Book Review: Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott

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‘If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her…I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before.’

Meet Alex Peterson – loner, Oxford graduate, successful lawyer, and married to Rachel, a vivacious English graduate from the same college. Alex is that person ‘looking on groups from the outside….that is how [he] felt for most of [his] life…On the edge of things, apart from people, not wanting to be among them.’ One summer night, after a dinner at their old college, Rachel is found on the grounds, brutally murdered. At first, with ‘stories circulating in the room which were not [his] own’, the police suspect Alex, but he is soon cleared by a witness – Harry, Rachel’s old tutor at Oxford – and so the mystery of Rachel’s death remains a gaping hole.

What was Rachel doing out by the lake where she was killed? Why has Harry provided him with an alibi? Who is that mysterious shadowed figure seen fleeing the scene?

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Alex is trapped in his grief and that winter, with an invitation from Harry, he returns to Oxford to try and find out what happened to Rachel. Harry sits Alex down and over the course of the novel he slowly reveals an interconnected chain of actions and decisions made years before, back in Alex and Rachel’s undergraduate years, that may have led to the murder at the centre of the narrative. And so we are transported back to 1990s Oxford where piece by piece, Rachel’s identity is put together. Moving back and forth to various times and places, and pierced with flashbacks, this is a layered text where, in a classic case of unreliable narrator, we can never really be sure if we can trust what Alex is telling us, or if what Harry is telling Alex is the whole truth.

I can completely understand why this book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ as it’s also a story of secret cliques and magnetically alluring ringleaders. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, giving you a true sense of what Oxford is. The prose is so precise, the language so luscious, and there’s something about the way the words just trip off your tongue (I had to read it our loud at times because it was so beautiful) that make this book a remarkably accomplished debut.

The ending, however, was wanting – I was waiting for a twist that never came and it ended rather speculatively. It would have been a more satisfying read if we were given something more, but perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the book was built up to be a thriller when in actual fact it’s a contemplation on grief and uncertainty. The ending doesn’t detract from the fact that the novel is immersive, is truly a pleasure to read and is one of those rare achievements that is a literary mystery.

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Book Review: The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock

I’ve always been fascinated by the practices and the thinking behind religious cults. By how their (often flawed) logic frequently leads to broken families and disillusionment, which is why I picked up Peter Rock’s new book, ‘The Shelter Cycle’.

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The story centres around The Church Universal and Triumphant (TCUT), a religious group based in the Montana area that prepared for the End of the World in the late 80s. They believed the world would end in the spring of 1990 and so built underground shelters to house the members of their community. The group disbanded when the world (obviously) did not end, its members losing their faith when they had to go back to the same problems (and large debts incurred through the building of these bunkers) they had thought they’d be leaving behind.

The novel opens with the reader being told that a 9 year old girl has gone missing from her backyard – her little sister, also out in the backyard, was not taken. Their neighbour, Wells, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, is out searching for the missing girl. Also out searching is Francine, Wells’s heavily pregnant wife who used to belong to TCUT when she was a child. Colville, Francine’s childhood friend mysteriously shows up on their doorstep, claiming he is there to help find the girl and that a newspaper article detailing her disappearance is one of the many ‘signs’ that lead him to Francine. Reconnecting with Colville allows many of Francine’s childhood memories to come to the surface so she feels compelled to write them down – sections of which are interspersed through the novel –  and also to secretly revisit the site of the bunkers.

Colville’s secret surveillance of Francine’s house, his subsequent journey to the Montana site of the shelters (laced with touches of magical realism, or indeed hallucinations), along with other sneaky behaviour leads us to believe that he has a plan – though what this plan is remains mysterious right up until the end – and to be honest, even then I wasn’t really sure what his intent was.

The beginning of this novel is highly enjoyable – the sinister mysteriousness of a stranger appearing on the doorstep made it very atmospheric (has a feeling of eerie unease throughout), and the desire to understand Colville’s motives will keep you going.

And so comes my very big BUT: this book feels unfinished and not properly thought out. I didn’t feel that I necessarily understood what this cult was fully about after having read this story. This is partly because no explanations are given when using cult-specific terminology so it can be quite confusing at times, and whether it’s a case that I completely did not understand it, but I felt that the novel was building up to a twist/climax that never came. It’s as if it almost got there and then receded. A very unsatisfactory ending that made me feel all that reading was for nothing.

Book Review: The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

It starts with a simple phone call – Ian and his wife, Em, are invited to come up to the country to spend a long weekend with Ollie (Ian’s best friend from university) and his wife, Daisy. What do you need to know about these two couples?  Well, according to Ian:

‘The various ways in which we’re not like Ollie and Daisy is a conversation we often have. Indeed, we’ve spent far more time talking about them than in their presence. The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkestone; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; […] golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.’

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Meet Ian, the narrator of this quietly chilling novel who wants to tell you what happened over the course of this long bank holiday weekend up at Badingley (the farm house).

‘As to the events of August, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent – expects to be stopped going through customs even when he has nothing to declare. But what happened that weekend would surely have happened anyway. It’s not like I’m a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you. I’m trying to tell the story, that’s all – not to unburden myself or extenuate some offence but to set things straight.’

And so we begin to hear what transpired over the last weekend of August. Sandwiched between tales of Ollie, Ian and Daisy’s time together at university (Ollie ‘stole’ Daisy from Ian), we are offered glimpses into the mechanics of friendship and rivalry, love and lust, money and class. A weekend meant to be fun and relaxing, is fused with a palpable tension when old rivalries resurface and pulse along to build up to a startling conclusion.

What needs to be made clear is that this is very much Ian’s version of events and as he’s so very honest about wanting to be honest and perhaps not remembering certain things as they happened, he very skilfully lures the reader over to his side.

‘My memory’s pretty good on the whole…And yet Badingley, which ought to be etched on my soul, slips away at times – or refuses to come into focus, like something wrapped in tissue and shut away in a drawer. Did Ollie really say this or Daisy that? I remember a mass of things but nothing distinctly.’

What works in Ian’s favour is that through his recounting of the events that shaped his and Ollie’s friendship back in university, the reader finds it very easy to dislike Ollie. But as the narrative progresses, we slowly begin to realise that things aren’t quite what they seem. Ian slowly emerges into your classic unreliable narrator, leaving the reader constantly weary and on edge. There is a chilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel, and it’s ultimately the desire to know what exactly it is that happened over this specific weekend that keeps you going. This is a highly atmospheric and compelling novel that deserves to be read in all its uncomfortable glory. And watch the miniseries if you can (featured on ITV last year, starring Rupert Penry-Jones) – although good, it’s not as subtle as the book.

 

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Book Review: Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

‘Alys, Always’, a dedication on the opening page of Laurence Kyte’s new novel. Alys is the name of the bestselling novelist’s wife. The opening of this novel finds us at the scene of a car accident. Alys is in the overturned car when a stranger finds her and keeps her company ’til the ambulance shows up. We later learn that Alys doesn’t make it. This book is about that stranger; Frances.

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Frances is an easily forgettable person. She works on a newspaper, proofing and editing other people’s book reviews, doesn’t have much of a life and blends very nicely into the background:

‘Childhood just happened to me, as I suppose it happens to most people. At the time, I suppose it seemed an endless succession of fears and dreams and secrets, but from this distance it looks as dull as the life I’ve gone on to lead.

But when the police call upon her to provide closure for Alys’s family (Laurence and their two grown up children) by telling them what her last words and thoughts were, an opportunity for a change in both her personal and professional circumstances arises. Sitting on that roadside speaking to Alys, Frances determines many things:

‘It seems strange that I know little more about her than the automatic associations that come with a certain sort of voice, and turn of phrase, and make of car…that moment in the woods when I briefly heard her voice and knew it, knew almost everything about her that mattered. The ease and comfort and significance of her life.’

And so she starts to very subtly weave herself into the Kyte’s lives and we begin to see what lies beneath her dull exterior: ‘In general, I’m content for them to think I’m dull. It’s safer that way.’ Frances is that Judy Dench character in Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’, so for that reason I didn’t find this to be highly original. And also, I found her to be completely unlikable, though her cunning is very quietly chilling.

Is this a psychological thriller like the cover claims it is? In a word, no. I think it’s too subtle to be successfully classed as a thriller. Though Harriet Lane writes well and I’d probably read anything else she may write in the future (this is her debut novel), I found this story to be quite predictable. There definitely was something that kept me reading, a desire to know where the tale was going, but ultimately, I expected a twist in the end that did not come and with hindsight, feel that you can see what the truth is from a mile off.

The Quarter Life Crisis: How should a young woman live now?; a Contemplation.

I often wonder if everyone else is going through their 20s like I am. In a fog of confusion, laced with a hope that one day soon your life will change into one of modern fairy tales: a deliciously quirky, non-traditional happily ever after. The internet is filled with these made up lists of ways to live a happy and fulfilled life, yet I wonder how many of us actually achieve anything close to that. We still feel like we’re waiting for our ‘real’ life to begin. Someone failed to remind us that it had indeed started 27* years ago (*insert your own age as appropriate). What’s funny (or maybe even not so funny) is that we’re not quite able to put a finger onto what it is we do want, all we know is that it isn’t ‘this’.

TWELVE by Vanessa Jones

TWELVE by Vanessa Jones

I stumbled upon Vanessa Jones’s book, ‘Twelve’, in my favourite charity bookstore, and it was the tag line that instantly caught my eye: ‘How should a young woman live now?‘ This is something that’s currently being discussed in the media through the publication of Sheila Heti’s ‘How Should a Person Be?’ and also through that TV show, ‘Girls’. Though the book is over 10 years old and could be described as being no longer relevant, I was curious to see how much life has changed for young women (actually, young people in general) since, if indeed it has at all. I found that it hasn’t.

Lily is the central character of ‘Twelve’, leading a life that she needs ‘constant respite from’. Her cyclical life of weekend-waiting depicts a restlessness that we all have, or at least I think we have. It is insatiable. It’s as though we were promised something, a multi-tasking life where you can have it all; a life that has actually turned out to be unattainable.

All from my Pinterest

All from my Pinterest

I believe this period of unrest in your 20s, where you’re plagued by inaction and a lack of motivation, is called a Quarter Life Crisis. Or just laziness. Whichever term suits you best.

This would be me in the film. And I'd be wearing this dress throughout. Source: justjared.com

This would be me in the film. And I’d be wearing this dress throughout.
Source: justjared.com

I panic about my age more often than I should or is probably healthy. With the threat of 30 looming over me like a baby buggy armed with a breast pump, at this point in my life, most of my conversations are about this point in my life. In the movie version of my life I’d be immaculately turned out at all times, have all my sh*t sorted out, live in an amazing apartment that I own (despite working in a creative industry where you’re supposed to be grateful to work for a pittance of a ‘salary’), with a wonderfully intelligent boyfriend who just happens to look like a model, and a group of hilarious friends that would make even Carrie Bradshaw squirm with envy. And I’d be played by Kerry Washington. Naturally.

The reality is pretty much the opposite of the above. I have kinda funny friends; but that’s about it. So, like Lily and her friends Josh, Edward and Mary, I live in a state of perpetual confusion. Lily points out that we are at that stage of our lives when ‘we have almost completely let go of our dreams into the i-wish abyss. But not quite. Another year perhaps, two? At most five.’ There’s still this tiny window of hope that our dreams may miraculously come true, but it’s a very small window that reduces in size with each passing year.

This book is about nothing. Yet at the same time it’s about everything. About all those seemingly pointless but nevertheless heavy thoughts that are rooted in your mind. Vanessa Jones is very gifted at articulating the things those of us in our late 20s feel but have difficulty vocalising. For example, in the book, after much agonising, Lily and Josh decide to go to a house party, with Lily quickly admitting that ‘Parties and clubs and bars, they’re always incredibly exciting in advance, and such a good idea afterwards. But while you’re actually there? Somehow they make coming home such a relief.’

The truth of this remark is almost blinding. I’ve reached that age where going out clubbing is about as enjoyable as a pap smear yet I convince myself to do it again out of a feeling of obligation because these are things that ‘young people’ do: grind up against strangers in a dark, sweaty room. You allow yourself to briefly forget how tedious it was the last time and get yourself excited about the potential of the evening only to find yourself inevitably sighing with relief when you eventually make it back to your bed. It dawns on Mary that perhaps she’s ‘never been in the mood. Perhaps it has all just been an effort of will.’ Lily rightfully says: ‘It’s so solitary this. It’s not socialising at all.’

A contemplation on life in your 20s would not be complete without a mention of our love lives:

I have what most people have, the reason most people wish for love but which is, ironically, love’s biggest barrier: a longing to get, via somebody else, a different life.’

Sorry to be a mood-killer, but this notion of love being a ticket to a different life is what most people secretly hope for, even if they never say it. We place our happiness in someone else’s lap hoping they’ll look after it on our behalf. Feed it, water it when necessary. Take it out for walks on occasion. Maybe even have sex with it.

But before we get to the whole ‘love’ part, there is the self-induced punishment that is called ‘dating’. My God. Is it possible to be this jaded? We just go through the motions, and it’s all about tactics, strategies and risk; a business proposal. Lily’s friend Edward and his girlfriend Anna, take it in turns to chase one another, to be the interested party; reaffirming that old adage: ‘As soon as I haven’t got you, I want you, as soon as I have you, I can no longer desire you’.

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Lily goes on a date with a guy called Colin who runs after her in a train station and gives her a piece of paper with his number on it. Initially she’s flattered, but doesn’t want to call him. But then she thinks, what would be the point of this incident if, after being asked what happened next, she replied with ‘Nothing’? Life isn’t simply handed to us, ‘memories are things you have to earn.’ So when Lilly decides to ‘earn’ this memory, she goes on a date with Colin and has a perfectly good time with him. But then two weeks pass by and she doesn’t hear from him at all. In true fashion:

‘for those two weeks I was not worth knowing. If I was pretty, it was only from afar; if I was interesting , it didn’t extend beyond an afternoon; if I was funny, not funny enough; if I was kind, so what? None of these things merited more than just one kiss from Colin.’

It’s funny how someone we don’t even know that well can define the parameters within which we define ourselves. We make them ‘[custodians of our personalities]’. But then Lily, like most people her/our age is an over-thinker. And over-thinking soon turns into negativity. This negativity tends to disappear as soon as the phone rings again, and we tend to start playing our part, again, the role we’ve always played in this plot. We go through the motions, dissatisfied because we realise that what used to keep us content when we were younger, no longer does the trick: ‘Luxury turns right turns given turns necessity. When I was younger I could have moved in with someone who lived in a barrel of water, but I have definite needs now, definite edges.’ We make our excuses and exit the stage, back to looking for another small part in what will likely be the same play. This is romance today.

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

And, of course, there’s also work. Stuck in an office job where she clock-watches in anticipation of the weekend, Lily comes to learn that the weekend is equally as disappointing as the week because it never amounts to anything: ‘The weekend becomes the week again. The excitement never manifests.’ Like her, we watch as our general joie de vivre is sucked out of us with each passing minute of the office clock. Discussing budgets and margins we betray the ambition of our youth and without realising, slowly switch from being anti-establishment and referring to the company as ‘they’ to conforming and referring to them as ‘we’ and their actions as ‘our’. They say it’s called growing up.

Tired of this, Lily’s friend Mary decides to spend time outside of the city, at a dead relative’s barn-house, and wonders if we don’t all live in London*(insert NY, LA, Paris or any other major metropolis that is crowdedly lonely) because we don’t have the imagination not to. Eek!, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of laziness. Perhaps Big City dreams are all cliche and no substance now? Or worse still, we’re too lazy to create that substance; it’s more work than we’d anticipated.

The emptiness of City Life

The emptiness of City Life

So you’d be forgiven for thinking that those experiencing a Quarter Life Crisis are just miserable, self-absorbed and annoying, so introverted and irritatingly analytical of all life’s disappointments and failings. Josh reprimands Lily, wanting to make her see that she is, perhaps, the biggest obstacle to her own happiness:

‘But you spend your whole time looking for something new to excite you without ever building on what you’ve got. You want answers when you don’t even know what the question is. You’re after an easy fix.’

– Is this what is essentially wrong with us? Are we searching for something that doesn’t exist? Something that has been created through our mindlessly conscious absorption of popular culture, an amalgamation of untruths? There are no answers in ‘Twelve’ in the same way that there are no answers in life. I don’t mean to put an overtly negative spin on things, but maybe these days we’re too distracted to be happy. Or perhaps we have too much information to be happy. The more we know, the less we are satisfied. As they say, ignorance is bliss. If you were to refute this and say that knowledge only fuels our imagination, and that we are only limited by this imagination, well, Josh will tell you: ‘Some people say that the human imagination is limitless, but try conceiving a colour that doesn’t exist and you’ll see how wrong they are.’ (I’ve tried this and, yes, it is indeed impossible). I’m surprised that Vanessa Jones isn’t more of a household name as her articulation of obscure truths is often mesmerising in this book:

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So do I recommend you read ‘Twelve’? Yes, if only to know that you are not alone in your constant dissatisfaction and that your obsessive questioning of all this meaninglessness is shared. ‘Then, in the end, all times become ‘that time’, one day this time will be no more important than that time is now.’ – In the end, none of this matters. As with everything, time allows these moments of seeming significance to fade into obscure insignificance: ‘But perhaps that’s what she’s learnt about the end, it’s meaningless until you’ve got there. And sometimes even then.’ And perhaps, like this book suggests, for people like me, it’s a process of elimination. A long process that will eventually result in the right course. So maybe we should all just try to be insanely happy in the mean time. Like this girl:

Source: www.pickthebrain.com

Source: http://www.pickthebrain.com
Edited by 1shelflife.wordpress.com

Failing that:

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Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Meet Paul Lohman; he is your narrator. He has arranged to have dinner at a posh (and overpriced) restaurant in Amsterdam along with his wife, Claire, his sister-in-law Babette, and her husband Serge; Paul’s older brother (a shoe-in to be the next Prime Minister of Holland) whom he detests. It’s all very civilised, except they’re not there to exchange niceties and the banalities of life. Each couple has a 15-year-old son who, together, have committed a horrific crime that was caught on camera and is now being looped on the evening news. The nation is both horrified and outraged and the images are too grainy to be able to identify the culprits. But they’re not too grainy for the Lohmans: Paul recognises his son Michel, and Serge, his son Rick. They need to act fast.

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This book is very subtly shocking. It’s not dramatic, yet in a way it is. As the cover states, it shows how far people will go to protect their loved ones, and through this, we learn about the nature of evil, about nature verses nurture and we examine to what extent we can blame parents for the misdeeds of their children. I’m not surprised if you’re right now thinking that’s sooo ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, but it’s actually not. Although I’ll admit to buying it because I thought it would indeed be another Shriver type book (I’m all over that kinda sh*t as you can see in my review of ‘The Good Father’).

The Dinner Courses

The Dinner Courses

The book is split into the five tedious and overtly fussy courses at this pretentious restaurant: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, digestif. I thought Koch did a tremendous job capturing the pomp of the restaurant, and the ridiculousness of the Head waiter, and food is indeed central to the structure of the story.

Through his disdain of all the arrogance and pretention of this restaurant and his assessment of his brother and his wife, Paul gets you on his side from the get go. But then he slowly appears to unravel the horrifying layers, all the way down to the kernel of shocking truth. As the narrative progresses we learn of new secrets and we begin to question our alliance with Paul. You question everything he has told you until now, whether he really is in a position to pass moral judgement.

The Dinner

To go into further detail would spoil ‘The Dinner’ for those of you who are yet to read it so all I’ll say is that this book examines the effects of violence and what extent people will go to protect those they love.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Are our obligations only meant for our families, or do they extend to the wider good of humanity? This book also poses some very interesting questions about the nature of victimhood and that of the perpetrator, and also of course, about parenthood. The one small negative I have that I can actually tell you about is that the book was initially written in Dutch and has been translated into English. This was quite obvious to me in the beginning as the text felt a bit odd and stilted, but by the second and third chapters it had evened out and read a lot more evenly.

This is definitely the kind of book to be discussed at length, a book that can be quite divisive, and will help you learn a lot about your friends by the way in which they respond to the questions that arise. It is a novel that ends in a way that troubled me and has stayed with me for the past week since I’ve finished it. Read it so we can talk about it. If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts on the ending?? How would you react if these were your children in trouble?

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New York Times 10 Best Books of 2012….meh

So I wasn’t blown away by this list if I’m honest. I’m not eager to buy any of these titles though I do own Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’ (it was a free book acquired during an internship; can’t say no to a free book). The only books from this year that I’m eager to read are ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach and ‘This Is How You Lose Her’ by Junot Diaz. What have been your favourite books of this year (if any)? Or like me, do you find that you read random and sometimes obscure books from any time period?

Book Review: Care of Wooden Floors – Will Wiles

Oskar has OCD. A severe case of OCD. He is a successful composer living in an unnamed Eastern European city with his two cats and his wife. Right now he is in LA in the midst of a divorce, entrusting his old university friend to look after his pristine apartment, feed the cats, and LOOK AFTER THE WOODEN FLOORS. This book is about that friend; the unnamed English narrator.

It appears that Oskar has left his apartment in the hands of someone he doesn’t have faith in, ‘mapping out disaster scenarios in his mind and writing notes to cover the possibilities.’ He seriously does leave lengthy, instructive notes EVERYWHERE, even in the most unexpected of places, like amongst a stash of porn underneath his bed (You should respect my privacy. But I expected you to poke about a bit. See: we are all human. Clean up after yourself. Oskar). And it is through these notes and the actual apartment itself that you learn so much about Oskar; a man who values precision and order:

‘People say that it’s difficult, disorderly, to live with cats. I have never found them troublesome. People are the source of all chaos in life.’

So what could possibly go wrong, you say. Well just about everything.

Right from the start, the reader is certain that something bad is going to happen, that the narrator is going to mess things up in some way, but we’re just not sure quite how, and this sets up the tension that remains for the duration of the book. And sure enough, once things start to go wrong, they appear to just spiral out of control, from bad to worse, taking on almost farcical proportions.

As much as Oskar may have annoyed me with his pedantry, I was even more annoyed at the narrator for his carelessness and lack of foresight. I just kept putting myself in his shoes, and despite me also being quite an untidy person, found that I would not behave in the same way that he had. This really got me thinking about our personal spaces as humans and how they really define who we are. Much of who Oskar is is reflected in the minimalist precision of his apartment, whilst the mouldy walls of the narrator’s London flat tells you most of what you need to know:

‘A room is not just a room. A room is a manifestation of a state of mind, the product of an intelligence. Either conscious or unconscious. We make our rooms, and then our rooms make us.’

This book is as much about floors and space as it is about friendship. The friendship between the two men isn’t a natural or easy one, and is certainly not one based on mutual interests. As events unfold in the apartment and ‘an isolated tragedy’ almost becomes ‘a campaign of wrecking’, we come to understand that this may not be a friendship that can be saved:

‘I like that he seems to like me despite the fact that there’s no reason he should like me; at least, no reason that I can see. You know, he makes me believe I have likeable qualities. And maybe that’s what I do for him. I think that mutual reassurance is probably a big component of all friendships, really.’

The book is laced with dark humour and did have me chuckling to myself on occasion though I have to admit that as I progressed through the novel, I reached a point where I just wanted the book to end. I grew quite impatient with all the highly detailed descriptions and just wanted to know what would happen in the end. Though I was blown away by the language in some of his descriptive passages, I would have gladly exchanged those for some actual plot on occasion.

This is quite an accomplished novel for a debut, and the interesting twist at the end of the book keeps the whole thing quite fresh and original. I’d definitely be interested in seeing more from Will Wiles.

Book Review: Carry the One – Carol Anshaw

It’s 1983 in Chicago, and a pregnant Carmen is getting married to Matt. During their somewhat bohemian wedding reception, we meet Carmen’s siblings: Nick, who’s dressed in drag and is getting stoned with his girlfriend, Olivia; and Alice who goes off to have sex with the other bridesmaid, Maude, the groom’s sister. All of them are ‘in their last hours of making mistakes with small prices.’

All at various degrees of unraveling, Nick, Alice, Maud and another friend leave the party in the early hours of the morning with Olivia at the wheel. Soon after, they hit a 10-year-old girl who seems to have appeared from nowhere. The girl dies.

This one incident will forever remain a stain on the lives of those involved, showing them in their true light.

Olivia spends several years in jail, and the book charts their lives over the next 25 years; we are with them through divorce, parental bullying, familial hostility, drug addiction, eating disorders, success and failure. Yet this is not the big, redemptive story line you’d expect. No massive life lessons are learnt. Guilt is the only common denominator that permeates the entire text, simmering in the background of their lives, never letting them go.

So this book is a difficult one because none of the character’s lives are explicitly and overtly affected by this incident. And I do admire Anshaw for not making this an obvious read, however, this means that the events of this book are placed firmly in the dips and lifts of ordinary, everyday life. The chapters alternate between the three siblings at various stages of their lives and are temporally anchored by events such as 9/11. Nick pulls the family down with him through his lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction, Alice’s flourishing art career is tainted by her unfruitful infatuation with Maude (who doesn’t acknowledge that she’s gay), and the moral Carmen struggles with her role as both mother and wife in a rapidly changing world where people appear to have ‘lost interest in belief itself, as though belief were tennis, or French film.’

The book is a quiet one and can admittedly be quite slow in places but Anshaw writes exceptionally well. She truly delves into the minds of her characters, lifting them off the page and bringing them to life. The little girl is never there but always present, linking these people through shared experience:

There’s still this connection between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add as up, you always have to carry the one.’

What we ultimately learn is that tragedy is a complex contradiction that can completely change the person you are while at the same time changing absolutely nothing. In all its mess, life goes on.

Book Review: Alice by Judith Hermann

After reading and enjoying Other Lives But Mine a month or so ago, I thought I’d give literature in translation another go. This time I thought I’d venture to Germany and picked up a book called Alice by a widely read writer called Judith Hermann. I’d be lying if I said the breathtaking cover didn’t play a large part in my decision. I honestly cannot get over this cover, so damned beautiful!

So maybe all European writers have a particular interest in mortality, because funnily enough, this book is ALSO a contemplation on death. It tells of waiting for death to come, of when it occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, of the silence that comes from the questions left unanswered for decades when a person takes their own life, and primarily of what is left behind after death.

The novella is made up of five different interconnected narratives, five separate stories brought together by Alice, the central character whose life is punctuated with instances of death. Each section is named after the person who is either dead or dying in the story. It’s very postmodern in style, with very sparse almost bare prose, and with this direct style of writing, there is no explanation of how Alice may know the people we encounter in these stories. Some small inferences may be made, but much is left to the reader to fill in for themselves. This can be a little disorientating, which is how I feel you’re meant to feel when reading postmodern literature.

This book is about death, yet in a way it skirts around the actual occurrence itself, instead detailing the mundane, the specifics of everyday life, never attempting to describe emotion or anything much beyond facts. In its listing of banalities it somehow normalises death, makes death a part of everyday life, something that happens between swimming in a lake and buying ice cream from a petrol station (which I suppose it is).

An example of this is in the story, ‘Malte’. Alice arranges to meet up with someone from her late uncle Malte’s past; her uncle who killed himself before Alice was even born. The account of this meeting is meticulously detailed in its awkwardness, yet we learn nothing more about the reasons for her uncle’s suicide. However, there are minute snippets of information that can lead you to your own conclusions as to what may have happened all those years ago. And so this is how Judith Hermann speaks – without words.

There was a part of the final story that really did resonate with me, however. Alice is sorting through the things of someone who was central to her life when in a jacket pocket she comes across a crumpled bakery bag with a half-eaten almond horn in it. Such a small, trivial thing all of a sudden becomes significant. Little pockets of someone’s life left behind in their literal pockets, evidence that this person was once a living breathing human being. They once went to bakeries and ate almond horns. They are now reduced to things and memories and anecdotes. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this will make a lot of sense.

After reading the book, despite the entire thing being from her point of view, you don’t feel like you know Alice at all. You only have a vague outline of the person she may be, but even that is a stretch. I appreciate that this is indeed intentional and the point of the whole postmodern thing, but I found it be unsettling. It was perhaps a little too reserved and devoid of feeling for me, though I appreciate that this is in fact what many will love about it.

I’m sure many critics would say that her complete detachment and almost matter of fact way of describing events is what makes this novel such a great accomplishment, for the power of the narrative lies in what is left unsaid. An essay I could have written for a class in university would have probably said something along those lines too, but now, reading without a motive makes me question whether we can rate a writer for what they do not write, for the gaps they leave in their narrative for their readers to fill in? Can we?