Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl On The Train has been much praised as a gripping, twist-filled psychological thriller of the Gone Girl ilk, although personally I think it’s much more akin to the work of Sophie Hannah, Elizabeth Haynes or SJ Watson.

What it does share with Gone Girl is a set of characters who are largely unsympathetic.  From the needy, alcoholic divorcee Rachel, fantasising on her commute about a perfect couple she sees from the train, to the unstable. self-destructive Megan, whose disappearance drives the plot, and Anna, the triumphantly smug second wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, these are a difficult bunch of people to like. And before anyone levels accusations of misogyny, the men certainly don’t fare any better, although they are secondary characters in this compelling drama.

It’s a mark of the author's skill, therefore, that for all the substantial faults of these people, we can still care about them. There are moments when we're steered perilously close towards wondering if they might even deserve their respective misfortunes, but whenever this happens Paula Hawkins always throws a well-timed curve-ball to remind us that, for all their poor decisions and unattractive traits, it's never wise to judge these women before we know their full stories.

All of them take their turns as narrators, sometimes in the present and sometimes in flashback, although it's really Rachel, the 'girl on the train' of the title, who is the novel's protagonist. Staring out of the train window as she travels to and from London every day, she builds a fictional back story for 'Jess and Jason', an attractive, devoted young couple whose house backs on to the railway line - coincidentally just a few doors down from the house in which she previously lived with her husband, Tom. Tom is now married to Anna, and has chosen to move her into the home he once shared with Rachel: while Rachel rents a box room in the flat of a friend she barely even likes, Anna lives in apparent marital bliss, a self-satisfied cuckoo in what was once Rachel's nest. It's when Rachel, still obsessed with Tom, makes a trip to her old street one night that 'Jess' - whose real name is Megan while 'Jason' is actually Scott - goes missing. Rachel, after an alcohol-induced blackout and a drunken fall, remembers nothing of that evening. But what she is certain of is this: the last time her train passed Megan's house, it wasn't Scott that she was kissing in the back garden.

Rachel's determination to solve the mystery of Megan's disappearance is often misguided and frequently inept (I promise you will want to shake her on several occasions) but nonetheless, her refusal to give up is intriguing and the gradual unravelling of everything we believe to be a certainty makes for a tense, absorbing narrative.

I did, unfortunately, have a strong hunch what the big reveal was going to be by the time I was about two-thirds into the book, although it's hard to say whether this was due to a small element of predictability or simply a lucky guess on my part ... I'm by no means an accomplished detective, however, so I would probably give the benefit of the doubt and suggest it was the latter. 

Overall, The Girl On The Train is a remarkably assured, confident debut novel, and I'm certain we'll see a lot more of Paula Hawkins.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Wreaking by James Scudamore

The Wreaking of the title of James Scudamore's novel is a vast disused mental hospital on the south coast, close to a bleakly fading seaside town. After its closure, Wreaking is bought by Jasper Scriven, an unstable, grieving single father, who brings his troubled teenage daughter Cleo with him to live in the eerie isolation of empty hospital wards and endless echoing corridors. But what happened at Wreaking to estrange them, and what horrific accident resulted in the loss of Cleo's eye? Why, years later, is the adult Cleo being stalked by Roland, a petty criminal who works for a grotesquely seedy, sinister boss, living in a dankly threatening storage unit under a railway arch? And what of Wreaking's former inmates and staff? Mona and Carole both frequented Wreaking in the past, and are now living in a rundown guest house - but which was the nurse and which was the patient?

As you may have guessed, Wreaking is far from a barrel of laughs: it is, in fact, one of the bleakest novels I've read in a long time. Filled with a powerful, pervasive air of decay and degeneration - both physical and mental - it gave me a sense of profound unease. That isn't to say it isn't an exceptional novel - it is. It's a beautifully crafted book that is made all the more unsettling by the quality of Scudamore's prose, a well-proportioned mix of the poetic and the deliberately and depressingly mundane. The use of language, the awkwardly off-kilter characters and the ever-present air of dread that hangs over the entire novel reminded me of Nicola Barker's Darkmans, or Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, and those aren't comparisons I would make lightly.

Wreaking flits between each character's past and present, piecing together the connections between them. At one time or another, they all inhabited Wreaking - or perhaps it inhabited them. Each of them is an irreparably damaged individual, and Wreaking appears to be a remarkably damaging environment. For all its work to cure the insane when it was a functioning psychiatric hospital, once closed down Wreaking seems to breed madness, the crumbling building and its overgrown grounds feeding off the mental deterioration of everyone who comes into contact with it, from the deluded Jasper and the fearful, lonely Cleo to awkward, shambling Roland and his sadistic troublemaker of a friend, Oliver. 

The story of Jasper, Cleo and Roland is gradually untangled through a non-linear plot structure that at times feels like a slowly developing nightmare in which unspeakable terrors are always around the corner, but nonetheless always unseen: everything Scudamore withholds is every bit as significant as what he reveals.

All this said, from an entirely subjective point of view, I would be hard-pushed to say I enjoyed reading Wreaking, and there were times when I almost decided not to finish it. I suspect, however, that this has a lot more to do with my personal state of mind than the novel itself; it deals with a number of topics I find difficult to read about. It's a remarkable book, however, and it's hard to find fault with its incredibly skilled construction.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

Only a few weeks after reading Celeste Ng's excellent family drama Everything I Never Told You, I found myself immersed in Carys Bray's debut novel A Song For Issy Bradley which, like Everything I Never Told You, deals with the aftermath of the loss of a child in a family who are set somewhat apart from those around them. In the case of Everything I Never Told You, the Lee family are singled out for being the only Chinese-American family in their small Ohio town; in A Song For Issy Bradley, the Bradleys are Mormons living on the north-west coast of England, somewhere on the fringes of Lancashire and Merseyside.

After the sudden death of four-year-old Issy at the start of the novel, we watch the family's attempts to cope with not only with the natural sense of grief and loss that follows, but also with the constant conflict between leading an 'obedient' Mormon lifestyle in modern Britain.

Ian, whose role as Bishop sees him constantly called upon by church members to provide not only spiritual guidance but also day to day favours and errands, is the most confident in his faith, but finds that the church's teachings are offering few solutions to his wife's crippling depression in the wake of Issy's death. Claire herself converted to Mormonism in order to marry Ian in the first place, and even before losing her child, has been increasingly stifled by the religion's constraints.

Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Zippy is fast realising that her options, as a woman, are severely limited by her family's faith, and her brother Al is full of anger and bitterness at having his dreams of a professional football career, incompatible with the Mormon church's values, snatched away from him. Finally, seven-year-old Jacob wholeheartedly believes not only in Father Christmas but in the power of prayer and the hope of resurrection - so much so that he clings to a conviction that his sister, like Lazarus, can be raised from the dead.

Each character has a distinctive and believable voice; I found every member of the Bradley family wholly convincing, complete with faults and weaknesses. Some may be easier than others with whom to identify, but there are sympathetic elements to them all; there are no heroes and villains here, only realistic, floundering individuals coping with a situation that nobody, of any faith or none, is ever really equipped to deal with.

If, like me, you start the novel knowing very little about the Mormon religion, it's impossible not to be fascinated by Carys Bray's intricately drawn portrait of life as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bray, a former Mormon herself who left the church in her 30s after having five children (including a daughter who died shortly after birth) by the age of 27, is both scathing and affectionate about the workings and teachings of the church, but also deeply understanding of it and the motives of its members - Ian, for example, however misguided in his attempts to rally his family after Issy's death, is presented as ultimately having what he honestly believes are their best interests at heart. The inherent sexism, even misogyny, of Mormonism is revealed in unflinching detail as girls are groomed for early marriage and told that their bodies are a dangerous temptation to hapless men, and yet there is plenty of fun too: kindness, good humour and a genuine sense of community.

Despite being a book about a grieving family, it's important to point out that A Song For Issy Bradley is often very funny - observant, witty and warm-hearted. There are certainly chapters that are hard to read, particularly those from the point of view of Claire at her lowest ebb, but ultimately it's a hopeful and surprisingly uplifting read. The Bradley family may be struggling in isolation, each with his or her own unique struggle to overcome both in grieving for Issy and trying to reconcile personal disillusionment with religious faith, but when they do manage to come together, imperfect and confused though they are, they are a force to be reckoned with.

A Song For Issy Bradley, which has received a well-deserved Costa Book Awards nomination in the First Novel category, is beautifully written throughout, with every observation pitch-perfect and, where necessary (such as in the chapters where Claire goes to the beach in the wake of Issy's death) a clearly evoked sense of atmosphere and place. These may be clich├ęd observation for a reviewer to make, but I did laugh, I did cry, and I couldn't put the book down.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Girl Who Couldn't Read by John Harding

A few years ago I read and reviewed Florence & Giles, a beguiling, unsettling Gothic mystery by John Harding offering an alternative take on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It’s been one of my stand-out reads of the last five years, so I was naturally excited at the release of a sequel, The Girl Who Couldn’t Read, in 2014.
The Girl Who Couldn’t Read, an elegant thriller with shades of Edgar Allan Poe, does work as a novel in its own right (although I’m reluctant to say that you don’t need to read Florence & Giles because I think everyone does, whether they fancy the sequel or not). It begins with a young man who, having stolen the luggage and the identity of John Shepherd, a stranger killed in a train crash, arrives at a women’s mental institution in 19th century New England to take up that stranger’s new position there. Shocked at the treatment of the hospital’s inmates (think enforced immersion in freezing water, a near-starvation diet and restraining chairs) and, inspired by a text book from his stolen suitcase, he challenges the hospital’s director to let him choose an inmate to be singled out for ‘moral treatment’.

The inmate in question is Jane Dove, a young woman with severe amnesia, bizarre speech patterns and an inability to read – not because she doesn’t think she could learn, but because she is firmly, fearfully convinced she isn’t allowed to. While taking on the challenge of curing Jane of her mental illness, Shepherd is forced to take increasingly extreme measures to conceal his true identity, and haunted not only by his own guilt but by the sinister presence of a malevolent woman who stalks the hospital corridors at night.
One of the great strengths of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is the narrator himself – apparently a trained actor who has escaped a traumatic childhood, he comes across from the outset as a loveable rogue, an unscrupulous but ultimately harmless con-artist. Similarly, Jane Dove is also oddly endearing, full of comical idiosyncrasies and, like Shepherd, struggling under the burden of an assumed identity – and the two are nicely offset by creepy, dapper Dr Morgan and his matter-of-fact cruelty and by the sadistic warden Mrs O’Reilly, who has a touch of Mrs Danvers about her as well as a hint of Nurse Ratched. But it’s worth remembering that in Florence & Giles, John Harding proved adept at confounding not only the expectations but also the trust of the reader: no assumptions are safe here.
The strong Gothic undercurrent of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read comes at least in part from the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ motif and the claustrophobic isolation of the setting, but also from guilt, imprisonment and the ever-present fear of mental illness. Who, exactly, is the mad one here? 
Could it be nobody? Or it is perhaps everyone?

There are a few twists in this tale – one, in particular, is a jaw-dropper, all the more so because it comes not at the end of the story but around halfway through. The Girl Who Couldn't Read is atmospheric, clever, full of the smart literary and linguistic allusions you’ll find in Florence & Giles (and also in another Harding novel, albeit one wholly different in setting and tone: the outstanding One Big Damn Puzzler), witty and a fine mystery in its own right.

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Visitors by Simon Sylvester

The Visitors by Simon Sylvester won the Guardian’s reader-voted ‘Not The Booker’ prize in 2014, despite this mixed review. The review describes it as being set in ‘the Shetlands’ – but in fact, the narrator never specifies the location of Bancree, the fictional Scottish island on which the novel is set, and the references to Gaelic nursery rhymes and place names are more suggestive of the Western Isles than Shetland or Orkney. Either way, anyone who has ever spent time visiting any of these islands, as I have, will immediately recognise the unique of combination of beauty and peace with bleakness and isolation that Simon Sylvester skilfully evokes in The Visitors. Bancree itself, and the sea that surrounds it, are almost characters in their own right, and the setting of the story is one of its greatest strengths.
The girls’ intense friendship is formed amid a backdrop of mystery and unease. A number of disappearances, including that of a close friend of Flora’s family, have occurred, and Ailsa’s father is obsessed with the notion that they could be linked to the disappearance of his wife shortly after Ailsa was born. Flora, meanwhile, finds herself ever more caught up in researching the myths of the selkies, mysterious, capricious hybrids of humans and seals said to swim off the Scottish coast. The selkie stories are many and varied, but all have in common the central theme of destructive, obsessive love, characterised by entrapment and imprisonment.
The novel begins at a calm, thoughtful pace, like a rare summer day in the Hebrides, and then accelerates like a thriller towards the end in the manner of a sudden island storm. I didn’t find the change in pace jarring, exactly, but the sudden burst of physical action in what is up to this point a relatively contemplative, wistful sort of read does come as something of a surprise. Sylvester doesn’t take an easy route with his ending – there’s a strong sense of ambiguity, as well as a deep undercurrent of sadness – but it feels like the right conclusion, nevertheless.
There were times during The Visitors when I felt that the characterisation wasn’t entirely convincing. The boorish, womanising heir to the local distillery business felt a little overblown to me and Flora’s exuberant Danish ‘uncle’ Anders was edging towards caricature. I did, however, feel that Flora herself was, if not convincing as a typical teenage girl, then absolutely convincing as the atypical outsider that she is, and will always be.
The Visitors is a quietly unsettling novel which combines psychogeography, folklore and a coming of age narrative with certain elements of the traditional crime thriller. I’m delighted, and not at all surprised, that Guardian readers chose it to win the Not The Booker competition: it’s a book that deserves more attention and that I suspect I’ll find myself thinking about for a long time.

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.