100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

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Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

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A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain – John Boyne (2015) – A Kid-Lit Review

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I’m more than happy to delve into the back catalogue of the writer of my current Book of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”. This book choice was thanks to me drawing from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge: “Read A Book With A Red Cover”. I do have John Boyne’s newest adult title “A Ladder To The Sky” lined up to read next, thanks to Netgalley, but I thought I’d explore his writing for a younger audience first.

I am still to read “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” but I know enough about it (and I’ve seen the film version) to realise that there are parallels here. We begin in Paris in 1936 with 7 year old Pierrot living with his widowed mother. In the first few pages we get shell shock, domestic abuse and suicide all related to his German father unable to adapt to living in post-World War I France. Tragic circumstances pile up forcing Pierrot to leave France for Austria and a home at the top of Obersalzberg.

I actually didn’t know where this book was going (I read nothing about it beforehand) so I’m determined not to give away much plot for there are twists a plenty to satisfy its intended audience.

This is a great novel for an enquiring developing mind. It is a complex book, emotionally speaking.  Perhaps elements of the plot might seem contrived if written for the adult market but it would all make sense for a younger audience and has a moral depth that I’m certainly unused to in Junior Fiction. Pierrot develops from being an extremely likeable character to something of a monster and this feels unusual and chilling. His actions become increasingly difficult to explain away even in a society where the old rules no longer apply. All this would resonate with every reader, child or adult.

There are throughout references to a children’s classic of an earlier generation “Emil And The Detectives” which I certainly loved as a child and Boyne’s novel should have an equally long life for future generations. He has written a powerful, compelling novel which I found difficult to put down and read in a day (which is unusual for me- even for a children’s book) and as in “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” he brought me close to tears on a number of occasions. The characters are memorable and the plot, as in “The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas” would be impossible to forget- and nor should we. It would be a great and lasting purchase for a sophisticated child/young adult.  This is a children’s book now in its third year after publication and its reputation should continue to grow.

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The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain was published by Doubleday in 2015.

 

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.

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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.

 

Modern Gods – Nick Laird (4th Estate 2017)

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This novel opens with a shocking, violent prologue and then settles into a family drama reminiscent of the best of Anne Enright.  Set in the small town of Ballygrass, Northern Ireland, Alison is preparing for her second marriage and hoping to put behind her an abusive first marriage.  Her mother is fearful that a serious illness has made a comeback and her father has been left slightly confused after bouts of ill-health, and is no longer the man he once was.  Her sister, Liz, the main character, is coming to terms with the break-up of yet another relationship and their brother has secrets of his own.

The author pitches these family dynamics perfectly.  They are well-rounded characters and feel like a real family with its own issues and  tensions of a lifetime’s making.  It feels very modern, there are well-observed references throughout and certainly the first part of the novel is an unpredictable joy.

In Part Two we get a split narrative away from Alison’s wedding as Liz travels to New Ulster Island off Papua New Guinea to film a BBC documentary about a new religion.  The author opened up my eyes  here to Cargo Cults which is something I knew nothing about yet in making this shift in the novel I felt that some of the power and vivacity of what had gone before was diluted.  This is always a risk (I felt exactly the same recently about Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”) as there is a danger that the reader will favour one strand over the other and want the author “to get on with it”. Although I enjoyed reading about Liz’s experience and it makes for chilling reading as the disastrous repercussions of western intervention begins to unfold I was itching to get back to Ireland where there were equally difficult situations regarding fanaticism to resolve.

The sections do link together and I can see what the author is trying to convey.  The whole thing ends up as a very good novel whereas for the first half I thought it was going to be an exceptional one. 

This is Irish writer Laird’s third novel.  He has also published collections of poetry and this is not surprising as his use of language is rich and precise.  He currently teaches creative writing at New York University.  I will certainly be seeking out his earlier works.   

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Modern Gods was published by 4th Estate in June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and to the folks at Nudge for the review copy.

Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

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Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

The Good People- Hannah Kent (Picador 2017)

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Having only very recently read another Picador publication “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue it is easy to see parallels between that and this book,  Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel.

Both are set in nineteenth century Irish villages and feature the highly questionable treatment of a child as central.  In both novels belief overshadows rational thought.  In “The Wonder” it is religious fervour which proclaims a child not eating as a sign of the miraculous, in “The Good People” religion is itself at odds with the lore of fairies and the superstition of deeply entrenched folklore.  The local priest can only speak out about this, his influence upon it is limited.  In many ways this makes for a book that is darker than Donoghue’s but both are equally effective.

When the son of Nora Leahy’s recently deceased daughter fails to develop in the way he should the locals believe that he is a changeling and that the real Michael has been swept away by the fairies (the “good people” of the title). It is when Nora seeks the help of the isolated local wise woman Nance (described by some as the “herb-hag”) that Nora begins to believe they can get the real Michael back.

The evocation of life in this Irish valley a day’s walk form Killarney, Co. Kerry, is very strong.  Is there currently some masterclass about recreating the hardships of nineteenth century rural life dominated by peat, mud and potatoes that both Kent and Donoghue attended as they both manage to get this over very convincingly.  It is a tough existence where the survival of the community is so much to the fore that superstition provides a strong grounding for luck or lack of it.  Kent has used a real incident as her starting point and has developed believable characters and highly plausible situations. At times this can make for difficult reading as misery is heaped on the unfortunate child “to put the fairy out of it.”

Anyone expecting tweeness so close to the realm of the fairies would be wrong.  What you get from this book is the real sense of how important folklore was to this village’s everyday existence.  This suggests seamless research as the book is saturated with the feel of the times.  It is dark, has a strong sense of foreboding, with inevitable tragedies and is a very involving read.

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The Good People is published in the UK hardback by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan  on the 9th February.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for an advance review copy.

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Picador 2016)

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Although I have “Room” on my bookshelves I have not got round to reading it yet.  (I’m here referring to Donoghue’s international best-seller, not actual room, of which I have very little on my shelves!)  Here, I would imagine we are in very different territory with this her 14th publication.

This book focuses on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”,  a curio which has popped up throughout history when a (usually) young female clams to be living without taking in any food.  At times in the past, some saw this as a new stage of human development, as if the faster is converting food in a different way, like a plant and inevitably, perhaps, the religious have seen it as a sign of the miraculous.

In a mid-nineteenth century village in the Irish Midlands an eleven year old girl is causing ructions and great excitement by her four month total fast.  A committee is formed to investigate and a nun and a nurse have been employed to monitor.  The nurse, Lib Wright, trained by Florence Nightingale and a veteran of the Scutari Barracks in the Crimea has been brought over from England to keep watch.

Lib does not adhere to the Catholic beliefs which dominate the local population but is thrust into this intense world of ritual and superstition.  This and the rudimentary accommodation of burning peat and smoke filled huts makes for a very intense environment.  Much of the action takes place in the basic room between nurse and patient.  The child initially seems to be thriving without food.  What are the motives behind the child’s claim and is this some kind of ruse?   Is she, as she states, being fed by some kind of divine intervention or is something more sinister and underhand going on?

Donoghue catalogues the two weeks of this watch of close observation and note-taking.  Lib’s calling is still very much in its infancy but she is aware that she has been taught by the best and the words of Nightingale (Miss N) are never far from her mind.  Lib is submerged into a world where religion and superstition can overshadow common sense and the read is involving and builds nicely as the truth is revealed.

This is a novel rich in atmosphere.  Lib is very much an alien amongst the Irish and the environment of peat and an unstable boggy land is very much as alien to her as the attitude of the villagers towards the miracle child.  There’s so much room for discussion for reading groups, but with morality and religion at their centre these are likely to be lively ones.  “The Wonder” provides a thought-provoking involving read which will boost Donoghue’s reputation and variety as a writer and storyteller.

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“The Wonder” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Emma Donoghue.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

“The Wonder” was published in hardback by Picador in September 2016.  The paperback is published in May when we could expect to see Emma Donoghue once again ascending the best-seller lists.

Himself – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2016)

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“Himself” is Mahoney who returns to the Irish village of Mulderrig in the spring of 1976.  This was the place his mother disappeared from 26 years before, leading to him being brought up by nuns in an orphanage.  Mahoney has come back to find out what happened to her.  He can see ghosts and this should help, although he has never seen his mother’s spirit.  The larger than life Mrs Cauley takes him under her wing, a marvellous character, wheelchair bound and bedecked in a range of wigs with her theatrical tales and a determination to rouse the village with her annual dramatic production.

Kidd’s debut novel absolutely fizzles with life.   There’s some great characterisation here with Mahoney, a 70’s man with long hair and flared trousers alien to most of the village seeming the most stable of the lot.  The living and the dead are used well, the ghosts being “just echoes of the stories of their own lives sung back in the wrong order- arsewards”.  In fact, there’s a lot of “arse” in “Himself”.  Kidd has a ribald sense of humour which sounds just right emanating from these almost Rabelaisian characters. This gives body and depth to what is at heart a very dark tale of a suppressed crime, but she will also have you laughing out loud.

Mahoney’s arrival and investigations unleashes supernatural elements into the community as Mahoney’s fancy piece, Shauna says; “Oh God!  Can’t anything just be normal around here?  Can’t a storm just be a bloody storm?”  There’s all manner of things falling on the people of Mulderrig urging them to give up their secrets.  This is a rich tale which incorporates the supernatural and magic to very good effect.  This is not an easy balance and as far as I am concerned a lot get this wrong.  AK Benedict got it right earlier this year with “Jonathan Dark Or The Evidence Of Ghosts” yet Kidd’s novel is a more satisfying read which will benefit greatly from group discussion to bring out the undoubted quality of the writing.

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Himself is published by Canongate on 27th October 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and nudge for the review copy

Holding – Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

 

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Graham Norton has joined the ranks of celebrity novelists.  After a couple of autobiographical works he has got the writing bug and has been spurred on to produce the novel he always wanted to write.  For the first half it is surprisingly under-stated, a rather cosy affair.  In the Irish village of Duneen a skeleton is unearthed when builders are working on redevelopment at an old farm.  The body is believed to be of Tommy Burke who had supposedly left some twenty years before following tangled encounters with a couple of women in the village.  It is obvious that some people know more than they are letting on.

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TV presenter, chat show host etc now adds novelist to list of achievements

So far, nothing especially distinguished but once Norton gets into his characters the novel develops a stronger identity.  He has created quite a star in Sergeant PJ Collins, the lone member of the Garda for the village, an overweight, lonely man who comes into his own and becomes unexpectedly in demand during the investigation.  Small time Irish life is something Norton obviously remembers well and it feels spot-on.  It certainly wasn’t the book I was expecting him to write.  I was expecting sharp, brittle humour and a much more glitzy affair.  Norton is a natural with yet really does not play it for laughs in quite the way I had anticipated.  It does open out from the charming, slightly dated feel of the cosy crime caper into a cauldron of secrets and lies and it has all been done rather well.  A welcome addition to the celebrity novelist’s club.

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Holding is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 6th October 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Maker Of Swans – Paraic O’Donnell (2016)

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I had heard quite a bit about this book and was tempted by the front cover which I like very much indeed. The buzz about it sees comparisons  being made to “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” (which I loved) and “Night Circus” (which I didn’t).  It has elements of Susanna’s Clarke’s superb work in its other-worldliness and hints of magic existing alongside the real world.  It has elements of “Night Circus” in that I didn’t always know (or care) what was going on.  Set mainly in a time I put around 1960 (the only reference is some sixty years after the Boer Wars) in a fading mansion house. This is run by a butler, Eustace, who keeps an eye on the strange Mr Crowe, his singer girlfriend and Clara, the mute girl of indeterminate age who lives what can best be described as an elemental existence and has developing powers which she is trying out on swans.  Eustace has to cover up a killing at the property starting off a chain of events which leads to, well, I’m not sure where actually.

Two strong characters, Eustace and Clara, dominate proceedings and this debut novel is written with a real flair for language.  I’m not totally convinced, however,  by this balance of fantasy and literary fiction.  The first third builds up beautifully but with too many unanswered questions I felt it ultimately a bit of a let-down.  I think to work well this kind of book needs real richness and depth which “Jonathan Strange..” has but I didn’t feel that O’Donnell quite pulled this off.  Without that there is a danger of things becoming whimsical which I doubt was the author’s intention.  I’ve looked at other reviews of this book and it does seem to be falling into the “love it or hate it” category but, unfortunately, I do neither.  Over at Nudge Books it has already been Book Geek Book Of The Month.  Arzu Tahsin, the Deputy Publishing Editor at W&N thinks they are on to a real winner and says of the book;

The Maker of Swans, so delicately wrought exquisitely fulfils our yearning for a truly immersive experience. Magic is all around us and sometimes someone comes along who brings it alive in ways we can only guess at. You will never forget Clara.”

I wish I was totally immersed but there was something within the book that held me back and I hate to say it but although Clara was a fascinating idea for a character there was not enough for her to do within the plot to stay in my mind.  Another book I read recently which attempted to do something similar with a blend of fantasy and thriller was “Jonathan Dark Or The Evidence Of Ghosts” by A K Benedict and her central character, the blindfolded Maria, has certainly stuck in my mind.

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The Maker Of Swans was published in February 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.