The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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Anna O’Donnell is a little girl who survives without eating- a miracle of Catholics faith. Emma Donoghue’s historical novel The Wonder is inspired by the strange phenomenon of the Fasting Girls, recurrent cases of women claiming to live with no nourishment in the 16th to 20th centuries.

Lib Wright, a serious and brisk nurse, is sent to rural Ireland to supervise Anna at the request of a local committee. Deeply superstitious and staunchly religious, the community is deeply vested in the truth of Anna’s state. Having been blighted by the Irish potato famine, Anna is a beacon of hope amongst a hard, hungry subsistence.

Trained by the famous Florence Nightingale at the Crimea war, Lib’s starched, reasoned mind provides a straightforward narrative that pleasingly contrasts with the oddness and unreality of the events and landscape around her. Suspicion and doubt creep into to Lib’s certainties as she encounters Anna’s spirituality and struggles to get to the bottom on the matter. Is she really sustained by god? Is she secretly eating? And if so, who is feeding her?

I was drawn into this tale of a mystical, isolated community where fairies lead you astray into peat bogs or doctrinal interpretation determines life and death. The Wonder is tragic, terrifyingly strange, and damning of religion, yet I am left oddly charmed by Donoghue’s weird historical wormhole.

Read: When you’re feeling hungry.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

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If Dark Places and Gone Girl were sisters, the latter would be glossy haired head cheerleader, hiding complexity beneath an artful facade. Dark Places would be her angry rebel twin with grubby clothes and grungy shoes, all attitude and abrasiveness. Not that I should be comparing but it’s hard not to when Dark Places is Flynn’s forerunner.

Libby Day is a broke, damaged 30-something, living off the notoriety of being the only survivor of her family’s massacre. Accepted logic is that her brother Ben was the perpetrator, currently behind bars. When she is approached by members of a true crime fan club, she is forced (by unpaid bills) to delve deeper into her past to satisfy their curiosity- and hers.

For me, this is not a novel about murder or culpability- the thing that jumps out at me most is the sheer grind of poverty. Lack of money motivates virtually all of the characters. This depressing poverty creates a malaise in their rural community, a breeding ground for dispossessed lives and dark corners like it’s seedy dive bars, streetwalker zones, and homeless drug dens.

You can see the inception of Gone Girl here: women with a hidden life, knife-edge conversations, a dark social underbelly. It’s flimsier than Gone Girl- less tightly written, not as solidly constructed, going for the easy shocks. Almost because of this, it’s loose, raw quality makes for gripping reading as you can feel the sordidness creeping off the page.

Read: Before you have a bath to scrub the dirt from your skin

More Than This by Patrick Ness

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What would you do if you woke up in a coffin in a post-apocalyptic version of your home? Naked. Pretty scary, hey?

This is what happens to Seth in More Than This. His family gone, he fends for himself with fellow teenagers Regine and Tomasz. All he can remember is his last moments drowning as part of a suicide attempt. Together they run around town evading The Driver, a futuristic bad guy in a motorcycle helmet determined to put them back to sleep. They puzzle over a series of unknowns: what has happened to them? And the wider world? Why do they have transmitters embedded into their skulls?

This has a young adult feel to it, in a good way. Maybe it is a YA book? The genre has really led in terms of accessible science-fiction. Ness has created something that is funny, characterful and current. For something bizarre, it kept me gripped until the end with an original antagonist and some gratifying action scenes.

The science ‘hook’ itself is strong and scarily plausible. What I don’t understand is the conclusion that the characters work towards, making the ending a slight anticlimax. Without any spoilers, I’ll just say the future looks pretty bleak whatever the choices they make so I’m not sure where the optimism or resolution offered comes from.

Read: to formulate an apocalypse survival plan.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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Books within books within books. Sometimes I’m skeptical of such literary devices- the self-consciousness can distract at the expense of the narrative. Look how clever and well-read I am! But done well, they serve to create a complex, layered narrative, with all the satisfaction of slotting puzzle pieces into place.

Thankfully, The Thirteenth Tale is the latter- I devoured it in a single sitting. Quiet Margaret Lea lives a half-life; smothered in grief, sneaking small pleasures by writing biographies and working in her father’s bookshop. She adores stories. One day she gets a letter from famous, mysterious and prolific author Vida Winter requesting her services as a biographer.

Vida’s story takes Margaret to Angelfield, the dilapidated stately home of the Angelfield family. Uneasy and unusual, she meets the characters of Vida’s past to discover who she really is: Struggling housekeeper Missus, stern governess Hester, obsessive and strange Charles, beautiful but wilful Isabelle and her read-headed twins Emmeline and Adeline.

Setterfield borrows heavily and obviously from her source material- the plain governess of Jane Eyre, the tragic, complicated incestuousness of Wuthering Heights, the suspense and evil of The Turn of the Screw. Heavily Gothic (an evil twin, come on) with the traditional emphasis on plot of early 20th century literature, it is arguably a little old school but it is no less enjoyable for it.

Read: On a cold winter’s afternoon with a mug of hot tea to keep the chills away.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Count Alexander Rostov is an aristocratic Russian man-of-leisure. He duels, downs brandy and charms all- until he is sentenced to house arrest by the newly formed Communist government for writing seditious poetry. His house is the Hotel Metropol and there he remains for the next forty years.

Limited scope you say? No. There is lovely contrast between the inner life of the hotel and the macro-movements of the outside world. You can feel the influence of the Russian Revolution even in the ballrooms. Enough characters enter and leave so as to make this a compelling microcosm. The hotel itself is a splendid setting- the literary equivalent of a Wes Anderson film, all nostalgic colouring, silver teaspoons and endless stairways.

This would have worked better as a short story- the setting is wonderful, Rostov is an interesting, idiosyncratic character but not enough happens to justify the length. It can’t quite decide what it is- a fanciful fairytale? Social commentary? A comedy of manners? As a whole it is too sentimental and artful for my taste. The chapters of asides and drawing room manners grow a bit annoying, no matter how nicely written.

Constructed it may be, it is also the most meticulous literary dolls house and would certainly appeal to a less cynical reader.

Read: If you feel whimsical

 

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne du Maurier does a great line in torturous, dark love affairs set on the Cornish cost. I’ve basically summarised most of her books right there. Saying that, My Cousin Rachel is my favourite of them.

Philip is the young cousin and heir of Cornish landowner Ambrose. Together they manage the beloved family estate in Cornwall, sharing a life of duty and diligence. Ambrose’s failing health forces him to Italian climes where he meets and marries distant relative Rachel but dies from a mysterious illness not long afterwards. The alluring Rachel (who may or may not have been involved in foul play) comes to England to meet Philip.

Self-contained, it is set within the estate, drawing rooms, gardens, parishes and objects. The novel has a limited cast and sphere. We see little of Italy or the wider world, limited only to Philip’s narrow vision. Philip is young and intense, heady with emotion. His moods are mercurial, forcing you to remember the possibility of unrealiable narration. This uncertainty is key- it’s not a fun book if you know for sure Rachel is a femme fatale or an innocent woman.

Every time I read it, I find new shades and nuances, shifting with my mood and perspective. This is what makes it du Maurier’s best work for me- the swirling ambiguity and the contrast between dramatic tragedy and light drawing room drama combining to create a beautiful whole.

Read: If you’re in the mood for mind games

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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Children are so alien. It wasn’t long ago that I was a child but I cannot understand what goes on in their minds. This is partly why We Need To Talk About Kevin scares me so much.

It’s already had the full Hollywood treatment (with screen queen Tilda Swindon, no less) so I’m pretty late to the party and know the plot. Down-and-out Eva writes letters to her husband, detailing their life together, their domestic arrangements, their children. All up until the point their son Kevin stages a notorious mass school killing.

It’s a fascinating story of where it all went wrong. Eva herself is a spiky, difficult characters with her stylised self-image and pretentious conceits. These almost do the job of conveying character too well as they bog down the text and irritate with their twisting complexity and intellectualism. Ultimately though no one deserves a psychopath child no matter how annoying the narrator.

This book is an exploration of parenting, responsibility, the age old nature/nurture debate, but with the adrenaline-spiking feel of a thriller. This may be once instance where a book’s slow start works in its favour. The ponderous theorising of early chapters gives longer to ponder the scenarios and shades, making the ultimate denouement all the more chilling.

Read: If you’re thinking about having kids…

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

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Reading this book, I imagine warm browns, bleached blue and seventies orange. It has a faded, melancholy feel to it that captures a very specific moment in time, like a Polaroid or room in a grandmother’s house. It’s a small and self-contained book- a summer of events. But it is special at the same time.

A mother and daughter live on the genteel edge of an American Rust Belt town. Isabelle, a respectable, prim secretary in the office of a mill, is simmering with fury at adolescent daughter Amy. Amy is dreamy and intense, desperate for meaning and experiences in the wider world.

Stroud fuses together the minutiae of he domestic- Amy currently consigned to cooking dinner every night in penance- but also broader universal truths. It’s also about friendships, teenage sexuality, economic decline and class.

Similarly, Stroud also evokes great feeling through tiny actions or details. I cringe with pity at Isabelle’s pretensions of respectability like her Readers Digest obsession or hours spent making her boss dessert. I rail at Amy’s naivety around men and cliched teenage rebellions. It is  their relationship, of love mingled with deep disdain and anger with all those nuances, that is the powerful core of this domestic drama.

Read: When your mum gets under your skin

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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My book of 2017 so far. A bold claim considering we’ve still got five months of the year to go. Still, I find it hard to think I’ll pick up a contemporary novel as moving, original, and powerful between now and Christmas. And if Obama agrees with me, I must be right.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, born a slave on a Georgian cotton plantation, who follows in the footsteps of her runaway mother. Alongside her accomplice Cesar, she escapes and begins her journey towards freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Now, for those unfamiliar with US history I feel like I have to make the point that the Underground Railroad was a metaphorical route of safe houses and passage where slaves were smuggled out of the South. But in Whitehead’s book, it is an actual, powerful, gleaming, mechanical railroad.

I don’t usually buy into magic realism, but the slight unreality serves to bring home how alien and appalling the reality was. Cora travels through various states, seeing the different forms of oppression and how people adapt and survive. It is her personal journey, but it is also a collective journey, a shared American history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It is powerfully emotional, without dipping into sentimental cliche. It is unflinching in turning its gaze to uncomfortable truths, but not gratuitous. This difficult balancing act means Cora and her story will stay with me long after her journey passes out of sight.

Read: On Barack Obama’s personal recommendation.

 

What a Carve Up! By Jonathan Coe

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What a Carve Up! is like having a weird dream- spooky coincidences, off-kilter cinematic scenes, and an absolutely inability to determine the course of frantic action.

Novelist Micheal Owen has been hired by a mad aunt to write a biography is the despicable upper-class Winshaws. In the midst of the Thatcher years, each of the family members is up to their elbows in shady dealings across multiple spheres; there is the poisonous columnist, the arms dealer, the no-morals politician trying to sell off the NHS, and so on. As Owen digs deeper into their part, startling coincidences emerge.

It is inventive political and social satire, stuffed with cultural reference to show place and time. Partly told through letters, different charters, film scripts, diaries- whatever the medium, it’s very funny. Coe mercilessly captures ridiculousness of ludicrous social situations and pretentious characters, and send them up in style.

The disparate threads and styles have an overall effect of a crazy patchwork quilt or a magic eye picture. For some people, its complexity and layering comes together as a coherent, rollicking read but I’m left totally bamboozled by the ending. This is exactly why it reminds me of a dream; funny, nonsensical, and uncomfortably disorienting at the same time. I couldn’t even tell you if I enjoyed it or not!

Read: For a literary version of Spitting Image or Private Eye