Brandon Taylor ‘Real Life’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Real Life”: In order of reading book number 5.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening.


Brandon Taylor takes us to a Midwest university where the research assistants are working hard for the opportunity of a career and thus life in academia. Taylor concentrates on a group of young researchers arrived at the same time. There was Miller, a tall lad from Indiana, Cole and his partner from the real world Vincent, Yngve whose father was a surgeon and whose mother taught history at a liberal arts college. And then there was Wallace, the book is really about Wallace who is up from Alabama and black, the opening quote telling us how he sees his friends.

This is yet another book in the selection with serious problems going forward from parent son relationships, Wallace whose mother drank weak beer all day because of her diabetes and whose father leaves them and somehow manages by this to define Wallace’s view of the world:


When I went to middle school my dad moved out of our house he says, he moved up the road into this other house my brother’s dad had built. It used to be an art gallery or something, a house first then an art gallery and then a house again, anyway my dad moved into it and he lived there, I wasn’t allowed to visit . He said he did’t want to see us any more. I asked him why and he said it didn’t matter why, it just was. He didn’t want to see us, me, anymore. Wallace is circling the rim of this old bitterness, can hear his dad’s voice rising up out of the past, that raspy laugh. He shook his head and smiled at Wallace put his hand on Wallace’s shoulder, they were almost equal height then, his fingers bony and knobby. He simply said I don’t want you here and that was it, Wallace was not granted an explanation for the break, for the severing of his family that left him in the house with his mother and his brother. He learned then that somethings have no reason that no matter how he feels he isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.


So, having just watched a documentary on Toni Morrison, I recognise a certain number of the messages in her writing here. Choosing to set the story in an almost exclusively white Midwest university lets Brandon Taylor give full rein to Wallaces feeling of estrangement in his own country, to casual racism and general lack of support for him from his “friends”. As Wallace has had difficulties with his studies, having to work really hard to catch up with the others from a lower starting knowledge base, he understands that in the eyes of some, this was not his initial dissadvantage and that the real dissadvantage will never go away. The smooth talking and racist Romain explains this to him against the background of non intervention from the others:


His deficiencies ….What Romain is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness a lack of some requisite saneness, this deficiency cannot be overcome the fact is no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people. No matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him. “Did I hurt your feelings” Romain asks “I just want to be clear, I think you should stay, you owe the department that much don’t you agree?”
“I don’t have anything to say to that Romain”, Wallace says smiling. To keep his hands from shaking he clenches his fists until his knuckles turn to white ridges of pressure.
“Well think about it.” he says.
“I will thanks”. Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to, no one does, no one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by because if they are silent long enough then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it had never happened. Only Wallace will remember it, that’s the frustrating part.


Amid Wallace’s difficulties with his supervisor who wants him to really consider what he wants to do with his life and his homosexual relationship with Miller where they come close to getting to know something about each other and the sub-surface violence of Miller scares him, he comes to realise that “Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty, maybe that’s all they are doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.” And then there is this quote, the very essence of the book, which explains that Wallace just wants to be noticed and to be looked at as a person with this whole book explaining the impossibility of this simple wish:


Are you on that app?
Which app?
You know the one. Cole flushes as he says this looking away to the trees and to the long winding sidewalk that slopes down to the lake.
The gay one you mean?
That’s it yeah.
Oh yeah, I guess, sometimes.
Wallace deleted the app some weeks ago but this feels like a minor point Cole has always made sure to mention that he is not on the app and that he is relieved to have found Vincent before the advent of such technology, geo-location, finding the nearest queers for fucking or whatever. Wallace always has to keep himself from saying that Cole would have done well on the app he is tall and good looking in an average sort of way he is funny and quippy, gentle. He is also white which is never a disadvantage with gay men but Wallace says none of these things because to say them would disrupt Cole’s view of the average gay man as shallow and kind of stupid, they are shallow and kind of stupid but no more than any other group. Wallace only deleted the app because he had grown tired of watching himself be invisible to them, of the gathering silence in his inbox he wasn’t looking anyway but at the same time he wanted to be looked at the same as any one else.


This is a slow, persistant book, introspective about Wallace. What do you think he would/should do with his life from here?

First Published in English as “Real Life” by Daunt Books in 2020

Maaza Mengiste ‘The Shadow King’


“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Shadow King”: In order of reading book number 6.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020



There is a madwoman on a wild horse blazing through the hills, she is stopping at every church and shouting into the heavens and calling wrathful angels down to Earth. She is a nun shifting into a hyena, an angry spirit screaming vengeance from the tops of barren trees. She is Empress Taitu resurrected to fight these ferenjoch….She is resplendent. She is a fearsome and shocking figure, something both familiar and foreign, frightening and incomprehensible. A woman dressed as a warrior, looking as fierce as any man.


Mazaa Mengiste takes us to the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, Ras Teferi Mekonnen. To the invasion by Mussollini’s Italy in 1936 and the resistance by the people of Ethiopia. This is still a country of the oral tradition where heroic feats for the country are passed down from generation to generation, as with the ancient Greeks, through legend and song. The previous generation had already fought against the Italian invador and triumphed. Every child, boy or girl, has been taught from a young age by their fathers to load and fire a rifle. In this splendid story Mengiste tells us of a wealthy family, of their servants and of their fight. There are Kidane the head of the family and his wife Aster and their are the cook, known only as “the cook” and the young servant Hirut. As Kidane rides off to raise an army, Aster in the tradition of Ethiopian women decides to do the same. “We women won’t sit by while they march into our homes. This part, at least, the songs have gotten right.” We can see how this can easily become a legend as word of her gets back to the cook and Hirut as illustrated in the opening quote.

Despite great valour and their knowledge of the terrain Kidane’s forces are beaten and forced to the hills by a combination of the Italian’s use of north african soldiers, the Ascari, “those soldiers from Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and even Ethiopia fighting for the Italians” and the use of aircraft and in particular mustard gas, which as with present day dictators, the Italians simply denied.

Mengiste tells us of the roles of women in Ethiopian society, born to serve and subject to men’s whims, we can imagine why some poorer Ethiopians sided with the Italians With Hirut eventually being raped by Kidane when he realises he will die in the conflict and leave no decendance. The story then moves on via two other major events to the climax of the story.

Firstly, the emperor in defeat flees to England, leaving his country men to fight a guerilla war, but the villagers have no will to fight on until Hirut notices the striking resemblence between one of the soldiers and the king. (The soldier himself named Minim, Nothing because he was born just after death of his older brother would be a modern psychiatrists meal ticket). Minim then becomes the Shadow King of the title with, as was the custom, two female bodyguards, Aster and Hirut.


Kidane glances into the field as the villagers fall to their knees. The emperor comes forward on his white horse, led by his female guards. Kidane takes in Hirut’s uniform, her proud stance, her fierce defiance, and sees his redemption.


Secondly, the sadistic colonel Carlo Fucelli builds a one room prison high in the mountains at a cliff edge, as he had already done in Libya. Fucelli uses the weakness of a soldier, Ettore Navarra whom he knows to be Jewish, As Mussolini begins his persecution, to force him to take photos of the prisoners. As Navarra writes in a letter to his father which he never sends:


Papa, they are making a prison that will hold no prisoners. They are going to fling men into the sky who have no wings. They are going to test the laws of gravity and terror and order me to photograph the ascent and fall. We are going to make Icarus and hurl him into the sun.


Eventually, when Hirut and Aster are captured and kept in this prison as bait to draw Kidane’s army out, Hirut watching The despicable Italian photographer recognises in him the forced subservience she has herself lived under and the sadism of Fucelli towards Navarra. Recognises yes, ultimately forgives, No as in an echo of her previous self he tries to bury a box of his personal photos and papers before fleeing:


Hirut wants to ask aloud what he is doing as he digs, but she already knows. Her heart twists in her chest as she realizes that she is watching an old version of herself, that girl who was a keeper of things she should not have claimed as her own. He is doing as she once did, in the naïve belief that what is buried stays that way, that what is hidden will stay unseen, that what is yours will remain always in your possession. He is being foolish.


This is an astounding book, easily the best I have read in a while. Buy it and enjoy it!

First Published in English as “The Shadow King” by Cannongate Books in 2020

Avni Doshi ‘Burnt Sugar’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Burnt Sugar”: In order of reading book number 4.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


I wonder how I will love Ma when she is at the end. How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know as my mother is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she is and who I am, will it be possible for me to care for her the way I do now, or will I be negligent, the way we are with children who are not our own, or voiceless animals, or the mute, blind and deaf, believing we will get away with it, because decency is something we enact in public, with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?


This book told by Antara is the conflictual story of her and her mother Tara in India, beginning in 1981 for Tara’s arranged marriage which Antara likens to a sactioned kidnapping. Each chapter represents a moment in their lives, told in two parts, the first part purtains to the moment in time chosen for the chapter, 1981 then 1986 and other dates, the second part of the chapter tells us of Antara and her husband Dilip and Antara’s relationship with her mother in the present day, advancing in the light of the newly revealed past.

As we learn later on in the book even her very name, given to free her has another effect:


My mother has a beautiful name. Tara. It means star, another name for the goddess Durga. Like Kali Mata. She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself. She wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.


We learn early in the book tha Tara has Altzeimer’s and begins to lose her mind in her early fifties as illustrated in the opening quote, leaving Antara to worry about and look after both her mother and her grandmother. And this for a mother who ran away from her husband and his family to join a sect whilst Antara was still a young child, in the sect her mother became the latest lover and plaything of the Guru, leaving Antara to be looked after and brought up by Kali Mata, a previous favourite of the same Guru and seemingly not caring about her. then we move forward to learn something of her views on mother daughter relationships:


She continues talking about how difficult things were. These tales have been passed down from mothers to daughters since women had mouths and stories could be told. They contain some moral message, some rites of passage. But they also transfer that feeling all mothers know before their time is done. Guilt.


In this excellent emotionaly complex book there are of course hidden secrets and guilt as well as an ambiguous ending which is in tune with the story. And as for the title, well if you have a mother who due to illness has no restraint or notion of embarassment, well there’s an interesting secret, but of course it comes with a feeling of guilt.

This may be my favourite, the coming posts may confirm this. Buy it!

First Published in English as “Girl in White Cotton” by Fourth Estate in 2019

Joyce Carol Oates ‘A Book of American Martyrs’


Terence Mitchell who’s 29, a former US marine and a member of the catholic right to life organisation, The Lambs of Christ, had spent many hours in prayer before driving to the abortion clinic in Travers City with a double barrelled shotgun. After the shooting of the abortion doctor he made no attempt to escape from the police but surrendered his weapon and made a full confession to authorities


Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a huge work here, to try to render the right to abortion debate readable. In this piece of fiction set in the 1990’s and the aftermath of events she attempts to get up close to both sides of this divide, deep diving into the characters and events portrayed as Luther Dumphy early one morning, turns up at the Broom county women’s centre, follows doctor Guss Vorhees’ car in through the gate and turns his shotgun on Vorhees and his police driver killing both. She uses multiple first person narratives taking us into the minds of the protagonists, their lives and the events that lead them to this point. She begins with Luther Dumphy, who after a “strict” upbringing turns into a wild unreliable youth until he discovers religion at his wive’s church, The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesus, leading to his wish to become a preacher.

We follow his indoctrination process as we discover the background to the “debate” that isn’t one in the mid-west. One day a trip is organised by their church to see a professor Wohlman, an ex-Jesuit who finishes his presentation with the following declaration:


We the undersigned declare a state of war in the struggle to defend innocent human life. We declare our allegiance to the word of Jesus and not the law of man. We declare that we will not shrink from taking all earthly action required to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We declare that whatever force is necessary to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We declare that the martyrs Michael Griffin, Lionel Green, Terence Mitchell though they may have broken the law of the state have not broken the law of God though they have shot abortion providers who were about to commit the terrible act of fetuscide they are not guilty of murder but of intervening in the premeditated murder, that is to say that these courageous men committed acts of defence against murderers not to save their own lives but the lives of unborn children therefore their use of lethal force was justified.


Dumphy, who’s daughter had been killed in a road accident as he was driving, is portrayed as a sincere, fragile and easily manipulated person, just enough as to almost feel a certain understanding for him.

Vorhees is investigated mostly through the people around him, his wife and daughter rather than through himself, he was a staunch, even radical defender of women’s rights, at great danger to himself, he chose to work in medical centres where, through fear, no one else was prepared to work. Oates tells us of the Right for Life organisation’s published league tables where the higher up the table the doctors find themselves, the more likely they are to be assassinated, exactly because of these tables, and the pressure put on the law by declaring the perpetrators martyrs. His daughter learns more about him posthumously through interviews she carries out:


Interviews: Was it known to you that your father was a crusader for abortion rights? Did you know as children what abortion rights meant? Did you know that your father performed abortions? Did you know that your father had many enemies? Did you know that your father was considered difficult even by those that were his allies? Have you read your father’s published writings, his famous controversial address to the national women’s leadership conference 1987 in Washington DC? Are you familiar with that? “There cannot be a free democracy in which one sex is shackled to biological destiny”. Are you familiar with this much reiterated remark of doctor Guss Voorhees? Do you or have you ever felt as a girl that you are shackled to biological destiny or did you inherit a strong feminist identity from your parents?


No subject such as this where there is so much hatred, where the two sides cannot talk to each other can exist without hypocrisy, and here there are ladles of it, on Vorhees’ side where in fighting for the freedom of women he essentially takes away the freedom of his family. On the “pro life” side, the following quote goes deep into public relations denials to a case of clear support:


Though our church is staunchly pro life and opposed to abortion in any way shape or form as a legally sanctioned slaughter of the innocents in the United States at the present time. We do not and we have not ever condoned violence against the practitioners of abortion and those associated with them we do not condone violations of state and federal law and we do not excuse those who commit such violations despite of our sympathy for their moral convictions it is a profound step from believing that abortion is state sanctified murder to believing that an individual has the right to assassinate an abortion murderer. The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesusis adamantly opposed to such an act and is in no way associated with the practitioner of such an act. Though I remain in contact with Luther Dumphy currently incarcerated at Chillicothe correctional facility, Chillicothe Ohio. I am not in a position to provide any sort of information about him or to convey remarks made by him to any third party or to the media it is true I am involved in the Luther Dumfy defence fund which welcomes donations to aid in Luther’s appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court, cheques money orders cash as little as a few dollars as much as several hundred or thousand all are welcome and greatly applicable in the name of Jesus.


As a European, I have trouble understanding this “debate”, but Oates ends with some hope, through the two men’s daughters, that future generations could grow to understand each other.

This is a must read.

First Published in English as “A Book of American Martyrs” by Fourth Estate in 2017
Translated into French by Claude Seban and published by Philippe Rey as “Un livre de martyrs américains” in 2019

Jeanette Winterson “The Gap of Time”


“Then a plague plagued the city and some meddling oracle announced that the plague would never end, ever end unless the killer of the dead old king was found. They had no idea about viruses in those days. Plagues were sent from the gods.”
“They said that about AIDS. Even I knew it was a stupid thing to say and I’m no doctor.”
“One thing you notice about progress, kid, is that it doesn’t happen to everyone.”


Winterson’s book read for the “Roman De Rochefort” is a version of “The Winter’s Tale” set in the modern day but keeping the main drivers which are jealousy, pride, remorse and finally forgiveness. The two central characters in the initial actions of the book, Leontes, King of Sicilia and his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia are replaced by Leo Kaiser, a successful investment banker, an alpha male, “Men in Leo’s position had personal assistants who could moonlight as super models in their celery and cottage cheese lunch breaks”and by Xeno, a sensitive computer games writer who at school had had a homosexual relationship with Leo and to whom women were attracted:


Leo was playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and shouting at the console when Xeno came in and threw a banana skin at the screen.
“Hey!” said Leo. “What’s with you?”
“Gaming is the best technology mated with prehistoric levels of human development,” said Xeno. “It’s all cars, fights, theft, risk, girls and reward.”
Leo couldn’t see the problem. That was his real life exactly. Why should a game be any different?
“Women don’t play because it bores them,” said Xeno. “So that’s half your potential market gone”


Hermione, Leonte’s wife is replaced by Mimi a French American singer, songwriter who feels comfortable in the company of Xeno. The story follows closely the original with some interesting finds, Leonte spies on his wife and Xeno using webcams, Xeno goes far away to New Bohemia, a former French colony, and as everyone’s life is torn to pieces by the jealousy of Leo, jealousy for both Mimi and for Xeno, the baby, Perdita, is sent by Leo to New Bohemia where to save her life as the man bringing her is about to be robbed she is put in a hospital baby hatch with the money Leo had sent and, there, discovered by Shep, a black widower who then brings her up.

I’ll not bore you with a blow by blow description of the book, it follows the original story, just to say that redemption is reached through forgiveness as in the original and that there are some great one liners as in the original quote as Autolycus explains the story of Oedipus to Perdita’s stepbrother, Clo.

If you haven’t read or seen the Winter’s Tale, well then this is an easy modern telling, including some explanations about the transposition.

First Published in English as “The Gap of Time” in 2016 by Hogarth.
Translated into French by Céline Leroy and published as “La Faille du temps” in 2019 by Buchet-Chastel

The quotes in French

“Et voilà qu’un fléau s’abat sur la ville et qu’un oracle confus annonce que ça ne s’arrangera pas tant qu’on n’aura pas retrouvé le meurtrier du vieux roi.
Ils ne connaissaient rien aux virus à l’époque. Pour eux, la peste était une punition des dieux.”
“Ils ont aussi dit ça du SIDA. Même moi je sais que c’est débile, et pourtant je suis pas médecin”
“Le truc avec le progrès, gamin, c’est qu’il n’arrive pas à tout le monde”.

Les hommes de la stature de Leo avaient des assistantes personnelles qui travaillaient au noir comme top-modèles pendant leur pause déjeuner à base de céleri et de fromage zéro pour-cent.

Leo jouait à ‘Grand Theft Auto’ et hurlait après la console quand eno entra dans la pièce et envoya une peau de banane sur l’écran.
“Hého! Qu’est-ce qui te prend?”fit Leo.
“Le gaming, c’est le meilleur de la technologie allié à un stade préhistorique du développement humain”, rétorqua Xeno. “On n’y trouve que des voitures, de la violence, du vol, du risque, des filles et des récompenses.”
Leo ne voyait pas de problème. C’était la copie conforme de sa vie. Pourquoi un jeu vidéo devrait-il être différent?
“Les femmes ne jouent pas parce qu’elles s’ennuient. On perd donc une moitié du marché potentiel.”

Blake Morrison ‘The Executor’


To a cuckold:

Miles mate, you don’t know me and if you did you wouldn’t like me and if you knew what I get up to with your misses you’d like me even less. But honest, I’m doing you a favour, haven’t you noticed how sweet and attentive she’s become? How she sings when cooking supper and never complains when you spend Sundays at the golf course? She’s lost weight too and looks younger, why be jealous? It’s me who endures her guilt and remorse whereas with you she’s happily luxurious. The key to a good marriage is adultery you see, every husband needs a louse to warm the bed for him every Union a bastard like me. So when you find out and come looking for me, don’t bring a knife bring a thank you present. The day she stops betraying you is the day your problems begin.


Matt Holmes, à journalist on the book pages has his annual lunch with his friend and twenty years his senior, the Poet Robert Pope, “the bow-tied poet”. Pope asks him to be his executor in the event of his death to which Holmes, without giving it too much thought agrees. Soon after Pope dies unexpectedly and the story unfolds in two timelines, as the narrator, Holmes relates the present day and also his relationship with Robert Pope. Holmes’ first surprise comes at the funeral when Louis, Popes literary agent tells Matt that Pope had asked him to be his executor a few months after he had made the request to Matt who is left feeling unwanted, but things are soon cleared up:


I got the call at the office a couple of weeks after the funeral, only Marie phones my extension everyone else e-mails so it took me a moment to grasp who the caller was, “What do you mean both of us?” I said.
“It’s common enough” Louis said “after we talked at the wake I realised that’s what he’d probably done, I tried to find you to say so but you’d rushed off. I spoke with his solicitor yesterday the will was straight forward, he left everything to Jill the codicil concerns his literary remains, nice phrase eh? he named us as joint executors, officially I’m general executor and you’re literary executor, but in effect we’ll be acting together.”
“Right.”
“You sound dubious?”
“I’m just surprised, I assumed he’d dropped me.”
“Well I’m glad he didn’t, my role is to sell his work, I’ve not the expertise to sort through the manuscripts”.
“I’m no scholar either.”
“Well he trusted you, he knew you’d do it well. There might not be much to do, he told me he’d written nothing since his last collection.”


In the present day, Matt advances then slowly as Popes office is at Jill, his frosty and wary widow’s home where Matt is ill equipped emotionally to deal with Jill but where Matt’s wife Marie seems to understand her and enables Matt to slowly find the right tone, but initially finds no new material. In the past he relates how they met when Pope was a lecturer an Brandon, an american university, and Holmes was studying there, they hit if off, with Pope telling him of a girl Corrine, he had fallen for but who had left him and of the late age he had lost his virginity. Soon after Holmes comes back to London, he tells us of the return of the energetic, city loving Pope, a contrast to the older suburbs living Pope:


His poems began to appear in journals and within months to my amazement and envy he got some reviewing work too, editors liked his fearlessness, he was the new kid on the block, cudgel in hand ready to take on the old guys.
“It helps that I don’t know anyone.” he said “once you’re friends with other writers you’re sunk.”
I was unpublished and didn’t count, but writers can’t make a living without contacts, and though he continued claiming not to know anyone, people got to know him, editors, publishers, radio producers.
“I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes” he said, stressing his lack of credentials failed PhD student, second rate academic, wannabe poet.


As the story then progresses, Holmes slowly discovers unpublished poems hidden away in other documents that cast his friend in another and as yet unforeseen light, as a misogynist and a predator of women, illustrated by the opening poem. Was he serially unfaithful to Jill, was it possible to write these poems with such apparent feeling without having lived these events?

The conflict within the story is then centred around Jill, fiercely fighting to keep the exiting vision of Robert Pope, and Matt trying to as best as possible carry out the will of his friend and to publish his works, and what if there were more to these poems than we imagined?

A clever story that keeps the readers interest and an ending in keeping with the mood of the book.

First Published in English as “The Executor” in 2018 by Vintage.

Jonathan Coe ‘Middle England’


‘She couldn’t stand politicians,’ Colin said, bringing some subterranean train of thought to the surface, and not needing to specify who he meant by ‘she’. He spoke in a low voice, thick with regret and repressed emotion. ‘Thought they were all as bad as each other. All on the fiddle, every one of them. Fiddling their expenses, not declaring their interests, holding down half a dozen jobs on the side …’ Benjamin nodded, while remembering that in fact it was Colin himself, not his late wife, who was obsessed with the venality of politicians.


Jonathan Coe has chosen the Trotter Family and their Birmingham base from his previous books, The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle, as the medium to study Pre and early Post Brexit Britain, the latent differences between the Leavers and the Remainers, that were waiting to be cleaved open. The opening quote from Colin Trotter, Benjamin Trotters father, maybe in his eighties, is of course something you can hear in any democracy in the world, squeaky clean is rare and of course this sort of resentment is like dry tinder.

Basically the fifty somethings in this book were not too interested or informed, typified by Benjamin who was too interested in his own navel and too timid to even have an opinion or his friend Doug, a freelance journalist who writes articles under severe time pressure, even his 16 year old daughter Coriander can see he is out of touch with what is happening in the country. But amongst all of the strands in this book, The Brexit story and its strife is carried by Sophie Trotter, Benjamin’s niece, in her early thirties and the man she chooses to marry, Ian who she meets on a driving training course after being caught speeding. This was never going to be a straightforward marriage. After Ian is injured in the Birmingham riots and Sophie drives his mother to the hospital, the tooothpaste is let out of the tube. Yes there is rascism, and resentment but maybe only that:


“Where will it end Sophie where will it all end this dreadful business end”?
Of course Sophie knew what she meant by this dreadful business but it was the middle of a quiet Saturday afternoon in august they were driving along the A435 not far from the Wivel roundabout and the sun shone placidly on the roofs of cars, the traffic signs, the petrol stations, the hedgerows, the pubs, the garden centres, the convenience stores, all the familiar landmarks of modern England. It was hard at that moment to see the world as a dreadful place or a very inspiring one for that matter, she was about to formulate some bland response, oh you know, life goes on , these things blow over after a while, when Helena added
“He was quite tight you know rivers of blood, he was the only one brave enough to say it”.
Sophie froze when she heard these words and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now, here it was after all the subject that wouldn’t, couldn’t be discussed the subject that provided people more than any other, mortified people more than any other, because to bring it up was to strip off your own clothes, and tear off the other persons clothes and to be forced to stare at each other naked, unprotected with no way of averting your eyes any reply she made to Helena at this moment, any reply that showed her own differing views would immediately mean confronting the unspeakable truth that sophie and everyone like her, and Helena and everyone like her, might be living cheek by jowl in the same country but they also lived in different universes and these universies were separated by a wall infinitely high, impermeable, a wall built out of fear and suspicion and even perhaps those most English of all qualities shame and embarrassment. Impossible to face this, the only practical thing to do was to ignore it, but for how long was that practical in fact?


Both Sophie and Ian suffer career setbacks, Ian, an alpha male loses out on a promotion to a woman, an Asian woman and he fosters resentment, a feeling of having had something that should have been his taken away by the PC crowd. Sophie is called out on Twitter by Coriander for something seemingly innocent telling a transgender student who had dithered on an essay between two choices, that she couldn’t make her mind up. Sophie was suspended pending an investigation, as Ian says Guilty until proven innocent. Ian and his mother cannot understand that Sophie is not bitter about this. And the added pressure of The Brexit debate tears their marriage apart, or was it always going to end this way:


Their relationship councillor Lorna told them that many of the couples she was seeing at the moment had mentioned Brexit as a key factor in their growing estrangement. Now I usually start by asking each of you the same question. Sophie, why are you so angry that Ian voted leave and Ian why are you so angry that Sophie voted remain? Sophie had thought for a long time before answering, I suppose because it makes me think that as a person he’s not as open as I thought he was, that his basic model for a relationship comes down to antagonism and competition not cooperation. Lorna had nodded and turned to Ian who said it makes me think that she’s very naive that she lives in a bubble and can’t see how other people around her might have a different opinion to hers and this gives a certain attitude an attitude of moral superiority. To which Lorna had said, what’s interesting about both those answers is that neither of you mentioned politics.


A long and relatively verbiose book, but you know what you’re getting when you buy a Coe. This book is maybe the analysis needed to begin the slow process of being able to live together, having different opinions and who knows, respecting opposite points of view. But don’t hold your breath.

First Published in English as “Middle England” in 2019 by Penguin Books Ltd.

Paul Lynch ‘Grace’


They stand in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse that shapes its gloom over a barren garden, a feeling of emptiness like presence. She wonders why an elm has had its bark stripped to head height and sees another just like it. Colly says, this was a house of tree eaters, I told you this was going on.


Grace, a story of the famine as if you were, there tells the story of Grace’s survival, read for the Roman De Rochefort. This book covers several themes, why was there a famine, who starved and why, and what are people capable of when faced with hunger. As the story begins, Grace, a young, girl of twelve, is living with her subsistence farming mother and siblings in a hut in The Black Mountains in Donegal. The potato harvest has failed and Grace doesn’t fully grasp what is to come as the landlord’s rent collector will want a rent that cannot be payed. Her mother Sarah with her daughter’s survival in mind, and a mouth less to feed at home, dresses her as a boy and sends her to do whatever work a friend of her ex-husband can find for her:


Sarah…produces cloth to bind Grace’s chest, stops and says, you’ve no need of it. Hands her a man’s shirt that swallows her. It smells like rocks pulled from a river. She holds the breeches in front of her and studies them. The fawn fabric is patched tan at the knees. She thinks, they look like a dog has had them for slumber. From whom did they come? Into the first leg she steps and then the other and she looks down at herself—such a sight, wishbone legs snapped loose into two gunnysacks. The breeches go past her ankles. Sarah rolls the ends up, stands behind her and loops the waist with string. A jacket that stinks of rained-on moss. A frieze coat ravelly about the neck and yawning at the elbow. I might as well be wearing jute. Sarah whispers. Here. Put on your boots. And try this cap. Your brother’s cap is too small for you. Pull it lower. Plenty of boys go about dressed in a father’s old clothing. Grace stands staring past the door at the world held starless by a flat dark. Leg-skin strange in these breeches and the cold whittling her head. Sarah hands her a candle and the light falls from her mother’s face so that it seems she is not herself, stands masked to her own daughter. She fusses over Grace, puts a satchel over her shoulder, rolls up the sleeves of the jacket. Then she looks towards the sleeping children, holds Grace with a long look, and whispers. Get to the town and don’t dally on the mountain road. Ask for Dinny Doherty and tell him you are your brother. He has always been kind to us.


As Grace leaves in the quiet of early morning, to avoid the rent collector, her younger brother, Colly, runs after her and whilst fishing with his hands falls in the river and drowns. As she then moves on from situation to situation, Colly’s voice follows with her as a counterpoint to her own survival decisions, telling her about the characters of the people she meets and helping her to survive.

At one job, Grace finds an abandoned hut where she tries to create a normality of life but is saved from a man, that has recognised her as a girl and followed her to her hut, by Bart, a small one armed man from the same work group who has learned to survive by his skill with knives. Grace and Bart then take to the road:


Of a sudden she knows what he is and what he is not. He turns without word and starts for the path without her. She stares at the path and stares at the dying man, another body left lying about and you’ll be the one who has to take care of it and maybe you’d be safer with this knife fighter. Wait! she shouts. She goes into the cabin and bundles her blanket and belongings. When she steps out of the house the dead man has gone. She says, what did you do with him? He says, I did nothing with him. So where is he gone? He got up and ran off. I thought he was dying.


The themes of who and why are examined as two separate worlds seem to coexist as Grace and Bart walk south along the roads, of the rich landowners in their protected estates who grow varied cash crops and corn, and of the poor, for whom potatoes is the only crop capable of producing enough calories to survive on their small plots, whose crops have failed, like Grace taken to the roads in search of food, work or charity:


Every flour cart on the road has been accompanied by soldiers. And in these great vales of Tipperary, the farming estates are sometimes as big as a town. They meet villages where the gardens are tended, the houses fashioned and slated. The great fields of corn giving to the world their color. How they crane their necks towards the flashing scythes. And yet there are the townlands you must go through with shut eyes, where grass grows over the doorways, where the fields learn color only from the sun. The have-it-alls and the have-nothings, Bart says. I give it a year before the country splits apart.


As winter turns to spring, somehow Bart and Grace have survived when so many about them have died, often in ditches at the sides of the roads as the people have become too weak to fight or resist:


They have tunneled through dark into this town called Ennis. Scavengers on the streets like stunned crows. The town watched over by buildings that might be flour mills. She thinks she will always remember the look of the fever hospital, the fright-shapes in the dark by the gates waiting to get in. Bart stops and leans out of breath against a wall. They find a place to sleep on the edge of town, some old forge, she thinks, though it might have been a baker’s once. There are other rough sleepers who speak in coughs.


Grace, Bart and a friend of Bart’s, McNutt, take to robbing the speeding coaches of the rich rushing up and down the same roads where the poor are dying in the ditches, or some of the less well protected houses, to survive whilst living in the hills. And then one day, thirteen long months from the start of the ordeal it happens, harvest comes and the potatoes are once again rotten, another year like the last is ahead of them, except that people are now already starving. Huts, farms and whole villages are now empty with people often lying dead in their huts with no one left to discover them, illustrated by the opening quote.

Slowly now the strong and the survivors weaken and die, including Bart and McNutt, and progressively Colly entirely takes over Grace as the survival instinct causes her to do the unimaginable:


that’s another dead-cart gone past and see what is on it—you will be on it soon no I will not yes you will—and do you know why those men are digging they are digging at meat that grows in the ground—you are not dead yet—yes you are—no you are not—soon unless you do something you must—hee! Tell no one—tell no one who is to know, wait until night like those others you saw in the dark and now it is dark and crawl so yes I will—not crawling walking crawling careful careful in case somebody sees—hee!—shovel hands—hee!—shoveling hands—who is that laughing sounds like Grace—Grace is dead—no she is not she is waiting in the house—it is a dog, a dog laughing—the dog is here for the meat also—how to bring this meat to Grace—it is not meat—it is meat—meat does not grow in the ground—is meat—isn’t—who will know anyhow—you won’t even know if you don’t think about it—dark and nobody is watching—to live is to die and to die is to live who said that—what silliness. Digging fingers meet the meat that lies under cloth—rip cloth—meat on the bone is meat in your hand will taste of mud and dead will it not and so what—the body won’t know what it’s eating, the body won’t care—nobody will know—


Grace is however found in the bottom of a pit of dead bodies and saved but no longer speaks. This is a harrowing story of deprivation, with whole villages of the poorer people being wiped from the map.

First Published in English as “Grace” in 2017 by Little, Brown and company.

The quotes in French

Ils s’arrêtent dans la cour d’une ferme à l’abandon dont la silhouette sombre domine un jardin désolé. La sensation de vide a la force d’une présence. Grace s’étonne de voir un orme dont l’écorce a été arrachée à hauteur d’homme, et en voit une deuxième un peu plus loin, exactement pareil. Les gens de cette maison étaient des mangeurs d’arbres, lui dit Colly, je t’avais que ça existait.

Sarah…lui présente un morceau de toile pour se bander la poitrine, constate aussitôt qu’elle n’en a pas besoin et lui fait enfiler une chemise d’homme qui engloutit son corps. Il s’en dégage une odeur de galet tiré de l’eau. Grace prend ensuite la culotte, qu’elle tient un moment devant elle pour mieux la détailler. Le tissu fauve porte aux genoux des empiècements brun foncé. On croirait qu’un chien a dormi dessus D’où peut-elle venir? Elle passe une jambe, puis l’autre, baisse les yeux pour considérer le résultat. Quelle horreur, ces deux brindilles qui semblent flotter dans des sacs de jute. Debout derrière sa fille, Sarah fait des revers à la culotte trop longue et resserre la taille avec une longueur de ficelle. Une veste aux relents de mousse imbibée de pluie. Un manteau qui arbore un col effrangé et bâille au niveau des coudes.
“Autant m’empaqueter dans de la toile à sac”.
“Mets ces bottes lui souffle Sarah, et essaie cette casquette celle de ton frère est trop petite pour toi. Baisse-la un peu sur le front Après tout, on voit des tas de garçons qui se promènent dans les vieilles frusques de leur père”.
Par la porte ouverte, Grâce regarde le monde plongé dans une obscurité unie, les étoiles effacées. Le frottement du pantalon agace la peau de ses jambes, le froid lui cisaille le crâne. Lorsque Sarah lui donne sa bougie, la clarté en s’éloignant d’elle semble poser sur ses traits un masque qui la dérobe à sa fille, la transforme en une autre. Elle s’empresse après Grace, ajuste la sangle de la besace à son épaule, retrousse les manches de la veste. Son regard embrasse les garçons assoupis, s’attarde un long moment sur sa fille. “Marche jusqu’à la ville”, dit-t-elle, “et ne lambine pas en route. Là-bas, tu demanderas Dinny Doherty, et tu te feras passer pour ton frère. Il a toujours été bon avec nous”.

Devant le regard sidéré qu’il lui lance, elle comprend instantanément ce qu’il est et ce qu’il n’est pas. Se détournant sans un mot, il se dirige tout seul vers le sentier. Grace fixe un moment le chemin, puis l’homme a l’agonie, encore un corps abandonné dont elle sera obligée de s’occuper, peut-être serait-elle plus tranquille avec ce champion du couteau.
Attends-moi! Elle rentre rassembler ses affaires, improvise un balluchon avec sa couverture. Quand elle ressort, le mort a disparu.
Qu’est-ce que tu en a fait?
Rien du tout, je n’y ai pas touché.
Où il est passé, alors?
Il s’est relevé et il est parti en courant.
J’ai cru qu’il était à l’article de la mort.

Les charrettes chargées de farine étaient toutes accompagnées de soldats. Dans le comté de Tipperary, on trouve des propriétés de la taille d’une ville, et certains villages ont des jardins bien tenus et des maisons de belles dimensions, coiffées de toitures en ardoises. Les immenses champs de maïs donnent des couleurs au paysage, courbant l’échine sous les lames étincelantes des faux. Mais il existe aussi des villages que l’on préfère traverser les yeux fermés, avec leurs maisons aux seuils envahis d’herbes folles et leur champs qui ne connaissent pas d’autre couleur que la clarté du soleil. Ceux qui ont tout et ceux qui ont rien, résume Bart. Je parie que d’ici un an, le pays se sera déchiré.

Ils sont entrés dans la petite ville d’Ennis par un tunnel d’obscurité. Les rues y sont peuplées d’écumeurs qui ressemblent à des corbeaux hébétés. Grace est persuadée qu’elle n’oubliera jamais l’hôpital des contagieux, les silhouettes d’épouvante massées devant la grille, attendant d’être admises. À bout de souffle, Bart s’appuie contre un mur. À la sortie de la ville, ils trouvent un endroit où dormir – une forge à l’abandon, croit-elle reconnaître, mais peut-être est-ce une ancienne boulangerie. D’autres vagabonds couchent là, toussant au lieu de parler.

– encore une charrette des morts et vois ce qu’elle transporte – bientôt ce sera toi non pas moi mais je te dis que oui – tu sais pourquoi ces gens se sont mis à creuser ils cherchent la viande qui pousse sous terre – tu n’es pas encore morte – si tu l’es – non tu ne l’es pas – mais ça va venir si tu ne fais rien – hé! – mains pelles – hé! – pelles entre les mains – qui est ce qui rit on dirait Grace – ce n’est pas de la viande – non je te dis – personne n’en saura rien de toute façon – même toi tu n’en sauras rien il suffit de ne pas y penser – il fait noir et personne ne regarde – vivre c’est mourir et mourir c’est vivre qui a dit ça – quelle bêtise. Les doigts fouillent la terre et trouvent la viande sous le drap – drap déchiré – viande sur l’os et viande dans ta main elle va avoir un goût de boue et de mort tu ne crois pas et puis après – le corps ne saura pas ce qu’il mange? Le corps ça lui est bien égal – personne n’en saura rien

Idra Novey ‘Ways to Disappear’


When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeão International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in…Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the sticky sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere. Her cab driver had a body as well, much of it on display beneath his pink muscle shirt, all of it glistening with sweat.


The famous Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda is seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase and then dissapears at the beginning of this book by Idris Nova about the author and her young English translator, Emma Neufeld, which although written in English, is set in Brazil and so I am proposing this for the Spanish And Portuguese lit month. Emma having translated all of Beatriz’s works and remembers a prison warden climbing a tree in one of them decides to travel to Brazil and look for her. As always when she arrives the shock to her senses awakens her body as illustrated in the opening quote.

When she comes to Brazil, Emma always stays with Beatriz and this time as she arrives she finds Beatriz’s grown children Raquel and Marcus. Raquel is exasperated to see her and cannot understand why someone who has read everything she has written should presume to know her mother better than her, thinking that it was more important to know what she hadn’t written down. They quickly discover that Beatriz is persued by a loanshark due to an on line gambling habit.

As Emma meets up with the loanshark, quickly painted in a few brush strokes by Idra Novey, she quickly learns that he doesn’t quite understand the meager amount of money in play in translated literature:


Listen, he said to her breasts, fuck the story. You know what I want? I want the six hundred thousand fucking dollars she owes me. Okay? I know she’s broke. So you need to get the damn book from her. Whatever you get for it in your country, half a million is mine, and then I won’t have to kill her.


To underline the translating theme, the book is interspersed with definitions and dry humour examples from the text, such as the one below inspired by the previous quote:


PROMISE: From the late Middle English prom-is. First known use 15th century. 1. A declaration of what a person intends to do, which may correspond to what a person actually does, or may not. 2. A verb used to assure of a certain outcome, as in: With time, a translator gets used to promising the impossible the way a loan shark gets used to promising carnage.


We meet many other characters, including Beatriz’s Brazilian publisher in this successfully humorous book as Emma follows successive leads searching for Beatriz, who cannot afford to be found. A fun book that lived up to its hype (Oh, and Emma and the good looking Marcus….).

First Published in English as “Ways to Dissapear” in 2016 by Daunt Books

Jeniffer Egan ‘Manhattan Beach’


He eyed Kerrigan, searching for the weakness. Money wasn’t his object, or he’d have demanded it before singing. What, then? In a mick it was usually booze,but Kerrigan hadn’t the look of a lush. Nor was there much propensity for violence in those scrappy limbs, though he’d likely fight hard in self-defense. Women? Micks were famously prudish, faithful to their blowsy wives—perhaps recalling the bonny colleens they’d been before the assembly line of children, or from fear of their drunken, bellicose priests.


Anna’s Father, Eddie Kerrigan was a trusted bag carrier for Irish organised crime around Manhattan beach, he could be trusted not to be noticed as he carried money from one place to the next. The book opens at a pivotal moment in his life as, on a Sunday, he meets up with Dexter Styles, looking to make the next step up and work for the Italians proposing, as we learn later in the book, to watch Styles’ different operations, not being noticed, and spot the people that were cheating him. Styles eyed up Kerrigan to try to understand his motives as illustrated in the opening quote. Kerrigan had gone to Styles’ house with his daughter Anna who was only eight years old at the time and we see what is happening in this adult world through Anna’s eyes.

In early 1930’s America Anna was living at home with her parents and her seriously crippled sister, where their only fun in life was the occasional visits from her aunt, Brianne whose stories only Anna believed:


“And the trumpeter?” he asked. “Oh, he’s a real lover boy. Curls like Rudy Vallee.” She would need money again soon enough. Brianne was long past her dancing days, and even then her chief resource had always been her beaus. But fewer men were flush now, and a girl with bags under her eyes and a boozy roll at the waist was less likely to land one. Eddie found a way to give his sister money whenever she asked, even if it meant borrowing from the shylock. He dreaded what she might become otherwise.


And then one day Eddie disappears for good. Fast forward and Anna is working for the war effort at Manhattan beach where she dreams of becoming a diver working on war ships and when she finally gets to meet Lieutenant Axel who could make her wishes come true she comes up full against anti female prejudice:


“You’re interested,” Lieutenant Axel said, gazing up at Anna as she stood before his desk. He’d not risen when the marine had shown her into his office. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Extremely interested.” “And what gave you the impression that diving would be interesting?” She hesitated, not entirely sure. “I’ve watched divers on the barge,” she said. “From Pier C. At lunchtime. And after my shift.” She followed each utterance with a pause, awaiting some indication that he had understood. “You’ve watched the divers at lunchtime,” he finally said. As this was not a question, and as her words, reverberated through Lieutenant Axel, had a way of sounding ridiculous,


Anna, whilst working at the docks was one of the few women who were not married, not being trusted entirely by the ‘marrieds’, she meets up with Nell, another single woman who the one day disappears and Anna the finds her at a night club where she finds that single women working on the docks can find other ways easier ways to get by:


“I haven’t any job at all,” Nell said. “Unless you count trying to look smashing all the time so Hammond doesn’t toss me out.” They seated themselves among a group who occupied several tables near the dance floor. Anna noticed Marco and reddened when he looked in her direction. But he was watching Nell. “Would he really throw you out?” Anna whispered. “Hammond is a pig,” Nell said, which dumbfounded Anna, Hammond himself being inches away, his arm around Nell’s shoulders. Anna averted her gaze as if she’d been guilty of an indiscretion. “Then why do you—” “Money,” Nell said brightly. “He’s loaded with money, and he pays for everything. He lives in an eight-bedroom mansion in Rye, New York, with his wife and four children. He’ll never leave them—I was nuts to think he would. Isn’t that right, darling,” she called to Hammond. “Anna worked with me at the Naval Yard. Hammond doesn’t like to hear about that. He thinks girls shouldn’t work at all; they should just dream up new ways to entrance him.”


It is then at this club that she meets Dexter Styles, for the first time since that day at his house on Manhattan beach, using a false name so that he doesn’t link her to Eddie. As she better gets to know Styles, her knew life diving and her quest for her disappeared father lead her and Styles to the truth about her father. In parallel Styles is asked to take Badger from Chicago under his wing and is amazed at his naivety:


Dexter marveled at his insolence. It made him grasp something that had eluded him until that instant: Badger thought he was protected. He’d mistaken Mr. Q.’ s helping hand for immunity of some kind—apparently unaware that Mr. Q.’ s own brother had vanished in the course of his ascent, along with at least two cousins. This misapprehension explained Badger’s exaggerated deference toward Dexter, the twist of mockery inside it.


But then the wheel turns full circle and called late at night to a boathouse by one of Mr. Q.’s sons, Dexter finds himself in the same position with Badger as Eddie had with him all those years ago.

There are twists in this story and so I don’t think there was a spoiler yet here in Jennifer piece of historical fiction. An interesting and well researched story.

First Published in English as “Manhattan Beach” in 2017 by Scribner.