Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

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Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

Published by Quercus on 2 April 2020

What They Say

When the eight-year-old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers.

As Dee looks back over her time in the Master’s Lodging – an eerie and ancient house – a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother.

But is Dee telling the whole story? Is her growing friendship with the eccentric house historian, Linklater, any cause for concern? And most of all, why is Felicity silent?

Roaming Oxford’s secret passages and hidden graveyards, Magpie Lane explores the true meaning of family – and what it is to be denied one.

What I Say

Make no mistake, reading in these strange times has been a real challenge for me, and I am guessing lots of you at the moment. Having daily, hourly and instant news about the coronavirus is not overly condusive to wanting to pick up a novel is it really?

The thing is, Magpie Lane is one of those novels you can lose yourself in completely, whilst at the same time, feeling a slight (huge) sense of trepidation that something you can’t predict is going to happen. From the moment you turn the first page and meet Dee, Nanny to Mariah and Nick and their daughter Felicity, you realise this is going to be something very different and deliciously unnerving.

The novel starts with Dee being interviewed at a police station by Faraday and Khan, as her charge, Felicity has gone missing and they are desperately searching for clues as to why and where she could have gone. Prompted by Felicity’s parents, she has been asked to come in for questioning as she was close to her, was one of the few people that Felicity would speak to. An added complication to the eight year old’s disappearance is that she has elective mutism, and refuses to speak to anyone except her Dad, Dee and Dee’s friend Linklater – more of Mr Linklater further on in this review..

Right from the start of Magpie Lane, Dee is a very calm, together and perhaps slightly distant character, who seems to be at odds with the extrovert and opinionated Mariah. Like Dee, Mariah feels she is somewhat the outsider in her husband’s world, as he becomes the new Master of an Oxford College. She has no concept of the innate traditions and expectations of the wife of the Master, she decides to renovate the Lodge as she wants, infuriating the other College staff, who cannot abide this confident and vibrant woman who has come into their world.

Nick on the other hand, believes that this position will give him the social standing and recognition he craves. He has taken the role on after a position at the BBC has come to an end, and his drive and ambition has brought his family here to ensure that he is able to fulfill his dreams and his need to be respected and looked up to by other people. With them, they bring eight year old Felicity, who it transpires, is actually the daughter of Nick and his first wife, whose death is referred to in whispers and subtle glances between Nick and Mariah.

Felicity feels like an outsider in her own family, and her mutism and inability to connect with her parents means that she is often overlooked and disregarded. She seems at times to be almost an inconvenience to them, who needs to be looked after in order for them to furt her their own careers. This isn’t to say Nick and Mariah don’t love her – they just seem unsure as to what to do with her.

This sense of disconnection and dislocation is an important theme that runs throughout Magpie Lane. Dee has no family to speak of, and is wary of making a connection with anyone for fear of getting hurt. Mariah is not allowed to be part of her husband’s world unless she adheres to what is socially expected of her, and when she doesn’t, she is disregarded. Linklater, who is hired by Mariah and Nick to uncover the history of the Lodge is living a solitary academic life in Oxford, and seems to be happy in his own world, but at the same time seems to feel a connection to Dee, although she tries to ignore it.

So far so straightforward – why is Magpie Lane so engrossing? Well, what I haven’t told you yet is what happens when Felicity goes to sleep..

In Felicity’s bedroom in the Lodge, is a locked door which is discovered to be a locked priest’s hole. At night, Felicity is disturbed by noises that come from it, and Dee often finds her distressed and telling her about what she has heard and seen coming from it. As Felicity withdraws further into her silent world, her behaviour becomes more and more erratic, and Dee keeps her off school without telling her parents, to keep her safe from the constant bullying and upset she endures from her peers.

As readers, we are drawn into this other world, as we see what Dee and Felicity are witnessing, but Mariah and Nick only see their daughter becoming more distant, and a seemingly indispensible Nanny who is able to form a bond with their daughter that they cannot. The plot moves along at a perfect pace, balanced between Linklater’s investigations into the history of the Lodge, the consequences of it for Felicity, and the slowly disintegrating marriage of Nick and Mariah, as they struggle to cope with what they believe would be the making of them. As they try to present a united and indefeatable face to the College, Mariah discovers she is pregnant.

What worked so well for me about Magpie Lane, was that Lucy Atkins’ writing is always so tightly controlled, and is impossible to determine which way the novel was going to turn next, and I loved that. For me, as a reader, especially at a time like this, I want to lose myself completely in a book, and Magpie Lane draws you in right from the start. Lucy also writes absorbing and relatable characters that serve to bring the reader closer to the novel and become increasingly invested in their lives.

I thought it was also interesting that my allegiances changed towards the characters as the plot developed. Initially, I thought that Dee was a cold and menacing woman, whose relationship with Felicity was going to be the unsettling thread in the novel. However, as the narrative moved forward, instead I felt she was like Felicity, searching for the one thing we all strive for – a sense of belonging and true connection to other people. Similarly, Mariah is someone who initially seemed to be this force of nature, determined to have it all and to ensure she was not forced to stay in her husband’s shadow. Little by little her insecurities and real self was revealed, and we saw a woman who like many of us is just getting by at parenting, and is blindsided by the reality of caring for a child who won’t talk to her and a baby who is not a perfectly behaved insta perfect infant.

Linklater is really the catalyst for the plot to drive forward and also for Dee to start to realise that she may have found someone with whom she can be her authentic self without fear of ridicule. He, like Dee has always been slightly disconnected from the world around him, but together they seem to edge towards some sort of understanding and realisation that in each other they have found what has been missing from their lives. As they work together on the history of the Lodge, Dee sees that Felicity has found her voice, and is being listened to by people who really understand her. From that point on, leading up to Felicity’s disappearance, the novel twists and turns and not only reveals the secrets of the Lodge, but of those who live and have lived there.

Magpie Lane is a novel that is not easy to categorise, and is all the more powerful for it. For me, it was the female characters who were at the heart of the novel, and it was all the more relatable because of it. It is a brilliant and engaging novel, that not only has the traits of an unnerving mystery, but is a heartfelt and emotional novel about our need to belong, to connect with someone else, however difficult and ultimately life changing it might be.

I absolutely loved it, and I think you will too.

Thank you so much to Ella at Quercus Books for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review and a chance to be part of the Magpie Lane Social Media Blast.

Why don’t you check out what my fellow fabulous Bookish Friends are saying too…

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

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Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

Published by Penguin Ireland

What They Say

Three brothers are at the funeral. One lies in the coffin.

Will, Brian and Luke grow up competing for their mother’s unequal love. As men, the competition continues – for status, money, fame, women …

They each betray each other, over and over, until one of them is dead.

But which brother killed him?

What I Say

Let me say straight from the start of this review, as I am all for honesty, that I am a total Liz Nugent fan. Ever since I read Unravelling Oliver, I have waited patiently for her next novel, and Skin Deep is one of my favourite novels which I recommend endlessly.

Why is any of this remotely relevant? In my honest opinion, Our Little Cruelties is even better. That’s a bold statement to make, but trust me, once you have had the pleasure of meeting the Drumm brothers and the world of chaos that they inhabit, you will undoubtedly understand why.

The novel starts with a funeral, and we know from the start that it’s either Will, Luke or Brian inside the coffin. That is a striking and engaging introduction to these brothers, as of course we immediately want to know which one of them doesn’t make it to the end of the book – and why.

It’s also important to tell you just how complex and interesting each of them are, and as the story progresses, my reaction to each of them swapped constantly as more of their lives were revealed. Make no mistake, the Drumm brothers may be by turns charming, engaging and driven, but they are all self-serving and narcissistic too.

The novel is split into three sections- one for each of the brothers – Will, Luke and Brian and their families. As we follow each section, not only does the narrative move forward and backwards in time, we also hear sometimes three different versions of the same event, told from the unique perspective of each brother. In doing this, Liz Nugent cleverly disorientates and unnerves us as readers- who do you trust when the stories you are presented with shift and take your allegiances with it?

All the time, ever present in the fabric of their patchwork lives is their mother. Will is undoubtedly her favourite, Brian is tolerated, but it is Luke who bears the brunt of her anger and frustration. Melissa is an absolute force of nature, a woman who is a celebrity singer and star of TV Soap, and she seems to resent having to look after her children unless they are lavishing her with love and attention. If you thought Cordelia in Skin Deep was a force to be reckoned with, Melissa takes it to a whole new nightmarish level!

As you get further and further into the Drumm brothers history – which goes right from their childhood to the funeral at the start of the novel, you not only learn about the character and their lives, but also how their very distinct personalities mean that they, like their mother, think only of themselves and what they can gain from any situation. Will may be a successful film producer, but he uses those around him -especially the women in his life to make sure he is always at the top of his game. Luke discovers a talent for music and becomes a pop star, and he seems to be totally overwhelmed by all the attention and trappings that it brings – and slides into a life of drugs and drinks, with little regard for anyone else. Even when Luke seems to be Will’s saviour after Will is diagnosed as HIV positive, Luke is only doing it so Will can repay him by getting him a part in a film.  Meanwhile, after Brian’s life as a teacher is brought to an abrupt end, he decides to appoint himself as Luke’s manager- whilst at the same time siphoning off plenty of money for himself, and moving into Luke’s mansion.

This is the joyous dilemma for us as readers – we should be appalled by the way in which the Drumm brothers treat each other, but the constant narrative shifts mean that just when we start to sympathise with one of them, to see the same events from another perspective means we never really know who is being truthful.

The women in the brother’s lives also form an important part of the story, and they are not relegated to simply being Will’s wife, or Luke’s girlfriend. Susan, Mary and Daisy – (who is Will and Susan’s daughter) are absolutely integral to the plot at all times, and they become part of the brothers lives and are linked to all of them in numerous ways.  Susan is married to Will, but Brian has always been in love with her, and he is sure that he, not Will fathered Daisy after their one night stand. Mary had an affair with Will, and then she and Luke fall in love, and this is always in the background, not to mention a woman called Kate who Luke was due to have a baby with – until Will realised she was one of his conquests too, and he could not risk her telling his wife.

Daisy for me was a really interesting and understated character.  Although she is absolutely central to the plot – most notably as Will and Brian come to blows over who her father is, she grows in significance as she gets older.  As she finds her voice, we also realise that like her Uncle Luke, she has many demons to deal with, and as other people seek to disregard her, they become more and more vocal.

This is the glorious, entertwined, twisted and devilish world of Our Little Cruelties – every page brings a new revelation, a new way the Drumm brothers are closer than they could ever imagine. We as readers can only stand back and watch as their lives crash into each other and implode in a way we could never ever imagine.

You can probably tell how much I loved Our Little Cruelties, and it is absolutely going to be one of my #MostSelfishReads2020. Seeing as we won’t be able to go out anywhere anytime soon, I can’t think of a better book to treat yourself to, and trust me, you won’t be able to put it down..

If you are looking for a cosy story of family bonds and brotherhood, Our Little Cruelties is probably not the novel you are looking for. If however, you are looking for an absolute masterclass in a taut, psychological thriller that explores what people will do to ensure they get what they want, this book should absolutely be on your reading pile. Liz Nugent’s insight and understanding of the depths that people will sink to in order to ensure that they will survive are just perfect, and the fact that you are attracted to and repelled by each brother in turn are testament to her absolute sublime skill as a writer.

Thank you so much to Jane Gentle and Ellie Hudson for my gifted copy and my chance to be part of this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

Please do check out what my fabulous fellow Bloggers are saying too..

Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

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Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

Published By Serpent’s Tail

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Zorka. She had eyebrows like her name.

1980s Prague. For Jana, childhood means ration queues and the smell of boiled potatoes on the grey winter air. But just before Jana’s seventh birthday, a new family moves in to their building: a bird-eyed mamka in a fox-fur coat, a stubble-faced papka – and a raven-haired girl named Zorka.

As the first cracks begin to appear in the communist regime, Zorka teaches Jana to look beyond their building, beyond Prague, beyond Czechoslovakia … and then, Zorka just disappears. Jana, now an interpreter in Paris for a Czech medical supply company, hasn’t seen her in a decade.

As Jana and Zorka’s stories slowly circle across the surreal fluctuations of the past and present, the streets of 1980s Prague, the suburbs of 1990s Wisconsin and the lesbian bars of present-day Paris, they lead inexorably to a mysterious door on the Rue de Prague …

Written with the dramatic tension of Euripidean tragedy and the dreamlike quality of a David Lynch film, Virtuoso is an audacious, mesmerising novel of love in the post-communist diaspora.

What I Say

From the beautiful cover, through to the very last page, Virtuoso is a lyrical and ethereal novel, unlike any I have read before. I initially thought it was simply about the relationship between two girls, Zorka and Jana. I was ready to learn about their childhood in Prague, and the subsequent paths their adult lives would take.

Virtuoso is just that, but so much more too. It is a startling commentary on life under the Communist Regime in Prague, a novel about what family is to us, how we search for our identities throughout our lives, and what it means to find our place in the world.

The novel starts with a young woman discovering the body of her wife in their hotel room, and immediately you are pulled into their world as you have no idea why this woman has passed away, or indeed who any of the characters are. It serves to draw you in immediately to the plot, and I was intrigued by it. As the novel moves forward, we are observers to the lives of Jana, Zorka and Aimee, all of whom have their stories to tell, and slowly their lives start to come together as we understand how inextricably linked their lives are.

Jana is a respectful and quiet young girl, who lives a fairly unremarkable existence with her mother and father, until one day Zorka and her family move in to her neighbourhood. From the first time they meet, Jana and Zorka have an immediate connection, a sense that their meeting was pre-destined, and Jana seems to be in awe of this fiery and outspoken girl who is absolutely aware of her self and the innate power she possesses. Zorka seems to be someone who refuses to be categorized or tamed, she is determined to live her life how she wants, and Jana can only stand by and watch. What happens from that point on, is that these two women are entwined forever in a relationship neither can adequately describe.

Right from the start of the novel, you are aware of the confines and restrictions placed on women during this time. They are defined by their roles of wife and mother, whilst living in a world of unspoken subservience and fear. You do not know who to trust, and what you can say, and as mothers sit with each other and swap secrets, the playground benches are apparently the safest place to do so. This is why Zorka is such a revelation to Jana and her family. Although initially Zorka seems to be this problematic child, who pushes everyone to their limits, we as readers learn the troubling relationship she has with her mother, and this defiance is a distraction technique so her mother won’t physically assault her.

Little by little, Zorka realises the only way she can survive her childhood is to escape from it, leaving Jana behind, bewildered and shattered at the loss of this young woman who she had come to depend on. What Yelena captures so perfectly is the intensity of friendship between girls, how they mean everything to you at the time, the shared secrets, the confessions and discussions about your hopes and dreams. To have that taken away from you without explanation can be devastating, and for Jana, she now has to work out how to carry on living alone in the very place that Zorka has deserted.

Aimee is living with her father after her parents divorce and is working for his company, however she seems to be unsettled and searching for someone to love. Her memories of her life with her father come out as a stream of remembrances, but this works as it gives the reader an insight into her thoughts and dreams. Eventually she meets and falls in love with Dominique, an actress. Initially their relationship seems idyllic and gives Aimee everything she thought she wanted, but little by little, she comes to realise that Dominque has issues of her own, and she will again fall into a role of caring and supporting someone at the expense of her own hopes and desires.

The novel as it progresses, seems more fractured in terms of the narrative, and is at times almost dreamlike in its telling. There are short, distinct chapters, a nightmarish scene outside a club where Jana is brutally attacked by strange and disturbing children and the ever present blue smoke that seeps into different chapters and permeates the narrative.

Virtuoso is also an exploration of self and sexuality, and the visble and real relationships between Jana and Zorka and Aimee and Dominique are offset by a relationship carried out in the confines of a chatroom. A thread of a conversation between an American teenager called Amy and an Eastern European housewife whose username is Dominxxika_N39 who is effectively kept prisoner by her husband are presented to us without context. Their conversations reveal that Amy is a pupil known to Zorka, but Amy is determined to travel to this woman and rescue her, which as casual observers on their chat is unsettling for the reader, and we are simply bystanders who are unable to intervene to save Amy from her fate.

As the novel draws to its conclusion, it becomes more surreal and is far from a straightforward narrative that many of us are comfortable with. Did I ‘get’ all of it – no. However, it is impossible to not be drawn into Jana, Zorka and Aimee’s lives, to see how they try to define themselves and their place in the world even when the world doesn’t seem to make sense to us.

In Virtuoso, Yelena has written a brave and uncompromising novel, which has interesting and defiant women at its core. It serves only to remind us that fiction can be whatever it wants to be, as long as readers are open to recognising that not everything can be explained neatly and completely.

Thank you very much to Midas PR and to the Dylan Thomas Prize for my copy of Virtuoso in exchange for an honest review.

I’m one of 66 Bloggers taking part in the Dylan Thomas Prize Blog Tour – do follow Midas PR and The Dylan Thomas Prize to see what my fellow bloggers have to say…

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

 

 Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Published by OneWorld Publications

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say.

A breathtaking tale of family secrets, from the international bestselling author of An American Marriage

‘My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.’

This is the story of a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle. James Witherspoon has two families, one public, the other a closely guarded secret. But when his daughters meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows the truth. Theirs is a relationship destined to explode.

 

What I Say

”Silver’ is what I called girls who were natural beauties but who also smoother on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn’t just how they looked, it was how they were.’

When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Silver Sparrow, as soon as I read the synopsis, I knew that this novel would be controversial as it deals with the issue of bigamy.  However, what you cannot determine from a synopsis is the emotional and personal stories that are part of the story too, and for me, how the bigamist, James Witherspoon is far from any preconceived notions I may have had as to what a bigamist is actually like.

Silver Sparrow may be about a man who is a bigamist, but do not for one minute think that he is the main focus of this story.  James Witherspoon is the link between the two families, but this novel for me is absolutely about the women in his life.  He is married to Laverne, and they have a daughter called Chaurisse, and his other wife is Gwen, and their daughter is Dana.

The novel is split into two parts – the first tells the story of Dana and her mother, the second is Chaurisse’s and Laverne’s story.  What worked so well for me was that the narrative brings you close to each family in turn, and in hearing Gwen and Dana’s story first, you understand from the start that Dana and Gwen are aware of his other family – but Laverne and Chaurisse have no clue that James has another wife and daughter. In separating the two narratives and slowly bringing them together, you also form attachments to all the characters, and see the reality of what being involved with a bigamist is truly like on a day to day level.

What permeates Dana’s story right from the start is not only her deep love for her parents, but her heartfelt frustration that she and her mother are only half living their lives.  James’ visits to them are sporadic, secretive and Dana cannot really experience the father daughter relationship she desperately craves – because in theory she and her mother do not exist. She and her mother are often referred to as the ‘outside’ family, and Dana feels that deeply.

Gwen is acutely aware of her daughter’s feelings and is determined to ensure that James fulfills his financial responsibilities to his daughter, and that she in turn provides the stability and support Dana deserves.  The situation is complicated by the fact that both families live in the same school area, and as Dana and Chaurisse are close in age that they will cross paths one day. Sure enough, when Dana attends a science event, she notices an upset girl who has forgotten part of her project, and also happens to be wearing the exact same coat James gave her, and realises it is her half sister Chaurisse. As Chaurisse’s mother arrives with the missing papers, there is a devastating moment when Laverne and Dana see each other for the first time and realise who they are.

It is a poignant and understated moment, but for me, Tayari’s sublime writing of that encounter was a perfect snapshot of everything that both families are going through. They exist, but they cannot acknowledge each other, and each daughter and wife brings with them a history with James that the other has no understanding of. James may be the link between the two families, but it is their reality and lives he is unwittingly playing with.  The other interesting point for me, was that James is a character who just seems to have fallen into the role of bigamist – he is not a cold and calculating man who is scheming to hurt his wives, he just seems to love them both for what they bring to his life, and he can’t make a definitive choice. I am not for one minute condoning what he does, but Tayari has written a character where you can’t help but feel for him and this chaos he has created of his own volition.

James’ best friend Raleigh is the stoic and sensible character, who although not related to James, is like a brother to him.  He provides the stability for both the families, and cannot help but become linked to both.  Raleigh is named as Dana’s father on her birth certificate, and it is clear through the novel that he loves Gwen, even though she turns down his marriage proposal as Dana does not want anyone to replace James in her life.

In telling both Gwen and Laverne’s story too, we understand the cultural and societal expectations placed on women at that time, and in hearing Laverne’s story we see how a naive sexual encounter resulted in her pregancy and marriage- at the age of fourteen. She had to marry James, give up school – although James carried on and Laverne lost the baby, but from that moment on Laverne’s destiny is set in stone. She is now James’ wife and is expected to act accordingly. 

As Dana and Chaurisse grow up, they become friends, and all the time, Dana is totally aware of who Chaurisse is, while Chaurisse is just happy to have a friend who she can spend time with and forge a friendship with.  The novel is filled with heartbreaking moments, where we as readers, like Dana, have true understanding of the reality of the situation while Chaurisse is blissfully unaware. When Chaurisse invites Dana to her house – which her Mum also works from as a beauty salon, Laverne is horrified to see this girl in her home, but Dana is desperate to see her father’s other home. As she moves from room to room, and asks Chaurisse numerous questions about her father, we can see that Dana is trying to understand exactly what her father does when he is there, and how this other family exists so openly while she and her mother have to be part of his secret.

The skill in Tayari’s writing is that with each character, you form an emotional connection to them. Their sadness and joy, hope and despair are keenly felt because they are real, truthful and resilient women whose lives are determined by the actions of the one man whom they all love.

Finally, the two families are brought together when Dana and Chaurisse have a flat tyre on a night out together and Chaurisse rings her dad to come and help them, and Dana has phoned her mother.  From that point on, their lives will never be the same again, and everything Chaurisse and Laverne believed they knew about James Witherspoon are about to be shattered. These revelations are even more devastating because Laverne has just been convinced to have a Twentieth Wedding Anniversary Party, and she realises she knows nothing about this man who is also someone else’s husband.

How do these two families ever recover from this? Well, you will need to read Silver Sparrow to find out!

In this novel, Tayari Jones has written about James Witherspoon, and the families who are in his world, but Silver Sparrow is so much more. It is a novel about wanting to belong, about finding your way in the world when you have been forced through no fault of your own to live in the shadows and the truth that family is everything to so many of us, no matter what that looks like to everyone else.

It is an emotional and truthful novel, that delves deep into the heart of marriage and all the complications it brings in this situation. Tayari Jones has taken a subject that could have been sensationalised and derided, and instead has completely ensured that we as readers absolutely understand what it means when the man you love turns your world upside down and the earth shattering devastation it brings to the women involved.

Thank you very much to Oneworld Publications for my copy in exchange for an honest review and a chance to take part in the Blog Tour.

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

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Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Published By Atlantic Books

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Karim and Maya:
[x] share a home
[x] worry about money
[x] binge-watch films
[x] argue all the time

Karim, a young film-maker, carries with him the starry-eyed dreams of the Arab Revolution. Maya carries her own pressing concerns: an errant father, an unstable job, a chain-smoking habit, a sudden pregnancy. When Karim’s brother disappears in Tunis, and Karim wants to go after him, Maya must choose between her partner and her home city, her future and her history…

In a conversation between forms, fictions and truths, Exquisite Cadavers is a novel about a young couple navigating love in London, and a literary hall of mirrors about an author navigating the inspirations behind her work.

What I Say:

I had read and loved When I Hit You, which was the first novel Meena had written. It was an honest and brutal exploration of a woman in an abusive marriage, and one that I thought about often after reading it.

For Exquisite Cadavers, right from the very first page, you are aware that this novel is one that will push the boundaries not only of conventional literature, but will also ask the reader to be much more involved and aware of the form of the novel than ever before. This novel is not a passive experience for the reader, and if you are looking for a book that conforms to a standard straightforward narrative, then this is perhaps not the novel for you.

I am going to be honest and tell you that initially on reading it, I had no clue as to how I could possibly articulate a review.

The novel is short, impactful, and filled with so much information and knowledge that it feels much longer. The format is like nothing I have ever read before. It has one narrative down the middle of the pages – that of Maya and Karim, whilst in the margins, Meena has written copious notes of her personal life, creative process and what is going on for her in her world as she constructs the novel.

The ingenuity of all this in my opinion is how you choose to read it. Do you read the main narrative and refer to the notes in the margins as you go along, or do you read the margin notes first, or the main narrative first? This is a process that made me stop and think – initially I read the main narrative and notes as I went along, but it was too disjointed for me, so I decided to read Maya and Karim’s story first, and then Meena’s notes. The interesting thing I found, was that I was completely immersed in both stories as I read them separately, but also felt a slight disconnection from Maya and Karim as I read Meena’s notes. I was very aware of how they were constructs of Meena’s imagination, and the influences she had imbued them with as she created them – because they are just that – creations of her imagination.

Maya and Karim are young, married and in love, he is a film maker and his attempts to try and document the world he wants to show are frustrated at every turn. His narrative is slowly edited by the tutors around him so that he works on what they believe he should talk about – no matter how contrived or stereotypical it might be, at the risk of him losing his place on the course. Maya works on a newspaper, but she is acutely aware of the domestic world she is now part of, and is energised by the freedom she has, but is also and Karim both have difficult relationships with their fathers too, and have been increasingly getting frustrated with each other as the day to day reality of marriage becomes more prevalent.

As the novel progresses, Meena’s voice also becomes clearer and informs Maya and Karim’s narrative too. When she feels she cannot relate to Maya, she decides that she will make her pregnant- just as she is in real life. I thought this was a very incisive device to ensure that the reader is aware that everything we read in Maya and Karim’s story is a construct of what Meena wants us to read. As Maya and Karim’s story moves on, we learn that Karim has his own way of viewing his wife – his knowledge as a filmmaker imbues the way in which he views her too.

I felt that throughout this novel , the notion of home and belonging was a strong theme throughout- both in Maya and Karim’s story, but also in Meena’s notations too. She references both her own journey to where she has settled today, but also talks about the reality for those family and friends who are in other parts of the world too. There are also lots of references to cultural and political events which, due to my lack of knowledge meant that I had to stop and research them before returning to the text and rereading them – but this time with a sense of awareness.

When Karim decides to return to Tunis to support his brother who has been wrongfully arrested, Maya stands at a threshold where she can stay at home and watch from afar, or she can make a life changing decision to follow her husband, breaking out of the domestic and social confines they have constructed. What I thought was really interesting was that Meena’s notes stop suddenly, bringing the reader immediately back to Karim and Maya’s story, and the stark reality of the decisions they have to make,

Without a doubt, Exquisite Cadavers was a novel at first I was intimidated by. I have to think why that was. I believe it was because it so pushed me out of my comfort zone that my first reaction was to stop. However, isn’t that what literature and reading is all about? To read things that bring new worlds and ideas to us, to challenge our preconceived ideas and to show us the world beyond our comfortable own?

Now I have had time to reflect on it, I think it is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful novel that makes us as a reader really engage with the words on the page, and think about the writer behind them too. The story of Maya and Karim may be the one we are immediately drawn to, as it is what our eye searches for as soon as we open the novel, but for me, the creative process and education I received by taking the time to read Meena’s notes in the margins, are what added the important and brilliant dimension to this work.

Exquisite Cadavers is a novel that demands your full attention at all times. It is breathtaking in its scope, and ambitious in its demands of the reader, but it is impossible to put down. In reading Maya and Karim’s story, we are also gaining a rare and intimate insight into the world of a writer, and for Meena to articulate that so openly and honestly means that we as readers are witness to a world we are all so often blissfully unaware of too.

Thank you very much to Midas PR and the Dylan Thomas Prize for asking me to take part on this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

There are 65 other Bloggers taking part on this amazing Blog Tour for the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist – why don’t you check out what they are saying too..

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The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka

The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka

Published by Doubleday Books on 27th February

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say

Narrated by the spirit of an enslaved African, this is a searing debut about hope, redemption and the scars of history.

Over two hundred years ago in Africa, a woman tosses her young son to safety as she is hauled off by slavers. After a brutal sea passage, her second child is snatched away. Although the woman doesn’t know it yet, her spirit is destined to roam the earth in search of her lost children.

It will make its way to 1980s Brixton, where she watches teenage Michael attempt to stay out of trouble as riots spit and boil onthe streets; and to a poor village in Nigeria, where Ngozi struggles to better her life..

As the invisible threads that draw these two together are pulled ever tighter, The Book of Echoes asks: how can we overcome the traumas of the past when they are woven so inextricably with the present? Humming with horror and beauty, Rosanna Amaka’s remarkable debut marks her as a vibrant new voice in fiction.

What I Say 

‘Unknowingly being passed down a baton of scars because their job was to survive, to hand on the baton in the hope of a better tomorrow, for the next generation to make it better than it was’.

Hand on heart, I had seen this novel, and I thought it wasn’t for me. I am trying to be more responsible and only request proofs I know I am going to read and review, because I don’t feel it’s right to ask for them if they are just going to sit on my shelf.

When Tabitha from Doubleday asked me if I would be interesting in reading and reviewing My Book of Echoes, I read the blurb again, and thought the dual narrative, and the notion of two seemingly disparate lives tentatively connected was one I would like to explore.

Twenty pages in, I sent Tabitha a DM:

‘Tabitha! The Book of Echoes! Oh My Goodness!!’

That’s quite a statement for a book I wasn’t sure about, but I mean every word – and even more so when I tell you that this book is going on my #MostSelfishReads2020 List.

The novel starts with an unnamed pregnant female narrator arriving at the West India Docks in London in 1803 after having been stowed away in the ship with many other people, suffering inhumane conditions. Wind, a sailor and former slave, pulls the Narrator out of the ship where she is forced to leave and gives birth to a child who is taken from her immediately. She then appears as a spirit that is present throughout the pages, as she weaves her way through the world as an all seeing presence.

The Book of Echoes is also the story of Ngozi and Michael. Ngozi is a young woman in Nigeria, who knows that the only way she will find a better way of life is to leave her family behind, and provide for them from afar.  She is a valuable commodity, an object that can be bought and sold, but her mother does this reluctantly. Ngozi has to leave in order for her family to survive, and to be perceived as a good daughter she has to acquiesce to what they need.

When an horrific tragedy befalls the first family she is sent to, Ngozi is left to fend for herself, and she ends up with the Osindu family where she is targetted by both the mother and father in equally awful and extremely distressing ways.

As Ngozi gets older, she realises that her body and sexuality which has been used by others to get what they want from her, is now the very thing she can use against them to get what she wants.

Michael lives miles away from Ngozi, in Brixton, where he, his mother and his sister Marcia are existing as a family unit. That is until one day, Michael’s mother is murdered at their home, and his whole world is turned upside down.  He and Marcia have to go and live with their aunt and uncle, and suddenly everything they ever knew is turned on its head.  Michael is determined to care for his younger sister, but he needs to earn money and fast. After seeing his school friend Devon, who is doing really well for himself he decides that working as a courier for Devon’s boss Tom, is the way to ensure he can pacify the social services and give him the income he needs in order that he is able to care for his sister.

Set against the backdrop of the Brixton riots, and the racial tension which seeps through the pages of Michael’s story, there is always the sense in Rosanna’s writing that Michael’s journey is about to get a lot more complicated. When Devon is accused of not delivering the packages (which it transpires should have contained drugs), Michael is caught up in the ensuing fight and Devon is killed.  Michael is found guilty of his murder and is sent to prison for three years.  He emerges a changed man, weary of the world and unable to see his place in it, which drives him to his lowest point until his sister Marcia helps him see that life really is worth living.

Ngozi meanwhile is learning exactly how to get what she wants by flirting with the business men who come to the bank where she is an assistant.  They are enchanted by this beautiful woman who is quick witted, beautiful and intelligent, while Ngozi is absolutely aware that by using this, she can escape the world she is desperate to leave behind.  When she meets Ben McDonald, a businessman from Scotland, they embark on a relationship which gives Ngozi a home and a social standing of sorts, but she and Ben are still seen as outsiders and are regarded with suspicion and excluded from the social world around them.

Ben regularly returns to Scotland, and refuses to tell her why. It is only when Ngozi discovers that she is pregnant does Ben reveal the truth about his life to her. Convinced she can get him to stay with her, she decides to go to Ben’s home and confront his wife, which results in Ngozi losing the baby and realising she is totally alone. Ngozi is ostracised again, and finds herself in London, alone and looking for work.

Ngozi and Michael, in spite of the experiences they have both been through are resilient and determined that they will ensure that from now on their lives will be very different. Ngozi finds success in designing successful software, and Michael’s talents lie in renovating and selling houses.

Little by little, in tantalising steps, Rosanna brings Ngozi and Michael closer, until they meet, and their life together pulls the novel even futher through history as we see what happens to them. What was also interesting for me, was the character of Marcia, Michael’s sister, who has had to deal with witnessing her Mum’s murder, the imprisonment of her brother, and the estrangement from her other brother too.

However, her intelligence and drive means that from a very early age Marcia is determined to make sure she is the force for change in her family, and she has to learn to suppress the enormity of what she has seen in order to function. Until one day, when it all becomes too much, and she now has to rely on the family to help her – and they realise exactly what Marcia has endured. For me, Marcia was a really interesting character, she has so much quiet presence and determination, and was a woman who you felt really had dealt with so much with dignity and perseverance.

As a reader, it is impossible not to be swept along with the scope and ambition of the plot. Having the nameless narrator as the link through the book just works so beautifully, because it brings the reader right into the narrative – I felt that I was there with her, as an observer on Ngozi and Michael’s world. The prose and descriptions are perfect, as you feel totally immersed in the landscape and history, and it also taught me so much about lives I had no experience of.

The Book of Echoes is a raw, brutal and tender story which is uncompromising in its portrayal of the realities of life for Ngozi and Michael. It is unflinching and heartbreaking, told without compromise, but at the heart of it, are the souls of Michael and Ngozi, whose seemingly disparate lives fit together so seamlessly, that there could only ever have been one ending.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Tabitha Pelly for my gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Recipe for A Perfect Wife By Karma Brown

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Karma Brown – Recipe For A Perfect Wife

Published By – Legend Press

Available From All Good Bookshops and Online.

What They Say

When Alice Hale leaves a career to become a writer and follows her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. But when she finds a vintage cookbook buried in the basement, she becomes captivated by its previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she realizes that within the pages Nellie left clues about her life.

Soon Alice learns that while a Baked Alaska may seem harmless, Nellie’s secrets may have been anything but. When Alice uncovers a more sinister, even dangerous, side to Nellie’s marriage, and has become increasingly dissatisfied with her own relationship, she begins to take control of her life and protect herself with a few secrets of her own.

What I Say

When I heard about Karma Brown’s novel from Legend Press, it had me at Perfect Wife. Increasingly in a world today where your worth is judged by likes and retweets of an image you can filter and edit until it fits in with the image you want to present, I am endlessly intrigued by the notion of perfection, and how society decides what that is.

In this novel, we are presented with two women, Nellie and Alice, who although they live decades apart in America – Nellie in the 1950s, Alice in the present time, you are aware right from the very start how little has actually changed, in spite of our claims of equality for women.

Alice and her husband Nate buy a house in the suburbs – which turns out to be Nellie’s former marital home. As soon as Alice steps inside the house, she is aware of something in the atmosphere that she can’t explain, and a house that seems to be an untouched shrine to the woman who previously lived there.

For Nellie, as a young married woman, she is expected to maintain the house, behave appropriately, and to ensure her husband Richard is happy at all times – whatever the cost. The world that Nellie has grown up in has very strict beliefs about women and their place in the world, and their worth is measured not only by their ability to keep house, their husband’s happiness, but more importantly by their fertility and child bearing ability. Her increasingly fractured and at times violent relationship with her husband Richard, means that she seeks solace in her garden, and by cooking her way through a cookbook, putting her unhappiness and isolation into paying meticulous attention to every single recipe.

It was interesting to see how in the present day, Alice has given up work and reluctantly moved to this house, seemingly to help renovate it and to write a novel. As soon as she has agreed to move in, her husband Nate sees it as an opportunity for them to start trying for children – a decision he makes without consulting Alice, and one he expects her to embrace wholeheartedly. I thought it was a clever plot device that saw Alice trapped in a house she didn’t particularly want, and now her life seemed to be just as constricted as Nellie’s. The assumption is made that as she was now ‘just’ a housewife, that the next logical step is to have a child, irrespective of her own dreams and ambitions.

The novel shifts seamlessly between the present day and the 1950’s, and I loved the detail that Karma has put into the descriptions of the lifestyle and fashion of the time. As a reader, you really feel part of Nellie’s world, and the ‘advice’ from manuals at the start of each chapter absolutely makes you aware of just how limited expectations of women were at that time. Nellie is only free from the increasingly violent and controlling behaviour of her husband when she is pregnant. Yet Richard’s care and concern seemed to stem more from his need to prove to those around him his virility and facade as a seemingly perfect father to be and husband, than a man in love with his wife.

When Alice is looking around her new home, she finds a couple of boxes which contain magazines, clothes, and the recipe book that Nellie used. As Alice starts to read through this cookbook, she starts to become more and more involved with the house and Nellie’s story. Nate starts to enjoy the fact his wife is at home, and they seem to slip into the traditional roles as Richard and Nellie did before them. At the same time, we as readers can see how this is only making Alice feel more claustrophobic and resentful towards her husband. Her choices seem to be constrained by the very fact that she is now falling into the role of a perfect wife, and all the unspoken societal norms that we still face as modern women.

As the novel progresses, these seemingly unconnected women, are in fact becoming more and more alike, and by learning more about Nellie, Alice soon realises she too is increasingly finding herself trapped by the expectations of those around her. As Nellie faces a life married to a man who sees her as nothing more than a baby making machine and someone who he can take all his frustrations out on, she realises the answer to a new life lie within the pages of her recipe book. When Alice realises that too, the novel deliciously takes on a whole new layer of dark brilliance.

Karma Brown has written a novel which is sharp, incisive and a joy to read. I really related to both Nellie and Alice, both of whom are really engaging, and articulate many of the frustrations felt by women. What for me, completely elevates Recipe For A Perfect Wife as a novel, is the brilliant plotting and unexpected sense of menace which permeates the later chapters. To know how Nellie managed to exist within her far from perfect marriage, and for us to understand exactly how Alice will ensure she gets the life she wants, is an unsettling and perfect ending to a novel which could so easily in the hands of a less atuned writer have been a straightforward narrative novel of two women living decades apart.

Recipe For A Perfect Wife is a clever and thought provoking novel, that articulates perfectly the frustrations and limits placed on women by others, whilst at the same time showing us that we are ultimately in control of our own destiny – if we are prepared to ultimately challenge and confront the very people that have put them there in the first place.

About Karma Brown…

Karma is the bestselling author of four novels and is a National Magazine Award winning journalist. Karma lives just outside Toronto, Canada with her husband, daughter, and a labradoodle named Fred.

Twitter: @KarmaKBrown

Instagram: @KarmaKBrown

Thank you very much to Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review as part of the Blog Tour.

Please do check out these other Bloggers to see what they are saying about Recipe For a A Perfect Wife.

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