Thursday, 22 September 2016

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy lives in London with her German mother Ute, and her father James. Ute is a world-renowned pianist who seems dissatisfied with domestic life, while James, somewhat younger, seems resentful of her talent and preoccupied with his obnoxious friends, all of whom have a paranoid obsession with planning and preparing for survival in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.

One day, James takes Peggy to 'die Hutte', a remote cabin in the forests of Bavaria, cut off by a river with a waterfall that non-swimmer Peggy almost dies crossing. And when James tells her that his worst fears have been realised, the world beyond the river has been destroyed and everyone and everything she knows has gone, she has no option but to believe him. The title, Our Endless Numbered Days, refers in part to the point at which James stops marking off the passing days at die Hutte and any connection to civilisation is finally lost. The story is told by Peggy, and alternates between her time in the woods with her father and her eventual return to the outside world nine years later.

Image resultI must say that I found it tense and slightly disturbing right from the beginning, even before Peggy is abducted by her father. Claire Fuller excels at making even the perfectly ordinary feel just that little bit off-kilter, without ever telling us outright exactly what's wrong - Peggy herself can't articulate what it is that makes Ute and James's marriage somehow odd, what it is that disturbs her about her father's friend Oliver Harrington, or why she feels the need to tell a strange lie about her mother to cover up for her long-term absence from school.

It's clear to any adult reader that James is not only immature and selfish but also obsessive and delusional, while Peggy as our narrator is painfully innocent and vulnerable, a little girl who adores her LP of The Railway Children and her favourite doll, Phyllis, who eventually (and heartbreakingly) becomes a voice for her own doubts and fears. There's hardly a page where you won't want to reach into the book and rescue Peggy from her father, but only as the story of their nine years of isolation unfolds do we realise the full extent of her ordeal - and most importantly of all, the toll it's taken on her.

I have only one criticism of this book, which is that the pace feels a little unbalanced, with too much detail about the early part of Peggy's life with her father at die Hutte and not enough about the end of it. I think it's perhaps written like this to reflect Peggy's own mental state - she is, after all, not only terribly traumatised but also suffering from permanent memory problems caused by years of malnutrition - and of course, once James stops bothering to mark off the days on the wall of die Hutte, the weeks, months and years start to merge for her. However, it does mean that the final portion of the book feels rather rushed, and I'd have liked Peggy's situation to be explored more fully.

Our Endless Numbered Days is full of the imagery of dark German fairy-tales and post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction and there are some moments that feel like a twisted, nightmarish take on the early pioneer tales of Laura Ingalls Wilder - rather than presenting a family's isolation as somehow both intrepid and cosy, here it becomes furtive and claustrophobic, full of hardship and squalor. It's an excellent read overall and an exceptionally accomplished debut.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Diary of an Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

After I finished reading Diary of an Oxygen Thief, I ran a Twitter search for mentions of it. This produced many, many tweets from people praising the book - and interestingly many of them were from teenagers, mostly American, but some British. "Really wanna read Diary of an Oxygen Thief." "OMG, this book literally describes me." "Finally got my copy of Diary of an Oxygen Thief [photo of manicured teenage hand resting on the book open at the first page]."
Diary of an Oxygen Thief, Paperback
I've no idea if there's been a social media marketing campaign that's fuelled this buzz, but if there has, and it's been aimed at teenagers, it's an interesting strategy because this really isn't a young adult book at all. The narrator is an advertising executive in his 30s, a relatively wealthy recovering alcoholic from Ireland and now working in the US - despite the publisher's blurb, he is absolutely not a Holden Caulfield figure and this is a million miles from being The Catcher In The Rye. He's a grown man, not a voice of disaffected youth. (The blurb also compares another character to Lolita, which is also wildly inaccurate given that Aisling is a grown woman who deliberately sets out to seduce and humiliate, and says a great deal about the disturbing way in which some people read Lolita.) My assumption is that teenagers might like this book because they consider it grown-up, edgy and dangerous - much as teenagers often read Brett Easton Ellis Jay McInerney or Chuck Palahniuk, perhaps. Unfortunately, the quality of Diary of an Oxygen Thief just doesn't measure up to the work of any of these writers.

The 'anonymous' authorship is, I think, simply an attempt to make people think the book is a memoir, which I strongly doubt it really is. The narrator begins by announcing 'I liked hurting girls' and goes on to outline the pleasure he took in deliberately being cruel to (and in one case, raping) various women during his drinking years in London. His other hobby is deliberately getting himself beaten up in bars. Eventually he stops drinking, at which point his hobby becomes attending AA meetings instead, and he takes an exceptionally well-paid job at an American advertising agency in the Mid-West, where he buys a beautiful house and constantly complains about it.

Having avoided women for quite some time, he no longer makes a point of hurting them, although the desire certainly remains in him and he is still an obvious misogynist. He's then introduced to Aisling, with whom he immediately becomes obsessed - not least because although she's in her 20s, she looks to him as if she could be under age. But Aisling, it seems, is not going to play his game. Could it be that our narrator is finally to get his comeuppance for his obnoxious, abusive past?

I have many problems with this book. The fact that the narrator is repulsive isn't one of them, but the fact that he's dull really is. There is nothing very interesting about him: he's a self-pitying, paranoid, self-destructive misogynist arsehole, and that's pretty much it. There are lots of men like him knocking around in real life, and they aren't very interesting people either. There's nothing new here, nothing complicated, nothing to learn (unless, perhaps, you're very young and a little naive, which might account for some of the book's popularity with teenagers). Because the narrator is so endlessly self-absorbed and we only see people in the book through his eyes, the other characters are paper-thin - including Aisling. It's hard to see a character as a fascinating nemesis when she's being described as looking like a 16-year-old Virgin Mary. 

The other issue I had with Diary of an Oxygen Thief is that while the book constantly promises the narrator is about to fall victim to a shocking, humiliating revenge, the narrator in question is also exceptionally paranoid, so it's rather unclear whether what happens to him is real or imagined. He is also convinced, for example, that he is being stalked by his own employer. Most frustratingly of all, when the supposed comeuppance occurs - even if we read it as something that definitely happened and means what he believes it to mean - it's incredibly anticlimactic. It's pretty obvious that the point the book seems to be making is the narrator is his own worst enemy and that's he's effectively trapped himself in the cesspool of his own repressed guilt and paranoia, but it's clumsily executed - to the point where it's even pointed out to us: "They say you're not punished for your sins, you're punished by them," the narrator says. Subtle it certainly isn't.

This is one of those books that tries far too hard to shock, far too hard to be edgy. I recently reviewed Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, which also has a deeply unlikeable narrator leading a largely squalid life, but in that book, the author's skill renders Eileen fascinating despite, or perhaps even because, of her damaged, bitter way of thinking. The anonymous writer of Diary of an Oxygen Thief never comes close to making his narrator someone I'd find interesting on any level, let alone making me care about what might happen to him. Antiheroes are great, but there has to be something bewitching or fascinating about them. The narrator of this book has none of those qualities. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by [Porter, Max]Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter is not a novel as such, more a series of vignettes that form a rumination on loss and grief.

'Dad' is in the process of writing a book about Ted Hughes when his wife dies suddenly, leaving him a widowed single father to two sons, collectively called 'Boys' in the text. Just as Dad thinks his grief is too much to bear, a visitor arrives uninvited: 'Crow', who has left the pages of Hughes' famous poetry collection to stay with the family "until you don't need me any more".

It's up the reader to decide whether Crow is real, symbolic, or a imaginary manifestation of Dad's obsession, but certainly he seems almost uncomfortably physical, literally knocking Dad off his feet and overwhelming him with his clumsy, feathery embrace and his stink of "just-beyond-edible-food, and moss, and leather, and yeast".

What follows is a collection of observations from Dad, Boys and Crow that articulate their feelings in the wake of Mum's death - not just in the immediate aftermath, but right up until Boys are grown up and making sure their late Mum becomes Granny at the same time Dad becomes Grandad. Some are desperately sad, some are tempered with humour (the time, for instance, when Boys think their father might have died too until a fart reveals he's only sleeping) and some are painfully honest (such as the time the boys trap and kill a fish in a delayed expression of anger and bitterness).  Each piece is presented as free verse or prose poem, with some requiring more thought than others and having many different possible interpretations.

This is an unusual book and I'm sure it won't be to everyone's taste, but I loved it and thought it was beautifully written. It's very touching and profoundly thoughtful, and at times it's a little unnerving. Crow can be quite an ambiguous figure and his narrative can be violent and visceral as you'd expect that of a carrion eater to be. Sometimes he is immensely kind - he's a sentimental bird, he often tells us - and sometimes he's a capricious trickster. Sometimes he's fiercely protective, sometimes dangerous and unpredictable.

The use of language in this book means that it requires some thought (and probably re-reading) to really get to grips with it - it's almost as much about the difficulty of writing about grief as it is about grief itself, and that's reflected in the author's style. You will also possibly get a little more out of it if you're familiar with Ted Hughes and his work. But this slim little volume of barely more than 100 pages was one of the most captivating and thought-provoking things I'd read for a long time, and almost entirely like anything else with which I'm familiar. The thing it reminded me of most was Rebecca Hunt's excellent Mr Chartwell, but even that is really very different indeed in form and tone.

Don't expect to buy this book and get a clear, unambiguous story with a discernible plot, and don't expect it to offer all the answers about death and grief, either - what it mostly tells you is that a bereaved family will just have to muddle through and that the loss of a loved one will never stop being sad, although there's a strong thread of hope that weaves through the book as a whole and ultimately I found it a profoundly life-affirming read. I'll return to this book many times, I'm sure.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen, by American author Ottessa Moshfegh, is the second book I've read from this year's Booker longlist and, like Wyl Menmuir's excellent The Many, it's an unsettling read and an intense experience from very first page.

Eileen: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize by [Moshfegh, Ottessa]
Narrator Eileen Dunlop leads a singularly squalid, miserable and at times bizarre existence in smalltown New England. At 24, she lives with her father, a paranoid alcoholic, who lurches around the house half-dressed and takes his gun with him to the toilet. Eileen herself sleeps on camping cot in the attic, wears her dead mother's clothes and exists almost entirely on peanuts and laxatives. Her relationship with her father is as toxic as the filth that threatens to take over their decaying home, and every day she drives a death-trap of a car to her admin job at a brutally appalling young offenders' institute, where she spends her days making visitors fill in pointless forms full of personal questions of her own devising.  While she dreams of an escape, it seems impossible that she'll ever muster up the courage to leave. Then one day, the fascinating, beautiful Rebecca St John arrives at the prison to oversee an education programme, and Eileen is dragged into a bizarre and shocking crime.

It's impossible not to feel sorry for Eileen, yet it's also impossible to like her. As if her own suffering has exhausted any ability she might have had to feel fondness for others, Eileen hates virtually everyone with an almost aggressive disdain, yet is also convinced she is inferior to them. In fact, the person she hates most of all is herself, and her self-destructiveness is utterly infuriating. She's painfully timid and fears being shamed, yet is a brazen shoplifter. She is terrified of sex, yet constantly dwells on the topic in viscerally unpleasant ways. She is terrified that people will think she smells, yet makes a point of washing as little as possible. At times we could be forgiven for thinking Eileen is a sociopath, but then she'll drop in a detail about her childhood, such her longing for affection from her late mother, her fervent hope that she might get a gift for Christmas instead of a crumpled dollar bill, or the little dog she once loved, and we can guess instead that she's simply irreparably damaged. As a result, Eileen is possibly one of the most relentlessly depressing books I've ever read ... and yet it is at times also funny, albeit in the darkest possible way. 

There are shades of Notes On A Scandal about Eileen, and perhaps echoes of Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith, but it's important to point out that, for the vast majority of the plot, almost nothing happens. It's a 260-page novel and Rebecca, the catalyst for what little action there is, doesn't even appear until almost halfway through the book and it then takes some time further for the consequences of her arrival to kick in. For the most part, this novel is Eileen's neurotically detailed account of the days that build up to the main event of the book. Eileen really doesn't spare us anything of the grubby, self-loathing realities of her existence, so it can be tough spending quite so much time with her, despite the brilliance of Moshfegh's prose and the cleverly manipulative way she builds Eileen's truly astonishing and unforgettable character and drags us reluctantly into her grim world. It's the sort of book that makes you want to have a shower after reading it, such is its overwhelming seediness.

And yet, despite her stubborn refusal to get to the point as she tells her minutely detailed story, and the constant discomfiture deliberately causes through her painfully confessional narration, there was actually no point at which I wasn't rooting for Eileen. The 24-year-old version of Eileen might be a someone you'd actively cross the street to avoid, yet the much older Eileen who narrates the story with the benefit of hindsight is clearly far more at peace with herself (albeit having got to that point through a series of weirdly dysfunctional choices). It's this that gives the book its only hint of hope, and it's a better novel because of it.

I will remember this book for a very long time, and it truly is brilliantly written. I'd certainly recommend it if you can stomach it.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths

The Primrose Path is the story of a woman who was abducted by a rapist and held prisoner for 11 days when she was 19, only escaping when her attacker's crimes were discovered by his wife, whom he then murdered in a fit of rage. Now in her 30s, Sarah has inherited some money from her beloved father and, upon learning John Blundell is about to be released from prison, she dyes her blonde hair brown, changes her name to Rachel and moves to rural Wales to start a new life, without telling even her mother where she's gone.

She soon settles into her new home - but with Blundell about to leave jail any moment, how long can she remain anonymous? Moreover, the land on which her barn conversion stands has a dark history, and the man who once owned it is a lecherous truck-driver who stares at her through the window, keeps dogs locked in a shed and obsesses over his dead mother's clothes. Meanwhile, across the border in Somerset, a serial killer is preying on young blonde women, and back in Muswell Hill Rachel's mother has made a shocking discovery in her late husband's study.

As you can probably tell from that synopsis, there's quite a lot going on in this book, with several plot strands diverging and then reconvening as the story progresses. There are third-person chapters from the point of view of several characters, most notably Rachel herself, and italicised first-person chapters narrated by the unnamed Somerset serial killer. These are as dark as you'd expect them to be, but actually nowhere near as hard to read as the chapters which deal with Rachel's neighbour Idris, a man so utterly without redeeming features and so physically disgusting (hygiene isn't his thing) that I rather came to dread his appearances. It's important for the story that Idris is a grubby, socially isolated and fully dysfunctional weirdo, but there's only so many times you can read about how badly a man smells and how dirty his clothes are before it starts to feel like overkill. In fact, repetitiveness is one of my biggest issues with The Primrose Path - we are reminded of the same things far too many times over the course of the story and while I generally enjoy books that build atmosphere slowly, the lack of pace to this book is a problem at times and there are better ways of conveying certain things, such as the remoteness of Rachel's new house, without explicitly mentioning them quite so frequently.

This is also a book with a protagonist, in Rachel, that I disliked from the outset. While I certainly don't have to like a character to enjoy a book about them, unfortunately it does matter in this case: if you don't take much to Rachel at an early stage, it greatly reduces the impact of certain events that happen later on.

I did, however, enjoy the way that Rebecca Griffiths drops in more and more small details about Rachel as the story unfolds, making you question your assumptions. I also enjoyed some of the supporting characters, particularly Tracey, a farmer's wife who befriends Rachel; Dai, who has his own connection to Rachel's new home; and Rachel's mother Jennifer, who isn't a particularly pleasant woman but certainly a very interesting one, possibly the most interesting in the book.

If you like books with surprising twists, The Primrose Path isn't lacking in that regard. There's more than one of them and I didn't see the main shock coming - it's very cleverly executed right from the start, so all credit to Rebecca Griffiths for this. It's only when it's been revealed that you realise the clues were there all along, and want to kick yourself. However, there's also another surprise that comes as part of the serial killer subplot, and this was much less satisfactory. It's not only something of a cop-out plot-wise but also wildly improbable, and in combination with other elements of the story I think some might even perceive a note of borderline misogyny (although I strongly doubt this was in any way intentional). The ending also felt very rushed to me, particularly given how slowly the plot proceeds early on. 

Overall, The Primrose Path is a dark and cleverly-plotted novel. The characters are vividly portrayed and the Welsh setting is beautifully evoked. I did feel, however, that it had some significant flaws, so it gets three stars from me rather than four or five.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

The Many: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2016 by [Menmuir, Wyl]The Many by Wyl Menmuir is a short novel set in a decaying Cornish fishing village. Very few boats work there, and those that do catch nothing in the mysteriously polluted bay, and are forbidden to venture beyond the rotting container ships, inhabited by Hitchcockian colonies of seabirds, that lurk on the horizon. When outsider Timothy buys a long-empty house that once belonged to local boy Perran, the village and its people fill him with a powerful unease - but his fascination for the place (and for Perran, who seems to have acquired an odd, quasi-mythical status in the minds of the fishermen) seems to prevent him from leaving and is every bit as oppressive as his fear.

The Many is around 160 pages long, hovering on the border between novel and novella, and I'm glad it's so short because it's such a strongly unsettling book that anything longer would simply be too much.  This isn't a plot-driven book at all, so while there are shades of folk horror here, don't expect the story to resolve itself with Wicker Man style twists and don't expect this to be a realistic description of a Cornish village either - it's not realistic because it's not meant to be. Menmuir's writing is evocative and richly descriptive, but never overblown. There are no explanations and endless scope for interpretation; the whole thing has the feel of a frightening dream - not an adrenaline-filled nightmare that would wake you in a cold sweat, but one of those languidly unnerving, anxious dreams in which ordinary things and people acquire a subtle air of hostility, in which logic collapses and an ominous but non-specific feeling of doom gathers throughout.

Timothy's is not the only point of view from which we see the events of The Many. Some chapters unfold through the eyes of Ethan, who after a long spell of fruitless fishing expeditions begins to land unexpected catches when Timothy arrives in the village. The fish Ethan hauls in from the contaminated waters in his boat, the ironically-named Great Hope, are sickly, deformed and inedible, but a mysterious woman dressed in grey and assumed to be from the fisheries ministry insists on buying every last one of them.

Ethan is also constantly, painfully burdened by his grief for the late Perran - and towards the end of the novel, in flashback sequences, we start to understand why Timothy feels haunted by Perran too. Are Ethan and Timothy two incarnations of the same man? Is the village in which Timothy is trapped a real place at all, or is it symbolic of something quite different? It certainly seems significant that his wife, Lauren, never joins him there and that he becomes increasingly unable to contact her by phone as he desperately continues with his futile attempt to make Perran's cottage into a place in which they could find peace together.

There are so many levels on which The Many can be read, but one of the most striking things about it is the profound sense of loss it quietly conveys. It's a novel of  mourning - for people, for relationships, for a way of life, for the state of the natural environment. It's an intense and unforgettable read, and its place on the Booker longlist is well-deserved.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Woods by Harlan Coben

I don't read much American detective fiction for some reason, but I know Harlan Coben is a popular and prolific thriller writer and I downloaded The Woods as an audiobook for a discounted price. A lot of Coben's novels are part of a series but this is a standalone novel.

The Woods by [Coben, Harlan]
The main character is Paul 'Cope' Copeland, a county prosecutor in New Jersey whose sister Camille disappeared from summer camp many years ago along - apparently murdered by a fellow camper who is later convicted of killing a number of other teenagers (although not, in fact, of Camille's murder, as her body has never been found). Also never found was the body of her friend Gil Perez. At the start of the book, Paul is called upon in the course of his job as a prosecutor to view the body of Manolo Santiago, who has been found murdered. Except Manolo, Paul immediately realises, is actually Gil. So where has been Gil been all these years that he was assumed dead? Why do the Perez family refuse to accept that Manolo and Gil are one and the same? And does this mean that the mystery of Camille's disappearance might be solved too?

Meanwhile, Lucy Gold, the daughter of the owner of the summer camp who was sued for negligence after the murders all those years ago and a teenage sweetheart of Paul's, is now a college lecturer - and she's horrified to realise that an anonymous creative writing journal submitted by a student is quite clearly an account of what happened between her and Paul on the night Camille and the others disappeared. Who knows their secret, and what do they want from her?

If this all sounds a bit unlikely, then yes, it is: while moderately gritty in parts, this is one of those thrillers in which reality is slightly heightened and most of the characters, from Paul's sinister Russian 'uncle' Sasha to his investigator Loren Muse and Lucy's elderly stoner father Ira, are somewhat larger than life. Paul himself is a relatively likeable protagonist although there does come a point where you start to wonder how much more tragedy one man can take - his sister was murdered, his mother abandoned him, his father has just died a broken man and he is bringing up his little girl alone after his wife's death from cancer. He's also embroiled in prosecuting a rape case in which the accused are spoilt rich white frat boys and the victim is an African American teenage stripper, despite threats from the boys' powerful parents, which is admirably worthy stuff. It would have been easy for Paul to seem a little too saintly to be interesting, but fortunately Coben does give him something of an edge as the story progresses.

There really isn't a great deal more I can say about this book. It's an enjoyable mystery with various twists and it was certainly interesting enough to keep me engaged until the end, although it doesn't feel especially plausible. I particularly liked what we discovered about Paul's Russian parents and their departure from the Soviet Union, which was an interesting sub-plot to the primary mystery. The writing is fairly pacey although there were times when it felt that Paul's digressions into his family life and views on various topics were rather unnecessary and more about padding the word count than building his character and moving the plot along.

All in all, it's rather like watching an extended episode of a well-made American crime series - it's entertaining, but you probably won't remember much about it a week later. I wouldn't necessarily rush to read another Harlan Coben novel, but equally I'd happily read one if there happened to be one lying around, if you see what I mean.