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Patrick Gale's new novel “Take Nothing With You” is a refreshing new take on a coming of age story. At the beginning we first meet the protagonist Eustace in his later years. At this stage of his life he's begun a promising new relationship with Theo, a fairly senior army officer stationed far away, and, though their connection has progressed from a dating app to regular Skype conversations, they've not yet met in person. But Eustace has also been diagnosed with cancer and needs radiation treatment which requires him to remain in temporary solitude within a lead-lined room where he can take nothing with him that isn't disposable. It's the first example of how the title of this novel resonates so strongly throughout a life marked by stages which require abandoning physical things and one form of identity to progress onto another. The bulk of this tale is concerned with Eustace's childhood and adolescence as he discovers a love of music and other boys. The story poignantly demonstrates the courage that is required to declare your true desires and to express your creativity even if it goes against the grain of the majority. It also shows the importance of role models to foster young people’s creativity and to assist in helping them to grow and flourish.

Eustace discovers a love of playing the cello during his childhood and he’s lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a passionate musician named Carla Gold. She serves as an important mentor in training him to develop his natural skill and passion. But financial pressure and discord in his parents’ marriage creates problems for Eustace in realizing his full potential. Although the story is focused on Eustace I appreciate how Gale takes care to sympathetically refer to the struggles of his parents as well. They face their own challenges and must sacrifice things to move forward in their lives or make compromises. Another example of this is the father of Eustace’s friend Vernon who is struck by a paralyzing illness. Here is another example of someone who must cruelly progress in life without things which feel like an essential part of his identity. I also appreciated how Eustace’s relationship with his mother is depicted in such a complex way. Gale writes some startlingly lines to describe the realms of what remains unknown between mother and son: “He had never seen his mother naked and never seen her bank statements.” Considering the dramatic things which occur in their relationship with each other, I imagine rereading this novel will make reading earlier scenes between them feel even more impactful.

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

The story also sympathetically shows Eustace’s sexual development and how he gradually comes to terms with his homosexuality. Two male friends of Carla serve as mentors in a very different capacity, not just in how they educate him about gay culture, but from the fact of their existence living openly as a gay couple. Without this kind of example in his life, Eustace would have certainly found it difficult to imagine relationships other than the ones he forms in his early sexual experimentation with boys only interested in homosexual acts as a form of physical gratification or a power game. It’s also interesting to note how in one section Gale gives a survey and critique of gay fiction at this time of the late 20th century. Writing by Thomas Mann, Gore Vidal, EM Forster, James Baldwin, Gordon Merrick and Edmund White were crucial in openly bringing the stories of gay men into novels, but they had their limitations and only represented a narrow scope of experience: “The men in all these seemed to be uniformly handsome, virile, rich and expensively educated but they came to believe in their right to happiness and the stories ended with them neither punished, unhappily married nor dead. The novels had about them a strain of self-mythologizing breathlessness, full of precious feminine references which confused him.” Gale’s writing feels to me like an additional crucial voice in gay fiction for the way he poignantly describes the varied ways gay men can survive amidst oppression without compromising essential parts of their identities – as he did in his moving novel “A Place Called Winter”.

Beyond the detailed and captivating descriptions of Eustace’s growth as a musician and a gay man, this novel is an evocative account of the experiences of childhood and the different methods we use to piece together how the adult world works in our own way. In one section it describes how Eustace tries to visualize the different counties in England based on a map he had in a game when he was younger. It’s these sorts of references which we mentally go back to in order to make sense of the physical and emotional landscape in front of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this touching and captivating novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Gale
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Like many people I was always aware of the infamous rhyme about Lizzie Borden (giving her mother forty whacks), but knew absolutely nothing else about her or the brutal murder case. So it was fascinating naively plunging into Sarah Schmidt's dramatic fictional version of this twisted family tale. “See What I Have Done” begins right in the middle of that blood-soaked day on August 4, 1892 where Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby are found dead in their home having been hacked repeatedly with an axe. The story revolves between the perspectives of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the household maid Bridget and a young man named Benjamin. Their accounts surrounding the days before and after the horrific murder gradually piece together to form a complex puzzle. The tension builds as we come to understand this strained household environment and broken family. This was such a wonderfully atmospheric story that teases the senses and drew me into this chilling murderous situation. 

It’s extraordinary the way details about the scent of rotting pears or mutton soup are described to add to the sinister air of the story. The Borden household came to feel fully realized in my imagination as I not only became very familiar with how the property looked, felt and smelled, but also understood the difficult dynamic between everyone who lived there in the days running up to the murder. Lizzie is an combative young woman often desperate for attention and affection. Her sister Emma grew tired of attending to her and was filled with regret about opportunities she’s missed out on because of her loyalty to her sister. She tries to make a new life for herself by leaving but this has caused Lizzie to grow even more unstable. Her domineering father and uptight mother-in-law take increasingly brutal measures to assert their authority, but only succeed in antagonizing Lizzie and Irish servant Bridget. This is a household situation that builds to an explosion.

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I was engaged in this story not just because of the tense mystery about who committed the murders, but also the emotionally touching way Schmidt wrote about the complicated arrangement of the Border house. It’s a place so saturated with frustration and tragic miscommunication that each character is left feeling very isolated. Equally, Benjamin’s family situation provides an interesting parallel where neglect leads to a tragically desperate situation. Before the crime ever occurs there’s a sense of untenable loss concerning the girls’ deceased mother and feelings which have never been resolved. The story describes not only the grizzly consequences of a home that is severely emotionally broken but gets at the tenderness of “That grief inside the heart” of the characters. In many ways, this makes “See What I Have Done” a haunting and memorable novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Schmidt
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A novel about a reclusive ex-film star may sound like it will focus on sensational glamour rather than an emotionally-effective story, but “This Must Be the Place” is engrossing and extremely moving. Maggie O'Farrell creates a woman named Claudette who walks away from her famous director husband and a successful acting career to live in the remotest possible Ireland retreat and weaves her tale into the stories of many other fascinating characters. Most notably it charts her relationship with Daniel who deals with the complicated family he had with his first wife, an unresolved secret from his past and a growing substance abuse problem. Each chapter focuses on a specific character related to this couple. It leapfrogs back and forth through time to form impressions of their dramatic and tumultuous lives. The cumulative effect of this very readable novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the way chance and coincidence influence the most important decisions of our lives.

 

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

O'Farrell has a fascinating way of mapping out the lives of her characters in this novel. Each chapter is sub-headed by a name, year and location so you know with certainty where you are, but only through the course of the narrative do you understand why this point matters so much. The focus varies from stories about Daniel’s son Niall’s painful struggles with a severe eczema condition at a special dermatological clinic to Claudette’s sister-in-law Maeve’s journey to China to adopt a daughter. Through these fascinating individual stories we gain impressions of what’s happening in Daniel and Claudette’s lives as well. My only quibble is I wish the author had included a section on Daniel’s first wife rather than so many peripheral characters towards the end. It felt like she was the only major character that remained sketchily drawn where the others were fully rounded. Multiple sections are told from Daniel’s point of view as he seems to have the most trouble finding where he really belongs. However, the only section which focuses on Claudette’s perspective is narrated in the second person so, although we’re entirely with her, we remain outside her consciousness. This distancing effect from her character is mirrored in another section where we’re given photographs of vital objects from her film career that are being auctioned, but which cleverly tell the story of her relationship with the cerebral Scandinavian film director Timou.

I think people who enjoy Anne Tyler’s books would also really appreciate this novel. O'Farrell has a similar way of realistically portraying the quirks, humour and heartache of family life. She also touches upon the complex way we come to define ourselves through the perspectives of others. In particular, she beautifully describes the way those who love us see us in an idealistic light which in turn reinforces our own self confidence: “What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another.” The story meaningfully shows how complex relationships can be and that we’ll inevitably follow lots of indirect paths in life, but how powerfully changed we are when honest connections are made. “This Must Be the Place” is a skilfully written novel with a lot of heart.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been some time since I’ve been instantly beguiled by writing as beautiful as Sarah Winman’s. There is a lush, enchanting way she uses language that lulled me and drew me into this strange other world she creates. A ninety year old woman named Marvellous Ways lives in a near-deserted town in Cornwall. She goes for nude swims every day and tells tales of how her mother was a mermaid. This all sounds very whimsical, but as the novel progresses it shows how it is grounded in a much more serious reality. It’s 1947 and the country is still recovering from two world wars: “The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.” A soldier named Francis Drake returns from France with a letter from a dying soldier that he promised to deliver. Marvellous and Drake strike up an unlikely friendship which feels something like the pairing in the film Harold and Maude. They tell each other stories, riffle through the past and establish a warm kinship.

One of the most fascinating characters is named Missy Hall, the romantic love of Drake’s life. She remained in London throughout the war and her perspective of surviving through the blitz is strange and new. She developed a deep friendship with a woman named Jeanie. Together they find liberation through the upheaval in society and explore new sexual experiences in the dark corners of bomb shelters. There is a blunt handling of the emotional repercussions of sexual encounters: “Shame’s shame no matter what perfume you spray on it.” When the war ends its back to reality and Missy finds it hard to readjust or slip into the pre-war relationship she started with Drake. It’s a shame she doesn’t appear throughout the entire novel.

The central character is, of course, Marvellous herself whose radical perspective frequently disarmed me. She’s someone who prizes the stripped-down simplicity of the world over heedless progress: “Some things are best left untouched, she said. Tides rise and tides fall. That is perfection enough.” She communes with inanimate objects which sounds fanciful but comes across as a deep, meaningful conversation she’s having with herself more than the world around her. Over the course of the novel, we learn about the three great loves of her life. Her first lover was a woman, but rather than dwelling upon trying to define sexuality its refreshing how she moves from that to relationships with men without ponderous reflection or attributing any meaning to it. She’s also someone dealing with dementia and her struggle with the loss of memory is meaningfully related.

From the cover, this isn’t the kind of book I’d normally pick up because the title and artwork make it seem frivolous. I was drawn to it more because of the endorsement from Patrick Gale whose writing I adore and respect. But there is something very interesting and meaningful going on in this novel. There are times when Winman’s writing does get too florid. While she’s mostly good at simultaneously giving the hard facts of reality alongside ornate musings upon life, there is a short section of wartime France which feels too fleeting and scantily-written to give the impact it needed. However, overall I was charmed by this novel and intrigued by Winman’s unique perspective of the world. “A Year of Marvellous Ways” is a refreshing read whose story I completely sank into.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Winman
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