Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Abigale Hall by Lauren A Forry

Every now and again I come to the end of a book and realise that I'm not really sure whether I liked it or not. Abigale Hall by Lauren A Forry is one of those books, so bear with me if my review seems contradictory.

Abigale HallThe story is set in the late 1940s. Teenagers Eliza and Rebecca live in London with their hard-as-nails Aunt Bess after losing both their parents in the Second World War. Although she isn't explicitly described as such in the book, it's obvious that Rebecca has learning disabilities and mental health problems. She's breezily articulate but struggles to control her temper and appears to lack empathy and social skills; it's also hinted that she has spent time in some form of institution. Seventeen-year-old Eliza, who works as a theatre usher and has a boyfriend, Peter, is more or less entirely responsible for Rebecca's care and clearly feels a heavy burden of responsibility. One day Aunt Bess sends both girls to rural Wales, having found Eliza a position as a general purpose maid at Thornycroft, a dark and rambling manor house owned by an elderly, disabled recluse (the 'Abigale Hall' of the title is not the manor house, but only a particular part of it) and run by a cruel, cold housekeeper, Mrs Pollard. From the moment the girls arrive, something seems to be terribly wrong at Thornycroft, but Eliza has a vivid imagination and is badly affected with what seem to be post-traumatic symptoms after her father's death. Is Thornycroft really as full of dark secrets as Eliza suspects? 

The book's post-war setting is nicely evoked, and makes a pleasing change from Victorian gothic while managing to be every bit as dark and shadowy. It feels stylised rather than entirely realistic (I don't think the author is British, and that does show at times) but that works well in the context of the story. However, I found this book rather slow-going at times, and the endless creepy goings-on and appalling wrongs done to Eliza by Mrs Pollard soon started to feel repetitive. There are only so many times I could read about Eliza eating or smelling terrible food that makes her feel sick, and only so many times Mrs Pollard could berate Eliza for some trivial misdemeanour, before I began to tire of it. Mrs Pollard herself was also too much of a stretch for me to believe in, a sort of cross between Mrs Danvers and the Wicked Witch of the West. 

There is also a subplot involving Peter, Eliza's boyfriend, who is trying to find out what has happened to her, and how. I found I couldn't really engage much with this part of the storyline, which strays into the seedy post-war London underworld, and for me it just seemed to jar with the rest of the story - it's much grittier and more realistic than Eliza's storyline. If Abigale Hall were a film, it would feel as if Brighton Rock had been cut with Crimson Peak.

On the plus side, the descriptions of the sensations and smells of London and Thornycroft are almost viscerally vivid at times - Eliza seems to be hypersensitive to both in a way that borders on obsessive-compulsive. Eliza and Rebecca are also fascinating characters, and the relationship between them is complex. Eliza is not an entirely reliable narrator, and at times seems to be hiding as much from the reader as Thornycroft itself.

Overall, while there was a lot that I enjoyed about Abigale Hall, and the book is cleverly plotted with an interesting protagonist and setting, I felt it was somehow less than the sum of its parts. I certainly didn't feel as if I'd wasted my time reading it and the gothic craziness of it all is fun, but for me the different elements of the book didn't really hang together as a whole and something was lacking.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

I haven’t read a great deal of spy fiction in recent years, although I liked John Le CarrĂ© when I was a teenager. However, I heard Harriett Gilbert praising Mick Herron’s Slow Horses on BBC Radio 4’s excellent book programme, A Good Read, and decided I’d give it a try.

Image result for slow horsesMy favourite spies tend to be the shabby, somewhat down-at-heel, very British ones – more Smiley than Bond – and Slow Horses provides these in abundance. The ‘slow horses’ of the title are MI5 agents who have been shunted off to Slough House, a grubby satellite office, because they aren't considered competent or trustworthy. Each one has, at some point in their career, made a terrible or embarrassing error that renders them fit only for the dullest and most routine of intelligence tasks. Overseeing this mismatched bunch is Jackson Lamb, a charmless, shambolic slob who frequently expresses himself through the medium of flatulence.

The most exciting things the slow horses usually get to do are going through bins and monitoring chatrooms, but when a 19-year-old student is abducted and held hostage by terrorists who threaten to behead him live online, there seems to be a tenuous link to some of the slow horses' routine non-operations. Gradually, Lamb's team become drawn into an increasingly dangerous and complex set of events that could not only culminate in a young man's decapitation but could also end what few shreds of a career the slow horses have been allowed to retain.

The plot is as complicated as you'd expect from a spy novel, full of misdirection, bluffs and double-bluffs; you do have to read carefully to keep track of what's going on. It starts at a fairly slow pace, which I know will annoy some readers, but it soon picks up and develops into a tense story with numerous cliffhangers. However, it's the characters as much as the action that make Slow Horses such a cracking read. It has a large cast and even the bit-players feel uncannily real. Lamb is a thoroughly entertaining anti-hero and his team, every one of harbouring some level of bitterness and regret, are such a tragic bunch that's impossible not to root for them even they're being unpleasant - which is often, particularly to each other, and makes for some particularly smart, witty dialogue and gallows humour.

It probably says a lot about me that I prefer spy novels that are about a bunch of barely competent losers, but I enjoyed Slow Horses a lot and will definitely be reading the others in the series.

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.