The History Of England Volume 1: Foundation – Peter Ackroyd (2011)

There are only two authors (Christopher Fowler and Agatha Christie) who I’ve read more books by and yet my responses to this author do vary.  At his best he can beat off all competition, “London: The Biography” (2000) was my favourite read of 2002.  He can impress enough to appear in my end of year Top 10’s “Dickens”, “House Of Doctor Dee”, “Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem”, “Life Of Thomas More”, “Albion”, or just miss out,“Queer City”, or he can just be solidly good as with “English Music”, “Milton In America”, “The Clerkenwell Tales, “The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein”.  The book of his which didn’t do it for me was “Hawksmoor” his 1985 breakthrough success, but perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for it when I read in 1998.

In 2011 we saw the first volume of his hugely ambitious history of England which has since been completed with “The Tudors” (2012),“Rebellion (also called “Civil War”) (2014), “Revolution” (2016), “Dominion” (2018) and “Innovation” (2021).  It’s hard to think of an author who could be more appropriate for a work of this scope. Both his fiction and non-fiction are permeated with such a strong sense of the past.  He is learned and yet accessible, there’s always more than a hint of Ackroyd in his non-fiction voice- a personal touch which always keeps me involved.  He’s as good with the minor details as with the broad themes.

The reason why it has taken me longer to get started reading this than the time it took the author to write the whole series is this, the first volume.  With its subtitle “The History Of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors” it just all felt too much.  The further we go back in history the less evidence there is and the little incidentals and digressions which Ackroyd excels in are just not possible here.

So, what we have inevitably ended up here with is more of a catalogue of Kings, the people they surrounded themselves with and ongoing battles with France which tended to blend into one another.  I had hoped that this might be the book which would help me sort the Henrys from the Richards and the Edwards but it wasn’t.  I think I’d need to go much more in depth for that and read books with a less broad focus.

The chronological chapters are interspersed with those that explore a theme with a longer time span which did provide variety but also broke the flow of the actual what was going on when for me.  Ackroyd just looks at England, to incorporate other parts of Great Britain in this would have been overwhelming and the Welsh and Scots, in particular, were on very different paths to the English for much of this time and relationships were often antagonistic.

I felt pleased that I got through this book and there is a lot to fascinate, especially how early certain things were established, for examples, town and places of worships were developed on sites where really early towns and places of worship had been, suggesting that sense of location was really strong, same for roads and many administrative structures were developed early on.  This truly was a time of Foundation.  I am confident that later books in this series will have more appeal for me.  He devotes the whole of the next volume to the Tudor period, which means that a much shorter time-scale will let, I’m sure, the great storyteller Peter Ackroyd is, to shine more than he could with this work.  But he has here provided a solid opener to what could be a very inspirational series.

The History Of England Volume 1: Foundation was first published in 2011 by Macmillan.

Enchantment- Katherine May (2023)

Katherine May has been having a hard time of it.  She feels exhausted, cannot concentrate on reading and is finding it hard to remember what used to bring her joy.  Recognise these feelings?  It’s burn-out, largely caused by the constant need to be aware during lockdowns which meant our fight or flight responses went all over the place and after much reflection Katherine May thinks she might have the answer.  It’s enchantment, in the sense of awe and wonder, a re-engagement with the natural world and a recollection of those things we, as individuals, once held special.

The author came to prominence with her 2020 best-seller “Wintering:  The Power Of Rest And Retreat In Difficult Times” which, like this book, is of the non-fiction genre now described as “hybrid memoir”.  I haven’t read that but I certainly felt I was in need of a little enchantment and was intrigued when I first heard about this book.  I think it might have thought it was going to be more along the self-help lines than it is, we get the author’s responses to “enchantment”, she tends to steer clear on advising us on how we can incorporate it into our lives.

It does seem reading this that the author was actually pretty well-centred and understood the magic of the natural world, it was just through lockdown she lost her way a bit.  It wasn’t, for example, possible for her to engage with her group of female sea swimmers, missing both the social aspects and the myriad of positive boosts that sea swimming brings to the initiated.  The author takes a very elemental approach looking at Earth (take off your shoes- I did this quite a bit during lockdown as a way of centring myself amidst the madness of the world), Water, Fire and Air, with a nod to Aether in the Epilogue.  She provides interesting perspectives and I do get where she is coming from but I think I needed a bit more support from her burnt-out self to pull it all together for my burnt-out self.  I also realised when reading this that I’m not that particularly burnt-out anymore but I think this book would have had great power coming out of lockdown although I do acknowledge that it took so long to get any real sense of normality back that this free approach to living and the environment was just not possible then.

What we need to do is commit “to a lifetime of engagement: to noticing the world around you, t0 actively looking for small distillations of beauty, to making time to contemplate and reflect.” Spending time sharing how the author achieves this was very involving and she is very strong at crystalizing the special moments in some captivating writing but perhaps for me, personally, the sense of transformation and inspiration I was hoping for was not quite there.

Enchantment was published in 2023 by Faber and Faber.

Radical Love – Neil Blackmore (Hutchinson Heinemann 2023)

Neil Blackmore’s latest novel is set in Georgian London.  Radicalism is in the air- spread by seeds sown in the French Revolution.  Established ideas are being questioned, slavery has been abolished, it seems like the start of a new age.

Only it’s not, the rot is still there and hatred and prejudice still prevalent.  William Wilberforce, celebrated for his achievements in ending slavery still placed black dinner guests behind a screen to keep them separate from the white diners.  Main character and narrator John Church has set up his own place of worship, the Obelisk, to preach tolerance in well-attended services which attracts free thinkers as well as those unimpressed by his motives.  For many the limits come with any suggestion of acceptance for homosexuality and yet molly-houses thrive.  John Church accepts an invitation to attend rooms above a pub where he will attempt to alleviate some of the gay shame and self-hatred by marrying any men who wish to be coupled with one another.  Is he beginning a path of greater acceptance in London or is this just a step too far?

What I like very much is this reclaiming of history, of developing the true stories behind the established facts, as certainly here the novel is based upon actual events.  Over the last few years this has been done very successfully by Black British writers. Paterson Joseph and his “Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho” (2022) and Sarah Collins’ “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” (2019) immediately spring to mind. Neil Blackmore does this to an extent with black experience but particularly here with gay men’s stories.  Tom Crewe has done similar so successfully earlier this year with “The New Life” (2023) and Blackmore attains a high standard with this.

If you don’t already know about John Church (and I didn’t) greater pleasure will be had from this book by not finding out too much beforehand, especially as in his main character the author has created a gloriously untrustworthy narrator.  We can tell from the start that this is a man of contradictions and it is with great relish that these contradictions are brought to life.

This probably comes as close as a novel is going to get this year to being five stars without me actually awarding my top rating.  (I don’t believe that was because the review copy I was sent was so badly formatted that it did affect my reading flow and thus some of my enjoyment, luckily the book rattles on at such a pace the effects of this were diminished) but I think with John Church so central we only see the other characters from his (sometimes) off-skew perspective which doesn’t give them as much chance to shine as I would have liked.  The radical aspects come across strongly, are well balanced and the ideas very accessible (more so than Tom Crewe’s novel, actually, which is set in a repressed Victorian London of the late nineteenth century).  I also feel that, Neil Blackmore is here just like a cat that toys with a mouse for just a little bit too long before going for the kill in his development of his plot.  It is full of appalling hypocrisy, there’s hope and despair but above all a vivid bringing to life of a forgotten man whose attempts to find and bring love to Georgian London produce this extraordinary tale.

Radical Love will be published on 1st June 2023 by Hutchinson Heinemann.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Lie With Me – Philippe Besson (2019)

This is a short, (148 pages in the paperback edition) nostalgic, yearning French work in which the narrator is startled by the appearance of a man in 2007 which takes him back to a tale of first love from 1984 before a final section set in 2016.  It’s an enigmatic work, seemingly simple, hiding a depth which the French do so well.  The title here holds a double meaning, which actually it doesn’t have in its original language where it is “Arrete Avec Tes Mensonges” (“Stop With Your Lies”).  The English title niftily gives it seduction as well as dishonesty.

I didn’t know how much it is a work of fiction or whether it strays into autobiography.  The puzzle here is created by the author’s dedication to a real life person who has the same name as the love interest.  Maybe it is all true, maybe purely from imagination, it doesn’t really matter.

What I do know, which is a surprise in itself, is that the English translation is by Hollywood A-Lister Molly Ringwald, star of many an 80’s teen comedy from “Breakfast Club” to “Pretty In Pink” to a main character recurring role as Archie’s mum in “Riverdale”.  I can only assume that she must have loved this book so much in French that she wanted to bring it to an international audience.  Her translation certainly feels authentic, full of French introspection, together with the odd cultural reference I had to look up.

As is common with books of this length, the tale is slight, a love story between two teenage boys kept secret before they go their separate ways after their schooldays.  I became more involved once we got into the two later sections, set more recently.  There’s a bit of a leap of faith plausibility-wise required but get beyond that and it becomes a well-handled study on the directions life takes us and I was drawn in by the sensitivity of it all.

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever really been blown away by an adult novel under 200 pages and this hasn’t changed things entirely.  I think that is more my problem than the authors of novellas- perhaps my expectations of what I desire most from a reading experience demands greater length.  I’m still looking for the book to change my mind.  This, however, did have the potential to come close to doing that.

Lie With Me was published in the UK by Penguin Books in 2019.

Seining Along Chesil- Sarah Acton (2022)

From the upstairs room where I am writing this I have glimpses between the houses opposite of the sea at Chesil Beach.  This extraordinary 18 mile stretch of “storm driven barrier” was the inspiration for Ian McEwan’s tale of doomed love (2007) and JM Falkner’s classic adventure tale “Moonfleet” (1898) and its unique attraction has been celebrated by poets, including Sarah Acton, the author of this non-fiction work.

The fact that this is somewhere special impresses on every visit.  For an eight-mile section within 10 minutes walk from my house it can only be accessed by crossing the Fleet Lagoon, in past times, flat-bottomed boasts known as “trows” helped with this.

As well as being a place of great geological interest (I visited here on a school Geography field trip as it was part of my O Level syllabus) for many, many generations it provided a source of income for Dorset people.  A method of catching the mackerel which at certain points of the year swarmed into the shallows was developed using nets, thrown most often from a specially designed boat, a “lerret”.  This now almost lost form of fishing, “seining”, is the subject of Sarah Acton’s book subtitled “Voices From A Dorset Fishing Community.”

I have never fished and like most omnivores have no real understanding of how the food we eat reaches our plate, neither in the present nor the past but there was something very captivating about Sarah Acton’s study.  It helps that she is a poet and can talk about the Beach as it “roars and stings, silver shoals of memory dart beneath the sea surface like fragments of mirrors, as memory triggers memory”, finding every opportunity to reinforce the uniqueness of this location but she has also produced an oral history, reminiscences of the last generations who attempted to support themselves financially in this way.  These are men and women who lived their lives according to the sea, men who missed the upbringing of their children, youngsters who skipped school, the elderly who chose to spend much of their retirement on the shingle, all hypnotised by the thrill of the catch and the ebb and flow of the sea.

These were people who did not always do things by the book, large catches were unpredictable, the mystique of smuggling had always touched these coastline families and their ancestors.  They spent their hours in the water yet many could not swim.  They talk of individuals whose achievements have become the stuff of legends, of the most successful families, of crafts and activities which are pretty much redundant.  The same experiences are given a viewpoint from different individuals with the repetition in this case enhancing the sense of the oral tradition.  As the demand for mackerel declined their earnings became more sporadic but they lived with one eye on the waters.  There is a perhaps apocryphal story of pall-bearers who abandoned their fisherman friend’s coffin as they got the call of the sea.

It is all a bit of a fish-stew this book as the author is supported by contributions by different writers on the geology, on boat building and the history of the Fleet Lagoon and this all adds to the layering of this location which is very much brought to life here.  I’ve lived in Dorset just over a year and have barely dipped my toe into local history since I’ve been here (see “The Village That Died For England” by Patrick Wright and I have read the very successful 2022 debut novel by Joanna Quinn, “The Whalebone Theatre”).  There is still a huge amount to discover about my local environment and Sarah Acton here makes the history of this particular location very memorable.

Seining Along Chesil was published in the UK in 2022 by Little Toller Books.

The Sleeping Car Porter – Suzette Mayr (Dialogue Books 2023)

This is award-winning Canadian author Suzette Mayr’s fifth novel and was the 2022 recipient of the Giller Prize for Canadian writing.  Set in 1929 largely on a long train journey from Montreal to Vancouver where the focus is on main character Baxter, a black gay man who has taken a position as a sleeping car porter to help fund his dream to study dentistry.  We see the passengers through Baxter’s eyes as he strives to get tips and avoid complaints which would lead to demerits and being fired.  He is close to his fund-raising goals so this trip is very important for him.

It’s written in the present tense which is never my favourite narrative structure.  I can find it confusing and a little one-note and there is a danger we fall into stream of consciousness territory.  Baxter has to function very much in the moment, responding to demands and crises so it might seem fitting but then this is not actually his narrative, it’s third person.  I can see why it works to a point but I might have liked the author to mix it up a little but admittedly as time goes on and the exhaustion of both staff and passengers brings in surreal elements the layering of event after event does work well.

Baxter is the shining gem of this novel, unable to afford to eat properly and with little rest he is susceptible to hallucinations and his choice of sensational sci-fi reading material in his rare downtimes gives the potential of a nightmarish edge to the proceedings. Attitudes towards race are explored skilfully as the passengers need this man to be both largely invisible and yet answerable to their beck and call- his individuality dismissed by the generic name “George”, which is not his name.  (I didn’t know about this but this was obviously a thing at the time as the author’s bibliography references works such as “Hey Boy! Hey George!: The Pullman Porter”, “They Call Me George” and “10,000 Black Men Named George”).

When Baxter discovers a postcard whilst cleaning we suspect that his route to his dentistry dream will not run smoothly with a creeping inevitability which the author handles very well.  It’s a chilling depiction of the sleeping car porter’s role which was arduous and fraught with a whole range of dangers brought to life in this engaging novel.  Whilst reading this I realised I have read very little Canadian literature and that this particular train journey might just have opened up a whole new reading world for me.

The Sleeping Car Porter will be published in the UK by Dialogue Books on 18th May 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Coral Island- R M Ballantyne (1857)

I was reminded of R M Ballantyne (1825-94) by Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors.”  This prolific Scottish writer was most celebrated for this work which was significant as one of the earliest books intended for younger readers with juvenile characters as its heroes. Narrator Ralph Rover, aged 15, alongside two other cabin boys Jack Martin aged 18 and 13 year old Peterkin Gay find themselves marooned on an island in the South Seas and get up to all sorts of adventures.

I remember having a children’s classic version of this but never got round to reading it.  I don’t know whether that version had been edited for tender sensibilities or not I think had I read it I would certainly have remembered the parts where this book veers into dark territory.

It predates “Treasure Island” by some 25 years and Robert Louis Stevenson acknowledged its influence.  Reading both books as an adult Stevenson’s classic was less exciting than I had imagined whereas this was more exciting.  The inspiration here is likely Defoe’s ancient even at the time Ballantyne was writing “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) but the author certainly ramps up the excitement for his audience.

To begin with it is all rather sedate, once the boys are shipwrecked (I’m not plot-spoiling, you knew that was going to happen, surely) it all gets rather cosy as they thoroughly explore their environment, set themselves up domestically and do not appear to miss home too much.  There’s a lot about cocoa-nuts and coral reefs and they go off to see penguins, all of which would be quite a novelty for a Victorian juvenile readership but is not always exactly accurate (criticism which, according to Fowler, saw Ballantyne only writing from direct evidence from then on which may have actually been to the detriment of his other 80+ novels which did not achieve the same lasting success).  However, mid-way through he gives the then very popular Penny Dreadfuls a run for their money as we get Ballantyne’s literary take on piracy, sacrifice and cannibalism.

Of course, none of this is politically correct today but the good-natured heroes in their wide-eyed admiration of their environment feel less Victorian than we might expect (there is one use of the most unacceptable word and that is uttered by a ruthless pirate).  It’s also less preachy and moral than I was expecting for a book aimed at youth- although the value of Christianity does take more precedence as the book progresses it’s not a major issue for our three heroes.  There is a cat involved which always causes me more than a modicum of stress as cats in fiction seem to have a poor survival record.

Given its age and its outdated world view I found myself getting quite a bit from this book.  There were moments of genuine tension, real terror and I also enjoyed the more humdrum domestic moments from these youths.  It’s no wonder this book is seen as a direct ancestor of “Treasure Island”, “Lord Of The Flies” (where the protagonists view of desert island life becomes warped) and also of the Willard Price books beloved by my generation.  And how much I enjoyed it was actually a surprise.  But it is a different perspective which readers might today find too off-putting.  As Christopher Fowler says “it remained a hit for over a century and was translated around the world.  It was considered appropriate for primary school children despite blood-gushing descriptions of death and sacrifice.” I wouldn’t recommend passing this over to a nine year old without reading it first but as a piece of old-fashioned, thrill-seeking fiction this still resonates.

The Coral Island was first published in 1857 and there are many editions out there.  I read it as an e-book Delphi Classic which I recently bought at the excellent value price of £1.99 where it is the second of almost 100 of Ballantyne’s published novels,  novellas, non-fiction and nursery tales in the Compete Works of R M Ballantyne.  Should I choose to do so there is certainly a lot more of this author to discover.

The Flame Of Resistance – Damien Lewis (2022)

Damien Lewis is the celebrated author, documentary film-maker and historian who is most famous for writing a number of best-selling non-fiction books (as well as a couple of fictional thrillers) about the SAS.  I haven’t read any of his books prior to this and it was his subject matter here which got me interested- the extraordinary performer Josephine Baker.  This book is titled “Agent Josephine” in the US and I wonder why the UK has gone with this less satisfactory title- I hope it wasn’t a commercial decision in case it put off what is probably a large male readership for this author’s work.  In both editions the same subtitle adds a little more information – “American Beauty. French Hero. British Spy.”

Josephine Baker (1906-75) is a twentieth century great.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri where her talent for performing helped her escape a life of poverty.  Her career limited by racism she moved to France where she became a sensation, her vibrancy, often risqué costumes, dancing and singing talent as well as her beauty led to her becoming one of the most famous and most photographed women in 1920s/30s Europe.  Her love for her adopted homeland and its acceptance of her was compromised by the rise of the Nazis and the fall of France.

After World War II Josephine was awarded, amongst other acknowledgements, the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest service medal.  In succeeding years it has gradually been publicly recognised that hers was a vital role in supporting the Allies through Secret Service work.  On researching her life the author has uncovered just how important this work was, how long she managed to escape enemy attention and how team, partnered and solo missions had a significant impact on events of the war years.

Before war broke out her pilot’s licence saw her flying in aid and support and when Paris fell she refused to perform in Nazi occupied France but demand for her unique brand of morale boosting celebrity elsewhere enabled her to smuggle intelligence, information and documents within the trappings of costumes, music scores etc.  In the early years she was often accompanied by her menagerie of adored animals which added more chaos to her travels and actually helped her to carry out intelligence undertakings in plain sight.

Damien Lewis does well to bring the story alive of this extraordinary woman and her colleagues but even so, the secret nature of this work suggests that perhaps there is much more that she achieved which will never be uncovered.  His focus is very much on her war work and I think I do need to read a general biography to flesh out her many other achievements and to provide a greater context for these activities.  Recognition of just how unique this woman was, as a performer, as a member of the Resistance and as a British spy has begun to build up slowly over the decades.  In 2021 she became the 6th woman and 4th person of colour accepted for interment in the crypt of the Pantheon, alongside French greats such as Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.  I’m not convinced that she has gained the level of recognition her achievements demanded in her homeland and in the UK but hopefully this book will shine a light on this woman whose glamorous depiction of celebrity masked sheer bravery, determination and adherence to her beliefs.  Hers is a tale of extraordinary missions, invisible ink, microdots, secreted documents alongside her desire for peace and uncompromising insistence on equality.  This is a trail-blazer whose story demands to be known.

The Flame Of Resistance was published in the UK in 2022 by Quercus.

Trespasses – Louise Kennedy (2022)

As I was reading this it was announced that Louise Kennedy has made the shortlist for the 2023 Women’s Fiction Prize alongside Jacqueline Crooks whose “Fire Rush” I have already read and rated five stars.  On the evidence of these two books this particular judging panel seem to know how to spot a gem.  I think this novel is outstanding and a serious contender for my Book Of The Year (yes, I know it’s only May!)

It caught my attention when it won Novel Of The Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards beating Donal Ryan, whose book I’d loved.  It was also a title which popped up when I was “Looking Around” at what other bloggers had loved at the end of 2022 and Cathy at 746 Books and Karen at Booker Talk and my friend Louise’s recommendations were enough to push this up my To Be Read List.

Set in Northern Ireland in 1974 it is ostensibly a tale of a problematic relationship between a Catholic Primary School teacher who works part-time in her family’s pub and a customer, an older Protestant barrister.  But it is so much more as with a lot of attention to domestic detail the author humanises a world which seemed so alien to those of us who were around then watching the horrors of daily news bulletins in the UK at the height of The Troubles.  As a child then it seemed impossible to me that life could go on as normal there through the barricades, searches, explosions and retaliations but Louise Kennedy brings this time to life.  I recall enough to know that this is subject matter that I would not actively seek out but the author has convinced me otherwise in skilfully recreating this time and location. 

Characterisation is great.  Main protagonist Cushla’s mother copes with the effects The Troubles have had on her family through alcohol and some wonderful one-liners.  Her class favourite, seven year old Danny is such a strong illustration of the resilience of children, her colleague Gerry is a valuable support and there’s a very scary parish priest.

Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with was what Cushla sees in barrister Michael Agnew and whether it is worth the trouble it will cause but the author does  not romanticise this attachment.  We see it in its warts-and-all reality but accept that Cushla is experiencing something different.

I felt my involvement which started off very strong deepened more and more as I progressed through this excellent book.  There really has been some exceptional writing coming out of Ireland the last decade or so and this, dealing with very difficult issues and a very difficult time in the country’s history is amongst the very best.

Trespasses was published in 2022 by Bloomsbury.

Sparrow – James Hynes (Picador 2023)

Picador have high hopes for this novel which has been appearing on 2023 anticipated read lists from before the New Year.  I knew nothing about book nor author before reading it.  I wasn’t surprised on completing it to find out this is the work of a very established American writer and his sixth novel, his first being published some 33 years ago (“The Wild Colonial Boy” which has a Northern Ireland terrorism theme).  Nor was I surprised that he has been making a living teaching creative writing courses at American universities and getting qualifications from the highly influential Iowa Writers Workshop as this is a technical masterclass of a novel which shows a gifted writer demonstrating much experience and talent.  I also discovered, on completion, that a few years ago I’d purchased from The Great Courses a DVD course on “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” and the tutor is James Hynes.  To be honest, I’ve never actually got round to starting that but am far more motivated to do so now I have read what could be the book to bring this writer considerable international success.

“Sparrow” is the story of a slave in Ancient Rome who as a small child finds himself living amongst a group of prostitutes (“wolves”), who live and work in a tavern.  It took me a little while to get into the story but that’s because the author is busy employing his tips and techniques to draw you in.  Very little background is needed as we are reading a first-person narrative from the boy written as an old man looking back.  He doesn’t know his own background but works from one of his first memories which is a violent altercation between an unknown man and the woman who resentfully feeds him.  He is “Pusus”, which just means “boy” and the woman, another slave, referred to as “Focaria” – cook.  He has no other identity and a virtually non-existent outlook on his world.  Through Focaria and one of the prostitutes, known as “Euterpe” his ignorance is slowly diminished and over time his very small part of the world begins to extend a few hundred yards from the tavern. 

One of the ways in which this is achieved is by the author’s multi-sensory approach and description of sights, smells, sounds, taste and the feel of the environment which allows the boy to make sense of his world and has the added bonus for us as readers in creating a very strong fictional depiction.  We all know how valuable a technique this can be and here it is employed superbly.  Books set in Ancient Times can be a little off-putting for some as it feels so alien and often too much information is needed to be taken on board but here as we are working through the child’s narrative we only know what we need to and his questioning of his experiences allows us to access his world.  I’m not saying that this is not superbly researched but it is so seamlessly integrated and never over-complicated which also brings the reader right into the text.

Of course, all these technical skills would be pointless if the story did not involve.  Time is taken with plot, strong characters are established and we see things like the boy coping with the social dynamics of getting water from the public fountain at some length before realising that a rich, gripping plot has developed which builds beautifully.

I was very impressed by this work, there are characters I will remember for a long time.  The characterisation of the narrator feels as potent as “Shuggie Bain” or “Young Mungo”, two of the most vital literary depictions of male youth in recent years.  It never shirks from the horrors facing these people (it’s never totally clear how old the boy is, at one point he says he thinks he is ten, which completely floored me, given the ways he has to survive).  You can take these characters out of their Ancient Times setting and place them anytime in history and, shockingly, their ordeals and issues would still be relevant, a sobering realisation.

Despite the darkness of the subject matter the book does have an uplift and there is an overriding sense of hope.  The boy uses a sparrow as a metaphor for escape and can visualise out-of-body experiences when things get too grim, another technique that lifts any sense of gloom and like this metaphorical sparrow this book really flies.

“Sparrow” is published by Picador on May 4th 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.