Posted in Book Reviews

The Good People Review

BURIAL Rites, Hannah Kent’s much-lauded debut novel, left the Australian author with the unenviable task of trying to match its critical success with her next novel. As with her debut, The Good People is based on a true story but this time Kent’s gaze has travelled from Iceland to 1820s Ireland and another isolated community. Its inhabitants scratch a wretched living from the land, kept alive by eating a relentless diet of potatoes. They live in fear of the ironically named Good People, the fairies who take vicious revenge on any humans who slight them.

Nora Leahy’s husband dies suddenly leaving her to care for Micheal, their disabled, four-year-old grandson. Since their daughter’s recent death, the boy has lived with his grandparents, but after an uneventful infancy Micheal has regressed and can no longer speak or walk. Nora tries to hide him away from prying eyes and gossip and hires a girl, Mary, to help her look after him. In desperation Nora appeals to a doctor and then to the Church to help Micheal. Cruelly rebuffed by both, she turns to Nance Roche, an old woman who dispenses herbal remedies and is said to communicate with the fairies. When hens stop laying and cows run dry of milk, a rumour spreads around the valley that Micheal is a changeling who has brought bad luck to all. Nora, Mary, and Nance try to protect the child and using the old ways, bring him back to himself.

The atmosphere Kent creates is claustrophobic and fearful. The dirt floor houses are poorly lit and full of smoke from the turf fires. Rain is ever-present, casting a gloomy pall over the valley, and clothes never dry. It is a dank and miserable existence with only ‘poitin’, local moonshine alcohol, for comfort. The old-fashioned rhythms of speech and scattering of Irish Gaelic words help to root the story in a specific time and place. The Good People are portrayed as an everyday fact of life and Kent carefully passes no modern-day judgements on the widespread belief in the fairies in the community.

Nora is a sympathetic character, as she copes with losing her daughter and husband within months of each other and being left with a ‘cratur’ that at times frightens her. Nevertheless, her valiant attempts to protect Micheal show her courage and compassion. Mary, the bright teenage girl whom Nora hires, also tries to shield Micheal from the growing gossip. Nance, however, is the most interesting character, an old woman who has known great hardship, and has had to create a life for herself with her herbal remedies and knowledge of the Good People. The brash new priest, Father Healy, sets out to discredit Nance and preaches against her and the old ways. With the advancing authority of the church, she knows her influence is waning.

Kent has a wonderful talent for taking fragments of historical facts and breathing life into them through her fiction. She has matched her debut with another disturbing and haunting novel.

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Posted in Book Reviews

For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay – Herald Review

Review – For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay

Shirley Whiteside

For Those Who Know the Ending

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle, £16.99

Malcolm Mackay, an award-winning Hebridean author, cites Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain amongst his favourite hardboiled writers, and you can feel their influence on his sixth novel, set in contemporary Glasgow. He creates a world where being a hit-man is a career choice, one with the opportunity to travel and see the seedy underbelly of different cities. With these familiar elements, Mackay’s tale could easily become a tired tale full of clichéd characters. Instead, it is a fast-paced, page-turning journey through a nightmarish world of ruthless men.

Martin Sivok arrives in Glasgow from the Czech Republic: “First day off the plane in Glasgow and he realised he had learned the wrong English.” He’s a hit-man without a home, trying to gain a foothold in the city’s crime scene. It’s not easy to become part of an industry that relies on trust, loyalty, and personal recommendation. Sivok finds himself doing low-level jobs with low-level pay. He needs to move up the food chain and earn serious money, especially now that he has more or less moved in with Joanne Mathie, and finds himself happily settled with her. He reluctantly hooks up with Usman Kassar, “thin as a rail, smooth cheeked and full of grins”. Kassar is a small time criminal with big time ambitions. Together the two plan to pull off a daring heist, putting them firmly in the cross-hairs of the Jamieson family, one of the most feared criminal families in the city. This brings Nate Colgan into the picture, “security consultant” for the Jamiesons, and a man who knows how to unleash the darkness inside himself. He also knows that if he doesn’t sort out the Jamiesons’ little problem, he could be on the receiving end of their fury. Not only do the Jamiesons want their property back, they want to make an example of those who have dared to move against them. And so the game begins, but not all playing know the ending.

Mackay’s setting is Glasgow, a city that he has only visited a handful of times, and it shows inasmuch as the story could be taking place in any large urban environment, and the absence of Glasgow’s distinct personality is jarring.

Although the main characters are criminals of one kind or another, Mackay contrasts their violent, brutal work with everyday lives that are ordinary to the point of being dull. They have bills to pay, relationships to make work, and children to care for. The only extraordinary thing about them is their job, and even then they have to dress appropriately and turn up on time. In this scenario, even the most ruthless men have some redeeming qualities, blurring the line between good and bad until it becomes a vague, grey smudge.

Mackay’s writing is clean and spare, with flashes of dark humour, as when he describes a wannabe gangster trying to impress a woman: “She gave him a look that a beautiful woman would give a pathetic, thirteen-year-old boy and got up”. His sentences are often short, almost staccato, as you might expect from a fan of hardboiled fiction. Some of the minor characters are thumbnail sketches but Mackay gives his main characters plenty of light and shade with a pleasing economy of words. Women do not feature strongly in the main action. They are wives, girlfriends, and daughters, looking the other way while the men go about their business, and waiting for them to come home in one piece. The men’s personal relationships do however provide a glimpse of the person behind their frightening exteriors, showing that they are capable of more than anger and violence.

A cast of characters is included which is useful in determining who’s who (and who’s after whom) in the incestuous world of professional criminals. Mackay handles the material well, revealing how each character fits into the whole and succinctly explaining the various vendettas, loyalties and betrayals. It is a quick read, but not one for those who enjoy the cosy end of the crime genre. There is violence and suffering but those involved accept it as an occupational hazard. Mackay has produced a satisfyingly twisty tale but his real skill lies in making monsters not only human, but characters that deserve a little sympathy for their brutal lives. It is this moral ambiguity that makes this novel such a gripping read.

Posted in Book Reviews

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster – Herald Review

Margaret Forster: My Life In Houses (Chatto & Windus)
Shirley Whiteside
Saturday 15 November 2014

Novelist Margaret Forster applies the same attention to detail and precise language of her fiction-writing to the story of her own life, as glimpsed through the prism of the houses she has lived in. It is not a tale that puts much emphasis on the colour of the walls or the placing of a rug. Instead, it is an emotional response to the houses that became her homes.

Forster was born in Carlisle in 1938, in a council house on the Raffles estate. Her father was a fitter in a local factory and, prior to marriage, her mother had been a secretary. She had an older brother and younger sister, the family of five crammed into a two-bedroom house with an outside lavatory and, bafflingly, a bathroom housing only a bath.

Forster was fascinated by houses from an early age and developed a rather snobbish attitude to her own home. While she often went to visit school friends living in large private houses she never invited them to her own crowded house. She longed for the large bedrooms that her friends had and the privacy they afforded. She often played a game where she picked a house she liked, moved out the inhabitants and moved herself in, luxuriating in the quiet rooms she anticipated they had. In her childish mind she never saw this as a rejection of her family, more that she was imagining a life beyond them.

Forster was a clever child and won a scholarship to study at Oxford University. She hated the constant noise and chatter around her college room and, as soon as she was able, she rented a room in a house nearby. The house was owned by the intimidatingly proper Mrs Brown but run by her sister, Fanny, who sported a fixed grin in public but constantly grumbled under her breath. She met her future husband, the journalist Hunter Davies, and after university they settled into rented rooms in London before buying a dilapidated house on the ‘wrong’ side of Highgate Road that was to be her home for the next 50 years.

Forster writes in a deceptively simple, conversational style that is warm and inclusive. Her recollections are generously tinged with a gentle, knowing humour. The most moving sections are when she discovers she has breast cancer and her London home becomes her sanctuary. First one mastectomy and then another, but the solidity of her home comforts her through her recovery. She eschews the usual terms associated with cancer patients such as ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ the disease instead opting to retreat to the familiar territory of home, observing how her mind and body react to the disease and treatment. Sadly, she now has metastatic cancer which is being held at bay.

Forster’s journey through various properties also reflects the changes in British society. She recalls her mother blacking the grate and keeping their home scrupulously clean without the benefit of any of the modern appliances we now take for granted. When she moved to London many of the large houses in her street were split into bedsits but as the area became more desirable the buildings were converted back to their original state. As she recalls, there were skips all along the road and the sounds of drills and hammers seven days a week. She is amused when the kind of fire that her mother toiled over and had replaced with a cheap tiled fireplace becomes fashionable again, as do the panelled doors that her mother had paid to have covered in thin sheets of plywood.

Forster found that the atmosphere of a house had to be just right in order for her to write. Even when finances allowed her to have a holiday home first in the Algarve and then in the Lake District, it was her London home that sparked her writing into life. She wraps it around herself like a favourite cardigan, knowing that it is the memories those walls enclose that make it special. This is a lovely and touching evocation of what home means to one woman, and within this is a universality that many will connect with.