Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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This was our focus text for Black History Month at Sandown Library here on the Isle Of Wight where a number of copies were purchased and a special display created which reflected some of the impact this book had on publication. It has stimulated some discussion from people who have borrowed the book so I thought I’d better get round to reading it.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, an award-winning journalist, was shrewd enough for her first full-length publication to use a striking, emotive, even provocative title, which certainly makes an impact. In her Aftermath, an extra chapter provided for the expanded paperback edition I read she acknowledges that she that this was the case and quite a bit of the criticism she faced was from people responding to the title rather than what she actually has to say. I have no issue whatsoever with any of the points she makes in this assured and accurate assessment of racism in Britain. She states facts with the evidence to back it up.

She begins with a concise history of blackness in Britain and how that has led to structural racism which is deep-rooted in society. As a child she was told that in order to achieve she needed to work twice as hard as a white child and that tenet proved to be extremely valuable as evidence is clear that hurdles faced by black infants continues through childhood, higher education, in the employment market and parenthood. History and society has allowed this to be.

She explores difficult areas such as white privilege, feminism and class and is powerfully convincing throughout. Liberal-minded individuals may claim that racism is largely now in the past but the global right-wing shift over the last few years says otherwise. I think this makes for a powerful read which each individual needs to internalise and make their own sense from it depending on their own background. It’s not actually something I feel I want to particularly discuss myself. It reinforced a lot of what I suspected had and was happening and does so in a way which saw this book get shortlisted for awards and win prizes. This is not political correctness- it is an important thought-provoking British work.

fourstars

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. I read the 2018 expanded paperback version.

The Book Of Dust: Volume 1 – La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman (2017) – A Kid Lit Review

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The three volumes of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy have a permanent place on my bookshelves.  All three have featured in my end of year Top 10s with “Northern Lights” (1995) being my second favourite book of the year both times I’ve read it (1998 and 2001).  I last read the whole trilogy 18 years ago but I know I’ll be revisiting them again.

From this you might have thought that I would have snapped up “The Book Of Dust” when it was published in 2017.  I didn’t, not even when it  came out in paperback.  The copy I’ve just read I borrowed from the library.  My selection was motivated by two things- the publication of the second volume this month and the impending and much heralded BBC adaptation of “His Dark Materials” which begins this weekend.

But why was I put off from reading this before now?  I think it’s because it’s a prequel to the main series.  Prequels- they are never that great are they?  Immediately coming to mind was CS Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” published five years after “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” which certainly, I feel, if read before the more famous book diminishes the reader’s introduction to Narnia because it is greatly inferior.  It’s more common for a different author to write a prequel (as in Jean Rhys’ 1966 “Wide Sargasso Sea” linked to “Jane Eyre” which is an acknowledged modern classic but also left me cold).  Because this is by a different author, however, it doesn’t influence my view of the Bronte novel which I love.   When you look at prequels to movies you’re in the realms of “Psycho IV – The Beginning” and “Oz; The Great & Powerful”, I’m not at all sold on this prequel idea.

In this first volume main trilogy character Lyra is a baby who is being cared for by nuns.  She becomes a source of fascination for 11 year old Malcolm Polstead who helps out at his parent’s pub and spends free time in his canoe (La Belle Sauvage) mainly bridging the watery gap between The Trout pub and the priory on the opposite bank.  When he observes a strange occurrence on the riverside a chain of events opens in which he has to take direct action to ensure Lyra’s safety.  The Oxford area is threatened by heavy rain and broken river banks making a proficient canoeist significant.  His interest in Lyra leads to his introduction to a couple of shadowy organisations.  Plot-wise this is all good, I love the presence of individual’s daemons, an idea which so enhances the trilogy.  This time around, however, I did find the pace slow in places as if Pullman is fully prepared to take his time over his narrative thread and stretch it out over a sequence of novels.  Malcolm is a very good central character and there is no doubt that this pre-teen protagonist would appeal to a quite young audience as would the structure of the adventure story which harks back to a modern take on children’s classics such as “Swallows And Amazons”, yet a couple of scenes, the language (there is the odd outburst of swearing by one particular character when pushed to the edge, which even despite this context still feels unsettling within the framework of the novel) and certainly the scientific principles demand greater maturity.  It’s probably a case of the reader taking from it what they can and letting the rest wash over, which, let’s face it, is how many of us read Victorian classics.

I did enjoy this book and will read the next volume more quickly than I got round to this one (I have already reserved a library copy) but it is unlikely to make my Year End Top 10 and that fact alone makes me feel a little disappointed by it, and I would very much urge readers discovering Philip Pullman for the first time to read “His Dark Materials” and approach this as a separate introductory and related series.

fourstars

The Book Of Dust: Volume 1 – La Belle Sauvage was published by David Fickling Books in 2017.

 

 

McGlue -Ottessa Moshfegh (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I first encountered the fabulously-monikered Ottessa Moshfegh when I read her 2016 Man Booker shortlisted “Eileen”, a dark tale, with a fairly unforgettable title character who manages to do the difficult thing of both revolting the reader and eliciting sympathy. This novella is an earlier work which first appeared in the US in 2014 and made its UK debut three years later following the success of “Eileen”.

In 2018 Moshfegh brought out her new novel “My Year Of Rest And Relaxation” which also attracted considerable attention but I thought before I read that I’d give this short novel a go.

I’m never totally convinced by the novella as a literary from (here coming in at 118 pages), fitting mid-way between the short-story and full-length novel can mean that it can fail to have the best qualities of both. Too long to be tied up succinctly and not long enough to be fully realised they can tend to waver along “experimental” lines.
This isn’t quite stream of consciousness but it is writing that feels very open to interpretation and which can seem reluctant to give up its meaning. Critics often really like these types of book. In fact, the last I read with a similar feel was the 2017 Man Booker winning “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a novel I certainly didn’t love, and I feel the same way about this, which is not as good as “Eileen”.

I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should. Basically, here its mid-nineteenth century America (although I don’t think I picked the date up from the text, the back of the book informs me it is set in 1851) and title character McGlue, a drunken sailor, is accused of murdering his friend/lover Johnson during an alcoholic spree. McGlue is held on the ship unti he can be handed over to the authorities and sent for trial in Salem. He has a severe long-standing head injury which together with his alcohol addiction makes for feverish, hallucinatory observations throughout his narrative and that’s basically why I wasn’t always totally sure what was going on. And well-written in vibrant, powerful and earthy language it may be, but I found that I didn’t care that much. McGlue, despite his constant state of confusion, comes across as fairly one-dimensional, especially compared to the enigmatic Eileen whose characterisation was the strength of Moshfegh’s subsequent novel. Part of me wishes that it could have been expanded by perhaps adding another narrative alongside McGlue’s to add variety but then the other part of me was probably glad it didn’t go on for too long, because as it stands I think Moshfegh just gets away with producing a text which is impressive rather than entertaining. It may just be me, but I think I can really struggle with this type of American fiction.

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McGlue was published in the UK by Vintage in 2017.

This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay (2017)- a Real Life Review

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….And it very probably will. This book certainly had me squirming (Top Tip: it’s not the best book to read during your lunch break!).  I haven’t read anything before with so much bodily fluids sloshing around (Top Tip 2: you might not want to read this it if you are pregnant).  Adam Kay has written one of the best-selling non-fiction paperbacks of the year and at long last it seems to be dawning on people what being an NHS doctor in a hospital is actually like.

Kay wrote diaries which span over six years (2004-10) from the very first day of his appointment as a House Officer, enthusiastic but terrified, to an incident which eventually led him to hanging up his stethoscope as a Senior Registrar.  It is an extraordinary and ultimately chilling catalogue.  Since giving up the medical profession Kay has turned to comedy and it was obviously his ability to pick out the funny side of his work that kept him (more or less) sane.  Long hours, patient demands, inserted foreign objects, inexplicable IT systems, patient misunderstandings, long hours, fractious home lives caused by long hours, medical misunderstanding, oh, did I mention the long hours are all present here.  Kay’s decision to focus on obstetrics and gynaecology provides many fraught moments, quite a lot of those body fluids, and will make for difficult reading at times for the squeamish.

But apart from this his account serves as a testament to just how bloody marvellous people who choose to work in the NHS are.  In recent years (and remember Kay left 7 or 8 years ago, I don’t things have got any better) the government has seen fit to try and squeeze the NHS into a corset of implausible targets, an over-emphasis on accountability, uninformed choice and poor funding so that it is only through the sheer dedication of its workers that it survives.

The expectations of people to continually deliver their best in life and death situations after incredibly long shifts and with little back-up support or care for them as individuals can only bring about stress, trauma, an exodus out of the service and in alarming statistics suicide in order to escape the never ending responsibility in an increasing litigious society.

Anyone who starts to have a flicker of hesitancy when they hear a government minister or certain sections of the press claim a medic’s life is a cushy one should be forced to read this book.  And did I mention it is also very funny….

fourstars

This Is Going To Hurt was published in the UK by Picador in 2017

 

A Natural- Ross Raisin (2017)

 

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Published in paperback in 2018 this is Ross Raisin’s third novel in a career which has already seen considerable acclaim including the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award following the appearance of his debut “God’s Own Country.” The publication date is significant here as this book became my choice for the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge “Read a book published in 2017”.

 I’ve not read Ross Raisin before but was drawn to this by some excellent reviews.  It has been compared to Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) but here it’s not cowboys but the world of British professional football.  Like Proulx’s short story  which became the basis for an Oscar winning film (2005) this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.

 It did make me wonder who would want to be a footballer and brought home clearly the uncertainty and fear in their working lives in the world outside of the top divisions.  This in itself made for fascinating reading but the conflicted sexuality of main character Tom added another layer of misery.  It has been many years since Justin Fashanu was forced out of the closet and had a time so dire that those involved in sport chose not to follow in his footsteps for a considerable period.  Since then there have been initiatives from the FA and of course changing attitudes in the rest of society but from this novel not a lot seems to have changed in the attitudes of the other players, the fans and the clubs themselves.  It would be great to think that a book like this could change things but it all seems so entrenched and those who need to read it wouldn’t.  It gets to the point where the central relationship doesn’t seem worth it for all of those involved.

 I found the lack of joy rather grinding and I felt the same way about “Brokeback Mountain”.  Perhaps there’s some consolation in that none of the characters, whatever their sexuality, seemed happy.

 There’s a lot of football in this book.  I cannot remember reading sport-based fiction where the sport features so heavily.  I’m not a football fan (my secondary school education saw to that) so I did find myself struggling to get enthused about Tom’s world around a third of the way through.  The section of the novel between football seasons came as quite a relief.

 So then, I found it overly negative and with too much football but I actually did find myself getting really involved and this is due to Raisin’s really quite subtle skills as a story-teller and his ability to bridge the distance between what this particular reader would find interesting and draw him right in.  That is an impressive achievement gained by the sheer skill of this writer.  I cannot say I totally enjoyed this book but I was thoroughly impressed.

 fourstars

 A Natural was first published in 2017.  I read the 2018 Vintage Paperback edition.

The Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

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There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.

 I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves.  This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house.  Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present.  This makes for incredibly tense reading.  It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.

 If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind.  There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down.  This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction.  Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors.  I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.

vistors2Catherine Burns

 

fourstars 

The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen (2017) – A Real Life Review

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I love Channel 4’s “Googlebox” and always enjoy the contributions of Giles and Mary (or Nutty and Nutty as they call each other) from their thatched Wiltshire cottage. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I needed to read a book written by them, fearing that it might be a cash-in for the Christmas market with little merit which would vanish after the present-buying was over, but someone whose opinion I valued recommended it and I thought I’d give it a go. I was pleased I did.

gilesandmary2Giles and Mary have become recognisable enough for French and Saunders to parody them in undoubtedly the most successful sections of their most recent show with Dawn playing Giles with the right level of Alan Bennett-ness and Jennifer as Mary becoming gradually absorbed by the fabric of her armchair.

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We’ve taken to this couple because they seem to know each other so well. We can sense the long-suffering of Mary towards Giles’ ability to wind her up, often with a twinkle in his eye with her keen to put him back on the right track. In a preamble they say that Gogglebox has saved their 30 year marriage as all that TV watching has got them to sit down together and communicate as well as giving us all a chance to see how frustrating Giles can be! Both having a background in writing and creating they agreed to the diary format of this book as it offered the chance to produce (in Giles’ words “anecdotal accounts of the various hurdles life and marriage throws up at a couple in a bid to try and see what, in the dread words of the politicians lessons can be learned”. For Mary, someone who admits to recording their disagreements and typing up a transcript, this format would also seem to be ideal.

Much of this is based on the problems of Giles – a procrastinating artist “stranded in the Seventies”, a fledgling eco-warrior and keen gardener who relishes opportunities to be annoying and Mary’s constant busyness, rooting around to locate lost objects and attempting to fit too much into each day whose ideal times of her married life have been when she has had a live-in assistant to act as buffer between her and her husband.

It is these differences between them that work so well. It’s consistently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny and interspersed with illustrations from Giles which adds to the text. I’m hoping and believing here that we are getting the real Giles and Mary and not some representation dreamt up in a marketing office. Much of the joy is in recognising our own traits in this couple’s interactions with one another. I think most of us would come off as a combination of Giles and Mary and would certainly appreciate each of their frustrations with one another. It provides a good, plausible picture of a long-term relationship in action. I don’t think you even need to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as the whole thing feels like we have been invited into their world and it is fun spending time with them.

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The Diary Of Two Nobodies was published by Virgin in 2017

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2018!

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2017- Part 1 (10-6)

In 2017 I managed to read 67 books which is thirteen down on my record breaking score last year but exactly the same number as I read in 2015.  Everything I’ve read has been reviewed on this site and this year I’ve awarded 10 books the maximum five stars, 31 four stars and 26 three stars, which seems to be to be a good spread.  I’ve not read anything which disappointed me enough to get a two star or one star read. I’ve read a lot more books as they are published or  soon after and looking at my Top 10 it is the first year ever where all the books have either been published in 2016 (with the paperback appearing this year), 2017 and in one not-yet-published case 2018.  I think that shows how good writing is at the moment.  I’ve not narrowed the list down to only those which appeared this year.  If I read it this year, then it’s eligible.  (The earliest dated book I read this year was 1931 and Margery Allingham’s “Police At The Funeral” but she hasn’t made the list).

What I haven’t done this year at all is re-read any books (I used to re-read about 10 books a year).  With publishers sending me books and with Netgalley pressures the re-reads have been pushed out, which is a shame as I love re-reading favourites and this is something I’ll need to rebalance in 2018.  Choosing the books for my Top 10 has actually been easier this year because of those 10 five star reads, so all I needed to do was allocate positions for my annual review of my year in books .  Anything that doesn’t make the top 10 gets culled from the bookshelves or off the Kindle, which means this year I’m losing a lot of very good books (but you can’t keep them all, I know I’ve tried in the past!)

Although I’ve read books before by two authors on my Top 10 list for all of them it is their first appearance on the list, so as far as I am concerned, these are likely to be the authors’ best books.  Those also a couple of debut novelists there.  The books are all fiction for the second year running and last year I had a fifty-fifty gender split this year the women have the edge with a 60/40 domination.  All of the titles have been  reviewed on this site- click on the titles to link to the full review.

10. Exposure- Helen Dunmore ( Windmill 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

exposureThis was the second of Helen Dunmore’s novels I have read but her first appearance on my Best Of The Year list.  Set in 1960 in an England paranoid about the Cold War and high profile spy cases this is a thrillingly written thriller which focuses on this paranoia affecting a family when a secret file goes missing.  Helen Dunmore sadly passed away in June this year, aged 64, not long after the publication of her last book “Birdcage Walk” which I am yet to read.  She has left a legacy of 15 novels which demand to be discovered.

Current Amazon sales rating: #4592 in Books

9. The Golden Age – Joan London ( Europa 2016)  (Read in March, reviewed here in May)

goldenageAustralian author Joan London won awards in her homeland with her third novel and here was longlisted for the Wellcome Prize which focuses on books having an emphasis on health.  This was set in a polio hospital in the early 1950’s.  I described it as  “a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 202,593 in Books.

8. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

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The first of this American author’s 23 novels I have read.  Her fans have told me it’s not quite like her other books but there seems to be a general consensus that this is her best.  Picoult is a superb storyteller and I thought this “feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 136 in Books (probably the biggest commercial hit on my list- this was a big seller when it arrived in hardback and then again in paperback).

7. All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017) (Read in June, reviewed in July)

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Chris Whitaker is great and you should all be buying his books.  He just missed out on my Top 10 last year with his debut “Tall Oaks” and when his latest American set crime novel arrived I was convinced he would be topping best-seller lists.  He impressed me here with “how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.”  Chris is a great friend to us bloggers.  I have interviewed him twice and he is the only author this year to make a comment on my review.  I have been told by other bloggers how enthusiastic he is about us all when appearing at book talks.  Oh, and his comment to me, just in case you haven’t seen it : “I love you, Phil. (I worry I don’t tell you that enough)”.  It wasn’t his flattery I succumbed to but the quality of his novel!The best crime novel I read this year.

Current Amazon sales rating: 61,735 in Books (it’s great commercial fiction which should be in Amazon’s best sellers).

6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)  (Read and reviewed in September)

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Honestly, it is unlikely that I would have read Kamila Shamsie’s modern retelling of the Antigone myth had it not been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I was amazed it did not make the shortlist as I ask everyone who returns a library book copy whether they have enjoyed it and it universally gets the thumbs up.  The author, in this, her seventh novel has recast the ancient Greek characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. I said of this “Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.” A bag of M&Ms has a lot to answer for in this book.

Current Amazon sales rating: 2,197 in books

Next post – My Top 5 reads from 2017

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

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2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

fivestars

The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.