Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

forest dark nicole kraussForest Dark is a book of two halves. There are alternating narratives that never cross (or do they – the end is ambiguous). Jules Epstein, a wealthy and influential Jewish lawyer who has spent his life acquiring stuff, suddenly decides he wants to give it all away. He takes a trip to Israel with this in mind.

The other narrator is also headed to Tel Aviv. She is an author (who happens to be called Nicole). She is struggling to write and is contemplating the end of her marriage.

The book opens with Epstein and I enjoyed the book at this point. It has a dry humour while also asking some interesting questions. I loved the prose. I don’t normally highlight fiction while I’m reading, but there were sentences that were so beautifully crafted and nuanced that I wanted to return and reflect on them (although I haven’t, yet).

When I got to the author narration I stalled. She just wasn’t very interesting. The realist elements felt too banal and the absurdist elements too ridiculous. It felt like the author (Nicole Krauss, not the ‘fictional’ Nicole) had some issues she wanted to work through (creativity, marriage, kids) and was still too close to them to make them into art. (I understand, her ex, Jonathan Safran Foer, has also written a novel about marital breakdown, Here I Am, so maybe she felt she had to put her side.)

There is an odd Kafka storyline. I’ve noted an apologetic tone in some reviews, words to the effect of, ‘I don’t really like this book but I’m probably just not clever enough.’ Just because a novel references Kafka it does not mean it’s good!

The privilege of the narrator grates. She lives in a world where relatives keep spare apartments in world cities which you can drop into any time, where the Hilton is like a second home and the manager knows your name. She never appears to notice that not everyone lives like this. Given that this world is satirised in the Epstein story, I assume the ‘real’ Nicole has more sensitivity in this than the ‘fictional’ Nicole but I couldn’t find any sense of irony or self-deprecation in the narration which might have made her more bearable.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Forest Dark. I kept hoping it would get better (it didn’t). Then I reached that point where I felt I was too far in to stop. I focused on the Epstein bits (there were some nice set pieces, though it didn’t quite hang together for me) and I gritted my teeth and skimmed the author story.

I’ve heard that Nicole Krauss has written some great books and the quality of the prose made me want to try another one, but this was, for me, was something of an ordeal.

I received a copy of Forest Dark from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Want to know more? This interview with Nicole Krauss from The Guardian is interesting. She talks about the nature of the self and why she included Kafka in Forest Dark.




Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, narrated by Romola Garai

hot milkHot Milk is the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. Rose has a condition which may or may not be psychosomatic and is unable to walk (except when she isn’t). Sofia, with her hard-to-pronounce Greek name and her absent Greek father, her high level of education and low level of employability, has walked away from her own life to do the co-dependant’s dance around her mother. But her own behaviour is less than predictable.

There are so many things to love about Hot Milk. First, the setting. I spent some time in Almeria and the story perfectly captures the strange, remote quality of the place, the extreme landscape and the unlikeliness of a resort in such a harsh climate, the international cocktail of outsiders who wash up there, who are so different but just in being there, become somehow the same.

Like the shimmering heat of Almeria, there is a languid surface to the story which belies the simmering of ideas and themes. This is a story about individuals, about mother and daughter, about the spiky Sofia who will neither conform nor rebel but is always disrupting her own dreams. It is also about the unravelling of Europe. It deconstructs what we are sure about, shows us that the world we think is fixed is in flux. Spain and Greece, once at the heart of Mediterranean civilisations, are now on the periphery. It poses playful questions about the body politic and the willingness or otherwise to take your medicine.

This is a clever book, cool, ironic, provocative (and the narrator of the audiobook captures this tone perfectly). Whenever I think about it, I see something new.

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not the end kate vane cover 2017

Enjoyed this? If you’d like a different perspective on the seaside, my novel Not the End is 99p/99c on Kindle this week.

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth narrated by Michael Maloney

morality play barry unsworthNicholas Barber is a fourteenth-century cleric who has left his position in Lincoln Cathedral through youthful restlessness. He is therefore a fugitive, and a hungry one, when he happens upon a group of players and they allow him to join them. Their journey takes them through a town where a woman is about to be hung for murder. They decide to perform a play about her crime but somehow the story refuses to fit the form.

There is so much packed into this beautifully crafted short novel. It is alive with the sights and sounds and smells (especially the smells) of the period and has all the archetypes of the Medieval hierarchy. However, it is an order under strain, where the conflict between the individual and the role that is assigned to them is about to come to the boil.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the dramatisation of the murder by the players. The writing is impressive because we see everything from Nicholas’ point of view as he performs, but we also get a vivid sense of what the audience sees. This is enhanced in the audiobook by the excellent narrator. He distinguishes not just the individual characters, but between their ‘real’ and their theatrical voices, as they move between artifice and realism.

As the players perform the play their understanding of the murder changes. They are not only learning the truth, they are creating it. In telling a story of their own devising, rather than the officially sanctioned account, they are questioning the very basis of their society, even though they know there will be consequences.

Morality Play is a book that stays with you, with its intricate drawing together of the visceral honesty of theatre and the role-playing that we call real life.

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Conclave by Robert Harris

conclave by robert harrisLast year I went to Rome for the first time. It’s hard to write about the experience – the art, the sights, the culture – without lapsing into cliché, but I became particularly intrigued by the institution of the Vatican.

We spent one wonderful day in the Vatican Museums, gorging on some of the world’s greatest art (and not one work by a woman). As someone who had a notionally Catholic upbringing – I wouldn’t go so far as to say lapsed as I was never convinced to begin with – I felt keenly the contradiction between enjoying all these treasures and thinking that the wealth that purchased them should never have been appropriated from my ancestors in the first place.

On another day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and, as we were staying nearby, we often found ourselves wandering round the Piazza and the surrounding streets in the evening. All these experiences, and my reading before we went, left me with a jumble of conflicting images and a fascination with this strange world: the nuns who are excluded from influence but perform so many vital tasks and whose presence is even felt in the galleries (they get to repair Raphael’s tapestries so I guess we did see some women’s art after all); the priests from around the world offering confession in  Italian and English, Polish and Tamil; the hot priests calendar; the shops selling lavish ecclesiastical robes; the high-tech efficiency of the tourist operation.

So I’ve had my eye on Robert Harris’ Conclave for a while, with its promise to delve into the mysteries of this strange world. And I was not disappointed.

The conclave of the title takes place after the death of a fictional Pope, but one with some resemblance to Pope Francis. We don’t learn too much about him at the beginning, except that he is a reformer. The story is narrated by Cardinal Lomeli, one of the Pope’s closest associates, who is tasked with the organisation of the conclave, just as he is struggling with a crisis of faith.

As the cardinals assemble from around the world to choose his successor, we are introduced to the favourites to succeed the Pope and to their supporters and factions. The deceased Pope also plays a significant role, even after death. His influence, his love, and the consequences of his actions are felt acutely by Lomeli and the others who were close to him and they learn that he made some surprising decisions in his final days.

You might question whether there is much drama to be had in the deliberations of a group of men over 60, largely confined in one place. However Harris does it brilliantly. He weaves together all the issues confronting the church, and the contrasts between the cardinals – in matters of faith, temperament, politics and geography. Lomeli’s role means he has to liaise with the outside world during their supposed confinement and his assistants prove to be able co-conspirators (and of course there are nuns again, providing the catering).

There is a lot of detail of the traditions of the conclave, capturing both the splendour and the banality of the life of the Vatican. There are a few Father Ted moments, such as when the cardinals make their way to their accommodation for the conclave, dressed in their full regalia, pulling their wheelie suitcases behind them.

Harris asks interesting questions about the nature of spirituality and its relationship to ritual. There are moments when the cardinals may be moved by the voice of God, or it may just be that they imagine him saying what they want to hear. The reader is left to make up their own mind.

I spent some time thinking about the way the conclave, and the novel, end. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. But then an ending that makes you think, and question, is perhaps the best kind. I found this a fascinating insight into the strange world of Vatican politics and a great political thriller.

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Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with Robert Harris on the Kobo Writing Life podcast 

Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated by Alex Valente

can you hear me elena varvelloI sometimes feel I am missing something. Other people love a book, people whose opinions I respect and often share, but I just don’t get it. I feel a bit like this with Can You Hear Me? It is marketed as both suspense and coming-of-age. It is a coming-of-age story, but I am struggling to find any suspense.

The narrator, 16-year-old Elia, begins by telling you the climax of the story. His father is having some kind of mental crisis. Elia suspects he was involved in the disappearance of a boy and he will go on to take the teenage babysitter from next door into the woods.

Of course many great books employ this technique and yet still manage to pique your curiosity because you want to know how they get there, books as diverse as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. However here, I didn’t feel that there was any interest or anything to feel curious about, because there is no struggle or conflict, no sense that anyone is trying to influence events.

Elia drifts through the summer, doing coming-of-age stuff, hanging out with a kid his parents disapprove of, challenging him to dares, getting the hots for his mate’s mum, and meanwhile his father is disintegrating. Elia signals his unease by putting a picture of the missing boy on his wall and saying inarticulate teenage boy things to his mum along the lines of, what about that boy, though?

The characters speak in abstractions so you know that they’re deep, such as when Elia’s mother says to him, ‘I’ve thought about some things, you know? I don’t know why they felt so important. They don’t matter at all now. You have your life to live.’ And so it goes on to the inevitable.

There’s a sense of overwhelming passivity about it, there’s no suspense because the characters don’t do anything or even look remotely as if they might. It’s very moody and atmospheric but you feel like you want to puncture it, like ask them why no one thought to contact the police or a mental health professional. Elia’s mum works in a library, she could have looked it up.

If it weren’t for the fact that it came highly recommended, I wouldn’t have finished it.

I received a copy of Can You Hear Me? from the publisher via Netgalley.
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No Good Deed by John Niven

no good deed by john nivenNo Good Deed has the perfect elevator pitch: Alan, a successful, affluent journalist with a happy family life, stops to give some money to a homeless man one night on the way to his club in Soho. The man turns out to be his old school friend, Craig. Alan feels obliged to help him and takes him home. But Craig, far from being grateful, proceeds to take over Alan’s life…

Too often these high-concept stories are peopled by flat characters and hackneyed plots, but in this case the novel does live up to its promise. Alan’s milieu – a kind of Notting Hill set without the (overt) politics, peopled by columnists and aristos and minor celebs, fuelled by nepotism and booze and lots of lots of money, is richly and satirically drawn.

Alan is an interesting character, an outsider from a council house in Scotland who has somehow found himself married to the daughter of a duke. He is both insider and outsider on his world, comfortable in it but painfully aware of its privilege and absurdities, which are heightened when he sees it through Craig’s eyes.

There are some funny set pieces in this novel (and plenty on the protagonist’s complex relationship with his bowels, surely an under-explored area in contemporary fiction) but what marks it out for me is its study of friendship. Alan was the not-quite-cool kid in his crowd, while Craig was the leader. Craig went on to be a rock star while Alan was a struggling reporter until his wife’s connections got him a decent job.

No Good Deed explores the darker side of friendship, the way the dynamics of your teenage years, at that age when friends mean more than family or bands or even sex, can influence you as you go through life. The plot wraps up neatly, as you’d expect from such a deftly plotted novel, but it also leaves you room to think about why the characters behaved the way they did, which makes it a thought-provoking as well an entertaining read.

I received a copy of No Good Deed from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Noah’s Ark by Barbara Trapido

noah's ark by barbara trapidoThis is the story of a marriage but it is also a clever study of power.

Ali Bobrow, artistic, beautiful and unworldly, is easy prey to controlling men. Her third husband, Noah, is at least a benign dictator. Before him she was mistreated, her daughter was unhappy and she was unable to resist the demands of any manipulative neighbour or acquaintance. Noah, a doctor, the ultimate protector, replaces the chaos with love, calm and security – so long as she follows his rules.

Then one day Ali decides to rebel – and this disrupts the delicate balance of her life with Noah, and leads her to look back at her past in South Africa.

Trapido’s characters are funny and vivid and clever. You feel like you want to climb into her world (though probably not for too long – who could keep up?). She creates atmosphere with economy and style. The opening scene shows Ali sewing in her kitchen, an icon of domesticity. The apparently ordinary items – the fruit bowl, the pinboard – and her thoughts about them immediately evoke the family and her place within it.

There are other types of power here. Ali grew up under apartheid, the descendant of German refugees from World War Two. Her best friend at school was Jewish, and she is attracted to Jewish men. Her unconsummated first love was dark-skinned and was rumoured to have lied about his background to attend the all-white university.

There are also the dynamics between parents and children. Noah’s step-daughter, once so timid, is able to be rebellious and demanding precisely because he has made her feel safe – for now. He is also confronted by the stubbornness of his own daughter.

How do we respond to a world where every day people are harming others? Trapido asks subtle questions about the limits of power, resistance and compassion.

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