Review of ‘Making It Up As I Go Along’ by Marian Keyes.

marian-keyes

There are two female Irish writers who I think are underrated.  Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.  Both undoubtedly beloved and revered, but I don’t think people appreciate what skilled writers they were in Maeve’s case, and are in Marian’s.     The trick is, they make it look effortless, but it’s not, and I don’t think people appreciate that enough.

‘Maeve’s Times’ by Maeve Binchy is one of my favourite books ever.  It made me laugh, cry, and sigh with envy.  I re-read it from time to time and it gets better with every reading.

So, it was with some trepidation and excitement that I set out to read Marian’s series of articles. The trepidation came because I was nearly afraid I wouldn’t like them, and that would have been terrible, what with being such an ardent admirer.  I should have known my fears were ridiculous.

I began reading the book one night whilst in bed.  My husband began to look at me in a most alarming manner, as I began to shake with laughter and then to snort most unbecomingly.  At one point, I think I sounded like Pluto the dog.  From the very first piece on ‘Fake Tan,’ where my snorting was caused by an anecdote in which Marian goes to get fake tan administered at a salon for the first time.  She isn’t told until it is applied that she can’t wash it off until the following morning.  Unfortunately, she had plans to go out for dinner for her mammy’s birthday.  As she tells it:

“At the restaurant I caused a bit of a stir.  As if the smell wasn’t bad enough, bits of the mud were going black and green and falling off my face into my dinner.”

I don’t laugh easily.  A friend at school once told me I was terrible for laughing at other’s misfortunes.  I prefer to think I am laughing with them.  Marian Keyes is so exquisitely funny about the calamities that can strike when we least expect it and we are doing our best to just get on with things.  I laugh in understanding, in female solidarity and in empathy.

I once told a friend a story about leaving a suitcase in the wrong person’s house in London, and as it was the height of the troubles, and it was found with a Belfast address, all kinds of hell broke loose, while I was busy sunning myself on a beach in France.  It’s a long, complicated story, but my friend has been dining out on it ever since, and says it is the funniest thing she has ever heard.

Equally, my 10-year-old niece adores the story of how I sprayed myself from head to toe with an anti-mosquito Citronella spray and inadvertently became exceptionally drunk from the amount of ethanol in the spray. And there was me thinking it was natural and therefore safe.

So I have had more than my fair share of minor disasters too, and this my friends is where Marian is a joy.  She is generous in sharing both her good successful experiences (of which there are many I might add) and her less successful forays into areas of her life such as travel, the beauty industry, exercise, and the complicated business of living.  I am not a sycophant.  For example, I don’t always agree with her butchering of the English language for comic purposes – it doesn’t always work for me.

However, I do love this book and I think everyone should read it, for it is a tonic for the soul.  Marian Keyes is a great conversationalist, and her narrative voice is what makes the book special.  She writes as if you were sitting in her kitchen, having a chat and a cuppa. What’s not to love?

To end:

10 reasons why Marian Keyes is Fabulous:

  1. Despite her success as an author, she never pretends it is easy, and she is happy to admit she struggles with her writing.
  2. She is self-deprecating and exceptionally witty, but we also know that she is really very clever.
  3. She loves Alexander McCall Smith. I was SO excited when I read this.  Whenever I rave on to people about AMS, they usually mumble something about having read a couple of his books, but look at me like I am a bit sad.  This enrages me and makes me rave all the more.  Marian gets him, and his lovely books.
  4. She is generous in the extreme in sharing her tips for all kinds of things, from cooking to beauty, to writing, and she shares her mistakes too, so we can all learn from them.
  5. She is hilarious about ‘himself’ and showed her vulnerability and brilliant sense of humour when ‘himself’ went off trekking up a mountain somewhere far away (sorry don’t remember where it was) and she feared she would ‘lose him’ to one of the females in the climbing group.  She tweeted with much angst and hilarity.
  6. She is a big fan of Strictly and her blogs and tweets re the shows are unmissable.
  7. Her tweets and vlogs are legendary. Also, she is not like many well-known people who think they are too important to tweet with a non-celeb! She tweets with lots of different people.
  8. Her book ‘Is Anybody Out there?’ is one of the best novels I have read about the experience of grief. It stayed with me for ages afterwards.
  9. She supports causes she believes in, and donated her royalties for ‘Making It Up As I Go Along’ to the Save the Children Syria crisis. I mean – Come On.
  10. She started her tribute to Jilly Cooper at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards last December, by addressing the assembled company with her signature vernacular of ‘Lads…..’ I was watching it on the T.V. and nearly fell off my sofa in admiration and glee.  Funny, funny fabulous woman.

P.S.  I have decided not to tweet Marian the link to this piece for fear that she will –

(a) Think I am a stalker, which I am SO not.   I am happy to admire from afar.  (Or even worse, she gets the link but doesn’t bother to read it.)

(b) She will hate it and think me a creepy fan.  This would kill me altogether, so this remains between us.  I am just glad to have put it out there to encourage you to buy the book.  You can laugh and support a good cause. Sure, what more could you want?

P.P.S.  If you have been following my ‘Reading Gym’ list or ‘List of Betterment’ (see November’s blog post.)  I will be back next week with my review of ‘Les Jeux Sont Faits’ by Sartre.   The book for March is ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen.

 

‘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.