Sunday, 7 December 2014

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng's first novel, and it's an exceptionally accomplished one. Set in 1970s Ohio and beginning with the disappearance and death of Lydia, the teenage middle child in the mixed race Lee family, Everything I Never Told You is a delicately crafted story of the expectations and regrets of parents and children, about being different and wanting to fit in, and about fitting in and wanting to be different.

The story is partly told in flashback and partly in the present during the aftermath of Lydia's death, from the points of view of each family member, including Lydia herself. Lydia, it's acknowledged by her siblings Nathan and Hannah, is their parents' favourite, and as such, has become a sort of conduit through which both her father and mother are determined to see their own regrets and mistakes put right. It's essential for James, her Chinese-American father, that she will fit in, have friends, be accepted socially in a way he never has been. Marilyn, her white mother - disowned by her own mother in turn for choosing a Chinese husband - is desperate for Lydia to fulfil her own thwarted dreams of becoming a doctor, rejecting the path of marriage and children that is still traditional in the novel's 1970s setting.

I have seen Everything I Never Told You described as a literary thriller, but I wouldn't really classify it as that. It's true that Lydia was last seen before her mysterious disappearance with Jack Wolff, well-known as the local bad boy, and that Nathan is convinced this must be significant, but the actual explanation of Lydia's death is secondary to the sensitively-written exploration of the Lee family's troubled states of mind. Objects acquire deep significance, symbolising the family's unspoken resentments and anxieties: an all-American Betty Crocker Cookbook, for instance, or a broken locket. Hannah's room is full of small belongings stolen and hidden from the rest of the family, as if she - almost entirely ignored - has become the curator of their repressed concerns. Lydia's shelves are full of diaries, and yet when they are opened in the days following her death, they prove to be completely blank. Not only can the Lee family not be open with each each other, it seems that they can't even bear to be honest with themselves.

Everything I Never Told You is an understated, quiet sort of novel, primarily introspective. Tensions are buried and resentment unexpressed - none of the Lees ever seem able to confront each other, and neither do they ever seem to confront anyone for the constant racism they face, at school, at work, on holiday. I found this book almost painfully sad at times - yet there is, as it draws to a conclusion, a sense of hope for the future that comes as something of a relief.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

When I finished reading Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, my first thought was that it reminded me of a cross between Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture The Castle and Goodnight Mr Tom. Those aren't comparisons I would ever make lightly - in fact, it's about as strong an endorsement you could get from me. 

As the Second World War breaks out, ten-year-old Noel Bostock lives in London with his adored godmother and guardian Mattie, an ex-suffragette with an entertainingly formidable personality and unconventional views on everything from world politics to education. But a tragic turn of events means that Noel - remarkably bright, painfully incapable of relating to children his own age and made conspicuous by protruding ears and a limp - finds himself foisted as an evacuee upon the sharp-tongued, duplicitous Vee Sedge, crammed into a tiny flat from which she, her selfish, silent mother and her equally selfish, lazy son Donald are in constant danger of eviction.

It would have been easy to make this a straightforward 'plucky orphan wins over cold-hearted adult' story, but in fact, Noel is no Pollyanna. Noel is difficult, sullen and bitter and Vee is mercenary and unscrupulous - and that's where the strength of Lissa Evans' writing really comes into its own. There's a strong bittersweet flavour to this story of a flawed, emotionally bruised pair of misfits: it's moving, but never sentimental or sugary in tone. The fact that Evans can make us love these characters, despite their concerted efforts to make themselves unlovable, is absolutely key to Crooked Heart's success.

There's also an undercurrent of tragedy to much of the novel's humour - the grimness of Vee's situation is, in particular, genuinely dark, and much of the comedy comes from the matter-of-fact manner in which appalling behaviour and events are recounted. But at the same time, there's a gentle, understated warmth to this book which make you want to hug it to your chest when you've finished. It's a lovely, life-affirming read with memorable characters, and the Second World War - all about making do, getting by, staying stoical and making the best things amid bewildering upheaval - is the perfect backdrop for the story that unfolds.

At this point in a review, I'd usually be addressing any negatives, but I'm honestly finding it hard to think of any. This one's definitely going on my list of favourites.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid

Val McDermid is, of course, a remarkably prolific and exceptionally popular crime writer, creator of Wire In The Blood, and I always find her likeable and interesting when I see or hear her on TV and radio. Until now, though, I hadn't read any of her books.

The Vanishing Point is a standalone novel which begins with a woman, Steph, helplessly watching her child being abducted at an American airport while she is being detained by security. In order for the authorities to build a picture of whomever might have taken Jimmy, it's necessary for Steph to explain the complicated backstory that led up to her travelling to the States with the boy in the first place.

It's this backstory that forms the bulk of the narrative of The Vanishing Point, interspersed with briefer sections in which Jimmy's suspected kidnapper is pursued. We soon learn that Steph is a ghost-writer of celebrity biographies, and that she had become a friend and confidante of one of her clients, a now deceased reality TV star called Scarlett Higgins. Also part of Scarlett's carefully chosen inner circle are her former husband, her cousin Leanne and her charming agent George, along with her Romanian housekeeper and latterly, her surgeon. Meanwhile, Steph's own partner is becoming increasingly jealous of the time Steph spends at Scarlett's Essex mansion.

Scarlett herself is the focal point of the story, just as she has a knack of making sure everything revolves around her in real life. McDermid makes a point of portraying Scarlett not as a vacuous bimbo but as a sharp, shrewd young woman with a carefully orchestrated persona - and indeed, if Scarlett really were the loud-mouthed dumb blonde she appears to be on television, her friendship with Steph would be implausible. However, the character of Scarlett draws so heavily from real-life reality TV celebrities - she's essentially Jade Goody with a touch of Katie Price - that I felt she sometimes tipped over into parody, and detracted from the credibility of the story overall.

There's no question that Val McDermid is an expert at weaving intrigue into a well-constructed story; I doubt many readers would find it hard to keep turning the pages of The Vanishing Point. She's also astutely observant on the nature of celebrity and on certain types of dysfunctional relationships. But I guessed quite early on roughly how the book would end, and ultimately, the plot would not be out of place in a series of Footballers' Wives, such is the heightened camp of certain elements of it and the sheer implausibility of the events it describes. It lacks depth and darkness, and it's hard to feel quite the level of tension which I'd look for in a thriller when it's so over-the-top. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

The Amber Fury* begins with a young woman, Alex, starting a new job in Edinburgh as she grieves for her fiance,recently killed near their London home. Unable to cope with returning to her professional life as a promising theatre director, she takes a job teaching drama in a unit for teenagers excluded from the school system.

When her most difficult group scorns 'dramatherapy' and 'talking about feelings' she decides they will study a Greek tragedy instead, only to find that there are uneasy parallels between the grand themes of the likes of Sophocles and the lives of the sullen, wary and frequently manipulative students - and with her own life too.

If you come to The Amber Fury looking for something like The Secret History, you've picked up the wrong book - if anything, it reminded me much more of Notes On A Scandal. The story is told partly in flashback by Alex, with sections from a pupil's diary giving an alternative perspective, and Natalie Haynes does a remarkably good job of evoking the sinister nature of obsession and the rawness of bereavement. In particular, she is particularly good at capturing the uneasy psychological no-man's-land between an ordinary interest and a darker, more disturbing obsession - that wavering boundary that divides the realms of normality and a more disordered, dangerous way of thinking.

I do suspect that some readers might tire of the passages in which Alex and her class discuss Greek drama: although they certainly add something essential to the novel, I'm not sure they needed to be quite so in depth. But there's a grim inevitability about the way events unfold, which somehow makes it impossible not to keep turning the pages. The Amber Fury is is never contrived - although certainly the people and motives of the book are full of complexities - but also a sharply observant and unusually thoughtful take on the psychological thriller, as it begins to tip over into revenge tragedy.

*This book has been published under the title The Furies in the US.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black begins with a group of boys arguing over whether one of them can kill a rook with a catapult. To his own surprise, Will Bellman manages to fell the young bird, although he feels no triumph over having done so - only a powerful sense of fear and remorse. 

Some years later, Bellman is taken on my by his uncle, brother of his estranged father, to work at the family mill, and from that point on all Bellman's business interests seem to turn to gold, making him a successful man as well a popular one. The only poor luck he ever seems to experiences are the periodic losses of people close to him - but that is to be expected in the Victorian period, surely, when deaths occurred more quickly, more randomly, and to younger people than we've come to expect today ... and yet Bellman soon comes to believe that when his friends and loved ones die, they aren't doing so at random, and that only he can break the pattern.

Bellman & Black is billed as a ghost story on its cover, which is, while not entirely inaccurate, is somewhat disingenuous. Bellman is certainly haunted, but whether by a spirit or something of his own creation, it's hard to say. The story reads much more like a gothic-tinged fairytale or fable of guilt and grief, and its solidly linear narrative arc, punctuated only by the occasional interjection on the nature of rooks, has all the straightforward simplicity of that genre (in that sense, Bellman & Black is almost the polar opposite of Setterfield's previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale).

Although beautifully written, Bellman & Black doesn't leave much room for character development, and, rather oddly given the subject matter, a little lacking in atmosphere. The period details are well-chosen, and the ending has a strong sense of tragic myth and is satisfying in its inevitability, but rarely was I really gripped, and there were no real surprises or stand-out moments as the story rolled steadily on.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

I love a good haunted house story, and I downloaded the audiobook of Alison Littlewood's The Unquiet House hoping it would provide some creepy chills during the dark autumn days. While it did keep me entertained, though, ultimately I felt it didn't quite deliver.

The book opens with Emma, a single woman whose parents have recently died, inheriting a large old house from a distant relative. Although her early intention is to sell it, she is immediately captivated by the mysterious property, moves in, and sets about carrying out renovations. However, a musty old suit hanging in a wardrobe, the arrival of Charlie - who, as the grandson of the house's owner, has effectively been disinherited - and a series of strange incidents soon make Emma realise that the house is not the dream home she imagined.

At this point, however, the story shifts back to the 1970s and a different set of characters altogether: this time, a group of boys full of childhood bravado dare each other to enter the house, infuriating its current owner. And when this lengthy section concludes, we step back once again, this time to the 1940s, where we see a series of tragedies unfold through the eyes of a local farmer's daughter seeking a position as a maid. Only after another long digression do we return to Emma and the present.

This sort of structure isn't new to the ghost story genre - think of the portmanteau horror films of the 60s and 70s, for example, or books of short stories with a framing narrative of friends telling ghost stories round a fire, or a mysterious stranger relating sinister tales to strangers in a railway carriage. Neither is there anything particularly problematic about the flashback parts of the story in themselves: the writing is otherwise strong, particularly in the 1940s section, which has the added poignancy of documenting a rural community disintegrating at the outbreak of war. However, the problem for me is that these sections continue for so long that by the time we returned to Emma and the present, I'd lost any sense of a bond with her, and found it much harder to care about her fate. I found it even harder to have any interest in Charlie, who is a posh, floppy-haired type who probably wears a rugby shirt and who generally just seems altogether too insipid for the role he's required to play in the story.

My other issue with The Unquiet House is that it's notably derivative - and unsubtly so. I have little problem with well-used ghost story tropes and motifs - they're well used for a reason, after all, which is because they're highly effective - but the 'twist' at the end of this one has been done to death (no pun intended) in horror cinema over the last decade or two and there are major elements of this story that are so similar to another, extremely famous, ghost story that I almost snorted a couple of times. If you've ever read The Woman In Black, there's an awful lot that you'll recognise here, and The Woman In Black (while brilliant) wasn't startlingly original in the first place, just exceptionally well-executed in a way that The Unquiet House sadly can't match.

That said, the time I spent listening to this book was certainly not even close to being time wasted, and while the 'twist' is a relatively well-worn one, it does give the book a gripping final section. The start of the novel is suitably unsettling, and the characters, at least in the flashback chapters, are strong and vivid, each possessing a plausible voice.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

If you know me beyond this blog you may be aware - by which I mean, you may have got bored with me banging on about it - that I am a huge fan of The Mountain Goats, led by (and often consisting solely of) singer-songwriter John Darnielle.

Wolf In White Van is Darnielle's first novel, and those who know his music will certainly notice recurring themes and motifs in the book that crop up repeatedly in his lyrics. Misunderstood, teenagers drifting through comic shops and amusement arcades in soulless, rundown American towns, depression, awkward family relationships and a tendency to retreat into a world of fantasy are all elements of Wolf In White Van that Mountain Goats fans will recognise, and as usual, Darnielle writes about them with remarkable poignancy and clarity.

Don't, however, imagine that you need to know Darnielle's music to enjoy this book. It's an exceptional piece of work by any standards. I would be reviewing this in exactly the same way had I never heard of the author's previous work.

Wolf In White Van is an introspective, reflective novel narrated by Sean, a young man whose face has been partially destroyed by an 'accident' at the age of 17. Sean makes his living through what is essentially a role-playing game by correspondence that he devised during his recovery. Called Trace Italian and set in a post-apocalyptic America, it's played by the readers of comic books and science-fiction magazines who pay a subscription fee and receive each step in the game by post, mailing their choices for the next move back to Sean in attempt to reach the game's ultimate goal, a secretly-located safe haven for survivors.

As the story gradually unfolds, we learn not only of an alienated teenage couple whose intense obsession with Trace Italian (and with each other) has resulted in tragedy, but also of the days leading up to the horrific event that left Sean disabled and severely disfigured.

There is a great deal of beauty in Wolf In White Van. Darnielle's prose is outstanding, and there are whole passages that read to me like an extended prose-poem. His ability to pick out mundane details and turn them into something of an incredibly evocative, sometimes tragic significance is nothing short of remarkable. There is also such a desperate, vividly-realised sadness to parts this book that at times I found it almost painful to read (and rightly so - this is no criticism on my part). 

A short but digressive novel, Wolf In White Van doesn't really leave its protagonist in any different state, mentally or physically, than the one in which he starts his story, and at the end, I was left wanting something more afterwards to bring the story to a neater finish. However, this by no means a plot-driven novel and it can't be denied that the ending is a powerful one, however uncomfortable it was for me to read: I can admire Darnielle's decision to leave the story there rather than pandering to any desire for a more reassuring conclusion.