Monday, 26 November 2018

Guest review by Dennis Hamley: EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh, ELMET by Fiona Mozley and EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson

Dennis Hamley has been writing for an unconscionably long time. His first book was published in 1962. Since then he has written more books than he can count, including The War and Freddy, Hare’s Choice, Spirit of the Place, Out of the Mouths of Babes, the six novels in the sequence of medieval mysteries The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, Ellen’s People and Divided Loyalties. He now writes mainly as an independent author, with his own imprint, Joslin Books. The Joslin de Lay sequence is about to be republished in paperback.

He is at present writing, with painful slowness, a novel which has found a different publisher, The Second Person from Porlock, a sort of riff on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Writers in Oxford, of which I am a member, have an annual Not the Booker evening in which members of the panel each introduce a shortlisted novel, comment on, praise or traduce it, estimate its chances and then rush home to put on the TV and find out if they were right. I’ve been on the panel for the last three years. I’ve been wrong for all of them.

For this review I had intended to deal only with Elmet by Fiona Mozley, about which I spoke - enthusiastically favourably, to the evident annoyance of some among the audience – last year. This year I introduced Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. However Elmet was still reverberating round my mind when I started to write this review. And this made me think back to 2016, when my book was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Suddenly all three seemed to mesh together.

The book choices panel members make are entirely arbitrary: it’s first come, first served so there was no suggestion that I was looking for a pattern. But suddenly, I was finding unexpected connections, common themes, similar relationships in these novels. God knows I’m not suggesting any form of plagiarism: here are three astonishingly original works offering experiences uniquely different from anything I have read before, written by authors who, I believe, can truly be called brilliant. I even began to wonder if I had accidentally hit upon a new genre. 

First of all, Eileen. Eileen is the narrator and she tells us straight away what the novel is about. ‘This is the story about how I disappeared.’ She lives in New England, in a town so featureless that it is referred to throughout as ‘X-ville’. She has a deranged alcoholic ex-cop father who fears that even the slightest noise means a hoodlum is about to burst in. Eileen works days in a young boys’ prison and spends her nights driving aimlessly, except for shoplifting, round X-ville in her father’s old Dodge. She secretly lusts after a prison guard, a passion which eats her up but of which he is completely unaware. And she pulls no punches about herself: this is a novel about self-loathing.

The first part of this novel is set in 1964 when Eileen is in about as dreadful and repellent a situation as you could imagine. Yet this is superb writing: magnificently controlled and with a relieving level of black humour. And soon we gather that it is reminiscence, because as she writes she is now in her seventies and somehow has attained everything she could possibly dream of – wealth, a place in an elite society and a significant hint of personal history in that she never knew what good food was until she met her second husband. A disappearance indeed - and we are hustled on towards it with the knowledge that the main narrative takes place within one week.

So how does this peripeteia come about? A new counsellor, Rebecca, comes to the correctional facility. She is beautiful, confident, everything Eileen is not. Eileen is soon completely infatuated with her. This is not returned, but as a result, Eileen is drawn into a crime which compels her disappearance. An action which to say the least, is morally disputable leads to her abandoning the Dodge on the high road behind her with a compromising item left on board. She hitch-hikes to New York and whatever strange events she will undoubtedly meet there.

So the theme shows a horribly dysfunctional family situation between extremely disturbed people leading to an ambiguous escape. 

Enter Elmet. Fiona Mozley’s first novel drew much praise but much criticism as well. I felt it undeservedly ended up as the ugly duckling of the 1917 shortlist. The setting is about as far removed from X-ville as you can get. Elmet was the last of the old Celtic kingdoms, finally conquered by the Angles in the 7th century. It stretched across Yorkshire, from the Calder Valley eastwards to Selby. Ted Hughes lived in it, at Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge, and wrote a cycle of poems about it in his Remains of Elmet. For centuries it had the reputation of being a refuge of lawlessness, crime and outrage, where normal rules did not apply. In Mozley’s Elmet it still has. A wild land which plays by its own rules.

Fiona Mozley’s unsettling, gothic and very noir novel is set in the present day. Yet it still seems to be acted out in the Middle Ages, even though Elmet’s eastern boundary is the East Coast main line, which becomes the symbol of escape (quick complaint – the Pendolino, the tilting train, only runs on the West Coast main line because of the curves round Shap, and never on the much straighter ex-LNER route. I do wish authors would get railway facts straight). Once again, a dysfunctional family tries to survive, by twisting reality to its own ends. Cathy and Daniel are brother and sister looking after their Daddy, cossetting him, cutting his hair and seeing he is comfortable, not out of fear but fierce caring love. ‘Daddy’ though, is entirely the wrong title for this fearful, strong law unto himself. He is a bare-knuckle boxer, part of an underground sport controlled by rapacious landowners. Because he is the best of all local fighters, they use him as a sort of gambling cash cow.

But Daddy and his family are playing a dangerous game hidden just beneath Elmet law – which is a sort of home-made shariah controlled by the landowners. The family lives in a house Daddy built with filched materials on ground which was not his. They live a primitive life very close to nature, of foraging and hunting. For the long periods when Daddy is away fighting, Cathy and Danny have to fend for themselves, which they do effectively. Cathy, the elder is a strong character who takes charge and Danny accepts her authority.

But this arrangement is frail. Daddy is not the fighting pawn that the landowners hope he is. He has broken the tyranny of their private legal system and the relationship must break as result. There is a conclusion of harsh, even appalling, certainly tragic, violence which, in retrospect, is inevitable from the outset of the novel. And as a result, the frail equilibrium on which the lives of Danny and Cathy has been based is broken irretrievably.

So, is the conclusion nihilistic or a sign of hope? Unlike as in Eileen, there is no suggestion of a more contented life as a result. Danny is making his escape from Elmet alone. He is looking for Cathy, who has disappeared. His only way out is the railway. Has she gone north or south? He makes a guess and starts the long trek along the tracks towards York. Another dysfunctional family, another unlooked for but inevitable crisis and another ambiguous escape. 

And so to Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. I have to say that in the end, although I found it the most challenging of the three to read, I also found it the most satisfying, although for a large part of the novel, especially at the beginning, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I had already picked up from the pre-publicity that it was a retelling of Oedipus Rex but for at least half of her novel I was thinking ‘well, you could have fooled me.’ But by about page 100 I was suddenly clear about it. It is a sort of transgender version and I realised what it was that had obscured it for me.

This novel is a stylistic tour-de-force. I love the word ‘liminal’ but I don’t think I completely knew what it meant until I read Everything Under. The setting, as it is with the other two novels, is more or less identifiable. It is near Oxford, partly on the Isis, partly on the canal. Everybody lives on boats and, as the main character is a lexicographer working on a dictionary, it must be somewhere within commuting distance of OUP. But there’s never going to be an Everything Under tour of the city and its surrounding waterways. Once again, we have a separate ‘other’ reality in which normal rules do not apply.

Even so, Everything Under is a brilliant title. To me the whole distillation of reality was somehow misty, elusive, as if all seen from ‘under water’. Actuality was, as it were, refracted. Meanings, events, and motivations were presented obliquely: the reader constantly has to work hard. Many might not have the patience. But those who have will get a really rewarding experience. The novel’s idiom is flowing and seductive and yet it is needle-sharp in transmitting the significance of actions and consequences and I found it almost mesmerising.

Gretel works as a lexicographer because her early life with her mother on board a houseboat was close, exclusive and led to the development of a private language, with words such as ‘harpiedoodle’ and ‘effing’. Is lexicography a connection with the ‘real’ world? Certainly it’s almost the only feature of the novel which is not liminal. But her mother disappears and Gretel spends years looking for her, until she receives information that she has been found and goes to check. Yes, this has been a dysfunctional relationship, but the full extent of this dysfunction only appears gradually and there is still a long way to go.

Meanwhile other characters not so much drift as materialise into the story, for example Margot, who later resurfaces as Marcus, Charlie, Fiona the transgender medium who, like Tiresias, ‘old man with wrinkled dugs’ in the play by Sophocles, gives a terrible warning. They seem to appear and disappear in a strange dance, into which the underlying Oedipus retelling – which in the end is complete and satisfying in the sense that we recognise how well, though strangely, it has worked – is fulfilled.

And below it all lurks the ‘bonak’, a mythical entity – spirit or monster? - which lurks under water and is responsible, so they say, for all the misfortunes which befall the river and canal folk. Although at the end it appears to have been caught, cooked and eaten and its gamey flesh seems to be rather enjoyed.

The salient Sophoclean features – the abandonment, the patricide and the incestuous sex – appear almost incidentally, almost, as in Horatio’s words, ‘casual slaughters’, and this is of a piece with the ruling liminality. But as I closed the book I felt that I had read something with a wonderful structure, a real sense of form, because, though the story could reach out beyond itself with further consequences, they were not part of it. There was no more to say. I had a real feeling of completeness.

I was pleased that, at the end of our Booker evening, the audience decided that Everything Under was the book they most wanted to read. Nothing to do with my presentation. It’s just that, of these three remarkable books which share strangely similar themes and structures, this was, to me, the best and I feel sad that it did not win the 2018 Man Booker prize.

Eileen is published by Vintage.
Elmet is published by John Murray.
Everything Under is published by Vintage.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE OF ABEL MORGAN by Cynthia Jefferies

Yvonne Coppard is a writer of children’s fiction, non-fiction for adults and occasional columns and articles in a variety of publications. She is currently a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working with businesses and public service organisations to promote clear, understandable English in written communication. See more on her website.

In 1660 Christopher Morgan returns from war and exile in Europe to reunite with his wife and start a new life in rural England. But his hopes for the future are blighted by events that leave him bereaved, impoverished and struggling to care for his young son, Abel. Christopher becomes reluctantly complicit in the activities of a violent and unscrupulous smuggler, Daniel Johnson. Eventually, he finds the strength to take a stand against Daniel: soon afterwards, Abel goes missing.

Here the novel divides into two narrative strands that together weave a heart-wrenching, epic story following the fortunes of Christopher and Abel through the years and across the world. Christopher searches relentlessly for his son. A false lead takes him to Constantinople, where he rescues a young Irish slave boy from a terrible fate but does not find any clue to his own son’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Abel believes that his father is dead and that he has no-one left who cares about him. Enslaved, first to a fisherman and then sold on to a pirate ship, Abel embraces the pirate life and concentrates on survival, whatever the cost. He eventually gains freedom and fortune and settles in Jamaica. He has learned to concentrate on his own survival, whatever the cost to his soul and spirit.

The historical settings for all the locations have been well-researched. Constantinople comes to life so vividly, you can almost smell and taste it. The tale is often dark, but the pace has light and shade and the main characters are convincing and worth the reader’s investment. More than once, Christopher comes tantalisingly close to finding Abel, but is thwarted by timing or circumstance. Both characters lurch from one peril to another; time and again they are beaten down by fate and circumstance. They are forced to battle with malevolent forces, both within themselves and without. And yet they rise, and rise again, finding unexpected crumbs of kindness or an extended hand from a stranger, even in the cruellest of circumstances. The reader’s hope is never quite lost.

There are many satisfying themes in this novel for those who seek them. Love and loss, the compulsion to connect; the fragility of moral integrity under pressure; the possibility of redemption and the triumph of the human spirit over unspeakable odds are among them. But most of all this is a refreshingly old fashioned, action-packed historical story.

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is published by Allison and Busby.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Guest review by Graeme Fife: JITTERBUG PERFUME by Tom Robbins - an appreciation

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. In spring 2019, Thames and Hudson will publish a revised edition of his books on the French Alps. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy books 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.' 

‘Quantum physics suggests a universal balance between immutable laws and random playfulness.’


Some critics don’t take Tom Robbins seriously despite the persuasive force of his intellectual quick-stepping, his discursus on mysteries of the spirit, his challenge to lazy thought, because he is playful and comic. Robbins finds this puzzling. ‘Comic writing is not only more profound than tragedy, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to write’. Thus an exchange in Jitterbug Perfume:

‘The universe does not have laws.’

‘It has habits.’

‘And habits can be broken.’

Jitterbug Perfume skips between mediaeval Bohemia, Paris, New Orleans and Seattle. Its cast: a one thousand year-old janitor, a genius Seattle waitress, the proprietress of a New Orleans perfumerie, two old-school French parfumiers, a whacko doctor, founder of the Last Laugh Foundation for the exploration of immortality and brain science. And Pan, for his ‘pranksterish overturning of decorum…his leer and laughter when we took our blaze of mammal intellect too seriously’. When Christ was born, they say, the cry went up: ‘Great Pan is dead’, and no wonder that the humourless authoritarians of the church, horse-whipping childish mockery and a propensity to fun with the cured leather of doctrine, identified sulphur-eyed Satan as a revenant of the cloven-footed, horned, shaggy, sulphurous stinky god of panic, a male divinity associated with female values. And there’s the rub. Wild Pan, the embodiment of Nature’s green fuse, represents the dichotomy in our human nature, between the unruly impulses of our desires - for example, susceptibility to the seduction of perfume - and the timid reserve enjoined by the strictures of pious comportment and polite conformity. Wild shagginess against refinement. Into that dichotomy, as a nymph in this novel says, religion drove a wedge, and ‘Christ, who slept with no female…who played no music instrument, recited no poetry, and never kicked up his heels by moonlight, this Christ was the perfect wedge. Christianity is merely a system for turning priestesses into handmaidens, queens into concubines and goddesses into muses’.

Is that playful or serious? Comic or tragic?

In the comedy of Jitterbug Perfume, as in all Robbins’s work, there is a fervent drive to reappraise what we may, laughingly, call received wisdom. The thousand year-old janitor (you’ll have to read the novel) concludes that whatever else his unprecedented life had been it had been fun, ‘he’d grown convinced that play – more than piety, more than charity or vigilance – was what allowed human beings to transcend evil.’

Not jokes. Jokes are sterile.

Robbins is clear on that, and however you characterise the humour – ‘They fell asleep smiling. It is to erase the fixed smiles of sleeping couples that Satan trained roosters to crow at five in the morning’… ‘She needed help but God was in a meeting whenever she rang’… ‘the sky over Seattle resembled cottage cheese that had been dragged nine miles behind a cement truck’ - it subverts, teases, prises and jostles sclerosed prejudice out of its hermetically sealed plastic wrappings.

Robbins unashamedly takes an intellectual blowtorch to the convention forbidding author’s point of view. He intervenes, he broadcasts paradox and animadversion with fiery delight and carefree disdain for accepted practice. He writes with the exuberance and mischief of a Lord of Misrule riding a Harley Davidson through the small towns of the Bible Belt and calling the god-fearing citizens out to a carnival jitterbug with a rowdy band and a celestial firework display, votaries of the great god Pan on bar duty.

But where (I hear you say) does the perfume come in?

‘Perfume, fundamentally, is the sexual attractant of flowers, or, in the case of civet and musk, of animals.’ The argument proceeds: perfume as the smell of creation, signal of Earth’s regenerative powers. No wonder the church equated perfume with sin, stench with holiness. Even Satan, downwind, recoiled from the odour of sanctity. For the perfume that masks body reek is an implicit invitation to sexual licence.

Robbins begins – and ends - Jitterbug Perfume with that most intense of vegetables, the beet. Its pollen is the base note for a scent which permeates the entire novel, a joyous fantasia on immortality and the logical impasse of death: a verifiable fact with elusive meaning or else meaning applicable to any thought process that seems if not reasonable, at least excusable.

‘The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold onto your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means:




PS It’s also a cracking story.

Jitterbug Perfume is published by No Exit Press.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Guest review by Jon Appleton: CLOCK DANCE by Anne Tyler

Jon Appleton is a freelance editor and writer based in London.

A new novel by Anne Tyler is an event for legions of readers the world over – myself included. Her detractors lay a charge she has claimed herself: that she ends up writing the same sort of book each time. The Baltimore setting, the indecisive men, the domineering mothers (she is always much harsher on her female characters), the messy congress of family life across the years are all familiar ingredients. But for me, her novels are far more exciting than comfort reads. I eagerly anticipate her books thinking, ‘How will she do it this time?’

If you haven’t discovered Tyler’s work, I’d describe each as an alchemy of subtle shifts in her characters’ lives and their urgent, all-consuming desire for change – which is achieved to different degrees in different novels. (Maybe that’s the factor that helps determine people’s choice of their favourite Tyler novel, or perhaps whether one book is less satisfying than another.) In Clock Dance, Tyler waits until the very end before twisting the story away from the path it would seem to be taking. But she leaves us shaken many times before that.

Clock Dance is the story of Willa Drake, whom we first meet in 1967 as a child who smooths over the ructions created by her volatile mother; who helps shield her sister from their father’s weak attempts to keep the household running. Willa is far better suited to adulthood so, after a longish chapter, we meet her in 1977, as a student making a trip home with the man who is to be her first husband.

The first violent nudge towards change occurs on the flight – her seatmate pulls a gun on her, an incident which is hidden from all around her and ends without drama but which revisits her, meaningfully, years later. We jump then to 1997, when she loses her husband in a car crash. Twenty years later, we see her taking another flight, this time to Baltimore with her pompous second husband, Peter.

Willa’s purpose is to help care for an ex-girlfriend of her grown-up son who is recovering from a gunshot wound. Arriving in Baltimore, Willa and Peter find Denise in hospital, while Denise’s young daughter Cheryl (not Willa’s granddaughter, but why not? - Tyler’s characters are often impulsive), is running the household (a task that seems to fall to her generally). As the chapters unfold, Willa and Cheryl form a bond – Tyler is as good at evoking the frustrations of youth as those of late adulthood – but it’s not the only new relationship Willa tentatively pursues that pushes her away from her old life towards something new.

The 1967, 1977 and 1997 chapters conclude a little before the middle of the book when the story jumps to 2017 and starts again at Chapter 1. Everything has happened already but we’re still hungry for every insight, every laugh, every lump in the throat Tyler offers. It’s as if these weeks in Baltimore are Willa’s chance to work through her past and potentially emerge at the end as the person she wants to be next. They are delightful and show Tyler on top form.

In a recent interview, Tyler said, ‘I love, as a reader, to be trusted to get what happens in between times. I don’t need to know about every year.’ When I first read The Beginner’s Goodbye I decided it was a chapter short. (It has nine, when nearly everything she’d written up till then had ten or twenty.) But then, even without re-reading, I realised I was wrong. As I thought about the book, everything I needed to know was there.

The gaps in Clock Dance are revealing. We don’t see Willa’s self-indulgent, often nasty mother after 1967, but we’re all too aware of the shadow she casts. We see so little of Willa’s sons, but we learn that the flipside of being a ‘predictable’ mother, as Willa has deliberately styled herself, is being one from whom it’s all too easy to detach yourself. Tyler’s skill is such that we don’t always need the words – their absence is imprinted in the spaces between.

Clock Dance is a playful, funny and engaging novel from possibly our finest living novelist. It isn’t my favourite – try Back When We Were Grown-ups, Earthly Possessions or A Patchwork Planet – but it’s a book I wouldn’t be without.

Clock Dance is published by Vintage.