Locked in a dark room somewhere in Mogadishu, Peter Maguire has ample time to consider the legacy of his three decades on this earth. A journalist with a CV full of danger zones, he has a girlfriend in Paris who enjoys weekends in the Loire Valley and a five-year-old son in Monrovia she doesn’t know about and he’s never seen. He’s been estranged from his mother, also formerly a journalist in West Africa, since she told him his biological father is not the gentle Irishman he’s called Dad all his life, but an American photographer with whom she had an affair in Liberia. If life weren’t complicated enough, his friend and local driver was shot dead when Peter was kidnapped, and he’s about to be sold on to the brutal Al-Shabaab. He finds a glimmer of hope and humanity in the Somali teenager who brings his food, but can Abdi really rescue him from captivity?
It’s August 1985, and Ananda, a student of English at the University of Central London with aspirations to be a poet, has a whole day to fill. We follow him reluctantly get out of bed, fret about the neighbours’ noise, miss his mother who has recently returned to Bombay, attend a meeting with his tutor, and hang out with his equally eccentric uncle, Rangamama, as they separately reminisce and bicker about their lives. Their territory is Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a world of disappointing Indian restaurants, public transport, and potentially racist drunks. Inveterate outsiders, not just in London but in Asia, too: their Sylheti Hindu heritage having been twice rebranded (first with Partition, then with Bangladeshi independence) and leaving a legacy of “Indian” restaurants and the revered poet, Tagore. Desperately unhappy, the two men cling to each other despite their differences, Ananda possibly seeing his empty future in his uncle.
It’s hard to know what to make of a novel comprised of all the minute quotidian detail that most novels would cut out. There are touches of humour, and I especially enjoyed this exposition on the lack of reference to lavatorial necessities in Western film and literature (p128-9):
Francine is grappling bulimia and the menopause along with wondering whether she’ll survive the coming cuts in Quality Assurance. Robin genuinely cares about his students as he philosophises over film and the dread of having a baby with the wrong woman. Olivia wants to put the world to rights but isn’t sure if her law degree will let her, or whether she should start with her own dysfunctional family and the father who’s been hidden from her since she was four. Ed soothes his own loneliness by ensuring the unloved and unwanted still get a good sendoff. Katrin navigates the gulf between London and her native Gdansk in the cafe where she works and with the gentle Englishman who seems to like.
Each of these five point of view characters are vividly and sympathetically realised on the page. Each of them follows an interesting narrative arc, complete with back story and associated minor characters, I could have followed for an entire novel. But just as the characters seem to question whether there’s anything more cohesive than the fragments of their world (p151, 267):
Pilgrim Jones has done something shameful: crashed her car into a bus stop and killed three young children, although she has no memory of doing so. Did she swerve to avoid the dog and lose control of the vehicle or, consumed by anger and self-pity after being dumped by her human-rights lawyer husband, was she reckless? Certainly her neighbours in the small Swiss town of Arnau consider her a child murderer and, despite the sympathy of the police, she realises she has to get away. With no particular plan, she flies to Tanzania and, dropping out of a safari, pitches up in Magulu, a shabby village on the road to nowhere, with one bus out a week. Here she finds herself a world away from her former travels with her ex-husband, from her role as a diplomatic wife. Here, where the doctor has no medicine, the policeman no power to uphold the law, violence or the threat of it is ever presence at the periphery of her vision (p82/83):
“Sometimes I have trouble finding the edges,” says the narrator, Sean, on page 9 of this unusual and deeply moving debut novel. So far, all I know about him is that he returned from hospital to his parents’ home with painful skin grafts and that, as a young child, obsessed with comic books, he’d imagined himself a throne in his grandparents’ garden, declaring himself King Conan. You’re not the only one, I might have replied. Sharing none of his tastes in TV, music and games, I didn’t hold up much hope of venturing beyond the edges of a novel that spirals round and round its subject but, when I did, I was deeply impressed. While preferring to eschew spoilers, despite the evidence that they are more likely to enhance the reading pleasure than destroy it, I can’t convey my enthusiasm for the novel without wheeling towards its centre, so read on at your own risk.
Lulu Davenport is the proprietor of Los Rocques, a clifftop hotel on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, frequented by a certain type wealthy Brit who holds themselves aloof from the package-tour hordes. It’s also a popular hangout for the teenagers who spend their summers on the island, roaming freely after months of more orderly education abroad. For almost sixty years, Gerald Rutledge has lived in a small house just a kilometre away from The Rocks (as everyone calls it), but he’s rarely set foot on the premises. It’s not just because, having married a local woman and made his living from the land, he’s more assimilated into the Spanish community, but also because he’s persona non grata to Lulu following their brief and calamitous marriage only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
Version One Laura Barnett is obsessed by the image of a woman on a bicycle swerving to avoid hitting a dog, watched over by a young man casually walking down a lane. Eva and Jim are nineteen, students at Cambridge in 1958, she studying English and he law. Laura has some idea about their backgrounds – Eva the daughter of Jewish musicians who fled Austria in 1938; Jim the son of a now-deceased famous painter and an unstable mother – but she can’t make up her mind where to take them next. So she writes three different versions of their story, falling in love with each such that she can’t bear to discard any one of them. So she puts all three in the same novel.
Version Two Laura Barnett likes romance, but she’s a bit suspicious of the happy-ever-after premise. Although still young herself, she doesn’t agree that later-life get-togethers are somehow inferior to younger couplings. She sets herself the task of writing a novel that will follow the same two characters across their entire adult lives through three different versions of their story: one in which they marry young and two in which they don’t, Eva instead marrying her original boyfriend, the narcissistic actor, David. In these latter two, Eva and Jim’s paths cross intermittently, in one version resulting in an extramarital affair, another in which they recognise their mutual attraction but, either through circumstances or restraint, they remain loyal to their other partners.
Jay Mize thought he’d be at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture, when he moved with his wife, Sandy, and six-year-old son, Jacob, to a stretch of river-bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills. But a summer of drought followed by incessant rain has ruined him. After his father’s suicide, Jay becomes obsessed with doomsday scenarios. In order to protect their son from his increasing negativity, Sandy moves out (p168):
I cannot believe that I’m arguing with you about the end of the world. I cannot live this way, thinking like this. Every day that you harp on this gloom and doom is another day you miss the blessed life you have here, right now, this instant.
When Jay discovers a corpse on his flooded fields, his sanity gradually leaches away. Watched by a vengeful woodsman and the playboy deputy sheriff, Danny Shoals, Jay is heading towards an apocalypse partly of his own making.
Alice’s husband is becoming increasingly critical and his excuses for his absences from the home more and more lame; is she right to suspect he’s having an affair? Vic, managing the hotel in Madeira previously owned by her parents, is delighted when her old friend Michael returns to work on the island; should she share her doubts about the honesty of his new girlfriend, Estella? Kaya dreams of studying philosophy at university but for now, having fled her feckless mother and her mother’s druggie boyfriend, she’s capitalising on her good looks as a stripper; can she leave this life behind? Three women at different stages of the lifespan, seemingly unconnected at the beginning of the novel, find their fates disturbingly intertwined.
This is the last of the four novels published on 6th November (although the hardback of Strange Girls has been out since July) I’m reviewing this month. I was eager to read it after coming across a couple of reviews by bloggers who found this novel much more engaging than they’d expected. Having nothing original to say about the plot without stumbling into spoilers, I’d love to refer you to those reviews but I have to confess I’ve forgotten where I found them, so if you’ve come across anything about this novel that might be of interest to other readers, do please paste the link in the comments section below.
Segueing neatly from my last post featuring my late-adolescent hairstyles, I’m sharing my experiences of two novels about 17/18-year-olds at different ends of the 1970s, both of which puzzled me until they blossomed into something surprisingly deep and moving with the concluding chapters.
All eyes are on Aviva Rossner as she arrives at the prestigious Auburn Academy in the late 1970s exuding glamour and youthful sexuality. Bruce Bennett-Jones is mortified when she snubs his feeble advances and takes up with the unlikely Seung Jung. The couple flaunt their relationship, evoking the envy and fascination of their classmates and irritation among their teachers: this is a fictional school where rules may be broken but not in such a blatant manner. But underneath the veneer of almost-adult confidence, the pair are struggling. Aviva, in love with being loved, is terrified of the loss of control that could come with indulging her appetites; Seung, gentle and caring, can’t understand her reluctance to join him in his experiments with drugs. But it’s sex that proves their downfall: as every fumbling attempt ends in failure, they blame themselves, and the stakes are heightened for their next encounter.
I didn’t expect to be dipping my toe in the water again so soon after Waiting for the Rain, but the coincidence of two new novels swimming to the top of the TBR pile has compelled me to add them to Annecdotal’s growing stream of water-themed fiction. Published today and tomorrow, both novels evoke the dangers that lurk in the water through the pain of losing a child and the question of how far a parent will go to safeguard their family.
This is the water. This is the text: letters forming words, words forming sentences, sentences making paragraphs to convey the story of the pool and the girls and boys who swim in it and the parents who ferry their children there. This is Chapter One where you enter the minds of swim moms ultracompetitive Dinah and beautiful but weary Chris. This is Annie who will lead you through the chlorinated water where the killer also swims. This is Annie, confused by her brother’s suicide and her husband’s emotional distance, corsetting her girls into their skin-tight racing suits and deliberating over overpriced energy drinks.
This is Chapter Fifteen. This is you still ambivalent about the “unique narrative style”, wondering if it’s slowing the pace unduly, wondering why this novel is described as a thriller. This is Annie’s husband, Thomas, reading a newspaper report about a girl with her throat slit letting you see at last how well this novel fits the genre. These are the next 200 pages of moral dilemmas around marital infidelity and withholding evidence to protect one’s own skin. This is the climax where Annie’s everyday cares and concerns are meaningless as she fights for her own life and that of her daughters.
This is me wondering how many other bloggers have adopted the author’s style in their reviews. This is Yannick Murphy’s fifth novel. This is the water. Will you plunge in?
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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