Friday 31 May 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch out attention.
Like many children in the Anglosphere, I grew up on retellings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In them, as a rule, heroes are allowed but one fatal flaw. And gods are either cardboard cut-outs or petulant humans with super-powers. Madeline Miller’s gift is to flesh out those stereotypes of myth and legend and give them fully formed lives of their own.

Seven years ago, when I reviewed Miller's The Song of Achilles, I ended by looking forward to her promised retelling of the Odyssey, with Odysseus – one of The Song’s most intriguing characters – as its central character. What Miller has delivered instead is a tale told by Circe, the nymph – or witch – who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. In doing so, she reveals Odysseus in a fresh perspective – both hero and, in his own way, monster.

But Circe’s story stretches back long before her meeting with Odysseus and survives well after his death. Miller picks up the multiple threads of her life from different myths and weaves them into a rich and complex tapestry. What is it life to be born the daughter of a Titan – a lesser god, immortal yet all but powerless, subject to the whims of Titans and Olympians alike? What does it mean that she becomes a witch? And how, and why?

And what of those whose lives intertwine with hers? Prometheus. Scylla. Pasiphae. Daedalus. Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope. Miller delivers them all as fully realised, complex characters.

Miller succeeds in finding a balance between Circe as someone we can relate to, but also someone who is not merely human. You can look at Circe as someone who survives an abusive childhood, sexual assault and abandonment. Who is deeply wounded and draws on her own resources to heal herself.

“All my life had been murk and depth, but I was not part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.”

Yet we are never allowed to forget that her immortality gives her both powers and limitations .

“Guilt and shame, remorse, ambivalence, those are foreign countries to our kind, which must be learned stone by stone.”

An even greater achievement than The Song of Achilles, the breadth and scope of Miller’s imaginings here are breathtaking.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Literature

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. The Bees by Laila Paul

Avoid If You Dislike: Myths given depth and form

Perfect Accompaniment: Olives, cheese and wine

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday 30 May 2019

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Sometimes in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low metal skies, never when one is happy.

Diana Evans' Ordinary People is the slow meandering study of the dissolution of two marriages.

It’s been done before, of course. But these four people are not the usual white suburbanites of such tales. They are Black Londoners. And that changes the texture of the story and the nature of the strains upon their marriage. Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie come from the kind of backgrounds that Afua Hirsch writes about in Brit(ish) or Akala in Natives. Melissa’s mother is a Nigerian women, who still carries with her elements of her traditional beliefs. Damian’s father is a Jamaican man who was often too wrapped up in the struggle against racism to remember to be a father ...

The story opens with the election of Obama and is rocked by the death of Michael Jackson. Over and above the usual strains on married life - money, work, bringing up children - lie  whole other set of pressures. When a young black kid is stabbed on Michael and Melissa’s patch, there is a tension between Melissa’s visceral need to get away from London’s knife crime and the threat it poses to her children, and Michael’s need to live among people who look like him.

Yet this is very much London. Michael and Melissa live on the edge of Crystal Park, and the slow disintegration of the once magnificent Great Exhibition becomes a metaphor for the disintegration of their marriage – even as it reminds us of the role of Empire in bringing Black people to live in Britain. (“We are here because you were there,” as Stuart Hall once said.) It manifests itself in a kind of haunting of their house, where they both feel increasingly out of place.

Evans’ situation may be domestic, but her language is lyrical: “Long clouds lay out, some moving and pink and slipping away, and at one end, in the south, the mood slid full, round and golden into a case of silver wisps, until it was swallowed, whole.”

The style of the writing is close and intimate – and yet at the same time, slightly detached, as if we were a roving camera following the four characters around, without ever quite slipping inside them.

“His love for her was still deep and wide, it shattered him, it was destroying him.”

In the end, the pathos of the story lies in the fact that love on its own is not always enough to sustain a marriage.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Literature

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Celeste Ng, Carole Shields, Anne Tyler

Avoid If You Dislike:
Intimate inspections of a marriage

Perfect Accompaniment: Barbecued pork belly and rather too much beer

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 22 May 2019

The String Games by Gail Aldwin

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Nim’s family life is shifting. Dad has left and Mum’s happiness revolves around her new friend Dee. That summer holiday in France, Nim’s life changes forever. She notices boys. They notice her. Her little brother Josh is annoying and embarrassing and always underfoot. Until he disappears.

That childhood trauma imprints itself on her adult psyche, shrouding her outlook in grief and endless questions. Finally, she chooses to return to the scene and find some answers.

The String Games is aptly titled, drawing the reader into the world of Imogen/Nim, Josh and Maxime, while leaving us up in the air and uncertain. The reader feels every bit as clueless and on shifting sands as the characters themselves.

This is a psychological drama a cut above the average in that the story is more about reaction than action, process rather than procedure. Aldwin blends her dark and light with an artistic touch, leaving the reader with just enough detail to ask ‘What would I do?’

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson, A Child in Time by Iain McEwan

Avoid if you don’t like: Long-term grief, loss, a child’s point of view

Ideal accompaniments: Vanilla ice cream, a cider shandy and Les Négresses Vertes with C’est pas la mer à boire

Genre: Literary fiction, Coming of Age

Available here

Thursday 16 May 2019

The Stopping Places: a Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian le Bas

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In a Jhalak Prize longlist dominated this year (2019) by non-fiction books, this one stood out for me. It struck me as I read it that anti-Roma prejudice could be called ‘the last non-taboo’ – a bigotry to which many otherwise liberal members of the white middle classes would still admit to without blushing.

It is also a voice rarely heard. Almost my only other encounter with non-romanticised writing about contemporary Romanies was at the 2011 Sanctuary London event, when New Zealand author Garth Cartwright read from his book Princes Among Men, an account of his travels with the gypsy musicians in the mahalas (ghettos) of Eastern Europe – and even then, that was writing ABOUT Romanies, not the voice of a Roma author. I am sure part of that is my failure to look, but it is certainly a voice is desperate need of boosting.

Damian le Bas comes from a long line of English Romanies based around Surrey. He was raised in a Romany family, speaks the Romani language and has suffered his fair share of anti-Roma prejudice. But because he is of mixed blood – with fair skin and fair hair – even some of his own family don’t fully accept him as a true Gypsy (the word, always capitalised, that he himself most often uses to describe his people).

So one autumn he sets out in a white transit van to discover the aitchin tans – stopping places – used by Romanies and Travellers around the country. He starts with the ones his family have used for generations – Pagham’s Copse, Butler’s Down, Messenger’s Meadow, names that are unlikely to appear on any map.

Then he branches out, travelling around the country, going to famous horse fairs like Horsmonden in Kent and Appleby in Cumbria. He crosses the channel to attend the annual ceremony of Sara-la-Kali in Petit Camargue – where the Manouche (French Romanies) commemorate the arrival of the first Gypsy in Europe. He follows the trail of the Welsh Gypsies of Lake Bala – said to be the home of the purest form of Romani spoken in Britain. (Though why, le Bas asks, is English praised for its ability to adapt, to taken on board words from other languages and to invent new ones, and yet Romani scorned for the same adaptability?) At his furthest point north, finds the site in Scotland of the first recorded Gypsy presence in Britain, at the beginning of the 16thC.

His writing throughout is richly evocative – as in this description, early in the book, of his family’s flower selling business at Petersfield market.

“There were boxes of daffodils packed squeaky tight; tall green buckets of chrysanthemums, yellow and copper and pink, stargazer lilies that burst into purple and white streaked with orange. There were little black buckets of freesias, their buds like fruit humbug sweets sucked to a tight bright core...”

In the course of le Bas’s year long journey discovers the rigours of living on the road through winter, and the joys of the summer. He rediscovers some of the tricks and habits that made such a life possible. He encounters friendliness among settled folk who remember Gypsies as season workers in hop fields and on fruit farms, and rare hostility from fellow Romanies determined to maintain old demarcations.

By the end of the year, le Bas has begun to come to terms with his dual identity, reflecting:

“I am at the roadside, miles from anyone I know, and yet still in my place, inside my home, my own little world. I feel a mounting dislocation form the constant need for an endpoint ... I’ve lost the constant need to get somewhere.
We are all somewhere, I tell myself. I go back to the van and put the key in the igniting, in no great hurry to hear the engine start.”

The way of life that le Bas’s great grandmother, Nan, grew up with is gone, and with it some terrible hardships. Yet le Bas shows there was a time when Romany life slotted in with the seasonal nature of farm work and a kind of coexistence was possible. The present day almost complete lack of tolerance by settled communities of Travellers and Romanies is, in the end , in the interests of no one.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro; Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Princes Among Men by Garth Cartwright.

Avoid If You Dislike: Pulling back layers of romanticism and demonisation

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea brewed by the side of the road

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 8 May 2019

A Stranger in Paris by Karen Webb

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

What could have been a dull memoir of any British au-pair arriving in France is given a sincere emotional charge by an exceptional heroine. 

The naïvete of the gauche yet observant nanny makes the reader both cringe and smile. The gossamer hopes of her romances set against the expectations of the household set up moments of delight and sadness.

This is a hiccupy, awkward and yet charming insight into the British abroad. There are times when you want to give almost every character a shake. The nuances of cultural difference are mountains not molehills to this young woman. Overconfident, underprepared but always optimistic, our heroine stumbles from situation to situation, slipping from the dangerous to the futile with blithe belief. 

The characterisation is uneven but when it works, the personae leap off the page. Most importantly, this book conveys the pumice stone of cultural interaction. Travelling changes people, almost always for the better. The gradual acclimatisation is a joy. Those were the days. 

This book should be compulsory reading for school-leavers across the UK. More now than ever.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or When in Rome by Penelope Green

Avoid if you don’t like: Naïve young Brits, student life, cultural confusion

Ideal accompaniments: Cheap red wine, Chinese takeaway and this version of I Love Paris by Zaz.