“Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth – review

This was one of those unobtrusive little novels that sat quietly on the bottom shelf of the bookcase for some years, its diminutive size and understated spine neither demanding nor receiving any attention.  There was only one reason I finally picked it up a few days ago: I wanted to put another review up on my blog and I needed something short that I could get through quickly.  Having now finished it, I’m struck by a slightly bizarre sense of guilt that I wasn’t drawn to it by any potential merit other than its length, as it turned out to be the very epitome of the hidden gem.  As recompense for passing over it for so long, my aim now is to give it a moment in the sun.

I know there are millions of people out there who love historical fiction.  I’ll put money on the fact though that there aren’t quite as many medieval drama nerds; but if you are one (as I’m afraid I am!) then this is one of a tiny number of novels that scratch that particularly niche itch.  The story follows a fourteenth century cleric, Nicholas Barber, who tires of a life transcribing interminably dull texts and runs away from his order.  We join him as he comes across a troupe of travelling players gathered around one of their number who has just that moment died; a stroke of luck for Nicholas as a dead actor means a vacancy in the company that needs to be filled.  Despite some initial suspicions the players take him in and continue their journey until they reach a small town, where they decide to stop and earn some money with a few performances.  As per tradition, the play they first present to their audience is a morality play, a type of drama familiar to all watching, with its instantly recognisable characters and orthodox religious message.  However, word soon reaches the new arrivals of a brutal murder recently committed in the town and that gives Martin, the troupe’s unofficial but tacitly accepted leader, a dangerous idea: to write and perform a play telling the story of the crime.  At first the events leading up to the murder seem straightforward enough; a local woman was arrested within hours of the body being discovered and the motive of robbery an obvious explanation for the attack.  As far as the majority of the townspeople are concerned, a guilty sentence for the accused is a foregone conclusion.  Anxious to make the play as authentic and accurate as possible, Martin sends the players out into the community to listen to the gossip and do a bit of surreptitious investigating – but what comes back starts to cast some serious doubt on the official story.  All of a sudden, the play is no longer looking like a representation of events as already believed by the local people, but a shocking exposé of a potential miscarriage of justice.

The mystery of the murder, and the danger in which the players find themselves, drive the plot, but in many ways the book isn’t really about those things.  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” a certain playwright once wrote, and that I think is the crux of this novel.  Time and again assumptions are made about people’s character – and their guilt or innocence – based on the clothes they wear, the office they hold, their position in the social hierarchy.  But in reality the robe of the cleric or the livery of a knight is merely a costume that helps him play out the role his audience expects, and it tells us absolutely nothing about the substance of the man underneath.  When the travelling players perform their morality dramas they use stock characters and universally recognised masks and mimed gestures; the figures presented are ones with which everyone in the audience will be familiar since they always behave in the same way.  That is why, when Martin suggests that for the first time in their lives the actors take on the roles of real people there is an outcry from his troupe.  The stage is for representing the two-dimensional figures of good and evil, wisdom and folly – people want to remain in the safety and comfort provided by the mask and costume, just as they want to admire the colourful shields and shining armour of the jousting knight without questioning the chivalry of the man beneath.  It’s not insignificant that towards the end of the book it begins to look as if acting in their well-worn roles might turn out to be the very thing that saves the players.  Perhaps if we didn’t stick to our pre-determined roles then society would crumble and anarchy would ensue.

I think that the author leaves it very much up to us to decide whether or not this would be a bad thing.  Although he revels in the medieval setting – the language and style of the narrator leave us in no doubt that this is the voice of a fourteenth-century man – it could just as easily be a novel for our time, or indeed any time.  I enjoyed the setting as a passionate medievalist; I enjoyed its concepts and philosophies as a twenty-first century human.  My summary?  A lot more than meets the eye and a hidden gem indeed.

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“The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain – review

I’m a frustratingly slow reader, so it’s incredibly rare for me to race through a book in a single day, but that’s exactly what I did with “The Gustav Sonata”.  It’s beautiful, compassionate and has a quiet sadness about it, a sense of stillness punctuated by a few momentous events, and with characters who have become almost embalmed in their regrets, resentments and disappointments.  This is a novel about how easily life can pass you by and how frighteningly easy it is to let love and happiness slip through your fingers.

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The book is divided into three parts (like a sonata according to the author’s afterword, a fact that passed me by I must confess!)  The first starts in 1947 in the Swiss town of Matzlingen when Gustav, the main character, is just five years old.  He lives in a meagre, cramped apartment with his mother Emilie, whom he adores in spite of the fact that she is consistently cold and unaffectionate towards him.  His father Erich is dead and although Gustav doesn’t remember him he does know his father was a hero who performed selfless and courageous deeds during the grim years of the Second World War.  At least that’s what his mother tells him, though she remains vague and somewhat cryptic in her explanations.  Little Gustav’s existence is a lonely one until a new boy arrives at the kindergarten.  Anton is a sensitive soul given to bursts of tears, and an outsider like Gustav.  The sad pair gravitates towards each other and a touching friendship develops, but Gustav’s mother remains strangely disapproving.  Is it simply that the wealth and social standing of Anton’s affluent family shames or embarrasses her?  Or could it be that their Jewish background stirs up painful memories from the veiled years leading up to Erich’s death?  Whatever the reason, Emilie’s discomfort cannot stop the friendship from flourishing; yet as they grow older it becomes clear that one thing certainly isn’t flourishing, and that’s Anton himself.  He is an incredibly gifted pianist, close to being a child prodigy, and his ambitious parents have high hopes for a career as a concert performer.  The problem is, as soon as he gets in front of an audience nerves overtake him and he’s never able to play anywhere near his full potential.  Part one of the novel draws to a close with Gustav going on holiday with Anton’s family following a disastrous piano competition that reduced the poor boy to a state of mental and physical anguish.  They’re only ten years old at this point, but both are already keenly aware just how much they need each other.

Part two jumps back in time to the late 1930s, and now some of the questions that bubbled up during part one begin to be answered.  Tempting though it is, I’m not going to talk about any of the secrets that are uncovered from this moment onwards as I wouldn’t want to rob you of the thrill of enjoying the revelations for yourself.  A novel that started off as intriguing blossoms into something immensely satisfying as we gradually come to understand the characters’ life journeys and have some sympathy with why they’ve become who they are.  As I hinted at the beginning of the review, happiness proves elusive and futures that once took root in the imagination as something bright and hopeful are crushed under the brutal foot of reality.  That’s not to say I came to like all the characters: Emilie in particular I never warmed to, but it didn’t matter.  The most important thing I think was for me as a reader to understand and empathise even if the affection wasn’t there.

The third section takes a drastic leap forwards to the 1990s when Gustav and Anton are middle-aged men still living in Matzlingen.  At first I felt slightly uncomfortable with such an enormous jump in time, a bit cheated perhaps that so much of the main characters’ lives had gone by without explanation of any kind.  However as I read on I found I got over this feeling fairly quickly.  Again I don’t want to give any more elements of the story away, but the sense of sadness in this final part is extremely profound.  In part one we saw the loneliness of a little boy through his own eyes, which was incredibly moving, but now we experience something almost worse: the loneliness of an aging man who’s beginning to realise that so much of his life has been spent in emotional isolation, with no hope of change on the horizon.  I’m really pleased that Rose Tremain chose to end the story in the way she did.  I’d wondered off and on during the book whether things were eventually going to go in the direction I anticipated, and they did, but far from feeling a bit aggrieved that I’d second guessed the author, I felt that Gustav’s life shouldn’t and couldn’t have culminated any other way.

If you’re already a fan of Rose Tremain then you won’t be disappointed by this.  It’s not quite the immersive experience of something like “Music and Silence” (which is still my favourite I think) but it’s gripping and heartwarmingly sad if you can have such a thing!  And as I said at the start, once you’ve picked it up there’s no putting it down again, and that’s the ultimate compliment you can pay to any book.

“Fireside Gothic” by Andrew Taylor – review

Before I’d even opened this book I’d fallen in love with the title: it’s just so evocative of dark winter evenings curled up under a blanket with a creepy book, and I couldn’t wait to grab a cup of hot chocolate and get stuck in.  I wasn’t disappointed – you’d be hard pushed to find a better January read.

It’s a collection of short stories, a literary form of which I have to confess I’m not always a fan, but these are all long enough to be immensely satisfying; in fact, they’re almost long enough to be novellas rather than short stories.  It’d be misleading as well to refer to them simply as ghost stories since they’re much more complicated than that.  There are elements that could feasibly be supernatural but there’s a psychological aspect to all of them as well.  All three feature central characters who are at an emotionally tumultuous time in their lives and who find themselves in an environment that lends itself to paranoia, fear or a sense of isolation.

The first, “Broken Voices”, takes place in the early twentieth century and has the most conventionally “gothic” setting of the three: the house of an old schoolmaster that stands in the shadow of an imposing, eerie cathedral.  The schoolmaster is tasked with looking after two lonely boys from the cathedral boarding school who have no home or family to go to during the Christmas holiday; at first, none of the three are particularly keen on the arrangement, but after an evening of ghost stories by the fire the boys’ interest in their previously uninviting surroundings is piqued.  What is the truth about the demise of the unfortunate Mr. Goldsworthy, Master of Music at the cathedral, who fell to his death from the tower nearly two hundred years before -was it really an accident or was there a more sinister explanation?  And is there a connection between his tragic end and the shadowy figure and untraceable music that can be seen and heard within the cathedral walls?

I loved the traditional feel of this first story; it fulfils every obligation of a good ghost story, and there’s an element of comfort in revisiting the familiar ground of what you would consider the epitome of the spooky story to be.  Reading it was akin to putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and I was completely delighted by it.  You get the feeling that the author really relished following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other such writers, and I would put money on the fact that Andrew Taylor has a genuine love for those writers who paved the way for this kind of story.

With the second tale, however, he changes tack completely.  We’re now back in the modern day and in the company of a man whose car has broken down as he drives home from his sister’s funeral.  He’s lost, alone and with no means of calling for help – but as luck would have it, he stumbles across an old cottage.  The enigmatic woman who answers the door directs him to a large, comfortable and welcoming house just a few minutes away, but try as he might he can’t get the woman out of his mind.  When he returns in the morning, however, he gets the shock of his life, and what follows throws everything we thought we knew completely out of the window.  It’s almost impossible to talk any more about the story itself without giving away a whole load of spoilers, so I’m not going to.  What I can say, though, is that I loved the way this tale suddenly spun off into head-messing territory.  Are we in the presence of some serious supernatural shenanigans or are we witnessing a grief-stricken man in the grip of psychological distress?  I got to the end and my mind was still reeling, but that’s exactly the way it should be.  If the first story was cosily creepy, this one was the total opposite: complex and quite unsettling.

The third and final story, “The Scratch”, was a very different one again.  Gerald and Clare live in the idyllic Forest of Dean, a comfortable life in a beautiful house.  Then Gerald’s nephew Jack comes into their life and everything begins to change.  Jack is ex-military and is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of a horrifying experience he endured while on active service in the Middle East.  He has a curiously intense fear of the couple’s cat but also and unhealthy obsession with the idea that a giant, wild, cat-like creature is on the prowl in the forest.  And he has something else too: a bizarre scratch that never heals.  As it turns out, Jack isn’t the only one with an obsession.  Clare finds, to her horror, that she’s becoming increasingly attracted to the young man, and from this moment on things go from bad to worse for the family.  It seems that post-traumatic stress isn’t all that Jack has brought back with him; as events unfold it starts to look suspiciously like some kind of curse.

But, the author challenges us, do we really believe in things like that?  Is it possible that something otherworldly can exact revenge upon us for our transgressions or is it the burden of our own feelings of guilt that make us believe that the past is somehow haunting us?  I thought this story was very clever as it manages to create an unsettling mood without any of the usual ghost story tropes.  There are no gothic cathedrals and no dark, stormy nights, just warm spring days in the Forest of Dean, but it’s incredibly effective storytelling nonetheless.

The whole book was pitched just the right side of spooky for me.  It won’t give you sleepless nights (thank goodness!) but it will give you something much more rewarding: cleverly crafted, stylishly written tales that create a gently spine-tingling atmosphere and much to think about.

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“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur – review

Every once in a while fate has an uncanny way of delivering the right book into your hands at exactly the right moment.  I recently spent an hour reading “Milk and Honey” precisely at a point in my life when I needed to hear its words, absorb its sentiments and have someone tell me I wasn’t alone.  Honestly, it’s as if it had been written just for me.

It’s a collection of poems, but not, I think, one designed to be dipped in and out of; it lends itself to being read in one wrenching go.  It begins by chronicling the sexual and emotional abuse the author endured in her younger years, before moving on to love, loss and finally ruminations on femininity and how the poet’s relationships with men have influenced the way she views herself.  The poems are for the most part stark and sparse, and the vocabulary she chooses is often relatively simple; the cleverness lies in the way she arranges these somewhat unremarkable words into such striking, searing combinations.  Many poems are only a few words long, but these were actually some of my favourites.  There are just so many I’d like to share on here, but these are just a couple of the shorter ones that stood out for me:

the idea that we are

so capable of love

but still choose

to be toxic

and this:

we are all born

so beautiful

the greatest tragedy is

being convinced we are not

Many of the poems are written in this way, without capitalisation or punctuation, and as such they come across as spontaneous bursts of thought; authentic, heartfelt and without artifice.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about poetry and how hard it is to get up the courage to share what you’ve written; I remarked that I feel it’s the most personal form of writing there is, hence the hesitation over making it public.  The impression I was left with at the end of “Milk and Honey” was of a poet who has been incredibly brave in committing her most personal, in many cases traumatic, experiences to paper.  I for one am so glad she did so.  Although the abusive aspect of her life is, mercifully, not something I have suffered myself, her candid meditations on love, desire and the issues that cloud loving relationships are exactly the thoughts I would have expressed if I’d had the talent to put them into words in this way.  To know that the feelings which constantly batter and torment your mind are shared by someone else is like a burden being lifted.   I only hope I can emerge into the state of positivity that seeps into some of the later poems; this courageous and insightful young woman has inspired me to try and do so.

If you’re at all interested in poetry, read this.  If you are a woman then definitely read this.  Rupi Kaur is truly the mouthpiece of millions.

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“His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet – review

On a summer’s day in 1869, Lachlan Mackenzie is found brutally murdered at his home in the tiny Highland community of Culduie.  The perpetrator, 17 year old Roderick Macrae, confesses to the crime within minutes, but although there is never any question or who, there is still the all-important question of why.  This clever novel takes the form of a compilation of documents – medical reports, journalists’ articles and so on – that are brought together with the aim of finding an answer.  And the answer matters, because if he is found to be insane, Roderick will be spared the death penalty; if it can be proved that he was in full possession of his mental faculties he will hang.

Right from the start, the author gives us a very clear indication that this will not be a straightforward case with a selection of witness statements that variously describe Roddy as a wicked boy, an amenable and polite young man and a strange loner.  Then comes what we would imagine to be the most valuable testimony: that of the murderer himself.  Roddy’s story, as he tells it, is quite a sorrowful one.  Following the death of his mother his already morose father becomes even more emotionally inaccessible, alternating between brooding gloom and flashes of violent rage, ruling over his children in their tiny crofter’s cottage with an iron fist.  Life in the hamlet of Culduie is pretty insular and the prospect of pursuing a life elsewhere is practically non-existent, with the crofters’ lifestyle being passed down through the generations.  The local schoolmaster spots a sharp intellect in Roddy that is missing from his provincial classmates, but the boy is unable to imagine any future other than taking on his father’s trade.   Life goes on and the monotonous days blend into one another without major incident, until something happens that turns life in Culduie upside down for everyone: Lachlan Mackenzie becomes constable of the community.  The constable is responsible for enforcing order and maintaining standards on behalf of the laird on whose land the crofters live and work, and it’s a system that has always been regarded by the inhabitants as reasonable and fair.  Lachlan, however, is power-hungry; a combination of intimidating physical strength and a calculating mind, and the Macrae family – for various reasons that have accumulated during a lifetime of living side by side in Culduie – become the target of a vicious campaign of oppression.  When Roddy develops an attraction to Lachlan’s daughter it proves to be the final step on a steady climb towards the inevitable: the confrontation between the two men that results in the constable’s death.

There are brief but significant flashes of disquieting behaviour during Roddy’s narrative that set momentary alarm bells ringing in our minds – his eerie detachment during the mercy killing of an injured sheep, the unsettling coolness with which he listens to his sister’s suicidal thoughts – but by and large, the overwhelming feeling I was left with as this section of the book drew to a close was one of pity.  Lachlan’s bullying campaign was, I felt, an incredibly astute piece of writing in that it succeeded in stirring up genuine physical feelings of anger on my part towards the character such as I haven’t felt for a very long time.  The author pinned down with uncanny accuracy the way in which so many bullies go about their business; when Roddy and his father try to describe to a superior official the things that have been said and done to them, out of context they sound feeble and no cause for complaint at all.  Lachlan is smart enough to operate in a way that ensures his victims know precisely what is being done to them while those looking on would never see the malicious intent behind his actions.  To be brutally honest, I couldn’t wait for Roddy to kill his tormentor – until the murder itself, which I won’t spoil but which didn’t unfold in quite the way I’d imagined.  At the moment of the killing, an unanticipated shockwave of doubt explodes out of the book, and in the space of a couple of pages you’re suddenly left wondering whether your judgement has been skewed all along.

Fittingly, Roddy’s account ends as he is still standing over the body of his nemesis, and the (deliberately) jarring insertion of a glossary of Scottish dialect creates a much-needed pause as we come down from the fraught heights of intense emotion back to the detached practicality of deciphering the linguistic quirks of his testimony.  This marks the start of the second part of the novel, and a brisk change in tone as we move from a first person narrative to series of professional documents pertaining to the case.  We will hear from the doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims, the surgeon who was called in to psychoanalyse Roddy following his arrest and finally the witnesses who took part in the trial, their words recorded in various newspapers at the time.  Not everyone I’ve spoken to has appreciated the changes in style throughout the book, with some finding the format off-putting, but I actually felt a sense of relief as I embarked on the latter half, which is more impersonal and less emotive, after the more visceral nature of Roddy’s story.

If I thought that these new points of view were going to lead to certainty and closure, however, I was wrong.  If there’s a message to be taken away from this book it’s that it is almost impossible to claim there is any such thing as absolute truth where the actions of human beings are concerned.  There are revelations in the second section that come as a shock, and cause you to start re-evaluating everything you thought you knew from Roddy’s confessional account – but is that the same as saying he was lying?  Could those making statements about him be lying too, or at least fabricating a version of events that fits in with their preconceived ideas about the people involved?  It’s quite a philosophical novel in many ways; once the author starts playing with our sense of right and wrong, truth and untruth, the questions spiral.  The conclusion I came to is that humans are not for the most part calculating liars: we genuinely believe that our interpretation of events is accurate.  We create our own life story in our head, and that’s the one to which we hold fast.  And that being the case, is it ever possible for anyone else to tell us unequivocally that we are wrong?  If a madman believes that his motives, even for the most vicious crimes, were pure, is that not true in the sense that it’s his truth?  Given all this, the idea of one man presiding as judge over another becomes ever more uncomfortable.

I think it’s fair to say I was disturbed, gripped and given an intellectual workout by this novel in equal measure.  Every now and then a book comes along that messes with your head a bit, and “His Bloody Project” is definitely one of those.  And just when you think you may have made up your mind about what has occurred, the last few lines will plant a seed of doubt in your head once more.  Hats off to the author – this novel is very special indeed, and a striking achievement.

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“Painter of Silence” by Georgina Harding – review

I’ve had this on my shelf for a few years; a slim, unassuming book that didn’t scream “read me now”, but I finally picked it up simply because I wasn’t sure what else I was in the mood for.  The contents are as understated as the exterior, but this is a novel that’s all the more powerful for its restraint.  On reflection, the subject matter is extremely harrowing, yet at the time of reading there was almost a dreamlike quality to events, as if everything was covered in delicate gauze that prevented the worst of the horrors from seeming completely real.  This isn’t a criticism; far from it.  In fact, as you get under the skin of the characters, the writing style starts to make perfect sense.

We first meet Augustin as a young man in 1950s Romania when, destitute and on the verge of a physical breakdown, he makes his way to the city hospital in Iaşi.  Once there, the medical staff are mystified as to how he got into his current state, since the patient doesn’t utter a single word and barely attempts to interact with anyone.  Then, as if ordained by fate, a new nurse appears on the ward and recognises the man she hasn’t seen for close to a decade.  Safta, the nurse, seems to know how to get through to Augustin, bringing him blank paper and a pencil.  Slowly but surely, the weak and isolated man begins to draw, just as he did many years ago.

From then on the novel progresses in a series of episodes alternating between Augustin’s youth and the 1950s.  We learn that Safta and Augustin were companions through much of their childhood, the boy being the son of a servant working in the grand country house belonging to Safta’s family.  Yet these most unlikely of friends are not only polar opposites in terms of class: while Safta lives a normal life of social interactions with sibling, cousins and friends, Augustin inhabits a world that only he can fully understand.  His silence in the hospital wasn’t, as many suspected, a physical reaction to a traumatic event; Augustin was in fact born a deaf-mute.  Kind-hearted Safta is the only one of his peers who makes any effort to befriend him and they develop an unspoken connection that continues for several years.  As time passes, however, Safta is lured away by the heady infatuation of her first romance and the prospect of adventures in a world that extends far beyond the family estate, and Augustin is left almost entirely without companionship.  And loneliness is not the only threat he faces, for the second world war is looming large on the horizon.

Although Augustin is the only one of the main characters whom we follow during the war years, back in the 1950s we begin to get a sense of how the conflict still echoes in the hearts and minds of those who lost members of their family or, and this is almost worse, those who still don’t know for sure whether their loved ones are alive or dead.  The Stalinist regime that took hold as the conflict drew to a close has also left the country in a state of paranoia and unease.  Adriana, one of Safta’s colleagues at the hospital, takes Augustin in and pretends at first that he’s her long-lost son, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before his presence will arouse suspicion and questions will start being asked by the neighbours and the authorities.  All of this leads me back to the feeling I described at the start of this review, that the novel’s events seemed ever so slightly distant to the reader, with the worst of the physical and emotional horrors kept an arm’s length away.  This sensation of being very much an observer, putting the emotional experiences of the characters together from fragments of their lives and trying to fill in the blank spaces – some of which last years – as best we can with our imagination is, I’m sure, a very deliberate choice on the author’s part.  Augustin himself lives in a state of being permanently divided from the rest of the world by his deafness and inability to communicate to others the nuances of his feelings, and for much of the book it’s as if we’re seeing events in the same way that he does – seeing and examining but never able to fully participate.  Safta too has to be content with imagining the terrible things to which her friends and family were subjected during the war after she left to escape Romania.  At one point she returns with Augustin to their old home, but he will never manage to describe to her the hellish things he saw or the effect they had upon him.  This clever novel is never about having tragedy pushed in your face through graphic or histrionic depiction.  It’s about watching, listening and then putting the pieces together to come to an empathetic understanding – just as it is for the characters themselves.

“Painter of Silence” is a novel that really sneaks up on you.  It’s quiet, thoughtful and the charatcer of Augustin, particularly during his childhood years, will tug at your heartstrings like never before.

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“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley – review

It’s been a while since I’ve read such a magical literary concoction as “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”.  Part steampunk, part Victorian gothic, part crime thriller, with splashes of the fantastical thrown in, it’s an endlessly intriguing kaleidoscope whose patterns never fall quite as you expect them to.  I don’t even want to talk about the plot as to do so would be to somehow dull the shine of a book sparkling so brightly with imagination.  If I tell you, however, that it involves bomb plots, exiled Japanese nobility, Gilbert and Sullivan and a clockwork octopus called Katsu you’ll start to get a small sense of the eclectic pick-and-mix that makes this book such enormous fun.

With so many ideas flying about it could easily have turned into a bit of a disjointed muddle, but this isn’t the case.  Yes, it’s a whirlwind of a read, but a very tightly controlled one.  Keep your concentration, because it moves between timeframes, countries and characters, and by the time the action-packed denouement arrives you’ll need to have your wits about you to keep track of what’s going on.  In fact, there was one section towards the end that I had to go back and read again in order to get my head around what had actually happened – but truthfully, I’d rather have that any day than a story professing to be a mystery but whose ending is signposted a mile off.  I would never have guessed how the story would end, and I was glad to have been wrong-footed.

I like my fantasy firmly grounded in a believable reality (Ben Aaronovitch, Erin Morgenstern and Sergei Lukyanenko all do this incredibly well) and for me the novel’s great success lies in the seamlessness with which it blends the surreal with the everyday.  Keita Mori’s quasi-magical clockwork emporium on Filigree Street sits perfectly congruously alongside the earthly drudgery of the Home Office telegraphy department where his soon-to-be friend Nathaniel Steepleton works.  This is a London beset by terrorist bomb threats such as those within living memory that make even fictional ones seem all too real; yet the concept that within this very recognisable city there exist individuals with the ability to pre-empt future events by picking up disturbances in the ether caused by human though never seems at all improbable.  I suspect many of us would like to believe there’s something a little bit magical lurking just around the corner from our everyday lives, and Natasha Pulley delivers on this promise.

She’s an extremely elegant writer, who delivers dry wit and deep-seated emotion with equal finesse, and it’s to her absolute credit that she took me to paces I never thought I’d go at the novel’s start.  This is definitely one for those who love relishing the dexterity of the written word as much as they do a great story; it comes highly recommended from me on both counts.

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