Wednesday, 22 May 2019
By producing a literary novel in which the main character and narrator, George Webb, is a private detective, Graham Swift with The Light of Day sets up a relationship to the genre of crime writing. He is, though, not aiming at satire or parody, but an exploration of knowing and understanding. Swift’s imagination and the sheer quality of his writing achieve what seems, at times, to be an extended prose poem. His technique is to drip-feed information to the reader, to provide an experience of gradually making sense after an initial ignorance, and narrative description is melded with his own brand of stream of consciousness recollection.
As with other Swift novels, a complex, elliptical structure hinges on a single day: the second anniversary of when Sarah Nash, one of George’s clients, murdered her husband. George, in love with Sarah and regularly visiting her in prison, has, at her request, agreed to put flowers on the grave. We accompany him as he does this. It is followed by a visit to Sarah and a journey back to his office that includes stopping at the street of Sarah’s former house, where the murder took place. Interspersed with this are chapters that incorporate a non-linear collage of memories consisting of his encounters with Sarah, and the day of the murder, when he was employed by her to follow, secretly, her husband, Bob, and his Croatian lover, Kristina, to Heathrow, from where Kristina will be returning to her own country. It is an agreed “concession” that Bob may accompany Kristina before the marriage resumes. George is to report back to Sarah that Kristina does indeed leave. This he confirms by phone, and we are told that Sarah is preparing to welcome Bob home by cooking their favourite meal. The “hook” is to find out what occurred for her to end up in prison, since the meal was unserved and instead she stabbed her husband to death.
George also thinks of other, older, memories: his ex-wife and their daughter; his parents and childhood; and events leading to his dismissal from the police. Through these accretions of memory, Swift skilfully portrays George’s life, to be offset against the extreme and catastrophic event and effects of the murder. The Swift trademark of the family secret also appears and involves George’s father.
Swift’s presentation of George’s voice is pitch-perfect, sympathetically adopting the persona of a basically decent man, though not without faults. His police background gives him resilience, but he also has the insecurity, sometimes present in the lower middle class, of being aware that he lacks a satisfactory level of formal education. He adopts self-improvement that takes the form of learning gourmet cooking, and on his prison visits he takes writing for Sarah, who had worked as a college lecturer, to correct. This has a psychological resonance with regard to their relationship, which is all the more powerful for not being analysed.
A detective is concerned with evidence, but Swift shows that this is a partial and inadequate summation of experience, and often we cannot account for the motivations of others beyond our own speculations. His perceptions have a downbeat numbness, but there is some hope in George’s commitment, bordering on devotion, to Sarah, which, given the little contact they had before the murder and her imprisonment, approaches the inexplicable and escapes explanations by the merely factual.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).
Friday, 10 May 2019
Review by Sally Shaw of "Thirteen Months of Sunrise" by Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
Thirteen Months Of Sunrise is the debut short story collection of Sudanese author, journalist and activist Rania Mamoun. The ten stories take the reader on a journey through Sudan, from the Nile Basin to Khartoum.
Mamoun’s writing evokes the gentle courage of her Sudanese characters, and an awareness of their strength, humour and the difficulties they encounter, in their day-to-day lives. Her beautiful, simplistic, yet at times mesmerising writing is threaded through with powerful emotions. In "Passing," the emotions of loss and regret are explored at the end of a life: “I fall silent, unable to respond. Or perhaps it’s the disappointment flowing through his words that leaves me mute.” The story is beautifully told, and explores the extremes of life and death: “My nieces and nephews race in and out, delighted with their new clothes, Eid sweets never leaving their mouths. They rush up to me, all abuzz.” This is a story that readers from all around the world will understand and form a bond with.
Humour, tension, apprehension among the passengers on a bus to Khartoum are all apparent in "Cities And Other Cities"; by the end of the journey, one passenger makes a discovery and forms an unusual if brief friendship. The simple beginning to this story has both a comic and profound meaning, and the reader too wants to take a seat on this bus: “At that point something evil awoke inside me: anger, hatred, the desire to kill. I slapped the fly as hard as I could, but it backfired and I hit myself square in the face. The fly slowly zig-zagged away before dropping from the air. I leant forward and took a long, hard look at it. I started to feel bad for the fly, especially as I’d also been caught in the crossfire. I thought it was dead, so scolded myself for killing it, and felt even worse.” By the end of the bus journey, the reader will have experienced the sights, sounds, and cultures of fellow travellers as the story arrives at its final destination.
The beautifully told "One-Room Sorrows" conveys, in a few words, the emotion of heartbreak and then, with a twist, a mother’s uncertainty. "Stray Steps" is a modern, real-life fairy-tale of wonder and hope in a world that at first glance appears desolate and cruel: “I don’t care what they do with my body, they don’t have much desire for it anyway.” At times, this story is almost too grim but then a spark of light - one of Mamoun's skills as a writer - encourages the reader to continue to the end, and be rewarded for persevering.
The collection is at times difficult to read, as it requires the reader to pause and consider the meanings. But the reward for reading this collection of ten stories is in meeting new people living in a country that holds stories that need to be told. Above all, the stories demonstrate how similar we all are.
About the reviewer
Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, and she is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by NewMag, and her story 'Cherry Scones' was published online by Ink Pantry. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.
Friday, 12 April 2019
Between The Lines is an unusual and charming love story between a lonely Victorian gentleman and a sad young girl living two centuries later. Dashby is uninterested in the female suitors in his life, while Beth has become jaded by the modern world of dating and casual relationships. She types a bleak text after soulless sex with her ex, although she doesn’t intend to send it, and when she wakes the next day she discovers it has been sent to an unknown recipient. It then mysteriously arrives in the form of a letter to Dashby. He replies to her by letter and she receives it as an email. The ensuing texts, emails and letters become a sort of time travel with both characters traversing the ages and communicating with the other.
The stories intertwine cleverly, and they start to sit side by side on the same page as each narrator tells their story in step with the other. In the 21st century Beth has some terrible sex, and in Dashby’s tale he is being pursued by a keen female admirer who, after he spills hot tea on himself, then insists on trying to dry the stain by rubbing him with a cloth.
The authors repeat this mirroring technique in each story until they merge and coalesce into one whole. This method of story-telling makes you think about how the real stuff of human existence, matters of the heart that is, never change over the centuries, and speak to the human condition of wanting to find a soul-mate and someone to love. I became immediately invested in both characters and was willing them to overcome the boundaries of time so that each character could have their fairy-tale ending. The writing is beautiful and the form skilful and innovative, and I recommend this original and inventive publication to any reader.
About the reviewer
Louise Brown is studying for her MA at the University of Leicester. She started writing in the summer of 2018, believing that it is never too late to start something new, and will have her poem 'The Deep Blue' published in Acumen in May 2019. She is writing poetry, short stories and is also working on the first draft of her novel. She lives on a farm in Rutland, and is kept busy working as an employment solicitor, while also writing, reading and looking after her three children.
Saturday, 30 March 2019
Disappearing Home is a poignant and beautifully-written novel told from the point of view of Robyn, a ten-year-old girl growing up in 1970s Liverpool. Home is the second floor of a tenement block known as Tommy Whites. Her parents send Robyn into a shop, and they expect her to steal everything on the list. This is the opening chapter of the novel; Robyn is more troubled by the dirty bag with the leather handles, worn and frayed down to the white wire that cuts into her hands. She does not want to steal but knows refusal is not an option.
Robyn is a girl caught between love and hate, fear and family secrets, taking a dangerous journey to find out who she is, confront her feelings of being an outsider and find answers to her questions. Robyn learns the realities of life through her experiences of her parents, school, a Saturday job, friends, a local disco, enemies, her Nan’s love and the increasing cruelty she experiences at home.
The novel follows Robyn through life-changing events, moving up into senior school and realising that people are not always who they appear to be. She begins to understand that her increasingly violent home life is not normal and sets out to try and find out why.
The voice of Robyn provides a truth and reality to the novel; her voice makes the reader laugh at times and then feel the pain and fear she and her mother encounter. The love of Robyn’s Nan is demonstrated beautifully when Nan shares her coat with Robyn: ‘When we have finished eating, both of us share the coat, one sleeve each. With the empty cake box, we shuffle over to the bin, laughing, rolled tightly together, like a Twix.’
Ultimately Robyn wants to wake-up not feeling scared – and that’s also what we, as readers, want for her too.
About the reviewer
Sally is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history and she is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph' has been published online by NEWMAG. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.
Monday, 25 March 2019
The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet by Sam Meekings is a historical fiction novel that weaves in and out of both the imagined life of Peter Gachet, as well as providing a reflective commentary on the author’s journey of discovering and writing about the subject of Van Gogh’s famous painting.
The novel focuses primarily on exploring the sadness captured in the painting, as well as attempting to trace its unique and elusive journey through the hands of investors and art collectors. Meekings skilfully portrays the inner turmoil of a man who felt out of place and out of time, and who consequently turned to the arts for comfort and escape. As the doctor explains at one point, he chose medicine since he ‘was not talented enough to be an artist,’ and this fascination with what art achieves, or tries to, is thoroughly examined throughout.
For Meekings, the painting is of personal significance, explaining how a chance encounter with a small print of it left him feeling like there was ‘a tiny marble rolling around the inside of my skull.’ In many ways, the novel seeks to explore the connection between art and society in a philosophical fashion, traipsing a fine line between art as representational, and art as a means of individual communication between subject and viewer. As readers, we, too, explore the afterlives of Dr. Gachet, both as a door into a somewhat imagined past, as well as finding an individual human bond between him and ourselves.
One slight drawback to the novel is the reminder the author continuously gives us of the fact that this is a piece of historical fiction and that there are plenty of incidents that cannot be written without some creative re-imagination. When approaching historical fiction, this is a given, and can take away from the sense of suspended belief a reader is accustomed to. Often, it feels as though the author is trying to convince us that the application of this creative licence is okay but perhaps that is not necessary at all. We are already drawn into the world of Peter from the moment he faces his biggest hurdle, after he grievously injures himself at the start of the novel. Ultimately, as readers, we are happily prepared to let the author use whatever facts are at his disposal to re-create an otherwise compelling story, and one in which a young man tries ‘to be anything but a boy cursed with a mangled ankle and a relentless shyness.’
The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet artfully captures a glimpse into the life of a man whose lined face continues to stir emotions in its modern day viewers. You may not find the answer to whatever that elusive element is in this book, but you will understand better why it is so easy to relate to Doctor Gachet’s sadness, so clearly visible through the medium of colour and oil on canvas.
About the reviewer Azra Limbada is an English PhD student, currently providing literacy intervention at an SEN school. She enjoys reading and writing women’s fiction in her spare time.
Charles Bennett's Cloud River explores the restorative values of spending time in the natural landscape. The title poem contains an invite:
'Imagine stepping into, stepping onto,
a river in the sky: like a journey down a length of weather-music -
something being said without words.
Visible for a moment, then slowly blowing away,
a fusion of water and air, I make
a brief causeway across the blue.'
These are quiet moments of stillness, of being alone in nature but the focus and engagement is external.
'Flatlander's Lullaby' makes effective use of consonance and assonance to give the poem an appropriately lyrical feel:
'Cruise my little skater across the pondback
skim the dark water towards dawnlight.'
Later, a 'Fen Raft Spider' sits on the
'flimsy meniscus in a clockwork dance,
until you read a beginning
in the quiet deep. And then -
you open the page of water and do not stop
until you have found out
what happens at the end.'
It's not the only poem to make a connection between nature and writing, exploring how close observation and the freedom of space allow creativity. These poems wear their craft lightly, drawing attention towards their images and messages so readers focus on what the poem is illustrating and conveying. Although all the poems are linked by theme, they vary in their rhythm, pacing and form so avoid the trap of similarity. Cloud River shows how quiet moments in the natural world open up a writer's mind to inspiration.
About the reviewer
Emma Lee’s recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015). The Significance of a Dress is forthcoming from Arachne. She co-edited Over Land, Over Sea (Five Leaves, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage Reviews and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.
Saturday, 23 March 2019
It’s 1962 Your Earliest Memory - the opening chapter of Andrew Cowan’s novel Your Fault. The sun is shining and Peter’s older self settles on it being August and he is aged two and two thirds. The second person narrative draws the reader into a young Peter’s perspective, while allowing glimpses of an adult blueprint.
The novel spans a period of eleven years, Peter a year older with each chapter. The story depicts life lived on a Corporation housing estate on the edge of a New Town. And his earliest memory is also the point that Peter’s story both begins and ends.
Peter’s mother has taken him and baby sister out; he does not want to go but is frightened of being abandoned: 'You bawl at your mother and wait for your future to reach you, a future you do not want but cannot prevent. This may be your inciting incident, the point at which your story begins. For now, let us suppose so. Here comes fury. Here comes a spanking.' Throughout the novel Peter strives to gain his mother’s affection, attention and approval, while his mother struggles with loneliness, being a wife, a mother and a young attractive woman drawn in by the attentions of male neighbours.
His father is older than his mother and works at the Works; his affection, when he expresses it, is towards Peter’s sister. Peter gains insight into his father’s past and present, through items found in a box and a brown leatherette file.
As the years pass, the reader witnesses major events in Peter’s life: going to school, Butlin’s, family upsets, childhood injuries, sibling rivalry, friendships, burgeoning sexual awareness. Beneath family life simmers unspoken truths, misunderstandings and hidden emotions, leaving Peter to work it all out.
About the reviewer
Sally is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history and she is also inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by NEWMAG. She worked as a nurse for thirty-three years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.
I have long been an advocate of creative writers becoming more involved in the fusty old world of academic writing, so it was with great pleasure that I saw that Jonathan Taylor had written Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840–1930, published by Palgrave Macmillan, knowing from experience that this would be an extremely well written book that flowed and was attractive to the reader.
I was not disappointed. Taking three of the subjects closest to my heart, Taylor writes with well-researched prowess about Laughter, Literature and Violence through the gaze of philosophers, academics, writers, Ancient Greeks, Romans, poets, politicians, soldiers, churchmen, the list is almost endless.
In Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930 we see the convoluted relationship between laughter, violence, war, horror and death. This through an inventive line of enquiry via philosophy and politics, and then in a study of four texts, by Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Gosse, Wyndham Lewis and Katherine Mansfield - four amazingly diverse and complicated characters who are brought to life by Taylor. We learn that laughter and violence are forever interlinked, from the pratfall to the explosion of guffaws at a friend’s demise. We can’t help ourselves and Taylor carefully explains why.
We investigate a founding comic text, The Pickwick Papers, and how Schadenfreude intrudes into the English language and changes comic writing for ever. Schadenfreude is such an intense feeling that we had to invent (or import) a word for it.
Taylor does not write above his audience. He looks them straight in the eye and invites them to take part in the conversation. He engages the reader and doesn’t try to point score or write to an intellectual elite. Not for him pretentious authority but an engaging narrative wordcraft that wants us, the reader, to be part of his discussion and discovery. This is the beauty of having a gifted creative writer producing an academic text. It is readable and accessible.
The book is painstakingly researched over five years with a plethora of footnotes asking us to read further into his enquiries. The depth and richness of his research reflects his love for the subject. This is a text for the academic to help him or her to interrogate and to investigate and a book for the interested party, who enjoys the subject. Both are well served. It is not too academic to put off the casual reader, yet it has enough gravitas to educate and intrigue.
The book ended and I wanted to know more. I wanted to plunge into this strange world where we laugh in the face of violence. Where sadness is disabused by jokes. Where all are equal, and equally absurd, especially the man who slips on the floor.
About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstone's bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years. He has always loved books and reading.
Friday, 1 March 2019
As Michael Attenborough, CBE, says in the Foreword to this slim volume, ‘our basic human right to communicate with one another lies at the centre of what humanizes and civilizes us.’ The Family Matters project in Leicester sought to facilitate this goal by promoting previously unpublished writers and stripping away barriers to communication.
In a series of workshops, around twenty local participants were encouraged by studying the work of established writers, sharing writing tips and practising techniques to hone their skills. The result is a colourful mix of short stories and poems pulled together through the common link of family – a topic which means such different things to all of us. Here it has been tackled in a variety of ways – from what’s putting a daughter off her food to the trials and tribulations of a family of bricks!
Collaborative efforts can sometimes result in an ill-matched hotch-potch but this one reads as a cohesive whole. Despite the inexperience of these new voices, what strikes me is their confidence and enthusiasm to bring their chosen subject matter to life on the page. I am equally impressed by the colloquial tone which runs throughout. Nothing tries too hard but is delivered with a light touch which still pays meticulous attention to craft and detail.
These writers have clearly been guided by skilful hands and the joy of communicating really shines through in every contribution. Here’s hoping this experience will give them the encouragement they need to expand and develop their talents even further.
About the Reviewer
Hilary Hares lives in Farnham, Surrey, and spent nearly thirty years using the power of words to raise money for charity. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Manchester Metropolitan University and her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon, is sold in support of Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care.