In the Margins: of the pleasures of reading and writing by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante has always said that once a book is written it has no further need for its writer. She has never been seen in public. Some have even suggested that she could be a man, but the general consensus is that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym for an unknown female writer.

This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.

Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.

I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.

There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.

By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.

She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):

“And your novel?

“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”

“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”

“Yes, I’m 20 people.”

*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.

Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.

The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.

And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:

Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.

Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.

John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.

D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.

Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.

Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.

There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.

You can buy the ebook or hard cover edition here.

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

American short story writer, Raymond Carver,
1938 – 1988

One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.

I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.

Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.

Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.

The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.

Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.

Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.

Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.

His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.

Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.

These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.

Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It’s been 7 years since Galgut’s last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), a novelisation of the latter years of the English writer E. M. Forster, so The Promise, his latest, has been greatly anticipated. 

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the narrative voice. The writing is free-form: no quotation marks; dialogue and narrative merge – but you’ll be surprised how distinct and recognisable the dialogue is –  and usually in the 3rd person but with a little 1st, (my mother died this morning) and even a  peppering of the 2nd, like he’s talking to me, you, the reader, throwing asides at you, (check out the pic if you don’t believe me). Sometimes a character speaks aloud in a sentence started by the narrator; sometimes the narrator is embodied with feelings and sarcasm (Alwyn and his spouse, sorry, his sister…) It takes a few dozen pages for this free-form to meld into a tone, a voice, an attitude, but it does, and when it does you’ll be greatly relieved. You can relax, and once you do and let this voice work on you, you will have an entertaining reading experience. Although the narrator is unnamed, as most 3rd person narrators are, this one has attitude, likes, dislikes, and lets you know them. Changes of scene and characters happen mid sentence giving the narrative an unplanned wandering song-line, like a slideshow on a phone. It gives the work an attractive chatty tone but one that leads you deep inside the minds and actions of these flawed characters.

The book is divided in to 4 sections, each for one of the main characters of the Swart family, Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. But the main character is Amor, the youngest, who is a child of 10 when her mother dies. However, days before, on Ma’s death bed, Amor overheard Ma’s dying wish: Salome, the family’s loyal, long-serving, bare-foot black maid, is to be given ownership of her rented small and ramshackle house and land. Pa agrees. This is The Promise. Over the following decades South Africa sheds its hated Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela becomes president, black rule fails almost everybody’s expectations and hope for a brighter and more prosperous future; not unlike the trajectory of the disintegrating Swart family; like the slow decline of Salome and her house. Amor goes her own way but the promise is forever on her mind and whenever she returns (Return to South Africa feels more like a condition than an act), only for family funerals, her determination to have the promise fulfilled is thwarted. Will the promise be fulfilled when she is the only one left? 

The knot of races in Galgut’s native South Africa seems never to be unloosed. This story could be read as a metaphor for the country; as could the plight of Salome; as could Amor’s bruised determination; yet there is hope in that she could be the only one left standing with a future to build, albeit an unknown one and obviously difficult. 

The telling, but unconscious, thoughts of the whites (… so many black people drifting about as if they belong here) pepper the text and each time cement the notion that change will always remain elusive. Do all the whites have to die before the blacks can claim their place? 

Highly recommended.

Galgut’s The Promise has made it onto the 2021 Booker Prize long list. If it gets to the short list, as it should, it will be his third: the first In a Strange Room in 2003 and The Good Doctor in 2010. The links will take you to my blog posts. 

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

UPDATE November 4 2021: Galgut’s The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize!

Us by David Nicholls

David Nicholls pic
British novelist and screenwriter, David Nicholls.

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.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry pic
Irish writer, Kevin Barry

Get up, groan, write a bit, moan, eat breakfast, write some more, cycle my bike through the Sligo hills, make up country songs as I pedal along, sing them, have lunch, have a nap, groan, moan, write a small bit more, cook dinner, feed wifey, open a bottle, or several, slump, sleep.

I don’t quite operate within the realist mode. I kind of push the stories out towards the cusp of believability – that’s the area of interest for me.
♠♠♠
The style of Kevin Barry’s Night Train to Tangier (2019) feels like a play because it was originally conceived as one; but that was not what gave me pause when I read about him and this, his new book; it was the (many times) mention of Samuel Beckett and his play Waiting for Godot, and I thought, “Uh oh!” Vladimir and Estragon sit and wait under a dead tree for Godot who never comes. Maurice Hearn and Charles Redmond sit and wait in a ferry terminal for Dilly, Maurice’s missing daughter who never comes, maybe, maybe not.
These two guys are Irish drug dealers who made a shit load of money when they were younger, loved the same woman – since deceased, and now quite can’t get their old mojo back, although they try by intimidating and threatening strangers. You wouldn’t want to meet them in a back alley. It maybe that Dilly doesn’t want to be found. No spoilers here.

The conversation is sometimes repetitive, but the language is glorious, lyrical, and adventurous:

 

Charlie Redmond? The face somehow has an antique look, like a court player’s, medieval, a man who’d strum his lute for you. In some meadowsweet lair. Hot, adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit, but dapper shoes in a rusted-orange tone, a pair of suede-finish creepers that whisper of brothels, also a handsome green corduroy neck-tie. Also stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble.

 

The pages are formatted with large gaps of white between sentences. One reviewer wrote, “The blank spaces that Barry inserts between paragraphs, the empty gaps in the text, seem to signify accumulated pain.” That’s kind. I’m of a more cynical bent; they seem to me to be the editor’s doing: if you’ve decided to print it between hard covers, you need more pages.

Almost all of the reviews for this book have been glowing, and it’s been long listed for the this year’s Booker Prize. However, I was disappointed. There are three elements of novel writing: description, dialogue, and narrative. Barry’s descriptions are poetic, imaginative, and surprising. He’s at his best with description (like the quote above). Dialogue? Well, firstly, his dialogue isn’t punctuated. That’s OK: dialogue usually sounds like dialogue, but sometimes it doesn’t and I don’t appreciate having to go back and check. Narrative? I found it shallow and, again, I had to go back a page or two and take another run at it to find out exactly where we were. Contemporary readers have to do more work, I know, but I don’t appreciate feeling left behind; it stops the reader being enthralled, and enthralled is where all readers want to be; and by enthralled I mean forgetting that your reading.

For this reader, Night Boat to Tangier is about parents and parenting, and how we usually get it wrong, or this from Dilly’s mother,

The fear of turning into our parents, she said, is what turns us into our fucking parents. 

I have to admit that it did grow on me a little but not enough to send me racing for his previous works, City of Bohane (2011) and Beatlebone (2015), both lauded and prize-studded.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here, and you can ‘look inside’ before you buy, or hear what sounds like Kevin Barry reading from the text.

 

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

benedict_wells_pic
Swiss-German writer Benedict Wells; real name, Benedict von Schirach

Marcel Proust’s monumental – 7 volume – novel, certainly the longest, and arguably the best novel ever written,  À la Recherche du temps perdu, sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past was the first to use memory as a novelistic tool. It appeared in English in 1922, the year of Proust’s death, and helped to change the way literary novels were written; its stream of consciousness technique was revolutionary at the time but still remains today as an author’s story-telling option: the Northern Ireland writer Anna Burn used it for novel Milkman, her 2018 Booker Prize winner.

Benedict Wells’  novel, The End of Loneliness (2016) is a contemporary product of how memory can ‘write’ a novel. Jules Moreau, the first person narrator, wakes up in hospital and tries to remember how he got there, but memory isn’t linear, it jumps around like a rabbit in a cage. He even draws it for us:

The End of Loneliness Memory Map

It is the story of three siblings who loose their parents when they are all very young and are sent to boarding school where they slowly drift apart, geographically, emotionally, and intellectually. Their lives seemed pre-ordained but the tragedy sets them adrift leaving them, and the reader, wondering what would their lives have been like if the accident had not happened. It is also a love story that runs parallel to Jules’s memory of the siblings’ separation and their slow and difficult return to each other.

Although an author’s dreams can sow the seeds of fiction, using dreams, real or fictional, as the basis for plot decisions, I believe is a lazy option for a writer. One reviewer warns that this ‘may irk the critical’. However, Wells keeps the writer’s interest with slight, but intriguing, references to some event in the future:

‘… all this had nothing to do with what happened later.’

But the real star of the show is memory. Only twice, before the end, does the narrative return to the present: Jules lying in a hospital bed, where his children are mentioned. Children? There’s been no mention of children. This is another reference to the ‘future’ which pricks the writer’s curiosity and adds to the page-turning momentum.

In contemporary literary fiction relationships and character are far more important than plot; but the set up – an injured man with plenty of hospital time remembering his past to understand who he is and why he is there – is credible and neat, and although the prose is straight-forward the emotional pull is strong which has a lot to do with Well’s talent. The word ‘tear-jerker’ has been used, too much I think, in many reviews of this book.

Although it is his fourth novel it’s a book that Wells had to write; it was stuck in his head for seven years but then, following its publication and success, his head was free to write the novels he wants to write. I look forward to those.

Wells changed his name to remain free from his famous family and chose ‘Wells’ from his writing mentor, John Irving’s hero Homer Wells in his novel Cider House Rules (1985).

Here is an interview, in German with English sub-titles, with Wells when he won the European Prize for Literature in 2016 for The End of Loneliness; and you can watch another interview with Wells, in English, when the book was translated into French, here.

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.

The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives on a farm in Cornwall and plays the cello,  both baroque and modern. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is patron of the Penzance LitFest.

This is an early novel, his 6th, from 1990.

It’s about three women in a house.

The narrative is like a favourite aunt’s doily with a little trio of characters in the centre intricately embroided; there are a few men involved but only around the edges, woven in like a lace border, to frame it.

Or it’s a piece of chamber music, intimate, intricate, but allowing each character to the fore, their solo bit, not only to enlighten us about her but also about the others.

Gale’s voice is at an appropriate and un-judgemental distance, sensitive to the humour that can emerge from conflict. He knows the full picture but hones in on specifics, to add colour, backstory, and therefore understanding while stitching the story for us. He’s at his best with family politics.

It inspired an understanding of the complexity and the importance to storytelling of gossip. Gossip: noun,  intimate detail about the people we don’t know. It’s television equivalent is soap opera. Intimate detail about the people we do know is higher art because we know the reasons, motivations, inevitabilities. It’s television equivalent is serial drama. We get to know these three women very well.

In novels, but not in television or film, this is achieved – not only but mostly – by the narrator; knowing what people are thinking, and sometimes the joy of reading about what people are thinking is knowing that what they are thinking is wrong, misplaced, or delusional. This, getting narrative information from what is not written – reading between the lines, is a hallmark of good writing.

Dialogue – in novels, television, and film – like “What’s wrong?”; “Are you OK?”, and “Do you have something to tell me?” are examples of bad writing. They should be completely unnecessary.

Good writers trust their readers to work it out; bad writers don’t trust their readers at all and spell it out.

Gale gives us juicy revelations; makes us doubt what we thought of something/someone; and forces us to do a lot of work (thinking) to assimilate the full complex picture. We are not always conscious of this but it is the major cause for answering the question “What was it like?” with “It was great. I loved it.”

Judith, a successful novelist lives in an isolated Cornish house with her lover, Joanna, a photographer. Judith’s estranged younger sister and a recent, and very sudden, widow, Deborah, comes to stay, to recuperate, reassess, get back on track. Three women in a house, all in a variety of positions on the road to contentment. Not far away lives a widow, Esther, who runs a dishevelled sanctuary for cats. And here is my only minor gripe: the metaphor: cats, women in a house all on the road to safety is very obvious. There was no need, Patrick, to explain it.

Conversations, backstory slotted in with ease, and three men, one in the present, two in the past, all pivotal are woven in with skill.

Here is a small sample of his writing: he’s describing the, now deceased, mother of the sisters, Judith and Deborah.

She had always drunk in company, but after her husband’s sudden death, she ceased what little entertaining she had ever managed and began to hide her bottles like so many lovers in a farce … A small rounded woman,  her mother had appeared on a first encounter like some roly-poly matriarch in a child’s picture book, or a motherly glove puppet – nothing on her mind but baking and sweetness, nothing beneath her skirts but clothespegs and starch. One surreptitious glass too many, however, and her nursery rhyme equilibrium was upset, revealing all manner of spite and grievances to the unready … ‘I hope you realise that we only stayed together because of you graceless bitches,’ was the sort of declaration she would make when nearing the point of nightly collapse.

In my previous post I described my frustration at finding something to read that sparked my interest. I found this one. I read it in a weekend so I’m now in the same predicament. To avoid another collection of wasteful days I’m going straight to another Gale, his latest Take Nothing With You, which I should’ve blogged about already.

So what did I think of The Cat Sanctuary? It was great. I loved it.

You can buy the ebook, and/or read a free sample, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton pic
Australian journalist turned novelist, Trent Dalton

This is a rollicking good read. Entertaining, insightful, rich in characters, with a heavy dose of autobiography, and only marred a little by the ending; more about that later.

Eli Bell is 12 years old and the younger son of dysfunctional but estranged parents, Frances and Robert, and they all bump along day to day on the outer hazardous rings of petty criminality in Brisbane in the 1980s. Rugby, television, drugs, poverty, junk food, cigarettes, XXXX beer, and a surprising amount of love for each other get them through every day. Well, almost. Eli’s ‘family’ is extended to include his mum’s boyfriend, Lyle, the first man he ever loved – it takes him time to feel that for his dad; Slim Halliday, his babysitter, mentor, and possible murderer, but certainly notorious escapee from Boggo Road Goal; and his older brother, August, who has decided not to talk since he and Eli were possible victims of attempted filicide. He communicates only with Eli who has learnt to decipher his brother’s air writing. They are inseparable.

The story is told in the first person and Eli’s colourful language, obvious intelligence, unwavering loyalty, and passion for words make him an unforgettable character. There’s a love story, or love fantasy, woven into the second half that is centred on a Courier-Mail crime reporter, Caitlyn Spies, eight years his senior. Eli hankers after, not only her lips and other parts of her body, but also a job like hers: he aches to be a crime-busting journalist. But does he make it? No spoilers here.

There is a lot of back-story to get through before the narrative really starts, so the opening is a bit slow but once Dalton gets in his stride you are grateful for the time taken; he also weaves in a flavour of surrealism that doesn’t quite work, for this reader, but it’s easy to go along with it and to allow yourself to be ‘taken for the ride.’

And what a ride!

It has all the flavour and action of a television crime story right down to the satisfying climax and the just-desserts handed out to the bad-guys.  But there is a climactic tag, a chase sequence that is contrived, too long, and unnecessary. It’s like this sequence has been lifted from another genre and medium; it sits uncomfortably, and ‘tacked-on’, at the end of such a well-written story. But this is a minor criticism.

Yes, it would be perfect for a television, and an adaptation is in the pipeline, produced by Joel Edgerton, but, surprisingly, it is the theatre that has snaffled the goods first. The stage version is scheduled for the 2020 season of the Queensland Theatre Company for the Brisbane Festival in September of that year. Sam Strong, QTC’s artistic director will direct the adaptation written by Tim McGarry.

You can watch a promotional video here, where Dalton gives away a few secrets of inspiration for this, his debut novel with the books that helped him write it.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here.

Lanny by Max Porter

Max Porter Pic
British writer, Max Porter.

When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind,  but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.

Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.

Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.

In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).

But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song.  And then Lanny disappears.

This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.

In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.

Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.

I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.

As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.

I urge you to give him that chance.

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.

You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.