The Kingdom Of Sand – Andrew Holleran (Jonathan Cape 2022)

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 debut “Dancer From The Dance” was amongst the first prominent novels written from the gay male experience which infiltrated the mainstream.  I read it probably before I was ready for it and it’s a novel I thought I would revisit one day as it is now established within the gay writing canon and is pretty rare as it was both written and set in the hedonistic post-Stonewall pre-AIDS era.   

In a career where publications have been sporadic I was surprised by the news of this his 5th novel and was very interested to explore this writer’s perspectives 44 years on from that debut.  I cannot fault the quality of the writing but from my personal standpoint this is one of the most depressing books I have ever read.

It is a raw, brutally honest study of gay men, loneliness and death.  This is the generation who survived the epidemic which emerged a few years after Holleran’s debut and here they are decades on being snuffed out one by one in barren, lonely lives in small town America.

The starting point is the narrator’s invitation from his sister to spend Christmas with her.  This would mean a departure from his rituals and routines he carries out in his dead parents’ house to which he has returned and cannot move on from.  The novel is a meditation on getting old, of still not being able to fit in, of loneliness and a paranoid fear of the future for that can only involve greater isolation, sickness and death.  Much of it features the slow demise of the narrator’s friend, Earl, ten years his senior and surviving to get through his pile of old movie DVDs whilst being observed closely by the narrator for parallels to his own situation and what this would mean for him in the not too distant future.

There’s no real physical decline in the narrator.  His home environment has shrunk him to a fearful shadow roaming the streets at night, even though he has friends, seems to regularly travel to Washington and still functions as a sexual being but for him his outlook is totally bleak.

Such nihilistic writing might have really appealed were I not on the wrong side of 50.  There’s too many nerves being touched and too much triggering going on for this to be anything but a difficult read. There’s also the issue of lightness and shade.  There’s little lightness here, where there is humour it is so black it actually drags the reader down further rather than providing relief.  Writers like Douglas Stuart have very successfully shown huge ability recently in making difficult subjects not only readable but very entertaining.  There’s a balance to be struck, I feel, but Holleran does not permit this here.  I’m wondering if this could at least be partly down to the difference between American and British viewpoints where we have a tendency to seek for humour in the darkest times.  I can’t just say this book is not for me and leave it at that because this book is exactly for me, but like when I read “Dancer From The Dance” all those years ago, I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

However, all this being said there are very important issues Holleran raises here and he is doing so in a style which will linger on in the reader’s mind and his writing is engrossing and actually really quite seductive (okay, it can be repetitive but I’m putting this down to emphasis).  It is no way a disappointment and has the potential to garner much critical praise and win awards but it is just very difficult to see things laid so bare and I felt quite relieved when I finished this book.

The Kingdom Of Sand is published on 9th June 2022 in the UK by Jonathan Cape.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books- Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2022)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Booker Prize Winner and current holder of my Book Of The Year Douglas Stuart’s second novel.  The promise of a 1990’s set tale of young love in a working-class Glasgow setting suggested the author was not going to stray too far from “Shuggie Bain” territory and there may be some who claim this to be a re-tread with 15 year old Mungo Hamilton’s relationship with a toxic mother being again a main focus.  This, however, is an outstanding novel and, I certainly wasn’t expecting to write this next bit, because of its greater focus on plot and sublime storytelling it is even better than his multi-award winning debut and perhaps the best book I have read since John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017)

It is another tale of a daily battle of survival here as Mungo battles against his environment, his disturbing older brother, Hamish, who overcompensates for his lack of height and thick glasses by being a ringleader for violence with an obsession for destroying the local Catholic youth and his mother Maureen, (known affectionately by Mungo as Mo-Maw) alcoholic and often absent.  In “Shuggie Bain” the mother character, the monstrous but appealing Agnes is given a central role.  Here, Mungo has to go it alone even more against Maureen’s fewer redeeming characteristics.  His only ally, Jodie, is looking for an out through education, an escape route which proves more flawed than she might expect.

The central narrative thread takes place over a May Bank Holiday weekend in the early 1990s making this a decade or so after the action of “Shuggie Bain”.  Mungo, battered and bruised from some incident is sent on a fishing trip to the Lochs with two of his mother’s friends.  We are plunged into a tragi-comic situation of two alcoholics negotiating a journey completely outside their everyday existence with the naïve Mungo in tow.  We know it is not going to go well.

Alongside this are the events leading up to this expedition.  Mungo’s life shifts from the mundane and the threats of violence when he meets James, a Catholic boy with a dead mother and father who works away on an oil-rig in James’ hand-built doocot (pigeon coop).  The boys find escape in caring for the pigeons (in a way reminiscent of Barry Hines’ “A Kestrel For A Knave” and film adaptation “Kes” of which there are echoes here and we know how well that turned out) and then in one another as love blossoms amongst the religious divide.

Once again, it’s beautifully written, there’s humour and warmth amongst the horrors but BAM! this author can hit you right between the eyes with shocking scenes of physical and psychological violence. Without doubt the mix can at times prove a difficult read.  I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.  Stuart does push further with the miseries than he did in the debut really putting his young hero through it and there is the odd moment where he might have been in danger of pushing too far and risking melodrama but such strong characterisations rooted so convincingly stops this from happening.  I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.

I think if you are new to Douglas Stuart I’d suggest starting with the debut as he sets his stall out as a writer so well and then take this on to appreciate the upping of the ante.  I think the many, many readers who hold “Shuggie Bain”, like me, so dear in their hearts are going to be so impressed by this.

Young Mungo is published in the UK by Picador in hardback and as an e-book on 14th April 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  There is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

God’s Own Country (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

godsown

With the wind howling around the house in full throes of a storm the other night I fancied watching something which would match the bleakness going on outside.  I have seen this film before and it left a great impression.  I bought it on DVD just before Christmas but with a cat ensconced on my lap it was easier to watch it on Netflix.  It is also on the BFI Player where I viewed it the first time and where it was one of the most streamed films of 2018.

Set during an early springtime lambing season in a farm on the Yorkshire Moors, main character John Saxby (an outstanding Josh O’Connor most recently seen as Marius in the BBC adaptation of “Les Miserables”) is getting by through getting drunk each night and spending the day hung over and uncommunicative towards grandmother played by Gemma Jones and his ailing father, played by Ian Hart, who himself is reluctant to give up the running of the farm and vents this frustration onto his son. A young Romanian is brought in to help out with the lambing and sparks ignite between him and John.

godsown2

Josh O’Connor and Alex Secareanu

This is a love story but one carried out in the bleak harshness of the environment.  The two camp out on the Fells to be near to the sheep in a section reminiscent of “Brokeback Mountain” but this is a more stronger, more convincing film.  It also feels more grounded in reality, certainly for British audiences,  than a film that  tended to overshadow it in 2017, “Call Me By Your Name“.  The reason this works so well is largely through the dynamics between the two men, John, barely able to express himself or feelings other than lust and anger yet crippled by loneliness and Gheorghe thrust into this brittle set-up and accepting of everything because it is better than he had experienced at home.  You can certainly appreciate the appeal of the migrant worker played by Alec Secareanu and the hope that he brings with him.  It’s understandable how he can enrich the lot of those around him.

godsown3

It’s pretty much a four-hander and the performances are all excellent.  As John’s father’s health deteriorates Ian Hart’s performance becomes almost painful to watch and if asked to choose a career best performance from the ex-Duchess of Duke Street Gemma Jones between this and her excellent work on BBC TV’s “Spooks” I’d have to opt for the sublime, understated portrayal here.

 

Co-stars Ian Hart and Gemma Jones

True, this film might not be for everyone.  Some of the everyday scenes of life on the farm are brutal and challenging and there’s a couple of steamy sex scenes which may shock but are well within the context of the piece as shown by its 15 Rating (if they felt in anyway gratuitous I’m sure the rating would have been upped to 18).  It’s moving, satisfying and believably scripted.  It was written and directed by Francis Lee, whose sheer belief in his debut film is evident in every shot.  However, it is the performances that will stay with me, which definitely makes this a five star film for me.

godsown7

The stars with writer/director Francis Lee

God’s Own Country won the world crime directing award at the American Sundance Festival and garned a host of nominations worldwide.  Although Josh O’ Connor was singled out most often for acting awards, each of the four performances were up for awards.  In 2018 it was nominated for 7 Baftas of which it won Best British Independent Film with Josh O’Connor beating fellow nominee Alex Secareanu as Best Actor.  It also picked up gongs at the British Independent Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Empire Awards, Evening Standard Awards (where it won Best Film and Best Supporting Actress for Gemma Jones) amongst others including awards which highlighted the film’s LGBT+ issues.

godsown5Critical reaction to the film

fivestars

God’s Own Country was released in 2017 and is currently available on DVD.  It is also   available on Netflix as part of the subscription and can be rented on the BFI player