Tag Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis

3.5 stars3.5/5

Less Than Zero is Brett Easton Ellis’s first published book.

Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis

Picador, 2010 edition (hardback), 208 pages - review copy.

Thanks to the lovely people at Picador I got my hands on the rather beautifully presented re-published hardback copy and having been quite fascinated by American Psycho decided to read the book that started Ellis’s career.

Written in the stream of consciousness narrative, Less Than Zero follows protagonist Clay who goes back to visit Los Angeles on his winter break where he spends time seeing old friends and sees his ex-girlfriend Blair. Most of the time he is high on cocaine or drunk or both. His family life is depressing (although flashbacks hint at happier times), his friends at best shallow, at worst sociopathic and and he seems to meander through bizarre often disturbing situations becoming more and more detached as the book goes on.

Parts of Less Than Zero make uncomfortable reading, as we watch people try to bring excitement to what feel like hollow lives by pushing their limits psychologically and sexually. Rather than protecting them, these teenager’s privileged lives expose them to experiences very bad things. Ellis highlights the greed and excess of the 80′s – the book is peppered with references to consumer brands – and in a similar way to American Psycho hints at the dark consequences of a boredom driven by teenagers having too much ‘stuff’ and too few morals.

Ellis’ style really works for me. The cold, disconnected voice of the narrator only makes what he observes seem more disturbing. I like his references to music of the era which really create a sense of time and place (don’t you always vividly remember what was happening at the time you listened to a particular song?). The title of the book is actually a reference to a song of the same name by Elvis Costello which a bit of Googling reveals that refers to nazism and teenage sex as well as people prioritising material goods over anything else:

“He said, he heard about a couple living in the USA,

He said, they traded their baby in for a Chevrolet”

The lyrics hint at society gone mad and so it’s not hard to see why Ellis was inspired to choose it as the title for this book.

I also like the way that Ellis creates verbal clues out of the signs that Clay sees. He notices particular words on signs and number plates such as ‘Disappear here’ and ‘DECLINE’ which have a sort of subconscious significance to Clay’s life.

Less Than Zero is an interesting read and feels very modern, despite having been written over 25 years ago. It made me think that the show Gossip Girl is similar – like an updated, frothy (and more suitable for TV) comment on the lives of bored, rich teenagers. Like American Psycho, it’s not exactly an ‘enjoyable’ read but it wierdly compelling. I wouldn’t rate it as highly as American Psycho (for me probably a 9 out of 10), which now, having read Less Than Zero feels like the masterpiece Ellis was working up to – similar themes and style, but a more mature version and a more involved plot. Read if you want an introduction to Ellis, or you liked American Psycho and want to see what came before.

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

3 stars3/5

Well, this is probably the longest it has taken me to review a book. I read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon for my book group back in August, and when I put it down I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it so decided that I should give it time to let it settle. Strangely it still hasn’t.

The Lonely Londoners, Penguin Modern Classics edition

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 edition, 160 pages - Book group choice.

First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners is a slim novel, but one that is packed with detail and filled with vivid descriptions of early 1950′s London seen through the eyes of Moses Aloetta, a migrant to the capital from Trinidad. At the beginning of the story, Moses is waiting at Waterloo Station. He is meeting another Trinidadian Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver who has just arrived in England. He doesn’t know him – all that connects them is the fact they are both West Indian. They are united by this fact alone and their sense of otherness, in a predominantly white city.

In The Lonely Londoners we are introduced to a variety of characters, all West Indian migrants and mostly young men. They get along however they can in the busy city, whether it be through hard graft or by hustling a living. Getting work is tough enough and the environment is hostile. Moses comments to Sir Galahad;

“English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live…they frighten we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why, because that is a question that bigger brains than mine trying to find out from way back.”

Moses himself has been living in London for some time, and in some ways seems has now made himself at home. While he suggests that Sir Galahad “hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today”, he himself has almost become ingrained in the city. He marvels at how some people manage to save money from a measly three pounds per week wages to take back to their families, but he himself cannot, making the reader wonder if he is trapped or whether he really does ever want to return to the ‘mother country’. Selvon conveys the limbo that these migrants must have felt – never quite a part of London, but somehow divorced from their home country.

The book is written in vernacular which makes it at times a tough read. Many a moment I wondered what certain words (such as ‘test’) meant and muddled my way through with educated guesses. At the same time, the use of the vernacular added to the books authenticity and made me feel as if I was really hearing the voice of the narrator and the characters in the book.

And The Lonely Londoners has a cacophony of voices. Sometimes optimistic (Sir Galahad), sometimes contemplative (Moses) and also cocky (Cap). I had a mixed response to these characters. I kind of liked Moses who reminded me a bit of Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh (weird I know), really disliked Cap who seemed full of himself and chauvinistic but was quite enchanted by Big City with his tall stories and confusion of the word ‘music’ for ‘fusic’. I also loved the passage where one of the few female characters – Tanty, manages to convince a reluctant shopkeeper to give her a tab.

There were some tragi-comic moments, such as when Cap decides to catch a seagull for his dinner which I found genuinely funny, but I have to say The Lonely Londoners is quite hard work. The book switches from one character to another, and these snapshots of their lives are simultaneously fascinating and confusing. I liked some of the characters and found parts of the book beautifully described but for some reason it left me feeling at a distance from it. Perhaps it was the fact that the voices were mostly masculine, or because I didn’t really feel much emotion from the characters. This sense of distance is something that I think is exactly what Selvon intended, and adds to the theme of loneliness, but it didn’t quite work for me.

The Lonely Londoners is more of a portrait of an era than a ‘story’ and opened up my eyes to a part of British history that I had no previous knowledge of. While I didn’t enjoy this book enough to want to read more Sam Selvon in the near future, it does leave me wanting to read more about the experiences of migrants to England during this period of time. To hear another voice.

My rating:

6 out of 10

Can you recommend other novels which explore migrants to England in the 1950′s?

Interesting link I found from BBC History - Black British History Since Windrush

Dead Babies, by Martin Amis

Dead Babies. What a title. I kept hiding this book in public especially when small children were around. The story is as lurid and shocking as the title suggests and this is the reason why, while I have rate this book highly I would not recommend it to everyone. You have been warned!

Amis introduces us to a cast of characters, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Actually sublime, is the wrong word. There are some superficially charming characters, but really they are all pretty vile and some are more pathetic than others. Unfortunately-named Keith Whitehead, is the stories’ most physically grim character. Short, fat and squat with digestive maladies that will make you cringe at Amis’ description. Pustular Keith is on the outside, he is actually one of the books more sympathetic characters , particularly when compared with the aggressive and erratic Andy Adorno and Roxanne Smith, a buxom but manipulative and downright nasty American. The least offensive character is probably Giles Coldstream, whose obsession with his teeth is totally awful to the point of being hilarious. There are also three female characters (Celia, Diana and Lucy) who are marginally less appalling but still with their particular vices and possibly less memorable and well-described than the men in the group. Finally, two more Americans – Skip, who I can best describe as a bisexual psychotic hick, and Marvell, a Jewish drug dealer. This delightful party is holed-up together at Appleseed Rectory for a weekend of drug-taking and debauched sex.

A 1980's Penguin edition. Seems like the most dangerous drugs that the cover photgrapher could find were contraceptives and cod liver oil...!

The story primarily follows the events of the weekend, which are messy to say the least, but intermittently we are also given a snapshot of the background of each character. This gives a valuable insight into the people that they have become. I didn’t feel any more empathy for the characters, but it did fulfill the question of ‘why’ they were all so awful. This approach could have been contrived but I thought it was done seamlessly.

Dead Babies is a difficult read in parts because of its shocking content. Originally published in 1975, it must have been pretty outrageous. I didn’t know the publishing date when I started it and thought it was much more recently written. Apart from some of the language (particularly some wierd racist terms) this is a book that could easily have been written in the 80′s, 90′s or 00′s. You could say that it’s like a ‘posh’ Trainspotting in some parts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Irvine Welsh had been influenced by Dead Babies. However it’s also a funny read – Giles, with his terror of losing teeth is consistently comic. Amis cuts his characters’ personalities to shreds with a knife-sharp pen and a generous dose of dark humour.

I read London Fields a few years ago, and while I found it interesting and skilfully written, it is a dense read. Dead Babies feels like you’re caught up in a fast paced, slightly hellish whirlwind of a novel. Dead Babies is superbly written. Disgusting passages are hyper-vile, but there are also sentences that are beautiful in the way that they are constructed and timed. Amis uses language in an original and surprising way and I am slightly in awe of his skill with words.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

N.B. This was a Riverside Reader’s book group read. I think it’s worth mentioning that this book divided us on ratings. Definitely a ‘Marmite’ book. You can see a summary of the group’s thoughts here.

Have you read Dead Babies or any of Amis’ other books?

D592BQE4SYMW

The Radleys, by Matt Haig

I’ve been in a dark little world the last couple of days. Yesterday I watched quirky animated film Coraline (highly recommended) and I’ve also been reading a curious specimen of Young Adult fiction, The Radleys. Why did I find it curious? You’ll just have to read on to find out…

On the surface, The Radleys is a book about a suburban family who have a gruesome secret. A monstrous one in fact – they are vampires. ‘Meh’ I hear you sigh ‘another vampire book’. Well yes and no. Yes it is a book about vampires, but it is a very different treatment of the genre. And I say ‘genre’ but actually because of the setting and central themes of the book I would say that it’s actually much more about family, relationships, and people struggling with forbidden desires. The vampire story is a useful and entertaining plot device.

A bit about the plot. The Radleys are a family of ‘abstaining’ vampires – well Peter and Helen are (Mum and Dad), but their teenage kids Rowan and Clara are at the start of the fact unaware of the fact. They remain in the dark until one day a disturbing event turns their life upside-down.

This is a funny book, full of cultural references and a suburban setting that make you feel that a family of vampires might be living down your street. I enjoyed Haig’s dark humour and his inventive style kept me interested throughout. While The Radleys isn’t difficult to read, it does cover some challenging themes. Right from the outset it is clear that this is no happy family. Mum and Dad are struggling to communicate and the kids are having difficulties at school. Dad doesn’t seem to care about anything (except for flirting with the next door neighbour) and Mum fills her life with endless tasks to distract her from the truth.

This could all be very depressing, but as the story goes on we see the family begin to face some of their secrets and admit the lies they’ve been telling themselves. Haig’s portrait of a family in turmoil is very believable and the underlying ideas about the importance of honesty (with oneself as well as with others) are nicely delivered without being sickly-sweet. Actually this book is anything but sweet as there are plenty of dark moments where blood-lust and sexual feelings are mixed together. Haig conveys cleverly how people struggle every day with ordinary and not so ordinary passions.

My one, very minor concern with this book is that some of the cultural references feel quite UK-focused, so I hope that doesn’t impact how it translates elsewhere. On the other hand it’s a typical suburban situation that should be easily recognised in many westernised countries – and the family experiences that are described should have universal appeal.

According to publisher Canongate (who kindly sent me this copy), the film rights to the book have already been bought by Alfonso Cuaron (director of Y tu mama tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). I can imagine this working really well on the big screen, and The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite treatment of the Harry Potter films – it’s quite unnerving in parts, so Cuaron’s style would work for a film version of The Radleys. I hope that it doesn’t get lost amongst other vampire themed stories because it is very different.

I was surprised and impressed with The Radleys. It’s an original and funny book which also pushes boundaries and explores how people deal with difficult situations – things that I think are important in Young Adult fiction.

A book with bite!

My rating:

8 out of 10

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage, Justin CroninWoman with Sainsbury’s carrier bag on the tube: “I’m baking lemon drizzle cake tonight… it’s the first time I’ve done it.”

Friend: “What you’ve never made lemon drizzle before?!”

Me (silently seething): “SHUT UP!!”

There are few things worse than getting to a gripping point in a book and then somebody else’s conversation invades your thoughts, totally breaking the spell. I suppose that’s what I should expect reading on public transport. I devoured the final few chapters of The Passage at home on the sofa, giving it the attention it deserved – and this book deserves, no demands attention. At nearly 800 large pages it is not a novel to be picked up lightly (excuse the pun). It’s sheer size and epic scope as well as the fact that it is a bit of a page-turner means that it can take over your life for a good few days or weeks depending on how fast you read. I was absorbed to the point that I found it quite frustrating having to put it down to do something else (like go to work).

The Passage is quite a difficult book to sum up without giving away the storyline too much. After all, if you are going to bother reading a massive book then, I imagine that you would like some of it to be a surprise. To be on the safe side I’ll quote the blurb:

“Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she’s the most important person in the whole world.

She is.

Anthony Carter doesn’t think he could ever be in a worse place than death row.

He’s wrong.

FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming.

It is.

THE PASSAGE.”

I will say that it is a book about vampires, although more of the 28 Days Later variety than RPatz in Twilight. It did make me think of how I felt watching the films 28 Days Later and I Am Legend because of the way that the monsters in the book were terrifying, insensible and lacking any obvious humanity, and also because it felt quite cinematic. It doesn’t surprise me that the film rights have been sold to Ridley Scott because I can imagine it translating well to the big-screen.

However, by drawing comparisons to these films I am in danger of selling The Passage short as being unoriginal. If anything it has a very different style to any book I’ve read in a similar genre. The first half of the book sets the scene of the story in-depth, exploring the lives of key characters – Amy, Anthony Carter and agent Wolgast. Cronin creates incredibly well-developed personalities, each with their own quite tragic back story. He takes his time progressing the story, however the writing never feels slow, rather you feel fully immersed in the plot.

There is a quite sharp change in the story about halfway through the book, which I have to admit threw me. Initially I thought it felt a bit disconnected, however once I became used to this (trying not to give anything away!), I soon became absorbed again. I think this break in style is a bit of a gamble, but one that pays off – mainly because Cronin’s storytelling is so strong.

Cronin is a talented novelist. The Passage is really well written. It is a brutal book. It combines vicious bloodthirsty monsters with characters that you really don’t want to be killed off because Cronin makes you like them. He describes people and landscapes with a great deal of skill and moments of everyday beauty and  are offset against which are set against the underlying sense of horror. By the time you finish reading The Passage you really feel as if you have been on an epic journey with the characters. An impressive achievement and a totally absorbing read.

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Thanks to Simon (Savidge Reads) for my now well-thumbed copy. You can read his thoughts here.

I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

I read The Book Thief about a year ago and really enjoyed it, so when Simon picked another Markus Zusak book – I am the Messenger – for Riverside Readers, I was delighted.

I am the Messenger couldn’t be more different in context than The Book Thief although stylistically it is not too far removed in the way that it uses dark humour and vivid characters to convey themes of humanity and personal development. The story begins when protagonist Ed Kennedy becomes an accidental hero at the scene of a bank robbery. Afterwards he begins receiving cryptic messages delivered on playing cards. He undertakes a series of missions which bring him into contact with a range of different characters. Sometimes dangerous, sometimes beautiful – his experiences turn his life up-side down.

Forthright and down-to-earth, Ed is a likeable character although definitely an unlikely hero. A 19 year old Aussie cab driver, Ed’s life doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere special and he is acutely aware of his failings (“bad at sex”) and generally believing himself to be a hopeless case. He is constantly harangued by his rather hard-nosed mother and lives in the shadow of his dead father’s alcoholism. I found that the first person narrative in the story was really well executed and I really enjoyed Ed’s affable, self aware voice as well as his detailed descriptions of the character flaws and strengths of his close friends.

I am the Messenger has been categorised as a crossover book and I can see it sits across young adult / adult fiction genres. There is a strong message of personal growth and it is also structured and written in a clear way which makes it very readable. I did think that it was clever (if a little contrived) that the chapters corresponded to the suits and numbers of cards in a deck. These manageable chapters along with the conversational tone made for a pacy read. I do think that it managed to avoid being over emotional, however at times the underlying messages of the book were unsubtle and the developing love story hard to miss. Content-wise for the young adult category, I would say that it is probably suited at mid-teen age range. Constantly navel gazing when it comes to his problems in the love department Ed’s thoughts are often sex-oriented, although they tend to be insightful and funny rather than gratuitous. I definitely had the sense that I was stuck inside the head of a young man!

The best thing about the book was definitely some of the touching scenes and encounters with the people that Ed delivers messages to. There were also some pretty dark moments particularly at the beginning of the book which seemed designed to make the reader thing about what they might personally do in the situation. I wouldn’t say that this book changed my life but it was a really enjoyable and original read, and for me confirms that Zusak is a master of tugging at the heart strings without a saccharine-sweet approach.

My rating:

7 out of 10

What young adult or crossover fiction have you read an enjoyed?

Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanA couple of weeks ago, I went along with Simon (Savidge Reads) to hear Ian McEwan talk and got myself a copy (signed!) of his latest novel Solar.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a physicist and a philanderer. We enter his life in the year 2000 at the end of his fifth marriage which is failing because of his repeated affairs which have driven his wife Patrice into the arms of a builder. A former Nobel Prize-winner now gone to seed, Beard’s life is changed by an unexpected accident which solves one problem in his love-life and opens the door for him professionally. With his career invigorated, Beard is set to save the world from Global Warming if only he can look past his expanding belly and keep his complicated personal life from imploding.

The excellent character development in Solar, and the unsparing detail within the writing is exactly as I expect from Ian McEwan. The character of Michael Beard is at times loathsome, at others pitiable and the author’s treatment of him is brutal but also witty. He isn’t a protagonist that you want to succeed. He’s an anti-hero, who reminded me vaguely of Malcom Bradbury’s Howard Kirk in The History Man in his self-absorbed and egocentric outlook. I couldn’t empathise with him, but the thoroughness with which he is depicted has left a sort of stain on my mind – a very memorable creation!

The story itself does have a series of events, but it is definitely more of a chronicle of Beard’s personal journey. We follow him from his darkest days, through to a kind of new vigour and back again. Just as the world seems to be on a runaway path to destruction, Beard’s physical appearance and health is also decaying, his life held together by a lie as fragile as the Earths ecosystem is purported to be.

I enjoyed McEwan’s metaphors and the comments within the book that couldn’t help but be topical. At the beginning of the novel, Beard considers how each generation needs its own Armageddon. With the threat of the Cold War over, Climate Change may be our modern incarnation. Later, he gives a speech about motivating the masses to make changes to help the environment, commenting that it is not virtue that will move them, but self-interest and novelty; “Virtue is too passive, too narrow”.

Because of the subject that it deals with, Solar is fairly heavy in academic, science-related language. After all, Beard is a physicist, so we as a reader must share his science. At times this can make it a bit of a difficult read, even turgid in parts. I wouldn’t say that it is one of McEwan’s more ‘enjoyable’ books because the subject matter is so dark. However he does inject witty moments into the books to lighten it, such as when Beard experiences a particularly ‘sticky’ moment on a trip to the arctic (literally!). A few more doses of humour like these could have made the story flow a bit more.

Solar is a thought-provoking read – challenging in parts and funny in others. Overall it I found it a very interesting portrait of a man brilliant enough to change the world, but too corrupt to be its saviour.

My rating:

7 out of 10

Have you read or plan to read Solar?

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

Unfortunately the first thing I noticed about the choice for Riverside Readers this month was the range of hideous covers available. Even though my copy was published in 1982, I don’t think that’s July's People 1982 Penguin coveran excuse for the bizarre peach and brown theme. Being a product of that year myself I don’t think everything made in the 80′s has to be in bad taste, but you may disagree, hmmm?

Savidge Reads‘ cover (happily it was on loan from the Library) was even stranger. At first it looked like a black and white image of the surface of the moon but on closer inspection it was an image of huts. Kimbofo‘s cover was also dubious although I gave it brownie-points for being a retro penguin classic-style cover. Whoops! I seem to have been completely diverted from the task in hand – writing about the contents of the book itself, so back on topic…

The plot of Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People, revolves around the Smales, a liberal white family  living in South Africa who in the wake of civil unrest in Johannesburg flee the city. Their servant July takes them under his wing and into his native village. Gordimer puts the Smales’ relationships, both within the  family and with the people in the village under the microscope, highlighting the effect of race on individuals perceptions of each other and the security of their situation.

The July’s People book group was the perfect example of how reading and discussing a book with others can actually change your feelings of a novel. To put it bluntly I found Gordimer’s writing style and the story itself hard-going right from the start. The sentence structure is quite unusual and jumps around in parts, so that you are quite confused as to what is actually going on at any one point in time, however in hindsight, I think that this is what Gordimer intended. The Smales are bewildered by their new environment and the conversations that they have whether with July or between each other seem to be at cross-purposes. What the author does, and effectively so is to drop the reader into the world of the Smales so that you can smell and hear everything and understand how precious the smallest items are.

“- And soap? – She was cherishing a big cake of toilet soap, carefully drying it after each use… Soap he had remembered to take from her store-cupboard? His clean clothes smelled of Lifebuoy she bought for them – the servants. He didn’t say; perhaps merely not to boasts his foresight. She was going to ask- and quite saw that she could not.”

Maureen, the mother in the Smales family is the character that we felt in the group that really stood out as going on a personal journey in the novel. She watches her children adapt and make friends in the community so easily, whereas she is never accepted by the other women. She is constantly interpreting and re-interpreting thoughts and language in her interactions between July, her former servant, and Bam her husband.  While Bam struggles to make himself useful by building a well and asert his manhood by shooting wild pig, it is Maureen whose head we get into most and her vulnerability and frustration that we feel. Her sense of loss is highlighted when she realises that she does not want to read the paperback that she has brought with her:

“But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being within another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading for her, was not possible. She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath fills a balloon’s shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.

They had nothing.”

The key theme of the novel hangs around perception and mis-understanding of people’s behaviour and their motives . Maureen as July’s former employer has always thought she and her husband were open-minded but as the book continues we see her liberalism put to the test. She always trusted July as a servant, confident that he was always honest with money and their belongings and initially feels grateful to him for rescuing them. However while at July’s house, she discovers objects that used to belong to the Smales. While these are of low value – for example a pair of scissors), an underlying suspicion begins to creep through and she begins to question July’s motives. Is Maureen right to worry about July’s reasons for bringing the family there or is she just being paranoid? Is she as liberal as she thinks or were her values just a facade? As a reader we are brought on the journey really experiencing the situation and relationships.

So in hindsight, July’s People is an acomplished and thought-provoking piece of writing. I didn’t really enjoy reading it, but I think that was because I had a pre-conception of what the novel would be about. I was expecting some kind of big event to happen and felt as if I was waiting. I was also bemused because when I started reading I didn’t realise that the events in the book were actually imagined, not real – Gordimer’s idea of what could happen in South Africa. I couldn’t quite sympathise with the Smales because however detached from their previous life I couldn’t help but think how much worse it could be for them. I found myself frustrated, but I think that this is the mindset that Gordimer aims to put the reader in. After talking about the book in a group, I feel as if I could read this book again, and appreciate it in a different way.

I would recommend July’s People, but with a warning to approach it with an open mind and to be prepared to sit back and let it sink in.

I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who’s read other Nadine Gordimer books. Have you read July’s People or other books by this author?

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

A couple of days ago I renewed all my library books and to my horror the system said that I’d run out of chances to renew one of the books – Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark. I thought about taking it back unread but had a slightly irrational feeling of dread. What happens if I missed out on a brilliant book?! At only 160 pages I thought it best just to get cracking…

Reality and Dreams is classic Spark – a novel of observation. The cast composes Tom Richards, a film director, his wife, two very dissimilar daughters and a host of ambitious actor-types. At the start of the novel, Tom is in bed in hospital recovering from an accident. A series of nurses pass in and out, then his family members including his daughters from different marriages – Cora, Daddy’s favourite who is a beautiful girl with a feckless husband and Marigold, with her “formidable face” and puritanical temperament that her parents just can’t get their heads around. As Tom recovers and goes back to work we come across a pair of actresses. There is the gorgeous Rose who Tom is having a relationship with and Jeanne who is as distasteful and annoying as Rose is winsome. As with other Spark books, there is a sinister undercurrent in the novel as she hints that Tom’s fall may not have been so accidental after all. Who in his social would want to do him harm?

In Reality and Dreams Tom acts as the central force around which the other characters orbit. His opinion creates a response in those who surround him either drawing them to him or pushing them away. High up on his directors crane he feels almost god-like and perhaps he is, after all he is the one calling the shots and creating his dream. Dreams, not surprisingly, are a key theme in the novel. The film that he is directing provisionally entitled ‘The Hamburger Girl’ is inspired by a woman he once met at a campsite and from that fleeting moment has invented a whole personality for her. At other times Tom drifts off into a reverie imagining historical figures in unusual situations:

“You bring back the Brontës and stage a rock concert outside their house in Haworth. What would their reaction be?”

The theme of ‘dreams’ also translates into people’s hopes and ambitions causing people to reveal unpleasant sides to their characters. It is a novel where reality is blended with illusion so that at times you’re not sure what is real and what is not.

“‘What we are doing’, Tom told his crew, ‘is real and not real. We are living in a world where dreams are reality and reality is dreams. In our world everything starts from a dream.”

Of course, Spark is herself creating an invented reality, just as much as her film director protagonist. The funny thing is that despite confusing what is real and what isn’t to, Spark maintains her crisp fluid writing style. I found it a quick read and although it made me ponder, I didn’t feel at all lost.

So did I like it? Well I didn’t like any of the characters – they were all horrible, but I often find that many of her characters are unpleasant. This is something that Claire recently noted when reading Memento Mori which is one of my favourite Spark books. It doesn’t put me off however, in fact I find the way that Spark seeks to expose people’s bad behaviour utterly fascinating. While I wouldn’t say this is my top Spark novel (I do think that this, and Symposium will date a bit in a way that I don’t think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means will), I did find it very absorbing, and I was genuinely surprised by the ending which had a nasty little twist so I’m glad I read it before taking it back to the library!

Are you a Spark fan? Do you ever have renewal dilemmas at the library?!

Book Review – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I am belatedly getting through my Seasons Readings, with seven down and three to go and I just have to comment on how pleased I have been with the selection so far from everyone’s wonderful recommendations. The latest book from the list was Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I want to say from the beginning through to the end was a joy to read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is set in the present-day and looks back 60-odd years previous in order to discover why the central character, Euphemia Esme Lennox (or Esme as she prefers to be known) has been in a psychiatric institution for most of her life. Brought up in India as a child and moved to Scotland as a young woman the wilful and unusual Esme is a handful for her parents and attracts attention from those about her, that is until her seemingly bad behaviour results in her being committed into mental care where she learns to make herself ‘vanish’. Flash forward to the present-day and Iris, who has a mixed-up enough life as it is, receives a phone call telling her that she has a relative she never knew existed and that the hospital is closing down. The two women’s lives begin to intertwine.

Events leading up to the present day are revealed through memories, mainly Esme’s and also those of her sister Kitty whose mind has been damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. I would expect to find this a difficult writing style, but I thought it was very effective and surprisingly, not confusing at all. The story flows smoothly and O’Farrell is able to keep back some of the plot twists very well back through this method, gently unravelling the story and giving you little glimpses as the book goes on. I was impressed with the way that the modern environment was contrasted with the scenes of a completely different generation. I enjoyed the way that the family’s life in India was visualised – the sites and sounds were so vivid and unusual:

“There it was. The weeping, the slow weeping of rubber trees leaking their fluid… Esme tilted her head this way and that, still with her eyes tight shut, and listened to the sound of trees crying.”

But in the rigid social norms of early 20th Century Scotland, people had dramatically different expectations of women. It seems to have been a time where you could be locked up in a psychiatric ward on the simple say-so of your parents and left there to rot. This theme reminded me of how shocked I was by this when I read Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White and also the threat of this kind of incarceration which is underlying in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle.

Despite the sad events in the novel there are some wonderful themes of a young woman blossoming and I Esme’s bright individual personality was a pleasure to read. O’Farrell skilfully conjured up melancholy but beautiful images, such as when Iris first meets Esme at the hospital:

“Iris sees the woman turn, first her head, then her neck, then her body. It seems to take an extraordinarily long time and Iris is reminded of an animal uncurling from sleep.”

I was very impressed with this novel. I thought that the writing style was both gentle and poignant and yet still managed to cover some very tough events without being melodramatic. I found it very moving, and I was surprised that I didn’t cry reading this, but thinking back, the reason I didn’t may have been to do with the way that the character of Esme herself was so strong. I think that The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is an excellent piece of writing and was thoroughly absorbed in it from start to finish. Recommended!

Have you read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox or other Maggie O’Farrell novels?