“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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A generous helping of guilt for a Tuesday evening…

A few days ago I took myself off to Whitstable (a picturesque, characterful town on the Kent coast) and, predictably, ended up in a bookshop.  It was one of those small but perfectly formed independents that somehow manage to cram an impressive literary catalogue into the space of a living room, and in the corner near the till my attention was caught by the best collection of Wordsworth Classics I’ve seen anywhere for a long time.  I’m sure book lovers everywhere will agree there’s something about classics by any publisher – Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford, whoever – all grouped together that’s pretty intoxicating to us book addicts.  There was no way I was going to be able to leave without buying one, but even as I handed over my £2.50 (bargain!) for Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” I was already trying to ward off the nagging awareness that although I do still love to buy classics sometimes, in truth I’ve almost entirely stopped reading them.

I honestly feel quite guilty about this; after all, I was brought up on the great Victorian classic novelists, reading those way before I moved on to contemporary adult literature, which I only really got into in my early twenties, and I’m an English Lit grad too, which I still feel marks my reading card sometimes though it was many years ago.  A year or so ago, when I tried to get back into classics with “Armadale” by Wilkie Collins – an author who wrote two of my all-time favourite novels – I was horrified to admit I found it so…. hard-going.  The language and the pace of this kind of fiction is worlds away from so much modern literature to be sure, but I was still ashamed at how bogged down I felt while trying to read it.  Have I got so out of the habit of reading classics, I thought, that I just can’t cope with them anymore?  And have I got so used to the ease and familiarity of the modern writing style that I’ve lost my ability to absorb, concentrate on and enjoy anything that sounds remotely archaic?  If that’s true, then what a massive failing for someone who claims to be a book lover!

I was talking about reading guilt with someone at work not long ago and we agreed that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to admit you don’t particularly like certain books or authors regarded as “classics” from any era.  In the spirit of honesty I’m going to hold my hands up and say here and now that I can’t stand Dickens.  I’ve started five (never let it be said I don’t give people a fair shot!) and only managed to finish one.  From an objective point of view I can completely see why he’s a literary genius – but I don’t get on with him because he just doesn’t resonate with me.  And that’s ok, my colleague and I decided, because why should anyone be obliged to enjoy certain things?  What’s bothering me about my falling out of love with classic literature isn’t to do with that “shame” of only reading contemporary fiction, as I don’t believe one kind of fiction is more or less worthy than another, but rather what it says about me that a style of writing that once gave me so much enjoyment suddenly feels inaccessible.

I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who set themselves reading challenges, maybe to read a certain number of books a year or to read genres they’d usually avoid.  As yet I’ve never felt I wanted to set myself a challenge of this kind, because a) I don’t like pressure! and b) I’m a reasonably changeable soul and would much prefer to read as the mood takes me; but now I’m thinking that a little, informal challenge might be what’s needed to get me back into classics again.  Quite simply, instead of passing over my unread classics in favour of something shiny and new, I’m going to make sure I start one within the next week.  I bought “Wives and Daughters” – so I’m going to read it!

Maybe this is all an unnecessary hang-up, but I’d really like to feel engaged with older literature like I used to, as it gave me so much pleasure before.  I’ll let you know how progress goes!  I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’ve ever felt the same, or indeed if you have a completely different take on my predicament – if that’s even what it is.  See you back on the blog very soon, hopefully with a classic book review!

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“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – review

I can’t quite call this a novel.  I can’t describe it merely as a story.  It’s a beautiful oddity, an experience, a sensation.  Reading it was a bit like being in a dream where the mundane is periodically punctuated by the surreal and you find yourself shadowed by a vague feeling of menace despite the familiarity of the everyday surroundings.  I bought it a few days ago knowing nothing at all about either book or author, but it’s a title I’m going to be championing for some time to come.

Poland: the early 1980s.  The country is a one-party state known officially as the Polish People’s Republic, with a communist government under the influence of the Soviet Union.  Following a succession of challenges to the state’s authority, the Military Council of National Salvation seized power and imposed martial law.  Everyday life for millions of Polish citizens is now fraught with difficulty: there are frequent power cuts and a shortage of many basic necessities, with shop shelves often bare.  This brief political context is provided by the translator in a short explanatory section at the back of the book and if, like me, your knowledge of 1980s Polish history is non-existent, it’s a useful addendum to give a bit of background to some of the novel’s references.

Our tour guide through these challenging times is Wiola, who is a young child when the book begins.  Everything that happens we see through her eyes as she grows up on the family farm in the tight rural community of Hektary.  The real cornerstone of the book is the way in which wider events creep into Wiola’s life yet all the while it’s the smaller, more personal and immediate happenings that most colour her impression of the world.  A lost kitten, a llama on show at the church fair, the humiliation of her first crush seeing her at the local market as she helps her grandmother sell cherries; these are the things that stick in the little girl’s mind most clearly, as we move through her life in a succession of vignettes, fragments of memory that combine to form her sense of self.  The author nails precisely how we all see ourselves and make sense of our existence; when we look back at our past it’s never a simple linear progression but rather isolated memories, often with significant gaps in between – and why we remember certain events so vividly and forget others is a mystery.  What’s also incredibly clever is the way in which Wioletta Greg ensures her readers have a level of knowing way beyond that of her narrator.  If any of you have read “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep”, then this works in a similar way: the young protagonist mentions things in passing that we as adults realise have a far greater significance than she can yet comprehend.  On the very first page there’s a quick, matter-of-fact reference to the fact that Wiola’s father was imprisoned for deserting the army just before she was born and remained inside for almost two years, but the emotional impact this would have had on him is beyond the scope of a child’s understanding.  When it becomes clear a few years later that he has a problem with alcohol the connection is never made in writing, although it most certainly is in our heads.  Some episodes are terrifying to us while merely mystifying to Wiola, the most striking example being the school art competition that attracts the sinister attention of the government authorities.  Wiola paints a picture of Moscow but unfortunately the ink cartridges in her schoolbag burst and the painting in ruined.  Too late to be withdrawn, it gets sent off to the provincial authorities for judging and Wiola forgets all about it, until a month later when two officials turn up at the school wanting to speak to her.  She assumes they’ve come to award her a prize, and is completely nonplussed when they start quizzing her on who gave her the idea to depict Moscow in such a way, deface (deliberately they believe) with dark ink.  Of course Wiola has no conspiracy about which to tell them, but we turn cold as we read, horrified by the level of state scrutiny, the intimidation of a child and the very real threat of arrest for perceived treasonous acts that dog this surveillance society.

There are many more episodes like this throughout the novel, and Wiola suffers some truly horrendous treatment at times by a number of unpleasant characters.  It seems bizarre to say then, but I found the book absolutely beautiful.  To see the wonder a child finds even in a world we know to be brutal, cruel and dangerous is quite humbling and immensely moving.  It’s also about the places we call home and the love that ties us to them even when logic tells us that circumstances could be so much better elsewhere.  It’s a very short book but it has an intensity meaning it punches well above its weight in terms of lasting emotional impact.  It hasn’t had widespread reviews or lots of publicity as far as I know, but it’s become my personal mission to get as many people reading it as I can.  I do hope this review is a good start.

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Bookshop haul – a moment of heatwave madness!

It’s quite clearly not unusual for me to indulge in a bit of book-shopping.   It is unusual for me to lose all self-control and succumb to not just one but multiple hardbacks in a single splurge.  Honestly, I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it’s the knowledge that it’s payday tomorrow or maybe I was just slightly high on the prospect of a week off with the forecast of blazing sun every day and absolutely no commitments beyond my blog and my books; whatever the (100% valid) excuse I’m now the proud owner of a diverse and somewhat unexpected pile of reading happiness.  So what is this booky bounty?

“Silk” by Alessandro Baricco – since I’m still going with “4 3 2 1” I’m in desperate need of something short to make me feel like I’m achieving something!  I would never have picked this up off my own bat but two colleagues at work have recommended it so I have faith that it’s going to be a good ‘un.  As an added bonus the chapters are about a page each, so if that doesn’t make me feel like I’m making progress nothing will.

“These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper – I find Twitter such a great way of discovering new and forthcoming titles, and this is one that I’ve seen mentioned or reviewed several times with almost universally favourable comments.  The premise sparked off comparisons in my mind with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, which I adore, due to its Parisian apartment block setting.  The style and indeed the substance may well turn out to be completely different of course, but nevertheless I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy it.

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – this is a bit of a risk in a sense since I know nothing at all about either novel or author.  Yet something about it kept nudging at me as I was browsing the shelves and eventually I decided to take a punt.  The cover art is stunning for a start, and the impression I get from the tiny sections I’ve dipped into is that it has a slightly strange, dreamlike and almost musical quality that I found magnetic, even without knowing anything about the story or setting.  Watch this space.

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman – I read an excerpt from this novel in a magazine a while back and immediately thought: I AM Eleanor Oliphant!  I was intrigued by the heroine and the idea that life can be, well, absolutely fine, and yet missing something very fundamental at the same time.  There’s been so much love for this all over social media and I can’t wait to read it.

So, a week off awaits and I have a stack of new books, so the reviews should be coming thick and fast before too long!  Here’s hoping your week is as sunny as mine, see you back on the blog soon.

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“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue – review

I had a job interview and assessment day last week, which meant a very long train journey to Birmingham during which I was somehow going to have to distract myself from the horrors to come.  The book I shoved into my handbag on a whim was “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue; by the time I’d reached my destination I was almost halfway through, and even the hideous claustrophobia of a Virgin train carriage and the prospect of the next day’s Powerpoint presentation couldn’t draw my mind away from this most mesmerising story.

Anna O’Donnell is an eleven year old girl living in nineteenth century rural Ireland who’s become something of a celebrity.  Her family claim she hasn’t eaten a single bite of food for months and yet is thriving, a fact attributed to a religious miracle.  Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked in military hospitals under Florence Nightingale, is sent on a mission along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, to watch the girl round the clock and find out whether she is indeed blessed by God or whether it is in fact a clever hoax.  Lib arrives in Ireland a confirmed sceptic and is convinced she’ll uncover foul play within days.  Things, however, prove to be much more mysterious than she’d anticipated.  She’s been given fourteen days to observe before reporting her findings to a local committee, and as the clock ticks down she finds herself much more emotionally involved with the case than she could have imagined.

The novel’s simplicity is striking.  There aren’t huge numbers of characters vying for your attention.  The setting is pretty much limited to Anna’s cottage, the inn in which Lib is staying and her walk in between the two.  Even the events are repetitive (although I must stress that, very cleverly, they never read as such) in the sense that Lib’s routine is to sit or stroll with Anna, watch her sleep, read or pray and then get some brief rest herself before doing it all again.  There’s a metronomic quality to the march of the days, yet they are always punctuated with just enough disquieting moments to give us an uneasy feeling about the way events may unfold.  Even the most mundane of incidents take on an air of foreboding inside this strange bubble: the accidental breaking of a Virgin Mary figurine or the incomprehensible prayer that Anna mumbles over and over again.  In fact, as the novel goes on, more and more references to superstition, if not quite the overtly supernatural, creep in, to the point where I started to wonder if what I had in front of me was developing into a horror story.  The touches are always subtle – the locals’ fear of the “little ones”, the mischievous sprites who would cause untold havoc if not placated; the mysterious tree outside the village hung with decomposing rags; the disturbing photograph in Anna’s room that isn’t quite what it seems – but the sense of fear, and of something otherworldly potentially being involved here, is palpable.  Even religion, which features very heavily in the story, is not the comforting presence you would hope, since Lib strongly suspects that the Church and some of its loyal, blinkered followers are actually conspiring to put little Anna at risk for the sake of publicising a supposed “miracle”.  Whether or not there is any supernatural activity at work or whether there is in fact a very human, worldly explanation for everything is not something I’m going to give away here.  What I will say is that by hinting at multiple possibilities, the author evokes in her readers the same sense of doubt and disorientation felt by Lib as she grapples with the confounding mystery laid before her.

The fact that I, with my notoriously poor attention span and butterfly-like approach to reading, managed to finish the entire book in just two sittings is a ringing endorsement of its compelling readability.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a novel sucked me in so completely.  Maybe it’s because the setting is the same chapter after chapter that you feel you’re actually there in the hovel, watching the girl who has now become so familiar to you it’s as if you know her for real.  The fact that Lib and Sister Michael have been given a time limit of two weeks to verify or disprove the miracle also drives the book forward as we know that, for good or ill, a conclusion is coming.  I must confess that, when I read the final chapter, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the ending; on reflection though, I’m pleased the author chose the outcome she did.

This has got to be up there with my top reads of 2017 so far.  Five stars, full marks and any other accolade you can think of, this book gets it.  Oh, and I didn’t get the job – but since it would have meant leaving my beloved book trade behind, I think I’m okay with it.

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Bookish disappointments

“Disappointment” has got to be one of the saddest words in the English language.  If you want to upset me, just tell me you’re disappointed by something; it goes beyond mere sadness as there’s the implication of the delighted anticipation that preceded the blow, which renders the ensuing despondency so much worse.  To feel let down by a book is a particularly hideous experience since more often than not you will have had a pretty long wait for it.  The absolute worst scenario of all though is when an author you’ve previously loved comes up with a book that, well, you just don’t.

I’m currently reading “4321” by Paul Auster and although I’d deliberately avoided any reviews before I started it I’d already heard a number of people say they weren’t particularly keen on it.  As it happens, I’m completely hooked and think it’s the best novel he’s written in ages, but prior to this, he was one of the authors who’d started to disappoint me.  I devoured his early books with the fervour of someone who’s discovered a new religion, but as the years went by and I caught up with his writing so I was reading in tandem with his new releases I found I was increasingly disenchanted, feeling that somehow he was producing Auster-by-numbers, novels lacking the spark and sharpness of their predecessors.  I’m terrible, however, for giving even the least deserving people in my life second (and third and fourth) chances, and I couldn’t bring myself to give up on him entirely, a decision that I’m relieved to say is so far proving to be justified.

So which other authors have disappointed me?  Well, one of the big ones recently was Donna Tartt; “The Secret History” is one of my favourite books of all time and “The Little Friend” was a more than worthy successor, but “The Goldfinch”?  Fragmented, verging on tedious in places and WAY too long, it was for me one of the most crushing literary let-downs ever.  It wouldn’t have been such a soul-destroying experience of course had she not been so outstanding before, but I can only imagine the pressure such a lauded novelist like that must be under, especially when their books have close to a decade between them.  Iain Pears’ “The Dream of Scipio” was another case of the curse of having to follow a masterpiece (in this case “An Instance of the Fingerpost”) although, like the back in favour Mr Auster, he redeemed himself in my eyes with the mind-bending “Stone’s Fall”.  Then there’s Muriel Barbery, whose remarkable novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” made an impression on me intellectually and emotionally that I never expected, but whose later novel “The Lives of Elves” proved to be a bemusing and ultimately for me unfinishable quasi-fairytale that bore almost no resemblance to its predecessor.  Hats off to her for doing something totally different, but it wasn’t for me.

The more I look at my bookshelves the more I see little disappointments, most of them not on the level of Goldfinch-gate, but let-downs nonetheless.  So I’m going to call time on this blog post before it descends into a simmering cauldron of negativity – and let’s not forget that, as experience shows, one less than enjoyable book doesn’t condemn an author for ever! – but I’d love to hear what your biggest bookish disappointments were.  Are there any that still sting years later?  Or do you disagree with me and think “The Goldfinch” is Donna Tarrt’s most enjoyable novel?  Either way I’d love to hear your thoughts so do share!

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My April reading pile

I got a bit optimistic the other day and decided that since the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky then it must be warm enough to sit and read outside.  Not quite unfortunately; more a case of April doing that sneaky thing it does where it lures you into believing it’s summer a few weeks prematurely.  Whether I end up indoors or out though, there are some interesting books on the reading pile this month.  I realised (again) how much I love my job a week or so ago when I got given a proof copy of “Into the Water”, which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you is the next novel by “The Girl on the Train” author Paula Hawkins.  By rights it shouldn’t be featuring in a blog post about April TBRs as I’ve actually finished it already – but I couldn’t not mention it as it will surely be one of the biggest novels of this year.  I’ll save my thoughts for the review, which I’ll probably post nearer to publication time, but if you manage to get anywhere near a copy then grab it and don’t let go.  I’m super-excited about “In the Name of the Family” by Sarah Dunant, the next in her series of novels about the Borgias (I say series but I have no idea whether there will at some point be a third!) as I thought the first, Blood and Beauty, was pretty much everything you could want from a work of historical fiction.  I’ve also just started “4 3 2 1”, the Paul Auster doorstop, and I have to confess, although I very much enjoyed the opening chapters I haven’t as yet got much further.  This isn’t a reflection on the book I don’t think, more the fact that it’s quite a hefty thing that I suspect is going to require a reasonable amount of concentration and I haven’t really been in the headspace for something like that for a while.  Last up, because I always like to have some non-fiction on the go as well, is an intriguing book I came across completely by chance in a local bookshop.  “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen writers on the decision not to have kids” is a collection of essays on, well, exactly what the title says.  I’ve always found it interesting that conversations around childlessness are still something of a taboo, even in our increasingly open society.  Well, that’s not quite true: potentially hurtful comments directed towards a woman without children about her lack of mother-status don’t seem to be taboo at all, but for a woman to respond and discuss the reasons for it is still, in my experience, looked upon with surprise, lack of comprehension and often, sadly, unfair judgement.  I was interested to see that this book existed at all, and am very much looking forward to reading a variety of opinions on the issue.

As ever there will be more reviews up on Girl, Reading soon, but in the meantime enjoy the sunshine and enjoy whatever you’re reading!

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