Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie pic
Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie

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.

 

 

The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

This novel, Gale’s eighth, published in 1996, was written in 1992-3 during a period of personal and professional insecurity, but prompted by encouragement by the famous Australian publisher Carmen Callil who suggested he “stretch his technique with a longer literary form and indulge his fascination with intimate relationships by turning his hand to a family saga. This was the result: three generations of a family working out their loves and recriminations in a strange country house in the Cambridgeshire fens.”

Now, during a time of self-isolation (March 2020) due to the CV19 pandemic I took a short walk with armfuls of rubbish to the re-cycling depot around the corner in Clifton Hill, Melbourne. There I found, to my joy, an old book cabinet overflowing with books of all descriptions and sizes, lots of dictionaries, ‘best-sellers’, wrecked copies of bibles and unfashionable cookbooks, and a copy of this novel which, of course, I had to rescue. Now all his editions have been given a uniform design but this one, from 1996, is curiously coy but suggestive.

Patrick Gale a-la-rondeThe ‘strange house’ on the cover, and central to the book, is based on A La Ronde, a 16-sided house located near Lympstone, Exmouth, Devon, England, and in the ownership of the National Trust. The house was built for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter in 1796 and passed down only through the women of the family.

Yes, Patrick Gale is a master of intimate relationships and the story of the marriage between a German evacuee Edward Pepper, a composer, and his doctor, Sally Banks, is rich in character and incident, including a kind murder. The first half of the novel is about their life together, but the story, over three generations, skips the middle one and continues with Edward’s grandchildren; his daughter, Miriam has given up her hippy lifestyle, having given birth to two children, Jamie, and Alison, fathers unknown, and seemingly incongruously married an accountant. Jamie works successfully in insurance and Alison is an editor at a prestigious literary agency.

The second half opens with a detailed and almost shocking description of a feature of Jamie’s life: uninhibited anonymous sex which firmly sets the action towards the centre of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Again Gale fills their lives with incident and detail and characters clearly and intricately drawn. Sam, a rough and sexually ambiguous young man with an unsettling honesty and plain-speaking seriousness is one of Gale’s most effective creations. Sam rescues Alison from an attempted rape and provides Jamie with a reason to change his life; in fact Sam changes both their lives.

Edward grows into a celebrated composer and like most men of his age is solidified in his thinking of years before, so much so that when reminded of his past missteps appears to blame the times, rather than himself, for any insult or harm caused; but he too is affected by Sam’s view of himself and how things should be.

This novel is indeed a family saga, with all the joys and triumphs, jealousies and tragedies that make up family life and peopled with characters whose romanticism Gale so cleverly pricks, encourages, and celebrates.

The book is dedicated to Tom Wakefield (1935-1997) a British novelist and short story writer, a friend of Gale’s and a co-contributor to a trio of novellas, Secrete Lives (1991), to which Gale also contributed a novella called Caesar’s Wife, now seriously hard to find.

You can buy the kindle and paperback editions of The Facts of Life here.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler pic
American writer, Anne Tyler.

Read Anne Tyler.

Have you read any Tyler yet?

You should read Anne Tyler.

These, and other inferences, came from a fellow book worm and one whose opinions as a reader I trust. So, finally, I read Anne Tyler.

Saint Maybe (1991) is typical of her work: family relationships. There seems two kinds of families in the American novel: the apple pie variety and the gun variety. Tyler’s are the former but, of course, coping with a threat, a dilemma.

Ian Bedloe, the son in an apple pie family in Baltimore did something he believes was very bad and caused two deaths. Only he knows what he did, what he said; the only other person, his older brother, who was there when he said it, and to whom he said it, is dead. He is desperate to be allowed to atone for his ‘sin’ and is drawn into a local Christian denomination called The Church of the Second Chance. After what he’s done, he so wants to be good. And forgiven.

What interested me in Saint Maybe is the subject of religion. I was brought up in a religious family but the Christianity taught by my Christian denomination (Lutheranism) always seemed to be more like an insurance policy than a belief system. My mother read the bible like a novel. I have come to understand that religion is a very important element in human existence: each group, tribe, and civilisation since the year dot has had a belief system; mainly to answer the big questions (How did we get here? What are we doing here? What’s that big ball of fire in the sky? and There’s got to be something better, doesn’t there?) so we can get on with the everyday necessities: digging for yams, inventing machines, filling in a tax return. What I object to, and what I see as a blight on humanity, is the administration, and interpretation, of these belief systems: the temple, the synagogue, the mosque, the church.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints …”. So begins the last line of the Apostle’s Creed I learnt as a child, yet all three, the holy spirit, church, and saints are inventions of the (all male) administrators of Christianity over millennia.

The Church of the Second Chance is exactly one of these ‘administrations’; it teachers not so much what Jesus Christ said but what its leader, Reverend Emmett, says and Ian, so looking for a path to redemption and his second chance for what he has done, joins Emmett and his small flock, waiting, as the Reverend Emmett says, for a sign that he has been forgiven.

The Bedloes aren’t religious but Ian’s commitment to The Church of the Second Chance slowly pulls them in; ritual and routine can do that to people’s lives. The family conforms to the Church more out of respect for Ian than for a commitment to its beliefs.

Stream-of-consciousness is a novelistic technique (thank you James Joyce) that recently has had a revival: Anna Burn’s The Milkman won the 2018 Booker Prize and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker. It usually is associated with internal thoughts,  the ordinary, the minutiae of people’s lives. Here, Tyler uses the more common third-person narrator to tell the very plain story of Ian Bedloe.

Above her work-desk is the following quote.

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,

Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses,

Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.

Something will come to you.

…from Walking to Sleep by Richard Wilbur.

“I see those words as about getting an idea and making a  book,” says Tyler. “I don’t get anxious. It will come to you, let it come in.”

She works in long hand, rewrites in long hand, and only when she is satisfied will she then type it onto a computer; print it out and work on another draft in long hand. And so it goes. Her style, if she has one – she says she has no style at all – is “unmistakably hers: transparent and alert to all the nuances of the seemingly ordinary,” wrote Charles McGrath in a 2018 profile in The New York Times.

It’s true that the appearance of truth in fiction is achieved through detail which is why her writing is so believable: her work is full of detail, to the brim with detail: the weather, the light on window glass, a tone of voice, a look, the type of cut and grain of wood, what people know and don’t know; but she also deliberately omits detail, for the reader to work out. This also, ironically, adds veracity to the work; creates an investment for the reader in the story and its meaning. She is a joy to read.

Saint Maybe was filmed for television in 1998 starring Blythe Danner and Tom McCarthy, directed by Michael Pressman from a teleplay by Robert W. Lenski.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

Monday in Piss Street

a short story

I live in a shit-hole. Lying here ain’t good. My bed stinks. I fart loudly and crawl through the thug of it and go to the kitchen. I can hear me mum snoring from here. It’s a small place. Yeah, course it is. Cockroaches nyere-nyere me as they scatter away. They feel safe, I reckon. At home. I open the fridge. There’s lots of space in our fridge. Green muck too. Fuck! The milk’s off. I drink from the sink tap. Tastes like Draino. What day is it? Shit! I’ve got to go to the dole office. There’s this fat fag creep there who looks at me like I’m a Macca’s burger with fries on the side, like that chick in that ad on TV. Hope I get the swami girl. She’s got Milo skin and eyes like mud cake. I shower, feel like a dump, take one. The Dettol soap is a nail clipping but it still strips every bit if moisture out of my skin. Me mum believes in squeaky clean. That and smack. Yeah, I know.

I can hear Scotty scratchin’ at the back door. I let him in and find a rusty can of four-bean mix in the cupboard, behind the tea bags she steals from the motel down on Cowper Road. A job she’s got, three days a week. It used to be two days but she gave the manager a blowjob and got three. That’s what I reckon. I open the can with a bread knife and Scotty and I share it. I go into me mum’s room and scratch around in her side drawer and – bingo! – find a twenty-dollar bill. Fuckin’ awesome. She’s dead to the world. I cover her up properly after starin’ a bit.

On the floor I find a belt to use as a lead for Scotty. We go to the shitty local con store; mum keeps telling me I need to think about the future. I’ve got to get some dog food. The chink sits behind mesh wire the thickness of pencils. I slide two cans of Chow, a Snickers bar, and a half litre of milk at him. He doesn’t look at me. I was 5 cents short on a packet of bbq chips once and he wouldn’t let me have them. I broke his nose, the slanty-eyed prick! Now there’s this fuckin’ pencil mesh everywhere. He gives me $1.50 change and I feel like punching him again. He knows it too. Fuckin’ reffos. Robbing us blind! Scotty craps on the footpath. I don’t have a placky bag with me, never do, so I shove it into the gutter and get dogshit on my stubs. Bloody hell! I find a patch of grass inside a car tyre, push it aside, and try to wipe me toes clean with it; fuckin’ jeez, I must look like a spazo dancing or somethin’. Scotty barks. Shut up ya dick! I see a couple of white haired geros up ahead. They stop talking and cross the street. “What are ya lookin’ at, ya coupla cunts! You’ll be dead before me. I’m just walkin’ me dog! Sa free country!” They scurry on a bit, as fast as their skinny little bandy legs can carry them. Ha! Makes me want to vommi. The pricks!

Charlie finishes serving a chick with her skirt up her crack. “Morning, Bo. What can I do for you”. He looks at me. I look at him. He knows what I’m goin’ to say. “Me mum’s still sleepin’ it off and there’s no food in the joint. I gotta go to the dole office. Can I have a burger?” “What about your mum?” he says. “Yeah,” I say. “Can ya make it two?” He looks at me like his shit don’t stink but he bailed me out once so mum says I can’t give him no lip. I gotta swallow it. Feels like nails. He goes to make the burgers. I stand and wait. I look out through the big window onto the street and see that pansy from the pub on the corner; the pub where they do prissy shows watched by chicks in merks and blokes with haircuts. I looked through the window one night at a couple of guys in frocks telling jokes about god and the prime minister. The crowd was lapin’ it up. Some sort of code, I reckon, like commi shit or somethin’.  The sissy-boy’s with his dicky little benji-dog. He bends down and picks the stupid mut up as good ol’ Scotty yaps fit to split and goes for his ankles. Rip him to sheds, Scotty! Little Scotty won’t leave him alone and his fluffy mut yaps in his arms. I’d laugh if I had the energy. Charlie gives me the burgers and I say “Thanks” like me mum said I had to. Scotty keeps barkin’ and jumpin and the sissy-boy…”Hey!” The cunt’s tryin to kick my dog. “Hey! Shit face! What the fuck do ya think ya doin’?” I run right up to him and stand right up to the prick with my chest in his face. He looks like he’s goin’ to shit himself. “You tryin to kick my dog? Hey!? Hey!? Ya fuckin’ cunt! Kick my dog and I’ll smash ya fuckin’ face in!” The fag tries to speak, “Well I’m not going to push a dog away with my hands, am I?” “What’s that supposed to mean,” I scream at him. “You tryin to be some kind of smart arse? Hey!? Hey!? Are ya!? Hey!?” and the cunt turns and walks away. “I’m askin’ ya a question, dum-fuck. What’s a poofta like you tryin’ to kick me dog? Hey!? Fuckin’ nancy-boy, take-it-up-the-arse, shit-pusher! Go on, answer me fuck-face. Poofta!” I yell and it feels real good. He’s shakin’ and can hardly walk straight. And then he stops and turns his lilly-white pansy-boy-face, white as froth, and says to me somethin’ like if I wanna insult im or somethin’ I’ll have to find somethin’ diff’rent than what’s true. What?! “What did you say!?” I scream. I don’t know what he’s tryin’ to say. “What the fuck!” I yell spit on his nose. “Ha!” I scream but the feel-good stuff’s oozin’ away and I hate it, but he’s still shakin’ huggin’ his stupid dog. I can taste his fear and it tastes good, salty-sweet. I’m runnin’ out of words. He walks away. “Ya fuckin’ cunt!!” I scream. My face is burnin’ and the heat in my body and lumps in my throat choke me, and I so fuckin’ hate it – “I fuckin’ hate it!” I scream at the sky; when smartarse pricks throw words at ya that don’t make sense. “Aaah!!” And I hear a few doors open and close. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at” I bellow at whoever can hear. But, I scared him shitless didn’t I? Yeah, the prick. Scotty is pullin’ on my belt, with his tail down and pullin’ away from me. “Come here! Ya my fuckin’ dog! Mine! Come here, ya prick.” And I can’t yell anymore and I walk away draggin’ Scotty like a pyjama bag I saw a kid with once on TV.

I sit under the concrete steps that go up to the freeway and try to stop the drummin’ in my ears. I eat my burger. It helps. Scotty looks at me like he doesn’t know nothin’. I give him a piece of bun. He eats it. I still feel hot but it’s goin’ away. I walk up the stairs to the freeway, and along the footpath to the park and let Scotty off the lead. He doesn’t know what to do. “Run, ya prick,” I say. I walk over to a tree and lean against it listenin’ to that drummin’ again. It’s getting fainter I think. A poxy bloke in a suit comes up to me and says, “Hey, pretty boy! Want to make a bit of money?” “Fuck off,” I say but it sounds weak. It comes out like I’ve got a cold, or somethin’. “What do you say to twenty bucks for a blowjob?” he says with just a slit on his shiny face, like we’ve done this before. “Fuck off,” I say again. More like a whisper this time. But I think about the money and how I can get the bus to the dole office, and maybe, some food for tonight. I gotta think of the future, like me mum says. “Fifty,” I say. “No blow, just a hand.” “OK, twenty though,” he says. “Fifty or nothin’” I say and make it like I don’t care.

His little dick is hot is my hand but it doesn’t take long, thank kryst, and no way did I let the faggot touch me. No way. He messed his expensive shirt which made me smile which gave him the wrong idea. I wiped my hands on the grass and took off with my bus money. Needle-dick loser. I took Scotty home. Me mum was still dead to the world. I put her burger in the fridge. I took the bus to the dole office.

I sat on the bus next to a chick with really big knockers, a green t-shirt and cut-off jeans. I said, “G’day.” She looked up from her phone. Nothin’. What is it with chicks who won’t even say g’day. Stuck-up bitch. I gotta get myself a phone. Yeah. The fat creep isn’t on duty today. Yeah, but the swami girl is. I wait and let some nuf-nufs go before me so I can get swami-girl. I sit at her desk. She’s really pretty and has a purple scarf-thing over her black hair.

“Hi, Bo. How you been going?”

“OK.”

“Just, OK?”

“Yeah.” I hand her my form.

“You’ve been to see all this people; all these jobs?”

“Yeah, course.”

“If I rang some of these people, they’d remember you?”

“S’pose not.” I ain’t stupid.  “They see heaps of fuckers.”

“How’s your mum?”

“OK.”

“Still working her two days a week?”

“She’s not working. Hasn’t worked in months”

“I thought she was at the motel two days a week.”

“Nah, when it came to pay day the prick wouldn’t pay her. Sack’d her.” Can’t tell swami-girl the truth, mum said.

“I see.” She goes down the list of interviews I’ve done, well, done some of ‘em. She looks at me like she likes me. I like her too. She’s wearin’ lots of flowing clothes so I can’t get the jist of her body, but I bet it’s alright. I start imaginin’ her black swami bush between her legs and I get a hard-on. I wanna touch her. I look at her hands and she’s wearin’ a few rings. She’s not supposed to wear stuff like that at work. Ya can get smashed fingers from some prick who’d cut your hand off as soon as look at ya. They’d fetch a bit, I reckon. She looks at me. I look at her. The kind of too-long look you see sometimes in movies. I reckon she likes me for a fact. “Nice rings,” I say. She looks at her rings and takes them off. Fuck! Why she do that for? “I was just lookin’.” “Sure,” she says but you can see she’s scared a bit. Stupid bitch! She looks at me again and there’s somethin’ she wants to say.

“It’s fuckin’ OK, alright?” I say.

“Is it Bo?”

“Ye-ah!?” What’s she getting’ at?

“You’ve got to think about the future, Bo.”

“Yeah well I am! Me mum says that shit all the time. I wanna get a phone.” I think about that loser in the park. I gotta get a phone. She’s lookin’ at me. Now, I don’t know if she likes me or not. This is what I don’t get. Chicks look at ya and ya know what they want, and then they look at ya again and it’s different. Or they look at ya and ya know what they want, so you do it, and then they scream at ya, call you names, and piss you right off.

But she signs my form and I say, “Thanks.”

“Say Hi to your mum,” she says. “Next!” she yells.

I go into the city to make me feel normal. When you’re in the city ya can be anyone walkin’ around. I look at them and they look at me and see what I see, just pricks walkin’ around being normal. I breath normal. I break the fifty at Maccas but know I have to get some food for tonight. I like this feeing, this doing stuff for me mum. I walk past a posh supermarket and think, I can go in here, and so I walk in. I look at security and he looks at me. Shit! There’s so much light, so much stuff. I look at all the packets on the shelves and don’t know half of them. There’s a whole room full vegetables. It’s like a farm or somethin’. Don’t know half of them either. What are ya supposed to do with ‘em? I look for the can section and pick up two cans of spaghetti. Me mum loves spaghetti on toast. I see all the bread on a huge table. What is all this shit? Bread’s bread. I take one that looks like real bread, a square one, and the skinny guy at the check-out looks at me as if I’ve forgotten somethin. “What are ya lookin’ at?” I say. He looks away and then back at me and says, “Nothing at all, mate. Nothing at all.” And it’s like I hear the words he’s sayin’ but it’s not what he’s sayin’ and I can feel my ears burnin’ and that thumpin’ again. “How ya goin’?” It’s the security guy with a weak little smile on his puss. And more words but it’s not what he’s sayin’. What the fuck is he sayin’? And I want to scream so fuckin’ loud and punch his fuckin’ prissy face, cut his cock off, and shove it up his arse, but there’s so much fuckin’ light in here. I can feel it like sunshine and I say “Fine, thanks,” and it comes out like it isn’t me and I suddenly don’t know where I am. This skinny guy is handin’ me some money. “Here’s your change.” I look at it. I take it. “Don’t forget your stuff.” What? I take the bag and head for the street. I can feel security followin’ me. What did I do? What did I say? The world’s a mess and I have to side-step a man with a broom. “Fuck off!” I yell at him.

I get home and walk inside. Nothin’ but stink. And mess. No sound. I put the grocery bag on the table. It takes me five goes to find the toaster. I want to do this for me mum. I plug it in. I’m gonna make me mum some spaghetti on toast.  I can’t find a pot so I use a fryin’ pan. It’s got stuff stuck to it but there’s no washing stuff so, fuck it. I ring-pull the spaghetti and tip the sloppy stuff in the pan. I turn on the gas. I put two slices of bread in the toaster and push the level. Bang! There’s a flash, sparks, and I nearly shit myself. Fuck! Is that supposed to happen? I push the lever again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. My jaw aches. Again. Nothin’! I yank the toaster from its socket and throw it into the lounge room. It hits the floor and a shower of crumbs flies up like a bomb’s gone off. I have to keep doin’ somethin’ or I’ll explode. A cup of tea. I’ll make me mum a cup of tea. Yeah. I search through the cupboards. Nothing but shit and stuff. Stuff and shit. Where’s the fuckin’ tea bags? I smell smoke or somethin’ and I turn to see the spaghetti burning in the pan. I grab it and throw the whole fuckin’ lot in the sink with all the other shit. I stand there with my mouth shut tight, tryin’ to steady my breathing. The thump-thump-thumping is deafening. I want to scream but me mum’s still asleep.

And then I remember. And the thought is like sunshine, like a birthday present. It could be happiness, even. The thumping stops and I suddenly want to laugh. The burger! I’ve got a burger in the fridge. Me mum’s burger. It’s there. Just there in the fridge. Me mum was right. I thought about the future, I’ve got this burger and now everything’s OK. This new feeling is strange, but kryst, it feels good. I’ll take her a nice burger. I get it out, un-wrap it, and find a clean plate, well sort of. I put the burger on the plate and take it into me mum. She’s still asleep. I get a little closer and I reach down to wake her like I always do. There’s vomit on her check and I can smell a different stink. What is that? I touch her shoulder and it’s like touching the toaster. Is this dead? I stand there. Me mum’s dead. I hear myself saying it. Me mum’s dead. I don’t know what to do. It’s like she’s been turned off, or something. What am I supposed to do? Dunno. I eat her burger.

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.

Rough Music by Patrick Gale

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

I first read this book decades ago and then in 2016 I discovered Patrick Gale again with Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and have remained a fan.

Rough Music (2000), like several of Gale’s novels, has a double narrative, same characters, same location, different times.

Julian a small boy, son of simple parents John and Frances, is taken on an idyllic beachside holiday in Cornwall with those parents, John and Francis. The widower, Bill, a writer, and child, Skip, of John’s sister arrive from America and cause passions and the status quo to collide.

Decades later, Julian is a grown man, a successful bookshop owner, and he returns to Cornwall for a holiday with his now ageing parents; his mother with early onset dementia, to the same beach and even, possibly, to the same house. The catalyst of drama and entertainment is that he has been having an affaire with his brother-in-law, Sandy, which began on the evening of Sandy’s buck’s party and has continued through Sandy’s years of happy marriage and the birth of his two sons to Julian’s sister, Poppy, and right up to the action of the story. No one, not Poppy or his parents, know about this. While on this holiday he meets Roly, an artist and drop-out, and he can see a possible exit from this family deception if only he can orchestrate it in time.

Some of the names of these characters change between narratives so don’t be put off by this. All will be revealed.

Each story is told in alternating chapters rendering the climax of both in close proximity to each other. A double whammy for the reader.

Gale is at his best with family relationships and spends time painting them in all their complex layers of expectation, disappointment, and flowering moments of joy. He is a wise writer, or perhaps just acutely observant.

Family life:

The only real difference was children. He had never appreciated until now how much emotional clamour, interference almost, the presence of children set up, saving a relationship from listening to itself.

How children can get in the way:

‘Ma.’ ‘What?’ ‘Leave the door open this time.’ The open door was sobering, like having a dressing-gowned child bearing mutely indignant witness from the room’s corner.

Ageing:

It was as though the only acceptable way to face old age was in a spirit of glassy contemplation and composure, to become a fund of quaint old stories (so long as one did not repeat them too often), a calm old lap on which babies might be placed and an undemanding extra presence at a dining table.

Self awareness:

Perhaps John had been right and her surliness was simply muffled sorrow.

…flirting was a kind of knife sharpening for marriage.

And humour:

Tell me what you’re thinking. Trust me. I’m a novelist.

Sometimes while reading one can feel a ‘little jump’: when you read something that can chip ever so slightly at your suspension of disbelief but for the sake of the story, and your own enjoyment, you accept it, go with it. I think we readers do this a lot. It’s only after you put the book down, days or weeks later or when you’re telling someone about the book, that you may realise that, yes, that something doesn’t quite gel, some plot point or character trait doesn’t quite fit with what has been set up for us to accept. Don’t let this colour your view of the work or the writer adversely. It is caused, I believe, by us readers assuming that the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader; but this may not be the case. Of course, some books are written in a universe completely alien to the reader, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings for example, but most books we assume are written in our own universe. As readers we will give ourselves far more enjoyment and commitment if we let the story be what it is and not what we might want it to be, even down to the small details of the narrative and characters.

If you know and like Gale’s work you have probably read this, if not then this, along with A Perfectly Good Man (2012), two of his best, are a good way to begin your Gale adventure.

I continue my quest to read and write about all of Gale’s work and having surmised that it is only during the winter that he writes, in the spring and summer he is far too busy (festivals, garden, cello, cooking …) these seasons give me time to catch up. He is so prolific: two books every three years on average. His last Take Nothing With You came out in 2018; I’m expecting a new one next year. No pressure Patrick!

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

 

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

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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

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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.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

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Irish writer, John Boyne.

Earlier this year John  Boyne found himself in the middle of a media storm about his new book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The transgender community, especially on twitter, went for him fiercely: the title itself was considered offensive.

Mya Nunnaly, a poet, wrote an open letter to Boyne which includes,

You {John} write that “however, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity.” HER new identity, John. HER early 20s.

As I understand it, the moment a boy (say) reveals that he believes he is a girl it is incumbent of everyone to treat her with respect and use her name and the appropriate pronoun. In fact I should’ve written ‘the moment a boy (say) reveals that she believes she is a girl…’

It may have caused less offence had the title been, My Sister’s Name was Jason.

The other issue was the use of the word cis. The word originally was, and is, used in molecular science but has been adopted by the transgender community as the opposite of trans. I am a cis man because I live as the gender of my birth. Most people are of cis-gender. Transgender are people who don’t live as the gender of their birth. Boyne inflamed the debate even further by publicly writing in the Irish Times on April 13, 2019, a piece entitled, Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis. However, a word, when given an opposite, is strengthened. If our language only had the word ‘tall’ and its opposite was simply ‘not tall’ anyone who was ‘not tall’ would, I believe, feel left out, thought about in the negative, disrespected; but having their own word, ‘short’ gives both words equal standing, equal weight, and therefore gives equal respect.

I often feel that if the word ‘black’ in American society was able to be used as the equal opposite of the word ‘white’, which is the correct use, and not as ‘less than’ the word ‘white’ race relations in the US would be a lot healthier.

I see the word ‘cis’ as just another adjective to describe me. If I was in a group discussion about international politics with people of different nationalities it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with, ‘Well, as an Australian caucasian man I think ……’; similarly, if I was in a group discussion about diet with people who were either vegans, pescatarians, or omnivores it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a meat-eater I think …; and if I was in a group discussion about gender with a group that included trans people it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a cis man I think…’ It is just another adjective to use appropriately when necessary.

However, the focus is not on Jason/Jessica but on her younger brother, Sam, who represents Boyne’s chosen audience:  young cis readers. This is his sixth book for young readers, the most successful being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Sam tells it as he sees it: Boyne has chosen Sam as the first-person narrator. The language is clear and simple and a lot of what goes on around him he doesn’t fully understand. This background is heightened by his parent’s work: his mother is a cabinet minister, Secretary of State, eye-ing off the Prime Ministership, with his father as her Chief of Staff. The stakes are high and the media are always lurking in the bushes. 

The title is clear and  basically foretells the story. It is actually a quote from the text; a text narrated by a cis boy who like other cis people don’t understand trans people and sometimes get it wrong, particularly with language. As one trans journo put it in Boyne’s defence … he’s on our side; he’s waving our flag, he just got it upside down.  

“In writing My Brother’s Name is Jessica my hope is that children and young adults—particularly ones who are perhaps not already familiar with transgender issues—will come to this book and start to understand that anyone struggling with these issues needs support and compassion, not judgment. I have tried to write the best novel that I can. I might have succeeded or I might have failed, but I stand by it. I welcome debate and am interested in people’s views on this subject. I do not believe that the trans community bears any relationship to, or any responsibility for the abuse I have received online. I stand 100% behind all trans people, I respect them as brave pioneers, I applaud their determination to live authentic lives despite the abuse they also receive, and I will always do so.”                                                                                                                    John Boyne

 

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

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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.