All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Viking UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This novel was one of four that I accepted for review from Viking, and it was the one I was least sure about. I liked the initial premise, the question of whether doing a bad thing makes you a bad person, and I am always intrigued by debut novels. Not knowing much more than that, I dived in.

All the Good Things is a short book that packs a lot of punch. Our narrator Bethany is only twenty-one but she has had a very eventful and challenging life, and is in prison at the start of the book. The frame of the novel is a task set by Bethany’s counsellor to list all the good things in her life (hence the title!) and each chapter is what she writes about each of these. They range from ‘Smelling a baby’s head right into your heart’ to ‘The promise of a blank page’ and many more in between. Early on we learn that Bethany had a child, and that she loves running, and that she grew up in the foster care system. Her father is absent and her mother suffers from increasingly bad mental health, and so she is put into foster care. The Penguin website states that author Clare Fisher is interested in ‘social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls’, and this is essentially the topic of the novel. Bethany is let down by so many people, and finds herself easily lead astray. Deprived of parental love, she grabs onto any relationship she can, even if it’s clearly not right. She becomes pregnant, and it’s sort of all down hill from there.

Bethany is very young, and the language and style is appropriate to this. Like any reader, I appreciate an immersive and believable narrative voice (like Jack in Room), but for me reading Bethany’s narrative was like reading a more grown up version of a Jacqueline Wilson novel. You can see that this is a vulnerable young person, and they are in less than ideal circumstances, and you can almost see everything that’s going to happen to them. It’s incredibly sad, and in some ways it felt like a warning or a social message – hence my comparison to Jacqueline Wilson (especially her novel Bad Girls). It’s educational for someone with no experience of the world in the novel, but it lacks a certain finesse and I felt like All the Good Things was meant to be read by someone younger than me (and I’m only 29). Now, I loved Jacqueline Wilson as a child, so I’m not trying to tear down this novel, but for me it was a little too realist, a little too bleak, and I felt like it was trying to teach me something when really I just wanted to try and enjoy the writing and the story. The things that it is trying to teach are very important, but the tough subject matter and style meant that I couldn’t just enjoy it.

I must praise Clare Fisher for her realism, her refusal to shy away from unpleasantness, and her dedication to the narrative voice. There are some really heartbreaking scenes where you just want someone to help Bethany, or for her to help herself, and these are brilliantly written. I think the ending is supposed to be hopeful, but I found that after a whole book filled with disappointment, sadness, and pain it was hard to get on board with the small glint of hope at the end. Once I reached that point I felt horribly sad for Bethany and her misfortune, and I was glad to have reached the end.

All the Good Things is a very accomplished debut novel, but ultimately I think it just wasn’t for me. But, I think a lot of readers will really enjoy it, and I must recommend it for the quality of the writing and the convincing realism.

*

Published in June 2017 by Viking, an imprint for Penguin UK. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

*

Published in March 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

Beware the Hype: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

 

My Name is Lucy Barton has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and so understandably it’s quite popular at the moment generating a bit of hype. Almost every review I have read (both in newspapers/magazines and online) has been favourable, mentioning the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth of the story. My fiance’s mother gave me her copy to read, and I had high hopes.

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It is a novel without much of a plot. Our narrator Lucy is looking back at her life and recounts the time she spent in hospital in the mid 1980s. Her mother, who she had not seen for years, came to visit her and stayed for five days. They talked mostly about people they used to know, gossiping and laughing. That is the frame for the story, and the starting point for Lucy to recount various other scenes in her life that are relevant and or in some way related to this time or this visit from her mother.

Ostensibly it is a novel about a mother/daughter relationship and the nature of family. The Barton family were desperately poor when Lucy was growing up and clearly didn’t have an easy time; there are also allusions to some kind of abuse, possibly sexual, though no details are given. Whatever happened it seems like Lucy is living in a post-trauma phase in her life – her narration is very childlike and simple, and she fights to explain everything she says. Her voice is distinctive but in my opinion not very well executed as the childlike side of her is frustrating rather than endearing. She struggles to understand people and has very little emotion in her voice. I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (which would explain either her being traumatised or possibly on the autism spectrum) or just the deep self-consciousness of the writing. It seems to be a ‘thing’ these days to write in a quite blank way that is supposed to convey deep emotion in a method similar to poetry, and while this sometimes works it certainly doesn’t in this case. This ‘blankness’ also meant that to me the characters seemed underdeveloped. Given that Lucy is our narrator she is the most fully-formed, but I would say she is only 75% developed. All the other characters, including her mother, are almost like templates – they do not seem to have full personalities. As with the tone of Lucy’s narration I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (perhaps demonstrating that Lucy finds it hard to understand other people) or just a flaw in the writing.

Many reviews I’ve read praised the deep emotion of the book – but to me this novel is almost emotionless. Lucy’s voice is very flat and unmoving, and I found her hard to connect or empathise with. Given most people’s very different reaction, I wonder if I am missing something that the author is doing intentionally, or if this book just wasn’t for me. I’d be interested to hear from other readers who didn’t completely love it.

Lastly I want to consider Lucy’s relationship with her mother. Before the hospital visit they haven’t seen each other in about a decade, and the reason for this seems to be a mixture of Lucy’s desire to move away from her family to start her own life, and her parents’ dislike of her husband. Lucy also seems to have some level of resentment or anger towards her mother for her difficult childhood, though we do not know exactly what happened there. The mother is very distant and emotionally unavailable – Lucy says she has come to expect that her mother can never say ‘I love you’. They speak a couple of times about Lucy’s childhood and the rest of the family, but always briefly and evasively; most of their conversations are about people they remember from the past and where they ended up. Most of these stories are of divorce and heartbreak, but Lucy and her mother enjoy recounting them. This seems to bridge a gap between them, but it also means that most of their conversations are largely meaningless. The mother leaves the hospital quite abruptly and after that Lucy states they do not see each other again for a long time. I think I could see what Elizabeth Strout was trying to do with this relationship, to show them trying to connect with each other, but her method of doing this made it very hard for me to connect with the characters. There was not enough depth to their joint story, and it felt like there could have been so much more to it.

My Name is Lucy Barton is an odd little novel. I think a lot of people will warm to it, but it just didn’t work for me.

*

Published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin) in 2016.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

I must say that reading Man at the Helm was quite a departure for me. As my boyfriend and, I’m sure, my readers will testify, I usually read sad/serious books. Apparently someone always dies and/or cries. There’s a fair bit of crying in Man at the Helm, and a small amount of death, but on the whole it’s a much cheerier book that the ones I usually read.

The main reason for this cheeriness is the cheeriness of Nina Stibbe. In nine-year-old Lizzie (excellent name choice) she has created one of the most believable and real-sounding child narrators I’ve ever come across. Lizzie’s narration in generally cheery, despite some serious ups and downs, and she, nor Stibbe, allows us to wallow in negativity. I very much agree with Lara Feigel’s review for The Independent, in which she says that “In other hands, the plot could be the stuff of chick-lit or the Aga saga, but what is brilliant here is the convincingness of the child’s point of view” and that “Telling the story from the child’s perspective allows the children’s values to dominate.” Feigel has exactly identified what it is that stops Man at the Helm from becoming too sentimental or cute, and that also adds credence to it being narrated by a child. This is always a tricky move, and if done badly can produce a cringe-worthy book that no one takes seriously. Stibbe, of course, manages to avoid this.

My proof copy.
My proof copy.

Feigel’s review also states that the novel is semi-autobiographical – which accounts for not only the authenticity and likeability of Lizzie’s narration but also the authenticity of the story. While cheery it is really the story of a family having to reconstruct their entire lives, something that as a child of divorce I know to be a very unpleasant process. Though Lizzie keeps her chin up, and there is a lot of love and happiness in the book, the beginnings of it, the premise, are not particularly happy at all. But Stibbe saves it from misery by having Lizzie as her chipper narrator, and going back to Feigel’s review, this fact means that the values of Lizzie and her siblings are brought to the forefront. They are fundamental and simple – they want their mother, and themselves, to be happy. As children they aren’t fully aware of or do not completely comprehend the sometimes depressing nature of their situation, those things that make their mother drink, take antidepressants, and write her godawful plays. They do not see these things as an adult would – in all their grey misery – but rather as only children can. Problems that need to be solved. And that’s it. This charming simplicity saves the book from sadness, and for those of us to whom divorce is familiar, stops it from being too depressing to want to read.

Instead we are taken on a bit of a romp through a variety of slightly ridiculous situations that Lizzie manages to make seem normal thanks to her matter-of-fact turn of phrase and natural sense of humour. I laughed just because she made certain phrases sound funny, something which will appeal to those who like wordplay and have the ability to find humour in the mundanities of life. Such as:

We loved Mrs Vanderbus [their old neighbour] – I’m writing an extra line about her because of it. She often brought us home-made Dutch sugar cakes in pretty tins, which she always wanted back (the tins). And who, when she found a grass snake in the crocosmia, called us to see it and lifted it like a true expert even though she’d only ever seen one on the telly before and suffered a delayed panic attack approximately a week later and had to see Dr Hillward for a pill.

Laughing at Lizzie’s phrases and little side-stories felt like remembering the random and odd things that made you laugh as a child, that are in no way funny on their own, but have you in fits of giggles (usually with people who were there at the time) at the mere thought of them, years after the event. This is one of the joys of family, of being stuck with the same people all your life, so that you have all the same references and memories, and the same things to make you laugh. I don’t laugh with anyone as much as I laugh with my sister, remembering things like old teachers and that time she vomited in a cable car (sorry for mentioning that…). Some might accuse Stibbe of this novel being a bit cosy and familiar, but for someone who reads mostly about people who die (apparently), this is a good thing. Man at the Helm still has a lot of sadness, but it is everyday sadness, the sadness of the misfortunes of life that we all must live with everyday. It is not big dramatic sadness that people talk about for decades. It is the sadness of one family. And somehow that’s sadder than anything.

Some reviewers have commented on the fact that this book perpetuates the idea that a woman needs a man to be complete, and I did think about this once I’d finished the book. It is something to consider, but one must also consider the fact that this book is narrated by a child who just wants her mother and her family to be happy, and that she is mourning the loss of having parents that are still together. It is made very clear that Lizzie and her family are effectively shunned by their friends, and their new village, because of the divorce. Not only has their life changed dramatically, they are given no sympathy from anyone. From Lizzie and her sister’s point of view at least, they won’t be accepted again until they have a ‘complete’ family unit, i.e. a ‘man at the helm’. They look for one for their mother out of a desire for her happiness but also a desire for a return to some semblance of their old life.  I think that Stibbe is aware of the issue of a woman ‘needing’ a man, and Lizzie makes a very clear point at the end of the book that a man is not always what is needed to be happy or to get along, and that some mothers cope fine on their own. Her and her sister’s search for a man at the helm is relative to their family, and it is what they want/think they need. A lot of the men they try out are also really crap, like their father, and this, coupled with their mother’s spur of self-betterment that happens in the last third of the book, only goes to show that a man cannot always help.

What an attractive cover. (image: penguin.co.uk)
What an attractive cover. (image: penguin.co.uk)

My last note here will be about Debbie the dog. You know how there are mad cat people? I’m a mad dog person. I pretty much see them as people. So I cared about Debbie. She appears sporadically as a large, comforting presence, and I loved how Little Jack (Lizzie’s little brother)  sat in her basket with her, and how when they have to move to a smaller house there is nowhere for her to stretch out and be alone “like a walrus”, and it is humiliating for all involved when she has to be taken for actual walks rather than just roam about the family land has she had done previously. She is a character in herself. Which is why I was pretty upset when she gets hit by a car. I just thought WHY. Why would this be in this book? But then maybe this happened to Nina Stibbe’s dog; maybe the children needed to experience the pain of worrying about her (she survives, don’t worry). It’s an upsetting episode and I wondered what its purpose was. But perhaps it was there to demonstrate the random cruelty of life, and the fact that despite this we (and dogs) can still pull through. Debbie is a bit “wonky” after her accident, and I suppose this is like a family after divorce. Still alive, still here, still good, but a bit wonky.

_

Published by Viking/Penguin on 28th August 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

The premise of You Came Back instantly appealed to me: Mark and Chloe lost their young son Brendan in an accident in their home. Grief-stricken, they moved out and later divorced. Now, Mark is engaged to Allison and thinks he’s moved on, until he is contacted by a woman living in his old house who claims it is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. I like an element of mystery and intrigue in the books I read, and so when I was offered an ARC of this book from Penguin I gladly accepted it. My copy is covered in positive reviews from respectable sources and I have read mostly good reviews of the novel on GoodReads (most give it five stars), and for the most part it is enjoyable.

2012 Viking edition (image: goodreads.com)
2012 Viking edition (image: goodreads.com)

The most notable thing is the deep sense of emotion that runs through it. Mark is our main character, and Coake does a wonderful job of really getting inside his head and exposing his mind to the reader. The depiction of Mark is so vivid it could almost be 1st person narrative. In a way, though, I’m glad it isn’t. This is a very emotional and intense book, and if it were narrated by Mark I feel it would get lost in his own thoughts and the reader would have to wade through the mire of unhappiness and confusion, and would probably, frankly, give up and read something else. Coake keeps us just outside Mark’s state of mind so that while we are aware of his thoughts and feelings we are not entirely wrapped up in them. This means that we are still able to see things as objectively as possible – though at points one does get roped in to Mark’s way of thinking, whether one agrees with it or not.

It’s been seven years since Brendan died and his relationship with Chloe fell apart, and Mark is happy with Allison. ‘Happy’. Happiness is examined here in great depth. So is desire, and being true to yourself about what you really want. Until it happens to you none of us can know what it feels like to lose a child, and Mark still wonders what life would have been like if Brendan had lived, or if he could have done anything to change what happened. Chloe was out, Brendan had a tantrum and Mark told him to tidy his room, before sitting on the sofa to drink whiskey and watch basketball. Brendan, still grumpy, stomped up the stairs and packed a bag, intending to run away. He fell down the stairs and died. Mark wonders if Brendan would have lived had he gone upstairs to talk to him rather than brooding over his drink in the living room; if he’d talked to Brendan rather than ordering him upstairs, and Brendan hadn’t wanted to run away at that moment.

Mark’s been thinking about this, intermittently, for seven years, and he still doesn’t have an answer. As with a lot of situations in life, wondering about different outcomes doesn’t help us gain closure; it only sends the memories around and around in our minds and gets us more and more upset about the way things happened. Mark is happy, but he is still tormented.

There is a lot in this book about being a family, and how that works. Mark and Chloe and Brendan were a family, and now Brendan is dead and Mark and Chloe are at best terse and cold with each other at their annual dinners on Brendan’s birthday. Mark wonders if they still would have broken up if Brendan hadn’t died. Again it is the wondering about what could have happened that makes the facts of things seem worse. Mark loves Allison, and their life together is good and happy, but he wonders all the time if he can be as happy with her as he was with Chloe, when things were good. He knows he loved Chloe in a different way. Their relationship goes back years, to college, and Mark’s dad Sam is still in touch with Chloe too. When you were once a family, it’s hard to forget it, even if there have been bad times since. Mark has moved on, but he hasn’t forgotten. The reader wonders if he only moved on because he had to, rather than because he really wanted to.

There is some really great writing in You Came Back, and more than enough scope of feeling and imagination to convince the reader that Christopher Coake really is a good writer; but there are also a lot of flaws. At times the acute emotions in the novel become overwhelming and the reader feels suffocated. We follow Mark through every action of every day and you begin to long for accurate summaries, a more impressionistic approach that does not require a log of his entire day. Which is sometimes what you get. It can get a little hard-going and sometimes you just need a break.

The issue of Brendan possibly being a ghost is a massive one. At first, the new inhabitant of the old house, Connie, appears as a madwoman that Mark is afraid of; and rightly so, as she stalks him and talks to him about very personal, painful things. He unsurprisingly tells her to back off and threatens to have her arrested if she doesn’t; but then Mark’s friend Lew reminds Mark of his own belief in ghosts, and when Connie contacts Chloe, she tells Mark she believes what Connie is saying might be true. Mark is then thrown into doubt – he wants to believe Chloe, but also thinks she might be using Brendan as a way to get between him and Allison. It all gets a bit dramatic, and Mark starts to go a little nuts. He doesn’t know what he believes.

Without giving anything away there has to come a point in the story when it must be determined whether or not Brendan really is a ghost living in the house where he died. Now, I love a good old fashioned ghost story, but those often involve an element of horror or fear in some way. This book does not. It is not a horror story, nor is it a ‘romp’ like The Little Stranger, which was dramatic, scary and fun at the same time. There is no fun in this book. No one is ever happy or having a good time, and there is no juicy drama in the ghost story. The whole thing is bleak and sad, and everyone is distant and lonely. To be honest, by the time I was halfway through, I was fed up of how depressing it was.

In the middle, after Chloe confesses she believes Connie, the story begins to drag and the conclusion seems rather far off. All sense of pace dissipates and the reader feels lost in a sea of emotions from Mark, Chloe and Allison. Mark and Allison’s relationship begins to suffer, and he spends an increasing amount of time wondering whether his son really is a ghost, and what that might mean. He is torn between the past and the present, with the future looming somewhere in the distance, and is trying to run away from all of it. Mark is desperate, and he sees no way out; the pressure starts to get to the reader, and you need to put the book down for a few moments.

Plausibility is a big issue in You Came Back. Mark wonders whether the ghost is real; whether Chloe really believes in it; whether Connie is crazy or what; there are a lot of questions he cannot answer. For the reader, the plausibility of the story is sometimes doubtful. If you don’t believe in ghosts, spirits and mediums (I personally don’t) then the characters who do believe can get a little trying. I wondered how I would respond if I was, say, Allison’s friend, and she was telling me about all this from an outside perspective. I would think it was ridiculous, but I would also feel very sorry for Chloe – a still-grieving mother desperate to hold onto her child. I expect I would find it hard to believe that Mark was getting caught up in the whole thing, unless he wanted to leave Allison for Chloe. The whole thing, at times, seems a little far fetched.

I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in ghosts and spirits, and the abilities of mediums. They are all over the television. Religion comes into the novel when a medium is hired who is a devout Christian, but it is not an overarching theme. This is more about grief, and love, and dealing with loss. A lot of mediums are accused of preying on the emotions of grieving people who are unable to let go of those that have died, and at times the reader suspects that Chloe’s belief in Brendan’s ghost is just wishful thinking; but would she want her child to be trapped in some sort of limbo? It’s a tricky subject, and Mark grapples with it throughout the book.

I expect that most people’s reaction to this book will be based on their feelings towards dealing with loss and grief, and their beliefs about ghosts and mediums. I’ve read a lot of reviews that praise the book for its depth of feeling in describing a mourning relative, and the effects of loss on a person’s state of mind. You Came Back deserves this praise; but, I felt, the book was sometimes too over-emotional and, like the mediums, was counting on the emotional reaction of the audience. Now, I am not unfeeling. There are books that have made me cry; but the overwrought, and frankly melodramatic emotions in this book activated my cynical side. It is simply too much.

I think that if the emotional drama was toned down a little, and the length shortened to a more concise volume, then You Came Back could be a really terrific novel. Its problem is that it rambles and wallows in its own emotion, drama and mystery. It, like its characters, just cannot let go.

*

Originally published in the US by Grand Central Publishing in June 2012, and was published in the UK in paperback by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, also in June 2012. My copy was kindly provided by Viking for review.