Monday, 26 October 2020

Guest review by Sophia Bennett: THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey

"Gradually, with slow-burning precision, a new villain emerges ... a wonderful retelling of the story. A true murder plot with a twist."

S J Bennett wrote several award-winning books for teenagers as Sophia Bennett before turning to adult crime fiction. Her new series, Her Majesty the Queen Investigates, launches this week with The Windsor Knot. 
She lives in London, where she teaches and podcasts about writing ( and has been a royal watcher for years. The Queen, to the best of her knowledge, does not secretly solve crimes.

This is the tale of a reader, stuck in one place during a difficult time, rediscovering a historical villain and learning to see him and his times in a new light. It has a twist: the fascinating story, the great discovery, turn out to have been hiding in plain sight all time. 

It was early in lockdown that I finally decided to get to grips with audiobooks. My husband hoovers them up and gets through far more books than I do. I’m too fussy. The voice of the narrator has to match the one I have in my head. They mustn’t stumble over complicated grammar, or be too flat. The story itself must grip me more than a paper-based book needs to do. After all, I can’t skim-read through the dull bits. I had tried and failed to enjoy a slew of audiobooks, and then finally, just when I needed it most, I discovered The Daughter of Time.

I’d always been dimly aware of it as a crime novel. I love the title, and I’m a fan of Josephine Tey, though I know Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers’s works better. Ruth Ware recommended Tey’s Bratt Farrar to me last year, and that quickly rose high in my list of favourite crime reads for its wonderful descriptions of horses and its clever murder plot hidden behind a more obvious one of deception, in which our hero is the deceiver.

I didn’t know what The Daughter of Time was about, and was surprised that its subject turned out to be the wicked, murderous Richard III. Of all the historical murders to pick, hadn’t the murky tale of the princes in the tower rather been done? I’d last seen Mark Rylance play Richard in the West End – by accident. I’d actually wanted to see him and Stephen Fry cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, which was on in repertory with Richard III, but accidentally booked tickets for the wrong one. It was very good, but I know the story too well. He’s a baddie, I get it.

I wasn’t surprised when Inspector Alan Grant in the book begins his investigation into Richard with a certain reluctance. He is stuck in a hospital bed with little to entertain himself and a mild interest in a picture of the wicked king – which seems to be that of a kind, intelligent man who has suffered much himself. It seems to be the best the policeman can do to take his mind off his problems. The story gradually draws the reader in, just as Richard’s history slowly exerts its increasing fascination on Grant.

Tey’s masterful storytelling is apparent in the texture of historical record that she gradually weaves into the novel. With little access to literature, Grant is first forced to remind himself of the story of the poisoning of the princes in the tower using simplistic children’s history books. Everyone he encounters from nurses to visitors, has a strong, instinctive dislike of the man. We all know the story, and these histories confirm it. Richard did away with the vulnerable young men in the tower to strengthen his claim to the throne. He used his brief time in power to sew chaos and dissent until the brave Henry Tudor arrived to save the day, ushering in the modern age with his new dynasty, sweeping away all that was old and rotten with the Plantagenets.

But gradually, alongside Alan Grant, we learn, fact by fact, that everything we know is wrong. Tey beautifully illustrates, time and time again, how history is written by the victors. How these victors are often the venal acoyltes of cruel men, eager to whitewash their part in a lawless rise to power. Slowly, slowly, the reader, like Grant, is encouraged to wonder who really benefitted from the young princes’ deaths. It wasn’t Richard. Nor were they known to have died while he was alive. And during that time, by the way, he achieved a lot of good.

Gradually, with slow-burning precision, a new villain emerges. Grant gains access to better historical sources. He pieces together a revisionist history that exonerates the dastardly Plantagenets, casts them as the tragic victims of history, and sheds and entirely new light on the Tudors. Ta dah! It’s a wonderful retelling of the story. A true murder plot with a twist.

And then the second twist comes. The exculpation of Richard is nothing new: historians did it ages ago. But the propaganda of centuries, reinforced of course by Shakespeare, refuses to submit to our new knowledge. Truth may be the daughter of time, but she has great difficulty asserting herself.

I love the way that crime novels can take the rigour enforced by their genre and use them to play with rules, bend and break them, and at the same time explore a huge variety of themes concerning our life today while keeping the reader entertained. What do we need now if not the ability to question the narrative we are being fed by the current victors of history? In The Windsor Knot, one of my chief delights is the ability to cast a fresh light on politics and feminism, raising questions about our preconceptions as my sleuth – the Queen – advances towards the solution to the mystery.

My next read was the truly enormous third book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: The Mirror and the Light (indirectly referencing Mark Rylance again). Paper this time, and so heavy I worried about straining a muscle as I held it up in bed each night. Not my favourite of the three, as I felt the thrust of the story was overwhelmed by the detail of the research this time. But also, I kept wanting to shout at those Tudors and their courtiers. They had such a sense of entitlement! Such magnanimity towards the remaining Plantagenets and the dangerous ‘pretender’. All unmerited! My reading of Tey’s book had given me a new perpective. The novel had crept under my skin the way the best books do. I was a convert, just like Alan Grant. ‘More people should read this book’! I thought. Its implications affect our understanding of the monarchy to this day. It deserves a much wider audience.

And then I was kindly asked by Adèle Geras to write this post recommending a favourite book. I thought I would give you all the gift of this wonderful, under-appreciated crime novel. I looked it up on Wikipedia to remind myself of one of the details and discovered this:

“In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers' Association.[1] In 1995 it was voted number four in The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list compiled by the Mystery Writers of America.”

My great discovery had already been discovered. You probably know better than I do how brilliant it is. I was, in fact, late to the party by several decades. Perhaps I should have known, but somehow it had passed me by.

I’m glad I wasn’t aware of its reception during lockdown, though. The discovery was mine, like Grant’s of Richard’s story. I had no expectations, and so could be won over completely by its gentle charm. I’m sad that I don’t get the chance to raise its profile. I’m not sure where you go from number one in the top 100 crime novels of all time. If you haven’t read it, though, perhaps the CWA, the MWA and I can jointly persuade you to give it a try. 

The Daughter of Time is published by Arrow.

Monday, 19 October 2020

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke, reviewed by Adèle Geras


"I’ve never in my life read a story which so defies reviewing. Summing up the plot doesn’t work. Comparing Clarke to other writers might, but only if you’ve read the other writers."

Adèle Geras has written books for readers of all ages. Coming from Michael Joseph in February next year is her novel Dangerous Women, published under her pseudonym, Hope Adams.
Twitter: @adelegeras

I have been not reading fantasy for nearly 70 years. At school, my friend Philippa was a passionate fan of The Lord of the Rings and all things Tolkien. Every term, she would urge me, “Just try it again, Delly.” I would try and fail. My eyelids would droop after three lines and I’d always put the book aside before I turned the first page. I describe myself as ‘allergic to Tolkien.’ Nothing to do with his books or their merit, but rather to do with me: I’m not adapted to reading them. (I ought to add that I have no such problem with ghost stories or fairy tales or horror stories.)

But I have been eschewing fantasy and science fiction. I didn’t like Dune by Frank Herbert in spite of a boyfriend urging it on me, telling me it was life-changing. I read His Dark Materials because (cunningly!) it began in an Oxford college (which I do like reading about) and then I got sucked in by the daemons, but that’s an exception and there were large tracts of the three volumes which I must admit I skipped over.

One of my most spectacular failures was a very fat book called Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This was a huge hit when it appeared and I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t even watch the TV version…. found the whole thing extremely boring and I have a very low threshold for boredom. If I’m not gripped at once, I give up and I’ve not finished more books than I care to number. If it’s a crime novel, I might turn to the last page to see who did it, but mostly I put the book aside and forget about it.

How then to explain the attraction I felt to Piranesi? It’s all Twitter’s fault. Alex Preston wrote about the book in a way that intrigued me. The reviews were uniformly enthusiastic. Also, I read an article from the New Yorker which explained why Susanna Clarke had taken fifteen years to write a follow- up to Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell. It was because she was ill from a variant of ME and simply could not. Then I watched her in a virtual event, speaking about Piranesi and I liked her so much that I downloaded it. Of course, there was also the artist Piranesi whose drawings of fantastical prisons I know and admire. I wondered what the connection was between the book and the artist.

Before I sat down to write this, I was reading the newspaper. Piranesi is still number 10 on the Sunday Times bestsellers list. Each book listed there has one sentence describing it. Piranesi’s says: "The resident of a surreal palace is disturbed by news of a new inhabitant."  When I read this, I laughed out loud. Nothing in that sentence is untrue but it’s a world away from the book, and what it’s about and what sort of experience the reader has when she embarks on it.

What I’m going to add won’t add much more enlightenment. I’ve never in my life read a story which so defies reviewing. Summing up the plot doesn’t work. Comparing Clarke to other writers might, but only if you’ve read the other writers. Borges was mentioned in reviews, and by the author herself but alas, I’ve never read his work. I can tell you that the use of capital letters for many nouns is mesmerising and gives the prose an air of undeniable authority and strangeness.

I’m still haunted by Piranesi more than a fortnight after I finished reading it. The ‘surreal palace’ mentioned above is mind-blowing. Hall after Hall, filled with thousands of Statues, which are the whole universe. There are seas running through the Halls and Vestibules and our hero, whose first person account this is, has learned to read the tides and has set out a geography of the place to help him find his way around it. Others have lived there. There are Bones which he tends and respects and these show he’s not the only person who’s ever lived in this place. Once a week, he has a meeting with The Other. Then other things happen and an explication of sorts is provided. This doesn’t lessen the otherworldly feeling you’re left with when you finish the book.

It’s the look of the place, and the feel of the place and the simplicity and poetry of Piranesi’s own narrative voice that I loved so much and which is still resonating in my head. Someone, somewhere is, I’m sure, thinking about how to make a movie of it and I hope very much that this will be an animation; a drawn universe because real flesh and blood humans would reduce magic to the mundane tropes of normal fantasy.

It’s a very short book. Please read it before anyone takes it out of individual heads and puts it up on a screen. To tempt you, I shall quote from it. I am going to open my Kindle and pick a passage at random. It’s the kind of book where you can do that.

“Preparations for the Flood


With the exception of the Concealed Person, all the Dead stand in the Path of the Flood Waters. On Sunday, I began the work of carrying them to safety.

I took a blanket and transferred all the Biscuit-box Man’s bones into it – all except for the ones inside the biscuit box. I tied up the blanket with seaweed twine, making it into a sort of sack, and I carried it to the Second Vestibule and up the Staircase to the Upper Halls.”

I’m saying it again. Please read it.

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 12 October 2020

THE LANGUAGE OF BIRDS by Jill Dawson, reviewed by Linda Newbery

 "The tensions between these young women’s strength and resourcefulness, the various ways in which they're exploited and their efforts to escape the tugs and burdens of the past make this an absorbing read."

Photograph by Chris Normandale
Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. She is currently working on her second novel for adults, following Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon (retitled Missing Rose for the paperback edition) which was a Radio 2 Book Club Choice.

Having enjoyed the inventiveness of Jill Dawson's The Crime Writer, based on the life and work of Patricia Highsmith, I was eager to read this, a fictionalised version of the events leading to the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974 after the murder of his children's nanny, Sandra Rivett. In an Afterword, Jill Dawson quotes the victim’s aunt: "This entire inquest has been devoted to the life of Lord Lucan, and the life of poor Sandra has been almost ignored." The Language of Birds gives a richly-imagined life to the young woman here called Mandy Rivers. 

By chance, this is the second novel I've read this year that involves a nanny taken on at short notice and with scant investigation into her qualifications by wealthy employers who are all too ready to hand over their children to the care of a stranger (the other was Magpie Lane, by Lucy Atkins). Mandy gets her job at the instigation of her friend Rosemary, whose first-person narrative alternates with Mandy's, in third-person. A Norland-trained nanny already working in London, Rosemary covers up for Mandy's lack of qualifications and experience. Early on, we know that the two young women met at a psychiatric hospital in the East Anglian fenland, and that Rosemary was sent there after believing that pigeons had told her to kill herself. It takes longer for us to discover why Mandy was there, but the friendship and mutual support of the pair is crucial to the story.

Adaptable and kind, Mandy learns the etiquette of her new role (in a private London square, she's asked by another nanny, "Is your mummy a titled mummy? ... This is the bench reserved for titled mummies' nannies") and the strange routines of the Knightsbridge household. Lady Morven, Katharine, is harrowed by a custody battle for her children but shows little interest in them, remaining closeted in her bedroom; ‘Dickie’ (Lord Morven) keeps the house under surveillance, claiming his children on alternate weekends. Finding empathy with the troubled Katharine and hearing of threats and beatings, Mandy fears what he might do. It’s no spoiler to say that the tragic events of that November night are well foreshadowed, seeming inevitable.

To their employers and others of their class, the young women's nanny status renders them all but invisible, Rosemary often ensuring this by wearing uniform. Nonetheless, having escaped from a repressive mother, Mandy revels in her new London life and the feeling of independence, limited though her independence actually is. Jill Dawson writes very well about sex, conveying Mandy’s amazement at her physical and emotional openness with Caribbean boyfriend Neville. Having always been made to feel inadequate, she experiences this as a revelation - all the more poignant because the reader knows it will be short-lived.

The birds of the title seem to symbolise freedom and flight (and perhaps the girls themselves, in 70s idiom). We first meet Mandy newly-arrived in London and watching gulls wheeling over the Thames; to Rosemary, birds are portentous, to be feared, provoking her strange visions.

Although Rosemary attends a women’s consciousness-raising group, she's the one who's readily swayed by Dickie’s urbane charm into finding excuses for him. Too late she realises that “people make the mistakes I did. They prefer another story. The story where the woman is too sexy, too crazy, or having an affair.” The tensions between these young women’s strength and resourcefulness, the various ways in which they're exploited and their efforts to escape the tugs and burdens of the past make this an absorbing read. And I loved the 70s detail of fashion, food, music and attitudes, never overdone.

The Language of Birds is published by Sceptre.

See also Jill Dawson's The Crime Writer, reviewed by Patricia Elliott.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Guest review by Tracey Mathias: THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers

"A novel for the Anthropocene, for an age of mass extinction brought about by human action: it portrays Nature as we need to understand it now: not as stable and enduring but in a state of catastrophic change."

Tracey Mathias grew up in Cardiff but has lived for more than half her life in London. She has three grown-up daughters, and has been writing for children since they were small. She is writer in residence at the DaCapo Music Foundation, writing song lyrics and performance pieces, and is the author of the fantasy trilogy Assalay. Her latest book is Silence is Also a Lie (originally published as Night of the Party) – a Young Adult love story, mystery and political dystopia set in a near future England.
The Overstory deeply impressed and affected me on first reading: I have already reread it and imagine that I’ll return to it more than once in the future. It feels like a necessary book for our age, and one that opens up possibilities for what can be done with fiction. 

There are so many things to admire here. Powers’s prose is beautiful, precise and lyrical. He interweaves the stories of a large cast of characters with skill and poise: introducing them in a series of vivid biographical vignettes and then following them over a broad sweep of time from early years to late adulthood. But more than anything, I am struck by the ways that he imagines and writes the natural world. 

The trees and forests that dominate the novel are described with the kind of clarity and loveliness that comes from close observation. The ‘pinnate leaves’ of an ash tree ‘feather the light and make life feel softer than it is.’ The trunk of a redwood is ‘a triple wide door of darkness into the side of the night.’ In the ‘twilight-green’ air of an ancient forest ‘clicks and chatter disturb the cathedral hush.’ 

These descriptions are not static, either, but full of dynamic life. There’s a running theme about time and the relativity of time here. The novel’s computer genius (whose pioneering games act as analogies for so much else: codes branch; a bestselling game involves the competitive extraction of value from a virtual Earth) remembers a snippet of sci-fi. A race of aliens move so fast that ‘Earth seconds seem to them like years’ and humans ‘nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.’ By analogy, we must see trees in ‘tree time’ to understand them not as static, but as active, moving and purposeful beings, and the energy and vibrancy of Powers’s language does just this: a chestnut ‘spirals’ into the sky; trees in a forest ‘fight for scraps of light’; the roots of Douglas firs ‘run into each other underground.’ And Powers doesn’t only give us poetic description, but poetic science. The book is rich in fascinating botanical detail, especially in those passages written from the perspective of a plant scientist whose major interest is the social life of trees: the ways in which they communicate, co-operate and form communities. 

So narrative doesn’t just belong to humans: trees have their own stories of change and relationship. They’re also deeply entwined with human stories (the novel itself takes the form of a tree, imagining human life as roots, trunk, crown and seeds). Trees are emblems and instruments of human history, love, fate, tragedy, and there’s a hint of mystical connection, in the synchronous flourishing and declining of people and trees. 

But, crucially, this is also a relationship of tragedy and damage. The Overstory is a novel for the Anthropocene, for an age of mass extinction brought about by human action: it portrays Nature as we need to understand it now: not as stable and enduring but in a state of catastrophic change. The novel is elegiac, all its beauty threated with the awareness of what we have lost and stand to lose. Some of the most painful passages in Roots describe the blight that wiped out the great chestnut forests of the US east coast, and the main driver of the plot is the protest against the felling of virgin redwood forest on the West Coast. Powers offers no easy reassurance for the future. There is, one character reflects, a war between trees and humans ‘over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will lose by winning.’ 

Beautiful, painful, urgent: this is an important book.

The Overstory is published by Vintage.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO by Christy Lefteri

 " ... truly brought home to me the lived experience of the people behind the daily headlines, and the astonishing power of the human spirit to endure and overcome."

Yvonne Coppard
is a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer of fiction for children and adults. See more on her website. 

Nuri and Afra live peacefully with their young son, Sami, in the hills above Aleppo. Afra is a talented artist; Nuri and his cousin, Mustafa, are beekeepers running a successful honey business. When Syria descends into chaos and violence, Sami is killed and Afra is suddenly struck with trauma-induced blindness. Still, they cling on, hoping for better times. Then the beehives are destroyed, Mustafa flees the country and Nuri is threatened by soldiers who later come to the house looking for him. 

"Our feet sank into inches of water, full of the lizards and insects that had made this space their home. I’d dug this hideout last year. Afra wrapped her arms around me and buried her face in the crook of my neck. We sat like this in the darkness, both blind now, in this grave made for two. In the deep quiet her breathing was the only sound left on earth. And maybe she was right. Maybe we should have died like this and nobody would need to take our bodies … above us and outside things moved and broke and cracked. The men must have entered the house now." 

After this, there is no choice but to leave. Nuri and Afra put themselves into the hands of people smugglers and make the perilous journey through the various camps in Europe for displaced people, heading for the UK where Mustafa has found asylum. The story of their flight is told by Nuri, mostly in flashback, while they are in temporary accommodation awaiting a decision about their future from the UK authorities.

The desperation that drives people to undertake such a terrifying journey with scant hope of success is conveyed so convincingly that, even though I knew Nuri and Afra had survived, my heart was in my mouth as Nuri recounted their experiences. Nuri is sometimes aware of hallucinations and periods of disconnection but does not connect them with trauma. He hides his symptoms from the friendly social worker, fearful that he will be dismissed as mad, desperate to keep some last shreds of dignity.

Christy Lefteri spent time as a volunteer in a refugee camp in Athens. That experience shows in the detailed, vivid story woven from what she saw and heard there; a convincing account of loss, betrayal and, ultimately, resilience. It is told with warmth and compassion and touches of gentle humour. The level of detail and the authenticity of the places and characters created makes it impossible not to be drawn in to, and moved by, Nuri and Afra’s dogged stoicism. In the face of unspeakable things, they refuse to give up hope. This book is first and foremost a compelling, page-turning novel, devoid of the strident political messages and sub texts that often infuse what we see and hear in the media about refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. It is the first fiction I have read that truly brought home to me the lived experience of the people behind the daily headlines, and the astonishing power of the human spirit to endure and overcome.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is published by Bonnier.

See also: The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma-Jane Kirby, reviewed by Tracy Chevalier

More reviews by Yvonne Coppard:

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

Monday, 21 September 2020

Guest review by Jane Rogers: NO LONGER AT EASE by Chinua Achebe


"Written in 1960, this book could not be more timely than now, in the age of Black Lives Matter."

Jane Rogers has written ten novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Man-Booker longlisted and winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012. Other works include Mr Wroe's Virgins (which she dramatised as a BBC drama series), and Promised Lands (Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award). Jane also writes short stories, radio drama and adaptations, and has taught writing to a wide range of students.

Her new dystopia Body Tourists was published in November and is now available in paperback. For more information, see Jane's website. 

I first read No Longer at Ease many years ago, before making a British Council writer’s tour to Lagos and Abuja. I think it’s the single novel which gave me the most accurate insight into the clash between British and Nigerian values (specifically, Ibo values). It helped me to understand the ugly, lingering after-effects of imperialism, and the way they continue to blight lives to this day. Written in 1960, this book could not be more timely than now, in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Achebe’s story is at first glance simple; one educated young Ibo man is appointed to the civil service, falls in love with a woman he can’t marry, gets into debt, and is caught out taking a bribe.

But in Obi Okonkwo’s particular, individual story, the personal is political and a great swathe of history comes to life. Racist and sexist behaviour is not just exposed, but explored with humanity and a clear-sighted view of its roots on both sides. Achebe never preaches or tells the reader what to think, but by the end of the novel I understood the words ‘corruption’ and ‘bribery’ in a very different way.

I jumped at the chance to adapt this as a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, even though only five short episodes were on offer. It was surprisingly easy to abridge, despite the fact that I was chopping a novel of around 65,000 words down to 11,000. Achebe’s style is formal but pared to the bone. He’s an incredibly confident writer, trusting his readers to make connections and see parallels within the story, which reads like a succession of separate and discrete incidents. I visualised it as a string of beautiful beads, some with repeat patterns, some singletons. My job was to select the most essential beads and simply re-thread them on a shorter string. There’s no rewriting or rephrasing in the abridgement; the words are all Achebe’s, and the time jumps and abrupt disconnects are also true to the book.

I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to Paterson Joseph’s skilful reading, and particularly the wide range of voices he employs. He brings to life not just Obi and Clara, but everyone from the disgruntled bus driver whom Obi prevents from giving a bribe, to the snooty British High Court Judge who presides over Obi’s case. So I would definitely recommend listening to last week's Book at Bedtime (available on BBC Sounds - link below). But I would recommend even more strongly, reading this book for yourself – in fact, reading Achebe’s whole African trilogy, starting with Things Fall Apart and ending with Arrow of God. No Longer at Ease is the middle book, and to my mind the best – concise, focussed, piercingly intelligent, heart-breaking.

No Longer At Ease is published by Penguin.

See also:

Jane's review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Linda Newbery's review of Jane Rogers' latest novel, Body Tourists

Monday, 14 September 2020

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE SHAPELESS UNEASE by Samantha Harvey

"No wonder sleep deprivation is used as torture ..."

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, is published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

Who contemplates with anything but unease the torment of sleeplessness? No wonder sleep deprivation is used as torture. And how to combat it? By going to the doctor?

"I need some sleeping pills, I say. She stares at me as if my tears have appalled her, or somehow confused her. Please, I say. Instantly I regret this because now the power is with her; now my night’s sleep is a favour she can grant. And yet it is. And if it would help to fall at her feet and supplicate myself, I would.

She gets her pills."

From nearly a year of nights longing for sleep, contriving to fall asleep, anything for what Sidney called ‘the certain knot of peace…the prisoner’s release’, comes this gem of a book. A soporific, a dose of Lethe, a wild distraction? No. In the waking hours, the dreamless, nocturnal vacancies when the mind races, loosed upon the increasingly extravagant stratagems for an hour or two of oblivion, Harvey’s deliberations explore the mystery of writing itself. I mean, how many jigsaws can you do without beginning to see the entire world, all patterns of existence, as a fretwork scattering of fragments, a shape-shifting puzzle? Put one puzzle together and another follows. There ain’t no solutions, here, no completion.

Out of her meditation on insomnia - and when insomnia takes over, what else do you do but try to work out what the hell is going on with you? – she ponders time’s fluidity, the static nature of now, the constant shifting of now. She reflects on perception, the way our focus changes in different circumstances, on mortality itself, this wondrous gift we have which can deliver such incomprehension and grief, such accumulations of distress. In our waking hours, welcome or oppressive, Harvey leads us on a quest, the tracking of sensation …

One effect of such inward scrutiny, the remorseless thinking, thinking, thinking about yourself which hours spent in your own wakeful company forces upon you, is the realisation that it becomes ‘indulgent, self-centred and a little mad’. Well, and so it does, but is this not the bold intelligence facing up to the fact that this is what’s involved in knowing yourself, the examined life? And from that exploration comes, for us who pretend to writing, the work.

Harvey ponders writing itself, the process, the mechanics, the effects. She speaks of the cacophony of her (our?) mind, the clashing din of ideas, mostly specious and useless ideas, sometimes a good idea, and how we are assailed by a Babel of voices, counter and kindly, out of which a lone echo of something worth listening to. This is to formalise what is always and ever very informal. ‘How do you get your ideas?’ ‘Not a clue. We’re all in the dark, most of the time.’ Immediately the image springs back at us: in the dark…compelled to watch the slow creeping of the clock’s hands, desperate to give the racing mind rest. As she speaks of those oppressive, slow-moving, sleepless hours, the pattern of the way her mind drifts suggests that similar pattern of formulating sense in words. Writing has saved her life, she says, the next best thing to sleep, sometimes even better. Why? Because she is sane when she writes, it’s the continuum of the dependable.

"Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called ‘me’, definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move. Then words. Words harnessing things…the comfort of organisation, of shepherding chaos … "

One aspect of this arresting book which I find most attractive is the dispersal of thoughts, the digressive nature of Harvey’s writing, her curiosity, her penetrating insights, her willingness to follow the unpromising lead just to see where it goes. I wrote in appreciation of this exquisitely written book and wondered, given the attendant torture of insomnia, she might have mixed feelings about it, what it had cost her to write it. She replied (perhaps predictably): ‘My feelings about it aren't mixed, it was a life support and consolation, and I'll always be glad of it.’ Hurray.

I cannot resist quoting one splendid blast of invective:

"Why is Brexit called Brexit, when it isn’t Britain leaving the EU, it’s the UK? Why isn’t it called Ukexit? Never trust something that’s inaccurately labelled. Even the name of this con is a con. Even the name is a shitshow, an almighty, extravagant, eternal show of shit." 

The Shapeless Unease is published by Jonathan Cape

See also Graeme Fife's review of A Telling of Stones, by Neil Rackham, and his many other reviews here by entering his name in the Search box.