Emily St. John Mandel ‘The Glass Hotel’


In their first winter together they flew south to a party at a private club in Miami Beach, Jonathan seemed to belong to an extraordinary number of clubs. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he told Vincent “but I’ve always had a weakness for places where it seems like time slows down.” Yet another clue that Vincent felt she should have picked up, why exactly did he want time to slow down? Was there something in that statement besides a general awareness of mortality some other inevitability that he felt was rushing towards him?


Who is the New York Financier, Jonathan Alkaitis, if you remember Madoff then you’re sort of getting there. This book is about the people around Alkaitis when the stock market takes a serious tumble in 2008 and anyone running a Ponzi scheme is going to be collateral damage. This novel isn’t so much about the central figure, but about the people around him, about Vincent, who was brought up in a remote area on Vancouver Island, one road with no roads in and no roads out, accessible only by boat. One morning whilst Vincent is just a child, her mother goes out in the kayak and never comes home, this event shapes her and her future. Vincent, beautiful Vincent back home on Vancouver island is working in a bar in the hotel Caiette, owned by Alkaitis, and as he can, he just whisks her off to live with himself. But why would a super rich man do this:


I want you close said Jonathan at the beginning….While he didn’t want to marry Vincent he did feel that wedding rings created an impression of stability, in my line of work he said managing other people’s money, steadiness is everything, if I take you out to dinner with clients it’s better for you to be a beautiful young wife than a beautiful young girlfriend. Does Claire know we’re not married?…Only two people in the world know that, you and me….But what kind of man lies to his daughter about being married? There were aspects of the fairy tale that Vincent was careful not to think about too much at the time and later her memories of those years had an abstracted quality as if she stepped temporarily outside of herself.


Does Vincent know anything about Alkaitis’s true business? Well the opening quote tells us that maybe she should have. Alkaitis knows his run cannot go on forever but his need for investors means that he takes down everyone and anyone around him, even people he is fond of invest with him and some lose everything they own. Leon Prevant, a shipping executive is one, he is unfortunate enough to be on holiday in the hotel Caiette when Alkaidis is there and we understand something of his charisma as he has insights into what Leon must be thinking because of his work. Prevant invests his life’s savings, including his pension with Jonanthan and we then follow Leon’s descent after the collapse. Vincent herself, though, just disappears and as a coincidence finds herself working on one of the ships Prevant used to manage. How does it finish? Well remember how it started when Vincent was a young girl?


In memory I’m back at the La Vu D’Or in the interior of gold and red listening to my least favourite of Jonathan’s investors, talk about a singer, no not a singer a Ponzi scheme, “Couldn’t recognise an opportunity,” Lenny Xavier said talking about the singer “whereas me when I met your husband, when I figured out how his fund worked, that right there was an opportunity and I seized it.” I watched Jonathan’s look of alarm, the way he leaned forward as he spoke, his obvious desperation to stop Lenny from talking. “Let’s not bore our lovely wives with investment talk” and Lenny smirked as he raised his glass “my investment performed better than I could ever have imagined”, he knew but of course I knew too, if not the details of the scheme then the fact that there was a scheme because I’d been pretending to be Jonathan’s wife for months by then, it was just that I’d chosen not to understand.


St John Mandel, a National Book Award for Fiction nominee and an Arthur C Clarke award winner has a smooth floating voice in this novel which slowly pulls you in.

First Published in English as “The Glass Hotel” in 2020 by Picador.

Douglas Stuart ‘Shuggie Bain’

Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Shuggie Bain”: In order of reading book number 1.

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 said to him well I’ve got two grown boys at home to feed an’ they cannae find any work either so what do you suggest I do about that? He looked at me and he didn’t even blink when he said try South Africa”. She closed the bag, “they’ve never even been to south Lanarkshire never mind South Africa”. She kept rubbing her red thumb. “It ain’t right, the government should do something, shutting down the iron works and the ship building, it’ll be the miners next you watch, South Africa, never! Go all the way to South Africa so that they can build cheap boats there and send them home to put more of our boys out of work, a shower of swine”.
“It’s diamonds” Shugg offered “they go to South Africa to mine diamonds”. The woman looked as if he had contradicted her.
“Well I don’t care what they mine they could be pulling liquorice out of a black man’s arse for all I care, they should be working here at home in Glasgow and eating their mammies cooking.”


Common themes in the selected books this year seem to be the relationship between generations and hardship, here Douglas Stuart takes us back to Glasgow between the seventies and eighties, a city hard hit by the closure of the traditional industries as illustrated in the opening quote between the taxi driver Shugg and a customer. The story seen through the eyes of Shuggie, the youngest son of Agnes and Shugg. He plunges us into the life of the Bains familly which faced with poverty in Glasgow is blown apart by the mother, Agnes’s drink problem, which we visit in frightening everyday detail:


To Agnes Sue-Ellen Ewing was like her reflection but maybe in a fun house mirror she could relate to the alcoholic character and every time she was drunk on the screen Agnes would make a tutting noise and say to Leek “well that’s just like me isn’t it” then she would giggle through chocolaty false teeth. The fake glamour of Sue-Ellen’s tragedy made it look almost enviable. Agnes would tell the tv “it’s a disease you know” and “the poor lassie cannae help it”. Shuggie watched the actress tremble her bottom lip with fake emotion. The whole thing was a pile of lies, where was the head in the oven and the house full of gas? Where were the tears and the half dressed uncles and the sister who would never come home? The curtains lay open and the orange lights came on all over the scheme, Dallas finished and the street began to empty of wains.


The husband and father Shugg, a womaniser, manages to get a council house to rent through a fiddle. The house is in a dessolate pit town just outside of Glasgow where there is no work and everyone seems to be related. Shugg drops them of at their new house and immediately leaves them, not to come back. There is no way out, Agnes and Shuggie stand out. Agnes who no matter what her state dresses as if to go out, the drinking doesn’t initially stand out. Shuggie who on arrival is in primary school, well he just isn’t like the other boys is he? he wishes he was but his favourite toys are long haired coloured ponies whose hair he can brush.

Agnes has a habit she has to feed and with thirty five pounds child support per week, after the drink there isn’t much left for eating, because of his age, Shuggie isn’t a completely reliable narrator, as he and we find out, first his eldest sister leaves home as soon as she can and moves to South Africa never coming back, then his brother Leek leaves home as soon as he can after an argument with Agnes. Agnes is full of anger when she has been drinking and then turns to the phone to call and insult people, with the rapid change in mood when she wakes and the drink has worn off. Then it is Shuggies turn, Shuggie who does everything to help his mother discovers that she can’t live with him or anyone else in her house. When he gets to fifteen years old and she throws him out, he supposes it was probably this way around for his brother.


He believed that if he could fill her every moment with noise then maybe she could stay away from the drink. He stood outside of the bathroom as she peed he told her of the pheasants that Danny tripped with sleeping pills he climbed into her cold bed at night and read non stop as she lay awake, when she could take no more Agnès filled him full of milk of magnesia and was relieved when he was loosened up enough to go back to class.


Douglas Stuart instills in us the way alcohol can tear people apart, the alcoholic and all of the people around them. Shuggie’s life is like Chinese water torture. This book is without hope.

First Published in English as “Shuggie Bain” by Picador in 2020

Fernando Aramburu ‘Homeland’


Txato shared his grave with his maternal grandparents and an aunt, at the edge of an alley on a gentle slope, in a row of similar graves. On the gravestone there were the Christian names and names of the dead, his date of birth, and that of the day they killed him but not his nickname, Txato. In the days leading up to the burial, family members in Azpeita, had advised Bittori not to have any allusions, emblems or signs, which would identify Txato as a victim of ETA, carved on the headstone. That way she would avoid problems. She protested;—Come on, they’ve already killed him once. They’re surely not going to start again. Not that Bittori had thought of having a comment on the death of her husband carved on the headstone; but it only needed for someone to try to dissuade her from doing something for her to dig her heels in. Xabier agreed with the family and the only things carved on the grave were the names and the dates. In Saragossa, Nerea had the cheek to suggest that they falsify the second date. Astonishment. What do you mean?—I thought we could put a date either before or after the attack. Xabier shrugged his shoulders. Bittori said it was out of the question.***


This story, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, begins as three men wearing ski masks and white cloaks, Klu Klux style announce to the world that ETA are finally giving up the armed struggle. Fernando Aramburu, then takes us in a wide sweeping story of the tragedy of these years, centred on the story of two families in a small Basque village, impressing on us that here, as with any other terrorist organisation, the very people that they are fighting for must become their victims for them to fuel the fight. We first discover Bittori, an old woman living in San Sébastien but making clandestine trips back to the village to see her house, and of her husband Txato, dead these many year, killed by ETA and of her children, Xabier and Nerea both scared of ETA, Nerea to the point of not attending her father’s funeral so that her friends and professors in her new life in Saragossa would not link her to the assassination. The opening quote tells us something of the time of Txato’s murder.

We also follow the story of Miren and her husband Joxean, the families, like the wives are close friends until the “armed struggle” begins when events take them along different paths, the wives both stubborn for their own reasons:


Before Txato’s tragedy she was a believer, but not anymore. She had been, however, devout in her youth. She had even nearly become a nun. Her and that friend from their village that it’s better not to remember. Both of them had changed their minds at the last minute when they had already one foot in the door of the noviciate. Now , she takes all those stories of resurrection of the dead, of eternal life, of the creator and the Holy Ghost for nonsense.***


Txato, who has built up a transport business in this poor, high unemployment area, receives anonymous letters to pay the “revolutionary tax” in order to fuel ETA, which of course he pays, but as he pays, the demands increase until he can no longer pay. Aramburu then tells us something of the randomness of the terrorists as the local bar owner fuels hatred of Txato in the community by organising graffiti against him including targets next to his name and with his previous friends then out of fear staying away from him. This is in itself not enough to get him killed, but then as the ETA organisation sends autonomous cells into the country side, avoiding contact with the locals so as not to be betrayed. These cells then, in this case at least read street graffiti to identify potential targets.

In parallel, José Mari, Miren’s oldest son, passes from delinquent to full blown ETA soldier and is seen in the village the night before Txato’s assassination. As the story begins he has been in prison, far from his family and the Basque Country, in Andalusia for many years. This long and engaging story then follows the slow breakdown of resistance as Bittori, before her death, wants to know the true story of what happened that day, hear of Joxe Mari’s role and wants him to ask her for forgiveness and the roles of the different family members in this process. The difficulty of the task is placed before us at the start, as on hearing of the ETA announcement Miren says:


They’ve given up the struggle, in exchange for what? Have they forgotten the liberation of Euskal Herria? And the prisoners rotting in prison? Cowards. We must finish what we’ve started.***


An excellent study of grass roots terror.

First Published in spanish as “Patria” in 2016 by Tusquets Editores
Translated into French by Claude Bleton and published as “Patria” in 2018 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English in by Alfred MacAdam and published as “Homeland” in 2019 by Picador.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le Txato partage sa tombe avec ses grands-parents maternels et une tante, au bord d’une allée en pente douce, dans l’alignement de sépultures similaires. Sur la pierre tombale figurent le prénom et les noms du défunt, sa date de naissance et celle du jour où on l’a tué. Mais pas son surnom. Dans les jours précédant l’inhumation, des membres de la famille, à Azpeitia, avaient conseillé à Bittori de s’abstenir de graver sur la pierre des allusions, emblèmes ou signes qui identifient le Txato comme une victime de l’ETA. De cette façon, elle s’épargnerait des problèmes. Elle protesta :—Dites donc, on l’a déjà tué une fois. Ils ne vont quand même pas recommencer. Non que Bittori ait envisagé qu’on grave un commentaire sur le décès de son mari ; mais il suffit qu’on cherche à la dissuader de faire une chose pour qu’elle s’y accroche. Xabier donna raison à la famille. Et ne furent inscrits que les noms et les dates. À Saragosse, Nerea au téléphone avait proposé, quel culot, de falsifier la seconde date. Étonnement. Comment cela ?—Je me suis dit qu’on pourrait mettre sur la tombe une date antérieure ou postérieure à l’attentat. Xabier haussa les épaules. Bittori dit pas question.

Avant la tragédie du Txato, elle croyait, mais plus maintenant. Et pourtant, elle était dévote dans sa jeunesse. Elle avait même failli prendre le voile. Elle et cette amie du village qu’il vaut mieux ne pas se rappeler. Toutes deux renoncèrent à leur projet au dernier moment, alors qu’elles avaient déjà un pied dans le noviciat. Maintenant, elle prend toutes ces histoires de résurrection des morts, de vie éternelle, de Créateur et de Saint-Esprit pour des sornettes.

Ils renoncent à la lutte en échange de quoi ? Ont-ils oublié la libération d’Euskal Herria ? Et les prisonniers qui croupissent en prison ? Lâches. Il faut finir ce qu’on a commencé.

Christopher J. Yates ‘Grist Mill Road’


“For years I was obsessed with Japan because I considered it the strangest place827AB891-A08F-4261-8F3D-21964701E469 I could visit that didn’t require space travel. Then again, I had not, until my early twenties, experienced New Jersey.”


Grist Mill road is a psychological thriller set in the present but based on events taken place years before as the main protagonists were young adolescents. This is a thriller told individually by the three characters and follows the outline of the unreliable narrator whose descriptions of these past events seems entirely believable but in retrospect incomplete, the why of the matter being avoided.

So in 2008 and in turn, Patch then Hannah and finally Mathew tell us of the events that occurred in upstate New York back in 1982 when, as Patch tells us that at the age of 12, he and his slightly older friend Mathew take Hannah out into the country where they have played all summer and whilst Patch, as Mathew asks him, goes away to count to one hundred, but secretly watches, Mathew ties Hannah to a tree and shoots one of her eyes out with an air rifle:


I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched.


Flash forward to 2008, Patch has recently got together and is living together with Hannah as Mathew seems to reappear in their lives pushing them to bring old memories to the surface and we are brought to re-examine and to see the same story we have been told, of the evil Mathew, the innocent Hannah and the voyeur Patch through different eyes, we learn more about them at that time, Hannah coming from a rich family, Mathew has a drunken abusive father and Patch’s father is a small time but ambitious local politician and of maybe more nuanced events, as the story rushes towards its troubled climax.

First published in English as ‘Grist Mill Road‘ by Picador in 2017

Alan Hollinghurst ‘The Sparsholt Affair’


“The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir. We were up in my rooms, talking about the club. Peter Goyle, the painter, was there, and Charlie Farmonger and Evert Dax.3B22C1AF-0CA2-4A17-8359-8E3F426D9F8AA sort of vote had taken place, and I emerged as the secretary, I was the oldest by a year and exempt from service”


Alan Hollinghurst’s novel chronicles gay life in a number of distinct episodes in England through two generations of the Sparsholt family. The book begins at the outset of the second world war at Oxford university illustrated at the first meeting of the memoir club in the opening quote where Goyle, Dax and the narrator of the first time period, Julian Green are are present and we hear of Sparsholt, a young freshman keen on rowing coming from an engineering family in Warwickshire with no real interest in books and only really filling in time before he is called up and seems so out of place with the upper class gays in the club:


“Oh, yes, him,” Evert said, as the source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights. He did this with no apparent effort – but of course it was hard to tell from this distance, from which he showed, in this square of light, as massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light himself. Peter put his hand on my arm.
“My dear” he said, “I seem to have found my new model.” At which Evert made a little gasp, and looked at him furiously for a second.


Sparsholt is then indeed painted by Peter Goyle, a nude torso which is after Goyle’s death in the war later obtained by Dax. In this well described 1940.s Oxford it is also clear that Sparsholt is a more nuanced charachter than he may first seem and that gays even in these times should not be stereotyped.

In the second time sequence, we follow David Sparsholt’s family on a family holiday in the 60’s, a little before the actual Sparsholt affair, where we see that he has married his girlfriend from before his Oxford years, Connie, has a family but still prefers the company of his friend, Clifford, who is on holiday with his wife nearby, nothing is overt here, homosexuality is afterall still illegal. We are also introduced to his son, Johnny the narrator of the remainder of the book as he suspects nothing of his father but is himself discovering his own sexual tendancies in his early teens as he is infatuated with Bastien his French exchange student.

The second part of the book follows Johnny through his life in London as he first meets Evert Dax and then the rest of the Memoire club, this happens after the Sparsholt affair, a scandal involving his father, and follows Johnny as he matures and the grows older.

First Published in English as “The Sparsholt Affair” in 2017 by Picador.

Robert Seethaler ‘A Whole Life’

This last weekend I accompanied Marie-Claude to the French National translators annual conference (ATLAS) in the historic town of Arles, and whilst there I spent a couple of hoursimage exploring the Actes Sud bookshop, a famous French Editor based in Arles who incidentally publishes both Mathieu Enard (the recent winner of the Prix Goncourt) as well as the French translations of Svetlana Alexievitch (the recent Nobel Prize winner). Amongst other hauls, Marie-Claude came away with the latest Asterix ‘Le Papyrus de César’ and I with ‘Une Vie Entière’ (A Whole Life)

The best adjective I can find to describe Robert Seethaler’s book ‘A Whole Life’ would be gentle. Andreas Egger born in the closing years of the 19th century lived his whole life (with the exception of the war years) in a single mountain valley, without complaining, his poor life in this village seems so hard that his capture and six year detention in Vorochilovgrad with many prisoners dying around him from hunger, illness or exhaustion does not seem so different from his normal way of life.

He is brought up by a brutal farmer who continually beats him using a willow branch imagecausing him permanent damage to his leg, until he rebels and leaves home at 18 to live in stables, outbuildings or huts surviving doing any work in the valley he could be payed for, he tragically knows love for a short period, lives through the slow opening up of the valley to tourism and to his eventual demise and death living in yet another hut in the mountains.

I read this book in one sitting about this way of life so different from today’s but so recent.

First published in German as Ein ganzes Leben by Carl Hanser Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Élisabeth Landes and published by Sabine Wespieser in 2015
Translated into English by Charlotte Collins and published by Picador in 2015