Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

 

 

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Published by Fleet

Available online and at All Good Bookshops

 

What They Say

Juliet is failing to juggle motherhood and her anemic dissertation when her husband, Michael, informs her that he wants to leave his job and buy a sailboat. The couple are novice sailors, but Michael persuades Juliet to say yes. With their two kids – Sybil, age seven, and George, age two, Juliet and Michael set off for Panama, where their forty-four-foot sailboat awaits them – a boat that Michael has christened the Juliet.

The initial result is transformative: their marriage is given a gust of energy, and even the children are affected by the beauty and wonderful vertigo of travel. The sea challenges them all – and most of all, Juliet, who suffers from postpartum depression.

Sea Wife is told in gripping dual perspectives: Juliet’s first-person narration, after the journey, as she struggles to come to terms with the dire, life-changing events that unfolded at sea; and Michael’s captain’s log – that provides a riveting, slow-motion account of those same inexorable events.

What I Say

“I had held myself together all my life. Then I became a mother, twice, and I was not fine. I was the opposite of me.”

When I heard about Sea Wife, I was really interested to read it, because for me, a life on the ocean is one that I have never contemplated nor ever experienced.  I also thought it was interesting that the title immediately categorises Juliet, the main character  in such a powerful and definitive way.

At first glance, it might seem like Juliet and Michael have it all  – a home, two children and a life that they have constructed for themselves that satisfies what everyone in their social circle expects. They are the epitome of the American Dream. Michael works for an insurance company, and Juliet, a poet, is attempting to complete her PhD.

Unfortunately, beneath the veneer, Juliet and Michael are struggling. Both with their own emotional state, and their marriage. Juliet suffers from depression and has also suffered sexual abuse as a child and now her ‘ugly angels’ torment her, and and she is plagued by the feeling that she simply is not fit to be a mother. Michael feels trapped in his job, and is increasingly realising that he needs to do something to help Juliet and to try and open communication between them before their marriage disintegrates.

Michael’s decision is to buy a boat which he renames Juliet – something he later discovers is regarded by those in the sailing world as a bad omen.  He has to then persuade Juliet that by taking a year off, and having their children Sybil and George with them, that this is just what they all need to try and find their way back to each other.

The novel is told from a dual narrative perspective – via Juliet’s memories and the Captain’s Log that Michael keeps whilst on board.  Stylistically and linguistically it also creates two distinct stories for the reader as Michael’s writing is in bold and to the right hand side of the page, and Juliet’s is more free flowing and lyrical and it seems more at times to be a flow of consciousness. As the voyage progresses, it is interesting to see how Michael becomes less analytical and logical and instead uses his journal as a way of not only tracing his relationship, but also gaining a deeper understanding of the issues and divides within their marriage.

As they undertake their voyage, it seems like Michael was right, and that in moving away from the constraints they have so strictly adhered to, that Juliet and Michael are slowly able to see the person they fell in love with.  All the time, Amity ensures that the ocean is an ever present and omnipresent force.

At times it is passively part of the backdrop, which makes Michael and Juliet feel that they are in control and have done the right thing in coming away together.  However, they are also reminded of how dispensable and unimportant they are in the world when they have to tackle the storms and ferocious unpredictability of the sea.  It is those times that their marriage is most put to the test as Juliet has no experience of sailing and she is totally reliant on Michael’s knowledge to keep them all safe.

They may be on this voyage as a family, but the limited living space and emerging tensions in their marriage mean that as time passes, Juliet and Michael finally start to see each other at their most open and honest. They realise that politically they are poles apart, that Michael has secured a loan for the boat against their house, and they start to wonder whether they really have a future when the voyage is over.

Then Michael falls seriously ill, and Juliet is forced to make a decision that alters the course of their lives forever, and it ultimately means Juliet has to face the reality of her marriage and confront her own mental health issues too.

Sea Wife is an emotionally challenging and taut novel that will make you think about the relationships with those people closest to you, and how much we take for granted in the way we seamlessly go about our daily lives together. For Michael and Juliet, they chose to embark on this seemingly idyllically journey in an attempt to salvage their fractured marriage. Amity Gaige’s intriguing and realistic portrayals of Michael and Juliet’s world in all its brutal and unfiltered reality, make us understand that we may never truly know the person closest to us until we have no choice. Sea Wife also unapologetically makes us realise, that perhaps we never really knew them at all.

Thank you very much to Grace Vincent at Fleet for my gifted copy of Sea Wife in exchange for an honest review.

Please do see what the other bloggers on the tour are saying too..

The Cat And The City by Nick Bradley

 

The Cat and The City by Nick Bradley

Published by Atlantic Books

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say:

In Tokyo – one of the world’s largest megacities – a stray cat is wending her way through the back alleys. And, with each detour, she brushes up against the seemingly disparate lives of the city-dwellers, connecting them in unexpected ways.

But the city is changing. As it does, it pushes her to the margins where she chances upon a series of apparent strangers – from a homeless man squatting in an abandoned hotel, to a shut-in hermit afraid to leave his house, to a convenience store worker searching for love. The cat orbits Tokyo’s denizens, drawing them ever closer.

 

What I Say:

As soon as I had seen the cover (shallow I know!) of Nick Bradley’s novel The Cat and The City, I knew I wanted to read it.

The novel is set in Tokyo, and each of the chapters could be read as a short story in its own right. Honestly, when I started the novel, I thought this is what I was reading. We meet a seemingly disparate cast of people, whose only connection to the plot seems to be that they live in Tokyo.

This is the brilliance of Nick’s writing, because as you read on, the same names start to appear, locations and families become common, and throughout it all, weaving its way through the streets of Tokyo is the singular figure of the cat. By the end of the novel, you understand that everything and everyone is connected, and Tokyo is a city where the actions of one person have unforeseen and sometimes life changing consequences for others.

We start with a young enigmatic woman called Naomi asking to have a map of Tokyo tattooed on her back, done in a traditional manner which will take months to complete. As a rebellious gesture, Kentaro the tattooist adds a cat to the design- except the cat moves around the design every time he works on it, and he starts to doubt his own sanity.

The story moves on to a homeless man called Ohashi, who once was a well known storyteller, but now makes his living by selling crushed cans he scavenges around the streets of Tokyo. He lives with the cat in a derelict hotel, after losing everything he had to drink and has been relentlessly haunted by the fact he left his daughter who was dying. He is estranged from his brother Taro who drives a cab and has his own story to tell.

Taro’s passengers include characters we meet further on in the book, including Flo, who works as a translator for a PR firm, and has dedicated her spare time to translate a novel by one of her favourite Japanese authors to give to her friend. Unfortunately, Flo is shattered when her friend presents her with a copy of one that has just been published, and wonders about what she is doing in the world and why. Flo was a really interesting character for me. She is an American living in Tokyo, and although she tries to fully submerge herself into Tokyo and the cultural life, you always get the sense she is slightly on the edge, and is trying to find her way and sense of identity in the world. Flo desperately wants to belong in Tokyo, and it is only by admitting this to her co-worker Kyoto that she can make her first tentative steps to do so.

Nick also constantly plays around with the novel as a stylistic genre. There are chapters which is the translation of the novel Flo has been working on, there are photos that one character posts to his social media on an evening out, and one of my favourite chapters – Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko is illustrated in the style of a manga novel – and it works perfectly!

The story of Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko was simply and cleverly told, as an agoraphobic young man finds his way back to the world through his friendship with Ken and their shared care of the cat who has been injured. When you find out that Ken asks Nao to write to him, and Nao is spotted by the cat going to the postbox;

He was going from lamppost to lamppost, hugging one as he went. A step at a time, cautious as a man in a war zone“.

It is writing like that, that honestly made me take a breath as you absolutely understand what Nao has gone through to reach that point. It is the realisation of how we are all linked by the things we do and the actions we take, which adds another level to this intricate and absorbing novel.

I learned so much about Tokyo and its culture and tradition from reading The Cat and The City, but do not think that this is an Instagram filtered perfect version of the world. You are taken to the heart and soul of Tokyo, and it is at times brutal, unpalatable and difficult to read about. Sex is often regarded as a soulless transaction and a means to an end, and some of the situations the characters face were very challenging for me to read, but I appreciate it is integral to the cohesion of the novel and the plot.

For me, at the very heart of The Cat and The City, is the notion of a human need to connect with others and to belong – be it to society or to another person. The central figure of the cat winds its way through the story, paving the way for people to find themselves and their families again. The cat is the impetus to help them understand that even in a huge city like Tokyo, sometimes you need to look around you to understand that life is waiting for you if you just have the courage to take the first step.

The Cat and The City is a brave, different and at times very unsettling novel, but one that will stay with me for a long time, and I am so glad I read it.

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…

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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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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Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

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Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

Published By Harper Collins

Available from all good Bookshops and Online from 6th February

What They Say.

Missy Carmichael’s life has become small.

Grieving for a family she has lost or lost touch with, she’s haunted by the echoes of her footsteps in her empty home; the sound of the radio in the dark; the tick-tick-tick of the watching clock.

Spiky and defensive, Missy knows that her loneliness is all her own fault. She deserves no more than this; not after what she’s done. But a chance encounter in the park with two very different women opens the door to something new.

Another life beckons for Missy, if only she can be brave enough to grasp the opportunity. But seventy-nine is too late for a second chance. Isn’t it?

What I Say.

“But I still felt it somewhere – that spark. The beginning of something. Or the end. Who knows?”

There is as always, a bit of a back story to my choosing Saving Missy to review (not a long one I promise!). Some of you will see me frequently talk about LoveReading on my Twitter and Instagram feeds, and wonder what they are. In the simplest terms, if you sign up to them, you get the chance to read and review the latest releases in return for posting a review. I should also say that this is not an ad for them, and that all they have done so far is to supply me with fabulous books! Anyway, the always fabulous Liz Robinson of LoveReading sent me a copy of Saving Missy last year, and of course I am not going to spoil the ending, but let me tell you, there were quite a few DMs exchanged between us as to how wonderful Saving Missy is.

Why? I am going to go out on a limb here, and tell you that Saving Missy is already going to be on My Most Selfish Reads of 2020 – because it’s that brilliant.

How to tell you about Saving Missy without saying too much is difficult, but this is what you need to know about the story. Missy Carmichael is a 79 year old woman, her husband Leo is no longer at home, and her children Alistair and Mel have grown up and moved out.

The thing is, Missy now rattles around a large house in Stoke Newington, and just exists in a constant state of following the same routines she always has, often not speaking to anyone from day to day. One day, on a trip to the park, she encounters Angela and Otis, a Mum and son who have come to watch the fish being moved out of the park’s pond. After Missy has a fall, and people rush around her to help, she fades into the background once again. Except she keeps meeting Angela and this time, Angela needs her help to look after a dog called Bobby that she has inherited.

Little by little, Missy finds herself in a situation where she has to start to let people in to her life, to understand that by making connections with the outside world she will start to live the life she really deserves. That may sound melodramatic, but to simply say that Saving Missy is a light hearted feel good novel does no service to the novel or to Beth Morrey.

Saving Missy is a novel that totally resonated with me on so many levels. The notion of Missy always as Leo’s wife, Ali and Mel’s Mum, means that her identity has been shaped by the needs and demands of those around her. Little by little, she has lost herself along the way, and all her hopes and dreams had to be put to one side as she focussed on helping her family thrive. I thought it was interesting to see how in her marriage, her intelligence and passion for learning had to be quashed in order to ensure that her husband is the head of the household. I know so many women who have done the same thing, and the level of frustration and invisibility they feel is more and more evident.

As Beth Morrey goes backwards and forwards in time so you can unravel Missy’s story, it helps to underline how frustrating and unheard so many women were. They had to make a choice, family or career, and those who chose the latter were seen as having made an unnatural choice. This device added an extra layer to the novel, as you were really able to see Missy completely, and how the choices she made and those she was pressured to make, made her the woman she is now.

I thought it was also really interesting to see how Missy’s house is always the ever present place at the heart of everything. First a place to be with her husband, then as a family home, and finally as almost a place where she can escape to when the world gets too much, but it’s also a claustrophobic and lonely place too sometimes. It is only by having the courage to step outside it, and to let people in that she can really start to live again.

In lesser hands, the character of Missy could have been a stereotypical lonely old lady, which would have grated and meant that I didn’t engage with the story at all. Beth Morrey is so adept at making Missy a real, relatable and interesting woman, that you can’t help but absolutely feel you need to see what happens. I loved Angela too, she is such a fabulously unapologetic character, who is doing the best she can, and I wish that authors would do this more often – we need to see people who are not Instaperfect mothers, and who are simply happy that their kids make it through each day!

As Missy gets more and more involved with the world around her, she starts to finally open up to them, and as a result, Missy becomes part of their world as much as they become part of hers. The story moves at a perfect pace, and to say too much would give it a way, but Beth writes so perfectly that the plot is seamless, and it’s simply one of those novels that you lose yourself in.

Saving Missy is quite simply a novel you need to read – especially in a world where at times everything at the moment seems so bleak. It is a perfectly pitched and executed novel about a woman who has almost given up on the world around her, but the kindness of the people who live so close by bring her back to life. It is a book that tackles huge issues such as illness, grief, loneliness, love and sexuality, but not for one moment do you feel like you are being preached to.

It is a glorious, kind, loving and special novel that will resonate with so many readers, and makes us think how the smallest actions we take, can have the biggest impact on those who feel they are invisible and unloved in the world around us.

I absolutely loved it – and I hope you do too.

Thank you as always to Liz Robinson and Charlotte Walker at LoveReadingUK for my gifted copy.

Isabelle in the Afternoon by Douglas Kennedy

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Douglas Kennedy – Isabelle in the Afternoon

Published by Hutchinson Books on 9th January

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Before Isabelle I knew nothing of sex.
Before Isabelle I knew nothing of freedom.
Before Isabelle I knew nothing of life.

Paris in the early Seventies. Sam, an American student, meets a woman in a bookshop. Isabelle is enigmatic, beautiful, older and, unlike Sam, experienced in love’s many contradictions. Sam is instantly smitten – but wary of the wedding ring on her finger.

What begins as a regular arrangement in Isabelle’s tiny Parisian apartment transforms into a true affair of the heart, and one which lasts for decades to come.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a novel that questions what we seek, what we find, what we settle for – and shows how love, when not lived day in, day out, can become the passion of a lifetime.

What I Say:

“Love when declared after a desperate misstep – it’s the hardest love to embrace”.

I think it is always important to be honest about the books I choose to review on Years of Reading. First of all, this is the first Douglas Kennedy novel I have read (don’t @ me!), and I wanted to read it because I thought the cover looked beautiful. I mean, that is not really the way a book blogger should choose their next novel is it?

Anyway, Isabelle at ed.pr contacted me to ask if I would like a copy, and I can tell you what is inside the novel is just as wonderful as the outside.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a novel about love, expectation and societal expectations, and I could not put it down.

Sam is an American student who finds himself in Paris before he starts the next chapter of his life at Harvard University.  His mother has passed away, and his father is emotionally distant, who seems almost relieved at the fact that he won’t have to deal with his son over the summer. As Sam navigates Paris alone, he starts to tire of the endless days he has to fill, and finds himself at a Bookshop where he meets Isabelle.

The attraction is instant, and Sam seems slightly overwhelmed at the thought that this elegant woman could possibly find him of any interest.  What is so refreshing about this novel is that right from the start, it is Isabelle that sets the parameters of the relationship.

Isabelle tells Sam that they will only meet at her apartment in Paris between the hours of five and seven in the afternoon.  They will never be seen out in public, and this is all that Isabelle will give to Sam. If he cannot comply with the rules of their relationship, it is over.  The arrangement is complicated by the fact that Isabelle is married, and she will not leave her husband Charles. She is absolutely aware of what is expected of her in Parisian society, and that to veer from that in any way would be catastrophic to the reputation of her husband and herself.

Sam at first accepts this arrangement, and is in the thrall of his older and more experienced lover.  As he settles into the affair, and is seemingly happy with their relationship, he also realises he is falling in love with her, and naively cannot understand why she cannot be with him and leave her husband.  It is interesting to see how Isabelle is unwavering in the rules she has created for their affair, in spite of her passionate relationship with Sam, she refuses to give in to his increasingly desperate demands.

To say that Isabelle is an unfeeling and stoic character, incapable of compassion, would be misleading.  She is in a claustrophobic and cloying marriage, where she has to appear to be the collected and contented wife, in order to comply with what is expected of her in the world she inhabits. Isabelle is very aware that her husband is also far from faithful, and it emerges that both partners seem to be resigned to keeping the marriage intact. It  is only when she is with Sam, that she can be free to express her feelings, desire and sexuality.

Unfortunately, the summer has to come to an end, and Sam has to return to the United States, and Isabelle has to seamlessly move back into her role of wife.  What I loved about this novel, is the way in which the two central characters have to continue the route their lives are expected to follow, whilst at the same time they are suppressing what they really want and feel.

For Sam, he studies, becomes a successful laywer, and meets Rebecca, a woman who in love with him, but you always get the sense that Sam is not absolutely in love with her.  Rebecca, to everyone else is perfect for him, but as the reader you see that she will never emotionally fulfill him.  In Paris, Isabelle is a devoted wife and mother, but similarly, you feel that her heart is always with Sam in America. Both Sam and Isabelle attempt to forget about each other, by conforming to what they are supposed to do, but you know that their lives are only being half lived, and this is what makes their stories so absorbing.

They cannot break the bond, and as their lives go on, the connection between them is constantly tested but never fades.  Sam and Isabelle are characters you feel empathic towards, because they have faults and foibles.  They are not always likeable, in fact at times you feel increasingly frustrated with both of them. However, the skill that Douglas Kennedy has as a writer means that you really do engage with them and want to find out what happens.

The plot moves along at the perfect pace, I always felt that the story was natural and spent enough time engaging with both characters.  The whole premise of the novel, that these two people who are meant to be together, but can’t be, is absorbing and believable.  The novel also addresses many different themes sensitively and effectively, I found the portrayal of Sam’s son’s issues were realistic and affecting, and Rebecca’s mental health  was handled by Douglas in such a way that you really felt for what Rebecca was going through, and the effect that this has on her relationship with Sam and everyone around her.

The twist and turns of Sam and Isabelle’s relationship is played across the decades, and the notion that these two people so obviously in love with each other but cannot completely be together is a delicious one for me.  They spend time together in Paris and America over the years, but the reality is that they are always playing at being a couple, they cannot absolutely commit to each other. The lives of Isabelle and Sam play out, and neither of them can let go of the other, however hard they try.  Do they finally reconcile? You are just going to have to read it to find out.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a thoughtful and passionate novel, epic in its scope and ambition, and it is a bold move to ask readers to engage with two characters for such a long period of time – especially when they are seemingly thwarted at every turn.  The reason it works so well for me, is that Douglas Kennedy has created a novel where you are absorbed by the characters, their world, and the choices they make.  They matter to you, and as you see how passionate and complete their relationship is, I really wanted Sam and Isabelle to have the life they both desperately wanted. That for me is the sign of an amazing novel, and the mark of a novelist who understands the importance of the reader connecting with their characters.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Isabelle at ed.pr for my gifted copy, and I decided to write a review simply because I loved it so much! 

 

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

 

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Steph Cha – Your House Will Pay 

Published By Faber and Faber on 16th January

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Grace Park and Shawn Mathews share a city – Los Angeles – but seemingly little else. Coming from different generations and very different communities, their paths wouldn’t normally cross at all. As Grace battles confusion over her elder sister’s estrangement from their Korean-immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to city life after years spent in prison.

But something in their past links these two families. As the city around them threatens to erupt into violence, echoing the worst days of the early 1990s, the lives of Grace and Shawn are set to collide in ways which will change them all forever.

Beautifully written, and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and urgent novel for today.

What I Say:

“Yet it came with a heightened awareness of all that had brought them here, the past clinging to them in thin, sticky layers”.

To try and review Your House Will Pay is a difficult task, not because of the novel itself, which is filled with the tension and pain that permeated 1990’s Los Angeles and its aftermath, but because it is impossible to adequately convey the passion and emotion that Steph Cha has poured into her work.  It examines hugely emotive issues such as race, violence, family and retribution, but does so in a way that never feels didactic.

On the surface, this story of two families in Los Angeles seems at the start to be disconnected.  Why are we learning about what Shawn Matthews and Grace Park are going through, what could possibly link these two seemingly incredibly disparate families? What happened in the 1990’s that could possibly bring them together? The timeline runs between 2019 and the 1990’s and by moving back and forth, we start to understand the realities for Korean and black families living in Los Angeles at that time. It was also an education for me, and I spent some time reading about what happened to try and appreciate more what life at that time was like.

Grace’s Korean family now run a pharmacy, and are apparently settled in their ways and lifestyle, while Shawn who comes from a black family have a chaotic and chequered past which has resulted in him and his cousin Ray spending a lot of time in prison, and his sister has passed away.

Although these two families seemingly have nothing in common, as a reader, you initially feel that slightly disorientated by the switch in focus and storyline.  The absolute skill that Steph has, is that she takes away any pre-conceptions or stereotypes you may expect, and brings the families down to the most basic level. They are simply people who are there for us to see with all their flaws and faults. The issues that the families are going through are set against the backdrop of a world where there are constant tensions between different cultures, and the Korean and black communities are at odds with each other.

In both worlds there is prejudice and inequality – there is a sense that the tensions that are always present in the everyday world are ready to explode at any moment, and you feel it in every page you read. You know that events of the 1990’s Los Angeles has had wide ranging and life changing effects for these families, but you don’t know what they were.  The ever present and all consuming city of Los Angeles is the one constant in this mesmerising and absorbing novel. As the narrative switches between Shawn and Grace, you not only feel that you are slowly starting to understand the very different families, but that there is a constant sense of something seismic about to happen.

Grace is an educated and intelligent woman, who lives at home with her parents, seemingly stuck between trying to please them and be a good daughter, whilst at the same time being aware that there is so much more to the world if she would only have the courage to embrace it.  Her sister Mariam, has been estranged from her parents for a while and lives with her elder boyfriend free from their expectations.

Shawn on the other hand, has become almost a surrogate father to his cousin’s children, and looks after Ray’s family as almost a penance for the life he lived before.  He had a troubled childhood as he attempted to fit in with a world of gangs and crime, and his loyalty to his friends and their beliefs meant that he ended up in prison.  Since his release, he has been determined to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes, and is trying to educate Ray’s children so they too can make the correct choices.

For me, what I really enjoyed about Your House Will Pay was the immersive way you are drawn into Grace and Shawn’s world. It addresses the realities of being a young person in a world where you don’t quite fit, and that others expectations mean the choices you make can have a huge impact on not only your world, but those who live in it with you too.  They are people you really believe in, and the way in which we follow their lives serves to underline not only the huge differences between them, but also how similar their beliefs and concerns are.

To try and review this novel is a complicated task, because it is so many things in one book.  When the devastating connection between the family is revealed, trust me, it is one of those jaw-dropping chapters you dream of as a reader! It is thrilling, unexpected and almost like a crime novel as you try and work out who could have done what and when.  However, for me, always at the heart of this book is the notion of family, of belonging.  The secrets they hide in order to protect others, the unspoken bonds that mean it comes before everything, and how your world can be turned upside down by the people you thought you knew the best.

From the moment where we find out how the two families are known to each other, it is a compelling novel that has you turning the pages trying to decide what possible resolution there could be.  I loved the balance between the 1990’s and the modern day, the fact that as a reader you are looking for clues, any little thing you can ascertain that will bring you closer to understanding what has happened and why.

The characterisations are always well rounded and serve to bring you closer to the novel because you really feel invested in what happens to all of them, irrespective of what they have done. There are so many touching familial scenes, acutely and perfectly observed, cut through with reality and humour, with nuances and in jokes that every family has.  This is also what helps to drive the story forward, as you really care what has happened and will happen to the Matthews and Parks.

Your House Will Pay is a timely and devastating novel, that works so well because Steph Cha has created a world where your connection to the characters and the plot mean you only want the best outcome for the Parks and Matthews family.  Who are we to judge the mistakes made by those closest to us when we are far from innocent ourselves? Surely, in times of crisis, the true notion of family and belonging is knowing that by forgiving and protecting those closest to us, we can truly be free. Your House Will Pay makes you stop and think, and want to understand why and what happened to these families. For me, that is truly a sign of a novel that has made a profound impact and changes and educates you as to your view of a world you naively thought you understood.

 

Many Thanks to Lauren Nicoll from Faber and Faber for a gifted copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

Have a look at what my fellow bloggers below are saying about Your House Will Pay..

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