Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Liane Moriarty has been on my radar since 2013, when The Husband’s Secret was a massive hit. In the intervening years, I have heard many good things about her domestic thrillers and thought it was high time I got round to actually reading them. Not least because her 2014 novel, Big Little Lies, will be getting the full HBO drama treatment soon (the rather starry cast includes Reece Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgard and Zoe Kravitz).

If the TV show is even half as gripping as the novel, it will be a must-watch. Big Little Lies weighs in at a slightly daunting 450 pages, but zips along as if it was only 200. It is seldom that I find a book truly unputdownable, but this one certainly fell into that category: were it not for the sheer annoyance of having to go to work, I would have happily read it in one sitting.

Set in the author’s native Australia, the novel focuses on a group of parents whose children all attend the same primary school. With caustic wit and a sharp satirical edge, Moriarty depicts playground politics, with their various cliques and conflicts. In doing so, she examines the often far-reaching and tragic consequences of the “little” lies we tell ourselves and each other.

The last time she had anything close to an enemy she was in primary school herself. It had never crossed her mind that sending your child to school would be like going back to school yourself.

Right from the start, we know that a murder investigation has been launched following a violent confrontation between parents at the school’s Trivia Night. Witness accounts are interspersed with flashbacks as the truth is gradually revealed. The novel is beautifully paced and a series of mini-cliffhangers kept me hooked throughout.

Although the novel has a wry, satirical streak (the HBO adaptation is billed as a comedy-drama, which reflects the tone of the source material), it covers a wide range of issues: domestic abuse, sexual violence, victim blaming, coping with step-families, morality, bullying, the nature of beauty. The list could go on.

My only real quibble with this book is that, sometimes, these issues felt like they were being shoehorned into the narrative. An artificial note was sounded on these occasions; it felt that characters were Telling Us Why Victim Blaming Is Wrong rather than having a conversation.

For the most part though, the characters are far more than mere mouthpieces. The three main characters, Madeleine, Celeste and Jane, could easily have been mere ciphers. Other reviewers have suggested that these women have the whiff of the stereotype about them. For me, they became flesh and blood in. Moriarty’s capable hands and their friendship felt touchingly real.

In short, I could kick myself for waiting so long to read Moriarty’s work. Not only is this novel gripping from start to finish, it is written with considerable skill. I will certainly be checking out her other work quick sharp. And I will definitely be tuning into the HBO adaptation: my initial impression from reading the book is that it is perfectly cast.

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

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Midwinter opens with a frantic action scene as twenty-year-old Vale Midwinter desperately tries to rescue his friend, Tom, during a boating accident.

But this is a novel about consequences, not actions. The consequences of this drunken night, but also of the violent death of Vale’s mother ten years before.

In this astonishingly skilful debut novel, Melrose’s central focus is on the tension, distance and miscommunication between Vale and his elderly father, Landyn. The chapters are narrated in the first-person and alternate between the points of view of father and son. I was struck by how very authentic both of these voices were, particularly Landyn’s. The level of psychological realism here is truly extraordinary and this alone marks Melrose as an exciting new author. Unusually for a literary author, her writing is sharp and entirely without pretension. The subject matter is challenging but the prose isn’t; it is, instead, direct and highly readable. Melrose is often at her best in this Suffolk-set novel when she is writing about nature:

Everything smelled of the coast. It’s like that in winter, the sea finally takes over the land. In the summertime, that’s when the earth can claim its place, and push its shaggy boundaries right out, all fat and full of green.

Above all, though, Midwinter is an astutely observed depiction of grief and the destructive effect it can have on families. Melrose is particularly adept at highlighting grief’s habit of turning us against those affected by the same loss as us – those who we most need comfort from and most need to comfort. The Midwinters are trapped in a cycle of blame and silence when they could be a solace to one another:

I didn’t want to talk to him if he woke up. I had nothing I knew how to say.

This is by no means a bleak book, mind, despite its subject matter and title. For the thing about Midwinter is that, yes we’re in the very heart of the darkness, but we’re roughly halfway to Spring. Similarly, there is always the hope of redemption in this novel.

I will say, however, that, even at just 272 pages, Midwinter started to feel like a slog. It is an exceptional piece of writing but lacks the pace and plot that make an exceptional novel for me.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue is best known for her 2010 novel Room. Ostensibly, The Wonder is radically different. Set in 19th century Ireland, it deals with the phenomenon of fasting girls, who claimed to exist for long periods of time without food. In this novel, Lib, a worldly nurse trained by Florence Nightingale and fresh from the Crimean War, is sent to the Irish countryside to watch over 11-year-old Anna. Anna, it is claimed, has not consumed any food whatsoever in four months. The child herself claims that she is existing solely on manna from Heaven.

As The Wonder unfolds, its similarities to Room become more apparent. Like the latter, its action largely takes place within confined spaces, with the claustrophobic atmosphere being skillfully rendered and creating increasing tension. And at the heart of both novels is the bond between an adult and a child and the lengths to which adults will go to protect the children in their care. Both of these elements ensure that, for spells at least, The Wonder is an absorbing and immersive read.

Donoghue’s prose is beautifully simple and uncluttered. One of her greatest skills is bringing fresh insight into something as mundane as mealtimes:

How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized  – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during the watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.

For me, the most illuminating theme Donoghue considers is that of knowledge. Reading the novel, I realised I had, at times, been guilty of accepting the stereotype of the ‘ignorant person from the olden days.’ They weren’t clever like us, we are often led to believe. But in Lib we see an intelligent woman who is limited by the contemporary state of knowledge and the rate of scientific discovery. Knowledge and ignorance are often about context, Donoghue seems to point out, not just intellect:

‘Put out your tongue, please.’ By training Lib always noted the condition of the tongue, though she’d have been hard-pressed to tell what it said about the subject’s health.

The Wonder also makes much of the tension between supposedly rational England (represented by Lib) and superstitious, Catholic Ireland (represented by, amongst others, Anna’s parents who, in Lib’s eyes, are allowing their daughter to die):

Released from her pain meant she’d died, Lib realized. Only in Ireland would this count as a happy ending.

Unlike with the consideration of knowledge and human understanding, I felt that The Wonder was retreading well-worn ground here, though. Moreover, Donoghue doesn’t seem to do much other than reaffirm stereotypes in this regard. Lib’s knowledge is constrained not by her intelligence but by the world around her. The Irish peasants don’t seem to be similarly excused, however, which seems a little bit cliched.

Another weak point is the ending, which succumbs to Hollywood-esque daftness. The eventual explantion of Anna’s survival serves only to conveniently tie up loose ends rather than to add further consideration to the novel’s underlying themes.

Overall, then, The Wonder is often atmospheric, occasionally gripping and reflects upon some intriguing themes. Ultimately, though, it is rather insubstantial.

 

Recently I’ve Read … The Trespasser by Tana French

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The Trespasser is the fifth novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. My introduction to the series came via the fourth installment, The Secret Placewhich was bloated, peppered with overly elaborate try-too-hard prose and almost completely undone by a sprinkle of sheer daftness.

This time round, French has had a bit of a declutter: the prose is sharp rather than pointlessly dense. The plot, too, is kept relatively simple: it no longer drags or gets bogged down with implausible twists.

The case is apparently an open-and-shut one. A young woman, Aislinn Murray, is found murdered in her own home. Her new boyfriend, a nervy and suspicious character, was spotted lurking outside the property shortly before the body was discovered. So far so clear cut.

But the plot spirals compellingly outwards, all the while being tightly and skillfully controlled by French. What first appears to be a straightforward murder soon starts smacking of police corruption. Will the investigating officers have to start investigating their colleagues?

The plot is dark and gripping. And, whilst The Secret Place tried too hard to be literary, this novel does it effortlessly. Keeping the plot relatively pared back allows French to touch upon a range of themes. The most significant theme of here is that of identity and the narratives we construct around ourselves. Too often in the novel these narratives are built on questionable assumptions and lead the characters into danger:

I was doing exactly the same thing as Aislinn: getting lost so deep inside the story in my head, I couldn’t see past its walls to the outside world.

The Trespasser would work perfectly well as a standalone, but it does feature the same detective pairing as The Secret Place, detectives Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway. Conway takes centre stage here, acting as the first-person narrator. Her character grated on me a little in the previous installment in the series. Here, though, she is magnificent. The trespasser of the title refers as much to Conway as it does to Aislinn’s murderer. Not only is Conway a woman in what is still very much a man’s world, but she is mixed race and doesn’t conform to the standard notions of femininity. She is funny, fierce and intelligent. Her insights into being an outsider are sharp and, quite frankly, I’m thinking of having her finest quotes printed onto wallpaper and then decorating my home with them. Like this one, for instance:

No one needs a relationship. What you need is the basic cop-on to figure that out, in the face of all the media bullshit screaming that you’re nothing on your own and you’re a dangerous freak if you disagree. The truth is, if you don’t exist without someone else, you don’t exist at all.

THIS.

Additionally, one of The Secret Place‘s few strengths was Conway’s partnership with Moran and it yields even more golden – and occasionally laugh-out-loud – moments here.

All in all, then, I’d say that The Trespasser has everything: a gripping plot, fantastic characters, wit and wisdom.