“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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“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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“The Virgin Blue” by Tracy Chevalier – review

I read “Remarkable Creatures” by the same author a few years ago and absolutely loved it, yet somehow had never got round to reading any of her other books until now.  “The Virgin Blue” is one of those novels that have a historical and a modern day storyline running side by side, but it was – as it usually is for me – the historical element that drew me to it.  This strand of the novel tells the story of Isabelle du Moulin, a young woman living in rural France in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Times are changing: Calvinist beliefs are starting to spread through France and other parts of Europe, overturning the Catholicism that has until now been the foundation of mainstream society.  When the new religion, “The Truth”, arrives in her village, Isabelle finds herself regarded with suspicion – nicknamed La Rousse as a child because of her likeness to the painting of the Virgin Mary above the door of the parish church, her association with the Madonna suddenly becomes a potentially dangerous one.  Calvinist doctrine sees the Catholic devotion to Mary as an impediment to the worship of God, and Isabelle is now a tainted woman in the midst of the reformist frenzy surrounding her.  The Catholic forces, however, are not far away, and Isabelle eventually flees with her husband’s family, followers of the new religion themselves, to a place they hope will bring them shelter from persecution at the hands of those who would enforce the old religious ways.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, her troubles are only just beginning.

In the present day, American Ella has just moved to France with her husband Rick, a move that was meant to see them attaining the idyllic French country lifestyle that so many crave.  However, Ella soon starts to be plagued by a mysterious recurring nightmare that haunts her waking hours as well as her sleep.  She is at a loss to interpret its meaning, and is only able to articulate the overwhelming sense of oppression and anxiety with which it leaves her.  Most inexplicable of all is the vivid colour she sees again and again: a rich, multi-layered shade of blue.  Life in the small French town is not quite what she hoped for either, with a community suspicious of outsiders and days that seem increasingly lonely as her husband immerses himself in a new job.  To distract herself from her unhappiness, Ella starts to research her family history, spurred on by the knowledge that she has cousins in nearby Switzerland, and before long she finds herself engrossed not only in her family’s turbulent past but also Jean-Paul, the town librarian.

Out of the two stories, I have to admit I preferred the historical one, but that’s personal taste rather than any shortcoming of storytelling.  I’ve always found Europe’s religious reformation to be a fascinating time in history, and I felt the author really captured a sense of what an immense upheaval the emergence of Calvinism would have been to a society and individuals.  On the one hand, the saying that there’s no-one as zealot as a convert holds true; and yet there are elements of the old religion that are still so ingrained in people’s hearts and minds that it’s almost impossible for them to be erased completely.  Isabelle may be living as the dutiful wife with her fiercely pro-reform in-laws, but secretly she finds comfort in the old, familiar rituals and in particular the reassuring image of the Virgin that she finds in her place of exile in the local church, but dares not be caught looking at.  Hers is an incredibly sad story, persecuted as she is from all sides – though it must be said the distant threat of Catholic forces bearing down on her pales in comparison to the abuse of her thuggish husband – and at times I found her tale quite difficult to read.  In the twenty-first century Ella has her own troubles to be sure, but sad though some of them are I never feared for her happy ending the way I feared for Isabelle’s.  What I did really enjoy was the subtle sense of mysticism linking the past and present.  It was never overblown, but there’s something enticing and magical about the idea that we are all somehow connected across the centuries to those who have gone before us.  It’s not giving too much away to say that many of Ella’s unexplained feelings and visions are a reflection of those of the woman who walked in her footsteps four hundred years before; I found a warming sense of reassurance that whatever befell Isabelle, her life, her loves and her tragedies would not become insignificant casualties of the passage of time, but would live on in the hopes and dreams of another woman many centuries later.

I already have another Tracy Chevalier book on my shelf waiting to go; if the two I’ve now read are anything to go by it will be a very enjoyable read.  If you’re a fan of dual timeline novels – or any novel with an historical element come to that – do try “The Virgin Blue”.  I can’t promise there won’t be some heartbreak but I will guarantee a good read.

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“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang – review

Before this review gets underway I should say that it does contain a few spoilers.  I always try really hard to write my reviews without them, but it was just too hard to even begin explaining this complex novel without giving something away!  If you don’t mind that, then read on…

So, how to explain the weirdness that is “The Vegetarian”?  It’s a book that I can’t compare to any other I’ve read, a unique journey into the un-probed recesses of the psyche that shocks, saddens, disturbs and bemuses in by turns.  It comprises three sections, almost like three acts of a play, each one of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story (although not always in the first person).  As the acts unfold, new layers are added that force the reader to re-evaluate events that have gone before – the issue being that we were never sure how to interpret events to begin with, such is their strangeness and ambiguity.

The novel begins as Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian.  This being Korea, such a decision is an almost unheard of break from social norms and is greeted with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and outrage by members of her family.  Most peculiar of all, though, is that her reason for suddenly shunning all meat is a dream, an explanation that sounds like lunacy to those around her.  The rationale behind her turn of mind never becomes completely clear to us either; intermittently throughout this first act we find ourselves in Yeong-hye’s head, but her voice is a stream of consciousness journey through sensations and visceral images, not explanations.  We see blood, animal skulls and flashes of ambiguous violence, all of which pass in an instant and leave us wondering: where have all these macabre mental images come from?  And how do they connect to this abrupt, mysterious vegetarianism?  There are no answers provided – yet.  But we do see real and shocking violence erupting in Yeong-hye’s present, real life; the poor woman’s treatment at the hands of those you would expect to care for her leaves us feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Then suddenly, it’s on to part two.  At the time of reading I found it a bit of an unexpected, and somewhat unwelcome, jolt to move on to another character and a completely new part of the story before the questions of the first part had been answered; hang in there though, because when you’ve got to the end of the book and are able to look back on all three chapters together, the separate sections feel much more cohesive than they do while you’re actually reading them.  Whereas I came away with the impression that part one is all about supressed trauma, part two is about supressed desire – supressed temporarily that is!  This section focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who we came across fleetingly in the first chapter.  He’s an artist, and after his sister in law converts to vegetarianism he becomes more and more obsessed with her sexually, a fantasy that turns into a desire to use her in a piece of erotic performance art.  It’s just as strange and unsettling as the first episode, but in a very different way.  After the earlier drama, violence and mental collapse of the bullied, victimised vegetarian, when Yeong-hye appears in this chapter she is eerily passive.  No longer privy to her inner thoughts, it almost seems to the reader as if she doesn’t have any.  Whether she is genuinely numb, an empty shell drained of emotion by the trauma she’s suffered, or whether her exterior blankness is merely a product of how others (predominantly men) see her we do not know.  She could be a metaphor for the invisible woman who has been rendered meaningless by a male-dominated society, or she could simply be an isolated individual who has become a victim of her own mind.  Either way, the role she takes in the increasingly bizarre imagination of her brother in law is no less troubling than the abuse she endured before.

The final act is in many ways the most straightforward of them all, and it’s the one I felt most at ease reading.  The writing loses a lot of its earlier dreamlike quality ad becomes more storytelling in its style.  Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, her sister in law In-hye is separated from her artist husband, and we finally start to find out what’s driven the troubled vegetarian from giving up meat to a state of near madness.  In-hye too, in between emotionally draining visits to her sister, is re-evaluating her own life and feelings.  Is it significant that it’s only now, when removed from the influence and dominance of men, that the two sisters are able to work towards achieving emotional peace?  It certainly seemed that way to me; I felt very much that the whole novel is about the control that society allows men to have over women, both explicitly and tacitly.  Yeong-hye ends the novel wanting to stop being human and to connect herself to the earth, living as a tree does – the ultimate extension of the vegetarianism that started the whole story.  It could be insanity, or it could be the ultimate means of gaining control in a life where others have constantly tried to take it away from her.

What the book is trying to say is a question that there is perhaps no need to answer.  The act of reading it in itself was an incredibly intense experience that I suspect will differ greatly between every individual who picks it up.  It’s no bad thing to be shaken out of your reading comfort zone every now and then, and this novel certainly achieved that for me.  Don’t read it for a realistic story with a satisfying conclusion, but do read it for an intellectual and emotional thrill-ride.  It’s different – and really quite remarkable.

“The Muse” by Jessie Burton – review

When you’ve enjoyed an author’s debut novel as much as I enjoyed “The Miniaturist”, the arrival of a second book is a time not just of excitement but also a tiny bit of trepidation that perhaps this novel won’t quite reach the heights of the first.  Jessie Burton’s tale of the mysterious dolls’ house and its owner will always have a special place in my heart as I’d never read anything quite like it before, so it’s with some surprise that I’m able to say without hesitation that “The Muse” is actually a better novel.

The book is split fairly equally between two stories and time periods.  In 1967 Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, thinks she has fallen on her feet when she lands a job at a London art gallery; before long, however, the arrival of an intriguing painting with a questionable history draws Odelle into a world of secrets for which she is completely unprepared.  In 1936, in a large house in rural Spain occupied by Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his family, the provenance of the picture starts to come to light.  The family have not long moved in when two local youths, Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, come to the finca looking for housekeeping work.  Teresa quickly becomes friends with Olive, the Schloss’s daughter, but Olive’s attention is drawn towards Isaac, the artistic, volatile elder brother, who is politically passionate and as handy with a gun as he is with a paintbrush.  Spain is on the brink of the horrific civil war that will tear it apart, and the Schloss family’s involvement with left-wing revolutionary Isaac is about to become a very dangerous one.

One of the joys of this novel is the way the pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together to tell the true story of the aforementioned painting, so with that in mind I’m not going to give away any more details of the plot here.  What I do want to talk about is that magical something that makes Jessie Burton, in my eyes, such a compelling writer.  It seems a slightly bizarre thing to say, but what I loved most about this novel was the subtle but almost universal sense of sadness underpinning each character’s existence.  The arrival of the civil war in the latter part of the book brings with it vivid and grotesque horrors, but the author absolutely nails the face that suffering is not in any way confined to the big, key moments of grief or fear that periodically punctuate our lives.  Sadness hovers constantly about her characters, whether it’s two friends gradually growing apart, loneliness kept at bay with drugs and alcohol or a love affair that never quite turns into the grand romance that it should, the spectre of disappointment is always there.

So can the determined pursuit of artistic endeavour assuage this sense of disappointment?  Or is it in fact our demons that drive our artistic impulses and lead us to produce our best creations?  Isaac Robles, the angry freedom fighter, can undoubtedly paint with skill, but his true passion lies in creating not a beautiful piece of art, but the Spain that reflects his political ideology.  Olive Schloss is also a talented painter with an as yet unfulfilled desire to study at art school in England; but until she meets and develops passionate feelings for Issac, she has never found the raw soul to put into her work.  It goes without saying that the path of her love for this fiery young man will never run smoothly, but it is undoubtedly love’s torment that unleashes the talent she has always possessed.  Back in the 1960s, gallery administrator Odelle is nursing a creative spark of a different kind.  She’s an aspiring writer whose work has only been shared with friends and family until matriarch of the gallery Marjorie Quick spots her ability and encourages her to start thinking bigger.  Like Olive some thirty years before her, Odelle falls in love, but for her the relationship between love and creativity is a more ambiguous one.  On the one hand she recognises that for her, writing is in many ways akin to love; and yet love can also get in the way, preoccupying the mind that needs to be left free if one’s best work is going to come.  “The Muse” is more than the story of one painting; it’s a fascinating exploration of art’s place and purpose in life.

I really appreciated the fact that, although there is a genuine element of mystery to the novel, Jessie Burton is never out to completely fox her readers; she lays enough clues that you can start to work out where the story is going, and the plot is not so wilfully obscure that there have to be any bizarre twists in order to reach a resolution.  Yes, there are a couple of revelations left right to the end, the final one of which wrapped everything up so neatly that I wanted to punch the air in satisfaction.  The one issue I had with “The Miniaturist” was that it left a couple of pretty significant questions unanswered – or at least not answered adequately for me – but I had no such issues this time round.  I really felt that everything about the story had bene meticulously thought out, and the result is an extremely fulfilling read.

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“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry – review

It’s not at all unusual for me, on finishing a great book, to go around feverishly recommending it to as many people as will listen.  It is unusual for me to stick my neck out and declare that a book has become one of my all-time favourites.  The deliriously happy aftermath of “The Essex Serpent” has been one of those unusual times.  I finished it a few days ago and it’s still out on the coffee table; putting it away on the bookshelf right now would feel like severing a piece of the connection with this thing of absolute beauty.  I’ll do my best to give you a sense of just why this novel has captured my heart and my imagination so completely, but I already know my words are going to come up short.

So let’s start with the easy bit!  Following the death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to escape from London and heads to Essex with her companion Martha and son Francis.  This being 1893 there are certain mourning protocols a widow must observe – dress in black, appear suitably downcast – as Cora knows too well; but the truth is she feels almost no pain at the loss of her husband, who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive.  His death is in fact a blessing in many ways: Cora, an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, is at last free to discover what kind of new life she wants for herself.  On her arrival in the coastal village of Aldwinter she is delighted to hear tales of the mysterious Essex Serpent, an immense beast rumoured to live in the waters surrounding this otherwise peaceful community.  Cora is a huge fan of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning, and immediately hopes that this quasi-mythical creature may actually be a living thing that resembles the enormous sea creatures of prehistoric times.  Few people, if any, share her enthusiasm; she walks into an atmosphere of fear and superstition fuelled by a series of unusual events that locals attribute to the presence of the monster.  A mutual friend introduces her to William Ransome, the parish vicar desperately trying to keep a lid on the rising hysteria and the two connect in an instant.  Both are on a personal quest to debunk the serpent myth – Will’s weapon is faith while Cora’s is science.  From there the story follows both the deepening mystery of the Essex Serpent and the developing relationship between these two characters that are coming at the world from polar opposite standpoints.

So now it gets a bit harder: how can I put my finger on exactly what it was that earned this book such a privileged place in my heart?  There’s no doubting the fact that the list of fabulous things about “The Essex Serpent” is a very long one.  Firstly, the characters: a rich and varied cross-section of humanity, not one of which strays into cliché or feels as if they’re there to make up the numbers.  Even the more peripheral inhabitants of Aldwinter who only make brief appearances are absolutely real, envisaged with the same care as the more prominent players.  Cora herself strides across the page, with her unconventional attire and resolutely non-conformist attitude to femininity, and yet she carries a vulnerability and uncertainty about her emotional place in the world that resonated deeply with me; how can you ever give yourself completely to another person when your greatest sense of security comes from within, and your default position is to want to be alone?  Cora’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, are complicated and their consistently blurred outlines leave them defying categorisation.  The candour and perspicacity with which the author probes the phenomenon of love is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.  Much as we would probably all feel more comfortable in a world where being in or out of love were two absolute and mutually exclusive states, one of the challenges of our existence is the realisation that feelings are so much less straightforward than that.  Populating the pages of this book are a man who steadfastly believes that he genuinely loves his wife whilst pursuing another woman, Cora herself who desires love even as she pushes others away, and friends whose love for each other may or may not include an element of sexual attraction.  And does sexual attraction ultimately matter when two like-minds and like-souls meet?  I loved the nuances with which Sarah Perry infused her story; we reach the end still unsure about the exact nature of the relationships between some of the characters, and I liked it that way.

So love is left hanging as an unfathomable mystery – but what of the Essex Serpent, the more obvious mystery that has managed to drag a whole village into a state of near-panic?  I think the author’s multi-layered, ambiguous exploration of the mythical (or is it?!) beast and the way it manifests itself in the hearts and minds of Aldwinter’s inhabitants is the stroke of genius here.  On the one hand there are some genuinely creepy passages that send a shiver of unease up the spine, as we see some unsettling phenomena occurring across the unforgiving waters of the estuary and among the increasingly frightened villagers.  Throughout the novel there are flashes of the gothic that Sarah Perry clearly relishes.  And yet there is much more to this than the quest to discover whether or not the monster is real; perhaps the more important question is, why do so many people believe in it?  By the end of the book what I took away more than anything else was that we all have a serpent lurking inside of us, one that is shaped by our own unique fears, insecurities and experiences.  For the residents of Aldwinter the monstrosity comes to reflect many states of mind, from the fear of being driven off life’s comfortable path by unexpected emotions, to the unrelenting weight of grief, the turmoil of adolescence and even simply the confused ramblings of a brain ravaged by disease.  Absolutely, I wanted to know the answer to the mystery in its most literal sense, but it’s the more metaphorical manifestations of the Essex Serpent that stay with you longest after the final page.

There is just so much packed into this book that it will utterly consume you, both while you’re reading it and afterwards.  I’m actually incredibly jealous of anyone who has yet to read this for the first time!  I hope more than anything that you’ll love it as much as I do; as always, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Happy reading!

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“The Little Red Chairs” by Edna O’Brien – review

When you start reading “The Little Red Chairs” you feel as if you’re embarking on a gentle tale of a small Irish community’s gradual enlightenment brought about by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger.  A mysterious man from the Balkans sets himself up as a spiritual healer specialising in sex therapy, and as with Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat”, the notion of an outsider subverting the traditions of an insular Catholic community causes consternation among some, and guilty curiosity among others.  Don’t be fooled.  Before Edna O’Brien is done with you, she’s going to drag you to some very dark places indeed, and the languid, almost wistful tone of the opening pages will seem a world away.

If you read the author’s brief but ominous introductory note before the story begins, you’ll get an idea of the territory this novel is going to cover.  She explains that the red chairs of the title were actually part of the 2012 twentieth anniversary commemoration of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.  Each chair, laid out along the city’s main street, represented the life of someone killed during the siege, 11541 in total.  It’s not giving too much away to say that the somewhat bizarre Eastern European gentleman who turns up in Cloonoila, Ireland, is going to open the inhabitants’ eyes to a part of history, and part of the world, that up until now seemed utterly remote and inconsequential – but the nature of his connection to the events that provoked the forlorn display of little red chairs I would never have guessed.  Before too long the past catches up with the present and life for many in Cloonoila will never be the same again; for one character in particular, Fidelma, the events that follow the stranger’s arrival will divert the course of her entire future.  When we first meet her, she is living out a hollow existence, in a marriage under strain from the age difference between herself and her much older husband, and longing for the child that has never come her way.  She’s a reserved and unassuming woman, and we pity her almost immediately as one of those sad figures whose life hasn’t turned out the way she hoped or probably deserved.  It’s all the more tragic, then, that her very vulnerability makes her the one who ends up getting involved more intimately than any other in the intrigue surrounding newcomer Vladimir.  It’s a scenario that doesn’t end well.  The story’s crisis point is an event so unbelievably horrific that I was forced to step away from the book for a while; it was truly one of the most disturbing passages I’ve ever read and it will prey on my mind for a long time to come.  However, it’s a credit to the author that she’s able to depict a scene as hideous as this and still bring the reader with her.  Horrified though I was, there was never any question in my mind as to whether I wanted to carry on.  If you do continue you will be rewarded, as for me the novel becomes richer and deeper the further it goes on.

The latter half of the book is both fascinating and exceptionally clever as it both narrows and broadens its focus at the same time.  One the one hand, the author chooses to leave many of the earlier characters behind and concentrate on Fidelma and the path her life takes as she attempts to come to terms with everything that’s happened.  On the other hand it’s at this point that the novel really embraces what turn out to be its key themes by moving the action out of the isolated town of Cloonoila to London, and thus to an infinitely wider world of people who are fighting their own battles in ways that Fidelma couldn’t have imagined.  The idea of how established communities view outsiders was hinted at in an almost whimsical way at the start of the novel, with gently comical scenes ensuing as the local priest delicately tries to address the Church’s concerns over “sex therapy” with the new arrival and a nun surreptitiously visits his massage room.  By the book’s later stages the notion of the outsider has taken on a much more serious tone, and the expanding cast of characters who flit in and out of the action open the reader’s – and Fidelma’s – eyes to what it really means to be on the fringes of society.  For some it’s about having acted in a way that contravenes society’s rules, for others it comes in the form of racial abuse, and for some it’s the isolation that comes from being thoroughly immersed in a grief and pain that no-one else can comprehend.  Most crucially, though, it’s about the people from all corners of the world who have come to London seeking a refuge from lives more terrible than most of us will ever experience.  The truth is that there are streets in every part of the globe that would more than warrant their own row of little red chairs.

I’m aware that this is starting to sound very much like an issue-led novel, and if your eyes are glazing over at the thought of an author on a soap-box for two hundred pages then let me assure you it doesn’t read that way at all.  Yes, it’s undoubtedly a very timely novel considering everything that’s been filling our news bulletins over the past several months, but it’s also an incredibly intimate examination of one woman’s trauma and her journey back to some kind of inner peace.  The author’s genius lies in this masterful balance of a broader message with minutely observed personal detail, and the quality and bravery of her writing have marked her out in my mind as a novelist I want to pursue further.  It’s not an easy read to be sure, but immensely rewarding and utterly deserving of all the plaudits it’s received.  Steel yourself – but read it.

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