Monday, 23 May 2016

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

Sugar Hall, Paperback Tiffany Murray's Sugar Hall begins with the recently widowed Lilia Sugar and her two children, Saskia and Dieter, moving from their London flat, a post-war new build, to the ancient country mansion Dieter has inherited from his father's estranged family. The house is in poor repair and German-born Lilia feels horribly unequipped to play lady of the manor, while Dieter and Saskia, Londoners are heart, are lonely and out of place. But is that the only reason they feel so uncomfortable at Sugar Hall? And why is Dieter the only surviving heir?

Sugar Hall is a ghost story that edges from shiver-inducing eeriness into out-and-out horror at times; the ghost in question becomes an increasingly powerful, vengeful force. However, there are other, less literal 'ghosts' in this book. Lilia is haunted by memories of her past in 1930s Germany and the family she left behind, and her daughter Saskia, born when Lilia was a teenage refugee, is a constant reminder of the Nazi stormtroopers' brutalities.

This book is certainly strong on atmosphere, and the period details throughout are perfectly chosen and described, but it's also strong on character. A vivid cast of supporting players lend the story multiple points of view, in addition to those of the Sugar family themselves. Some (such as neighbour Juniper) more sympathetic than others (the local vicar) but all feel three-dimensional and believable. Moreover, Sugar Hall as a house is almost a character in its own right. Built on the proceeds of unimaginable cruelty in the days of the slavery, it's an oppressive and claustrophobic presence throughout the novel, ghosts or no ghosts.

More of a slow build than a rollercoaster ride, this is a genuinely creepy yet sensitively written book. What it doesn't really do is answer every question it raises, so if you're the sort of person who likes every loose end to be neatly tied up and every mystery to be fully explained, you might find the last chapter or two unsatisfactory, but I enjoyed Sugar Hall a great deal and found it to be a fascinating and surprisingly thought-provoking ghost story.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer, Paperback My Friend Dahmer is a graphic novel, or perhaps more of a graphic memoir, written and drawn by a high school classmate of the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. It outlines the brief period during the 1970s during which Derf Backderf and his friends Mike, Neil and Kent formed a friendship of sorts with Dahmer - albeit one founded almost entirely on their amusement at, and fascination with, his odd behaviour.

If you were imagining this might be a dark, gothic affair full of sinister drawings, you couldn't be more wrong. Backderf's excellent monochrome artwork is actually more akin to that which you'd see in a well-produced children's comic or a broadsheet cartoon strip. This contributes to the complete lack of sensationalism or prurience in Backderf's account of the teenage Dahmer, whom he presents not as a terrifying villain-in-training but as exactly what he was at the time: a lonely, awkward teenager who got his classmates' attention by spontaneously mimicking the speech and movements of someone with cerebral palsy, and feigning seizures for comic effect. That's not to say that the artwork isn't ever chilling - the wordless opening frames showing Dahmer as a child as he walks along a lonely woodland road by himself and discovers a dead cat are tense and ominous - but this is certainly no horror comic.

This is much as a book about the 1970s, about school and about being a teenager in smalltown America as it is about Jeffrey Dahmer. As Backderf freely admits, while he and his friends admitted Dahmer into their circle - referring to themselves at one time as the 'Dahmer Fan Club' in appreciation of his strange behaviour - none of them could truly be said to have really liked him or formed a great depth of feeling towards him. He entertains them, providing them with material for endless pranks (like the time they endeavoured to place him one or another into every school yearbook picture, whether he was a member of the group or not, or spent hours watching him perform his 'spaz'* act to the baffled discomfiture of store owners and shoppers at the local mall) but do they actually like him? Not much, it appears - they didn't invite to him to many, if any, social events outside school, and only afterwards does it occur to Backderf how acutely lonely Dahmer must have been, as his parents raged at one another in their isolated forest house. Once they leave high school, they have no further contact with him at all - in fact, Derf met with his friends a few years later and someone mentioned Dahmer's name, Derf joked, quite genuinely, that he was 'probably a serial killer'. Many of us, particularly boys, will know the feeling of having a 'friend' that you're not really sure you even like that much, but who you allow to be part of your circle purely because they somehow make you feel that you're no longer the weirdo - as Derf says, Dahmer was almost 'a bizarro school mascot'.

There are, of course, many shocking things about Jeffrey Dahmer's story, even when you end the narrative, as Backderf more or less does, when Dahmer is still in his late teens, but while this book does touch on some incidents that Backderf knew nothing about at the time of their acquaintance, it wisely focuses on the things that Backderf personally observed which are, in themselves, startling. Dahmer, for instance, developed a serious drink problem as a teenager that was clearly apparent to his classmates - he was very obviously drunk and reeking of alcohol at school on a daily basis - yet his teachers fail to notice. There is also an incident where, while on a school trip to Washington DC, managed to secure for himself and his friends, with a single call from a phone box, a private guided tour of the office of the then Vice-President, Walter Mondale, who greeted the boys personally.

How did Dahmer, a lonely, bullied misfit for much of his childhood who was so uncomfortable at his high school prom that he literally ran away from his date and spent the evening at McDonald's, manage to affect a manner sufficiently confident and charming to pull this off? It was, Backderf says, 'an incredible talent for BS' - was it this talent that later enabled him to dupe men and boys he had just met on the street into going back to his house to pose for nude photos, where he would then drug, molest and kill them? Or, still in his late teens, to make two police officers believe that the reeking bin-bags in the boot of his car, containing rotten human body parts, were simply rubbish that he'd forgotten to put out for collection while his parents were away and that he was taking to the local tip - in the early hours of the morning?

I can't think of another book quite like this one, and I would recommend it if you like the graphic novel format but have zero interest in superheroes, sci-fi or fantasy. Despite its focus on a boy who was soon to become a cannibalistic, necrophiliac serial killer, it has an oddly strong sense of nostalgia about it, and the questions Backderf asks himself as he relates his experiences of Dahmer are thoughtful and relevant.

*Backderf's word, not mine - Backderf does point out in the book that he and his friends are now deeply ashamed of the entertainment they got from mimicking disabled people, and remember that these were teenage boys in the 1970s, when attitudes were very different.)

Friday, 13 May 2016

The Emperor's Babe by Bernadine Evaristo

The Emperor's Babe is a novel written in blank verse, set in Roman London. The narrator is a Zuleika, a girl born to Sudanese immigrant parents who, aged 11, is quite literally sold by her father to a wealthy man who wants her for his bride. Skip forward a few years and Zuleika is pampered materially but emotionally neglected, bored and unfulfilled - until she catches the eye of the Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus,

The Emperor's Babe : A Novel, Paperback
By far the most notable thing about The Emperor's Babe is its language, which is a strange mix of modern slang, street-talk and Latin phrases that combine into a sort of patois. It's sometimes effective, but just as often grating; it all just feels very overdone and occasionally patronising. Similarly, genuinely atmospheric evocations of life in Roman Britain - which are fascinating, vivid and a great reminder that London was just as multicultural a city circa 200AD as it is now -  are peppered with deliberate anachronisms. I assume are intended to make us feel closer to Zuleika and her world and identify more directly with them, but I found the somewhat laboured humour in references to Armani tunics and the EC4 postcode very quickly wore thin.

This is a shame, because some of the story really is beautifully written, and amid the brashness of Zuleika's narration, there are several moments that are touching, heartbreaking or arresting in one way or another. Zuleika's deliberately offhand references to the horrors of her wedding night - she is married, remember, at the age of 11, to an obese, middle-aged man - are painful in their deliberate casualness, and there is a viscerally shocking scene when she experiences a moment of catharsis while watching the grotesque cruelties of the amphitheatre.

While Bernadine Evaristo has done an innovative and interesting thing with this book - and I am sure many people would love it; there is much to admire in it - this one's just not for me, I'm afraid.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I'm not sure why I've never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before, as I've read most of the Brontë sisters' other novels and despite being by Anne, the least famous sister, this one must almost certainly have been on my degree syllabus many years ago. Anyway, a recent BBC documentary on the Brontës reminded me that I hadn't, so I picked up a copy. It seems ridiculous to 'review' a classic Victorian novel, but I try to cover all the fiction I read on this blog, so these are my thoughts on it.

First of all, it's surprisingly gripping. Like many 19th century novels, it is more verbose than most contemporary fiction, but I found I 'got into it' after a chapter or two and soon found that I honestly couldn't put it down. It begins with the arrival of a young widow, Helen Graham, at an isolated and only partially habitable mansion, Wildfell Hall, along with her little boy. The tenants of a local gentleman, Mr Lawrence, Helen and her son are soon introduced to the small, somewhat insular local community, where we see them through the eyes of our narrator, middle-class farmer Gilbert Markham. But rumours soon start to spread. Why is Helen so defensive when questioned about her son? Why is she so fond of solitude? Is she really a widow? And could there be anything in the observation that Helen's son bears at least a superficial resemblance to her landlord?

What then unfolds is a remarkably dark tale of alcoholism, infidelity, abuse and a marriage so toxic it still has the power to shock, even 150 years later - perhaps because, despite shifts in values and the rights of women since the book was written, the behaviour of the characters is all so recognisable. The portrait of Helen's marriage is utterly believable and not at all far from the experience of many women today - divorce might be easier for British women in the 21st century, and certainly less of a disgrace, but aside from that, Helen's situation has numerous contemporary parallels.

This is not one of those books when the wronged heroine is a faultless angel; Helen at the start of her story is in fact both naive and stubborn. However, she is pleasingly resilient and self-sufficient, and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. Neither is Gilbert particularly heroic - he begins the book as a somewhat immature, impulsive young man, but develops with considerable decency and resourcefulness as the story progresses. There are strong feminist undertones to the novel, which are, given the subject matter, very pertinent to Helen's situation.

I wasn't immensely keen on the end of the book - the plot, for Helen and Gilbert, is resolved in much the way that I had hoped, but there is one major story element that seems to fizzle out somewhat in a way that's simply too convenient and I might have liked this to be a little more dramatic. But then, I suppose, the book would have become a gothic melodrama, and despite what people might think of the Brontës, that is not what their books are.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was published in 1998 but although it's a very well-known and critically acclaimed novel, I'd never really thought to read it until a few weeks ago it was recommended by Marian Keyes on the Radio 4 books programme, A Good Read.

The Poisonwood Bible, Paperback The Poisonwood Bible is the story of five women, the wife and four daughters of a Nathan Price, an evangelical Southern Baptist minister from Georgia who in 1959 takes his family to what was then the Belgian Congo so he can carry out missionary work. As a family, they are hopelessly ill-prepared for the culture shock and hardships of life in a Congolese village, both physically and emotionally. The story begins with them packing 'all the wrong things' to take with them on their journey. Upon arrival, the painfully stubborn, dogmatic Nathan Price immediately sets about planting a vegetable garden which, thanks to his refusal to listen to their Congolese housekeeper's advice, fails. Their preconceived notions about race and religion are bigoted and patronising. And in the background, the Congolese struggle for independence, and all the accompanying interference from the West, rumbles on.

Told from the five points of view of each woman - Nathan's wife Orleanna, 16-year-old Rachel, 14-year-old twins Leah and Adah and five-year-old Ruth May - The Poisonwood Bible has a fairly epic scope, spanning around 30 years, and yet each woman's story is deeply personal. Each narrator has her own distinctive voice, values and vision. The unashamedly selfish Rachel peppers her speech with unintentional malapropisms; her language, like her views on race and politics, is carelessly skewed. Adah, academically gifted but physically disabled by a brain injury at birth and possibly affected by some form of autism, is prone to reading things backwards and obsessed by palindromes and linguistic patterns. Language in general is important in the story: inflections are misunderstood, concepts are untranslatable, and translation becomes symbolic of the vast differences between the Prices' way of life and that of their new Congolese neighbours. Everything the Prices bring from America somehow fails to 'translate' when it reaches Africa, whether it's the powdered cake mix ruined by equatorial humidity, Nathan Price's uncompromising sermons that leave his congregation alienated and confused, or the family's preconceived notions about the Congo and its people.

This is a long and sometimes rambling book, and the further the story progresses, the less deftly the (albeit fascinating) exploration of post-colonial African politics are woven into the narrative, and  the particular voices and states of mind of the characters make some chapters a little hard-going in comparison to others. Overall, though, this is a beautifully written and absorbing novel with fascinating characters and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

As a fan of Daphne du Maurier I read most of her books when I was much younger, but for some reason I never got round to My Cousin Rachel. I don't know why that is - along with Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, it's probably one of du Maurier's better-known novels.

The narrator is Philip Ashley, an orphan brought up on a large country estate in Cornwall under the care of his guardian, Ambrose, in the early 1800s. When Ambrose dies suddenly overseas, shortly after his unexpected marriage to a distant Anglo-Italian cousin, Philip, now in his early 20s, is convinced that Ambrose's widow Rachel is in some way responsible. Yet he, not Rachel, is the beneficiary of Ambrose's will and when he finally meets his cousin, Philip finds himself instantly charmed by her beauty, wit and sophistication. Can Philip's initial suspicion that Rachel poisoned Ambrose, gleaned from his guardian's confusing letters, be correct? Or did Ambrose indeed die, like other Ashleys before him, of a brain tumour? 

What is particularly clever about My Cousin Rachel, however, isn't just the ambiguity of Rachel herself, it's the unreliability of the narrator. The late Ambrose, whose presence hangs over the novel, has brought Philip up in a way that Philip believes faultless but which could also be seen as somewhat stifling, over-indulgent and inappropriate - the book opens with him taking Philip, then a child, to see the tarred corpse of an executed criminal hanging at a crossroads. Philip's adoration of Ambrose is also almost uncomfortable to read about in its obsessiveness; it seems more like an intense crush than a paternal or avuncular relationship. Moreover, Philip's entire world-view and character have been shaped by Ambrose, who has brought him up to be suspicious of foreigners and disdainful of women. It's very clear that Philip thinks of himself as a simple country squire and a jolly, affable nice guy, and indeed his behaviour towards his servants and tenants does often support this - yet he is also a spoilt, complacent misogynist, oddly inflexible and, when it comes to his relationships with not only Rachel but everyone else in his limited acquaintance, immature.

While we're always aware that Philip's view of Rachel is colouring our own, that's not to say that we can be confident that everything Philip thinks about Rachel is wrong - not least because what Philip thinks about Rachel is constantly shifting and conflicting. Du Maurier is a consummate expert at this kind of writing, wrong-footing us repeatedly and imbuing the novel with a feeling of uncertainty and latent, simmering danger.

My Cousin Rachel is more of a psychological novel than a plot-driven one, and isn't necessarily going to please everyone who likes clear answers and neatly tied-up loose ends. It's also not particularly fast-paced; it's character-driven rather than action-packed and the story unfolds slowly and descriptively, with the feel of a Gothic novel from an earlier period. It is, however, full of atmosphere, and despite the pace it still feels tense thanks to its pervasive sense of unease.

Monday, 28 March 2016

One by Sarah Crossan

Image result for one by sarah crossanI hesitate to describe One by Sarah Crossan as a novel, exactly, because although it has a novel's page count it's not written in continuous prose. Instead, the whole story is told in free verse, in short 'chapters' that are more like free verse poems. Set in Hoboken, New Jersey, it's aimed at a YA readership and it's about a pair of conjoined twins - or more accurately, a conjoined twin, as it's narrated in the first person by only one of them. Grace is joined at the hip to her sister Tippi, and each twin has a head, a torso and a pair of arms. That means each girl has her own lungs, heart and kidneys, but the lower body merges and they share one pair of functioning legs. It's not so bad, really, Grace explains:

It's how it's always been.
It's all we know.
And actually,
    we're usually
    quite happy

Initially I wasn't convinced by the free verse structure - I didn't find it difficult or jarring to read, but for the first few chapters I simply couldn't really see the point of it. However, as the book progressed I did begin to feel that it added something. It makes the book a short, intense read (it took me about 90 minutes) which works well for the story, and the free verse helps to give a sense of otherness and reminds us that there is something different about this narrator, something that lends a slight awkwardness to the way others perceive her. 

The story opens with Grace and Tippi going to school for the first time at 16, having been homeschooled up to this point - their father has lost his job as a college lecturer and their mother works in a bank so money is tight. State funding for their education is minimal, but will pay for their attendance at a school chosen solely because, despite Grace and Tippi being two individuals, it's willing to treat them as a single entity for the purposes of fees.

This is a thread that runs throughout the book. Quite rightly, there's a constant battle to have them treated as two, and yet, as Grace herself is forced to admit, there are times when they are one, and the unique bond between them goes far beyond the physical.

While Grace and Tippi are naturally the main focus of the story, Sarah Crossan doesn't neglect the other characters, who are all three-dimensional and interesting in their own right. I particularly liked Dragon, their younger sister, and Grammie, their grandmother, who lives with the family and who seems to be the most matter-of-fact and accepting when it comes to the twins' condition. A documentary producer could easily have been portrayed as an exploitative media vulture, but instead confounds even the twins' own expectations.

Much of the story deals with the every day difficulties of teenage life - crushes, fitting in, friendships, sneaking out to drink cider. There are also family problems to contend with: Tippi and Grace's father is struggling with a growing drink problem and their sister, who has a talent for ballet, is teetering on the verge of an eating disorder. It's sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet - so essentially, what you'd hope for from YA contemporary realism, but coloured, if not actually shaped, by the unique circumstances of the narrator. There are also interesting digressions on the practicalities of being conjoined - for example, while one twin has counselling, the other has to listen to loud music through headphones in order for the session to take place 'in private'. 

All this is fascinating, insightful and perceptive, but it's really the last third of the story that sets this book apart. It's utterly heartbreaking and beautifully written, perfectly paced and sensitive. The sparse nature of the free verse is ideal here when it comes to conveying emotional pitch. I suspect One is a book I will remember for a long time.