Review of The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

In June I had the pleasure of going to the Hay Festival, where I went to hear Amy Liptrot talk about her memoir.  I finally got around to reading it during the last fortnight.  This memoir is about her survival from alcoholism in London to sobriety in Orkney, and how, by immersing herself fully into the harshness and beauty of nature in her homeland, she learnt to heal and live again, revitalized and renewed.

Amy Liptrot was brought up in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland.  She grew up on a farm on the edge of a wide area of land known as the Outrun, that led to the cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean.  Her family life was not serene.  Her father suffered from Bi- Polar disorder and her mother joined an evangelical religious group.

Despite her love of the wild nature around her as a child, Amy Liptrot yearned to experience city life, and she sought to escape Orkney at the first available opportunity. After studying in Edinburgh, she moved to London looking for excitement and a more glamorous life.  What began as drinking at parties and on nights out, soon spiralled into habitual drinking and then heavy drinking, and before long Amy was in the depths of alcoholism.

Initially she managed to hold down jobs, but eventually her drinking became out of control, and following a devastating break-up (due to her drinking), she booked herself into rehab.  Following her time in rehab she found herself unexpectedly drawn back home to the Orkney islands.

Liptrot writes so eloquently, both about her struggles with alcohol, (about which she is brutally honest) and her love and knowledge of her beloved Orkney. A mixture of nature writing and self-reflection gives this memoir a unique twist.  The author’s knowledge of nature and the wild life on the islands of Orkney is impressive, and I found the excerpts on the seabirds and animal life in the small Scottish islands fascinating and evocative.  The weather is brutal in this part of the world and yet for the author it is not experienced as such, but instead is exhilarating and energizing.  A new healthier drug.

Her journey to sobriety is a daily struggle, but with the help of friends, family and a new focus, she gains strength from the beauty of nature around her.

My favourite part of the book is the chapter entitled ‘The Corncrake Wife.’  A few months after arriving back in Orkney, she is employed by the RSPB to count and study corncrakes – a rare and endangered bird species on the Orkney Islands.  So while everyone else is asleep, she drives around the island listening out for the call of the Corncrake:

“My job is to locate every calling male – only the males call – in Orkney.  I appeal for public reports, asking people to call my ‘corncrake hotline’ if they hear one.  My answerphone message contains a recording of the call so that people can compare it with what they have heard.”

Liptrot’s honesty gives this memoir a searing authenticity, and for anyone who has ever struggled with any kind of addiction, I am sure they found much with which they could identify.  Her nature writing is elegant, and the harshness of nature is reflected in her own struggle with herself.  She cannot beat it; she has to accept it.

As she settles in Papay (a small island north of the main island of Orkney) for four months and integrates into the community, she talks about the possibility of romance when sober: “I wonder if I can be cheeky or flirtatious without booze. If I master this I could be unstoppable. In the past months I’ve been stifled by bruised confidence and anxiety, but these things take time. I’m gradually learning to say things sober that other people wait to say drunk.”

This memoir has just won The Wainwright Golden Beer Prize, a prize for nature and travel writing in the UK.   I am delighted for her, as I think she is not only a beautiful writer, but a courageous and worthy winner.  I highly recommend this memoir.

Review of Two of Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs.

Alexandra Fuller Amazon Page Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by [Fuller, Alexandra]

I have recently returned from Zambia and for reading material I decided to take two of Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs.  I have already read ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs tonight.’  So I took the follow up to that  – ‘Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness,’ and her most recent book, ‘Leaving Before the Rains Come.’

I have heard some controversial opinions about Alexandra Fuller.  Certain people from Zambia seem to dislike her a lot, for reasons I don’t understand.

However, I am only interested in her writing and her books, which I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed.

She lived a totally different life to the one I experienced growing up in Chingola, but that doesn’t make it any less real or authentic.  In my opinion, it takes a huge amount of courage to write as honestly as she does, and her prose is electric with stories of what happened both to her and her family in Rhodesia, as it was then.

‘Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’ focuses on the life of Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she supposedly refers to herself.   Fuller gives a detailed account of her mother’s upbringing both in Scotland and Kenya, before she moved to Rhodesia and lived through the war there. She writes without sentimentality, as she describes the highs and the lows of her mother’s incredible life.  She also tells of Nicola Fuller’s depressions and highs before she is diagnosed as being Bi-Polar, and how this affects both Alexandra and her sister Vanessa.  Nicola Fuller’s mental health begins to deteriorate after the death of her first child.  More tragedy follows and with each tragedy she disappears increasingly into her own depressed inner world, and withdraws further away from her children.

Fuller writes with devastating honesty, and no matter what she is describing, she is never ever dull.  Her love of Africa and her parent’s love of the continent shine through and help us understand in some small way why they stayed during the incredibly difficult time of the Rhodesian war.  They loved the land – simple as that. For those of us who grew up in Zambia, we can identify wholly with descriptions such as this: “Emerald-spotted doves” calling to one another, frogs “bellowing from the causeway,” the air boiling “with beetles and cicadas, mosquitoes and tsetse flies,” and egrets “white against the gray-pink sky” floating “upriver to roost in the winterthorn trees.”

If ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight’ was a scathing reflection of her parents, then ‘Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’ is a tribute to a brave but slightly unhinged couple, who were captivated by the harsh realities of Africa, but found their love of the continent surpassed everything else.  Make of that what you will.

I then went on to read ‘Leaving Before the Rains Come.’  Firstly – what a brilliant title for a novel.  Her titles are superb.    This memoir focuses on Alexandra herself and her marriage to an American who she meets in Zambia, Charlie Ross.  Charlie ran rafting trips on the Zambezi river when Alexandra met him and it was a passionate ‘coup de foudre.’

In him she believes she sees stability, protection and all that has been missing from her war-torn, crazy life to date. As she so eloquently states, she projected “onto Charlie’s broad-shouldered frame” an “embellished biography that made him both my sanctuary and my savior. I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquillity interspersed with organized adventure.” She could remain in Africa because “he loved the romance of it,” and they could remain there safely: “Our lives would be the ‘three rifles, supplies for a month, and Mozart’ of ‘Out of Africa’ without the plane crashes, syphilis, and Danish accent.”

Sadly they are both living under delusions about the other and no-one can be all that.  However initially they cling together in their individual hope and beliefs of the other and they try hard to make it work.

After the birth of their three children, Fuller suffers from a severe bout of malaria and eventually for their own sanity, they move to Wyoming, USA.

Fuller writes so honestly about the breakdown of her marriage, her own sanity and her own shortcomings that you cannot help but admire her.   Well, I couldn’t anyway.

Whatever you may feel about her on a personal level, she writes beautifully about both the beauty of Africa and the trials and challenges of the human condition.  I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books and I would recommend them without hesitation.

 

 

Review of Scourged by Michelle Dooley Mahon

Michelle kindly sent me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

I love a good quote, so I was immediately happy to open the book and find several quotes at the beginning of the book.  My two favourites being:

‘You need chaos in your soul to find the dancing star.’ Friederich Nietzsche.

‘Sometimes one word can recall a whole span of life.’  Edna O’Brien.

Michelle and I already have something in common, she seems to revere and respect Edna O’Brien as much as I do.  Hoorah!

On to the book.   Written as a dual narrative, Scourged tells the story of Siobhán, during two different time periods.  Written in Siobhán’s  voice as she is growing up and throughout her life, where she talks about meeting her beloved husband Tom and about her children, Michelle included. And the other part of the narrative is Michelle describing what happened during a ten year period during which Siobhán became increasingly ill with Alzheimers.

There were several aspects that struck me immediately about the book after reading the first few chapters – Michelle describes life in Ireland in such detail that it is like going on a cultural and deeply intimate journey to the country.  She talks about the traditions, the singers, writers and cultural phenomenon in Ireland during the 70’s, 80’s and the present day.  It is joyful.  She is also extremely funny.  There were so many laugh out loud moments in the book that I could hardly keep up.   However this is not a light book.  It deals with a serious subject in a heartfelt way.  Michelle’s love for her mother Siobhán is evident from the start.  They shared a deep bond as is much in evidence as the book progresses.   I almost cried when I read that she quoted from Shakespeare the refrain from Macbeth:

“to morrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

to the last syllable of recorded time,

and all our yesterdays have lighted fools,

the way to dusty death, Out, Out, brief candle!”

When my own father was dying of cancer, he repeated this refrain often and it was yet another cultural reference that I appreciated, among many throughout the book.

Michelle’s great gift is observation.  She describes the characters she meets both in the nursing home and as Siobhán herself talks about her life and that of Michelle’s.  My favourite parts were the cultural references such as in 1979 when she says (as Siobhán):

‘Beckett was alive and well and hating Paris, Edna O’Brien had left Ernest Gebler and walked from Chelsea to Wimbledon to start a new life minus the sons she adored.  Women burnt bras and started to challenge church and state, dispensing contraception from the North out of suitcases filled with french letters and pills.’

If you have ever nursed anyone through dementia or alzheimers, there will be so much in this book that you will be able to identify with.  The extreme sadness of watching someone you love disappear before your eyes is beyond horrible.  Michelle writes with such honesty and compassion, and the story of her relationship with her mother is so poignant, I had to get the tissues out several times.

There is so much in this book that I feel it needs a second reading.  It does require determination, as it is a long read and I felt the excerpts of Siobhán’s life, whilst beautiful and brilliantly written, could have done with some editing.

But you are certainly getting your money’s worth and I would highly recommend this book.     You can purchase it by clicking on the link below:

http://www.shellshock.ie/scourged

Make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the page for details on how to buy!

 

My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal.

Kit De Waal has a big heart.  Big.  You just know this from reading her book.  Only someone with a big heart could write such a beautiful story.

Born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a foster carer, and an African-Caribbean father she also has personal and professional experience of foster care and the adoption system.   This is in evidence in her debut novel ‘My Name is Leon.’

Written in the third person, but from the perspective of the nine-year-old Leon, the novel begins with Leon happily at home with his mother Carol and his baby brother Jake.  Leon has had to grow up fast.  His mother isn’t very good at looking after him and he is left ‘holding the baby’ literally and figuratively speaking.   But he doesn’t mind.  He loves his baby brother Jake.   It soon becomes clear that Carol is entirely incapable of looking after her children.  They are soon taken to live with a foster carer called Maureen. 

All of this would be hard enough for any nine-year-old to deal with, but when Jake is taken away, Leon’s world begins to crumble.  The sections dealing with the separation are heart breaking.

‘Leon uncurls his brother’s fist and kisses it suddenly, Leon’s trousers are too tight and he wants a wee and his legs feel bendy and he’s very angry with Maureen.  He picks up the yellow truck and gives it to Jake and tries to stand still.  Something inside is telling him to run away or to hit the lady but Leon stands still.  Everything goes quiet.’

I was sobbing by this point and the pain for Leon doesn’t end there, as he fails to understand why adults never tell him the truth and why his mother isn’t coming for him, and where has Jake gone?

De Waal is never overly sentimental and the innocence of Leon’s thoughts and feelings bring such emotional intensity to this story.  

We follow Leon’s turbulent life as he is moved yet again to live with Sylvie, Maureen’s sister, when Maureen falls ill.  His life changes when one of the social workers (amusingly called Zebra by Leon because she has stripes in her hair) gives him a BMX bike.  He goes for a ride and comes across an allotment and it is here that he will find the most unlikely friendships in Tufty and Mr Devlin. These two unique characters bring humour to the story.  They also bring another element to the novel about society and how it treats its citizens. As we learn more about them, we learn how complicated the world can be for those who don’t feel they belong.

Although this novel is heart breaking, it is also funny and warm and deliciously enjoyable. 

There is one part in the book where I just couldn’t’ stop laughing.  Leon has a gun which is just a toy, but he thinks it is real.  During a demonstration near his home in London Leon finds himself lost and is desperate for help. So he holds up the gun. Then he sees his friend Tufty and:

‘Leon raises the gun to wave and everyone drops to the floor.’ I found that hilarious, maybe it’s just me, but read in context it is very funny. 

De Waal takes on many serious topics such as racism, class, alcohol and abandonment, but the book never feels heavy going and this is largely due to the wonderfully unique voice of Leon.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  I simply adored it.  It is my book of the year so far.  I think it is going to be a huge best seller, because people will talk about this book and word of mouth will ensure it is widely read.  I am thrilled for the author because it deserves to be. 

 

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The first Sarah Waters book I read was ‘The Paying Guests’ which I absolutely adored and it left me wanting to read more of her work.

Although I thought there was much to admire in this novel, for me, it didn’t reach the standards of ‘The Paying Guests,’ and if I am completely honest, left me slightly disappointed.

Narrated in the third person, five main characters live through the Second World War and their lives intertwine in various ways.  However the author begins at the end, and works backwards, so that we first meet the characters after the war, and as the book progresses, we find out why and how they have become the people they are today. The book jumps from 1947 to 1944 and then 1941.   We are led through the narrative as a puzzle, so my advice would be not to leave the book down for too long, or you will be entirely lost.   I felt it a shame she worked it this way, as it meant by the time you figured out what had happened to them in the past, you had forgotten the beginning of the novel and where they were in the present day. But perhaps that is just me and most readers have a better concentration span!

Where Waters excels is in her character portrayals, which are so vivid and detailed that within a few short chapters of them being introduced, I felt I knew Kay, Viv, Helen, Duncan and Julia, and I was invested in what happened to them.  Helen’s portrayal of jealousy of her lover Julia is uncomfortable in its truthfulness of how we feel when jealous of another: ‘These thoughts raged through her like a darkness in her blood.’

What I really could have done without was the abortion scene (REALLY? have we not had enough grim abortion scenes in novels by now?) and for me there were too many gratuitous sex scenes that added nothing to the plot or the story.  I also felt Duncan’s story was unnecessarily shocking at times.  A bit more subtlety would have worked better for me personally.

The descriptions of the horrors of World War II are powerful and disturbing in equal measure.  As Viv so simply but brutally puts it: ‘We might all be dead tomorrow.’

From the perspective of a wannabe writer, Waters is a genius and her prose is sublime with detail and expression.  I would recommend this book.  It is a fascinating look at London during the blitz, if nothing else. I would also certainly read another of her novels and in fact look forward to her next book.   But if I was to recommend one book by her, it would be ‘The Paying Guests. ‘

So, book lovers, did you read it?  What did you think? Have you read any other Sarah Waters’ novels? If so, which was your favourite?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts, please post your comments.

In other reading news, I have almost finished a novel by Kit De Waal, called ‘My Name is Leon.’  I would have to say it is probably the best book I have read so far this year.  I highly recommend it.  I will be publishing a review on it on http://www.writing.ie tomorrow, which you can find under the tab ‘For Readers’ on the far right of the page, and then go to ‘Book Reviews.’

 

 

 

 

‘The Wicked Boy’ by Kate Summerscale

Kate Sumerscale coverThank you to Net Galley for a review copy of this title.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wicked-Boy-Mystery-Victorian-Murderer/dp/1408851148

Bloomsbury Publishing. 400 pages. £16.99. ISBN number: 9781408851142

Review by Justine McGrath.

The American novelist Jack London characterized East Londoners as “a people of the machine and the Abyss.”  The dismal working class area of Plaistow in London fits this description perfectly, and in 1895 becomes notorious as the scene of an horrific murder. The victim is Emily Coombes; the murderer – her 14-year old son Robert.

A non-fiction account, written in a narrative style based on fact and devoid of emotion, ‘The Wicked Boy’ follows the story of the life of Robert Coombes, who seemingly without remorse or concern, murders his mother by stabbing her through the heart.

He and his brother Nattie (short for Nathanial) who is only twelve, then go on a jolly for the next ten days. They see the cricket at Lords and go to the theatre, while the body of their mother rots in an upstairs bedroom.  They also enlist a friend of their father’s called John Fox to stay with them. He is rather slow and seems oblivious to the foul smell emanating from the upstairs bedroom.

The truth must out and after ten days, the boys’ aunt forces her way into the house, following reports of a strange smell. The author does not shy away from the macabre and the scenes describing the remains of Emily Coombes’ body are grim in the extreme.  Robert Coombes confesses immediately, and exonerates his brother from any wrong doing. Their father is away at sea and oblivious to both the murder of his wife and the subsequent arrest of his two sons.

The politics, society and atmosphere of Victorian London are described in intricate detail, along with a fascinating insight into how child murderers were treated in the late 1800s in England. But the question that preoccupies the author is why did Robert Coombes kill his mother?

Summerscale has written of this murder trial in the same style in which she wrote ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,’ for which she won the Samuel Johnson prize and garnered much attention.   In that real life narrative, the author also follows the life of the culprit, Constance, after the trial, to see what becomes of her.

During the trial in ‘The Wicked Boy,’ doctors and psychologists claim that Robert’s brain is too large for his skull and that he has always suffered from headaches.  This is verified by his father.  He is diagnosed with a condition known as “cerebral irritation.” Another theory to explain his behaviour, given by the victim himself, is that his mother had a vile temper, and Robert claims he killed her because she had “thrashed” Nattie and he was afraid she was going to continue to beat both of them.

Another theory put forward is that the blame for the murder lies with the ‘Penny Dreadful’ boys’ magazines that Robert liked to read. The author digresses too much recounting stories from the Penny Dreadfuls, which detracts from the more interesting main narrative.  Too much is made of this and as one of the local newspapers at the time, the Gazette stated:

“The books a man or woman reads are less the making of a character than the expression of it.”

Robert may have wished to run away to India due to reading the magazines, but it didn’t necessarily mean he killed his mother in order to do so.  The author is careful not to elicit our sympathy as Robert is portrayed as a cruel, heartless child who also stole repeatedly without the slightest remorse.

“Robert seemed quite the Cockney dandy, a wordly Dodger to Nattie’s wide-eyed Oliver Twist.”

We are initially prompted to feel increasing concern for Nattie, who, as the younger brother appears vulnerable and under Robert’s control. He is released without charge, if he will testify against his brother which he does.  We are never told how Robert feels about this.

Robert seems entirely unfazed throughout the trial and yet the jury takes pity on him and declares him insane at the time of the murder. The alternative was death by hanging. Whether Robert committed the murder as a result of what the doctors termed ‘cerebral irritation’ or due to his anxiety about his mother’s beatings, or as a result of both, we are left to decide for ourselves.

What is more important to Summerscale, and where this book becomes increasingly intriguing, is what happened to Robert after his conviction. He is transported to Broadmoor lunatic asylum and as well as hearing how Robert copes, the author pulls us into incredible story after story of the other prisoners and their lives. Music plays a large part in his life and he becomes accomplished in both the cornet and the violin.

However, that is only the first quarter of the book.  There is so much more.  Largely leaving Nattie out of it, Summerscale follows the rest of Robert Coombes’ life through Broadmoor (where he does well after an initial breakdown) and then through not one, but both World wars and a new life in Australia.

Summerscale writes this incredible tale of one man’s survival against all the odds with intriguing stories of other crimes, criminals and characters from the era.  The book is replete with interesting anecdotes and facts of life in Victorian England.  For example, the prosecuting barrister in Robert’s case, a man by the name of Charles Gill, also prosecuted Oscar Wilde.

As Robert’s life unfolds we begin to root for his ongoing survival, such is his courage and seeming change of persona, which leads back to the original question.  What leads a 14-year old boy to murder his mother?  That is left for the reader to decide through this tale of intrigue, degradation and redemption.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s on your bookshelf?

I recently tidied up one of my bookshelves, and decided to put my books into something resembling order.  When I look at the shelf now, I can actually see the books, they are not all falling over each other and hidden under piles of other books.  The fact that I still have piles of books in my spare room, with no where to put them as yet, is another matter, but for now I can enjoy this bookshelf.

Do you see anything you have read and enjoyed?  Anything you fancy reading?

Some of the books above include (from left to right) Jane Austen The Collected Works, Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader, Dickens, Somerset Maugham (x2) 3 lovely Persephone books and more.

I do have to share that this is only a tiny portion of the books I own.  There are many more!  So I am currently trying to decide between properly made shelves by a carpenter or running down to IKEA.  It’s where to put the shelves, never mind the books that is becoming an issue.  Still, it’s all worth it when you love your books.

At the end of May, I will be reviewing the next book club choice, which is The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.  I hope you will feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on anything you have read on my blog.

 

 

Updates

Today’s blog post is not a book review, more a series of updates about books, new releases, and writing.

Firstly I apologize for the sporadic nature of both the blog and the monthly book club.  As I am sure you can appreciate, sometimes life throws up complications and jobs to do, and other aspects of your work/life have no choice but to take a back seat.

In my case it was clearing out my late father’s house which has been both physically and mentally exhausting.  However it is done now, and I hope to return to my regular routine of blogging.

I do plan to read the last ‘Monthly Book Club’ choice I posted, which was Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch.’  So if anyone wishes to read along, you will find a bit about it under the ‘Monthly Book Club’ tab, and I plan to review it in May.

Secondly, I recently received an interesting email from Denny and Lies Velthuizen who told me about a new app they are developing, which they asked me to share with my fellow readers and writers.  I think the easiest thing is to share part of their email and let them explain:

“With the free Storytime app you always have a children’s story at hand. The app contains unique stories and rhymes, written by (grand)parents and writers. You can search for a specific story or topic, stories for boys or girls of a certain age or filter stories by the time you want to spend reading aloud. Some stories even contain fun sound effects to optimize the reading experience.

The Storytime app will soon be launched. Currently, we are looking for people who like to write children’s stories. The Storytime app will offer them a great platform to easily share their stories with others. Writers who submit a story won’t give up any of the copyrights of their story. We would appreciate it if you could share our website www.storytime.info/en and our call to submit stories, with your writing group.”

So if you know of anyone who write children’s stories, or indeed you have children and like to read them stories, this is definitely worth checking out.   Thank you.

What have you been reading lately?  Anything worth sharing?  I am currently reading the Dublin ‘One City One Book’ choice for 2016 which encourages everyone to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year.  The choice for 2016 is ‘Fallen’ by Lia Mills and I am reading it for my third Thursday book club.   I am enjoying it so far and there is a whole range of programmes to go with it.  Find out more here:

http://www.dublinonecityonebook.ie/

I look forward to hearing what you have been reading, and if you have any suggestions for the next Monthly Book Club choice, please feel free to post them in the comments section.

Keep Reading!

 

 

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The little red chairs

Link to Amazon

Just in case you were in any doubt ( As I have only mentioned it perhaps a few hundred times on this blog!) I am a HUGE fan of this incredible writer.   For me, she stands head and shoulders above so many others.   So I sat down with great anticipation and much excitement to read this novel. I was not disappointed.

The little red chairs in the title represent the 643 children that were killed by snipers and heavy artillery during the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.   On the 6th April 2012 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along Sarajevo high street to represent those killed.  643 of these were little chairs, to represent the children.

The novel is based loosely on the butcher of Bosnia – Radovan Karadzic.   The story is about a man who arrives in the small fictional Irish town of Cloonoila.  He calls himself Dr Vlad and claims to be a healer/sex therapist and all round good guy.   Slowly, the inhabitants of this small town fall under his spell.   In particular Fidelma who is in a loveless, childless marriage and who longs for a child more than anything else.   When she and Vlad meet, her life will be affected in ways she couldn’t have possibly imagined.  I am not going to say anymore about the story, for fear of spoiling what is a gripping, traumatic and extraordinary read.

Edna O’Brien breaks all the traditional rules of writing and in so doing, creates a masterpiece.  The narrative voice changes often, the tenses change often and the dialogue can last for pages.  Yet every word is perfectly in its place and she can bring a scene to life like no other writer I know.     Here is one such example as we meet some of the characters of this small village in the West of Ireland, who have heard there’s a stranger in town:

‘Desiree was first, a strapping girl in her pink mini-dress, her stout arms bare and a coat over her head, bursting for news. ‘God I could do with a fella, haven’t had a fella for half a year,’ she said, curious to know if the guy was presentable and married or single. Did he wear a ring?  The Muggivan sisters were next, slinking in, in their grey coats and their knitted caps and ordering peppermint cordial….and Mona, alerted by the hilarity, came down from her living quarters, and like any customer sat on one of the high stools and ordered her usual tipple, which was a large port wine with a slice of orange….There was also Plodder policeman, Diarmuid the ex-Schoolmaster and Dante the town punk.”

Following this is a hilarious scene where they all get a bit raucous and argumentative on hearing the stranger is a self proclaimed sex therapist.  My favourite line being:

‘Sweet Jesus,’ the Misses Muggivans said blessing themselves.’

However don’t be fooled, this is not a lighthearted read by any means.  There are some scenes that I found almost too shocking to read.   O’Brien describes life in a small Irish village to perfection, and when the action moves to London, the pace increases as does the intrigue.  Edna O’Brien’s descriptions are just so breathtakingly rich and her prose is unique and beautiful.

The Little Red Chairs reminds us of the horrors or war, the brutality of humans and yet also, and more importantly, the kindness of humans and how it only takes one person to save you.

It is incredible to think that Edna O’Brien is  now in her eighties.  All her worldly wisdom and incredible powers as a writer are alive and well – praise be!

 

 

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

morvern callar.gifMorvern Callar at Amazon

Being a prolific reader, I was quite surprised that I hadn’t heard of Alan Warner until now.  Particularly as I spent 5 years living in Scotland.  This book was a recommendation for me, as I am currently looking to read some strong first person narrative voices for my own writing project.

There is only one word I can think of for this book – astonishing.

Morvern Callar is a 21-year-old girl who works in a supermarket in a remote Scottish highland sea port.  She comes home to find her boyfriend has killed himself and is lying dead on the kitchen floor.  I know – that would put me off reading most books and when I read the premise I thought – oh no thanks.  But DON’T let that put you off.  The story is told from Morvern’s perspective.  The narrative is steely strong, matter-of-fact and lyrical.  I could no better than to steal Hilary Mantel’s description – it is a stylistic dazzler.

The dialogue is a strange mix of Scottish slang and the rural dialect that hails from that area of Scotland.  Morvern is uneducated, hedonistic, but also incredibly brave and strong.  The two people closest to her are her best friend  Lanna and her foster father Red Hanna.   As the story unfolds Lanna’s almost obsessive fascination with Morvern wakes her up to the truth that Lanna is not to be trusted.   Lanna cannot handle Morvern’s emotional self-sufficiency and the needier she becomes, the more Morvern withdraws.

Morvern’s actions are shocking to the core and yet we understand her need to survive and her search for some level of beauty and meaning in the world.  She describes simple pleasures and a large part of the novel is dedicated to the portrayal of whatever music she is currently listening to on her Walkman, which is essential to her mood.  

A nostalgic trip back through the 80’s give this book an added dimension and the pleasures enjoyed by Morvern and Lanna, although a bit extreme to most of us, bring back memories of youthful holidays in hot climates, when sunbathing and clubbing all night were happiness itself.

The descriptions of the beauty she sees around her when abroad are in deep contrast to the chaos of her own life.  The writing is masterful: “The sun slid up over the mimosas till cloud out at sea started to curl and light fell in masses on the water; the bottom of a cloud bank broke away while a bar of sky was stained pinkish then the purple- like shadows changed into a peach roof above.”

Morvern never states what she is feeling and the narrative is far stronger for it.   Instead we come to know how she is coping through her actions and her perceptions of her every growing world.

This is one of the most unusual books I have ever read and it is going straight into my top ten reads.  I imagine it may be marmite to some, but if you are looking for something wholly different, exquisitely written and viscerally haunting, then buy it now.   A revelation.