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It’s been a few years since I read Lissa Evans’ excellent novel “Crooked Heart”, but I remember loving her vivid characters and witty writing style. So when I heard that her new novel is a prequel to this earlier book I become intensely curious. “Crooked Heart” opened with a poignant description of Mattie, an aging intellectual who was very active in the Suffragette movement, before describing the journey her ward Noel takes out of London to escape the The Blitz in 1940. “Old Baggage” tells Mattie’s story prior to when the boy Noel came to live with her and depicts Britain at an interesting stage of its political history.

It’s 1928 and many people - including some of the women involved in the Suffragette movement - feel that their overall aims have been achieved because of the new Equal Franchise Act which granted equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21. However, Mattie is still frustrated by other inequalities between the sexes which persist and there’s also worrying fascist groups gaining in popularity – one of which is led by a former Suffragette. Mattie is the most endearing sort of stickler (who I admire but would be terrified to meet in real life) as she persists in delivering lectures to mostly bored crowds and has a new scheme to empower lackadaisical local girls by marching them through the heath like young activists/explorers. While this all makes it sound like a novel top heavy on history and politics it really doesn’t read that way. Rather, it’s a warm-hearted, comic and ultimately poignant portrayal of a group of women trying to balance their personal desires/values against the limitations of society at that time.

Although the story is a prequel, it felt like no prior knowledge of Mattie was necessary to enjoy this story of her and her household known as “The Mousehole” in Hampstead. It earned this nickname because it was a refuge for suffragettes to recover in when they were released from prison after hunger strikes in what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. But now Mattie’s only stalwart companion in the house is Florrie Lee who is nicknamed “The Flea.” They are just friends but Florrie possesses latent romantic feelings towards Mattie. Her unexpressed sexuality is subtly described with a lot of feeling and care: “she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz – but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance.” It’s interesting how even though Mattie is such a progressive there were social issues even she wasn’t prepared to fight for in this era of history or, perhaps, she wasn’t even aware of them.  

What’s so clever about this novel is the way Evans gives such a compelling and many-sided look at politics from this period, but they are threaded so expertly into the plot they don’t obstruct the pleasure of the story. I found myself heartily engaged in scenes such as Mattie chasing a thief through a fairground or delighting in some deliciously cutting turns of phrase such as when Mattie describes a girl as being “zestless as a marzipan lemon”. Only after reading certain scenes did I think back and reflect on the way complicated social issues were built into the framework of these characters’ stories. It made me consider the difficult personal sacrifices individuals must make for a higher cause and how challenging it is to gain a historical perspective on a time period when you’re living through it. The story also subtly shows how political ideas influence people and reverberate over the greater span of time.

Many other writers would show the grit and agony the Suffragettes went through when starving themselves to protest against flagrant inequalities and the men in power who refused to do anything to change them. Instead, Evans refers to this and shows its continuing impact in Mattie’s dogged attitude lecturing and teaching anyone she encounters. I think this displays an admirable restraint in a writer because the impact of these activists’ self-sacrifice is no less intensely felt and we get a more complex picture of how seismic social changes have a multi-layered effect over time. While it’s important not to blinker ourselves against the horrors of history there can be an anaesthetizing effect when fiction gives detailed descriptions of harrowing situations. So it’s a difficult thing to make readers feel the heat of that anger while not making them want to close themselves off to the reality of it, but this is something Evans does very well.

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Evans also delivers that wonderful pleasure readers can get from reading about characters in situations where social rules are flagrantly disregarded. There’s a memorable scene in a jail where Mattie (as a victim of a crime) is expected to behave in a certain way, but her principles and resentment over the way police abused Suffragettes hilariously prevent her from complying and make her follow her own independent corrective actions. Her persistence and obstinacy to the cause exhausts nearly everyone around her, but she’s not immune to change. The story shows how her attitudes incrementally transform as she must temper her personality to allow for other people’s feelings.

While the primary journey of this novel was such a delight to read, I did feel that the story didn’t deliver an entirely satisfying conclusion for several strands within it. There are some periphery characters who we’re given touching private moments with, but their individual dilemmas feel slightly left behind in the greater sweep of Mattie’s story. She’s undeniably the centre of the novel and she’s such a mesmerising figure she deserves to be the focus. But when she reaches a certain crisis point and fall from grace it feels like everyone else is somewhat short-changed in the process of her redemption. However, the pleasures of this novel are manifold and the skill demonstrated in rendering history in such a lively, complex way is so admirable. It also felt especially moving at the end of “Old Baggage” reading about the genesis of a substitute parent-child relationship which changes so dramatically at the beginning of “Crooked Heart”. Mostly I admire Lissa Evans’ creative and imaginative style of writing about ornery characters in a way that makes me love them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans
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Having read Boyne's heartrending novel “A History of Loneliness” a little over two years ago, I was extremely keen to read this new novel which is certainly his most ambitious publication thus far. At over six hundred pages “The Heart's Invisible Furies” follows the life of Cyril Avery from his dramatic birth in 1945 to 2015. It's a novel that's truly epic in scope as it incorporates significant moments in history from the 1966 IRA bombing of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin to the recent referendum to permit same-sex marriage in Ireland. Boyne captures climatic shifts in societal attitudes over this seventy year period. For those who experience Irish life from day to day and suffer terribly from the constrictive ideologies of its domineering institutions, it feels as if nothing will ever change. As one character puts it: “Ireland is a backward hole of a country run by vicious, evil-minded, sadistic priests and government so in thrall to the collar that it’s practically led around on a leash.” However, surveying the societal shifts over a full lifetime through Cyril's point of view, the reader is able to see how things do slowly change with time especially through brave individuals who make themselves heard.

The novel begins in 1945 when the local priest discovers that Cyril's sixteen year-old unmarried mother Catherine Goggin is pregnant. He publicly denounces her, physically throws her out of the church and orders her to leave their small farming town in West Cork. Inexperienced and nearly penniless, she bravely makes her way to Dublin where she decides to give Cyril up for adoption after giving birth to him. Cyril is raised in the home of Charles and Maude Avery who are two very different, charismatic and highly original characters. Charles is a wealthy and powerful businessman with many vices including gambling, womanizing and alcoholism. Maude is an irascible reclusive chain-smoking writer who produces a new novel every few years and delights in how few copies get sold “for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar.” In a hilariously memorable scene recounting her only public appearance, she reads her entire novel to the audience without stopping until everyone leaves the bookshop in exhaustion. Although these characters are an absolute delight to read about, they make frightful parents treating Cyril more as a lodger than a son and continuously reminding him that he's “not really an Avery.”

Each section of the novel leaps forward seven years showing Cyril’s development and struggles throughout his entire life. It’s speculated that our lives dramatically change in seven year periods of time. The philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner hypothesized that there are significant changes in human development in seven year cycles that are linked to the astrological chart. Scientists say that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years meaning that biologically we become completely new human beings. One of the most touching things about “The Heart's Invisible Furies” and why it justifies its length is how it shows how orphaned Cyril is not limited to one set path in existence, but has multiple opportunities to grow and change over the course of his life. Sometimes he makes poor decisions and other times he realizes his full potential over these seven year strides. The priest who banished Catherine and her child borne out of wedlock condemned them to a life of shame and misery. Although they both periodically suffer throughout their lives, they survive and flourish. Their story is a great testament to how the human spirit overcomes the narrow-minded dictates of society.

Through Cyril’s perspective the novel gives a personal view of some the most horrific social and historic events in his lifetime including fatal homophobic beatings, a teenager kidnapped and mutilated by IRA members, concentration camp survivors, the sex trade in Amsterdam, the stigma of AIDS and its early epidemic in NYC and the September 11th attacks. These subjects are treated seriously and sensitively portrayed. However, the novel is nowhere as bleak as this list makes it sound. It’s often a very comic story with vibrant scenes and memorably idiosyncratic characters. Boyne uses a satirical wit and Dickensian social eye when writing about characters such as Mr Denby-Denby, a flamboyant civil servant, or Mary-Margaret Muffet, a conservative uptight Catholic girl, or Miss Anna Ambrosia who gets monthly visits from her “Auntie Jemima” and dismisses Edna O’Brien’s books as “pure filth.” These characters brilliantly reflect the social attitudes of their respective time periods and show up their ludicrous ingrained systems of belief. It’s moving how many characters reappear periodically throughout the years and Boyne shows how they either change or obstinately stick with their provincial points of view.

One of the most important aspects of the novel is Cyril’s homosexuality and the severe difficulty of growing up as a gay man in Ireland during his lifetime. Cyril develops an early love and lust for his boyhood friend Julian. But where heterosexual Julian can be flagrantly sexual and voracious in his female conquests, Cyril’s sexual experience is confined to cruising and he’s constantly terrified he’ll be found out. He feels an “overwhelming, insatiable and uncontrollable lust, a yearning that was as intense as my need for food and water but that, unlike those basic human needs, was always countered by the fear of discovery.” It forces him to make dishonest choices and romantically engage with women when he really longs for a relationship with a man. One of the greatest obstacles his character must overcome is learning to be honest about who he is, especially to people who will appreciate and value him regardless of his natural desires. Other gay characters in the novel have diverse ways of either concealing or expressing their homosexuality: “Ireland, a country where a homosexual, like a student priest, could easily hide their preferences by disguising them beneath the murky robes of a committed Catholic.”

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Even as some gay characters begin to live quite openly in later years, Cyril struggles to freely express himself or confide in people he should trust. It’s touching how the long-lasting deleterious effects of being made to feel like an outcast or deviant in society manifest in the ways the characters relate to each other or shut each other out. It produces an overwhelming sense of isolation, something that Cyril recognizes when he encounters another character late in the novel: “It's as if she understood completely the condition of loneliness and how it undermines us all, forcing us to make choices that we know are wrong for us.” This movingly describes the way people who’ve been ostracised by society can hurt themselves and others. Yet, there are moments when characters can form a unique unity and bond over their estrangement when it’s acknowledged that “We're none of us normal. Not in this fucking country.”

The title of the novel comes from an observation that theorist Hannah Arendt made about W.H. Auden “that life had manifested the heart's invisible furies on his face.” It’s an apt way of describing this novel which is an intense, poignant and vivid account of a man’s hidden conflicts. His personal development fascinatingly coincides with that of his country. What’s especially impressive is the artful way that Boyne conveys an awareness of other characters’ inner struggles only through their action and dialogue. It makes for a convincing portrayal of a diverse social landscape with lots of dramatic and gripping scenes. It’s a breathtaking and memorable experience following Cyril’s expansive journey. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Boyne
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Donal Ryan's writing has an elegance and depth of feeling which is so rare. I was incredibly moved reading his novel “The Thing About December” and his short story collection “A Slanting of the Sun.” But his new novel “All We Shall Know” actually had me crying in some scenes – and that happens very rarely when I'm reading. It's also not often I'll turn the last page of a novel and say 'Wow!' Not only does Ryan completely draw the reader into the narrator Melody's dilemma (a thirty-three year old married woman who is pregnant from her younger student) and create a suspenseful story of broken families and conflicts within the Traveller community in Ireland, but his writing is also stunningly beautiful. The chapter headings in this novel chart the weeks of Melody's pregnancy. As the baby grows, the crisis of her situation becomes more alarming. This is a powerful novel about relationships, guilt and betrayal.

Melody is undeniably a difficult individual. She even eagerly strives to convince people of her hardness: “I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me.” She's become pregnant by a teenage Traveller named Martin who is the son of a very influential member of his community. Her husband Pat is unsentimentally informed of this fact and leaves her. Now she's scorned by her neighbours and maintains a bleak uncharitable outlook: “What heart matters? I felt like saying to her, but didn’t. No heart matters to this mechanical unrolling of happenings, this blinding spearing time. We’re all tied to the tracks.” She becomes bogged down in mulling over the past, her mother's early death, her tumultuous marriage and guilt over her childhood friend Breedie who she betrayed. However, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with another young Traveller named Mary Crothery who she also tutors. Through Mary, she becomes engaged with something more than the obsessive memories which orbit her.

The marriage between Melody and Pat broke down over a long period of time since they first became a couple when they were teenagers. Ryan is so skilful at conveying the alternating hope and despair of their situation as they struggle to have a child. Their bond becomes so powerful that Melody feels “We merged over time into one person, I think, and it's easy to be cruel to oneself.” It's always struck me as baffling that couples can act so viciously to one another. But this one short line captures so powerfully the intense closeness formed in a relationship and why you can feel compelled to hurt the person you love the most – because that person is like a part of you.

An Irish Traveller watches neighbouring children play from her trailer window. (Photo: Mackenzie Reiss)

An Irish Traveller watches neighbouring children play from her trailer window. (Photo: Mackenzie Reiss)

Readers might become frustrated by Melody's unrelenting coldhearted actions, but a key to understanding her steely nature is her broken friendship with teenage friend Breedie. She was a girl with some dark, difficult secrets who Melody turned her back on for the sake of social acceptance. When reading this book it was these scenes which really hit me at the core and made my eyes water. This teenage cruelty felt entirely realistic to me. Melody's life since then might be a protracted act of self sabotage as this is the relationship she earned only through betraying her closest friend. Her involvement with the dangerous politics of Martin and Mary's community could be her penance.

I want to stress the novel isn't all bleakness and gloom. There are touches of an edgy humour scattered throughout. In one scene Melody senses she's being overlooked by a nosy neighbour and muses “Someone was looking back from a house directly across and down a bit, towards the bend. Mrs Brannigan. Or Flanagan. Or some-fucking-thingagan.” There is a lot of poking fun at the ridiculously gossip-driven community and how no one can mind their own business. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this talk ends up perpetuating and worsening problems.

Donal Ryan has a talent for spinning dramatic tales that shine with heart and wisdom and leave you feeling as if you've fully experienced his characters' lives. “All We Shall Know” is a book of supreme craftsmanship and deep emotion.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDonal Ryan
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Imagine if a novel were like a gripping and skillfully-set game of chess. The characters in Joanne Harris’ novel “Different Class” are locked in a psychological battle against each other in a story that plays out over 25 years. The setting is St Oswald’s, a boys church school steeped in tradition whose reputation has fallen under public scrutiny following a series of scandalous events involving molestation and murder. Chapters alternate between the year 1981 when a troubled boy kept a journal about his time at the school and 2005 when an aging form-master Roy “Quaz” Straitley recounts the substantial changes at the school following the appointment of a new Head. This is a dramatic tale of conflicting ideologies, lifelong secrets and the social evolution of an institution built upon conservative values.

What’s so engaging about Harris’ main characters are how unlikeable they are on the surface, but I gradually grew to feel very sympathetic towards both of them. Mr Straitley is a Latin teacher with a penchant for liquorice allsorts who wants to uphold St Oswald’s traditions at all costs. He bemoans how socially enlightened thought is filtering its way into the school. It’s remarked how what is now identified as Attention Deficit Disorder “used to be called Not Bloody Paying Attention”. Yet, for all his griping and stuffy old ways, he has a genuine affection for “his boys”, cares about their education and wants to support them throughout their lives. He can also have a surprisingly enlightened attitude towards differences in sexuality having maintained a long-term friendship with a colleague who is an English Master and came out to him early on.

Reading the school boy’s journals the reader feels very wary of this adolescent who frequently refers to his hidden “Condition” and how his reason has been warped by his ultra-religious upbringing. Frequently he’ll justify his proclivity towards dealing out sadistic punishment by believing the righteous mindset of his church: “if God made me, which my dad and everyone else at church seem to think – then I guess it’s God’s fault I’m this way.” He addresses his entries to someone he calls “Mousey”. We only later find out the significance of this person and the things that happened in some disused clay pits frequented by delinquent school boys. He ominously states that “when people get in my way, bad things sometimes happen.” Yet, as twisted as the boy’s mindset is, I grew to feel a tenderness towards him as he wasn’t able to develop emotional stability in his poisonous home environment and how he became a pawn for a religious institution that wanted to impose its values upon the workings of the school. He finds a mentor in the figure of affable teacher Mr Clarke, but his attachment to him sours when he feels betrayed realizing he’s not the only boy worthy of this teacher’s attention.

When Mr Clarke plays David Bowie to a school boy for the first time he feels "the music seemed to fold around me like a hand and finger its way into my heart... To me it was like a door in my mind opening into another world"

When Mr Clarke plays David Bowie to a school boy for the first time he feels "the music seemed to fold around me like a hand and finger its way into my heart... To me it was like a door in my mind opening into another world"

What’s really driving these individuals and many of the other compelling characters in this novel is a desire to be part of a group and institution that will make them feel valued. The author has a meaningful way of writing about how St Oswald’s has the power to enhance the characters’ self esteem, but also make them feel isolated and alone. It’s stated how “Our sense of belonging is nothing more than bright reflections on water; on a sunny day, we can see the sky; the clouds; each other. But dark water lies in waiting for the unwary; for us all. Dark water doesn’t discriminate.” The school which Straitley has put all his faith in is transforming in a way he can’t control and suddenly he feels alienated from it. On the opposing side, the school boy never felt the acceptance he desired so seeks to enact his revenge against the place and people who failed to embrace him. When institutions like St Oswald’s don’t recognize how individual differences can make a community stronger, people are left feeling dangerously isolated.

The tightly plotted drama of “Different Class” plays out in a way which is exciting and surprising, but the novel also says something meaningful about our shifting sense of values. I read this novel at a much faster pace than I read most books for the sheer pleasure of the idiosyncratic characters and the desire to know how their intriguing story would play out. It’s a highly enjoyable read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoanne Harris
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I must admit that I was sent a copy of this novel a year ago, but it’s remained sitting patiently on my shelf begging to be picked up. I’ve never read Kate Atkinson before although I know how well-regarded she is so I was eager to read “A God in Ruins”. However, I was aware that it’s a kind-of sequel or companion novel to her previous book “Life After Life”. The geek in me likes to read things in order and I wanted to clear some time to get to the first before reading this second book. Taking on the challenge of reading the entire Baileys Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement has meant I don’t have this luxury. Simon of SavidgeReads and others have assured me it’s not necessary and that it even might be preferable to read them in reverse order. So I plunged in and was completely swept away by the strength of Atkinson’s writing. This is undoubtedly masterful storytelling and it is a tremendously powerful book.

The novel focuses primarily on the life of Teddy, a WWII bomber pilot. The story stretches from his early days living amongst many siblings at his family home Fox Corner to his late life as a grandfather. But the book doesn’t follow a linear line. Instead, it moves in scenes backwards and forwards in time drawing fascinating connections across decades. In early scenes details about the ultimate fate of a particular central character might be mentioned in a sentence’s subclause. This is similar to the way Virginia Woolf delivers news of Mrs Ramsay’s demise in “To the Lighthouse”. It can seem in someway shocking and cruel, but gives a powerful sense of the flow of time. Rather than spoiling the plot, it strongly adds to how you read a scene so you remain mindful of the way a life plays out even in the middle of that scene’s action. This works particularly well when reading about the various crews during scenes of wartime air fights. Knowing how some will perish or grow to an old age makes their individual characters come more vibrantly alive and the action feel very moving. It’s not easy to write good fast-paced action sequences like plane crashes because reading is so much slower than watching a film. But Atkinson handles this action admirably well!

I do love it when a novel’s title takes on added poignancy as the story goes on. Atkinson uses metaphors for how the fights between aircrafts in the war make them like gods in battle. Much later, Teddy’s grandson finds during his religious practices that each individual is like a god. Although Teddy survives to an old age (we know this from the beginning) he can’t stop the demise of his own body, the fates of those he loves or the troubles his daughter and her children encounter later on. The layering of time in this novel makes poignant statements about the meaning and long-lasting impact of war. Its remarked how “As you got older and time went on, you realized that the distinction between truth and fiction didn’t really matter because eventually everything disappeared into the soupy amnesiac mess of history. Personal or political, it made no difference.” Truth changes its meaning when it transforms into the anecdotes and stories Teddy tells his grandchildren. He frequently feels conflicted and guilty over the fact that some of the bombing was over civilian populations. Atkinson shows through this the complexity, cruelty and long-term effects of war.

Something I felt conflicted about when reading this novel was the way Atkinson handles Teddy’s daughter Viola and her first husband Dominic. In their early adulthood they are hippies, wildly rebelling against their parents’ conservative lifestyles and live on a commune in the 70s. They are relentlessly selfish, hypocritical, vile and dangerously reckless. While I have no doubt there are people like this, the way in which Atkinson constructs this presentation of a counterculture lifestyle in relation to the pastoral ideals of Teddy’s later lifestyle of subsisting in the English countryside made me uncomfortable. It felt in a way like Atkinson was saying the societal movement which rebelled against the proceeding generation who fought in the war were merely ungrateful rather than having anything useful to say. It partly seemed to me like a case where the author is using the characters of Viola and Dominic as ciphers for her feelings rather than granting them dignity as individuals. Atkinson states in an afterward that her respect for the people who fought in WWII motivated her to write this book.

Viola’s character does take on more complexity later in the novel, yet she is a target of continuous ridicule. Atkinson has more fun with her when Viola eventually becomes a writer. Viola treats her aging father with frequent disregard or only wants to suck value from him like a vampire: “She might have been able to use his memories as the basis of a novel. One that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously.” This is quite a playful comment about what Atkinson is doing herself. If it feels like Viola isn’t treated with much compassion, the fact she becomes a writer makes me wonder if it might be her that Atkinson paradoxically identifies with the most. Viola’s children and the soldiers who fight are treated with much more reverence. That’s not to say a character like Teddy is presented as a faultless individual. His tragic misconstruing of his wife’s actions at one point is a particularly poignant example of his limitations.

The novel skilfully presents how the fates of very young soldiers who fought in the war were so precarious. Despite heroic acts, it often seems merely accidental whether someone survived or not during the heat of battle. There are also terrifying moments of epiphany for Teddy when in the midst of battle he sees that they are very small elements of greater societal shifts: “It was then that Teddy realised that they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” Because the survival or demise of individuals hang upon mere chance, it’s as if Atkinson spins the roulette wheel of history in her story so that outcomes exist in a nexus of infinite possibilities. She states that “The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” But that doesn’t make this particular story that she imagines for Teddy any less meaningful.

I am really eager to go back and read “Life After Life” now. Coming to this novel late, I’ve been able to see how it’s been received. Some Atkinson fans feel it’s her best where others still believe earlier books to be better. It was surprising for me to learn that “Life After Life” is focused primarily on Ursula who is Teddy’s sister. She didn’t stand out very prominently in “A God in Ruin” so I wonder if Atkinson assumed her readers would have more knowledge about her than we do or if she was happy to let her fade more into the background. I’m guessing that reading the first novel will only motivate me more to want to come back and read this latest one.

It seems to me that when writers create companion novels that involve the same characters the fictional world they’ve formed feels more complete because they’ve already meditated upon and imagined the characters’ lives and histories so well. This was certainly the case in Rachel Joyce’s “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” which is a companion to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” and it was also the case in Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” which is a companion to “Gilead” and “Home”. I loved these later novels and I felt they were much stronger than the earlier books. I know other people who feel differently. Whatever the case, Kate Atkinson has certainly created a fully realized universe and shows she possesses inimitable powers as a storyteller. “A God in Ruins” is a heartbreaking, profound and riveting read of great complexity and skill.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKate Atkinson
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I do like the holidays as much as most people – time off from work and an excuse to indulge – what's not to like? But I've never felt compelled to read something on theme whether that be something spooky around Halloween or jolly around Christmas. The only exceptions have been David Sedaris' fantastically irreverent “Santaland Diaries” or, as they are also known, “Holidays on Ice.” If I'm feeling in a particularly sentimental mood there is also Truman Capote's deeply-moving story 'A Christmas Memory.' So I had no plan to seek out holiday reading this year, but then I came upon Rachel Joyce's new book of short stories “A Snow Garden.” I love the understated beauty and quiet wisdom of her writing, especially in her novel “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.” That same power is carried through into these short stories which are all focused around the Christmas season, but these aren't syrupy tales of holiday cheer. Many of these stories focus on people on the margins like an irascible woman who feels isolated, a father with a history of mental illness trying to make things right with his sons, an older couple whose marriage is splintering apart or a girl's first tentative steps towards becoming social by attending a dance. These stories are very much about redemption and hope, but in a realistic and hard-won sense that won't leave you with a toothache.

Most of the stories are loosely connected to each other or with Joyce's past books. Mention of a flight delay in one story is carried through into another story focused on people stuck at an airport. An unused winter-themed film set for a pop star's holiday special becomes the focal point in another story where a father is trying to rekindle a connection with his sons. I greatly enjoy short story collections which are lightly related to each other because it gives a more fully rounded sense of a fictional world and gives little pleasure triggers when I'm able to join things up. Connections with Joyce's past books are gently done so I don't think a reader will feel left out by not recognizing characters which they've met before. It simply functions like an added bonus for a Rachel Joyce fan who is in the know. One enduring thing which recurs throughout this book is an advert with an image of a girl in a red coat who is in a snowy winter scene. This feels so effective because it seems so true to life: a sentimental image created for commercial purposes which nonetheless effects the mood of the characters who continuously encounter it.

Although these stories are firmly grounded in reality, I like how sometimes Joyce's writing starts stretching the seams. So, when in her touching story 'A Marriage Manual' the couple who have been together their whole lives reach a near breaking point when collaborating on a bicycle's construction, the very construction of the garage around them begins floundering and breaking apart. The only point where I don't feel this works is in her story 'Christmas Day at the Airport' which is a modern-day retelling of the nativity story replete with a lesbian who gives birth, women who bear fragrant gifts from Duty Free and a donkey being held in the animal redemption centre. The concept of this story took over making it feel too manufactured. However, I found every other story in this book to be genuinely moving.

Rachel Joyce has a talent for creating really vivid and intensely-felt characters like a difficult woman named Binny in 'A Faraway Smell of Lemon' and a vibrant rebellious adolescent girl named Patty Driscoll in 'The Boxing Day Ball'. Each line of dialogue builds their personalities to make them feel immediate and real. She doesn't shrink from showing the awkward pauses or repetition of speech which hint at the underlying emotions of her characters. In their normal exchanges and the mundane detail, Joyce reveals hints of profundity in the everyday. In this way she remind me very much of Anne Tyler's fiction. So I really enjoyed reading this book over the Christmas season. Rachel Joyce has another novel forthcoming this year and I'm greatly looking forward to it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Joyce
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Last year I read Donal Ryan’s novel “The Thing About December.” I was drawn in by the powerfully distinctive voice he’d created for the central character who is a sensitive loner. Some authors like Richard Ford or Anita Brookner are able to establish an engaging narrative voice which they repeat throughout multiple books and, while it may be consistently impressive, it doesn’t show much variation. I wondered if that would be the case with Ryan so I was somewhat hesitant to start this book of short stories. I was delighted to discover a rich array of characters throughout the many stories in this collection whose voices are all individually distinct. These characters range in age, class, sex and race to create a dynamic and layered portrayal of Irish life. It’s impressive that each story finds its own rhythm to relate a particular character’s point of view. We see the world through each character’s eyes as they see it. Brought together, the engaging voices in “A Slanting of the Sun” give a rich understanding of the world, tell a series of dramatically entertaining stories and honour the diversity of individual experience.

Since almost all of these stories are set in Ireland one of the most fascinating things about this collection is the sense of ebb and flow it portrays amongst the national population. There are characters with strong roots in Ireland who face the tough decision of whether to leave for London or Australia to seek out employment and a new life. Conversely, the story ‘Grace’ gives voice to a woman who left the Democratic Republic of the Congo under terrifying circumstances to find unofficial factory work and face a different kind of fear when riding the bus in Ireland. The story ‘Trouble’ portrays how certain groups of the population like Irish travellers face longstanding oppression and social stigma. Other stories like ‘Hanora Ryan, 1998’ show characters who live in the country as if time has stood still. In this story a woman recalls a man she admired and lost in WWI as if it were yesterday even though more than eighty years have passed. 

Many of the impassioned voices which narrate these stories seem to start in mid-flow so it’s only till you get through half their tale that you are able to sufficiently orientate yourself to the situation. I particularly enjoyed it when these stories made my sympathy unexpectedly switch away from the character narrating it once I grasped their full story. In ‘The Squad’ the narrator and his friends take the law into their own hands and find they must live with the consequences forever more. This movingly shows the useless life-destroying circular nature of violence: “All of naught, to naught, for naught, year upon year of moments, of time slowly marked, of silence filled with empty words.” The scale of injustices and crimes committed by protagonists vary from small instances of betrayal and theft like in ‘Losers Weepers’ to outrageous institutional abuse in ‘Nephthys and The Lark’ to horrific murder in ‘Retirement Do.’ These stories draw the reader in to really see the internal struggles of these difficult individuals giving you a more complicated understanding of situations which you might see more simplistically from a distanced outsiders’ perspective.

Listen to Donal Ryan read from the mysterious, chilling story 'From a Starless Night'

While I appreciated all of the stories in this collection, there are some which stand out as personal favourites. These stories in particular are impressive for the way they give a sense of the enormity of the universe and the place that particular life experiences have within it. The story ‘Sky’ is narrated by an aging, lonely man named William who is irreligious but doesn’t see the harm in sending his prayers up to the sky. He gets a computer in the hope of finding the nephew he lost touch with, but stuffs it in a closet and looks to the stars instead. ‘Ragnarok’ features a fairly average office worker who finds himself suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. In ‘Physiotherapy’ a woman recalls her life, the choices she made and creates a uniquely complex view of existence. This story also shows a breathtaking vision of how memory can make time into a fluid thing so all experience occurs simultaneously: “I’m seventy-seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born.” The title story ‘A Slanting of the Sun’ shows a tremendously surprising instance of forgiveness and sense of kinship for someone who committed a horrendous crime. It’s also the story which closes this book and allows it to end with a hard-won, uplifting sensation.

I was struck many times throughout this book of short stories by the astounding beauty of certain sentences. It’s so accomplished how Donal Ryan can write from the points of view of characters with very different experiences and ways of speaking, but always draws upon language and phrasing which accurately pinpoints a subtly of feeling and pays tribute to the full complexity of human emotion. He can perfectly encapsulate a common feeling like the importance phones play in young people’s lives: “Her daughter’s world seemed compressed sometimes into the screen of that telephone; all of her tides turned at the pull of its gravity, her whole existence seemed wedded to it.” Or he can present a contradiction so that the character’s reasoning reflects his particular emotional state: “Cursed we are with health, my family, stout unfailing hearts, years to go till death for me.” All of it sings with a life-force which is enthralling and demands to be listened to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDonal Ryan