I first read and blogged about this book in June 2016. It led me to add Patrick Gale to my list of literary favs. I had read his Rough Music (2000) years before and read it again in 2019. Having now read most, yet not all, of Gale’s twenty one books, these two stand out, for me, as his best.
Recently I watched an interview with him in which he mentions that the devastating opening scene was based on a news item and it was this first scene that he wrote without any idea what was going to happen next … except that the two characters, the perfectly good man, Father Barnaby Johnson, and a young man, Lenny, had to be connected in some, as yet, unforeseen way.
This to me is the essence of what novel writing is: a strong scene that just has to be written and then the writer in the privacy of his own mind, experience, and in a space (room) of one’s own (thank you Virginia Woolf) lets the subconscious out for a walk and writes down what he sees and hears. This is how most novelists work; they’re called pansters (by some): they ride by the seat of their pants. I’ve yet to meet or hear from a writer who plans every detail before writing begins, although I hear that Gustave Flaubert was one.
I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: if you are surprised what you read on the page it’s highly likely that the writer was too.
For any would-be novelist this book is a must read. The idea of letting a strong novelistic event with only two characters and one setting plant the seed of the story of a man’s life spanning half a decade is tantalising. The timeframe of the action is segmented and re-arranged. Gale loves taking time and playing around with it. Hence chapters called “Lenny at 20” are followed by “Dorothy at 24” are followed by “Barnaby at 52” and finally, “Nuala at 52” is followed by the final chapter “Barnaby at 8”. This format makes each chapter not unlike a short story although all of them are preempted with known knowledge which allows the reader to understand and sometimes realise an important reason or revelation that is only known by the reader, and not by any of the characters. You feel privileged.
And that’s how you learn about the connection between Father Barnaby Johnson and young Lenny: it’s not stated, you work it out.
You can find many of Gale’s books, including this one, here.
Patrick Gale is a very busy man. He is a cellist, lives in Cornwall and plays in a local string quartet, a keen gardener, artistic director of the North Cornwall Book Festival and a Patron of The Causley Trust. Oh, and, of course, a best selling novelist. Mother’s Boy is his 17th novel released in March 2022. He may be British, but he is also most definitely Cornish. Who else then to novelise the early life of another Cornish hero, the poet Charles Causley.
This is a mother-son story; Gale is particularly good with mothers.
Laura is in service when she meets Charlie Causley, also in service to the local doctor. He is a dashing lad and their romance is brief but strong. All is set for a happy married life together, but WW1 takes him away and returns him a broken man; his life is cut short leaving Laura a single mum with a baby to keep. She takes in laundry, the wine stained alter cloths of St Thomas’s church as well as the other-stained bed linen from the local ‘boarding’ house where the proprietress’s children, Aggie’s brood, all look surprisingly different. A stain is a stain to Laura Causley and each deserves her expert attention.
Charles grows into a concave-chested studious little boy, more at ease with a book than a ball. As a teenager he plays the piano in several dance bands, writes and directs plays, and occasionally takes girls to the pictures and shakes their hands good-night. Laura may be a little disappointed in her son but would never show it. A boy is a boy to Laura Causley and each deserves a mother’s love and protection.
The book is a gentle read; Gale is a master of wry observations while plunging into serious emotional depths. It is as much about Laura Causley as her son, Charles. Gales evocation of a mother’s love is particularly moving:
He had woken already and was straining to look about him. Seeing her approach, he cried out with something like a laugh and reached a hand towards her. She kissed his tiny palm, then scooped him up, furling him in her shawl to hold him against her shoulder where he sucked noisily at her neck. She rocked gently from foot to foot, loving the warm weight of him against her. ‘You,’ she said. ‘Oh, you.’
Another major theme is forbidden sexuality. We first become aware of it when Charles lets his best friend Ginger inveigle them up to Charles’s room where Ginger …
persuaded him to hold him close to demonstrate the steps of the foxtrot and then had taken advantage of the moment to kiss him full on the lips while doing things with his tongue Charles was fairly sure never happened on screen to Claudette Colbert.
But later Ginger takes Charles to the nudist section, men only, of the Plymouth Lido and disappeared for a time only to be seen later exiting a single change room only moments after a big half dressed man had emerged, who then finished dressing, and left. While walking home …
‘You do know,’ Charles wanted to tell him, ‘that what you were doing, or what I suspect you were doing, could have you up in the courts in Bodmin and wreck your prospects, even send you to prison?’ But he said nothing about it because what he longed to do was ask questions instead, and he knew the answers Ginger might give would change the dynamic of their friendship for ever in ways for which he wasn’t ready.
The Second World War sees Charles called up. He was too slight and weak-eyed for active duty so trained as a coder: sending and receiving coded messages usually on board ship but never-ending seasickness had him transferred to land: Gibraltar, and Malta. It was in the Navy that he experienced his sexuality, one relationship slightly abusive, another almost loving. But outside the flimsy protection of a male dominated existence such indulgences could not be contemplated. This is the tragedy that happened to thousands of homosexuals over thousands of years: their man-made social environment precluding their natural natures; in some parts of the world it continues still.
I was a little disappointed that a writer writing about a writer didn’t spend a little more time investigating writing itself, but this is a minor and picky response to an otherwise very enjoyable and evocative read.
Here you can purchase the book in various formats.
Here you can find a short biography of Causley and a short essay on the poet by fellow poet and author, Kevin Crossley-Holland.
And here you can watch a trailer for the Boatshed Films’ Cornwall Native Poet, Charles Causley which as screened on BBC 4 in 2017 to celebrate the centenary of Causley’s birth.
I was intrigued by a review of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man by Zoë Apostolides in the May 5 edition of The Financial Times for two reasons: the reviewer dubbed it ‘a literary thriller’ and used the word ‘postmodern’. I downloaded it immediately.
postmodernism: a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art”.
Literary theorists, usually critics, search for patterns in the literary output of the recent past. In simple terms what they found was a tendency ‘away’ from the well-plotted naturalistic narrative to a freer, less neat product. One of the postmodern techniques is incorporating the world of the writer into the world of the written; for example auto-fiction. Other examples of literary postmodernism are parody, unreliable narrators, and the abandonment of a single theme.
Although I’m not a great believer in genres, I am interested in how writers write, what the literary industry will allow, its latest trends, and how best to tell a story, but always with the reader in mind. Postmodernism, I think, lets the reader slip from the top position of the writer’s responsibilities; to be replaced by the writer.
Robert Prowe (anagram of Power), with his wife Karijn, live in Berlin. He is a writer trying to write a novel but it isn’t going well. He meets Patrick, who appears to be a rather dishevelled drunk, in a bookshop and then on a few other occasions until they form a friendship, of sorts. Patrick is a writer too and also struggling, but as a ghostwriter for a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin, who “pissed of Putin and had to get out of Russia” and so wants to write his memoir to clear his name, but, it seems, at Putin’s expense. Robert finds Patrick’s story of his meeting with Vanyashin not only fascinating but also inspiring. The meeting is described in novelistic detail until you, the reader, realise that what you have just read is not narrated by Power’s third-person narrator of A Lonely Man, but narrated by Robert and is his first attempt at novelising Patrick’s story. Robert’s dilemma is what can a writer use? Is Robert thieving or creating? The ‘thriller’ element is the threat felt by Patrick from Putin’s henchmen is transferred to Robert, but this only works if you, the reader, finds this transference plausible. This reader didn’t.
The other postmodern element is the incredibly un-neat ending: the henchmen certainly make their threatening presence felt, but then just walk away. This blunt ending feels less postmodern and more like a literary waterfall full of the expectation of a sequel.
I always enjoy writers writing about writing, and here the writing is assured and competent, but this ‘literary thriller’ did not, for this reader, live up to the hype.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover” goes the old saying, but of course we do. The cover of John Boyne’s 7th adult novel, The Absolutist (2011), tells us a lot: WW I, soldiers, a white feather, trench warfare. So here’s the opening lines,
Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in a fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years. ‘There was the vicar of Leeds’s she said, smiling a little …‘
This is one of the things I like about Boyne: he sparks curiosity, intrigue, interest at every turn.
In 1919, Tristan Sadler, on the eve of his twenty first birthday, is going to Norwich to deliver a bunch of letters to a woman he’s never met. In a pub he thinks about getting drunk, causing a scene, getting arrested, and being put back on the next train to London, then … I wouldn’t have to go through with it.
The woman is Marian Bancroft, the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he met in army training, served with in the trenches of France, who refused to fight anymore, and who was court-martialed and shot. He was also the man Tristan Sadler fell in love with.
There is a melancholic tone to this story, but one in which Boyne trickles out important information and intriguing details which adds to the vivid characterisations and keeps your interest high.
There are two narratives: Tristan’s tough journey in 1919 to see the sister of his secret lover and public traitor, Will Bancroft, and interspersed with this, the events of 1916/17 when he first met Will at army training, and then in the rat and mud infested trenches of France where the devastating climax is revealed. But there is a coda: Tristan and Marian meet 60 years later, in 1979, when he is a famous novelist, and she a prickly woman still, widow, and grandmother, who had never liked reading novels. “Actually, I came around to them in the end. Just not yours.” It’s a bold but satisfying end to “a wonderful, sad, tender book,” says the quote from Colm Tóibín; another bit of truth on the front cover.
Boyne’s adult writing is literary fiction but his style isn’t dry or over written or weighed-down by internal musings. This one, in essence, is a story of a man going on a train to visit a stranger. The interest is why he is going, how (if) he will tell her, and what will happen then? This, of course, depends on Tristan’s backstory which is where the real plot is. Boyne is fundamentally a storyteller and he always does this admirably by putting the plot in the hands and minds of three-dimensional, flawed, but brave characters. The structure also seems right. It’s neat and satisfying and not surprising that the film rights have been bought by Ridley Scott. Although there has been no news about the production since the cast (William Moseley, Jack O’Connell, Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson, Colin Firth, Vanessa Redgrave) and director (Stephen Daltry) were announced in 2013.
This 2011 work is up there with Boyne’s best.
Here is a short video of John Boyne talking about the inspiration for The Absolutist.
First of all, the title Old Filth (2004) isn’t about anything untoward: it’s the acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong; and if it’s about anything it’s about how our childhoods create us adults.
We first meet Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth, in his very latter life: a statuesque man, private, handsome, charming, brusque, and mildly famous. Gardam then cherry picks events from his life: birth, schooling, the War, but saves the most tantalising bit of news for the end. No spoilers here.
The book is a delight! Gardam’s economical prose – where most of the humour lies, and there’s a lot of that – and her wry eye for the eccentricities of the British character and, in particular, the blatant indifference and cruel incapacity of the British to care for their young make you smile, grown, laugh, sigh, and then shake your head in disbelief, all in the same paragraph. Children seem to appear by magic, get sent away from home as soon as possible and then become exactly like their parents whom they hardly know, but are expected to love and obey. Blood may be thicker than water, but water is far more versatile and doesn’t leave stains.
I was impressed with Gardam’s complete control over the reader, her confidence in her authorial voice: I would’ve followed her everywhere, anywhere and I believed whatever she wanted to tell me. Her close writing and sparse dialogue do most of the characterisation – dialogue is good at that – and Gardam also has a healthy respect for the reader. Time jumps around but she never lost me.
She has been quite prolific since she was first published in the early seventies, in her forties – she is now 92 – and her nine novels and ten short story collections (she also has written thirteen children’s books) leave a lot of searching, collecting, and reading to look forward to.
In 2015, a BBC survey voted Old Filth among the 100 greatest British novels.
” I hate the idea of sequels,” Jane Gardam told The Guardian in 2011. “I think you should be able to do it in one book.” Nevertheless her The Man in the Wooden Hat came out in 2013 which is more of a companion piece and focuses on Filth’s wife Betty, a shadowy figure in this book. And then in 2013 came Last Friends, and again not really a sequel but another companion piece focusing this time on Filth’s arch-rival and later neighbour, Veneering, again briefly mentioned in Old Filth.
Here is a charming video of Jane Gardam reading the opening of Old Filth.
Here you will find Old Filth and other Gardam books in various formats including a boxed set of the so-called Old Filth Trilogy.
I once stumbled on a television series, Lost in Austen (2008) in which a modern young free-talking young woman, Amanda, finds, in her tatty London bathroom, Elizabeth Bennet in a nightgown. When the apparition disappears Amanda thinks that perhaps her Pride and Prejudice obsession is, well, sending her loopy; but when it happens again, this time Lizzy is dressed for travel, Amanda steps though the ‘door in the wall’ (portal loo?) leaving poor Miss Bennett in modern day London (2008) and Amanda in Longbourn, the Bennet’s residence, in Hertfordshire, 1813. Amanda passes herself off as Lizzy’s friend while Lizzy is said to have gone to the ‘city’; how true! I may not have knowingly chosen to watch a program like this but it was extremely well done, funny, and pulled no punches.
Pride and Prejudice has become an industry. There have been several film adaptations as well as a very popular TV series; the story has been sequel-ised and pre-quelised, with and without zombies; as a graphic novel and a serial vlog; the writers of a scientific paper were inspired to name a pheromone in mouse urine as darcin, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females; and in 2016, a scientific paper published in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases speculated that Mrs Bennet may have been a carrier of a rare genetic disease, to explain why the Bennets didn’t have any sons, and why some of the Bennet sisters are so silly, although Mrs Bennet seems more like a sufferer than a carrier.
The famous first line:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife
could easily have been written as
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of no fortune, must be in want of a husband
without any loss of artistic veracity.
However, what is obvious from the short first chapter is how effective dialogue is at painting character; and that reminds me of a Sydney writer and creative writing teacher (who shall remain nameless) who told her students to stay clear of dialogue. A foolish assertion in my opinion.
Yes, the prose style is dense, the characters manipulating, and the plot well known but what is notable is the tone. It’s slightly sarcastic, ironic, but dry: the basic formula for all romantic comedies ever since.
Just out of interest, Jane herself had three romances: 1) Tom Lefroy was a nephew of her close friend Anne Lefroy. Knowing that Tom would lose his inheritance if he married a nobody Anne put a stop to the romance by getting Tom to Ireland, where, many years later he became the Chief Justice; 2) Jane had a seaside romance with a clergyman but before he got a chance to meet the family he died; 3) Jane accepted a financially rewarding marriage proposal from a much younger and inappropriate young man called Harris Wither. After a sleepless night she broke it off in the morning causing a scandal.
It could be argued that Austin’s 6 novels are really 6 variations on the same plot: girl meets boy; girl hates boy because of (insert specific reason from each novel); girl comes to her senses; girl marries boy; the end.
I’m tempted now to read Emma (1815) considered by some to be her best.
You can download a free eBook here. All of Jane Austen’s work are available free online.
You can watch a very entertaining video about Pride and Prejudice from Crash Course Literature here.
Antigone, of Greek mythology, offspring from the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, has been, over millennia, the subject of books, plays, films and operas.
When Oedipus, King of Thebes, finds out his tragic truth – he murdered his enemy not knowing he was his father, and then married the man’s wife – he plucks out his eyes and wanders in the wilderness accompanied by his dutiful daughter, Antigone. After his death, her brothers, Polynices and Eteocles fight over their father’s realm and both are killed. Their uncle, Creon, takes the throne and buries Eteocles with full royal honours but decrees that Polynices, who he labels a traitor, remain unburied as food for jackals and crows. Antigone, defies her uncle, despite her sister, Ismene, urging her not to, escapes the city, and buries her brother. She is arrested and sentenced to entombment, but hangs herself instead. Creon changes his mind and sends his son, Antigone‘s fiancé Haemon, to retrieve her, but he is too late. He also kills himself; as does his mother (grandmother), Jocasta, when she hears of the demise of the last of her children.
Despite the convoluted relationships, lust, greed, ambition, and the body count Antigone‘s story, at its core, is about sibling love and devotion. And it is around this theme that Shamsie composes her modern version of Antigone, her eighth novel Home Fire (2017), setting it among a contemporary British muslim family. It’s not a re-invention of the book; the Antigone story is not “in the skeleton of the book, but in the marrow of it”.
I thought reading during the pandemic lockdown would be a pass-time that would fit the circumstances snugly, as did many friends and contemporaries, but settling into a book hasn’t been easy, for me or them, and Home Fire was the fifth I tried and the one that finally grabbed my attention.
Shamsie’s novel is set in 2014-15 and her principle characters are three siblings, Isma Pasha, the eldest, who raised her younger paternal twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz after their mother died. Their father was a notorious jihadist fighter who died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. Isma, the only child he ever saw is on her way to a brilliant academic career in the US; Aneeka, the ‘beauty’, is serious about her Muslim faith and is studying to be a lawyer; Parvaiz, radicalised by his peers, follows in his father’s footsteps and ‘escapes’ to Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of ISIS, in Syria.
Isma meets Eamonn Lone, and then he, almost accidentally, meets Isma’s sister, Aneeka. He falls hopelessly in love, and it appears Aneeka returns his love; but she has another motive: Eamonn’s father is the highly public British Home Secretary, Karamet Lone, and she needs his help to get her repentant brother safely, and unnoticed, back to England at, of course, great political risk. Aneeka arranges to meet her brother at the British Consulate in Istanbul.
The stakes are high and Shamsie allows them to gradually gain their strength and danger through a very intimate love story. This is her strength. But she, understandably, lets in the public and media outcry when the ‘plot’ is revealed (no spoilers here), in the form of newspaper stories, including salacious tabloid exposés of a sex scandal involving Aneeka ‘Knickers’ Pasha, twin sister of the Muslim fanatic Parvaiz ‘Pervy’ Pasha, and her ‘seduction’ of the Home Secretary’s son for political motives. This strengthens the plot but weakens the personal and causes the heat of the story to drop a few degrees. Quite a few, in fact.
There’s an argument here for the necessity of the public story taking centre stage but, for this reader, public tragedies are daily, and usually unemotional, events, thanks to the persistency of the media; what I missed here was the intimacy of the narrative that had, up until the public narrative took over, swept me up in its poignancy, emotion, and the oozing into it of looming tragedy. I wanted to read the climax on the page, not read about someone watching it on television. There must have been structural decisions made about this; a different structure could’ve worked better for me.
However, what I will remember are the extremely effective domestic and romantic scenes between people working out their decisions between each other in dangerous circumstances, and I am interested to read Shamsie’s previous and future work.
In September last year, Shamsie was awarded, among others, the Nelly Sachs Award for Literature from the German City of Dortmund for her contribution to fostering understanding between peoples, and I can see how Home Fire could support this. However the City rescinded the prize because of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, and seen as anti-Israel, causing outrage from the global literary community and over 250 writers signed an open letter in the London Review of Books in September 2019 attacking the City of Dortmund for its decision. Shamsie is unrepentant and still believes that “the demonising of BDS, which is a peaceful movement asking for international law to be upheld, is an outrage“.
You can watch a BBC4 interview with Shamsie about the controversy here.
Here you can hear Shamsie talk about her experiences as a Muslim Briton and her writing of Home Fire; and it’s a particularly ‘pure’ interview since the interviewer’s questions have been edited out.
And for the more deeply interested, here is an hour-long presentation by Kamila Shamsie about Home Fire given at the Politics and Prose Bookshop on Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, Washington D.C. in September 2017.
You can buy Home Fire in various formats, and other works by Kamila Shamsie, here.
I place a lot of importance on the first page of a novel, and William Boyd’s first page of Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009) is a doozy.
It almost made me forget the book I was reading and move quickly on to the second page and the third… and …
Page one is perfectly in tune with the marketing cover design:
…swept along with the thundering narrative tide – Observer.
A thriller of hide and seek among London’s low life. – Tatler
A storm of a story – Daily Mirror
A compelling fugitive chase … – Evening Standard Books of the Year
I can’t remember when I’ve had a more exciting read. – Antonia Fraser
Thrilling, hilarious, intricately plotted and terrifically readable – Craig Raine, TLS Books of the Year;
and the best one saved for the front cover:
A deft combination of suspense and literature. – Stephen King
I was hooked and looked forward eagerly to starting it.
And the opening of the story doesn’t disappoint. A successful and upwardly mobile climatologist, Adam Kindred, goes into a cafe after a very important job interview, a job that could define his career, to wind down. He makes casual conversation with a man at the next table, a man who leaves behind a file. Adam surveys the technically challenging documents and finds a phone number which he rings and arranges to return the file to the man’s hotel room. When he arrives he finds the man on his bed with a knife in his chest. The man demands Adam pulls it out. “Pull it out!” Adam obeys and promptly the man dies leaving Adam with the bloody murder weapon in his own hand – and the murderer out on the balcony. He runs.
He runs and disappears; and it’s the disappearing and the people he discovers on the way that take up the bulk of the novel. This is fascinating but not particularly thrilling, in the sense that a thriller is thrilling. His particular method of disappearing is simple and surprisingly effective. He completely avoids the modern world that is defined by electronics. He doesn’t use his smartphone and he doesn’t use his credit card; the devices that make any human being knowable and traceable.
He is forced to sleep under a bush under a bridge; he is forced to count every penny he has in his pocket and use it wisely, he is forced to eat a seagull; he is forced to beg, and develops an intriguing, if dishonest, but effective method; he is forced to change his appearance – from a clean-shaven man with a head of hair to a bearded baldy; he is forced into a saintly refuge where he garners a new name, new friends, and is taken in by a prostitute called Mhouse – a wonderful literary creation – and her two-year old son, Ly-on whom she drugs as she can’t always afford a baby sitter. Through luck and circumstances of his own making he obtains yet another identity and consolidates that identity with a credit card and a smartphone. He turns into someone else.
Of course the police are after him as well as the murderer and the murderer’s superiors and these characters are equally interesting; but of course, they are after Adam Kindred, a man who no longer exists. There are close-shaves and the stakes are high, but there is also romance and an ending that I won’t go into. No spoilers here.
I have been hearing about William Boyd for some time. He is a playwright, short story writer, screenwriter, and director and the author of highly praised and award winning books; he has been on the Booker Prize list twice and won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006 with his novel Restless; and I also understand why he was chosen by the Ian Fleming estate to write a James Bond novel called Solo which came out in 2013. I get the feeling that Ordinary Thunderstorms is one of his minor works and while I enjoyed it, it’s interesting and entertaining but not accurately reflected by the hype on the cover.
What did someone say once about how not to judge a book?
There are many enjoyable videos of William Boyd on Youtube such as this one: An evening with the Sunday Times bestselling author, recorded at the Duchess Theatre 24 September 2018.
You can find many books by William Boyd, including Ordinary Thunderstorms, in various formats here.
Even before I started reading, I saw – there were no capital letters, no fullstops and the lines were of different lengths – and my prejudices jumped up and I thought, ‘Oh, poetry.’
But then I started reading – each new sentence, no capital letter, begins on a new line and there is no full stop, just a new line; and the unconventional format didn’t hamper the understanding. It was clear. There is punctuation within each sentence, just not to begin or end them.
Evaristo calls it ‘an experimental novel’ which could refer to its unconventional format on the page or its structure as a book: there is no through-narrative although the lives of some of the characters intersect. In a sense the narrative is Britain itself but not a novelistic narrative that starts on the first page and finishes on the last.
Girl, Woman, Other, as the title implies is about women: Amma, Yazz, Dominique, Bummi, LaTisha, Winsome, along with Carole, Shirley, Penelope, Megan, Hattie and Grace: all British women, mainly black and so all are a consequence of Britain’s colonial past and the book is therefore an example of post-colonial literature which, in a nutshell, is writing that reacts to, usually against, the discourse of colonialism that was seen to perpetuate cultural imperialism.
Primary works in this field were writing against, or back to, colonial texts: Jean Rys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a post-colonial take on Bronte’s Jane Eyre; J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986) to Danial DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe; Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves (1976) to the popular myth of Eliza Fraser; Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) to the colonial notion of the black man notoriously portrayed in Joyce Carey’s Mr. Johnson. In all of these post-colonial rewrites, the native character – the other – is given power denied them in the original colonial text. For example, the protagonist in Jean Rys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette, a creole, and deals with her early life in Jamaica where she is forced into an arranged marriage to an Englishman; Antoinette is the heroine, she has the voice and the power (although not enough, she is a woman), unlike her literary dopplegänger, the un-named mad women in the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre – the first wife of Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Rys gives the mad-woman – a creole – a past, a name, and therefore authority.
Post-colonial writers today are not usually writing back to an existing colonial text*, but Evaristo, and her British contemporaries, Zadie Smith, Andre Levy, et al, are writing back (against) to a cliché-ed perception of what a British person is. They are also writing back to a perception of what a British woman is.
The writing is uncluttered, contemporary, conversational, and unintellectual. However, it has the flavour of journalism. Each woman’s story (and most are interconnected) feels like it was written for an article in a weekend magazine. Prose, and the characters that inhabit it, come to life when they react with each other. There is dialogue here within the prose, unannounced by punctuation but clear, but not much. Fiction works when all three elements, description, narrative and dialogue, are given their full force. This is really my only criticism. Dialogue is the most powerful descriptor of character, but here it is used sparingly, and so I felt some characters are not fully realised. There are some portraits that include intimate detailed scenes and these are the most powerful.
What impressed me was the authorial authority and bravery of writing without the usual writerly conventions: capital letters, full stops. The third person narrative slips easily into the first; the past tense seamlessly into the present without any loss of understandability. The prose has a playful freedom that is refreshing and new. I just would’ve liked to hear the characters talk more.
Evaristo is a self-confessed feminist and has been an anti-racist activist for all of her adult life.
Being the Booker-winning black woman writer in 2019 means that my black British feminist perspective is amplified around the world, and for the first time I am starting to feel heard beyond my community.
However, despite her win and her positive attitude to her win her feminist and anti-racist struggles continue. In early December 2019 over 190,000 people watched a lazy BBC announcer say ” … the Booker Prize was shared between Margaret Atwood and another author…”; he didn’t even bother to use her name and Evaristo tweeted ‘…How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks’ and started a twitter storm causing the BBC to publicly apologise to Evaristo. The Guardian newspaper also caused a furore over a headline referring to Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo’s eighth, as ‘obscure.’ The headline was quickly re-written. It might seem trivial to some but it is the day-to-day small moments that perpetuate black people as the ‘other’; like the waitress who assumed Evaristo’s white dining companion would be the one to pick up the bill.
Girl, Woman, Other is a deserving winner of the Booker; it’s co-winner Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, less so. You can read what I thought of that book, here.
You can browse and/or buy Girl, Woman, Other and Evaristo’s other novels here.
*However, in 2015 Algerian author, Kamel Daoud, had published The Meursault Investigation, a post-colonial take on Camus’s iconic The Stranger (1942) where the real stranger was refocused as the unnamed Arab that Camus’s protagonist shoots five times on a beach.
I love this book. It’s rare to find a laugh-out-loud read these days, but this is one of them. It’s a first person narrative of Douglas Petersen, a bio-chemist, and a man who always just seems to miss out on being, cool, mainly because he just doesn’t know what cool is; he doesn’t get most things. That’s certainly what his son, Albie, would say although he probably wouldn’t be so kind. The third component of Us (2014) is Douglas’s wife Connie. She’s an artist and an ex-hippie and is definitely cool. She wakes him up one morning and tells him that she might want to leave him. They embark on a (possible) remedy: a Grand Tour of Europe, and drag a reluctant Albie along with them. This is the Us. This trio. However there is another narrative interspersed with the Grand Tour: how Douglas and Connie got together in the first place; and many more incidents of their life together. You get to know these three very well. It’s really a portrait of a marriage.
It’s divided into many small chapters, 180 in all, which in itself, propels the reading along; ‘I’ll just read the next chapter before I walk the dog’; ‘I’ll read this short one before I start dinner’; ‘Just one more, it’s short, before my afternoon jog.’ And why do you want to do this? Because you love Douglas. He’s a gem and he talks to you as if you’ve known him since kindergarten. Us became my very early morning read when a trip to the loo erased all efforts to go back to sleep. But, so I didn’t wake the sleeping one, I tried to curtail my laugh-out-loud to something like, laugh-in-loud, but stifling a laugh-out-loud made my body behave like a trampoline-in-use and the mattress was forced, of course, to follow suit, so allowing the sleeping one to sleep didn’t work. I was banned from reading Us in bed. But that’s OK; you can get through a short chapter while waiting for the jug to boil, during a TV channel promo, even while stirring the custard.
The key to the humour is Douglas himself. He doesn’t quite know what to say when staring at a painting (I like that blue bit.); he feels inadequate to say what he likes about a piece of music (It’s loud, isn’t it?); and contemporary dance (Do they have to throw themselves against a wall?); and books (Erotic realism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?); and food (flaccid courgettes in a green-grey water sauce made from water.).
David Nicholls also has several screenwriting credits including Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘ for the BBC in 2008, Far from the Madding Crowd in 2015, and he wrote Patrick Melrose (2018), the television series based on the novels by Edward St Aubyn. He has penned several movies including the adaptations of his novels, Starter for Ten, and One Day. He also trained as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama but never quite made it in that field because, as he admitted, he wasn’t very good at the basic stuff, like standing still and moving from A to B. However he must have picked up some performance skills since his appearance at the recent North Cornwall Writer’s Festival had the audience in stitches as he read from his latest book, Sweet Sorrow, a passage devoted to the pitfalls of first-time kissing.
Us is currently being filmed in various location in Europe for the BBC. It stars Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves with a script by Nicholls. However, a release date has yet to bee announced.
He’s a busy man and novel writing has to be squeezed in between big budget movies and television drams; he’s written five novels, so, for me, four to go.
You can watch an interview with David Nicholls about this book, Us, here.
You can buy the ebook, or other formats, here where you can also ‘look inside’ before you buy.