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..

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.

 

 

 

I’ll Tell You What I Want What I Really Really Want… To Read in 2020…

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Now that the Christmas decorations have been packed away, the last Quality Street and Roses have been eaten, and life is settling back into a routine again, it’s that time of year.

As always, already on Bookish Twitter and Instagram, people are talking about the books they are most looking forward to in 2020.  I would be lying to you all if I didn’t admit there are a LOT of books I am very excited about reading this year, but would any of you be interested in hearing it?

Then I thought, well why not – we all need something bookish to look forward to this year!

So grab a cuppa, make sure you have a pen and paper handy, and lets talk 2020 books!

JANUARY

Motherwell by Deborah Orr from W & N Books – Published on January 16th.

What They Say:

Just shy of 18, Deborah Orr left Motherwell – the town she both loved and hated – to go to university. It was a decision her mother railed against from the moment the idea was raised. Win had very little agency in the world, every choice was determined by the men in her life. And strangely, she wanted the same for her daughter. Attending university wasn’t for the likes of the Orr family. Worse still, it would mean leaving Win behind – and Win wanted Deborah with her at all times, rather like she wanted her arm with her at all times. But while she managed to escape, Deborah’s severing from her family was only superficial. She continued to travel back to Motherwell, fantasizing about the day that Win might come to accept her as good enough. Though of course it was never meant to be.

MOTHERWELL is a sharp, candid and often humorous memoir about the long shadow that can be cast when the core relationship in your life compromises every effort you make to become an individual. It is about what we inherit – the good and the very bad – and how a deeper understanding of the place and people you have come from can bring you towards redemption.

What I Say:

I heard a lot about this memoir on Bookish Twitter, and followed Deborah Orr before she sadly passed away. In that time, and from other people’s recollections of her, I knew that Motherwell would be a emotional and compelling read. Quite simply, I wanted to read it, and have already pre-ordered it.

Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur from Chatto – published 16 January.

What They Say:

Every time I fail to become more like my mother, I become more like me.

On a hot August night on Cape Cod, when Adrienne was 14, her mother Malabar woke her at midnight with five simple words that would set the course of both of their lives for years to come: Ben Souther just kissed me.

Adrienne instantly became her mother’s confidante and helpmate, blossoming in the sudden light of her attention; from then on, Malabar came to rely on her daughter to help orchestrate what would become an epic affair with her husband’s closest friend. The affair would have calamitous consequences for everyone involved, impacting Adrienne’s life in profound ways, driving her into a doomed marriage of her own, and then into a deep depression. Only years later will she find the strength to embrace her life — and her mother — on her own terms.

This is a book about how the people close to us can break our hearts simply because they have access to them. It’s about the lies we tell in order to justify the choices we make. It’s about mothers and daughters and the nature of family. And ultimately, it’s a story of resilience, a reminder that we need not be the parents our parents were to us; that moving forward is possible.

What I Say:

I heard about Wild Game last year, and was immediately intrigued by the notion of a shift in a traditional mother daughter relationship. The fact that Adrienne’s book is based on her life only made me want to read it more.  Definitely one I will be seeking out this year.

Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder from Picador Books – published 23 January.

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What They Say:

A mother moves to Geneva with her husband and their two young children. In their beautiful new rented apartment, surrounded by their rented furniture, and several Swiss instructions to maintain quiet, she finds herself totally isolated. Her husband’s job means he is almost never present, and her entire world is caring for her children – making sure they are happy, and fed and comfortable, and that they can be seen as the happy, well-fed, comfortable family they should be. Everything is perfect.

But, of course, it’s not. The isolation, the sleeplessness, the demands of two people under two, are getting to Erika. She has never been so alone, and once the children are asleep, there are just too many hours to fill until morning…

Kyra Wilder’s Little Bandaged Days is a beautifully written, painfully claustrophobic story about a woman’s descent into madness. Unpredictable, frighteningly compelling and brutally honest, it grapples with the harsh conditions of motherhood and this mother’s own identity, and as the novel continues, we begin to wonder just what exactly Erika might be driven to do.

What I Say:

I was lucky enough to be sent a proof by Alice from Picador last year, and I have to tell you, it is simply mesmerising!  It is a compelling and unsettling study of motherhood, about what happens when a Mother is left in sole charge of her children for a long time, in a country she has just moved to, with a husband who is consumed by his new job.

It is a brilliant novel because Erika slowly and gently starts to blur the boundaries between reality and her madness.  It is a little line here, a phrase there that has you checking and re-reading just to make sure you read it correctly.  I think this is an important novel which raises many questions about the pressures of motherhood, and the fact we are all working so hard to be insta-perfect, that we lose ourselves and our sense of reality along the way.

I absolutely loved it, and recommend it constantly.

Pine by Francine Toon from Doubleday – published 23rd January.

What They Say:

Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she’s gone.

In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren’s mother a decade ago.

Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father’s turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it’s no longer clear who she can trust.

In the shadow of the Highland forest, Francine Toon captures the wildness of rural childhood and the intensity of small-town claustrophobia. In a place that can feel like the edge of the word, she unites the chill of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller. It is the perfect novel for our haunted times.

What I Say:

This is a bit of a sneaky one, because I was lucky to receive a copy of Pine from Antonia at Doubleday. The reason I have added it on this blog post, is that I think it is a book so many of you will love. The writing is so absorbing, and Francine perfectly balances the isolation and wildness of the Highlands, with the claustrophobia and tensions that often run deep in a close knit community.  You absolutely need to read Pine.

FEBRUARY

The Foundling by Stacey Halls from Zaffre Books- published 6th February.

What They Say:

London, 1754. Six years after leaving her illegitimate daughter Clara at London’s Foundling Hospital, Bess Bright returns to reclaim the child she has never known. Dreading the worst, that Clara has died in care, she is astonished when she is told she has already claimed her. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl – and why.

Less than a mile from Bess’s lodgings in the city, in a quiet, gloomy townhouse on the edge of London, a young widow has not left the house in a decade. When her close friend – an ambitious young doctor at the Foundling Hospital – persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her and tear her carefully constructed world apart.

From the bestselling author of The Familiars comes this captivating story of mothers and daughters, class and power, and love against the greatest of odds . . .

What I Say:

I read and loved The Familiars, Stacey’s first novel, and I have to say this one sounds just as fascinating.  My mum was adopted, and I have a familial connection to the Foundling Hospital, in that my nephew was adopted from the Coram charity, which is part of what the Foundling Hospital now is.  I also visited the Foundling Hospital last year, and it is such an emotional and thought provoking place, that I think this novel will resonate with me on so many levels.

Saving Missy by Beth Morrey from Harper Collins – Published on 6th February.

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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:

Now, I was very lucky that the fabulous LoveReading (if you don’t know about them, you really should!) sent me an early copy of this one.  It is quite simply, the book we are all going to need to read this year.  It is charming, kind, filled with hope, and it is one of those novels you simply can’t forget.  If you don’t love Missy by the end, well you must have a black pebble where your heart should be!

House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild from Bloomsbury Books – 6th February.

What They Say:

The seat of the Trelawney family for over 800 years, Trelawney Castle was once the jewel of the Cornish coast. Each successive Earl spent with abandon, turning the house and grounds into a sprawling, extravagant palimpsest of wings, turrets and follies.

But recent generations have been better at spending than making money. Now living in isolated penury, unable to communicate with each other or the rest of the world, the family are running out of options. Three unexpected events will hasten their demise: the sudden appearance of a new relation, an illegitimate, headstrong, beautiful girl; an unscrupulous American hedge fund manager determined to exact revenge; and the crash of 2008.

A love story and social satire set in the parallel and seemingly unconnected worlds of the British aristocracy and high finance, House of Trelawney is also the story of lost and found friendships between three women. One of them will die; another will discover her vocation; and the third will find love.

What I Say:

I absolutely loved Hannah’s first novel, The Improbability of Love, and was so excited to hear she has a new novel coming out in 2020. A novel all about a family, their wealth (or lack of it), and social satire? This is my perfect novel!

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes from Michael Joseph – Published on 6th February.

What They Say:

They’re a glamorous family, the Caseys.

Johnny Casey, his two brothers Ed and Liam, their beautiful, talented wives and all their kids spend a lot of time together – birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, weekends away. And they’re a happy family. Johnny’s wife, Jessie – who has the most money – insists on it.

Under the surface, though, conditions are murkier. While some people clash, other people like each other far too much . . .

Everything stays under control until Ed’s wife Cara, gets concussion and can’t keep her thoughts to herself. One careless remark at Johnny’s birthday party, with the entire family present, starts Cara spilling out all their secrets.

In the subsequent unravelling, every one of the adults finds themselves wondering if it’s time – finally – to grow up?

What I Say:

Oh Marian Keyes – how do you put into words what an amazing author and fabulous person she really is!  Water Melon was my first Marian Keyes novel, and with every new book, you just love her more. Marian’s skill is writing the ordinary in a way that makes it extraordinary, and her perception and wit make this novel one I will just want to sink in to for as long as it takes to read it.

Actress by Anne Enright from Jonathan Cape – Published on 20 February.

What They Say:

This is the story of Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter Norah. It tells of early stardom in Hollywood, of highs and lows on the stages of Dublin and London’s West End. Katherine’s life is a grand performance, with young Norah watching from the wings.

But this romance between mother and daughter cannot survive Katherine’s past, or the world’s damage. As Norah uncovers her mother’s secrets, she acquires a few of her own. Then, fame turns to infamy when Katherine decides to commit a bizarre crime.

Actress is about a daughter’s search for the truth: the dark secret in the bright star, and what drove Katherine finally mad.

Brilliantly capturing the glamour of post-war America and the shabbiness of 1970s Dublin, Actress is an intensely moving, disturbing novel about mothers and daughters and the men in their lives. A scintillating examination of the corrosive nature of celebrity, it is also a sad and triumphant tale of freedom from bad love, and from the avid gaze of the crowd.

What I Say:

I heard about Actress very recently, but again, I knew as soon as I heard about it, it was absolutely going to be on this blog post.  For me, novels about relationships between mothers and daughters are endlessly fascinating, and I am always fascinated by the notion of celebrity and all the issues that surround it.

MARCH

The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin from Doubleday Ireland – Published 19 March. 

 

What They Say:

London, 1996. Robin and Ruth meet in the staff room of an East London school. Robin, desperate for a real connection, instantly falls in love. Ruth, recently bereaved and fragile, is tentative.

When Robin introduces Ruth to his childhood friend, Joseph, a tortured and talented artist, their attraction is instant. Powerless, Robin watches on as the girl he loves and his best friend begin a passionate and turbulent affair.

Dublin 2017. Robin and Ruth are married and have a son, Sid, who is about to emigrate to Berlin. Theirs is a marriage haunted by the ghost of Joseph and as the distance between them grows, Robin makes a choice that could have potentially devastating consequences.

The Weight of Love is a beautiful exploration of how we manage life when the notes and beats of our existence, so carefully arranged, begin to slip off the stave. An intimate and moving account of the intricacies of marriage and the myriad ways in which we can love and be loved.

What I Say:

I love novels about relationships and marriages, and this novel from Hilary Fannin, which looks at what happens when the past starts to come in between a couple sounds like a story I want to read.  I think it’s one that might not be on your radar, but really should be.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell from Tinder Press – Published on 31 March.

What They Say:

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

What I Say:

I am sure you have seen Hamnet EVERYWHERE already.  A new Maggie O’Farrell novel is always a huge event in the literary calendar, and for good reason.  Her novels are beyond compare, and the writing is just sublime. Do we even need to talk about the beautiful cover?  I just cannot wait to read this, and am absolutely adding it to my list!

APRIL

The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves from Century – Published on 2 April.

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What They Say:

Frank hasn’t spoken to his wife Maggie for six months.

For weeks they have lived under the same roof, slept in the same bed and eaten at the same table – all without words.

Maggie has plenty of ideas as to why her husband has gone quiet.

But it will take another heartbreaking turn of events before Frank finally starts to unravel the secrets that have silenced him.

Is this where their story ends?
Or is it where it begins?

What I Say:

I love the idea of a novel where you have no clue where it will take you, or what will happen next. The notion that a couple haven’t been talking for six months? How can you possibly not want to know why!  The Silent Treatment has already received lots of praise, and I am really excited about finding out why Frank and Maggie are not talking!

As You Were by Elaine Feeney from Harvill Secker – Published on 16th April.

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What They Say:

Sinéad Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can’t go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the ward, Margaret Rose is running her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. In the neighboring bed, Jane, rarely but piercingly lucid, is searching for a decent bra and for someone to listen. Sinéad needs them both.

As You Were is about intimate histories, institutional failures, the kindness of strangers, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland. It is about women’s stories and women’s struggles. It is about seizing the moment to be free.

Wildly funny, desperately tragic, inventive and irrepressible, As You Were introduces a brilliant voice in Irish fiction with a book that is absolutely of our times.

What I Say:

As soon as I heard about As You Were, it sounded like a novel that was both timely and necessary.  I think this is a novel which will raise a lot of discussion, but will also be a brilliant read, and I can’t wait to start it.

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh from Penguin published on 23 April.

Image result for ottessa moshfegh death in her hands

 

What They Say:

While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the nearby forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, having moved here from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on her best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems to be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one–one that strikes closer to home.

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, Death in Her Hands asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both guide us closer to the truth and keep us at bay from it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, only this time the stakes have never been higher.

What I Say:

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is one of my favourite novels.  I have nothing more to say except that as soon as I heard this was being released this year, I knew I needed to read it! Her writing is always pitch perfect, and the whole premise for this novel sounds intriguing!

MAY

What Have I Done by Laura Dockrill from Square Peg – Published on 7th May.

What They Say:

Laura Dockrill had an idyllic pregnancy and couldn’t wait to meet her new baby. But as she went into labour things began to go wrong and Laura started to struggle. A traumatic birth, anxiety about the baby, sleep deprivation, a slow recovery – all these things piled up until Laura (like any new mum) felt overwhelmed.

As many as 8 out of 10 new mums struggle in the weeks after birth. In Laura’s case these feelings escalated scarily quickly into post-partum psychosis. She became paranoid and delusional and had to be institutionalised for a fortnight without her baby. Throughout this time she was haunted by a sense of: ‘What have I done?’, at first as she wondered if she could cope with her baby, and later because she was trying to grasp at reality as she slipped into nightmarish delusion.

Laura’s experience was devastating but this is a hopeful book. Not only has Laura slowly recovered she has come out the other side stronger and more assured about parenting on her own terms. Now she is determined to break the silence around post-natal mental health and with her story tell new parents: you are not alone.

What I Say:

I think this is such an important book. Too often we are focussed on the Insta-perfect side of Motherhood, without being honest about the reality of it.  I struggled after having both my sons, and no one ever talked to me about it, or asked me how I was doing. I absolutely think Laura’s book is must read for 2020.

JUNE

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig from Little Brown UK  -published on 4th June.

What They Say:

When Hannah is invited into the First-Class carriage of the London to Penzance train by Jinni, she walks into a spider’s web. Now a poor young single mother, Hannah once escaped Cornwall to go to university. But once she married Jake and had his child, her dreams were crushed into bitter disillusion. Her husband has left her for Eve, rich and childless, and Hannah has been surviving by becoming a cleaner in London. Jinni is equally angry and bitter, and in the course of their journey the two women agree to murder each other’s husbands. After all, they are strangers on a train – who could possibly connect them?

But when Hannah goes to Jinni’s husband’s home the next night, she finds Stan, a huge, hairy, ugly drunk who has his own problems – not least the care of a half-ruined house and garden. He claims Jinni is a very different person to the one who has persuaded Hannah to commit a terrible crime. Who is telling the truth – and who is the real victim?

What I Say:

Have you read the synopsis?! I just think it sounds like a novel you wouldn’t want to miss, and I am always attracted to novels where your viewpoints change as you turn the pages.  Amanda’s last novel The Lie of the Land was brilliant, unsettling and I think The Golden Rule is going to be just as brilliant.

Olive by Emma Gannon from Harper Collins  – published on 11th June.

What They Say:

OLIVE is many things.

Independent.
Adrift.
Anxious.
Loyal.
Kind.
Knows her own mind.

It’s ok that she’s still figuring it all out, navigating her world without a compass. But life comes with expectations, there are choices to be made, boxes to tick and – sometimes – stereotypes to fulfil. And when her best friends’ lives start to branch away towards marriage and motherhood, leaving the path they’ve always followed together, Olive starts to question her choices – because life according to Olive looks a little bit different.

Moving, memorable and a mirror for every woman at a crossroads, OLIVE has a little bit of all of us. Told with great warmth and nostalgia, this is a modern tale about the obstacle course of adulthood, milestone decisions and the ‘taboo’ about choosing not to have children.

What I Say:

I am always fascinated by stories of women who choose to find their own path – especially in the face of society’s expectations and all the pressures that bring.  I think Olive’s story is going to be an interesting and absorbing one, and I can’t wait to read it.

JULY

Sisters by Daisy Johnson from Jonathan Cape – published on 2nd July.

What They Say:

Something unspeakable has happened to sisters July and September.

Desperate for a fresh start, their mother Sheela moves them across the country to an old family house that has a troubled life of its own. Noises come from behind the walls. Lights flicker of their own accord. The dank basement, where July and September once made a blood promise to each other, is deeply disquieting.

In their new, unsettling surroundings, July finds that the fierce bond she’s always had with September is beginning to change in ways she cannot understand.

Taut, transfixing and profoundly moving, Sisters explodes with the fury and joy of adolescence. It is a story of sibling love and sibling envy to rival Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. With Sisters, Daisy Johnson confirms her standing among the most inventive and exciting young writers at work today.

What I Say:

I loved Everything Under, and now to find out that Daisy Johnson has a new novel coming out this year – well, of course I would want to read it! I love the idea of troubled sisters and a troubled house, and together – I think this is going to be one of the must reads of the Summer.

OCTOBER

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata from Granta – published on 1st October.

What They Say:

Natsuki isn’t like the other girls. She has a wand and a transformation mirror. She might be a witch, or an alien from another planet. Together with her cousin Yuu, Natsuki spends her summers in the wild mountains of Nagano, dreaming of other worlds. When a terrible sequence of events threatens to part the two children forever, they make a promise: survive, no matter what. Now Natsuki is grown. She lives a quiet life with her asexual husband, surviving as best she can by pretending to be normal. But the demands of Natsuki’s family are increasing, her friends wonder why she’s still not pregnant, and dark shadows from Natsuki’s childhood are pursuing her. Fleeing the suburbs for the mountains of her childhood, Natsuki prepares herself with a reunion with Yuu. Will he still remember their promise? And will he help her keep it?

What I Say:

One of my aims this year is to read more translated fiction, and I loved Convenience Store Woman, so am really looking forward to Earthlings.  I like stories that are slightly quirky and unexpected, and I think this will fit the bill perfectly.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton from Fig Tree – published on 15th October.

What They Say:

32-year-old Nina Dean is a successful food writer with a loyal online following, but a life that is falling apart. When she uses dating apps for the first time, she becomes a victim of ghosting, and by the most beguiling of men. Her beloved dad is vanishing in slow motion into dementia, and she’s starting to think about ageing and the gendered double-standard of the biological clock. On top of this she has to deal with her mother’s desire for a mid-life makeover and the fact that all her friends seem to be slipping away from her . . .

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is funny, tender and painfully relatable, filled with whip-smart observations about relationships and the way we live today.

What I Say:

If you haven’t read Everything I Know About Love, then that is another book you need to add to your reading pile straight away. Dolly writes so perfectly about love and relationships, and as a 49 year old woman, I am probably far from her target audience, but I know that Ghosts will be another slice of sublime writing, and I cannot wait to dive in.

Summer Water by Sarah Moss from Picador Books – published in October.

What They Say:

The novel, a multi-voice narrative set in a Scottish holiday park over the course of one fateful rainy summer’s day, is being hailed by Picador as its standout literary publication for autumn 2020.

Described as “swift, sharp and dark”, the book follows a group of residents and their growing animosity to a noisy outsider family staying at the park, with tension mounting to a devastating climax.

What I Say:

The reason I can’t tell you more about this, is that this is all I know (thank you The Bookseller website!)!

I can tell you I loved Ghost Wall, and that there has been a lot of brilliant reviews already, and I couldn’t imagine writing a post like this and not including it!

 

I know this is a HUGE post, and this is just a fraction of the books that are being published this year, but these are the ones so far that I want to read and put on your radar in January!

I hope you found a book or two you like the look of, and hopefully ten more you absolutely need to read!

2020 is already shaping up to be a stellar year for new books, and here’s to lots of bookish conversations and sharing lots of booklove too!

Love

Clare xx

 

 

 

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist – The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus: The Perseverance

Published By: Penned In The Margins

Available to Buy From All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

An extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet, The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish.

What I Say:

I think the idea of reading this collection was something from the start of my experience as a Shadow Judge that I was slightly anxious about. I was aware that Raymond Antrobus had burst onto the British Poetry scene in a blaze of glory, but having to review his collection for the Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer Award was absolutely out of my comfort zone. The last time I read poetry critically was probably when I was in University over 25 years ago.

Right from the start, and the very first poem, Echo, you are aware as a reader that this is an intensely personal and autobiographical collection from Raymond Antrobus. He is deaf and as if that was not isolating enough, he is also the child of an English mother and a Jamaican father. Raymond Antrobus has always been at the edge of a society that seemingly continues to move all around him, not understanding either his needs or his heritage. How do you attempt to find your place in a world when you are not recognised by it at all?

The Perseverance is an unapologetic debut that not only recounts his own experiences as a deaf British-Jamaican poet, but also makes the reader (as I did) stop and look up the references to other people from history to understand the importance of their inclusion in the work. We learn about his fractured relationship with his father, the life of his family, and there are also poems which feature deaf people who have their own stories to tell. I thought that this was an eclectic mix which worked well – quite simply because it often disrupts the rhythm of the poems, and whereas in one I could understand and appreciate it, others made me stop and read about the subject and then apply that knowledge to my re-reading of them.

What I thought was very clear about the work, is that Raymond Antrobus wants us to listen to him. How can we possibly understand what it means to be deaf, when we are hearing? We cannot possibly know the reality of being deaf – we may be able to make sweeping generalisations, but it is the minutiae, the day to day things that we take for granted that we need someone to articulate for us, to help us truly understand what we need to do to foster inclusion as oppose to exclusion. The addition of sign language symbols, and the redaction of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ which was filled with misconception and ignorance, immediately addressed by his poem After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi

In the poem Dear Hearing World, I felt it was really Antrobus’ manifesto, a way of detailing exactly what the hearing world need to understand in order for us to make any progress. It is raw, visceral and real, borne of a life lived and ignorances exposed. The writing is sublime, the imagery is authentic, and there is the absolute sense that our inability to fully appreciate what barriers we have created in our society, that there is a whole world of experience which has been denied a history.

He says:

“I mulled over long paragraphs because I didn’t know

what a natural break sounded like, you erased

what could have always been poetry

This for me is a theme that runs all through his collection. That you have standing in front of you a man who wants to be heard – not only for his own story, but for all of those other deaf people who have come before and after him. There is no one better qualified to educate others about the reality of being deaf than those who are.

In the title poem of the collection, The Perseverance is the pub where his father spends a lot of his time, with Raymond stood outside, waiting for him to return. Theirs is a difficult relationship – it seems that this is a pattern of behaviour that is usual in their lives, and interestingly, Antrobus is excluded from that world too. He is neither Jamaican nor British, not allowed inside the pub as he is a child, but cannot hear what is going on anyway. His own perseverance is deeper than simply waiting for his Dad to emerge and take him home. Even knowing that he is beaten by hs father, Antrobus seems to simply want to be acknowledged and loved by him. There is no doubt that Antrobus’ father loves him, and is fiercely defensive of his son, but their relationship is far from a traditional one, with his father open about his sexual conquests and his treatment of him is at times upsetting to read.

We learn that Antrobus’ father has dementia, and I thought it was incredibly poignant that the final poem in the collection Happy Birthday Moon, is about that most intimate and traditional idea, of a Dad reading his son a bedtime story. In that moment, where they are completely alone and just being with one another is the most real and exquisite recollection of what every child wants. To be heard.

“I’d like to be the Moon, the bear, even the rain

Dad makes the Moon say something new every night

and we hear each other, really hear each other,

As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.”

Perhaps this is the point of The Perseverance. Antrobus has honestly and unapologetically showed us what his life is like. The passion and determination that permeates the poems in this collection is a way of standing in front of us and asking us to hear each other. Truly hear each other. It is at times, not an easy work to read, and honestly, at times I was frustrated with Antrobus for making me stop to find out what he was talking about. I felt it disrupted my experience as a reader, but it was balanced with moments where I was just blindsided by the most beautiful poetry that just mesemerised me .

The Perseverance is a poetry collection unlike anything I have ever read. In its pages it encompasses so many themes such as love, loss, grief and the unique life that Antrobus has lived. To read it is to be party to his world and his frustations, his realities and his relationships, and his desire to ensure that his history and those of deaf people is no longer sidelined by those who should know better.

Read it and learn from it, let it make you understand the way in which our society has not listened to those who don’t automatically fit in, and then like Antrobus tells us, understand that that we need to really hear each other.

Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as we as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award – Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

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Julia Armfield: Salt Slow

Published By: Picador

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:
In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, salt slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

What I Say:

“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed”.

When I first started reading Salt Slow, (which by the way has one of the most beautiful covers that I think I have EVER seen}, I found the collection really easy to read, fast paced and extremely accessible.

Women are at the heart of all of these stories, but they hold the power and strength, while men are secondary, disposable characters that don’t really matter. Each of the stories are all so different, but at the same time, Julia Armfield has woven a sense of unease and other worldliness that permeates all of them. The world the characters inhabit feel close enough to ours to be recognisable, but it also feels slightly futuristic too.

In this book of nine short stories, you are absolutely immersed in the world that exists on the edge of ours. In Mantis, a teenage girl slowly morphs into a preying Mantis and uses her power to seduce a young man with devastating consequences. It works so well because it is written in a calm and understated way. Her Mum deals with it all very pragmatically, understanding that this is her fate, and attempts to help her daughter ease the pain of transformation with different creams and balms. Her teenage friends, obsessed with what they look like, and who does what with who, do what teenage girls do – if she doesn’t bother them, they generally leave her alone. This is why it works so well – if she had been marked out as different, and excluded from her world, the story would have been a much more traditional story in the vein of wronged outsider wreaks her revenge. Mantis is all the more powerful for the fact that her difference is accepted, and when her changing body embraces her different physicality and sensuality, you feel the change is constantly bubbling under the surface, and it has almost an air of inevitability which permeates the whole story.

This idea of young women undergoing transformations is an interesting one, and it is a theme which runs through Salt Slow. I loved the notion that these women were all on the cusp of discovering something about themselves, or those who are close to them, and the transformations make them stronger and define who they truly are.

In Formerly Feral, a young girl gains not only a stepmother, but also a wolf as a step-sister after her mother and biological sister leave. The wolf is called Helen, and although the girl is not named, they become closer and start to share similar traits. Their apparent differences serve to bring them together, and the wolf is more of a sister to her as time goes on. Helen understands the isolation and independence that the girl craves, and warns off those who get too close and scare her step-sister. Little by little, Helen and the girl become more alike and are the daughters that her father and step-mother have no qualms showing off to visitors. Julia Armfield’s skill means that this does not seem preposterous at all – because the world the narrative is set in does not treat them as outsiders. This is what makes the whole of Salt Slow so plausible – that everyone in the stories does not react to the seemingly incongruent relationships or happenings, they just accept them for what they are.

I have to say, that there were two stories which really resonated with me. The first was The Great Awake.

Imagine a world where not only does insomnia become a world wide epidemic, but that for those people who cannot sleep, you see a physical manifestation of your Sleep. This Sleep is not necessarily a peaceful being, but one that will make your life as uncomfortable as possible because they don’t rest either. The world is now full not only of people who cannot sleep, but also these beings who occupy even more space in an already disordered world. Trains are full, with Sleeps occupying all the seats, they all walk the streets and time no longer means anything because what’s the point if you can’t delineate day and night by the act of sleeping?

Janey, the protagonist of the story befriends a woman called Leonie in her block. She is a rare creature in that she is still able to sleep through the night, and even though they become friends, Leonie is desperate for a Sleep of her own so she can fit in with everyone else.

The Great Awake is a brilliant story which made me really stop and think about things. I am suffering with insomnia at the moment, and the notion of my sleeplessness as a human like object, is an intriguing concept. How would I react if I could see the very thing that was stopping me from sleeping? Would I want to rant at it, reason with it, or try to get rid of it? Are we all so wired and atttached to our screens and need to be connected 24 hours to the social media and internet that this notion of a world where we can’t switch off and fall asleep is in danger of becoming a reality?

As a teenager, like many others, I was devoted to following different groups – Wham, Culture Club, Wet Wet Wet and Spandau Ballet to name a few (Nearly 49 and not afraid to admit it!), which is why Stop your women’s ears with wax was such a perfect read for me!

It follows a girl band, who has slavishly devoted fans, so much so that they become more like a pack of out of control animals, determined to ensure that they protect their band at any costs. Mona is a young filmaker responsible for documenting the band on tour. The increasingly unsettling and violent devotion of the fans to the group mean that they almost become cultish in their behaviour, animalistic and sneering to anyone – especially any men who get in the way of the progress of the band as they become more and more successful.

All through the story, the power of the teenage girl is seen as key. They are the all encompassing sense of power for driving the story forward as the band move seamlessly through the story trying to be the most successful group they can. It is chilling to read the shared recollections of the people working with the band as they tell the reader what strange things have been happening as the band tour from city to city. A man from a previous gig is found asphyxiated, the tour bus toilets are clogged with feathers, and the crew are sleeping badly and having the same dream.

For me, the sense of hysteria and claustrophobia was entrenched in every page of this story.  It was unnerving to see how the girls are so utterly devoted to the band which holds them in their thrall.  It is as if they are being subliminally instructed to bind together and deal with any men who obstruct the band in their mission to be successful in which ever way they choose.

Salt Slow is a delicious short story collection that deserves to be savoured and re-read, as I think it is one of those books that will reveal something different to my reading experience every time I open it. Sharp, witty and defiantly different, Julia Armfield unapologetically puts women at the front and centre of all of the stories, and dares you to challenge them as to why they shouldn’t be.

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Julia Armfield lives and works in London. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist – Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Yara Rodrigues Fowler – Stubborn Archivist

Published By: Fleet

Available From All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:
A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.

What I Say:

“Love your child and give them everything, but build a life that is your own first.

This is what your mum had told you, telepathically, all your life.

But you weren’t sure you wanted a husband

Or a child

Or to wrap your life around another person’s life”

Of all the works I have been asked to read as a Shadow Judge for The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award, the Stubborn Archivist is the novel I already knew about. I was lucky enough to see Yara in conversation with the amazing Zeba Talkhani (Author of My Past Is A Foreign Country) and Daniel Hahn at the Henley Literary Festival earlier this year, and it was a captivating and illuminating talk. It asked what does identity, family and belonging mean to us when you are not sure where you fit in the world.

I was thrilled when I found out that Stubborn Archivist was on the Shortlist, and have to say that it is a novel I won’t forget for a long time. It is unlike anything I have read before in terms of structure and style, and that passion and emotion comes through every page, in an inexhaustable supply of memories, family and home.

Words tumble out of pages, large spaces are left, pages are blank, and the spaces in between words and chapters are just as important as the words that are printed. There is dialogue in Portuguese with no translation – why should there be? This is the Archivist’s story and her language should not have to be explained.

There is the constant refrain of : ‘What’s your name? He repeated the syl-la-bles.’ Showing us how having to constantly spell your name means you are not totally part of the society you live in – you are here, but not quite seamlessly. The frustation of language as an impediment to relationships and closeness peppers this book, whilst at the same time the refusal to compromise identity as a means to fit in more easily is always present, and it is at times gloriously defiant.

The construction of our identities and remembrances add to the authenticity of the novel – memories are not neat, linear, resolvable and formulaic structures. They meander and link seemingly unrelated pieces of information and time, short handed by the people who remember as they recollect the past, as families talk about jokes only they understand, of experiences they have shared and memories that exist only for them. It is raw, real and very truthful which is why it works so well, and always in the back of our minds is the notion of the protagonist having to heal her body which has been traumatised- something we discover in the most understated but most powerful way.

The Stubborn Archivist is the female narrator of the novel. She is the daughter of a Brazilian mother and an English father, and as we follow her forwards and backwards through her life, we start to understand who she is and how her life experiences have helped shape her. It is the sense that she doesn’t quite fit in to either culture that drives the narrative forward – in England she is living, learning and loving, whilst her time spent in Brazil means she goes back to be with her grandparents Vovô and Vovó who want her to remember her roots and where her heritage is. One scene that really stuck in my mind is when the Narrator is visiting Brazil and someone assumes she doesn’t speak Portuguese, because she is living in England, and she has to assure them that she does – that although geographically she is removed from them, emotionally she is still part of that culture too.

This for me is the whole crux of the novel, that she inhales life in London – the growing up, the all consuming friendships with Jade, Gee and Elena, the teenage way of just being with each other and knowing what each other needs, the desire to be part of the world around you so that you belong in that moment. Yet similarly when she is in Brazil, she is very much still a Brazilian girl who happens to live in London. As she grows up surrounded by the love of her grandparents Vovô and Vovó and Aunt Paula, they are thrilled she has come to see them but they also feel slightly displaced, as they are not part of her everyday life.

The Stubborn Archivist is not only her story, but that of her family too. We see how her parents met, the way in which two cultures come together – when the Brazilian in-laws come to the United Kingdom for Christmas and how they all learn to co-exist, each with different expectations, but neither wanting to upset the other. The most endearing scenes are tinged with awkwardness where no one quite knows what to say, but what binds them together is the unspoken familial connections we all yearn for.

One of the many things I loved about this novel, is that we are never really able to say that we absolutely know the Stubborn Archivist, because what we learn is what she has allowed us to read. That really resonated with me – how often have we kept things hidden, behaved one way with a certain group of friends, and another with someone else. Personal history is always going to be subjective, and that is what makes this novel so relatable – whether we realise it or not, we are the Stubborn Archivists of our histories.

The Stubborn Archivist is a novel that surprised and enthralled me from the very first page. Hand on heart, I wouldn’t have picked it up had I seen it in a Bookshop, but do you know what? I am so very glad I have read it, and isn’t that what reading is all about? The notion that as well as falling back on the familiar and the loved, that sometimes we need to read outside of our comfort zone to see what else can inspire and educate us.

The Stubborn Archivist has absolutely and defiantly achieved that. It has made me aware of the legacy I will leave behind and the stories others will remember about me – and I believe that is what truly inspiring writing does.

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Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was published in 2019 in the UK and USA. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University Of Warwick Young Writer Award – Testament by Kim Sherwood

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Kim Sherwood: Testament

Published by: riverrun

Available online and from all good bookshops.

What They Say:

The letter was in the Blue Room – her grandfather’s painting studio, where Eva spent the happier days of her childhood. After his death, she is the one responsible for his legacy – a legacy threatened by the letter she finds. It is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have found the testimony her grandfather gave after surviving the labour camps in Austria. And, since he was one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century artists, they want to exhibit it. But Joseph Silk – leaving behind József Zyyad – remade himself long ago. As Eva begins to uncover the truth, she understands the trauma, and the lies, that have haunted her family. She will unravel what happened to József and his brother, who came to England as refugees. One never spoke of his past – the other couldn’t let it go. Their story – and that of the woman they both loved – is in her hands. Revealing it would change her grandfather’s hard- won identity. But it could also change the tide of history. This testament can lend words to wordless grief, and teach her how to live. 

What I Say:

“It’s not a choice,’ László said “what’s a man without memory?’

Silk told him: “Happier”.

To be asked to be a Shadow Judge for The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award is a huge honour, but when faced with the shortlist sitting in front of you, all of the books you cannot wait to devour, the issue is which one do you choose?

How will my choice appear to others – is there some reason why I chose this one and not that? Does that mean I was most keen to read the one I picked, or is it that I wanted to get the longest book read first?

I decided to read Testament, because I believed that I knew about the Holocaust and the Second World War. I naively thought my limited reading of a history textbook in sixth form could adequately educate me as to the impact and brutality of this war on the Jewish people and the world.

Testament is a novel that unapologetically shows you the human reality of war.  It is not on the battlefields or the war rooms that this novel’s war is fought, but in the towns and countryside, in the homes and the lives of those ordinary people who were at the mercy of the German soldiers.

Eva Butler is the granddaughter of the famous painter Joseph Silk who has recently passed away, and as her father John refuses to help, it is left to Eva to deal with his estate and possessions he has left behind.  Eva is a documentary maker, and before Silk’s death, they were in the process of making a film together about him. She has always been aware that he was once József Zyyad, a young Hungarian Jew who together with his brother László survived the Holocaust, but he refused to revisit that part of his history.

When Eva is going through Silk’s possessions, she finds a letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, who wanted to talk to him so they could add his testimony that he gave during the Second World War to create a history of those who were in the Holocaust.  Whereas László was now in a place where he wants to remember what has happened to him, Silk wanted no part of it.  He wanted to forget his life during that time, and any attempt Eva had previously made to try to get him to talk about his life before he arrived in the United Kingdom is ignored.

To say that Testament is just a straightforward novel about a woman’s search to discover the truth about her grandfather simply does not do it justice.  It is a novel about the human spirit, the connections that families have, and how in times of extreme suffering and devastation that all we seek as humans is the notion that we are belong to the human race either through blood, or a shared experience however difficult that might be.

As Eva travels to Berlin to meet the people in the Jewish Museum, you absolutely feel Eva’s unease and confusion as she realises in reading the letter, she may have uncovered something in Silk’s story that nothing could have prepared her for.  In making this choice, to uncover the truth about her family, that the whole of her own history could be about to change forever.

The narrative moves between Eva’s story and that of József and László, punctuated by pages of questions that József was asked which formed part of his testimony. The pages are placed in the novel without warning or context, and bring into focus both the reality of what the brothers went through, but also the enormity of the devastation that War has brought for everyone.  Life for the brothers during the war is unimaginably cruel, they are treated no better than animals, and their Jewish heritage is what marks them out as fair game for the German soldiers. Men are shot as soldiers ‘test’ their guns, they are forced to work in mines waist deep in water for eleven hour shifts, with only the water that engulfs them as the way of staying alive. They are moved around the country like a pack of animals that have no value other than to serve as amusement and inconvenience for the German officers.

This is not a sanitised, convenient version of the Holocaust experience.  Kim Sherwood unflinchingly challenges us to read the stories of József, László and many others, and to try and understand the unimaginable horror and degradation these people went through simply due to their religion. It makes us see the true inhumanity of war, and dares us to look away, knowing to do so would let these people down.

For me, the most emotional part of the novel was the aftermath of the Second World War.  László and József have been separated, and László, with a girl called Zuzka has managed to get to the Lake District, and become one of the Windermere Boys.  For László and Zuzka, the war may have ended, but they still fall between society’s cracks, not quite fitting in in England, but unable to return to their homeland either.  The relationship between them is gentle and tender, and although both have been changed by what they have seen and experienced, they slowly turn to each other for comfort, to feel a human connection again.  However, when József manages to find his way back to his brother, Zuzka realises that it is József she is truly attracted to.  They are unable to hide their feelings, and as they edge ever closer, László realises that he can do nothing except watch the two people he loves most in the world find each other with devastating consequences for all of them.

Eva is also finding that as she delves deeper into the past her Grandfather fought so hard to hide, that she truly knew very little about him, and his testimony reveals a former life that turns everything she has ever known upside down.  When she visits Berlin to find out more about Silk’s life, she is regarded as a Jew first and a person second and starts to understand the notion of being marked out from the crowd, and the importance of our personal histories as a testament for future generations.

Testament is at times a very difficult and emotional read.  It is a novel which is filled with beautifully poetic and measured prose, which draws you in close and then when it switches to the most horrific scenes described in a straightforward and unemotional way, it is all the more shocking and unnerving. We cannot understand man’s inhumanity to man, and bear our own witness to a world we know can never be allowed to exist again. The history and massive themes it tackles within its pages are complex and the relationships contained in the pages are far from easy. It is due to Kim Sherwood’s immense skill as a writer, that as a reader you become so invested in Eva and Silk’s story that you feel you owe it to them both to not only read it right to the very end, but to also do your own research of the world Silk has tried so hard to forget.

However, for me, at the heart of Testament, and what is so evident in every single page, is a young woman’s desire to truly understand the history of her Grandfather who she loved so deeply.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow  and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

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Kim Sherwood was born in Camden in 1989 and lives in Bath. She studied Creative Writing at UEA and is now Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England. Her pieces have appeared in Mslexia, Lighthouse, and Going Down Swinging. Kim began researching and writing Testament, her first novel, after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. It won the 2016 Bath Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.