Posted in Book Reviews

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories by Helen Dunmore – Herald Review

Girl Balancing

Girl Balancing

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories

Helen Dunmore

Hutchinson, £20

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, leaving behind an illustrious literary legacy of award-winning novels, short stories, children’s novels, and poetry. Some months after her death, her family, agent, and publisher, came together to plan a posthumous collection of short stories, fulfilling one of her last wishes. The result is thirty-three stories, arranged in three sections; the Nina stories, the present, and the past.

Dunmore had a keen eye for the telling detail that illuminates her characters and their worlds. This is apparent in the four Nina stories, following her from childhood to young womanhood. In Cradling, little Nina has an earache and is being comforted by her father. She curls up in his arms, ‘like a snail inside its shell’, and hears ‘the little pock sound of someone lighting a cigarette’. In The Towel, Nina is living on her own for the first time in a bedsit. She struggles with the bathroom geyser and ends up taking a cold bath, too unsure of herself to ask for help. As the bath water drains it sounds like, ‘an old person clearing catarrh in the morning’. In the title story, Girl, Balancing, Nina finds herself unexpectedly alone at Christmas in a large, empty house by the sea. She decides to go roller-skating, using her old, adjustable skates, along the deserted promenade. She is reliving her childhood by performing turns, jumps, and arabesques on one leg, and finding a sense of balance in her life.

Dunmore had a forensic ability to find the cracks and crevices where people hide their most embarrassing or humiliating moments. She was never cruel in her observations, but always true to her tale. Her characters may not always be likeable but their authenticity makes them compelling. Many are outsiders, people who are looking in on other peoples’ lives while forgetting to live their own. Some have hidden depths, like Binnie, in Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons. Binnie is something of a family oddity, never marrying and dressing like an explosion in a charity shop. But Binnie is loving and generous and finds her own way of expressing herself. Stories are never tied up with a neat bow. Like real life, they are often messy and confused but frequently have a kernel of hope for the future. There is a precision and lyricism to Dunmore’s writing that makes it such a pleasure to read. A ‘warm wriggle of oil’ drips into a child’s ear; a baby’s elbow is ‘so soft and dimpled that it fits into your mouth like a plum’; sweat trickles down a forehead ‘tickling like an insect’; and someone is old enough to remember ‘what it was like to fossick about with Tipp-Ex’.

In About the First World War, Mrs Jackson is having tea to celebrate her hundredth birthday. A young man is there, someone she doesn’t know, and he keeps taking photographs of her. She knows he is going to ask her about the First World War, as young people always do. ‘I’ve seen the whole world die in my time’, thinks Mrs Jackson. Dunmore skilfully slips between Mrs Jackson’s past and present, subtly showing that her memories of the past burn brighter than those of the present.

In the Past section, Dunmore gives voice to Grace Poole, the servant who looked after the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Grace’s eyes, Jane Eyre is a sly, conniving creature, while Mrs Rochester is just a troubled soul who is being unfairly treated by her husband. It is fascinating to read part of the classic tale from a different viewpoint, with Jane being the villain of the piece. Grace says of Jane, ‘you could put your hand through Miss Eyre and never grasp her’.

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Mr Peacock’s Possessions – Book Oxygen Review

Mr Peacock’s Possessions

Lydia Syson

Published by Zaffre 18 May 2018

406pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

 

Lydia Syson has written three historical novels for young adults and a biography of eighteenth-century fertility specialist James Graham, entitled Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed. Mr Peacock’s Possessions, her adult fiction debut, is inspired by Tom Bell, her husband’s ancestor who went to live on an uninhabited Pacific island in the nineteenth century.

In 1879, Mr Peacock is running a hotel and bar in Samoa, the latest stop on his itinerant family’s journey around Oceania, but it is not the life he has envisaged for himself. When he is offered the chance to sell up his business and buy a small, uninhabited island, he takes it, transplanting his family to Monday Island where they will work long and hard to make it a home. The children, Lizzie, Ada, Queenie, Billy, and Albert, labour as hard as their parents. Their mother is also looking after baby Gussie, and expecting another child. After two years of this struggle, a ship stops at the island and six Pacific Islanders join the Peacocks on Monday Island to help them work the land.

The story is narrated by Lizzie Peacock and Kalala, one of the Pacific Islanders. Lizzie, a strong character, believes her father’s every word, never imagining that he might make a mistake. And indeed, Mr Peacock is a clever man but also selfish and self-absorbed. Convinced he is destined for better things, he is happy to leave his Samoan business behind no matter what privations his family might suffer on the island. He is very hard on Albert, a sensitive, sickly boy who does his best to please his father but rarely succeeds. Ada tries to protect her brother but Lizzie thinks he deserves what he gets. Albert always seems to have something wrong with his health but only Ada and his mother show any sympathy to the very lonely and frightened little boy.

Kalala and his brother Solomona, two of the work team, who were taught to speak English at a missionary school, are amazed to discover that the Peacock children can neither read nor write. Kalala constantly tries to put into practise the lessons he learned from Mr and Mrs Reverend but sometimes it is not possible. He is fascinated by the Peacock family and keenly observant of their daily interactions. Syson has given Kalala a formal, slightly stilted form of speech that works well with his character, showing that he has been schooled by a nineteenth-century preacher and his wife.

Then a child mysteriously goes missing and everything changes. Syson uses the search for the child to describe the island in detail, from the beach to the hills, and it is easy to picture the flora, fauna and pitfalls of their little island.

The possessions of Mr Peacock are both physical and psychological. He imposes his will on his family so much that Lizzie and the others cannot imagine he might be wrong. This well-researched study of a family explores what home means to each of them. The Peacocks of Monday Island are vividly depicted and their story is a powerful examination of love and loyalty that lingers long after the last page has been turned.

Posted in Book Reviews

Last Letter Home – Book Oxygen Review

Last Letter Home

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster 22 March 2018

560pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

 

Rachel Hore’s ninth novel is an unashamedly romantic tale, spanning some seventy years. Briony Wood, a historian, is on holiday with friends in Italy. She is fascinated by a derelict villa set in the hills behind Naples that was used as a base by British soldiers during World War II. Briony’s grandfather had been in the area in 1943 and she wonders whether he had visited it. A local woman gives her a sheaf of letters written by a woman called Sarah Bailey, from Norfolk, to a soldier named Paul that were found in the villa.  Briony finds herself driven to discover more about Sarah and Paul, and her late grandfather, Harry Andrews.

The action switches to 1938, and Sarah Bailey has returned to England, following the death of her father. With her mother and sister, she sets up home in the Norfolk village of Westbury, not far from a lovely old manor house. Ivor, a distant relation who lives in the manor house, takes an instant liking to Sarah and she is flattered by his attentions. Paul, a young German man, lives in the area with his mother who is English. They escaped Germany when Paul’s father was killed. As the winds of war blow stronger, Paul finds that not everyone is happy to have a German living nearby. Sarah and Paul find they have a common interest in gardening and despite Ivor’s efforts to belittle Paul, they become firm friends.

Initially, Rachel Hore’s writing is overly stuffed with adjectives that overwhelm the story. However, once the settings and main characters are introduced, her writing settles down into a smooth rhythm and the pages turn with ease. The settings are well researched and both the 1940s and modern day Italy are richly atmospheric. Wartime Norfolk is full of small but telling details and although there are some stock characters – the posh manor family, the ex-soldier estate manager – they do not detract from the enjoyment of the tale. Sarah is the most developed character and it is easy to sympathize with her. In Ivor, Hore indicates a cruel streak from the outset, while Paul seems a little passive at first. Briony’s need to find out about her grandfather’s life is well drawn, and the letters by Sarah are touching and full of character.

As the war gathers pace, life changes for everyone, with even Ivor’s family finding their luxurious life slipping away. Sarah works hard gardening under the watchful eye of the government inspectors who want every patch of earth to produce food for the country. Hore echoes the burgeoning relationship between Sarah and Paul in the modern day sections with Briony and the man she falls in love with. It adds interest to both relationships, showing that while the world may have changed, the complications of love relationships span the decades. This is an engaging read – with a well disguised twist – and the mix of history and romance is handled with great skill. A fabulous book to take on holiday.

Posted in Book Reviews

Burnout by Claire MacLeary – Sunday Herald

CROSS Purpose, Claire MacLeary’s striking debut novel, introduced Harcus & Laird, an odd couple of middle-aged Aberdonian quines turned private investigators. It was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. In Burnout, Maggie Laird and Big Wilma Harcus return, rebuilding the private investigations company that Maggie’s late husband ran after his dishonourable dismissal from the police force. Maggie hasn’t given up hope of clearing her husband’s name but in the meantime she has to work as a private investigator to pay the bills that her part-time job at a local school doesn’t cover.

She meets with Sheena Struthers, a well-to-do woman from an affluent area of Aberdeen, who thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Maggie is surprised but sympathetic, seeing a little of herself in Sheena. Wilma, on the other hand, is furious that she has accepted Sheena as a client, the pair having agreed to stay away from domestic cases. ‘Ah’m only tryin to protect you, ya feal quine,’ says Wilma. The most serious disagreement of their fledging partnership threatens both their personal and professional relationships. By showing their differing reactions to Sheena’s problem, Maggie compassionate and Wilma doubting, MacLeary has added depth to both characters. Maggie is also trying to support Ros, a young teacher, whom she befriends during breaks at school. Ros is suffocating in a marriage where her narcissistic husband calls all the shots but she is trying to make it work for the sake of their baby son.

Wilma juggles Harcus & Laird cases with a job as a cleaner at a local hospital. She relishes getting out and about, following up on insurance claims to establish whether they are genuine or fraudulent. This means that Wilma is rarely at home and Ian, her usually easy-going husband, is far from happy. With the growing distance between herself and Maggie, Wilma struggles to cope.

After several meetings during which Sheena provides little evidence for her husband’s alleged murderous tendencies, Maggie tries to point her client towards a doctor. When Sheena is later found unconscious in her own home, Maggie wonders if she has missed a vital clue. She is interviewed by DI Chisolm, formerly a colleague of her late husband, who is investigating Sheena’s case, and also calls on DS Burnett, who has long carried a torch for her, to help with a personal matter.

The Aberdeen setting provides an interestingly tough background and MacLeary doesn’t shy away from using strong language appropriate for her characters. She touches on current social issues, such as violence against women and the discrimination they face, particularly when dealing with public bodies such as the police. Working-class Wilma’s surprising lack of confidence allows MacLeary to explore class, an issue that continues to haunt British society. But she also leavens the tale with some welcome humour, Wilma seeing the funny side of even the most troubling circumstances. Harcus & Laird’s second outing is as absorbing as their first. This is a thoroughly entertaining series that could run and run.

Burnout by Claire MacLeary is published by Contraband, priced £8.99

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Hotel Silence – Book Oxygen Review

Hotel Silence

Auour Ava Olafsdottir

Published by Pushkin Press 22 February 2018

224pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Jonas is a middle-aged man in crisis; getting tattooed is just one sign of his malaise. The anchors of his life have come loose and he is not sure there is a reason to go on. His wife has divorced him, but not before telling him that his twenty-something daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his biological child. His mother has dementia and is sliding into another world. Her lucid moments are becoming more and more rare, and Jonas misses the woman she was. He decides to end it all and calmly contemplates his options. He feels he can’t subject Gudrun Waterlily to the horror of finding his body and decides to disappear, choosing to travel to Hotel Silence, in an unidentified war-torn country, currently experiencing a lull in hostilities. He takes a toolbox and drill with him in case he decides to hang himself and needs to put up a hook.

Icelandic author Olafsdottir’s prose is pleasingly, engagingly spare as she allows things to be left unsaid between the various characters and in the narrative as a whole, leaving gaps that readers must fill in for themselves. Considering the initial subject matter – suicide – this novel is by no means a glum or depressing read. The author has gifted Jonas with a dry wit and an often funny, matter-of-fact attitude to ending his life.

Unexpectedly, Jonas finds life amongst people who have suffered great losses and hardship gives him a new perspective. Hotel Silence, run by brother and sister, Fifi and May, is rundown and in need of many small repairs. Toolbox in hand, Jonas starts to enjoy the feeling of being needed again as he fixes problems around the hotel. He befriends May, who has a young son, Adam, and feels he has a place in the world again. The locals, many of whom are physically and mentally scarred, make Jonas re-assess his life and his decision to end it. Whilst he feels cast adrift, these people have faced the ghastliness of war and yet they do not talk about the past, only their plans to rebuild their shattered lives. He also reads his student notebooks and rediscovers himself as a young man.

Hotel Silence (winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize) could easily become a run-of-the-mill story of one man’s search for redemption but Olafsdottir makes sure that there are no simplistic, happy endings for everyone. Jonas’s spiritual journey from depression to a kind of normality is echoed by the attempts of the locals living around Hotel Silence to return to their pre-war lives. A sense of hope for the future is present in the latter part of the novel, in contrast to the opening chapters. In Jonas, Olafsdottir has created a rounded, humorous character and it is a pleasure to spend some time in his company.

 

 
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The Sealwoman’s Gift – Herald Review

Review: The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This is an impressive debut from Sally Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling

This is an impressive debut from Sally Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling

The Sealwoman’s Gift

Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, £16.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

In the 17th century, Barbary pirates prowled European waters, abducting men, women and children and selling them in the slave markets of Algiers and Morocco.

In 1627, pirates raided Iceland and the Reverend Olafur Egilsson, his wife and their children were taken from the small coastal island of Westman along with some 400 of their friends and neighbours. After a long and difficult voyage aboard an overcrowded ship, they arrived at the Algiers slave market. The islanders were sold but Egilsson was freed so that he could go to the King of Denmark, Norway and Iceland to petition for a ransom for his compatriots. Egilsson wrote about his experiences in The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627, but there are no records of how Asta, his wife, fared in a foreign land. For her debut novel, Sally Magnusson has given voice to Asta and she emerges as an intelligent, courageous woman making the best of what life has thrown at her.

Asta has been contentedly married to the much older Egilsson for several years. They have three children and a fourth on the way. Life on Westman is hard. The weather is frequently bleak and feet never seem to dry. Egilsson is a good and godly man, preaching the Lutheran word to his flock and chastising Asta for her belief in elves, the invisible people and her love of the old Icelandic sagas. When the pirates appear only a handful of islanders manage to hide. Some are killed, but Egilsson, Asta and two of their children are rounded up with the others. Conditions on the pirate ship are appalling and Magnusson skilfully evokes the filth, stench and claustrophobic atmosphere as Asta gives birth to a son she names Jon. While on board, Oddrun, a crone who claims to be a sealwoman and has visions of the future, gives Asta a warning that will take her years to understand. “You remember Gudrun from the Laxdaela saga?” she croaks. “Do not do as Gudrun did.”

The islanders’ arrival at the slave market sees them treated like livestock. Magnusson shows their fear and humiliation as they are examined and have their teeth checked. Asta sees her son Egill being bought by the Pasha and Egilsson is sent to negotiate a ransom. Meanwhile she and her daughter and baby son are bought by Ali Pitterling Cilleby, a rich Moor who lives in the dazzling white city of Algiers.

In the harem, Asta is overwhelmed by the riot of colours and fine fabrics as Magnusson subtly contrasts Asta’s new life with the grey island existence she has left behind. The habits and customs of the Islamic household are viewed through Asta’s frequently astonished eyes. Food is so abundant that the excess is fed to the animals in the evening and the variety of fruits and spices are a revelation to someone who has spent most of her life surviving on fish and eggs. With the hot sun and beautiful gardens, Asta’s life in the harem takes on a dream-like quality.

Cilleby takes an interest in Asta and her Icelandic sagas, summoning her in the evening to talk while he relaxes with his coffee and pipe. Through Asta, Magnusson gives tantalising summaries of the sagas but none is told in full. This is disappointing in a novel where stories are so important. The sagas are Asta’s link to her old life, her comfort when she thinks about her husband and son and wonders if they have survived. Stories are also important to the other women in the harem, the Arabian Nights being as essential to their lives as Asta’s sagas are to her. After several years, Asta has become reconciled to her life in Algiers but when news arrives that a ransom is being paid she has to make a heartbreaking decision.

Magnusson has chosen a fascinating and little-known historical event as the starting point for her tale of surviving, and even thriving, against the odds. She adds a much-needed female perspective to Egilsson’s memoir of his journeys, providing Asta with a fully rounded personality and a curious mind to explore the new world she finds herself in. What doesn’t change, of course, is that Asta is subject to the rules and regulations of men whether she is in Iceland or Algiers.

This is an impressive debut from Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling.

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