Monday, 18 November 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: UNCLE SILAS by Sheridan Le Fanu

"How tricks and illusions undercut a sense of reality, the deliberate attempt to disturb the balance of a rational mind ..."

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.'

Le Fanu’s best-known novel, Uncle Silas, concludes with what may stand as a central fixation in his work, framed by the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Maud:

‘This world is a parable – the habitation of symbols – the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape.’

The statement might read as a lofty philosophical animadversion on Nature’s mysteries and the unexplained phenomena of the universe whereas, in this context, it delves into the darker corners and impulses of the human psyche, the machinations of the unprincipled, the bid to influence, manipulate and subdue the innocent. Deceit, deception, undermining trust become instruments of domination. But…slow down, you horses of the night, we must tread more circumspectly.

Ann Radcliff, author of a number of Gothic novels, ushered in a new genre of fiction which extended interest in the mind’s darker impulses. Sophocles’s introduction of the third character in tragedy, Webster’s obsession with ‘the skull beneath the skin’, Hamlet’s ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ laid the groundwork. Romantic poets deepened the theme of spiritual torment and angst, the irresistible lure of ‘the dark tower’, and the Victorian novelists ran riot with all the possibilities that these new areas of insight opened up, from Hogg’s Justified Sinner to the shivery crime novels of Wilkie Collins. Le Fanu is part of that coterie of writers whose work is forged in the inquiry into how tricks and illusions undercut a sense of reality, the deliberate attempt to disturb the balance of a rational mind, a sinister interference with a fragile psyche as a prelude to betrayal, fraud, incarceration, violence.

The effect of these scary workings is to instil terror, causing such a radical shift in the foundation of what a character believes to be so that they cease to have any firm grip on what is actually so. Radcliff draws a distinction between terror – perhaps what the character in the novel experiences – and horror, the effect of that on the reader:

‘Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.’ (On the Supernatural)…terror, ‘dread, fright,’ and horror, the bristling of nape hairs.

Le Fanu is a master at inciting both.

Maud, protected by a reclusive, gloomy father, is a motherless heiress. She tells the story of how she comes to live in the remote Derbyshire home of her uncle, Silas, once a notorious rake, now converted to pious Christianity. And which does she see? Who he was or who he has become? The household is also home to a dissolute male cousin, a simpleton of a female cousin, a dodgy servant with a peg leg, a virago of a French governess. The sombre mansion, Bartram-Haugh, in vast parkland - mists at dawn and dusk, eerie noises and flitting movements, essentials of Le Fanu’s atmospherics – contributes to the vivid painting of scene, a very cinematic trope, much favoured in fiction of the time. There was fog, they used fog. And fog as symbol, because the conspiracy to deprive Maud of her wealth hinges on befogging her so that she is at sea, uncertain of where solid grounding is.

Her father dies. Now she is alone and unprotected, tied by a promise to remain a guest of Silas for three and a half years, until she achieves her maturity. If she dies in that time, the money goes to Silas. Her father appears to her in a dream (hallucination?):

‘This night my dear father’s face troubled me – sometimes white and sharp as ivory, sometimes strangely transparent like glass, sometimes all hanging in cadaverous folds, always with the same unnatural expression of diabolical fury. From this dreadful vision I could only escape by sitting up and staring at the light.’

She does, eventually, fall asleep, but in a dream hears her father’s voice, distinctly ‘outside the bed-curtain: “Maud, we shall be late at Bartram-Haugh.”’

Outside the bed-curtain…she’s confined in a four-poster, vulnerable, a prey to what prowls beyond it, and now what is she to believe of what she sees and hears? There is even passing reference to Bluebeard at one point.

Forewarned by whisper, enigmatic comment and her own intuition, she manages to evade the attempt to overpower her – with drugged claret – and watches, from a hiding place, the murder of a victim intended to be her.

It ends…but you must see how, and then move on, perhaps, to Wylders Hand.

Uncle Silas is published by Penguin Classics; Wylders Hand is published by Clean Bright Classics.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Guest review by Pippa Goodhart: OLD BAGGAGE by Lissa Evans

"An absorbing story of faulty, empathetic, endearing, infuriating characters one truly cares about."

Pippa Goodhart has written over a hundred books for children. Best known is her picture book You Choose, illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Her most recent children’s novel, The Great Sea Dragon Discovery, set in her home village of Grantchester, has just won this year’s Young Quills Award for best historical children’s novel for 10-13 year olds. More on Pippa's website. 

This is an absolute joy of a book. I loved it so much on first reading that I deliberately slowed my pace in order to savour it. I then set it as my book group read choice, and every one of that opinionated and interesting group also loved it, which is a rarity! Everybody liking a book can sometimes kill off debate about it. But this book gave us much to discuss, especially since we are of a generation who remember from childhood the elderly spinster characters created by the First World War’s cull of young men, some of whom had notable political and social opinions.

Mattie, in her fifties, was a Suffragette, as was her lodger Florrie, ‘the Flea’, Lee and various other wonderfully individual characters in the book. But they are living in a Britain that feels it has moved on from that particular fight. Living on the edge of Hampstead Heath, Mattie decides to set up a club for girls, promoting political and social debate, good healthy exercise, games and competitions … and javelin throwing, which doesn’t go down well with her stuffy retired Major neighbour. Set in 1928, this is a story with heart, much historical interest, great wit and humour, and utterly brilliant writing. I’m not going to give away more of the plot because it’s a delight to discover for yourself, but there are certainly uncomfortable parallels between the time it depicts and our present time. Maddie has never had to work for her income, giving an uncomfortable edge to her strong ideas about how working class girls and women should behave. There is hypocrisy, but isn’t she still mostly right in what she thinks? Some in our reading group had fresh experience from the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, demanding government action to heal the climate, and yet these are people who frequently fly off on holiday, some have more than one home, and so on. Similarly, hypocrites, but right? On a different tack, there is talk of ‘laws upheld by those who were apparently beyond the reach of it themselves’. Much food for thought and discussion, but, first and foremost, an absorbing story of faulty, empathetic, endearing, infuriating characters one truly cares about.

Let me give you some small tasters of that brilliant writing. We get an instant feel for Mattie when, early on, she ‘swished past like a Daimler.’ How many of us recognise her problem of middle-aged eyesight when she tells her optician, ‘I find I am living in a perpetual Pissaro.’ The Major next door ‘looks like a classical statue carved out of brisket.’ Florrie, in a sulk, ‘draped the oblong of pastry across the pie dish with the visage of someone easing a flag over a coffin.’ Teenage Ines, part of Mattie’s club, was ‘participating, though only in the way a stick participates when borne along by a stream.’ … And so much more. The period language is a delight too. ‘You don’t look quite the thing.’ ‘She is an absolute pill.’ Do read the book and find your own favourites!

For those who may have read other books by Lissa Evans (do try her children’s books as well as her adult ones), let me just place Old Baggage in book context. Evans’ The Crooked Heart was written and published before Old Baggage, but Old Baggage is a prequel to Crooked Heart, explaining the odd pairing of a couple of characters who nagged for further attention.

Old Baggage is published by Black Swan.

Monday, 4 November 2019

WILDING by Isabella Tree, reviewed by Linda Newbery

"Essential, even exciting, reading for anyone interested in nature, wildlife, ecosystems and climate change." 

Linda Newbery is the editor of Writers Review. She has written widely for young readers and is currently completing a new adult novel.

'Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch.' Wendell Berry

What a fascinating book this is! It covers so much, overturning several preconceptions along the way, that I hardly know where to start. So I'll begin at the end, where Isabella Tree comments on the benefits of natural surroundings for mental health, and the sad fact that many people nowadays have little exposure - through choice or circumstance - to wild nature. Readers of this blog probably know that Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris were spurred to work together on The Lost Words - a beautiful book which won Jackie Morris a well-deserved Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration - by news that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was ditching such words as acorn, bluebell, wren and otter to make space for  terms deemed more relevant to today's world: celebrity, blog, broadband and suchlike. Macfarlane and Morris's widely-acclaimed collaboration is a timely and important book, and so in its different way is Wilding. 

Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell, inheriting his family estate of 3,500  acres, at first continued the arable and dairy farming already established there, but found that their hard-baked clay soil did not produce good yields. Could there be a way of letting their land fulfill its potential - not for commerce, but for wildlife? Inspired by a Dutch project on land earmarked for industry but then abandoned, they learned how the presence of grazing animals - greylag geese, then large herbivores - had produced surprising results; close grazing kept the water fringes clear and tree growth in check, providing habitat for a wealth of insects, birds and small mammals. It's often assumed that any fertile land, if left untended, will become mature woodland; but, as Isabella Tree points out, this notion overlooks the presence of grazing herbivores such as the ancient aurochs, tarpan and bison which preceded human intervention, later replaced by deer, domesticated cattle and pigs. Perhaps, she thinks, we have the wrong idea about ancient forests. She quotes Oliver Rackham: "To the medievals, a Forest was a place of deer, not of trees. If a Forest happened to be wooded it formed part of the wood-pasture tradition."

Wondering if this minimal-intervention approach would work with their own land, Isabella and Charlie sought grants from English Nature (now Natural England), the government's advisory body. Unlike most applicants for funding they had no clear plan for what was in effect an experiment: their plan was, over twenty-five years, to see what would happen if they fenced their land to make it deer-proof, a major expense, and introduced Longhorn cattle, fallow and later red deer, and Exmoor ponies. As in the Dutch project, they chose tough, sturdy animals that could fend and forage for themselves and withstand all weathers.

Copyright Knepp Wildland
Of course the Knepp project couldn't fully replicate natural ecosystems without including apex predators - lynxes or wolves - to keep the numbers of cattle, ponies and deer in check.The Dutch project, leaving weak and elderly animals to die from illness or starvation, had met with justifiable opposition; at Knepp, with the land crossed by footpaths, such a hands-off approach couldn't be justified on humane, aesthetic or even practical grounds. So the grazing animals are culled, and their meat sold. Apparently grass-fed beef is delicious, and pasture grazing is certainly the most environmentally efficient way of producing meat, although it's a luxury few can afford.

Copyright Knepp Wildland
The Knepp experiment, now sixteen years on, has produced inspiring results. Iconic species such as turtle dove, nightingale and purple emperor butterfly have moved in; beavers have been introduced, their dams creating marshy wetland which supports wading birds, amphibians and bog plants. The softening of water edges is so important for flood defences, another re-think: rather than funnelling water into hard-edged channels, it can effectively be dispersed and soaked up, to the benefit of pasture and wildlife. Another keystone creature is the humble earthworm, whose importance has been underestimated to the detriment of soil health.

Copyright Knepp Wildland
Few individuals will be able to replicate the Knepp experiment - Tree and Burrell owned a substantial swathe of land and were able to recruit expert help and funding. But I hope their findings will influence government and NGO policy on land management and conservation. Among many revelations, perhaps the most significant is that if we intervene less, nature can be trusted to restore itself. Whether there's time, in the face of climate breakdown, to attempt this on a wider scale, is impossible to know - we may be too far into our reckless uncontrolled global experiment with the world's climate and ecosystems.

I'd say that Wilding is essential, even exciting, reading for anyone interested in nature, wildlife, ecosystems and climate change - and I think most readers will find surprises and revelations to make them see the countryside, and our role in it, with fresh eyes. And I don't want to end without giving a flavour of the writing: although packed with information, comparisons and statistics, Wilding also has moments of lyrical joy, such as this description of a nightingale's song: "It throws the ear with unexpectedness ... florid trills, first rich and liquid, then mockingly guttural and discordant; now a sweet insistence of long, lugubrious piping; then bubbling chuckles and indrawn whistles; and then, suddenly, nothing - a suspended, teasing hiatus before the cascades and crescendos break forth again ... these pulsating strains issuing from tiny vocal chords belting out like organ pipes, throwing the music of the tropics into the English night air."

Wilding is published by Picador.

Find out more on the Knepp Wildland website.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.10: Haslemere Bookshop. DISAPPEARING EARTH by Julia Phillips, reviewed by Emily Adsett

"I found that the women of this book stayed with me long after I’d finished it."

I run The Haslemere Bookshop with my mum, Sue, and a small team of wonderful booksellers. We’re located on the Surrey/Sussex/Hampshire border and our Tardis of a shop is packed with books- both new and secondhand. We work hard to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and to promote the message that bookshops are for everyone. In 2016 we were regional winners of the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award! In recent years we’ve started to organise author events, and in June we were delighted to host Ben Aaronovitch on his tour of independent bookshops. I have worked in the shop since I was 15 and I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else!

It has been a summer of good books. Some of my favourite authors have brought out long-awaited sequels and hotly anticipated follow-ups! However, the book that has stayed with me, and was ultimately my favourite, was a debut and reached me by way of a glowing recommendation from a friend.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips begins with the abduction of two young girls. I found that the overall plot reminded me of Reservoir Thirteen by Jon McGregor; however, instead of taking place on the English moors, this story is set on Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia. Both books start with a disappearance but then the story moves - each chapter a new perspective. In Disappearing Earth, each perspective is from a woman, either directly or indirectly affected by the abduction. A year passes, and each new chapter brings in a new month while the reader feels that it is increasingly unlikely that the Golosovskaya sisters will be found alive - if at all. At times it’s difficult to understand where new characters fit in, but the thread of the missing girls always appears, binding the story together. I found the structure wonderfully frustrating - just as you were becoming fully absorbed in a character and her story, the narrative would pull back and you’d suddenly be on the other side of the city or in the north of the peninsula following another woman. While this unique arrangement could become quite jarring, I think Phillips pulls it off incredibly well. She wastes no time in setting up the new character, and often in just a few lines you are hooked in again. Some of the stories are just a glimpse into a life: a fleeting (yet action packed!) camping trip; or a widow reflecting on the anniversary of the death of her first husband; while others span weeks or even the whole month.

I found that the women of this book stayed with me long after I’d finished it, one of whom was Ksyusha, who appears early in the story. She is a student at Petropavlovsk University, living with her extrovert cousin Alisa and feeling like an outsider due to her childhood spent in a remote town as the daughter of reindeer herders. The abduction of the sisters has made her overbearing, long-distance boyfriend, Ruslan, even more over-protective; he demands phone calls twice a day and doesn’t like her spending time with others. After joining a dance group at the insistence of her cousin, Ksyusha begins to grow in confidence, and what starts as friendship with a fellow dancer soon turns into a love affair that gives her a freedom and a happiness that she didn’t think possible. There are not many neat and happy endings in Disappearing Earth. This chapter is no exception, and a surprise visit from Ruslan brings her blossoming relationship to an abrupt halt.

You cannot discuss Disappearing Earth without mentioning its sense of place. For me, this was one of the most powerful aspects of the book. I felt transported to this remote area of Russia. The blurb on the back of the book promises “densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes and glassy seas” and I could see it all. Her descriptions of the city of Petropavlovsk with “its buildings dark, parking lots empty and shop repair yards motionless” seem particularly bleak and real. Phillips spent two years living in Russia and has studied the language and culture extensively. For me, a bookseller living in West Sussex, this research pays off and the subtle observations and sensitivity in which she draws the characters gives the book authenticity. However, a recent review by Sarah Moss brings up issues of appropriation and questions Julia Phillips’ right to tell this particular story, a thought which hadn’t crossed my mind on my first read.

Disappearing Earth is a challenging book to review. The clever and complex structure make for an intriguing reading experience but a difficult one to summarise! While maybe not the book for anyone hoping for a straightforward crime thriller, this story offers so much more: an incredible sense of place; thoughtfully written, authentic characters; and, actually - a pretty thrilling final chapter!
Disappearing Earth is published by Scribner UK.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Guest review by Marianne Kavanagh: AUTUMN by Ali Smith

"Funny, sad, affectionate and warm-hearted – a genuine joy to read."

Marianne Kavanagh is an author and journalist. Her third novel Should You Ask Me, and her latest novel Disturbance, are both published by Hodder & Stoughton. More details on her website.

I’ve been aware of Ali Smith for a while. I know she was shortlisted for the Booker in 2014 with How to Be Both, a book in two halves (and printed with either half first, because the order doesn’t matter). But I hadn’t read this, or any of her short stories, or any of her other well-known novels like The Accidental. I started reading Autumn, the first of her quartet of novels about the seasons, quite by chance. And now I’m hooked, I’m hooked, and have no choice but to go back and read everything she’s ever written.

As readers, we’re all very different. We read some books and think, ‘Meh.’ We read others and think, ‘Competent, yes, but where’s its heart?’ And then we get talking to our friends and discover they loved the ones we hated and wept over the ones that left us cold. So Autumn may not be the novel for you. But it’s very rare for me to find a book that overwhelms me quite like this, that leaves me spellbound and happy, the world changed, the future full of hope. Ali Smith passes on her love of language – imagery, wordplay, puns. Her sentences – Penelope Fitzgerald does this for me, too – make you look up and think, re-read, look up again. But there’s a plot pushing the novel forwards, too, and delicious passages that make you laugh (everything to do with rules and regulations), and characters you care about, and a whole back story about the Profumo affair, and women and Pop Art in the 1960s. It’s all set against a background of barbed wire and division, and the kind of rigid, angry place Britain has recently become, which somehow makes the novel both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Smith published Autumn in 2016 just after the referendum, and this is the backdrop to everything. As Elisabeth Demand (one of the central characters) says: ‘It’s like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.’

Dialogue, though, is central to the book. Daniel meets Elisabeth when she’s eight years old (there are 70 years between them). Right from the beginning, he teaches her to question her assumptions with a liveliness and logic that shape her thinking for the rest of her life. I love their discussions, particularly the one about the morality of lying (‘The power of the lie, Daniel said. Always seductive to the powerless’) and the whole sequence about making up stories, which has Daniel – to Elisabeth’s fury – suggesting that Goldilocks might have been a vandal who spray painted her name on the walls of the bears’ house (‘That’s not in the story,’ Elisabeth says. Daniel replies, ‘Who says?’). Maybe it’s because I’m reading Autumn in September 2019 with Trump being impeached and Johnson found guilty by the Supreme Court, but when Daniel says, ‘Whoever makes up the story makes up the world’ I find myself wincing.

I don’t know a lot about visual art. I always feel lost in galleries. But Smith makes Daniel’s passion for painting, which he passes on to Elisabeth, so vivid that I feel I can understand the power of colour and collage. There’s a passage describing a painter at work (‘it was really terribly alone’) that makes me think about the madness of writing novels – the kind of horrible, exhausting struggle that George Orwell described.

Autumn is, I think, a novel of ideas. But it’s securely rooted in everyday British life – daytime TV, family relationships, austerity, overblown officialdom. It’s funny, sad, affectionate and warm-hearted – a genuine joy to read.

Also, Elisabeth Demand would be proud of me. I took Autumn on a week’s holiday to a blustery Greek island. Once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. One afternoon, we went down to the hotel pool which, because of the weather, was completely deserted. I asked the manager if she could turn off the loud dance music echoing round the concrete slabs and palm trees so that I could read my book in peace. ‘But it’s a public area,’ she said. I looked round at the empty sun loungers, the closed umbrellas, the wind rippling the surface of the water. I looked back at the manager. ‘But I am the public,’ I said.

This is what happens with books like this. They teach revolution.

Autumn is published by Penguin. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

Guest review by Jane Rogers: HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie

"A big brave novel where every character has depth and complexity."

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 will be published in November this year.  For more information, see Jane's website. 

In terms of ambition, this is the bravest book I’ve read for a long time. It takes on political and religious extremism and anti-terrorism on the world stage, and deals with the subject confidently and convincingly.

And it does that with great humanity, by exploring the issue through the points of view of five characters who play opposing roles in this drama.

The plot is based on the Greek drama Antigone. Antigone, you may remember, loved her brother, who was killed while fighting. When King Creon said her brother’s body would be denied funeral rites, and must lie unburied outside the city walls, Antigone crept out and buried him. Her punishment was death.

Shamsie has updated the story and created a powerful thriller which deals with British state attitudes to Muslims, and the terrorist group ISIS. The novel is about three British Pakistani siblings whose father abandoned the family in order to fight in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, and whose mother died when they were young. Effectively, they are orphans. The older sister, Isma, has looked after the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and all three are committed Muslims. When the novel opens, Parvaiz has just joined ISIS and gone to Syria. His two sisters are heartbroken that Parvaiz is following in their father’s footsteps, but their reactions are very different. Isma denounces him to the British police, in order to protect her own and Aneeka’s fragile position as daughters of a Muslim father who died en route to imprisonment at Guantanamo. Aneeka, who is completely devoted to her twin, hopes against hope that he will realise he’s made a mistake, and come home. When she finds out that Isma has informed on him, she breaks contact with her sister, raging at her,

"You’ve made our brother not able to come home!" 

Then Aneeka meets Eamonn Lone, son of the first Muslim Home Secretary, Karamat Lone. She decides to seduce him and try to get him to use his influence with his father to allow Parvaiz to return to London.

“I wanted Eamonn to want to do anything for me before I asked him to do something for my brother. Why shouldn’t I admit it? What would you stop at to help the people you love most?”

The seduction works only too well – Aneeka and Eamonn really do fall in love. Parvaiz, meanwhile, is having second thoughts in Syria, where he is working for the media arm of ISIS, recording beheadings. He escapes and contacts Aneeka for help. Eamonn goes to his father the Home Secretary to ask him to permit Parvaiz to return to London. However, Karamat Lone, who is himself a Pakistani-born Muslim, is making a name for himself by being hard on terrorists. Never will he allow Parvaiz home.

The book spins swiftly to its climax: Parvaiz is shot by the ISIS member who recruited him; the Home Secretary announces that the boy’s body cannot be repatriated, and must be buried in Pakistan; Aneeka flies to Karachi for the funeral, and persuades the undertakers to deliver the corpse to a park next to the British embassy. There, beneath a Banyan tree, she scatters rose petals and keeps a grief-stricken vigil over her brother’s body, watched by the TV cameras of all the world. Local firms, moved by her passion and her commitment, bring blocks of ice to refrigerate the body. The public, who initially condemned the terrorist boy and his immoral sister, witness her courage and her sorrow, and a wave of sympathy builds. Natural justice suggests that the body should be decently buried at home in London.

The tragic denouement which ends Aneeka’s life will also topple Karamat Lone. Her victory comes at the cost of her own life (like Antigone’s) but it is, nevertheless, a victory, because she has gained the moral high ground, and the sympathy of both the reader and the public.

There’s a final twist which I won’t give away, because I’ve already given away enough! But I’d like to add a little more on the subject of the book’s humanity. Shamsie evokes empathy for each of her characters. Structurally, it is brilliantly conceived. Isma, the older sister, has the first two chapters; Eamonn Lone has chapters 3 and 4; Parvaiz has chapters 5 and 6; Aneeka has a single chapter, chapter 7; and the final two chapters go to Karamat Lone, Home Secretary and father of Eamonn. So as the novel unfolds the reader learns more of each player’s motives and feelings, and the complexities deepen. There are no villains, life is not that simple. In fact the character the reader feels most immediate sympathy for is Parvaiz.

You might ask how anyone can sympathise with a member of ISIS whose day job is filming people being beheaded. But the answer is, easily enough, when you know the boy’s backstory: his sense of loss and deprivation at his father’s absence, and his guilt at leading a trivial and comfortable existence in London when brave Muslims are putting their lives at risk every day in Syria. He is particularly isolated when Isma his mother-figure moves to the USA, and Aneeka his beloved twin becomes increasingly involved in her own adult life, via the Law degree she is studying for. Parvaiz remains stuck working in a grocery store and obsessively recording street sounds.

"Traitor!" he calls Aneeka, for leaving him behind. He’s mugged in a car park by boys he was at school with, and they take his phone. At this low point Farooq appears; and Farooq is a recruitment agent for ISIS. The reader quickly works out that Farooq was behind the theft of the phone. He returns it to Parvaiz, with apologies, telling him that the stupid thieves didn’t know Parvaiz was the son of a great warrior. Parvaiz is hooked. Farooq claims to have known and fought alongside his father, and plies the lonely boy with stories of his heroism:

"Here was Abu Parvaiz, the first to cross a bridge over a ravine after an earthquake, despite continuing aftershocks, to deliver supplies to those stranded on the other side; here was Abu Parvaiz using the butt of his Kalashnikov as a weapon when the bullets ran out; here was Abu Parvaiz dipping his head into a mountain stream to perform his ablutions and coming up with a beard of icicles, which led to dancing on the riverbank …"

Parvaiz becomes more and more dependent on the flattering friendship of this snake he comes to regard as a surrogate father. Once Parvaiz has been tricked and cajoled into flying to Syria, the kindness ends, and the boy is made to understand that torture and death will follow any disloyalty on his part. He is a captive of ISIS and must pretend fervent agreement with all that his elders say and do, or face brutal punishment. And as a named terrorist, he is banned from re-entering Britain. At 20, his life is over.

This is a big brave novel where every character has depth and complexity. It deservedly won the Women’s Prize for fiction last year. Shamsie is a British/Pakistani writer and this is her seventh novel. To get a sense of Shamsie herself, take a look at her ‘provocation’ in the Guardian in favour of only publishing fiction by women for one whole year!

Home Fire is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Guest review by Katy Evans-Bush: HOMESICK - WHY I LIVE IN A SHED by Catriona Davies

"We're all homesick."

Katy Evans-Bush is a poet (Salt Publishing), an essayist (Penned in the Margins) and a freelance writer and editor. Her blog, Baroque in Hackney, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2012. She is now living in Faversham, Kent, and her memoir of losing her flat, A Far Cry from Hackney, is forthcoming from CB Editions.

When I sat down to start writing my book about losing my flat and spending almost a year homeless, I knew that homelessness — maybe even especially hidden homelessness — is on the rise, but I hadn’t heard of a single book about it. The charities were silent on the subject; ‘hidden’ anything is a bit hard to count. The only two useful headlines in a Google search on ‘middle class homelessness’ were one telling me I would be very unlikely ever to become homeless, and a column in The New Statesman, by Nicholas Lezard, that was actually about me.

In July I discovered a new book, called Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed, by Catrina Davies — and let’s make no bones about it, this is an intensely political book. Catrina Davies was living in a shared house in Bristol, in a box room looking onto a brick wall. ‘Rent was a monthly trauma’. She was so consumed with the anxiety of money and ‘staying eradicated’ for monthly inspections (as she was off the lease) that she couldn’t work on the book she was trying to write.

She begins at the moment it all boils over: hunched on her bed, as her rowing housemates smash plates in the kitchen, she escapes into a tour of her old neighbourhood in Cornwall on Google Earth. She gets to the corrugated shack that used to house her father’s business — and in the days that follow, almost without meaning to, she makes a decision.

Homesick tells how Davies went to live in the shed. Instead of Virgil, she has Henry David Thoreau as a guide. She describes in minute detail the condition of the shed, the dynamic with neighbours, the reactions of her family and others, and how she eventually went legal (she still lives in the shed). Just as importantly, she contextualises how she came to fall foul of the housing crisis, which starts in her childhood. She talks about her mother’s travails as a private renter. (Private renting last year surpassed relationship breakdown as the number one cause of homelessness in London.) She is very clear about how, as a poor renter, you are effectively supporting a landlord.

She describes the local economy of Land’s End in detail, from the big summer houses lying vacant all year to the low-paid part-time work available to service them. Her sister and a few other people pay their mortgages by moving out of their homes in the summer — to sleep in fields, or vans — and renting them out to holiday people.

The first chapter starts with an epigraph from Walden: ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life that is required to be exchanged for it, either immediately or in the long run’.

Davies’ memoir is also an attempt to glean meaning from her experience and its context. Her other guide is an old two-edition Oxford English Dictionary, the condensed one with the magnifying glass. She likes facts, and she looks things up.

‘I pulled out my phone and Googled the average wage for someone working full-time in Cornwall. My phone came back with £17,264. Half the houses in the window were on sale for more than half a million pounds. I ignored the houses in the window and Googled the average price of a house in Cornwall. My phone came back with £206,323. I typed in a little over the average wage — £18,000 — and estimated my outgoings at roughly £200 a month. the Halifax mortgage calculator said I would be allowed to borrow £51,000.’

It’s not just London. She is clear and insistent that what we need to do, to regain any sort of sustainable society, is recalibrate how we think about places. There is a field that gets sold in the course of the book. There is trauma, there’s making sense of her childhood, and there’s learning to go forward, but she can only do that last because of one thing. Her father actually owns the shed.

We need to recalibrate how we think about who we are: there are old friends whose paths have diverged irremediably from hers, and her different position in the place where she grew up is one of the most searching aspects of the book: ’I thought about my friend, how we had started off equal, then grown less and less equal over the years… Her story was intact. The structures her childhood had built were still standing…’

When I was homeless, one of my biggest anxieties was that I felt like a fraud: I looked fine, I had the same clothes on, I was still even working (some). Davies addresses this exact point in a characteristic way, writing: ‘I knew I was one of the luckiest people on the planet ... I wasn’t waking up on the side of the street in a cardboard box … Not yet, anyway ... I was safe and warm and educated. I had no right to feel miserable.’ But she did have a right to feel crippled by the anxiety and precarity of it all.

This is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, always interesting, deeply important book.

Homesick - Why I Live in a Shed is published by Riverrun.