Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!

New Fiction: The Last Photograph by Emma Chapman

As some readers may know, I was a big fan of Emma Chapman’s first novel How To Be A Good Wife. It was a taught thriller with wonderful characters and plotting, and though dark in subject matter it was a joy to read.

Chapman’s literary skills are similarly showcased in her new novel The Last Photograph. It is the story of Rook Henderson, a photographer whose life was changed by his time in Vietnam during the war there. The book alternates between Rook’s life in the 1960s, and the present day, and though this kind of time-hopping can sometimes be jarring, Chapman carefully links the section together so that they flow nicely and nothing gets muddled.

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2016 Picador hardback

There are two time frames, and there are also the two sides of Rook’s life – his work in Vietnam, and his life at home with his wife June. The novel covers his entire relationship with June and the impact that his working away from home has on their marriage. I thought this was sensitively handled and as a whole the portrait of their marriage is both sympathetic and rather stark. Chapman excels at presenting the subtleties of a relationship to the reader through dialogue as well as things left unsaid.

Personally I enjoyed the scenes in Vietnam the most. While I have seen movies and read books that discuss this place at this time, it was refreshing to see it through the eyes of a photographer, and a British one at that. The military aspect is not the focus – instead we look at the ordinary people, both the Vietnamese and the civilians like Rook who are visiting. He quickly bonds with two American journalists, Henry and Tom, and they play pivotal roles in his experience of Vietnam, both personally and professionally. The sections set in Vietnam are vivid and exciting, with Rook slowly realising how serious the situation really is. He captures amazing photographs and you can see why he likes being there, in the middle of the action.

The scenes set back home in England are of a different feel. When they are young Rook and June’s life is full of hope and excitement, but as Rook travels more and more their relationship begins to strain and there is less and less happiness in their lives. To be honest at times this got a little grim. They find it hard to communicate, Rook in particular – he bottles up his feelings and cannot find happiness in the ordinariness of life with June. His refusal to fully engage with that life, instead always yearning for adventure, made him quite a frustrating character. He is obviously unhappy with his lot and feels unfulfilled, but his only solution for this is to run away.

Rook’s passion for photography is his redeeming feature. The passages exploring this are lovely, as Rook finally feels in control, able to capture time in an image. He sees suffering and death in Vietnam but he knows that if he does not take a photograph then there will be no evidence and no one will know what happened. He revels in the details captured on film, in the impact of his work. The importance of photographs in reportage is analysed and celebrated in The Last Photograph, and is almost worth reading for this fact alone.

It isn’t the most cheery of books, but it is beautifully written and full of human understanding. The characters throughout are flawed and imperfect, and this coupled with Chapman’s precise prose makes them come alive. A successful second novel if ever there was one.

*

Published in July 2016 by Picador (UK).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Reading and watching: Room by Emma Donoghue

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2010 Picador paperback edition

Room is one of those books that ’caused a stir’ when it came out, and everyone was talking about it. I always meant to read it, but never got round to it; and then the movie trailers came out. It was time to read the book before seeing the film!

I whizzed through the book in two or three days – partly because my copy has a pretty big font, but also because it is just gripping. Room is one of the most intense books I have ever read. Even when not much was happening, you could feel the tension.

I was worried it would be really grim, and there are some unpleasant moments and scenes; but overall it is not a depressing book. The first half, when Jack and Ma are still trapped, is very claustrophobic, and you can feel Ma’s despair. But once they get out, the  book is uplifting despite their difficulties, and it feels hopeful. At the end of the story they are able to take a big step towards closure, and you can see how things will be alright. Life will still be hard at times and imperfect, but they can get through it together.

I really admire Emma Donoghue, not only for the intense and vivid quality of her writing and her story, but also for her willingness to immerse herself in such a surreal and sometimes unpleasant world. I can imagine that the writing process was sometimes overwhelming, and certainly emotional – it is definitely those things for the reader. Her sheer commitment to Jack’s narrative voice deserves high praise. It is entirely believable, and it almost hurts when you can see that he doesn’t understand certain things, or why his Ma is sad.

It is one of those books that you don’t necessarily ‘enjoy’ because of the subject matter – rather you appreciate the skill of the writer and the complexity of the work, and are impressed by it. You are engaged by the story and compelled to keep reading. It is a story of deep human interest, from a position of concern and fear but also a degree of sensationalism and a desire for things to work out and end on a positive note – which, luckily, they do. I wouldn’t say to someone, “I really enjoyed this book”, I would say, “This is a really good book.” There is a subtle but distinct difference between the two.

As for the film, I was happy in the knowledge that Donoghue wrote the script, and so I knew it would be true to the book, and it was. Having read the book only a few days before seeing the film, it was all still fresh and real in my mind, and perhaps this is why I cried so much in the cinema. As Hannah of Ponderous Pieces says in her lovely review of the film here, “this is a film about love, motherhood and what it means to be free.” I think that’s why it feels so emotional.

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2016 movie poster. (image via wikipedia.org)

The idea of being constrained and trapped in every aspect of your life is just awful, and the intensity of Jack and Ma’s escape is palpable. As with the book, I held by breath as Jack escapes, and welled up when he saw the sky for the first time. The young actor who plays Jack, Jacob Tremblay, is simply wonderful. He conveys the simplicity of being a child coupled with the complicated nature of his situation and the confusing feelings he experiences. He is also ridiculously cute, and this makes you warm to him as Jack even more.

Brie Larson blew me away as Ma – her performance is a lesson in contained emotion, and she acts with her eyes more than anything else (if that makes sense). She was just as Ma is in the book, and I just felt all her sadness at once. Even though the film is told mostly from Jack’s perspective, like in the book, there are some excellent little moments when you see things more as Ma sees them, often without any words, and the scope of their situation suddenly feels all too real.

If you liked the book, I highly recommend you see the film, as you won’t be disappointed. And I’d recommend the film even if you haven’t read the book, because it is fantastic on its own. I went to see it with my mum, who hasn’t read the book, and she loved it too, and was very impressed by the depiction of Ma and her relationship with Jack.

It’s an emotional ride, but worth it in the end.

*

Room was originally published by Picador (UK) in 2011. The film adaptation is in cinemas now. You can purchase a copy of Room from Foyles here.

 

 

The Sense of an Elephant by Marco Missiroli (tr. Stephen Twilley)

A rare deviation from me here – I actually read and am actually reviewing an unsolicited review copy! I know, world gone mad. I usually leave these to mould on the  shelf before they get passed on to a friend/family member/charity shop, but I actually decided to give this one a go. Not least because it came to me from Picador, a publisher I like, but also because it came with a note from publicist Kate Green explaining the very sweet and quite cool little scheme that Picador have thought up to help promote the book. See:

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Pretty cool right? It’s a nice touch, and encourages sharing the book, which I like. Also, the opportunity to pass the proof to someone else who might like it – or because you don’t want to keep it. Either way I like the idea.

So, the book itself. Having liked the concept, I was happy to find I liked the book as I began to read. I think as with any translated book you’ve got to take that fact into account as you read, but regardless I thought that the prose was careful and elegant, simple but effective. We are introduced to our main character, Pietro, who has just taken a job as a concierge at a condominium (essentially a small block of flats) in Milan. He looks after the building, and, you soon realise, its residents. He is particularly interested in the Martini family, and more than once enters their flat when they are out, observing their lives and taking a bicycle bell. What is he up to?

Pietro quickly makes friends with the Martinis’ neighbour, Poppi, who proves to be a charming and wise, slightly world-weary character who is easy to like. There is also Fernando, who appears to ave some kind of autism, and his mother Viola. This cast of misfits come together as Pietro’s mystery slowly unfolds for the reader.

I have to say I liked the sense of mystery that was built up, and even when you know most of the secrets, the story is still engaging. There are odd little flashbacks to Pietro’s time as a young priest, which fit in nicely and aren’t too jarring. They of course slowly shed light on the mystery.

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About two thirds of the way through the book, things start to get a little more intense, and I found both the style of writing and the events of the story becoming more and more dreamlike. To be honest it gets a bit surreal and I wondered why certain things were happening, and why some characters were acting as they were. This developed as the book went on, and though some things were concluded nicely, others were not. This is a story that needs good conclusions, and the ending was just a bit off for me. I think I just didn’t quite get it, which is unfortunate. Maybe I need to reread it a bit and work out what the author was trying to do. But I still liked the book overall, and the ideas that were explored.

Anyway, please don’t let that put you off giving this book a go. It really is rather good, and there is a lot of intelligence and beauty inside.

*

 Originally published in Italy (2012) as Il Senso dell’Elefante by Ugo Guanda Editore. Published by Picador in the UK in September 2015. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

A Little Life is a little challenge

There is a LOT of buzz and hype around A Little Life, the second novel from American author Hanya Yanagihara, which would usually put me off – but this book genuinely appealed to me and I felt a genuine sense of excitement and possibility about it. I was lucky enough to read an early copy before the UK publication date in August, which I am very grateful for. I am glad I read  A Little Life, but it was indeed a challenge – mostly because of its difficulty, its darkness, its sadness.

Picador (UK) cover, 2015. (image: goodreads.com)
Picador (UK) cover, 2015. (image: goodreads.com)

When I was making notes about the book, I found the best way to order things in my head was to make some lists. I’m going to try to convert the lists into a post now. Bear with me. This is not an easy book.

Firstly the good things. One of my favourite things about A Little Life was the depiction of that life – the vivid characters felt completely real, as if you were reading about real people. I also loved the way that time is used in the novel. Great stretches of it pass, but it doesn’t drag, and Yanagihara clearly has a great understanding of how memory works and how our memories always have a place in the present, and always affect the present. A lot of the time I found myself thinking, are we ever 100% in the present? Isn’t there always some part of us that is back in the past, suffering and waiting to be happy? That is certainly the case for at least one of the characters. I found the use of memory and time very natural, easy to follow, and true to life. It demonstrated Yanagihara’s intelligence and skill as a writer, and her understanding of human life.

I loved her emotional intelligence and sensitivity. This is one of the most emotional books I have ever read, for the characters and for the reader. Our central character is Jude, someone who has suffered incredible levels of abuse and trauma, and whose head we spend an awful lot of time in. His experience is extreme, but anyone who has experienced depression will recognise something in Jude’s thoughts and feelings. This is a tricky thing to achieve, and Yanagihara does so with skill and sensitivity. She understands that sometimes life is hard just because it is.

I also loved the sections narrated by Harold, Jude’s mentor. His is the only first-person narrative and the sporadic sections serve, I think, as a little break for the reader, a step back from the story to see it from someone else’s point of view. They are beautifully written and full of life. Jude’s story can be very overwhelming, so it is great to step back and see him from the perspective of someone who loves him, and who has a different world view. It’s difficult to explain.

Doubleday (US) cover, 2015. (image: goodreads.com)
Doubleday (US) cover, 2015. (image: goodreads.com)

Now, unfortunately, on to some things I had issues with.

Firstly there is something that I know other readers and reviewers have had an issue with in some way, whether negative or not.

Jude is the central character of A Little Life, and over the course of the book we hear about his life in more detail than anyone else’s, as well as his personal and emotional experience of that life. He was abandoned as a baby and raised by monks in a monastery. Straight away, he has no sense of home or belonging, does not know his birthday or heritage, does not have any ties. Then, there is the fact that he is abused over and over again throughout his entire childhood, by a succession of people. We learn about this abuse in stages over the course of the book (to hear it all at once would surely cause the reader to have some sort of small breakdown), and at each stage of revelation your heart breaks a little more. But I also became angry, frustrated. I couldn’t believe that Yangihara – and to some degree her editors – made the choice to make Jude suffer through so much. The sheer amount of abuse is unbelievable – it was just too much. This issue was raised in the comments below Leah’s review over at Books Speak Volumes, and one commenter, Shaina Reads, made the very good point that “Once you’ve let someone abuse/manipulate you, it’s easy to continue to think and act in patterns that make it easy for others to do the same, even when they don’t mean to.” This is very important to consider. But it is also important to consider that this is fiction, that the choice was made for Jude to be abused over and over again by so many different people. I became angry that it should be so unfair, that he should have to go through so much. It still doesn’t sit right with me.

There are also a couple of small things that bothered me. Firstly the ridiculous level of career success that all the central characters achieve – great for them, but it was a bit much. I suppose it makes up for personal suffering, but they have a ridiculous jet-set life, Jude and Willem in particular. It just seemed a bit over the top.

There’s also the fact that some events were glossed over when it seems like they should be important, or at least noteworthy – for example when the four of them go on holiday to India (extravagant, expensive), and it is the first time in a long time that they have been away together. You’d think this would be more important, but it is mentioned in passing. Anyway.

I know Jude is the focus of the novel, but I missed hearing more about Malcolm and JB’s lives as the book progressed. Jude and Willem’s story is very overwhelming, so it would have been nice to have a break with Malcolm and JB.

I also think the US cover – of a man’s crying face – is a little insensitive, given how much Jude cries and suffers.

Overall I really liked A Little Life – I enjoyed parts of it very much, but I really didn’t enjoy others, so I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed it as a whole. It was too difficult for that. I loved the characters, the writing, the settings, the world, the use of time and memory, and I would definitely read something else by Hanya Yanagihara. But I am bothered by the level of abuse depicted, the choice of making one character endure so much suffering. I didn’t agree with this choice on the part of the author, and I suppose the editor too. It overwhelmed all the good things about the book and was emotionally exhausting. I still think about Jude and feel sad for him, and angry at the unfairness of it all. I appreciate that abuse like this happens, and that this much may happen to one person in real life, and we must be aware of that, but this was created on purpose. I didn’t think the extreme level of abuse added anything to the story, or the book, or the character.

The ending was difficult, but Harold’s narration at that point was comforting. It reminds the reader that life goes on, and happiness is still out there – and that we should not dwell on sadness. I didn’t find this book very hopeful, but that is a hopeful message to take away from it.

*

Published in the US by Doubleday in March 2015; and in the UK by Picador in August 2015. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann

The Ladies of the House has had a lot of hype around it, and is a big new title for Picador (a publisher I’ve found to be reliably quite good). The cover alone intrigued me when I saw it shared over and over on Twitter, and I had to get in on the action and read a copy! And luckily once I had a copy it became part of my TBR20, so I am doubly pleased to now have read it. Sometimes you just want to see what a book is like, whether or not you think you’ll like it. I did have high hopes for this one though.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

For a book with such a beautiful cover, there is sadly not much beauty in The Ladies of the House. This is for two reasons: the lives of its characters are far from easy, and they all experience their own heartbreaks and tragedies; but also because I found it a very trying and unpleasant book, unfortunately. Sometimes you can read about tragic stories, sad lives, and still find the story beautiful, either because of the language and/or because of the emotional depth of the story, or something similar.

However, reading The Ladies of the House, I just thought ‘how awful’, and wanted to read and think about something else. I think this was because of the crucial fact that I didn’t like any of the characters and found them all quite difficult to sympathise with. Given that they are all women (the central characters at least) and go through uniquely women’s struggles, you’d think that I, a female reader, would be able to to feel for them – but most of the time McGrann’s writing was just so matter of fact, there you go, that happened, that I couldn’t connect. I didn’t feel that the characters needed to redeem themselves, but I did need something to make them more human and more real – too often they were a portrait, a template, and without the depth needed for the reader to connect, sympathise, become involved.

Generally I liked McGrann’s writing, but as I say I did find it a bit matter of fact at times. While also making it difficult for me to connect to the characters, it also meant I couldn’t like the book as a whole, despite the characters. I thought the structure of the story worked well, with the jumps thorough time executed brilliantly, but a problem occurred when the dramatic opening section didn’t tally with the somewhat anti-climactic ending. The opening sequence implies a great mystery, great drama, something to be discovered. Instead we are taken through the long and unhappy lives of the characters, all the way to an ending that links back the beginning – but in the most unexciting way, ending abruptly and without closure for the reader. I thought, oh, is that it. That wasn’t worth it.

I really, really, wanted to like The Ladies of the House. But it just left me cold. Sorry…

*

Published in March 2015 by Picador. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Re-Reading: How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

This article contains spoilers about key plot points that you will not want to find out if you have not read this book. Or you might want to, but I thought I’d let you know.

Recently I wrote about re-reading – why we do or do not choose to re-read certain books, and what we can get out of revisiting the people and stories that first made us keep on reading. I’ve barely re-read anything in my life, so I decided to make a ‘To Re-Read List’ and reacquaint myself with past loves.

First up is How to Be a Good Wife. It was published in January 2013, and I read it in October 2012, so a little while ago now. Long enough that although I remember the plot and why I liked it, I’ve forgotten the intricacies and the story and the depth of the writing. Because this does happen, I find – no matter how much we love a book and might remember certain scenes that ‘got’ us, we inevitably forget a lot of it too. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as it is the absolutely perfect reason for choosing to re-read a book, aside from having loved it. I look forward to revisiting things I’ve forgotten, but that I know I loved.

Picador 2013 hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com
Picador 2013 hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

How to Be a Good Wife is narrated by Marta, a forty-something housewife living with her husband Hector in a small and isolated, but unnamed, Scandinavian town. She is bored and lonely now that her beloved son Kylan has flown the nest, and she lives each day under the tyranny of her watch. Marta is obsessed with what time it is and when she should do things, and this jumped out at me even more the second time around. Given that I know the ‘twist’ in the story and the ‘truth’ that is later unveiled, this obsession and all her other tics were even more foreboding and unsettling than they were the first time I read the book.

When you read something like this for the first time, part of the joy comes from discovering the twist, and I imagine this could ruin a second visit. But luckily there is still enough in this story for that not to be the case. I remember sitting there, after reading it for the first time, going over and over the ins and outs of what Hector did and the story as a whole. It is a little complicated, a little mysterious, and a whole lot unsettling. It is the kind of thing that sticks in your mind, and even though I’ve read the book before it did not fail to unnerve me once again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The simple fact of reading How to Be a Good Wife was just as enjoyable and engaging as it was the first time. I noticed things that had perhaps become a little lost the first time. Not plot details, but the subtlety of Chapman’s writing and the very intense atmosphere of the book. I had forgotten just how claustrophobic the story is and how unnerving Marta’s life seems to be. Hector is very serious, controlling, and Marta is terrified of doing something wrong.

Marta constantly quotes maxims from a book given to her as a wedding present by Hector’s mother (who is also a very controlling, overbearing presence) – a twentieth century guide called ‘How to Be a Good Wife’ that instructs wives to be seen and not heard, to give their husband authority on every matter and even that his topics of conversation are ‘more important’. I’m not actually sure whether this was a real book, but a quick google produces some very similar material (aside from the joke-y gift ones) such as this and this. The ideas are pure Stepford and the woman is reduced to nothing more than a ‘wife’, a sort of service person for her husband. She is expected to be perfect, subservient, and to value her husband above herself – in fact these guides and this way of thinking designates that the wife’e value only exists in relation to how well she fulfills her ‘role’. Depressing, right? But re-reading also made me think about Chapman’s implications in including this book of Marta’s – it is one of the ways that Hector controls her, but I think it also dictates how he genuinely thinks a wife should be. He definitely doesn’t have a ‘normal’ modern view of a marriage as an equal partnership.

The atmosphere in Marta and Hector’s house constantly feels as if they have just had an argument – but they never argue. Every move and every word is filled with tension and they never seem to relax. It feels strange to read that the sleeping Hector hugs Marta to him. She in turn doesn’t seem to get any pleasure from this; she cannot sleep and creeps out of the room. Though How to Be a Good Wife is only short, I found it easier to read it in short bursts, as sometimes the atmosphere was just so cloying and tense that I needed a little break – I needed to remember that I was not Marta. For Marta is a victim of emotional cruelty, and this is something that I think we have all encountered but very few of us have to live with day in and day out.

Picador 2014 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com
Picador 2014 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com

I found reading this book for the second time a much more emotional experience than previously. Knowing the facts and knowing how it turns out meant that I did not feel the hopefulness, for Marta, that I did the first time. I thought a lot about her experiences in ‘the room’ and how she must feel as her memory starts to come back. I thought a lot about Hector as a man, as a person. We only see him from Marta’s point of view, but once we know what he did, how he made Marta belong to him, we see him differently. I thought about the cases we hear about on the news of women kept inside houses for years and years (such as the Ariel Castro case, or Natascha Kampusch) and molded to be part of someone else’s identity. It is horrifying, morbid, desperately sad and very destructive. How to Be a Good Wife is fictional, but it rings eerily true, and this makes it even more compelling, but also more disturbing. It is enjoyable in one sense, in that it is beautifully crafted, but it is also not enjoyable given its nature. But it is a ‘good book’, one that deserves reading and examination. I’m glad I re-read it, and was able to re-examine it. I know that Chapman’s next novel is about an entirely different subject, but I look forward to it greatly.

*

Published in January 2013 by Picador (UK). You can read my original review here.

Buy online from The Great British Bookshop.

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I think it is far to say that in the time since it has been published, less than a month, Burial Rites has become a bit of a ‘sensation’. It is everywhere, and everyone seems to be talking about it. I don’t usually rush to read books that have a lot of hype around them, but I was genuinely attracted to the story this book tells, and I had to buy myself a copy.

The UK cover is also beautiful. The pages are edged in black too, which not only fits with the colour scheme of the cover but adds a sense of the gothic, of something dark and cold; it hints at the sad story within.

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2013 Picador hardback edition (image: goodreads.com)

When Hannah Kent was a student in her native Australia, she went on an exchange trip to Iceland. She was seventeen, alone in a foreign land entirely different from her own, and felt like an outsider. She came across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir – the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes was an outsider too, and Kent felt some small connection with her. On her return to Australia, the story of Agnes stayed with Kent, and she ended up choosing her story for her PhD thesis – the manuscript that would become Burial Rites. After taking a research trip to Iceland, where she poured over records and archives, Kent wrote her own version of Agnes’ story.

In her early thirties Agnes was convicted, along with a young man named Fridrik Sigurdsson, of the murders of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. The murders were committed in 1828 and the pair were executed in 1830. At the time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish Crown, and prisoners were usually sent to Denmark to serve time, or to be executed. A lack of money meant that Agnes and Fridrik were kept in Iceland – first in rudimentary prisons, and then placed on separate farms to work and repent. Agnes was placed on a farm called Kornsa, as the owner, Jon Jonsson, was a District Commissioner. Burial Rites begins as Agnes is moved from her temporary prison and taken to Kornsa.

The family there are informed that they must house her, and given no choice in the matter. They are scandalised and fearful for their safety; but Margret, the mother, takes some pity on Agnes and asks for her shackles to be removed. She also helps her to wash, and gives her clean clothes. The prisoner is set to work on the farm, and she is given a young priest to help her pray and repent for her crimes as she prepares to ‘meet her destiny’. Over the course of the novel we hear more and more about Agnes’ life, abandoned by her mother and shuffled between farms as a servant; and we learn about how she came to know Natan Ketilsson, to live with him – and to kill him.

The narration alternates between third person, and first person in Agnes’ voice. It is a very real voice, if that makes sense – I imagine Kent would have had to empathise as much as possible and really try to put herself in Agnes’ shoes. The despair, longing, sadness, resignation and fear the Agnes feels during her time at Kornsa are all relayed to the reader through Kent, and you really feel that Agnes is speaking to you from 1829. I know that sounds corny, but the voice is just so believable, so down to earth and relatable that the real Agnes seems to connect with Kent’s fictional version of her.

Hannah Kent. Image: courier-journal.com
Hannah Kent. Image: courier-journal.com

While we empathise and sympathise with Agnes and her terrible fate, we also see every flaw in her character, and believe that she may have been capable of murder. Yet, I still doubted at times whether she was guilty; and even if she was, I did not want her to die. Iceland and the UK no longer have the death penalty, and this book, I think, explains why that is so important. Even is someone has committed something as terrible and unforgivable as murder, killing them does not make things right; and they are still a person. They don’t deserve to die – no one does. And when you have read this book, and heard Agnes’ story, you will wish that she did not have to die for what she did – and not in the way that she did.

I finished Burial Rites just before bed a couple of nights ago, and it kept me awake. I felt an immense sadness for Agnes. The final pages are particularly heart wrenching and I wished I could take away Agnes’ fear. Hannah Kent is a truly beautiful writer, who has engaged deeply with a strange and mysterious woman from more than a hundred years ago, and brought her to life again in the 21st century. But it was not only sadness for Agnes that kept me awake. It was an overwhelming sense of emotional connection with many of the characters in this novel, Margret in particular. I will be thinking about this novel, and the people within it, for a long time.

*

Published by Picador in the UK, and by Little, Brown in the US, in September 2013.

Hannah Kent writes for the Guardian about how she came to write Burial Rites

A photo essay from Iceland by Hannah Kent featuring locations from the book

Hannah Kent’s website

Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub

What attracts people to fame? Narcissism? Feelings of inadequacy? A need to be loved?

For Laura Lamont, it’s all these things; but it wasn’t always.

Laura Lamont the movie star begins life as Elsa Emerson, a young girl growing up in Door County, Wisconsin, in the 1920s and 30s. Her parents run a theatre in a converted barn on their land, and for the summer months actors and stage crew stay with the family in various cabins and outbuildings, putting on plays every night. Elsa dreams of being on the stage, of being part of the excitement and the spectacle.

Picador hardback cover. Image: bookoxygen.com
Picador hardback cover. Image: bookoxygen.com

She is the youngest of three sisters – there is stoic, mysterious Josephine, and dramatic, beautiful Hildy. Everyone loves Hildy, and everyone says she should be the one on stage, but she shows little interest. Elsa cannot imagine not wanting to be on stage, with everyone cheering for her. One summer when Elsa is nine, Hildy gets involved with one of the actors, Cliff. The results of that affair will change Elsa’s life forever.

In her late teens Elsa marries a visiting actor, Gordon Pitts, and they move to Hollywood together – young love and young dreams. At a party for a film in which Gordon has a bit part (though he acts like the star), a heavily pregnant Elsa is ‘spotted’ by Irving Green, one of the studio heads. He renames her Laura Lamont and tells her to come and see him after the baby is born and she’s lost thirty pounds, and he’ll make her a star. Again, her life is changed forever.

This point is also where the novel changes forever.

The opening section in Wisconsin is very charming and vivid, with excellent characterisations of Elsa, her family, and the actors. There is also a great sense of place and environment, and the influence the life in the theatre has on young Elsa – it is only natural that she should dream of being a part of the plays, of performing and gaining recognition for her talents. Her relationship with her ‘perfect’ older sister Hildy is also brilliantly drawn, with Elsa idolising the teenager and wondering how she could ever be unhappy. What happens to Hildy has a such an effect on Elsa that it stays with her for the rest of her life. She is sill young and naive, but altogether likeable and seems to have great potential for development as a character. You want her to succeed.

In Hollywood, nothing is as Elsa expected. She did not expect to get pregnant so early on, or be singled out at a party by a studio head. She is overwhelmed and doesn’t seem to have time (or the impulse) to make any major decisions for herself. She is swept along by life, and still unsure of herself. Motherhood and marriage do not give her a sense of identity, and so she looks for this in her acting career.

Alas, she does not find it. Elsa/Laura is desperate for the attention, affection and admiration that Hildy always had and that she felt she did not. She constantly tells herself that it should be Hildy in Hollywood becoming a star and has constant feelings of inadequacy, as of the world wanted Hildy and they got stuck with her instead. Most of this stems from her idolisation of Hildy, but also their mother’s lack of maternal instincts and her outright disapproval of the life her youngest daughter has chosen.

Throughout Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures, I found Laura to be a very passive character. Everything happens to her, and she is not very proactive on her own. When she is acting in a film, she is told exactly what to say and do and how to be, but in her own life she is completely lost. She and Gordon divorce soon after her rebirth as Laura, and she is charged with looking after their two young daughters – but her housekeeper and nanny Harriet does most of that. So Laura reads her scripts, meets with important people, and acts in her films. In no way does she take control over her own life.

From Laura’s early days as a movie star, there is a parallel between her and another actress at her studio, Ginger. Ginger and Laura start out together, but Ginger’s career is entirely different to Laura’s. She acts in movies but later moves into television, and always plays comedic roles. She is incredibly successful and even moves her way up in the studio, influencing the movies that are made. She succeeds ahead of Laura because she takes charge of her life and makes decisions for herself; she is also very ambitious, something that Laura never seems to be. She wants to act, but her life as a movie star is one that was handed to her, and she never seems to dream of stardom. She simply becomes depressed that she hasn’t achieved it, while making no considerable effort to do so.

Later in her life she resorts to reflecting on what she sees as failures in her life, but that she has made no effort to achieve. For instance she constantly regrets not taking her children to Wisconsin more often, but never makes any plans and or does anything to make this happen. She just seems to like moaning.

Emma Straub. Image: picador.com
Emma Straub. Image: picador.com

As her career dwindles and the children need her less, Laura begins incessantly writing letters to her mother, who never responds. Over the years, Laura’s parents came once to Hollywood to go with her to the Oscars, and she visits Wisconsin with her family once too. On both occasions, her mother is sour and cold, disapproving of Laura and the life she has chosen. After the visit to Wisconsin, Laura’s mother writes her a particularly cruel letter in which she requests less and less contact, as they have so little in common. It devastates Laura, but she continues to write; again her need for attention and love dictates her actions. You feel sorry for her as her mother is very unkind, but at the same time you wish that Laura would do something for herself and stop seeking attention and validation from someone who will never provide it.

I loved the opening section of Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures, about Elsa’s childhood in Wisconsin; but once she gets to Hollywood, things go downhill not only for Laura but also for the reader. While Emma Straub’s writing is consistently fluid, considered and elegant, her storytelling meanders and gets muddled in Laura’s emotions and thoughts of self-pity. Laura spends too much time thinking about the past and what could have been, and doesn’t seem to learn much. This is why I found the ending unsatisfying – while Laura fulfils a childhood ambition, she doesn’t really resolve any of her issues or move on from Hollywood as I thought she might. She idealises her childhood and after her career starts to wane she wastes years and years wallowing in self-pity and moping around the house drugged up on barbiturates. I wanted to shake her and shock her into doing something for herself instead of waiting for someone to save her; which in the end is what happens – and so she learns nothing at all.

There are a lot of good things about this novel, and I liked so many aspects of it (the writing, the supporting characters, and life in Wisconsin), but its negatives are too great for it to become brilliant.

*

Published by Picador in the UK and Riverhead Books in the US, in 2012. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

This Is Paradise by Will Eaves

For the first time ever, I am writing the beginning of this review before I have finished the book. I am 169 pages into This Is Paradise by Will Eaves, and, so far, it’s not working for me. But the reason I am going to write this review in two parts is because from the outset, and indeed the opening pages, I really thought I would like this novel.

2013 paperback cover
2013 paperback cover

It is the story of a family, over several decades, and examines the relationships between them. I like stories about families, I like grand sweeping narratives, and examinations of relationships. Don and Emily Allden have four children: Liz, Clive, Lotte, and Benjamin. They are an average family, ‘but then ordinary is special too…

… as the Alldens will discover thirty years later when Emily falls ill and her children come home to say goodbye. Their unforgettable story is an intimate record of survival that is clear-eyed, funny and deeply moving.

So far, to me, they just seem ordinary. Clive is referred to as ‘special’, but the other three children seem like any other children their age. The youngest, Benjamin, seems to have the most depth of character, so I’m interested to see what happens with him. Same goes for Don and Emily, but for different reasons – Don is a father in the background, goading his children but not quite engaging; and Emily is a worrier, afraid of the new tumble dryer and reluctant to get a telephone installed (this is, I’m guessing, in the 1960s). The other thing is the passage of time. It clearly moves on from chapter to chapter, but there are only the vaguest hints as to when this story might be happening, like the family not yet having a phone. At one point Lotte listens to disco music with her boyfriend, and Benjamin is embarrassed that he likes it, so that must be the 1970s. Most of the time I just felt a bit lost.

Like I say, I am only about half way through this book. I might change my mind. Eaves and the Alldens might just surprise me. I’ll let you know.

**********

Well, I’ve now finished This Is Paradise. I must say I liked the character of Benjamin, whom I was happy to spend time with. I also liked the idea of the novel, the intention and the sentiment. It is an excellently conceived novel; the problem came in the execution. To me it seemed like Eaves was a bit unsure about exactly how to make his novel as good as it could be – there is great potential here. Benjamin, for example, is a very well drawn character, with a history and a personality, nuances and opinions; but aside from Emily, he seemed to be the only character with a fully realised personality.

Will Eaves. Image: guardian.co.uk
Will Eaves. Image: guardian.co.uk

The first half of the novel, entitled ‘Bellevue’ after the road the family live on, is a potted history of their life. It is informative and entertaining, but with little depth. The second half, ‘Sunnybrook’, named for the nursing home to which Emily moves, was more intelligent and well developed, with a nice amount of gentle humour to lighten the mood. As the novel progressed, it got a lot better, with poignant reflections back on Emily’s life dotted throughout. Again it was Benjamin that caught my attention the most, trying to maintain his relationship with his ailing mother.

This Is Paradise is a genuinely good novel, but it did not move me. It was a little flat, and the family saga it told was a bit unremarkable, but the book had some genuinely good moments and characters, although I felt that Eaves put in so many characters that he didn’t know what to do with them all. Perhaps I was a bit spoilt by Wise Men! I would still recommend this book to anyone with a love of family sagas and sharp observations of everyday life.

*

This Is Paradise was published on 17th January 2013 by Picador. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.