entertaining and credible within a theme which demands that we accept a dual world of normal and atemporal beings and that we empathise with characters who can straddle and become embroiled in both worlds.

The Bone Clocks is a really good read for people of all ages. It is enthralling and always surprising. Mitchell makes jokes with the ordinary and makes the extra-ordinary accessible, whilst engrossing the reader in the sheer quality of his prose, using exactly the right words to transport the reader’s imagination.