Review of Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo

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Our institutions are preoccupied with promoting what they call “diversity” tho’ sometimes I suspect what they really want are for people to look different but all think the same way. Reading Stay with Me made me wonder how many of us would manage a culture that really was different. In our culture we may have trouble with in-laws who want to know, “When can we expect grandchildren?” But suppose your in-laws thought the sensible solution to an apparent problem of infertility was for your husband to marry a second wife? And your husband thought a fair compromise would be to provide wife-no.-2 with a separate apartment and spend but one weekend a month with her. Add that your own father was a polygamist, that your mother died giving birth to you, and that you have not one but several wicked stepmothers who despise you. Now that is diversity! That is also the situation of Yejide. Her story takes place over some twenty years, beginning with her courtship by Akin and ending with the funeral rites of her father.

Although I’ve never been to West Africa, I found it very easy to relate to Yejide, having recently been in Southern Africa as a guest of the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland. There are in fact more Anglicans in Nigeria than in England or America, and it seems likely that the future of Anglicanism is very bright, but its centre may well be in Cape Town rather than Canterbury. As I had understood it, if a man was an Anglican already, he wasn’t to have more than one wife. But if he converted he could keep the wives he already had, but shouldn’t marry any more. Here it’s more complicated. Akin is supposed to be an Anglican, tho’ anything but observant. He finds church boring. (From my experience in Swaziland – that’s hard to imagine. You could feel the Holy Ghost’s tail feathers tickling you all over.) Both he and Yejide are well-endowed with contemporary “Western” culture, very fluent in English and university graduates. Yejide is a capable businesswoman who manages her own chain of hair salons. Akin is a bank manager. Their Yoruba-speaking elders are attached to traditional culture and religion, and for them producing children is a woman’s principal role. But tho’ I found Yejide’s in-laws and step-mothers repelling, one marvel of the really different culture they represent is that we can take a fresh look at our own. Just what is the difference between a couple’s solving their fertility problem by finding an egg donor, as opposed to the husband’s taking a second wife? Or between choosing a sperm donor and getting a brother-in-law to be the father? It does make one reflect.

I found the more we learned about Akin the less I liked him, tho’ he seemed well-meaning but weak in confronting his own problems and relationships. Yejide is a wonderfully strong woman and a very sympathetic character. This book seemed long to me, but I was glad to spend so much time in her company. I had the good fortune to listen to the Audible version, and found the narration of Adjoa Andoh brilliant at giving the characters appropriate voices, especially the Yoruba speakers. But the sound of Yejide’s English-speaking voice was especially beautiful and attractive, and seemed to fit her perfectly. Both as a story of a courageous woman and as a cultural experience, Stay with Me will be one of my best reads of the year.

Review of What Alice Knew, by T. A. Cotterell

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If you want to make an artist a main character in fiction, don’t pick a writer. Choose a composer or a painter – that way the author doesn’t have to provide samples of the character’s work. (Sometimes, as in Anthony Quinn’s Freya, the author does and they’re perfect!) Unfortunately, Mr. Cotterell wastes this advantage by making Alice not only a portrait painter, but the narrator. Which means she has to talk about her work – and is she a bore! Having spent most of my professional life at the first university to award degrees for creative projects, I learned the difference first-hand between artists and poseurs. Artists make art. Poseurs talk about art. (Fuelled by ETOH, too many of the former morph into the latter at mid-life.) Here the author tries to show that the narrator can paint by having her chat about art a lot! Speaking of her portrait of a rich man’s trophy wife: ‘The great Joseph Mallard William Turner painted light; I had painted a faux-girly voice and a belief in the redistributive power of shopping.’ (I haven’t a clue what ‘redistributive’ means in that sentence.) Visiting a country-house, you might see a deer or a cow on the grounds. Not Alice. ‘Away to the left a speckled fawn appeared at the edge of the trees, paused, sniffed, and disappeared back into the protective darkness. I half expected to see a Cuyp cow nosing around the water-meadow or Constable’s lad flat on his stomach, drinking from a stream.’ Having been given all of Turner’s Christian names, I’m disappointed Alice didn’t specify Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp and John [NMI] Constable. But my favourite of Alice’s aphorisms was: ‘All art is a quest for truth, every picture a set of problems that has to be solved with integrity.’ Try that one in your personal statement in your application to art school – you’ll not even get into SCAD. Try this one instead: ‘All art is a quest for deception, every picture a set of problems to be solved with trickery.’ And Alice very badly needs trickery because her husband is suspected of committing murder. A murder which is being investigated by an English policeman who is apparently also dressed for a costume party: ‘in a prune chunky-collared shirt, three buttons undone, and a copper-coloured leather jacket with a stretchy waist. His chest was frothy with hair. The fat brass buckle of his leather belt shone in the sun. Standing there in too-tight jeans and cowboy boots with vertical calligraphy . . . he should have packed a piece in a shoulder-holster.’ Alice is literally dumbfounded but as already is apparent, this woman has no sense of humour. She ought instead to whistle a few bars from ‘Someday Soon’ and then say pertly, ‘Hi, you’re in early from California! How was the drive?’ Alice mentions his footwear again (Tony Lama’s apparently opened a shop in the Piccadilly Arcade) but she never tells us what the ‘calligraphy’ on his boots actually represents: Chinese ideograms or the opening verse of the Aeneid in italic hand or what? And no real cowboy wore a shoulder holster; you’d carry your Colt 44 in a holster on a gun belt slung low on your hips, like John Wayne. Alice is equally at a loss with the legal system and develops an obsession with going to the police to confess what she knows of her husband’s involvement with the victim, even though she claims to believe his protestations of innocence. If she read crime fiction instead of poseurs like Salinger, she’d know that the police and the prosecutors have no concern for moral guilt or innocence, their only goal is in securing a conviction, whether the accused actually did it or not. That’s how our legal system works. Her confusion brings out my principal problem with the book and with Alice as a narrator. Alice hasn’t the formation to make moral choices. If she really loves her husband and believes his protestations of innocence, her course is clear. Do what’s necessary to prevent his going to prison. I did, however, find What Alice Knew not entirely a waste of time. Reading Alice’s pontifications about art made me want to see some real portraits, and a trip to Google images led me to  Lucian [Michael] Freud’s ‘Girl in Bed’ and then I didn’t utter a word about ‘truth’ or ‘integrity’ – just ‘Wow’!

Review of Lie with Me, by Sabine Durrant

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After I passed my personal self-denying ordinance to eschew reviewing unknown authors on NetGalley I swooped down for a chance to read Sabine Durrant’s Lie with Me for free now that an American publisher was finally marketing it this side the pond, only two years late. Having read & enjoyed Under Your Skin very much & Remember Me This Way not quite as much, I was ready for the main character of this book to be an unreliable narrator & a sleazy narcissistic arty type freeloader poseur & from the beginning I thoroughly despised him. But whilst there is no question that Paul is a villain, the good luck he encounters seems much too good to be true – an old uni acquaintance who invites him on a virtually all expenses paid holiday on a Greek island with Andrew’s sister Alice being a friend who provides all the benefits, i.e. all the pleasures of matrimony with zero responsibilities. What’s also strange is that ten years ago they’d all been on the same island, where Paul made a total spectacle of himself getting totally off his face whilst wearing a purple tee-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Let Zeus Blow Your Mind.” The former is forgivable as youthful folly, the latter inexcusable at any age: I was indeed hoping Paul would finally meet with a firing squad from the Fashion Police. That same previous time, a 13 y/o named Jasmine went missing, & Alice is running an organisation still searching for her after all these years. (I cannot begin to count how many variations on the Madeleine McCann disappearance I’ve read over so many years, but for me the plot still works.) Did Paul have something to do with that? Is Paul a villain? Or is he a victim? Sabine Durranrt tells a wicked story that will keep the reader in suspense. One thing I learned from this book (as I’ve also learnt from Helen Fitzgerald, who’s similar to Sabine Durrant though for me just a little cleverer & twistier) is that the best way to ensure yourself against plots by sleazy people is simply not to be a sleaze. So as a warning to the unwary, Lie with Me has an excellent moral: If you always tell the truth, you’ve little to fear.

As with the exploding car in Remember Me This Way, the author isn’t always technically believable. In this case, Paul could not possibly have started that truck which is supposed to have been sitting idle for ten years. The entire plot is rather too contrived as well & it was hard to believe that even such a total arse as Paul could persuade himself that Alice really fell for him or that Andrew, his wife, & daughter could ever desire five minutes in his presence. But the touristy cheap setting for a holiday in the sun with odious people who ought to stay home was as excellently depicted in the book as it is in the quietly understated & tasteful hostelry in the above illustration.

Review of The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley

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‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Probably ranks with ‘All happy families . . .’ and ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .’ amongst the most famous opening sentences in classical fiction. But in the case of The Go-Between, I found it a trifle off. Because when the book first appeared in America, in 1954, I was the same age as Leo the narrator, and I would have had much more common with him then, than either of us would have with the contemporaries of these characters today. Now, of course, they would have no need of a go-between; they’d be madly texting each other on their smart phones. Leo would scarcely have been puzzled about the mysteries of ‘spooning’ – he and his friend Marcus would have seen it all on internet porn.

At the centre I found a great moral ambiguity: did Marian genuinely like Leo, or was she simply using him to further something sleazy? Leo I found very easy to identify with my 13 y/o self – perhaps the most awkward of ages, neither a child nor quite an adolescent. I could easily share his embarrassment about having the wrong clothes or not knowing how to deport himself in unfamiliar social situations with the upper classes. His uneasiness with the psalter puzzled me till I recalled that the Sunday morning service probably would have been sung matins. (There are advantages to being Catholic – Roman or Anglo.) But the repeated joke (which wasn’t at alll funny) on Leo’s inability the aspirate the initial syllable in ‘Hugh’ (rather like a certain American political figure too much in the news) so that hearers thought he was saying ‘you’ was tedious and boring. Leo’s fixation on the temperature annoyed me as as well, though perhaps as an American I’m more accustomed to extreme weather, at least before English people mostly holidayed in Spain. His fascination with casting spells struck me as silly as well, though at his age his credulity was almost believable.

Although an excellent embodiment of the class hierarchy at the close of the Victorian age, The Go-Between does not quite achieve classical status (except for its opening sentence.) The plot could serve as a flat-out tragedy, but Leo’s role both as narrator and messenger lowers the status. (He’d be the confidante in a French neo-classical tragedy.) With Viscount Trimingham I sensed a truly beautiful gesture (I am still sufficiently old-fashioned to follow the rule that it is never the lady’s fault) but our take on Marian remains very fuzzy although a gentleman is required to give her the benefit of the doubt. Ted’s status as member of the NCO class (perfect for the period) would indeed have changed dramatically in the second decade of the century – he would not have remained an other rank for long. That war changed England very much into another country.

Review of The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan, by Annette Sills

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There were two scenes that perfectly caught the cultural and spiritually maimed existence of the characters in this novel. Billy’s relatives from America visit the family in Ireland: “Ted gave Davy and me our first drink in the woods when we were thirteen, bottles of Budweiser stolen from his father’s stash under our sink. I fell in love with alcohol that day.” Who on earth would import American Budweiser – a feeble concoction Americans serve so cold as not to have to taste it – to Ireland? Rather like taking your Chevrolet to Stuttgart. And there’s Billy’s atheist father in law Tony, who is diagnosed with cancer: “He had a go at the hospital chaplain earlier. The poor man [sic] was chatting with one of the nurses in the middle of the ward, minding his own business, when Tony leant forward and yelled, ‘Well, hello, Reverend. You hovering round the sick and the vulnerable again? . . . It’s the only time your lot get any attention, when the grim reaper’s calling. That’s when you start the scaremongering and they all come running. Your bloody churches are empty the rest of time.’” As I happened to read that passage shortly after coming off call with the spouse of a patient who expired before our eyes at a Code Blue, I have to confess finding Tony somewhat less than endearing. (The above photo captures how I imagine him perfectly.)

Billy, age late 30s going on 18, lives in a Manchester suburb called Chorlton, with his wife Julie, dtr. Bridget and infant son William. Julie is terrified Bridget will end up at Priory Road Primary and would almost literally kill to get her into the more upscale Broadoak. There’s also the choice of St. Joseph’s (unlike in America, in England state schools can teach other faiths besides nihilism) but Billy’s not having any of that for his dtr, having been ‘educated’ by the ‘Christian Brothers’ in Ireland. As a teenager, Billy emigrated to England and devoted himself mostly to drugs, sex and alcohol, tho’ now he’s a father and approaching forty he is attempting to be sober and responsible. Julie suffers from what seems PTSD from being bullied at Priory Road, hence her aversion. Long before ‘the reveal’ any reader who knows anything about Roman Catholic religious orders will have a pretty good idea what happened to Billy. Altho’ he drives a lorry, Billy is supposed to be quite a sensitive and intelligent man who ought to have gone to university. We know this because he reads all the time (at least when he’s not drunk or committing adultery) and is especially fond of the short stories of Raymond Carver. (Carver was an American writer who specialised in stories in which nothing happens. If you used the fill-in-the-blank phrase “What we talk about when we talk about ______” in a a creative writing programme in the ‘80s, you were instantly hip.)

Which brings out the problem I had with this book. It deals with very serious issues of childhood formation, but the characters are far too shallow intellectually and spiritually to convey the tragic consequences of their abusive backstories or the experience the deep spiritual healing such wounds require. Instead they inhabit the world of popular psychology where we ‘get some help’ and the villains either repent (with the excuse that they were victims too) or go to jail. As sociology, the portrait of the Irish expat community in Manchester fascinated me, but Billy and Julie were simply too superficial to engage my feelings.

Review of Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

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Despite inept plotting & narration, as well as clichéd characters (Izzy struck me as a transgendered Holden Caulfield—Speaking Truth to Phonies—Little Fires Everywhere was unputdownable. I had to find out the outcome of the custody case, which was indeed the most perplexing since Solomon ordered the baby cut in half. (I’d not have wanted either contestant for a mother.) I recalled two much publicized such custody stories then in the news, one involving birth parents changing their minds on adoption and the other a surrogate who kept the baby, so by the middle of the novel the coins dropped for the plot. This is one of those books where the setting is a major character, but here it is the sheer blandness of Shaker Heights that overwhelms the reader. In Mrs. Richardson (the married title is essential to her nature) Celeste Ng presents both totally controlled banality & consummate evil. Fortunately neither Mrs. Richardson’s contrivances to get Mia’s backstory (which was absolutely no business of hers even though she’s Mia’s landlady) under false pretenses nor attempt to uncover the records of an abortion clinic are believable in real life. Actually, the notion of a reporter (who thinks she’s a “journalist”) for a suburban rag who specializes in town council and zoning commission meetings attempting a Woodstein to ruin her tenant who’s not even a party in her friend’s child-custody affair ought to be comic, but I found it clumsy. The narration also seemed very intrusive. We get snatches of dialogue, but then the omniscient narrator comes in and explains what they were really talking about, sometimes projecting what they would feel in a future that is otherwise totally opaque. (Are Izzy & Pearl being set up for a sequel?) The teen characters felt straight out of a YA where teens are always more sensitive than the grown-ups tho’ both the toothpick in the locks prank and the alcoholic (& racist) teacher’s bathroom accident struck me a puerile and silly. Maybe this is actually a work of “literary fiction” & what I thought ham-fisted narrative & plotting are supposed to be “postmodern self-referentiality” or the like. Yet the story of Mia’s discovery of her talent for photography & her art school career was told excellently; Celeste Ng has a true gift for making technical subjects accessible to lay readers (& I hope I can do the same with Latin grammar). So there are perhaps four different novels in this one book. (1) Mia’s backstory—a Portrait of the Photag as a Young Woman; (2) a YA with teen friendships, jealousy, sex, abortion, school pranks—sorta John Green on nasty pills; (3) a domestic saga (being of the male persuasion I don’t use the terms “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” to characterize genres I enjoy) involving adoption, surrogacy & parent vs. child conflict, & (4) a satire on a suburban matron turned cat-fighter who thinks she’s an investigative reporter but is really just a nasty snoop. The 1st deserves 5 stars, the 4th gets 2 at most. Let’s round off at 4 then.

Review of Silent Child, by Sarah A. Denzil

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It’s hardly untempting to agree with the reader who objected she didn’t want stories about children being abused. I’d not want them either. Abuse of children & domestic violence are two of my triggers. But that is not what Silent Child is about, tho’ what happened to Aiden & who might have been responsible is never out of our minds. While child abuse is something no decent person could enjoy watching, as Aristotle explained long ago, we are pleased by artistic representations of actions we’d abhor in real life. Here the artistic representation is not of child abuse. The focus rather is on the boy’s mum Emma, who gave birth to Aiden when she was a teenager, was estranged from the boy’s father, & is now pregnant with a dtr by her current husband Jake. Ten years ago the 6 y/o Aiden vanished from his primary school & was believed drowned in the Ouse; now he’s found wandering in the woods, undersized, malnourished, & clearly a victim of sexual & other physical mistreatment, but incapable or unwilling to speak a word of his ordeal or anything else. The press descend on Emma, & when she doesn’t co-operate with them, portray her using old social media posts as a slapper & a drunk & a thoroughly unfit mum. Emma also faces a very tense relationship with the boy’s natural father – now an officer RN – as well as his mother who is eager to play the intrusive gran – & her current husband Jake, who seems both to overdo & to resent the role of step-father to Aiden as well as doting on his unborn dtr whom Emma is on the verge of delivering.

Why should we enjoy artistic portrayals of extreme situations? By vicariously sharing every parent’s nightmare, we are relieved of some of our worst fears. Aristotle called that feeling of relief ‘catharsis’. I found the denouement a little too complex with too many villains to be quite believable in real life. But whilst a bit overtopped, the author’s skill in making so many plot elements & characters combine was admirable. The pleasure in a good ‘reveal’ lies in seeing all the parts join together harmoniously & here they do.

I was also attracted to Silent Child from extraneous impulses. The book is apparently self-published, one of those Amazon two-quid specials that Kindle Unlimited members read for free. And as I’m frankly considering going the self-publishing route myself, I wanted to find out if the lack of support a trade publisher should provide detracts from Sarah Denzil’s artistry. I’m sure it doesn’t, except that Silent Child is nearly 100 pages longer than I expect most trade publishers regard as appropriate for “genre fiction.” Tho’ Silent Child sagged a bit in the middle, I’d not have wanted any cuts were I the editor. We need to experience Emma’s stress & grief fully, especially with the vampire tabloid press. Best portrayal of media feeding frenzy since Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls.  The pictures from old social media posts they printed were perfectly genuine – their stories were ‘sourced’ (including from a frenemy of Emma’s). But the tale they told of an alcoholic, uncaring & slaggish mum was totally false. Made me reflect.