A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I’m still a little surprised to find myself writing that I really liked A Visit From The Goon Squad.

But I am !

I was less than thrilled a few months ago when I saw Jennifer Egan’s name on the longlist for the Orange Prize. I just didn’t get on with The Keep, or with Look at Me. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. And I really didn’t really think that a book by the same author about American record company folk would be the book for me.

But what do I know?

I read a great deal of praise, and some of it came from people who hadn’t expected to enjoy the book. And then A Visit From The Goon Squad won the Pulizer Prize.

Curiosity got the better of me at that point, and I placed an order. And I am so glad that I did, because A Visit From The Goon Squad really is a tour de force.

Thirteen chapters.

Each had a different style, a different viewpoint, a different point in time, a different narrative trick. Never before have I seen such variation in one novel.

With all of those differences, with characters appearing and disappearing, this could have felt more like a book of short stories than a novel. And yet it didn’t.

Because although I couldn’t identify with the characters, although I didn’t particularly like them, they were so well drawn, they had such depth, that I was always intrigued.

Because the prose and the storytelling was so clever, so compelling that I just had to keep reading. Jennifer Egan balanced characters, stories, styles and tricks exceedingly well.

Because recurring themes tied everything together. How we deal with the passing of time. How lives can move in directions we didn’t expect, didn’t want. How we have to adapt to survive. Big questions.

There were things I didn’t like. I found the chapter with extensive footnotes difficult to read.

But there were many more strokes of brilliance. The first chapter moved between two different perspectives, two different times more elegantly than I thought possible. And the much discussed Powerpoint chapter dazzled me. It had such clarity, and it quickly decided that it was the perfect medium for that perspective, that particular story.

A Visit to The Goon Squad isn’t a book for everyone.

It takes work. To keep track of characters as the stories shifted backwards in time. To take in so many different things. to fill in the gaps.

It is a book for the head much more than the heart.

And it is very modern. Very experimental.

In theory I shouldn’t have liked it. But in practice I did.

Maybe an Orange … or two … or three …

I’m loving Paris in July, but I haven’t forgotten that this is Orange July too.

This year’s longlist and shortlist didn’t excite me a t first, but the more I thought and the more I read the more interested I was. And now I have two longlisted books in progress:

  • I have been slowly making my way through The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer for a while now. It’s a book that I needed to read slowly, but I think I will turn the final page this month.
  • Though I didn’t care for her earlier books, I gave Jennifer Egan the benefit of the doubt and ordered A Visit From The Goon Squad from the library.  Three chapters in, I have to say I’m impressed.

And I have more books on hand, some of my own and some on the library pile.

Here they are:

Are there any there that you would recommend?

And are you reading for Orange July?

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Sometimes a book stay in your head long after you have finished reading and put it down, not allowing you to let go and move on to something else.

You have to recall passages, theme, images. You have to think about the questions it left you with. Maybe you even have to pick it up again, because you know there will be things you missed, more that will reveal itself on subsequent readings.

Great House has been one of those books for me.

It wasn’t a book I rushed to read, but as time went on I became more and more curious. So much praise and the idea stories spun around a desk did appeal. I’ve always liked a desk.

I acquired my first desk when I was eight years old, and I’ve considered one to be an absolutely essential part of the furniture ever since. I can recall scratching the year – 1973 – on to that case in case it should need dating in the future. With the benefit of hindsight I doubt that the simple child’s desk survives. These days I have a lovely bureau that my godmother had made and later left to me, together with her cookery books.

But I digress. This book is built around a different desk. A bigger, older, darker desk with many drawers and compartments.  A desk with a longer more complex history. A desk that has been looted, gifted, loaned, recovered …

But Great House isn’t the story of a desk. It is a story of lives linked, sometimes closely and sometimes tenuously, by the desk. At some times the desk is at the heart of the story, and at others it is distant. Just there. Or maybe not there.

There are four narratives that move the book back and forth , between eras and locations. The chronology isn’t straightforward and the links aren’t immediately clear. Some will be revealed and others will need to be deduced. This is a book that needs to be worked at.

Those four narratives are distinctive and I had no problems moving between them. Each time the story shifted I was pulled in again by intelligence, emotion and such elegant prose.

And the underlying themes came through, giving some relatively simple stories depth. The importance of emotional ties. How easily they can be damaged. How easily we can misunderstand, and what damage that can do. How one generation can determine the fate of the next. And the Jewish diaspora…

Serious themes, and these were serious stories. At times it was too much.  It was relentless. I wanted a little light, maybe even a dash of humour. They never came, but I still held on. Those four narratives held me, my head and my heart.

 Individually they had their weaknesses. One felt rushed. One veered dangerously toward sentimentality. Another teetered on the brink of melodrama. One though was perfect. Strangely it was the one least connected with the history of the desk. And yet they came together to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

I’ve written little about the plot. Much has been written about Great House, and if you want to know more you will find it quite easily. But it is a book I would recommend coming too with as little foreknowledge as possible. I can’t quite explain why, but I think it’s because there’s so much there is so much there, both said and unsaid, that focusing on any one aspect would distort your view…

I didn’t find Great House an easy book, but I am very glad I read it.

And I’m still thinking about it …

The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone

Wanting: a frontier town, lying between China and Burma.

In a hotel room Na Ga considers how she got there, and where she might go next.

She tears cloth to make a rope. Maybe to escape, or maybe to hang herself.

But she is interrupted, by the news that the man who was to guide her over the border has chosen to end his life …

A compelling opening.

The Road to Wanting is not a happy book, not an easy book, but it is powerful, often beautiful, and took me into a world that I knew nothing about.

The narrative moves back and forth in town, slowly building a picture of Na Ga’s life, It took time and concentration to put the story together, but in time I did.

She grew up in a countryside community, but her parents sold her into slavery.

An American family saved her, and became a companion to their young daughter. But she was left behind, left to fend for herself when the political situation became unstable.

It was then that Na Ga was tricked. She found herself a slave again, in a brothel in Thailand,

 She was rescued again, by another American. Will. He protected Na Ga for a long time, but eventually his home in America would call him back, and Na Ga would be left behind.   

He left her money, and a guide to steer her home. Na ga wanted to go home.

But it wasn’t that easy. Years of conflict had changed Burma. Boundaries had moved, villages had been destroyed, tribes wiped out.

“I want to go home,” I said, still sitting where I had fallen. I wanted to be back in my own village, among the animals I knew and the cousins I played with, in the dirt yard behind the thorn hedges of our village gates.

Where was home? Should Na Ga cross the border and take her chances, or should she stay in Wanting?

It took time to put things together, but I’m glad that I did. The prose was rich and evocative, lyrical and still very, very readable. It drew me right to Na Ga’s life. I saw the sights, I heard the sounds. I was shocked, I was fascinated, and I was moved.

It helped that Na Ga’s first person narrative was clear and direct, and it hooked me from the first page. At first I thought she was passive, and yes she was, but I began to realise that she had never had the luxury of choice, that the course of her life had always been determined by other people, that she was doing what she had to to survive.

That made is difficult for me to engage with her, but it also allowed me to stand back and look at her life and her situation.

She had survived, she had accepted, and that said so much about her spirit, her character.

I closed The Road to Wanting thinking hard, and hoping against hope for Na Ga and her country.

I’m very pleased that this book was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and I’d be more than happy to see it on the shortlist.

The Seas by Samantha Hunt

A strange one this.

A debut novel longlisted for the Orange Prize two years after its author’s second novel was longlisted for the very same prize. There is no question over the books eligibility as it was first published in the United Kindom in  July last year, but it does feel odd.

And the book itself has a certain strangeness.

“One night,” I begins and close my eyes, “my father, he was very handsome, he walked into the ocean. That was eleven years ago. He hasn’t come back though and even though the police found the place on the beach where my father’s footprints disappeared into the water they never found his body. So my mother and I have been waiting. We often sit and wait on the beach just where my father’s footprints disappeared into the water. Sometimes I wait alone. We always thought he would return…”

The unnamed narrator lives with her mother and her grandfather in a seaside town. A bleak seaside town set against steep cliffs. A town that feels like a prison.

She’s still at school, dreaming of becoming a scientist and making a little pocket-money as a chambermaid. And she loves, to the point of obsession,  a sailor nearly twice her age, Jude.  She loved him before he left for Iraq, she waited, and she still loved him now that he has returned with Post Traumatic Stress. Jude is a down at heel, womanizing alcoholic, but he still keeps her close. But not too close.

At home her mother waits for her husband, still married in both heart and head. And her grandfather, her mother’s father, a retired typesetter, spends his days planning and typesetting dictionaries that will never be published, and filling his granddaughter’s head with wonderful words

And the girl, whose departed father told her that she was a gift from the sea is drawn to the water.

I’d lie down in the tub instead of my bed. At first my mother would wake me up and make me move back into my bed but after years and years she finally gave up and let me sleep there. I liked it in the tub because from the window I could see the stars and the ocean and sometimes, if it was calm, I could see the stars in the ocean. I liked the tub. If I slept with my ear against the drainpipe I could hear my parents’ conversations at night, long metallic talking that made its way up through the plumbing.

Samantha Hunt presents all of this beautifully. Her prose is light, lyrical, idiosyncratic and quite wonderfully awash with watery imagery. The melancholy of the isolated seaside town is tangible. Her characters are lightly and perfectly drawn and each one – from the lonely girl believes she will become a mermaid to the troubled veteran who can’t find his place in his hometown – has their own distinctive voice, their own role to play.

As obsessive love and the call of the ocean push the gentle storyline to a dramatic turn. It pulls all of the strands of the story together very, very cleverly, but for me the writing lost something at that point, and the magic never quite came back as the story rushed to an ending that I didn’t think quite worked.

There is considerable magic in the pages of this little book, wonderful ideas, wonderful emotions. It’s just that Samantha Hunt couldn’t quite pull off everything at the same time, couldn’t quite see things through to the end.

But such potential … maybe one day …

The Longlist for the 2011 Orange Prize

I have loved the Orange Prize from the very beginning, and it has steered me towards some wonderful book over the years.

The longlist for 2011 was published today and, as ever, there were a few familiar names, some new and unfamiliar names and some surprising omissions. I was disappointed not to see Maggie O’Farrell, and I was so sure that Mr Chartwell would be on the list that I ordered a copy thinking I would beat the rush. Wrong!

It’s always the way. And some writers – most notably A S Byatt – don’t allow their books to be put forward because the dislike the concept of a prize for women only. So who knows who has opted out and who has been omitted?

There are more books than usual that I didn’t know before I saw the list, but I do  like the look of this year’s selection. It seems less historical and more international last year. I’ve only read two of the books, but I have several more on order from the library, and a few more that I’d really like to track down.

And here is the list:

Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

“Set in 1950s Sudan, this is the story of the powerful and sprawling Abuzied dynasty. With Mahmood Bey at its helm, the family can do no wrong. But when Mahmood’s son, Nur – the brilliant, charming heir to his business empire – suffers a near-fatal accident, his hopes of university and a glittering future are dashed. Subsequently, his betrothal to his cousin and sweetheart, Soraya is broken off, another tragedy that he is almost unable to bear. As British rule is coming to an end, and the country is torn between modernising influences and the call of traditions past, the family is divided. Mahmood’s second wife, Nabilah, longs to return to Egypt and leave behind her the dust of ‘backward-looking’ Sudan. His first wife, Waheeba, lives traditionally behind veils and closed doors and resents Nabilah’s influence on Mahmood. Meanwhile, Nur must find a way to live again in the world and find peace. “

I know the author but not the book. I’ll look out for it, but there are other books calling me a little louder.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate)

“‘I was born twice. First in wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.’ 1857. Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach – explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures – the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey – if he survives it – will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.”

I love the sound of this, but the library doesn’t have a copy and I’m not buying books until I find another job, so I am going to have to wait.

Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

“Jack is five. He lives with his Ma. They live in a single, locked room. They don’t have the key. Jack and Ma are prisoners.”

A book that needs no introduction, and it’s the first of the two I’ve read. Of course it had to be on the list!

The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi (Bloomsbury)

“August, 1968: Babo Patel arrives in London from Madras, with curly hair, jhill mill teeth and dreams of becoming a success. When he meets the beautiful, auburn-haired Sian Jones, he falls in love instantly. She, like him, is in search of something bigger than what the home she left behind can offer. But when Babo’s parents learn of his intention to marry ‘some girl from God knows where’ he is given an ultimatum: he can only marry Sian if they agree to live in Madras for two years before returning to London. As the years pass by, the calamities, quirks and heartaches of first love, lost innocence, and old age unfold across cultures and generations of this mixed-up family in a topsy-turvy world.”

I love the sound of this, and I’ve ordered it from the library.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber)

“I stare at the photo. I try to read his gaze, each fold on his face, the slight frown. I study the photo in the same way that a spy might study the face of a counterpart in a rival organization. I am calm as I make this promise: I am going to find out what you love, then whatever it is, I am going to track it down and I am going to take it away from you. Two police officers knock on Laura’s door and her life changes forever. They tell her that her nine-year old daughter Betty has been hit by a car and killed. When justice is slow to arrive, Laura decides to take her own revenge and begins to track down the man responsible. Laura’s grief also re-opens old wounds and she is thrown back to the story of her passionate love affair with Betty’s father David, their marriage and his subsequent affair with another woman. Haunted by her past, and driven to breaking point by her desire for retribution, Laura discovers the lengths she is willing to go to for love.”

This is the second of the two books I’ve read, and I’m a little surprised to see it on the list. For me it started brilliantly but lost its way.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

“Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years.”

I’m afraid I haven’t got on with Jennifer Egan’s writing in the past, so I’ll take a careful look at this one if I come across a copy, but it’s not a priority.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury)

“Freetown, Sierra Leone: a devastating civil war has left an entire populace with terrible secrets to keep. In the capital’s hospital Kai, a gifted young surgeon is plagued by demons that are beginning to threaten his livelihood. Elsewhere in the hospital lies Elias Cole, a university professor who recalls the love that obsessed him and drove him to acts that are far from heroic. As past and present intersect, Kai and Elias are drawn unwittingly closer by Adrian, a British psychiatrist with good intentions, and into the path of one woman at the centre of their stories.”

Wisely praised and forecast to be on the list and here it is. I don’t doubt the quality of the book but I’m not sure it’s the book for me. Again though, I will look carefully when I come across a copy.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape)

“Paul lives in the Welsh countryside with his wife Elise, and their two young children. The day after his mother dies he learns that his eldest daughter Pia, who was living with his ex-wife in London, has moved out from home and gone missing. He sets out in search of Pia, and when he eventually finds her, living with her lover in a chaotic flat in a tower block in King’s Cross, he thinks at first he wants to rescue her. But the search for his daughter begins a period of unrest and indecision for Paul: he is drawn closer to the hub of London, to the excitements of a life lived in jeopardy, to Pia’s fragile new family. Paul’s a pessimist; when a heat wave scorches the capital week after week he fears that they are all ‘sleep-walking to the edge of a great pit, like spoiled trusting children’. In the opposite direction, Cora is moving back to Cardiff, to the house she has inherited from her parents. She is escaping her marriage, and the constrictions and disappointments of her life in London. At work in the local library, she is interrupted by a telephone call from her sister-in-law and best friend, to say that her husband has disappeared. Connecting both stories is the London train, and a chance meeting that will have immediate and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and for Cora.”

I’ve liked – if not loved – a couple of books by Tessa Hadley, and this one has had a lot of praise, so I’ll definitely look out for a copy.

Grace Williams Says it Loud by Emma Henderson (Sceptre)

This isn’t an ordinary love story. But then Grace isn’t an ordinary girl. ‘Disgusting,’ said the nurse. And when no more could be done, they put her away, aged eleven. On her first day at the Briar Mental Institute, Grace meets Daniel. He sees a different Grace: someone to share secrets and canoodle with, someone to fight for. Debonair Daniel, who can type with his feet, fills Grace’s head with tales from Paris and the world beyond. This is Grace’s story: her life, its betrayals and triumphs, disappointment and loss, the taste of freedom; roses, music and tiny scraps of paper. Most of all, it is about the love of a lifetime.”

I’ve seen this in the library and thought I might give it a try one day. And I will the next time I see it.

The Seas by Samantha Hunt (Corsair)

“The narrator of “The Seas” lives in a tiny, remote, alcoholic, cruel seaside town. An occasional chambermaid, granddaughter to a typesetter, and daughter to a dead man, awkward and brave, wayward and willful, she is in love (unrequited) with an Iraq War veteran thirteen years her senior. She is convinced that she is a mermaid. What she does to ease the pain of growing up lands her in prison. What she does to get out is the stuff of legend.”

Strange, but interesting. Hopefully I’ll be able to track down a copy.

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna (Faber & Faber)

“It is Vienna, 1865: Dr Ignaz Semmelweis has been hounded into a lunatic asylum, ridiculed for his claim that doctors’ unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. The deaths of thousands of mothers are on his conscience and his dreams are filled with blood. It is 2153: humans are birthed and raised in breeding centres, nurtured by strangers and deprived of familial love. Miraculously, a woman conceives, and Prisoner 730004 stands trial for concealing it. London in 2009: Michael Stone’s novel about Semmelweis has been published, after years of rejection. But while Michael absorbs his disconcerting success, his estranged mother is dying and asks to see him again. As Michael vacillates, Brigid Hayes, exhausted and uncertain whether she can endure the trials ahead, begins the labour of her second child.”

Another book that had been widely praised and forecast to be on this list. It’s been on the “one day” list but it hasn’t turned up in the library. Maybe I should place an order.

Great House by  Nicole Krauss (Viking)

“During the winter of 1972, a woman spends a single night with a young Chilean poet before he departs New York, leaving her his desk. It is the only time they ever meet. Two years later, he is arrested by Pinochet’s secret police and never seen again. Across the ocean, in the leafy suburbs of London, a man caring for his dying wife discovers a lock of hair among her papers that unravels a terrible secret. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer has spent a lifetime reassembling his father’s study, plundered by the Nazis from Budapest in 1944; now only one item remains to be found. Connecting these lives is a desk of many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away. And as the narrators of “Great House” make their confessions, this desk comes finally to stand for all that has been taken from them, and all that binds them to what has disappeared.”

I’m afraid that I was the one person in the world who didn’t like The History of Love, so this isn’t a priority.

The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone (Chatto & Windus)

” Some call it China’s Wild West – a boom town on the border with Burma. In the new Chinese economy of the late 1980’s, the frontier at Wanting is a magnet for outcasts and opportunists. Or the desperate – like Na Ga. To Na Ga, the town of Wanting represents not the beginning of a new life, but the end of the road. Will, her American lover, has thrown her out – as she always expected he would – leaving her with painful memories, a dollar bank account and a one-way ticket back to Burma. Burma, however, holds no appeal for Na Ga. She may have been born in its hills, but she has left them far, far behind. Yet, caught in a cycle of yearning and betrayal, she finds herself inevitably on a home-bound path. Taking the reader on a journey from the remote tribal villages of northern Burma, to ex-pat life in Rangoon under a grim military regime, and then, in shocking scenes, to the brothels of Thailand and the hedonism of Bangkok.”

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of this one before today, but I do like the look of it and so I have ordered it from the library.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

“A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.”

This one had a lot of attention and it is calling me loudly. Sadly though the library has no copies and I am not letting myself buy new books until I have a new job. So please keep your fingers crossed that one turns up!

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Viking)

“In September 1937 Andras, a young Hungarian student, leaves his family and heads for Paris on a scholarship to study architecture. Before he sets off he is given a mysterious letter to post on arrival in Paris. It is addressed to an Hungarian woman and no reason is given why it cannot be posted from Budapest. When Andras arrives in Paris he becomes vitally aware of his poverty, particularly when he enters the home of a richer Hungarian emigre Klara Morgenstern. She is a young widowed woman, and he finds himself falling in love with her. As they begin to meet regularly it is clear that Klara is hiding a terrifying secret, related to the mysterious letter that Andras posted on arrival, which means she is trapped in Paris as war looms closer. And, as Andras and his fellow students’ lives become ever more vulnerable in the shadow of war, the group must shatter in order to survive. Andras is forced home to a labour camp, his brother disappears and Klara risks everything to return to Hungary to be close to her lover.”

Again, I hadn’t heard of this one before today, but as I like the look of it and  I have ordered it from the library.

Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile (Serpent’s Tail)

“A secretive child by nature, Susanna makes a covert list of everything she knows about her absent father, waiting for the day that she is reunited with him. Deeply unhappy at home, living with her overbearing mother and promiscuous sister, she stays out of the house as much as possible. When she finally discovers her father’s name and seeks him out, in the free and unconventional atmosphere of 1970s Chelsea, she conceals her identity, beginning an illicit affair that can only end in disaster.”

I’m not sure about this one but I know the library has it and I will give it a try.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Chatto & Windus)

“The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline and Swamplandia!, their island home in the Florida Everglades and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as The World of Darkness. Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary and beautiful star attraction, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her Grandpa Sawtooth has been sent to the mainland to an old folk’s home; her brother has secretly defected to The World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep the family afloat; and her father, the Chief, is AWOL. To save them, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.”

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Serpent’s Tail)

“She is the fourth wife of a rich, rotund patriarch, Baba Segi. She is a graduate and therefore a great prize, but even graduates must produce children and her husband’s persistent bellyache is a sign that things are not as they should be. Bolanle is too educated for the ‘white garment conmen’ Baba Segi would usually go to for fertility advice, so he takes her to hospital to discover the cause of her barrenness.”

Now this sounds interesting, but there are others on this list calling louder. But I would be grateful if the Cornish Library Service would invest in a copy or two.

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (Harper Press)

“Forty-three year old Ria is used to being alone. As a child, her life changed forever with the death of her beloved father and since then, she has struggled to find love.That is, until she discovers the swimmer. Ben is a young illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka who has arrived in Norfolk via Moscow. Awaiting a decision from the Home Office on his asylum application, he is discovered by Ria as he takes a daily swim in the river close to her house. He is twenty years her junior and theirs is an unconventional but deeply moving romance, defying both boundaries and cultures — and the xenophobic residents of Orford. That is, until tragedy occurs.”

I have heard a lot of praise for Roma Tearne, so I’m pleased to see her on this list, but I’m not sure she is going to be my kind of author. But I will have a closer look at her books when i come across them now.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape)

“In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador in the far north-east of Canada, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people share the secret – the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to go through surgery and raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows up within the hyper-male hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self – a girl he thinks of as ‘Annabel’ – is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life. As Wayne approaches adulthood, and its emotional and physical demands, the woman inside him begins to cry out. The changes that follow are momentous not just for him, but for the three adults that have guarded his secret

I’ve heard mixed reports and this one really isn’t calling me at the moment. But maybe one day.


 What will win? What will be on the shortlist? I have no idea! But I’m aiming to read a few of those books that are calling me before the shortlist is published, so then I may be able to offer an opinion.

But now tell me – what do you think of this year’s twenty books?:

Is there anything you’d recommend?

Is there anything that you think shouldn’t be there?

Is there anything that should be there, but isn’t?

And which books are you curious about?

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

This book sat and waited for me for a very long time. It looked good – and that it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007 was an excellent sign – and yet I didn’t pick it up. I thought that I knew just what it would hold, just what it would be about before I even read it.

The combined forces of my own Clearing The Decks Project and Orange January made me pick up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers on New Years Day. And I’m very glad.

Yes, the story, the themes were very much as I had expected, but reading brought them into my heart and into my mind.

“Beijing time 12 clock midnight.
London time 5 clock afternoon.
But I at neither time zone. I on airplane”

Zhuang Xiaoqiao (called “Z” because people find it difficult to pronounce her name) is a 23-year-old Chinese girl sent to the UK to study English. I wondered if I could cope with Z’s fractured English, but that didn’t worry me for very long at all.

The picture painted of Z is perfect: she is naive, and eager to learn, she is always watching and thinking. I was charmed, and I wanted to follow her, to walk beside her into her new life.

Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever.

I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home. I’m not sure that I could ever be that brave.

A chance meeting and a linguistic misunderstanding result in Z much older man, a failed artist, a drifter. In time she falls in love with him.

That relationship illustrates wider cultural differences. Attitudes to food, travel, sex, openness, privacy … so many things that go to the very heart of relationships. So many differences, so many things that Z’s dictionary just can’t explain.

And it’s one thing to identify differences, but quite another thing to understand everything that those differences mean and to learn to live with them.

“But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart.”

All of the other characters, even her lover, were faintly drawn, emphasising how different and how alone Z was. She clung to her lover and  there was no room for others. How I wished she would mix with her fellow students, experience a different life, but no.

I still loved her, but at times she infuriated me.

How much was character and how much was culture? I really couldn’t say.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers has is flaws: the use of language is sometimes inconsistent, and the story does drag in places.

But it illuminates some wonderful truths as Z navigates through her relationship.

“People always say it’s harder to heal a wounded heart than a wounded body. Bullshit. It’s exactly the opposite—a wounded body takes much longer to heal. A wounded heart is nothing but ashes of memories. But the body is everything. The body is blood and veins and cells and nerves. A wounded body is when, after leaving a man you’ve lived with for three years, you curl up on your side of the bed as if there’s still somebody beside you. That is a wounded body: a body that feels connected to someone who is no longer there.”

I am so pleased that I have read this book at last: I have met a heroine to cherish, and her has touched my heart and my mind far more that I thought it would.

The Boy Next Door, Orange Prizes and Reading Ambitions

Back in the spring when the longlist for this year’s Orange Prize came out I was inspired. So many wonderful books, some that I’d heard of and some that I hadn’t. My heart said read then all! My head agreed that it would be wonderful, but that I couldn’t possibly do it before the shortlist came out or even before the award was made.

As of today I’ve read eight of the twenty, I have three more to hand, and I haven’t ruled out reading the lot. Eventually!

But that ambition went on to the back burner when I saw the shortlist for the Orange Award for New Writers. Just three books, and two of them were already on my radar. Now that was do-able!

The first was The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale. It had popped up in my Amazon recommendations, I’d seen it in a few other places and I was ready to pick it up as soon as a copy appeared in the library. When it appeared on the shortlist I placed an order. It proved to be a very readable book, with plenty of twists and turns and an engaging heroine. But there were problems. A few plot holes and some opportunities missed. A promising debut but it didn’t really seem worthy of the shortlist.

And then there was After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld. The cover caught my eye in the library towards the end of last year, and the title was intriguing. When I first picked it up I wasn’t sure it would be my sort of book, but I read so much praise that I have to give it a try. It was a very accomplished debut, a book more than worthy of all the praise showered upon it, but it didn’t quite click with me I’m afraid.

And finally there was The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini – the only shortlisted book I hadn’t heard of before the list came out.

I fell in love with this one and I had planned to post about it on the evening of the award. But I didn’t quite get to it. Then it won, and a celebratory post seemed to be in order. But I was distracted by life, took a blogging break and it didn’t happen.

Until now!

The setting interested me: Zimbabwe shortly after the Act of Settlement and the first free elections, when white minority rule ended and Robert Mugabe came to power. I was young but my best friend had cousins the same age as us in Zimbabwe, and so we followed developments carefully. 

And then the heroine captivated me. In 1978 she was 14, the same age as me and we seemed so much alike. Lindiwe Bishop was quiet, bright but not quite at the top of the class, and she was bookish. She read Sue Barton books, books that I loved but had quite forgotten about. But I would have loved her even without that wonderful reminder.

Lindiwe was of mixed race and she lived with her family in what was previously an all-white suburb of Bulawayo.

Ian McKenzie, the boy next door, was a few years older than Lindiwe and he was white. A different class. And it seems that Ian is trouble. A fire is set at the McKenzie home, and Ian is accused, found guilty and jailed. In time the conviction is overturned and Ian is released, but suspicion still hangs over him.

Lindiwe is warned to steer clear, but she is fascinated by the boy next door and they begin a clandestine relationship.

The story follows that relationship over the next ten years, against the background of the new and changing  Zimbabwe. A relationship complicated by racial tensions, family relationships and secrets, demons from the past. It seems doomed to fail, but I couldn’t help hoping that it would succeed.

It works brilliantly, both the small picture and the big picture. The story of the country and the stories of Lindiwe, Ian and the people around them. I felt for them all, but most of all for Lindiwe as she matured, as her understanding grew, and as she struggled to cope with life’s ups and downs.

I was engaged, moved, and informed by The Boy Next Door.

Definitely a worthy award winner.

Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Tatty. That wasn’t her real name. her real name was Caroline, but Tatty stuck because she was a “tell-tale-tattler”, a child who made up and told stories.

That wasn’t surprising. Tatty was a bright child in a large and troubled family, growing up in Dublin in the sixties.

Tatty’s story tells of her family.

An ebullient father, full of good intentions but oh so easily distracted by his love of the bookies and a good time. A mother who is struggling, maybe with mental health issues, and growing ever more dependent on alcohol. Two brothers and two sisters, one handicapped.

It could have been just another story of a disturbed childhood. But it wasn’t. And that was because Christine Dwyer Hickey created an utterly believable little girl who it was quite impossible to resist.

Her observation was acute and her voice was quite unique: intelligent, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking. 

 “When you go to a birthday party, you get jelly and ice-cream, cake and chocolate Rice Krispie buns. You say thank you very much for the lovely party, then you go home with everyone else. If it’s your birthday party you say, Thanks very much for coming to my party and for the lovely present and all. When everyone’s gone you look at the presents again, say which is your favourite and which is your worst. You spread out the cards, read all the poems inside; you suck the icing off the end of the candles. Then you say thanks to mum for the lovely party and help her to clean up the table.

But when adults have a party it isn’t the same. They go a bit funny. Sometimes they sing and that can be good. They laugh and clap and make noble calls: that means you have to sing if you’re picked even if you don’t want to. Mam and Dad are happy when there’s singing going on. Mam knows lots of songs: the one about summertime, the one about diamonds, the one where she wants an old-fashioned millionaire. Mam is the best singer of all. She sings like someone off the pictures. Auntie Jane’s the scariest with her voice all shaky and dry. Uncle Matt’s funny doing his letting on he’s a woman with Aunt Winnie’s handbag. Then everyone says he’s a scream. dad doesn’t sing but he makes loads of jokes. Everyone’s happy and everyone claps. Then it’s time to go home and Mam and Dad stop enjoying themselves again.

If the party’s in your house then Dad just goes to bed and Mam stays up and finishes her drink and smokes on her own. The next day the house is all smelly and you have to open the windows and make sure you empty all the bottles down the sink before you put them in the brown bags outside the back door.

Sometime’s there’s no singing only talking, except it’s not really talking it’s shouting instead. They don’t listen to each other, because they’re only waiting on their turn to shout. They say the same things over and over. They talk about things that happened years ago. Then there might be a row, Everyone goes home at different times. If one of them goes home too early the people who are left behind always say something about them. You hear loads of stuff because they forget to send you out. They’re too busy shouting so they don’t notice anything. They never notice anything.”

The details were right. They rang true, and that made this book sing.

Tatty’s voice shifted between first, second and third persons. it bothered me a little at first, but then I realised that her viewpoint was shifting. Sometimes she was talking to others, sometimes to herself, sometimes she was just trying to set out her story. Something clicked and then the shifts seemed entirely right.

Her story charts her progress from a childish to a more mature understanding of her family and her world. A family and a world that changes around her.

It is a story with a lot to say about the effects of alcoholism, of family troubles, on children. About how your family is your family no matter what.

The story of one girl. Clear-eyed and honest. Sometimes shocking, but always believable. Emotional, but never sentimental.

The ending was not a conclusion, but a realisation.

And now I miss Tatty, and I wonder what happened to her and her family …

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

I didn’t come across The White Woman on the Green Bicycle until it appeared on the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

I wasn’t sure that it would be my sort of book, but I heard so much praise that I really had to order a copy.

Since then it appeared on the shortlist, and now that I have read it I have to say that I would be thrilled to see it win. A wonderful book!

It tells the story of one woman, her life and marriage, and wraps around it the story of Trinidad in the second half of the twentieth century.

French born Sabine moved to Trinidad in 1956 with her English husband, George. He has a three year contract with a shipping company. It’s an adventure, and they are young, happy, and confident that they will suceed where, it seems, many before them have failed.

George fell in love with Trinidad. The surroundings, the climate, the lifestyle.

Monique Roffey’s rich and evocative prose makes it easy to see why. But she describes a darker and more violent side to Trinidad too.

Sabine hates Trinidad: the heat, the humidity, the rigid social code of the ex pat community, the racial segregation. She accepts that she wil have to stay until the end of her husband’s contract, but she sees her future in England.

But George sees his future in Trinidad, and has no intention of returning to England. He would happily spend his whole life in Trinidad. And so the relationship between Sabine and George, inevitably, deteriorates. They continue to love each other deeply, but they many never understand each other. 

And so Sabine is tied: she could leave Trinidad, but she could never leave George.

Meanwhile, the country is changing. And one day Sabine is caught up in a rally for a new political party, a party demanding an end to colonial rule and better things for the native people, as she rides her green bicycle to the market.

She starts to take an interest in the local politics, she argues with the other ex pat wives, and bonds grow between her and her family’s native maids. She will never love the country but she grows to love its people and hope for their future. And she writes letters to the new party’s leader, sharing her hopes, her fears, her concerns, her ideas. She knows that she will never be able to send them and so she stores them away.

Her husband though is her mirror image. He continues to love the country, but he will never be more than an ex pat and he will never understand, never even want to understand its people.

And years later George will find Sabine’s letters…

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a powerful, complex, rich story of a woman, a marriage and a country. There are many details, many emotions, and each and every one rings true.

Many questions are posed. Some are answered, but others are too difficult.

The story is non chronological – the ending is seen first, through George’s eyes and then the past is revealed from Sabine’s point of view. And that works well, focusing attention on events and relationships as they unfold without the distraction of wondering where they are leading.

The language and the imagery are dark and dazzling, slowly but surely painting complex and vivid pictures of personal and political histories.

And the story is compelling.

Awonderful book!