Monday, 28 May 2018

Independent Bookseller feature No.2: Tamsin Rosewell and Judy Brooks of KENILWORTH BOOKS choose THE TRICK TO TIME by Kit de Waal

Kenilworth Books is a 50-year-old independent bookshop that buzzes with activity and conversation. It is situated in an historic town in Warwickshire, almost exactly in the middle of the country. This extremely busy, thriving little bookshop is known for its vibrant window displays – which are often requested by publishers up to a year in advance. The bookshop has also gained a reputation for its fearlessly outspoken, challenging blogs; these explore book industry issues in detail, from the effects of discounting on authors’ royalties, to the commercialisation of World Book Day, the exclusion of smaller publishers from industry news and awards, and the commercial devaluation of books. The team at Kenilworth Books also works closely with the many local schools and libraries in Warwickshire and in the City of Coventry, supplying books for school and library shelves.

Connecting the personal and the political in her wonderful 2016 novel My Name is Leon resulted in a bestseller, and many well-deserved accolades, for Kit de Waal. My Name is Leon’s political backdrop was the London riots of 2011, and the events of her new novel, The Trick to Time - which has already attracted the attention of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction – are interrupted and shaped by the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974. Kit de Waal’s own rich, mixed Irish-Caribbean heritage makes her well-placed to both document and comment on the effects of the attacks on Birmingham’s Irish community, as the shock-waves ripple and swell through families and across entire lifetimes.

My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time are very different novels; but in both, Kit de Waal takes an oblique look at an ever-shifting world by focusing on the tiny lives of her characters.

In an unnamed seaside town, on the eve of her 60th birthday, we meet Mona. Her life is quiet, a little mundane perhaps – and from the moment we meet her she seems not unhappy exactly, but restless, sleepless and unfulfilled. From its gentle, humdrum start the story creeps up on us, uninvited and discomforting. Mona has built herself a business selling handmade dolls; each child’s body is made from specially selected hand-turned wood – oak for one beautiful child, pine for a small wisp of a child; all sanded to a fine, silky finish. The clothes are hand-stitched from carefully-selected fabrics picked up in the town’s charity shops: a bit of lace trim taken from an old blouse, a pretty fabric from a discarded skirt. When quiet women turn up, she says that they need only bring her a shawl, a blanket, anything they like – and to tell her the weight of the child. The dolls hint at the tragedy in her own past. Guided by Kit de Waal’s elegant writing, we travel back and forth in time with Mona, and slowly the past and the present become the same thing. We see Mona as a child, brought up in Ireland by a caring father, but bored by the solitude forced on her by her mother’s lingering illness. He imparts the advice, as her mother is dying, that ‘there’s a trick to time – you can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer’.

Mona, however, fails to understand the significance of her father’s words at that time. She makes the exciting move to Birmingham, where she meets the love of her life, the delightful, confident and sweet-natured William. After a blast of love at first sight, a whirlwind romance and a joyful wedding, the couple settle down to build their own family.

There is always love, but there is also always politics, hatred and brutality. The violent intrusion of the IRA’s bombings are the story - and at the same time they interrupt the story. But that is the reality of the political world. It defines us, even when we believe that great events have nothing to do with our little lives.

These are small lives, but it is the small things that enable us to see the landscape more clearly. Kit de Waal deftly draws the characters: the gossipy hairdresser, the slow and sulky teenage assistant, the friend who organises a surprise party, the over-friendly café owner – and we care about them all. This small world is complex though; good and bad shift around, allies and enemies swap places and simple situations suddenly seem more complicated. Mona belongs in her world, she moved to the thriving, cosmopolitan Birmingham with great hope and excitement - but she is also an immigrant. Her and William’s love for each other and hope for their future is contrasted with the hate and destruction that follows the bombings. We see through the life of Mona how the Irish are treated in the wake of the bombings; the blatant racism of the cab drivers, even the midwives, and the anger unleashed on them by the ignorant English who seek revenge on anyone with an Irish accent. The Trick to Time is set both in our own time and in the 1970s – although the events of 45 years ago seem to be occurring today too as external political events unleash blind, uninformed hatred towards an immigrant community. A timely reminder perhaps, or just one of the deeply ingrained failings of the human race?

The Trick to Time is published by Viking

Monday, 21 May 2018

MR PEACOCK'S POSSESSIONS by Lydia Syson, reviewed by Linda Newbery

"Readers will find various parallels and echoes in this vividly realised, compelling novel."

Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is now working on her second novel for adults.
Lydia Syson has successfully published young adult novels with historical settings, and now looks set to reach a wider audience with this dazzling tale of colonisation and corruption, enterprise and abuse.

Set in Oceania in the late 19th century, Mr Peacock's Possessions centres around a growing family and the hardships they face on moving to an uninhabited island. "Where's the snake?" Joseph Peacock asks, on being offered this fruitful, unsullied land, apparently a new Eden. And there certainly are dangers. Soon after being landed there the family members face starvation when finding to their dismay that their supplies have rotted in the ship's hold; they must learn to survive on limpets and roots until they can grow their own crops. Utterly isolated, they don't see so much as a passing ship for months on end, and can summon help only through signal fires. They don't at first realise that the island is volcanic, and that subterranean rumblings produce sulphurous, deadly steam which almost kills two of the girls when they sleep in a cave near the crater. But the title hints that the deadliest "snake" is the one Mr Peacock brings with him, part of his own temperament. His son Albert, frail and suffering from what appears to be rheumatoid arthritis, bears the brunt of this, receiving constant taunts and criticism.

Events are shown to us through two viewpoints: that of Lizzie, Joseph Peacock's favourite second daughter, and - in first person - that of Kalala, one of six Pacific islanders, all young men, brought to the island to work at clearing and building. Kalala, whose older brother Solomona is a preacher, is shocked to realise that the Peacock children can't read, while he, observant and devout, reads his brother's Bible, anxious not to lose his skill. Through the highly perceptive and intuitive Kalala, and the vivid, frightening dreams of pain and despair he attributes to aitu, troubling spirits that haunt him despite his Christianity, we learn of a recent tragedy of neglect and abuse that's left bitter marks on the island. When Lizzie explains, "Pa can get cross, I ought to tell you ... He wants everything done just so. You do, of course, when a thing is your very own, don't you? You want it perfect," she prompts Kalala's recognition of "the force I saw at once in him, light and dark together." Lizzie's words are truer than she realises, especially of the difficult relationship between Joseph Peacock and the boy Albert in whom he finds only disappointment; she wonders why her father didn't look to her, instead of to Albert, as his heir and capable apprentice. When Kalala incurs Peacock's anger and fear, though acting through the best of intentions, events escalate with horrifying inevitability.

There are nods to Lord of the Flies in the island setting and the struggle for orderliness that fails to prevent the eruption of violence - Lord of the Flies as if written by Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps, with a dash of The Wicker Man. But I think readers will find various other parallels and echoes in this vividly realised, compelling novel.

As I write this, the longlist for the Women's Prize has just been released. I'll be disappointed if Lydia Syson's name doesn't appear there next year.

Mr Peacock's Possessions is published by Zaffre. 

Monday, 14 May 2018

Guest review by Anne Cassidy: IDAHO by Emily Ruskovich

Anne Cassidy writes crime fiction for teenagers. She has published over forty novels for young adults. She writes dark crime fiction and is best known for Looking for JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. Moth Girls was published by Hot Key in 2016 and concerns the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. Her new novel No Virgin describes the aftermath of a rape.

Idaho is a startling first novel which centres on a family tragedy. In it we are told the story of Wade and Jenny and their daughters June and May. The tragedy is the explosion at the heart of the story and the writer circles around it for the rest of the book. We begin to understand the events through the eyes of a number of characters mainly those of Ann, the second wife of Wade.

Ann has a pressing interest in the events of that day and it is her discoveries and interpretations that lead to the reader’s understanding of what happened and crucially why. And yet it is only a subjective solution for this is no classic crime novel. It is a story of a family in crisis, of a man who has a chance to live again, of a woman trying to understand the actions that brought it all about.

Mostly though this is the story of family life. Wade and Jenny, a young couple expecting a baby, have to live out a winter marooned in the snowy mountain. Two young sisters June and May play together until June is too old to play with dolls and May’s grief for the loss of her playmate is beautifully and painfully realised. Wade has early stage dementia just as his father had; though the loss of memory brings a kind of relief as he no longer knows what happened to his family.

The tragedy touches many people’s lives; William and Beth who comfort the husband afterwards; Tom Clark, who paints images of the missing daughter as she gets older year by year; Eliot, the boy who lost his leg falling through a dock. We also touch on the guilt of the perpetrator, the self-flagellation of a person who cannot accept any forgiveness.

The writing is assured and poetic and the characters are presented with a tender touch. There is no one in this book that the writer does not care about.

Idaho is published by Vintage.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Guest review by Anne Rooney: THE WAVE IN THE MIND by Ursula K. Le Guin

Anne Rooney writes fiction for children and non-fiction for both children and adults. Her adult series Story of… on the history of science now runs to 11 titles. It’s published by Arcturus in the UK and North America and has co-publishers in Japan, Korea, China and South America.

She has never had what might pass for a proper job. After a degree and PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, she was an academic just long enough to decide it wasn’t the right path and then embarked on a writing career. She has held three posts as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, most recently at Newnham College, Cambridge, but mostly just writes, with around 200 books published to date. The most recent is Dinosaur Atlas for Lonely Planet, beautifully illustrated by James Gilliard.


‘A dragon appears in the field…’

The Wave in the Mind is ostensibly about being a reader and a writer, but it’s just as much about being Ursula K Le Guin. The book is a collection to relish of essays, poems, lectures, musings and literary whatevers on reading, writing and imagination written over a long period. If it isn’t a contradiction in terms—even if it is—it is full of profound musing.

Le Guin wears her keen intelligence and scholarship lightly, but never undermines or undervalues them, never makes light of them. We sense a stern guard against the tendency of women to be reductive regarding their own achievements. It’s underlined by the first essay, in which she describes how she has had to pretend (largely to herself) to be a man in order to grasp life. It is terribly poignant to re-read these lines so soon after her death:

“Here I am, old… I just am young, and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Ulay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young.”

The pieces are too varied and too many to give more than a flavour here. She muses on why the word ‘non-fiction’ doesn’t appear in the OED (in 1998) in a piece on the value, contingency and fragility of ‘fact’ that could have been written in the post-truth, Trumpian world. She returns again and again to her fascination with rhythm and how she feels this is at the heart of all art that uses language. She pleads for honesty, lyricism and a respect for communicative silence. She unpicks the structure and meanings of traditional tales and of some literary greats, including Huckleberry Finn, in which she locates the novel’s power in the tension between Finn’s character and Twain’s silence about it. There is combative creativity, deep respect for other writers, measured and not always hopeful feminism.

Le Guin is best known, of course, for her sci-fi/fantasy novels. It’s a genre not highly regarded by the literati and in academia. (The depth of thought and clarity of expression in this collection should silence anyone who suggests that writing fantasy is an exercise for intellectual lightweights.) Le Guin was aware of low esteem in which her preferred genre is held, but doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against the injustice of it. Her disappointment is dignified and manages to be quietly shaming—though whether the literati and academics are going to feel ashamed is another matter.

Things Not Actually Present  is a brilliant vindication of the fantasy writer’s art. Le Guin has a knack of making profound points sound so blatantly obvious that they brook no contradiction and we wonder why anyone ever thought otherwise. Fantasy, she maintains, can deal directly with universal themes and truths in ways that realist fiction cannot, because realist fiction is hobbled by its inevitable links to one social group, culture or time. This inevitably makes it less immediately accessible or applicable to others. It is an argument for, and deeply rooted in, inclusivity:

‘Fantasies are often set in ordinary life, but the material of fantasy is a more permanent, universal reality than the social customs realism deals with. The substance of fantasy is psychic stuff, human constants … Society in the decades around the second millennium, global, multilingual, enormously irrational, undergoing incessant radical change, is not describable in a language that assumes continuity and a common experience of life. And so writers have turned to the global, intuitional language of fantasy to describe, as accurately as they can, the way “we” live “now”.’

In her hands ‘we’ and ‘now’ become timeless. In her fiction, she explored with acuity the eternal, bothersome and endlessly fascinating business of being human and in The Wave in the Mind she explores the exploration with equal acuity.

The Wave in the Mind is published by Shambhala Publications.