ManBooker Review #3 : 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This is a truly beautiful book.

Obviously visually with it’s stunning cover, shades of blue and gold that complement each other so perfectly.

But the words, the words within are truly, truly beautiful. This is a story told and imagined through the senses. Through taste, touch, smell. Through sound and sight, Istanbul and it’s inhabitants are brought to life.

At the simplest of levels this is the story of Leila, a prostitute found dead in a dumpster in Istanbul, discovered and then robbed by youths high on glue. A story with such an ugly beginning is in fact breathtaking in it’s beauty.

The story of Leila’s life is told as her brain begins to close down, minute by minute, sense by sense.

And Leila’s life is unexpected, intertwined with the people she meets and importantly the friends she makes. Five friends, all with different stories, backgrounds and ethnicity, that come together in the cultural melting pot that is Istanbul.

All five of Tequila Leila’s friends are outcasts in one shape or form.

Nostalgia Nalan, once Osman, a brave transgender woman who ran from her farming family in Anatolia on her wedding night.

Sabotage Sinan, Lelia’s oldest friend, son of a progressive female pharmacist, now trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to hide his friendships.

Jameelah, Somalian born to Muslim father and Christian mother, destroyed by her mother’s death, trafficked to Istanbul and prostitution.

Zaynab122, born in Lebanon into a Sunni family. A family so intermarried that dwarfism is common, hence the 122. Making her way to Istanbul, she finds herself cleaning the brothel where Lelia works.

Hollywood Humerya, cat rescuer and nightclub singer, at home in Istanbul after running from Mesopotamia and an enforced, abusive marriage.

These friendships are the core and the heart of our story. They are the core and the heart of Lelia’s life. Rejected by her own family Lelia’s support and sustenance comes from this diverse group, a complexity which is symbolic and reflective of the city around them.

This is story of true friendship, the friendship that springs from adversity and a meeting of souls, friendships that move beyond accepted definition and become akin to family.

…there were two kinds of families in this world: relatives formed the blood family; and friends, the water family…

…the water family, this was formed much later in life, and was to a large extent of your own making. While it was true that nothing could take the place of a loving, happy blood family, in the absence of one, a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot…

Her ‘water family’ are those people that Leila’s can share her truth with, that support her throughout her darkest moments and crucially whom her thoughts turn to in death as her mind slowly, over the course of 10 minutes, 38 seconds, shuts down.

The story of friendship is wrapped in a unique structure. Beginning with a chapter entitled The End we see Lelia’s death. Then follows three parts, The Mind, The Body, The Soul.

This novel is not linear, the story of Lelia’s life twists and turns just like the city that nurtures it. Yet it is the collection and formation of these unique friendships that are the glue that holds it all together.

Istanbul is portrayed as a feast for the senses, the span of the story and the diversity of the characters provides a tangible sense of the political, religious and historical turmoil and tensions which has created and at times almost destroyed this city. A city on a boundary, where East quite literally meets West, with all the complexities that brings.

Here we see the traditional and the modern fighting to co-exist. Sometimes rubbing alongside each other in a disordered and disjointed way. Sometimes one breaking the other beyond repair.

Story after story with in this novel present us with the expectations of family, of parents demanding conformity and tradition and of children torn. Torn between love, loyalty and the need to be true to themselves.

This is a story of what happens when your desires and your experiences don’t fit your preordained path. And how you find a place in the world when your world has rejected you.

And time and again in this generational, cultural, political battle it is women who are the casualties.

Women who are forced into marriages that abusive and filled with constrain . Women who are forced to give up their children, be it at birth or later in the name of family honour. Women who give up their bodies to survive, to serve the needs of men. Women who pay for men’s mistakes when political will changes and religion closes down a household and it’s freedoms.

What better way of commenting on the treatment of women by making a prostitute the focus and the protagonist of this story? By challenging each reader to look beyond a tragic and inauspicious start and to use that great leveller, Death, to revel this women’s history. To share her passions, her past, her tragedies and triumphs. To show us that we need to look beyond the label and the preconceptions, that in built sense of inevitability to discover the real women beneath. To see the brave women escaping one life and trying to make their own realities.

For Death is our storyteller here. It is the one inescapable factor in life and is presented throughout with a gentle but biting humour.

It is the rituals surrounding death that bring Lelia and her ‘water family’ together for one final time. The last section of the book is possibly one of the greatest testaments to friendship I have ever encountered in literature. It challenges the idea that there is one way to deal with a death, bringing together many rituals, creating the idea that departure should be as unique as each life lived.

A book of sincerity and complexity, of beauty, alongside great sorrow, Man Booker Judges if you are listening, this one deserves the Short List.

Rachel x

Man Booker Review #Two : Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.

If I could write for just 5 minutes like Jeanette Winterson I would die a happy woman.

Over the years I have continually been amazed by her intelligence, insight and biting wit. Since reading Oranges are not the only fruit in my mid teens, a complete revelation to a young some what sheltered girl (!), I have been completely hooked. No two Winterson books are the same, such is her rare versatility and style, both setting her apart from the crowd.

In that respect Frankissstein is no different.

But it all other respects Frankissstein is completely different.

It is unlike anything I have read before.

To the point where I am actually not sure where to even start with this book.

It is such a feat of fact, beautifully woven with fiction, that encompasses so many relevant and current themes. Winterson’s discussion and consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) takes the reader both into the past, the present and the future.

Here is a dual narrative so cleverly employed. Finding ourselves in the company of Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, we see Shelley’s influences and hear her stories. As an observer of ongoing discussions between Mary, Percy Shelley and Byron the reader witnesses the new and emerging thinking of great these minds , debating what is the nature of a human. There is a tangible feeling of excitement and hope as they stand on the edge of advancement, but also a fear and apprehension about what the future holds.

We are then thrown into the present with the transgender protagonist, Dr Ry Shelley, and his lover Victor Stein pioneer of AI. Ry has changed his body, making it a place his mind feels at home. This character introduces and embeds the idea that as a race we are constantly redefining our understanding of what makes us who we are. It is a debate that has raged throughout history and is explored throughout the novel, in both narratives.

This is an treaty on, amongst other things, what it means to be human and how this debate should be guiding some of our thinking as we progress ever further in our quest for advancement and knowledge.

Winterson opens the discussion, raising question after question. Are we more than a sum of our parts? What is the essence of ourselves, and does this lie in our minds or is it part of our bodies too? And if our sense of self lies within our mind, then is the way to eternal life to download our minds and live within an alternative body? Or maybe not even a body? And would we be happy with this, or is our body important after all?

Winterson draws no conclusions but skilfully uses a cast of characters, both past and present, to shape both the potential and the pitfalls of Al and all that goes with it.

Stein is the champion of the technology, pushing it’s boundaries, seeing it’s potential. He is focused on it’s possibilities and is willing to accept any disadvantages for the greater good.

Ry is a moderating presence, open to ideas and possibilities but questioning how far we as a race should go.

Ron Lord, millionaire sex bot creator, sees the commercial advantages of AI, extols the virtues of commitment free sex but also asks the layman’s questions, questions that have a crucial validity in their simple insightful nature.

Enter Claire, American and far right religious, trying to make the moral case for AI, sometimes with twisted logic, making what she sees fit into ‘God’s’ plan. Here we see shades of Darwin and the up roar his theories caused, similarly AI takes us further from long held and traditional views, views which have underpinned belief systems and societies.

Winterson has opened the debate on AI, showing us just how far we have come, where we currently are and questioning how far we can and crucially should go. We are challenged to discuss how AI will benefit the human race, but also what it may cost us. We should question who benefits from these potential advances. Is the progress universally enhancing or does it have the potential to compromise or even destroy that which we hold dear?

The dual narrative shows us that as a race we have always been on a continual journey. Questions that we are asking in this era of advanced technology, Brexit and Trump are questions that were debated by the Romantics in the Villa’s of Florence and Geneva and others throughout time. You can’t stop humans discussing, progressing and push boundaries; there is an inevitability here.

Frankissstein is a book that challenges, that encourages questions, discussion and debate. It’s not a cosy, ‘keep it to yourself’ read. It’s one to push the boundaries, be argued over at dinner parties. It is a book bursting to get off the shelves and out into the big wide world.

A book with a voice that needs to be heard.

I, for one, can’t get this book out of my head. It’s ‘food for thought’ is still being digested and I can’t wait to feast again when I see Winterson at the Manchester Literature Festival on 5th October. (Link for tickets right here !)

I am left with a feeling that this is a book with a very important message in our rapidly changing world.


Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape.

An Unplanned ManBooker Book Review : Lanny by Max Porter

Lanny, Lanny, Lanny!! Where do I start?

As I tweeted last week Lanny was going to be a ‘read but not review book’. It was going to be the beginning of my personal foray into the ManBooker Long List. It took approximately 15 pages before I abandoned that idea, because Lanny was a book I immediately wanted to talk about, write about and share with as many people as possible. Lanny was a book that excited me and I am not very good at keeping quiet when that happens!

So what is it all about? Allow me to try and explain.

Lanny is set in the present day, in a village within commuter distance from London, a village found in the Doomsday book, the village where Lanny and his parents live.

Lanny’s mum is a former actress, now a writer, who is working on violent crime novels that somehow seem at odds with her personality. Lanny’s father works in the City, one of the village’s many commuters. Wrapped up in his job, he is stressed and feels no real connection to the village or most noticeably to his son. As a couple they are together but feel very separate. There is a sense of disconnect in their relationship and their belief systems, cleverly enhanced by the way Porter presents their individual points of view. Both are given separate sections, each short, each very much a capsule of their own thoughts and feelings, each very different to the next.

And what of Lanny?

Well, Lanny is unusual. He is a creative and sensitive boy. He alone in his family feels a connection to his environment, he alone in his family lives up to his surname Greentree. Wandering the village, Lanny is in touch with the world around him. He has a friendship with Pete, a famous but almost reclusive artist who has taken refuge in the village. Pete is loosely employed to teach Lanny art but their relationship is essentially a meeting of like minded souls; Pete and Lanny understand each other, and they learn from each other,

There is another character at work in this novel, one that is less tangible but no less real or important. Papa Toothwort is the village’s oldest inhabitant. He has seen peace and turmoil, prosperity and famine, and now, after a spell of apparent dormancy, Papa Toothwort has awoken. His legend is woven into the fabric of the village, in it’s history, in its church, but it seems that for many a year now Papa Toothwort has been largely forgotten. As the village has changed and the old traditional ways have receded further into the past Papa Toothwort, a pagan Green Man figure, has slipped further from people’s minds.

But now Papa Toothwort is awakening. The voice of the earth, and the all seeing eye of the village has been disturbed from his slumber. A malevolent force which seems to absorbed the years of abuse inflicted upon the ground Papa Toothwort is a shapeshifter and a trickster, able to get into the homes and sometimes the minds of the villagers. There is a very real sense that Papa Toothwort is here to teach someone a lesson, to claim back a village that has lost it’s sense of self.

And Papa Toothwort feels a connection with Lanny. Is it Lanny’s arrival in the village that has awoken him? Or is it the increasingly insular and distasteful behaviour of the villagers themselves?

The sections in the first part of the book that present Papa Toothwort’s point of view are disordered and fragmented. They are made up of Papa’s own thoughts as he awakes from his slumber, and supplemented by snatches of conversation he hears from around the village. Porter has created soundbites that are authentic and pithy, the like of which we might over hear in any pub, cafe or on any bus. Short bursts and phases they may be but they build a compelling portrait of life in the village. In the beginning they chime as humorous, fragments of gossip and trivia, but as time moves on they become more disordered, disturbed and disturbing.

As Papa Toothwort draws closer the style of his entries become more frantic, the tone of the snatched conversations becomes darker. And we find ourselves asking is Papa Toothwort inherently malicious or is he just a mirror, reflecting the mood and behaviour of the village and it’s inhabitants? Either way there is a terrible inevitability to what happens next.

Lanny is missing.

With this revelation we enter Part 2 of the book and the style changes again. Porter draws us into that terrible world where a child has vanished, where everything is unreal and chaotic. A world where time is precious but it seems to be behaving strangely. A world where judgements are made and false trails are laid. There is a insular, almost claustrophic feeling to the writing, a desperation for the truth and on some level a desperation to be believed.

In the immediate aftermath of Lanny’s disappearance the fragmentation of the village is ever more apparent. Feelings that have been hiding behind doors are openly expressed, as if Lanny’s disappearance has forced barely concealed ill feeling to the surface. When suspicion falls on those closest to Lanny we find ourselves in the paradox of those who understood Lanny least casting their net of judgement.

Part 3 of the novel brings resolution. It is dreamlike in style and flows in an organic way towards it’s conclusion. It is a mark of Porter’s skill as a writer that he has managed to create a book of such seperate styles that work so cohesively. The story of Lanny and his place within in the world is a simple but beautiful one. It is told in an original but entirely fitting way. The writing, it’s style, order and choice of words perfectly reflect the subject matter and personality of this book and it’s protagonist.

Sometimes you read a book and it speaks to you in the first few pages. Sometimes you read a book and you want to recommend it far and wide. Lanny is one of those books. Beautifully crafted, each phase or word placed with care.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Lanny deserves it’s place on the ManBooker Long List, and I am really hoping to see it on the Short List.

Rachel x

Blog Tour: Book review of Control by Hugh Montgomery

Today is my turn on the blog tour for the spine tingling thriller that is Control by Hugh Montgomery. Many thanks to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me along. Without further ado, on to the book..

About the book…

When dedicated Junior Doctor Kash Devan begins his rotation at the Victory hospital nothing could prepare him for the roller coaster ride. The things that Dr Devan will see and do and the decisions he will have to make will take him far beyond the every day grind of the wards. And change his life forever…

Consultant surgeon Mr Trenchard inspires respect and awe across the hospital. His charm and brilliance is legendary and never in doubt. From his first encounter Kash is dazzled by the older medic’s skill and flair.

And yet there are darker undertones that seem to follow the man. Not everyone is quite as smitten as Kash. Is there something sinister about the good doctor? What is left unspoken?

Normal hospital life is turned upside down when Trenchard is found unresponsive in his office one night. The scene has all the hall marks of an erotic game gone wrong and Trenchard is left brain dead, his reputation ruined and the air alive with gossip.

But is everything as it first seems?

For the quiet but astute Doctor Devan something just doesn’t quite add up. Who, for example put out the crash call? Who is the mysterious woman who has been seen visiting Trenchard, complete with younger man in tow? Why is there evidence of further harm to his patient?

And more importantly is Trenchard’s mind as damaged as it seems? Surely a brilliant mind isn’t so easily snuffed out? Or could he hold the key to his own fate, and if so can Devan unlock it in time?

But more importantly should he?

This is a novel full of questions. Questions about timing, motive, character and past. Questions all woven together to form a tangled web of dark intrigue where no one is above suspicion and nothing is ever quite as it seems. There are suspects abound, as it becomes clearer that more than one person has reason to wish Trenchard harm.

But it is a novel with a solid foundation in authenticity and impeccable knowledge. There is an well drawn sense of place and it’s setting is vivid in the mind’s eye. The addition to detail is apparent from the start and it grounds the events in an uncomfortable reality, which makes its unfolding events even more chilling.

With a well paced plot and believable dialogue, this is a snappy and intriguing thriller that will keep you guessing right up to the last sentence.

About the author

Hugh Montgomery is a distinguished physician, known for his pioneering genetic research.  Outside the field of medicine, he was a founding member of the UK Climate and Health Council and is an endurance expert, who has run three ultra-marathons, scaled the world’s sixth highest mountain, jumped naked from a plane at 14,000 ft and holds the world record for underwater piano playing. Zaffre, Bonnier Books UK’s flagship adult fiction imprint, will publish Control in August 2019.

And there is more…

For more reviews of, and reactions to Control check out the rest of the blog tour.

Blog Tour: Book Review – Arguing With The Dead by Alex Nye

I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be taking my turn today on the blog tour for Arguing With The Dead by Alex Nye, published by Fledgling Press. Thank you to Kelly of #LoveBookTours for inviting me to take part.

So come with me and let’s us take a trip back in time, to 1839. To Putney, by the banks of the frozen Thames where a widowed Mary Shelley finally begins the process of sorting the jumble of papers left by her husband, Percy Shelley.

As she works she recalls in fascinating but often painful detail their lives together. A life that began in elopement when she was just 16 and ends in a isolated Italian villa with Percy’s death.

Told in the first person, this is the extraordinary but tragic life of an remarkable young woman. As the the daughter of William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, she carries a proud legacy, but one that comes to haunt her.

This account is marked by beautifully authentic voice, in which Nye captures perfectly the narrative voice of Shelley.

Nye places repeated emphasis on the fact that Wollstonecraft dies from complications of childbirth, leaving Mary with incredible feelings of guilt but also a true awareness of her own morality, particularly linked to the bearing of children.

Nye presents us with the stark reality of a 17th Century woman. A reality that includes limited if any birth control, perilous pregnancies and deliveries, followed by high levels of infant mortality. For all her mother’s brilliance and progressive ideas, and despite Mary’s own unconventional life style, this is a inescapable truth that marks her young life with Shelley.

And mother’s influence is so keenly felt, in so many ways . It is her mother she turns to in her mind during childhood, trying to escape the tangled web of her unhappy relationship with her Step Mother, Mary- Jane.

When the family’s reduced circumstances force them to leave their beautiful home, The Polygon, to live trapped between the polluted River Fleet, Newgate Prison and Smithfield market, it is the loss of her visits to her mother’s grave that leaves Mary mourning once more.

Mary longs for her mother, longs to be like her. Her birthdays are always tinged with thoughts of what might have been.

But most importantly her mother’s progressive ideas on the role and capabilities of women’s define Mary’s own life, but perhaps not in the way she would wish.

With incredible skill, Nye shows us how it is the ideas and indeed legend of Wollstonecraft that first draw Shelley to the Godwin family home. At first it seems that her adoption of an unconventional life with Shelley is the embodiment of her mother’s ideals. Indeed Wollstonecraft’s philosophy is used by Percy to justify the constant, and for Mary, difficult presence of her step sister Claire in their lives. For every time Mary seeks to push this cuckoo from the nest, Shelley sights her Mother, using her teachings to justify his relationship with Claire. He has found her Achilles Heel and cleverly uses the progressive arguments, held so dear to her heart, as a way of constructing a gilded cage.

It is the ultimate exploitation of an understandable weakness and one which reflects the double standards that run throughout the book.

Brought up in a progressive household and exposed to radical thinkers from an earlier age, it is heartbreaking for Mary to find that when she tests these boundaries she is repeatedly shun by those she loves and respects.

Her father, William Godwin, will not see her until she marries Shelley despite his free thinking political and philosophical views. Despite championing Wollstonecraft, some might saying exploiting her memory; despite, indeed, conceiving his own daughter out of wedlock.

And what of Mary’s own literary career. She is devastatingly talented, conceiving and creating Frankenstein aged just 19. This is a work which draws upon all of her feelings of worthlessness, isolation and disconnection. A work that embodies the idea that she herself is the monster, a product of men created in the myth of her mother but cast aside when she acts on the philosophies they only talk about.

It is the ultimate double standard, the ultimate gilded cage. And one which rears it head time and time again when Mary’s attempts to publish her novel. Nye shows in painful and infuriating detail how the work is rejected repeatedly, only to find a place published under a male pseudonym. A familiar story but set against Mary’s back drop one that seems so grossly unfair.

There is no doubt that the dead loom large in this novel. For it is truly a gothic tale. There is the air of a dark fairy tale woven cleverly through the narrative. The portrayal of a young woman who is continually in danger of straying from the forest path. For when ever happiness settles in Mary’s life it’s appearance is fleeting. Her relationship with Shelley is marked by continual sacrifice and loss, including loss of self and tragically loss of young life.

Through the character of Harriet, the shadowy figure of Percy’s first wife Nye creates a supernatural feeling of inevitability. It is Harriet who haunts Mary’s dreams and increasingly her waking hours. It is Harriet who seems to cast the final judgement on this unconventional union.

Is Harriet a ghost in the truest sense? Or is she a manifestation of a mind at the limit of what it can endure? A physical embodiment of guilt, regret and tragedy?

Arguing with the dead is historical fiction at it’s finest. Nye has captured the very essence of Mary Shelley, given her a voice, a point of view and allowed her story to shine. She has taken a tale we think we know well and given us fresh eyes through which to see it. In the style of great historical fiction Nye has whetted the appetite and made the reader want to find more. For many readers I suspect that this will be the beginning of a love affair with the story and work of Mary Shelley.

About the author …

Alex Nye was born in Leicester, England. She writes for both adults and children. Her children‘s novel Chill won a Scottish Children’s Book Award in 2007. Her historical novel For My Sins, based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots was published in 2017.

And there is more…

For more reaction to,and reviews of, Arguing with the Dead check out the other fantastic blogs listed below. This is just the beginning!

Arguing with the Dead – Alex Nye is published by Fledgling Press and is available now.

Book Review: Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner.

Over the years I have had an on and off love affair with short story collections. A good short story is a hard thing to get right and for a long time it felt that every time I picked one up I was disappointed. I was starting to believe I was definitely a ‘novels kind of a gal’ when I stumbled across Madame Zero by Sarah Hall. Suddenly I was back on the hook, and fishing for great short stories once more.

So when David Borrowdale from Reflex Press sent me a copy of Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner I was intrigued and excited.

Sitting down on a rare but beautiful sunny Cumbrian afternoon, I read the book from cover to cover, pausing only to scribble somewhat frantically in my review notebook. Reflecting the weather, this collection is a rare but beautiful thing.

In short I was blown away.

Writing successful short stories is hard, that’s why they are tricky to find. To write accomplished short stories you need to be a true wordsmith, to be able to make each word and phrase count, to be able to paint a picture with few brush strokes and build a character and a plot in paragraphs not pages.

Chloe Turner, has achieved this and more. Her short stories reflect a depth and maturity of writing which excited and enthralled me. Each individual story drew me in and held me for just the right about of time under it’s spell. Of course I had my favourite tales; Pianata, Lobster Scissors, and The Wetshod Child spring immediately to mind, but what I really admired was the way the collection worked together as one cohesive unit.

Therefore rather than reviewing individual stories I wanted to write about my feelings and reactions to the book as a collective work. There is no doubt that each story works as a successful individual piece of writing, but the book’s real charm lies in the fact that all these stories work so well together as a whole.

Each story enhances and compliments the other, impressively bringing together key themes and ideas that are woven through out the stories, exploring different angles, facets and characters.

A key strengths of this book is it’s reliance on and insightful portrayal of relationships. Chloe Turner is brilliantly observant and insightful in her creation of a microcosm of society, spanning all stories and reflecting all generations and genders. She has created intensely relatable and believable personalities, often thrown together in a web of unlikely bonds.

Turner has created a skilful reflection how relationships define us and equally how we choose to define them. Some of these relationships are tender, supportive, others chaotic and destructive, with a simple but terrible inevitability about them.

Turner has created a raft of symbotic interactions, both for good and evil, that reflect upon the choices we make in life. Here is a collection that looks at simple actions and how these affect others. And sometimes within these stories, making those choices is tricky, even crippling and life changing.

Running through the stories there is a natural rhythm, both in subject matter and style. Here is a tangible sense of balance, with more than a nod to folklore and even witchcraft. Many stories have there inspiration and basis in the world around us, in the sea, in the garden, in the natural world. There is a tangible link with the process of creating and creation and an exploration of the joy this brings and sometimes what it costs us.

As a collection of stories and a showcase of writing this is an incredible volume; one I am already shouting about to everyone I know, one I will return to time and again. I urge you to pick it up and discover each story for yourself. Your gems might be different to mine but watch as Witches Sail in Eggshells puts you under it’s own special spell.


Rachel x

Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner is published by Reflex Press and can be purchased here.

Book review : The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

When I manage to get a publication day review out then it is a pretty good indication that I feel strongly about a book.

And few books I have read this year have provoked such strong feelings as The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Huge thanks to Fleet for sending me a digital copy in return for an honest review.

I found myself reading and reacting to this novel in so many different guises; as a mother, as an educator and most importantly of all simply as a human being.

So when I found myself doubting my credentials to response to and review this important book; a book whose power is magnified by the fact that it is firmly rooted in truth, I reminded myself that this is a story that everyone needs to hear. This is a story that everyone needs to read, to absorb and to react to.

Set this book against today’s climate, against a US President standing smugly in front of a baying crowd, shouting ‘Send her back’, against a rise of right wing politics and populations more polarised than they have been for generations. Set the book right there and we can feel it’s power. Set it right there and Jim Crow’s laws seem all too recent and all too real.

So, let us start with the book’s beginnings, the kernel of truth from which the tale has sprung. For Nickel Academy is the fictional brother of The Doizer School for boys. Established in Florida in 1900, Dozier was a reform school, taking both white and black boys. For over a hundred years, for this school only closed in 2011, hundreds of boys passed through its gates. Exposed and subjected to the most horrendous physical, psychological and sexual abuse, not all of these boys left Dozier. It was an institution that preyed on the most vunerable, those without families, wealth, education or hope.

Dozier School, Florida

It is their story that Colson Whitehead takes up. Through the character of Elwood he begins to give generations of boys a voice, and gives us a timely reminder of where we have been and where we currently find ourselves.

Set in the early 1960’s, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, we follow the story of Elwood, an adolescent black boy. Abandoned by his parents but raised by his loving Grandmother, Harriet, Elwood is full of promise. Elwood is on a journey, inspired by the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he works and studies hard. Flirting with activism, watching the wider community, he believes in his future. He has hope, hope that the world is changing and that America is finally ready to embrace a new way of thinking. Others see his potential and chances are thrown his way, but one innocent mistake and Elwood’s life heads in a completely different direction. For Elwood finds himself sentenced to a spell in the infamous Nickel Academy, a school whose’s stated aims and practices are worlds apart from it’s realities. Even in Nickel segregation exists. No matter what your colour, life is hard and unpredictable, but for black boys it will always be that bit harder.

What now for Elwood? Can he hold true to Dr King’s words? Can he find love where others sow hate? Can he rise again, stronger and empowered? Or will Nickel break his spirit and throw him off course forever?

For we are under no illusions that Nickel breaks the spirit, minds and bodies of boys and future men. Their stories litter the pages.We are ushered in to the novel by 21st Century archaeology students, students who are trying to identify remains in unmarked graves. We meet men huddled in online chat rooms, or in kitchens over beers or flinching at the mere mention of Florida, never mind Nickel. Men who are trying to confront and come to terms with their stories. Men looking for justice and their own individual peace. Whitehead leaves us in no doubt that Elwood is one of many, a link in a chain and each story deserves to be heard.

For this tale is not told in a linear fashion. Other stories are repeatedly woven into the narrative, stories that cover the life time of the school. Through the eyes of Elwood we see friendships forged and bonds created under the most difficult of circumstances. The story of Elwood and latterly his friend Turner, builds immediate, often unbearable tension. Elwood is our eyes and heart. Through him we see and feel the horrors of Nickel. He draws upon our empathy and our trust and leaves us exposed to the abuses within it’s walls. Whitehead makes sure that we see first hand, over and over, the very real and human cost of Nickel.

Add in the testimonies of ‘Old Boys’ in their many forms and the author brings in to sharp focus the long term and wider cost of such abuse. Colson Whitehead places this story squarely in today’s consciousness, revealing it’s societal causes and consequences, challenging us to assess whether this could happen again. It represents a period in time that you think you know well, that you may think has lost the power to shock. Read The Nickel Boys and remind yourself just how wrong you are.

Yes, this is a tale partly rooted in ‘Black History’, however we may choose to define that, but in truth this is everyone’s history. It is everyone’s past and it should shape our present and our futures.


The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet on 1st August 2019