Little Deaths by Emma Flint

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Emma Flint’s debut novel is based on the real-life case of Alice Crimmins who, in 1965, was accused of murdering her young son and daughter. The case has inspired several fictional retellings, including Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children?

In Flint’s hands, Alice Crimmins becomes Ruth Malone and the gender politics of the case come to the fore. Ruth exposes the paradoxical and hypocritical way in which society views women. In a world where “nobody got time for someone else’s sadness”, Ruth recognises the need to present a polished and presentable exterior for risk of being labelled hysterical and/or undesirable: “She had to keep the wrong part of her, the messy part, hidden.”

But, although society demands this performance from Ruth, it also condemns her for it. Her regard for her own appearance, her fondness for male company, the fact that she tired of the constraints of domesticity – not only are these traits seen as incompatible with her role as a mother, they are signs of her guilt:

‘Bitch did it. No doubt.’ That was a guy with the nose of a drinker and a drooping eyelid that looked like a wink. ‘You seen how she looks coming in and out of the station – face all made up and hair done. She’s never cried for ’em. Not once.’

Flint’s examination of this issue is interesting, but once the novel has made its point, it has nothing else to do but to keep on making it. There is something a little hollow about Little Deaths, despite Flint’s atmospheric depiction of 1960s Queens. Large swathes of the book drag terribly. I think part of the problem is that, most of the time, readers are kept an arm’s length from Ruth. There is the odd striking, beautifully written depiction of her grief, but most of the time Ruth is remote and the novel lacks an emotional core.

This is certainly not supplied by Pete Wonicke, the journalist who becomes fixated on discovering the ‘real Ruth’ beyond the tawdry tabloid headlines he is originally charged to write. His obsession with Ruth is never fully explained and his actions towards the end of the novel are far-fetched to say the least. Indeed, the whole finale verges on daftness.

Overall, whilst there is some interesting meditation on gender politics here, there is little else. A bit of a disappointment, then, but there is enough insight and good writing here to draw me to Flint’s future work.

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

As I look down at their beautiful faces I remember a story I read. A Native American tale where the Cherokee tells his grandson there’s a battle between two wolves in all of us. One is evil, the other good. The boy asks him, which wolf wins? The Cherokee tells him, the one you feed. (p. 56)

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2017 seems to have brought with it a truckload of astonishingly assured and exciting debut novels. One of the most hyped of the bunch is Ali Land’s thriller, Good Me Bad Me, which I reckon just about lives up to its billing. It is a compulsive read, a true page-turner, even if it does stumble a little bit at the end.

Unlike other examples of the genre, much of Good Me Bad Me‘s horror and darkness lies right on the surface, rather than being buried beneath, a mystery to slowly unravel. This makes the novel more of a vivid and disturbing psychological portrait than a psychological thriller. But it is gripping and compulsive regardless.

The character we get this vivid and disturbing psychological portrait of is 15-year-old Milly Barnes. We know, more or less from the start, that Milly’s mother is a serial killer who abused her for years and is accused of murdering nine children. Milly is awaiting her mother’s trial, having finally reported her to the police. Despite this, and despite her awareness of her mother’s guilt and monstrousness, Milly’s bond with her mother remains:

… the person I want to run from is also the person I want to run to. (p. 45)

Land, with her sparse, direct, almost staccato prose, deftly explores this conflict. Moreover, by placing Milly with a foster family who aren’t exactly the Waltons, Land raises the question: who can truly help a child this damaged?

Milly is a compelling narrator and her voice rings very true. Too often novelists depicting teenagers and their patterns of speech get it badly wrong, but Land has a fine ear. Milly isn’t just damaged; she’s also intelligent, witheringly sarcastic, observant, funny and kind. And every so often … menacing, threatening and terrifying. What is interesting about this novel is that the threat and the tension come not from any external force but from Milly, from her internal conflict: which ‘wolf’ will she feed? Will society, circumstance and her surroundings give her a choice?

I was also fascinated by Land’s examination of the darkness in women. Not only do we have a female serial killer here, but the novel repeatedly highlights that females have the potential not just to be “Sugar and spice” but “all things” (p. 290).

Without giving too much away, I did find the ending of the novel disappointing. Land seems to take the obvious thriller route right at the close and I feel that something a bit more nuanced and ambiguous would have served the novel – and the multi-faceted Milly – far better.

That aside, Good Me Bad Me is a disturbing, real and unputdownable novel that heralds the emergence of a gifted new writer.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first in a planned trilogy. Set in medieval Russia and inspired by traditional folktales, this book has garnered much praise but left me rather cold.

Not that there isn’t much to admire here. The novel begins as a richly atmospheric and captivating tale. Arden skilfully evokes the freezing forests and blazing hearths of her setting. She is also adept at depicting the familial relationships between her characters, particularly those between siblings.

The narrative centres around Vasilisa Petrovna, known as Vasya. Her mother dies in childbirth safe in the knowledge that her daughter will inherit the powers of her mysterious grandmother.

Things started to fall flat for me around 40% into the book when the lack of signposting became apparent. I suddenly realised that I had no idea where the story was heading. Even now, I’m struggling to summarise what it was all about. There seemed to be several conflicts – chief amongst them an antagonism between organised religion and traditional folk beliefs. It isn’t really clear what the central conflict is, however, and the novel feels unfocused and meandering as a result.

I was prevented from giving up on the novel by the emergence of an intriguing theme about half way through – that of unconventional femininity. Arden reflects on the fact that folktales typically punish females who don’t conform to traditional expectations of their gender:

“Frost demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, the bird-prince and the wicked sorcerer – they only come for the wild maiden.”

Gradually, Vasya comes to realise that the mortal realm holds little for her beyond “walls and cages”.

Arden’s treatment of this theme, coupled with the appealingly spirited Vasya are probably just enough to entice me towards a sequel. But all in all, I was disappointed with The Bear and the Nightingale with its lack of signposting, momentum and focus.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

‘You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’

The ‘Must Read Books of 2017’ lists are crammed with incredibly promising debut novels. Few are generating more buzz than Yaa Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing. This book isn’t perfect by any means, but, on the whole, I’d say that this marks a rare occasion when I think something actually lives up to its hype.

Before I proceed, a note of warning: I realise that this is more a discussion than a review. I seemed to have a lot of thoughts to disentangle and I could only do so by writing. For this reason, I may have been a bit spoilery so proceed with caution!

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Gyasi sets herself the ambitious task of covering the history and legacy of slavery in just 300 pages. The novel begins in the closing decades of the 18th century and ends at the turn of the 21st. She relies on structure to help her frame and manage this narrative. The story originates with Effia and Esi, two sisters who never meet. Effia marries a white slave trader whilst Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters examine the consequences of the sisters’ contrasting fates by focusing on their descendants.  Effia’s line remains in what will later become Ghana’s Gold Coast; Esi’s descendants find themselves in America.

‘You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.’

Homegoing thus reads like a collection of interconnected short stories. This device enables Gyasi to demonstrate just how much family history is determined by the fickleness of fate. Or, as she puts it: “How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another.”

But it is slavery, not fate, that is Gyasi’s main focus. Not much of what she has to say on this topic feels new but her depiction of her characters’ suffering is so visceral it stresses just how much such things bear repeating. One area where I felt Gyasi really stood out here was in her unflinching confrontation of Africans’ complicity in the slave trade, something I’d never really read about or considered before:

The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.

At times, Gyasi writes with such direct insight and definitive wisdom that Homegoing has the whiff of modern classic about it. I felt she was at her best when considering the legacy of slavery. She considers the physical impact through characters like Ness, who is beaten regularly by her owner:

Ness’s skin was no longer skin really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.

Through characters like H, Gyasi explores the psychological impact:

No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.

What Homegoing ultimately shows is that, no matter how far we move down the matrilineal lines, this impact is felt; it is each generation’s legacy to the next. For Marjorie and Marcus, with whose narrative the novel closes, the legacy is a sense of alienation from both their country of origin and their country of birth:

‘I don’t fit here or there.’

Homegoing demonstrates an awe-inspiring talent but is by no means perfect. As other reviewers have pointed out, the novel’s structure and the scope of its ambition are what mark it out and, at times, bring it down. As we dart through the centuries, Gyasi’s creations become less like flesh and blood characters and more like ciphers. In a similar vein, it sometimes felt like I was being fed information rather than being enveloped in a compelling narrative that would nonetheless still supply me with the relevant facts, just in a more subtle way.

That aside, Homegoing is deserving of its place on those ‘Must Read’ lists and reading it will introduce you to a young writer with remarkable gifts.

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.