The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes last margaret atwoodYou know how in novels we generally get to follow the heroic ones? And by extension to imagine ourselves in that position, being heroic? Atwood turns that on its head in this satire. Charmaine just wants everything to be clean and nice. Stan wants things to work out, for once. They want life to be simple. Like most of us.

At the beginning of the novel they’re living out of their car, having lost their jobs and their home after yet another financial crisis. Life is bleak and frightening, but they are offered a chance of escape. A prison has long been seen as the saviour of a deprived community, bringing with it secure and well-paid jobs. Consilience is an innovation. If prisons needs communities and communities need prisons, why not have a place where people are both? One month inmate, the next citizen. The only catch, they have to sign up for life, and once in, there is no way out.

In Consilience, Stan and Charmaine get to live every other month in a pastel, idealised, 1950s kind of a world, drenched in the positive thinking of modern corporate life (‘Shout out for the Brussels Sprouts team!’). Stan and Charmaine are safe and well fed and happy to play by the rules. And yet –

This book is bright and fast and funny but behind the humour it’s bursting with ideas. And that title. What a great title.

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Enjoyed this? Take a look at The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

the woman upstairs by claire messudIt’s not unusual to develop a crush on an entire family. It’s one of the rites of passage of adolescence, to fall not just for a person but the people who love them, the home that embraces them, their shared rituals and beliefs. You glimpse the promise of another way to live.

However, Nora, the protagonist in The Woman Upstairs, is not an adolescent. She is a professional woman in her forties, eaten up with bitterness and disappointment over the way her life has turned out. She wanted to be an artist, instead she’s a teacher, living alone. When she is befriended by Sirena, a professional artist, she sees everything that she is not. Sirena is a charismatic outsider. She also has a successful husband and an intelligent, attractive child.

Nora is an intriguingly untrustworthy narrator. She tells us she hasn’t led the life she wants. She has been nice and compliant, as a woman should be – but she doesn’t sound nice at all. She never had the chances she deserved – but then she describes opportunities that she turned down. She says she’s a good teacher because she has the open worldview of a child, yet her art is rigidly controlled.

Even as we see Sirena and her family through Nora’s eyes, we get a sense that their lives are not as idyllic as she suggests. Sirena faces her own challenges, as a woman and as an artist.

At the beginning of the book, Nora describes her life as like a hall of mirrors. Behind every mirror is another mirror. There is no end. The narration, like the hall of mirrors, constantly turns back on itself and challenges the reader’s perceptions.

From Nora’s personal relationships to her art to her memories, everything about her both illuminates and undermines the central question of how she came to be where she is now. Even at the end of the novel, when Nora appears to reach a resolution, you’re not sure whether to believe her.

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin translated by Megan McDowell

Fever Dream by Samanta SchweblinTwo people are in a hospital. Amanda is feverish and believes she is near death. David is a boy who is not her son. David is pushing her to recount the events that led up to her illness.

She tells a story of her family and his. It begins as an innocent holiday friendship but has a sinister undertone. David’s mother tells Amanda that her son fell ill before they met, apparently due to exposure to something in the environment. She is convinced that she lost his soul when his body recovered, that this was a bargain she made with a healer.

The tension builds as the story unfolds in a long, breathless narrative (it’s a short novel, but conversely one very long chapter). As she tells the story, David pushes her to remember certain incidents, while dismissing others which she wants to pursue.

I read on, intrigued at first, then a little impatient, but anticipating that there would be clues and allusions to the meaning of the narrative. Is the story chronological? What is hallucinated and what real? Where is David’s mother and Amanda’s daughter?

Then I got to the end and it just sort of – well, ended. And I’m deflated. Am I being dense? Did I miss something? I didn’t expect a neat resolution tied with a bow, but I thought that there would be insights and inferences, ideas which would resonate and send me back through the key scenes to interpret them anew. Now I’m not sure what the themes of the book are, apart from ‘pesticides are bad’ and ‘parenting is scary’.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. Fever Dream is innovative in its form and beautifully written (and translated) but I feel like I wanted something more.

I received a copy of Fever Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Want to know more? Read this interview with Samanta Schweblin on Lithub


Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny


standard deviation by katherine heineyIt’s not often that I feel so unstrongly about a book that I don’t know what to write. But that’s where I am with Standard Deviation.

Graham is an executive who lives in New York. He is married to Audra, but was once married to Elspeth. Audra is an uber-extrovert with no filter, Elspeth icy and reserved. Graham is somewhere in-between. When Elspeth comes back into this life he muses a lot on the nature of his relationships with the two women.

Later on the focus shifts more to his feelings for his young son who has Asperger’s and a passionate interest in origami. He worries that he will never make friends or feel secure in social settings. But when his son joins an origami club, it is suddenly he who belongs and his parents who feel excluded.

And so it goes on. There some amusing vignettes that are moderately thought-provoking. Where am I on the introvert-extrovert continuum? I never knew origami was so complicated. Would Graham really be attracted to two such different women when in real life people tend to recreate the same kind of relationship, for better or for worse, over and over again?

The structure of the book is slightly odd. It reads more like a series of connected stories. In fact what it feels most like is a TV sitcom, one where each episode has its arc and then everything goes back to pretty much where it was. The children are a little older, the annoying neighbour may have been written out, but the characters are fundamentally unaltered by events of the recent past.

It also has a lot of set-piece scenes which are similar – particularly the ones that involve a group of ill-matched people sitting down for a meal. Again, this is something that happens in TV (pretty much every episode of Gavin and Stacey was premised on the two families meeting for a party on a flimsy pretext) but this book is different from a TV comedy is that it’s not that funny. It’s more wry smile than belly laugh.

A novel needs narrative drive. Standard Deviation is well written, engaging and with some sharp observation but I’m afraid it dragged for me.

I received a copy of Standard Deviation from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Family Money by Nina Bawden

family money by nina bawdenA London property bubble, impoverished hospitals, worries about care in old age – this novel, published in 1991, feels oddly topical.

Family Money is the story of recently widowed Fanny (her name perhaps the one thing that dates it). Returning from an evening out, she becomes involved in a violent incident. She is injured and has little memory of what has occurred.

Her children, solicitous of her (or perhaps her half-a-million-pound house) try to make plans for her. Fanny, however, has ideas of her own, as well as a mutual fascination with an enigmatic young man living on the canal at the end of her garden which only grows as her memory returns.

Bawden takes an unflinching look at her characters with their assumptions and their self-justification. They are privileged but they are also needy. She is not afraid to mock them but there is compassion too, and a warm, understated humour.

Fanny negotiates her physical weakness and her erratic memory with dignity and irony. She looks back with a clear eye at the life she has led and the trials she may face.

Superficially this is a domestic tale of the moneyed upper-middle classes. It would be easy to ask, who cares? But this apparently simple story, lightly told, is beautifully structured.

It asks questions about age, class, morality, mortality, friendship and love, all in less than 300 pages of crisp, cool prose. And there’s a nice little twist at the end.

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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

excellent womenPeople have been telling me to read Barbara Pym ever since my English teacher first recommended her, but I didn’t till now, put off by the subject matter.

Excellent Women has the most unpromising of heroines – not only that despised creature, a spinster, but a vicar’s daughter as well. She is living in dowdy post-war Britain, eking out a small income in a flat with a shared bathroom, living on plain food. She passes her time in working for a charity for distressed gentlewomen and making herself indispensable to the local church.

And yet Mildred – or Miss Lathbury as she is mostly known – is a little more complex than that. She is a shrewd observer of character with a sharp sense of humour ‘I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person’.

Mildred’s predictable life is changed by the arrival of the Napiers in the downstairs flat. Helena Napier has a career as an anthropologist. Rockingham is a handsome Naval officer (though he spent the War in Italy organising the Admiral’s cocktail parties and being charming to Wrens). Helena goes to meetings and even pubs with other men. Rockingham likes to cook. They both have a disconcerting tendency to say what they think, without consideration of others. They are both glamorous and disturbing to Mildred, overturning, as they do, the assumptions of her upbringing.

Mildred finds herself embroiled in the Napiers’ dramas at the same time as an attractive widow arrives in the parish and disturbs its delicate balance of roles and obligations.

There is a pleasing ambiguity to Mildred’s character – she is a vicar’s daughter, but she has moved to London after their deaths. She worked in Censorship during the war. Many other women in that position took the opportunity to break with their past as they lived independently and earned their own income. But Mildred has, in a sense, recreated her family by making the local vicar and his sister her closest friends.

Mildred remains, even when the plot is resolved, elusive. She is stoical, self aware and full of barbed humour. Is she, as a single woman who makes herself indispensable to others, to be pitied, admired or envied? Does she like to be always close to the drama but detached, able to walk away unscathed, or is she scarred by heartbreak? Will she choose to change her life?

The novel beautifully evokes post-war London. The grimness of Mildred’s daily routine is not due to poverty but to the after-effects of the war. There is a kind of equality in the bleakness. Even the Napiers have to negotiate arrangements for the sharing of toilet roll and are limited to rationed food. The rules of engagement between the classes and between men and women are in flux.

Mildred too is a character of her time. We learn little about her sexuality. What, if anything, does she long for? There is little sense that she seeks, or experiences, pleasure. A planned holiday is, it seems neither anticipated nor much enjoyed when it arrives. It is just there to be got through. But what we might once have called repressed, now might seem refreshing. Mildred doesn’t expect life to be awesome with multiple exclamation marks. Or to advertise the fact. She just gets on with it.

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Enjoyed this? Try my review of The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

before the fallIn The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis explains how psychologists Kahneman and Frederickson demonstrated the peak-end rule – that when we remember an experience we give undue prominence to how it ends. And that’s why I’m probably going to be more critical of this book than it deserves.

Scott is a not-quite-successful artist spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard when he is offered a lift back to New York on the private plane of an acquaintance. She is married to the plane’s owner, who runs a right-wing cable network. Also travelling are their two children, their friend, a hedge fund billionaire and his wife, and the crew and security staff.

The plane crashes over the water, and only Scott and four-year-old JJ survive. The rest of the book follows the story of Scott after the crash interspersed with flashbacks to the stories of the other characters immediately before the flight. Scott has to come to terms with his own experience, his new found celebrity, and the ongoing investigation. Meanwhile we try and get a sense of what might have happened in the past to lead to this horrific event.

The endings to the two stories are also intercut: the revelation about the last moments of the plane and a denouement in the present for Scott. The problem for me is that it becomes clear what has happened to the plane some time earlier, both because of the way the story is structured and through some over-zealous seeding. I kept hoping it was ingenious misdirection and there would be some other, more brilliant revelation that I hadn’t even thought of, but there wasn’t. Or that perhaps the ‘who’ was obvious, but the ‘why’ surprisingly complex, but that wasn’t it either.

So we find out (or have confirmed) whodunnit just as there is a more interesting story developing in the present, but then the narrative breaks away to the past, to give you the back story of the crash (which is just exposition now) and your eyes are skimming and it’s not raising the tension, it’s just slowing things down, and then you get back to the present drama and it’s all a bit rushed and confused and then it’s the end. And you suspect it’s the author who’s in a hurry, rather than the characters.

The sad thing is that this then leads me to think of other things that I might have let pass, like the fact that the cable TV mogul and the hedge fund billionaire are quite stereotypical (which may be realistic but isn’t good drama) or that the characters all come with backstories too neatly formulated to suggest they could be either perpetrator or target of the plane crash (which is good drama but not realistic). Or the fact that all the women in the story are only there because of their relationship to the male protagonists, and it feels like the author’s default setting rather than social commentary.

So here is the nice bit after the negativity. Scott is a great character. I did find myself really engaged in his story. The author has some interesting things to say about the nature of perception and reality and I really enjoyed the contrasting world-views of Scott the artist and Gus, the engineer who is called on to investigate the crash, a man on his own journey towards realising that not everything in life can be quantified. The author has a real sympathy for the vulnerable, and a sense of significance of small interactions between characters. His drawing of the relationship between Scott and JJ is particularly moving.

The aftermath of the crash, when Scott and JJ are in the water, is  gripping and beautifully written. You’re immersed in the Atlantic cold, the fog, the sense of dislocation, as you wonder, what would I do? How would I cope? How can they possibly get out of this?

I’m glad they made it. I just wish it hadn’t ended that way…

I received a copy of Before the Fall from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Try my review of The Nix by Nathan Hill.