I seem to say this a lot…but I do love historical fiction. I love the places it takes me, it’s ability to transport me away from the daily reality and deposit you somewhere entirely different.
So I always have my eye out for new historical fiction and find it very hard to resist signing up for blog tours when the past is on the cards. When Anne Cater offered me the chance to get on board with Ellen Alpsten’s debut novel Tsarina, published by Bloomsbury, I didn’t even try to resist; I jumped at the chance.
Tsarina begins in 1699. On the cusp of a new century, Russia is in the grip of the Great Northern War. Led by Tsar Peter I, the country is under going a transformation. Peter is well travelled, ambitious and ruthless. His desire to modernise and transform his domains is all consuming, and he will stop at nothing to achieve the Westernised Russia he craves.
Rewards for loyalty and bravery are lavish, but punishment for deception , perceived or otherwise, are brutal in the extreme. The chasm between rich and poor gaps. It is both an exciting and terrifying time to be alive.
As Peter wages war throughout the Baltic, Marta, an illegitimate peasant girl is sold by her family aged just fifteen. Finding herself miles from home and surrounded by brutally, she fears the worse when fate leads her to a Russian battle camp. Here she catches the eye of Peter himself and so begins her spectacular rise to power.
Peter is brutal, but he is also brilliant and charismatic. There is an immediate connection between Marta and himself. She is thrown into the world of excess and riches, becoming Peter’s mistress, living openly with him at court. Showered with material pleasures, Marta is all too aware that her existence hangs continually in the balance. She needs to provide Peter with a true heir, and she needs to maintain his interest in a court full of attractive and ruthless women.
This is a true rags to riches story; the story of how a peasant girl became a Tsarina; the infamous Catherine I of Russia, ultimately a ruler in her own right.
I devoured this book! There is a richness and vitality to the writing that mirrors the turbulent opulence contained within it’s pages. Alpsten is master of the detail. Her ability to transport me from lockdown Britain to 18th Century Russia, never failed to amaze or delight me.
This is one of those novels you get hopelessly lost in, immediately immersed in the prose. Historical fiction fans will undoubtedly love it, but anyone who is looking for a breathtaking story spectacularly told need look no further.
The story of Catherine I has everything, and the writing wrapped around it here gives it that little bit more. I guarantee that once you pick up Tsarina, you won’t be able to put it down.
Ellen Alpsten has created something infused with magic.If you love historical fiction …this one is a feast for the senses and the soul! Enjoy the ride!
And there is more…
For more reactions and reviews check out the rest of the Tsarina Blog Tour …
Sometimes a book creeps up on. You begin reading and you think it is one thing, and then quite suddenly you realise it is something quite different; something all together more complex and thought provoking.
This was exactly my experience with Jessie Burton’s The Confession, published September 2019, by Picador.
From the beginning this novel was absorbing and well plotted, and I was immediately entertained. But it wasn’t until the final third when the book ambushed me. The writing throughout is, as you would expect spectacular, but suddenly the book’s message crystallises, and this book moves to another level.
This is the story of two generations, told across two time periods; it is the story of a search for identify and roots.
Firstly, in the early 1980’s Elise Morceau, young, beautiful and but seemingly directionless, embarks upon a relationship with an older woman. Constance Holden, Connie, is a confident and successful writer. At the top of her game, Connie’s work is gaining international acclaim, and Hollywood beckons as her first novel is being made into a star studded film.
Following her lover to LA, Elise begins to question their relationship and importantly her own sense of identity. As events take a dramatic turn, Elsie’s life changes forever.
Thirty years later we met Rose, who has been brought up by her father; her mother having disappeared when she was just a baby. Finally her father begins to open up about her mother’s disappearance, telling Rose that Connie Holden was the last person to see her mother. Now in her thirties, Rose begins to question her own path through life and she has a renewed need to find out more about her past. Armed with her father’s fragmented memories she looks for a way to connect with Connie, who has cut herself off from the world.
It is clear that even in its own right the story is strong. The writing is sharp and insightful, there is just the right sense of urgency in relation to pace and tension. But it is the underlying questions and themes that book both embraces and raises that make this such an insightful and memorable read.
This a novel that questions our relationships and how they define us. It asks poignant and often difficult questions about the way we establish our own identity. Burton looks at the way we often rely on others to give us a sense of our own worth, and asks whether it is someone’s else’s responsibility to make us whole.
She examines relationships, highlighting both extreme highs and lows. She explores how her characters seem to cling to the familiar, and the need to be wanted even when things are falling apart. Each relationship within the novel is flawed, each is not an equal sum of it’s parts. We see the immediate and dramatic effect of cruelty and betrayal, but also the slow decline brought about by apathy and boredom.
There is a clear focus on the need to establish a sense of self. For Connie, this seems to be tied up with her writing, for Elise, ironically, she finds out more about her true values by taking on the role and persona of another.
Continuing the theme of self and identity, Burton tackles head on the theme of motherhood. Sometimes brutal in her honesty, she explores the idea that, on some level, a women’s identity is bound up in her sexuality and biology. She questions, for example, the assumption that all women have the capacity to be a ‘mother’. Or maybe that all women, should feel the social and personal pressure to mother.
It is often said of a woman that she is foolish to consider herself the mistress of her time. Her body had other plans. When it comes to children, people parrot, ‘there’s never a good time’ – but I would counter that with that with the truth that there can be a bad time, too. When it isn’t their own body and life – their own time – under discussion, people blithely generalize, even prioritize the myth of the perfect unborn over more complicated existences already here, now. It’s only those who have become mothers who might put their hand on your arm, and tell you, wait
The Confession- Jessie Burton – pg 438
Burton explores the idea of how effective can you be as a mother , shaping and nurturing the identify of another, if you don’t have a true sense of your own worth and identify. In fact how secure is any relationship where one individual is lost or unsure?
The messages and context of this book seemed to grow the more I read. I do believe that this is one of those books that will give up yet more secrets each time you read it. This one is a keeper.
Sometimes a book arrives on the scene and it seems that everyone is talking about it. That is precisely what happened with Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught, Published on 30th April by Bluemoose Books, this book has been all over my Twitter feed for weeks. And as I have never coped well with feeling like I am missing out on something it was inevitable that a preorder was going in!
Saving Lucia begins with the narrative of two women, both incarcerated at St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. Both women are public figures; Lady Violet Gibson was sectioned after attempting to assassinate Mussolini, Lucia Joyce is the daughter of poet James Joyce, a talented dancer and artist in her own right.
Violet is approaching the end of her life. Virtually silent, she finds tranquility feeding the birds in the hospital grounds. She invites Lucia to join her, and begins to impart her story, her imaginings and her hopes for other women in their situation.
The birds that Violet attends to become a symbol of the women’s quest for freedom, for a voice and a way to transcend their confinement and redefine their lives and histories.
The narrative of Violet and Lucia swells to include two other women; Anna O, the first patient of psychoanalysis, restored here to her true, but forgotten name Bertha, and Blanche Wittmann, ‘Queen of the Hysterics’.
In recognition of all these women and their untold stories, the narrative breaks the boundaries of time and space, and the four women, each defined by Violet as a different bird, soar back into their pasts, beyond their ‘madness’. Here,connected through the ages by their experiences, they are given one more chance to change their lives forever.
This is a novel where the characters are very much at it’s heart. It is the experience, feelings and crucially the imagination of the four women that drive the narrative forward, and give the writing it’s depth and compelling nature. All these women have been confined, their very natures controlled and defined by someone else. Each bears the label of ‘madness’ and each has, in their own way, been silenced.
These women, by telling their stories and reshaping their lives, find their own truths. Through lyrical prose, heavy with a feeling of magic and transcendence, we embark on a mediation of what society has always defined as madness. We see what has happened to these women, what has lead them to this place; the emphasis is very much on who they have been and how life as brought them to where they are.
The prose of these women is non linear, but it is illuminating and insightful. This is their own self analysis. With an awareness and intelligence repeatedly lacking within their own carers and physicians, the women lay bare the facts of their lives and let the reader see how circumstance has shaped their choices, how events, emotions and other people have lead the women to where they are.
These stories challenge the definition of madness, both in the past and present. The women’s stories expose time and again the injustices and indignities suffered at the hands of others. How mental illness left these women at the mercy of their families and how once incarcerated it was practically impossible to reverse your diagnosis and control your lives.
This novel is quite simply a joy. Anna Vaught has taken these women and given them a fresh voice. By reframing their stories, she is bringing them and others like them to our attention and demanding they are heard. This is a beautiful piece of writing, and this is an important piece of writing. It is the chance to take these women to your heart, embrace their stories and learn from them.
It is the very best kind of writing and I thrilled to have discovered it.
You can purchase Saving Lucia byAnna Vaught from Bluemoose Books right here
I am intrigued by short stories. I make no secret of my admiration for writers who can weave a spell in this particular way. I am always on the look out for well put together collections that show off the skills and diversity of an author. This collection, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason, published by Mantle is a stunning example of it’s genre. Heartfelt thanks go to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted copy.
Right from the beginning this books feels like a journey. It has the quality of a genuine collection, in the truest sense of the word. Opening it’s pages is like stepping into the beautifully curated museum of curios. Each chapter is flanked by a beautiful engraving and stories are presented with craft, care and love. Like exotic winged specimens within a case they will provoke so many emotions, but I guarantee you will be marvelling at the beauty that they possess.
From the first story; of the bare knuckle fighter, clawing his way through the ranks one bloody fight at a time; to the desperate and driven mother looking for the answers to her sudden’s debilitating illness, there is a sense of awe and wonder. A pervading sense of a world filled with secrets, a world of treasures and happenings still undiscovered, unexplained and unexplored.
Like a A Victorian specimen collector the reader is invited to travel through time and over distance. Each story holds its own miracle, it’s own way of questioning the world as we know it and it’s own way of imparting new knowledge and perspective. The human spirit of adventure and it’s thirst of knowledge drives us through the collection, pausing to appreciate the known and to push the boundaries of the unknown, one delightful story at a time.
Stories such as the tale of Alfred Russel Wallace and his communications to Darwin, Psammeticus I and the beginnings of psychological experimentation, all highlight humankind’s ongoing and instinctive search for truth. And crucially while as a species we explore the truth created around us, we all instinctively need to make our own to make a mark upon the earth.
This collection is a jewel. It has certainly made it’s mark on me. Time to get exploring.
I love social history. I am fascinated by the past and how it has shaped the present. I love to see the way attitudes and views have changed over the years, particularly with regard to the lives of Women.
So when I connected with the fact that British Library Publishing were re-releasing a series of books from 1910 through to 1940 with just this premise in mind, I knew I wanted to be involved. The only problem was which title to choose…
In the end I went for Chatterton Square By E.H. Young. Published in 1947, on the surface it is the story of two households, both living on opposite sides of a square in Bristol. But scratch the surface and the richness of the prose reveals so much more.
With breathtaking wit and a keen observational eye, E H Young presents us with a beautifully drawn portrait of two very different families. Throughout 1938, the summer of appeasement, when the possibility of war was stalking the country we are introduced to the Frasers and the Blacketts.
The Frasers are a large and genial household, comprised of matriarch Rosamund, five children and long time family friend and lodger, Miss Spanner. Their’s is a predominately happy household, and crucially they live without a father figure, Fergus Fraser having walked out years before. Rosamund lives as if widowed.
The Frasers seem to live a free and happy life. Their mother is unusual; concerned for her children, she has the rare ability to love them without stifling them. They are largely self sufficient but they confide in her, without fear of judgment or reproach.
The contrast between the Blackett and the Fraser households is stark and rests almost entirely with it’s patriarch. There is no missing father figure here. On the contrary Mr Herbert Blackett is very much present and in control. He believes his will and his beliefs are unequivocally right and they govern all the interactions and limited freedoms of his family.
His three daughters Flora, Rhoda and Mary are repressed and his long suffering wife Bertha is trapped in a marriage she has regretted since her honeymoon in Florence.
The two families seem entirely separate, both in out look and lifestyle but as the spring and summer progress, circumstances and relationships bring them closer together.
One such circumstance is the reappearance of Piers Lindsay, cousin and former sweetheart of Bertha Blackett. Disliked by her husband, Piers’ presence and growing relationship with Rosamund Fraser brings years of Bertha’s repressed anger and frustration to the surface.
Against the backdrop of approaching war, Young explores the realities and finality of marriage for women. In a time when obtaining a divorce was a practically impossible for a wife, Chatterton Square is a stark reminder of the fact a women’s identity was perceived by wider society in terms of her marital status.
There is feeling that men see women as a constant in their lives, something to be acquired and then bent to their will. Bertha is a wife, not a person; her wishes, opinions and dreams are expected to be a mirror of , and indeed provided by, her husband. It is no accident that the happier, more enlightened house contains both a women with an absent husband and a spinster.
When Herbert Blackett goes away, Bertha Blackett begins to live. She unfurls, creating new connections and relationships; releasing her younger daughters from tyrannical rules and crucially sleeping outside of the martial bed. Her final rousing and illuminating speech to her husband is a work of literary genius. With courage, wit and biting insight she takes down her husbands conceit and ignorance.
But for all of her frustration with the institution of marriage Young does not make this a novel without love. Indeed there is a clear sense that her characters need and want relationships, and the beginnings of love are celebrated. But there is a continued and pointed understanding of the double standards attached to the affairs and marriages we encounter.
The context of war is also crucial to the novel. The spectre of the Great War is felt at every turn. The fact that Mr Blackett didn’t serve, has shaped his own perception of himself. Piers Lindsay did and bears the scars. Miss Spanner is one of the generation of women left without husband due to the lack of returning men. The memories are fresh, and they dictate the atmosphere as the news becomes more perilous.
The two households differ in their attitude to war, just as they do in their attitude to love. Herbert Blackett dismisses the notion outright. But the Frasers, despite having sons who will fight, all feel that war is necessary, and appeasement is morally wrong. The spilt in opinion is a reflection of the wider societal views.
And that is the beauty of this novel. At it’s heart it is a microcosm of it’s age. A snap shot in time of society on the brink of change, bringing us closer to a time in history that has shaped us all for ever.
And they don’t come more beautiful, or indeed uniquethan The Animals of Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey, published earlier this year by Mantle Books. There was much cover gazing and stroking going on before I even got to the prose. And then you have to tear yourself away from the gorgeous end papers…
But if you can run the gauntlet of the book’s physical beauty, and you are looking for a story with a healthy dose of light and shade, then this book will be just what you are looking for.
The story is set right at the beginning of World War Two, when London is preparing for the worst. In an effort to preserve it’s treasures the National History Museum is moving to the country, to Lockwood Manor to be exact. Over seeing the move is Hetty. Recently promoted to Director of the collection, she is keen to prove her worth. Fastidious to the point of obsession, Hetty is determined that this move will be a success and that she will keep the taxidermy collection safe, whatever circumstances might throw at them.
Having made small mistakes in the past that continue to haunt her, Hetty is determined that, she will make a success of the museum’s wartime home.
But Lockwood Manor is a strange place. It’s owner, Lord Lockwood; the ‘Major’, is a brusque and domineering man. Successful, with more than a streak of ruthlessness, he is used to getting his own way. Also living in the house is his daughter Lucy; beautiful, but fragile following the death of both her mother and grandmother in a recent car accident.
It isn’t long before Hetty finds the museum is under attack. Animals go missing, are damaged and the house seems to emit a general air of threat from it’s very being.
Both Hetty and Lucy have endured difficult childhood’s. Hetty was repeatedly neglected and rejected by her adoptive parents, Lucy’s mother suffered from reoccurring bouts of mental illness and she was often caught in the crossfire of her parents volatile relationships.
Both woman are have been left scarred and seem to be struggling to find their own place in the world . Previously friendless, they are drawn to each other, finding a close connection neither has experienced before.
But can this growing bond overcome the malevolent atmosphere of Lockwood Manor? Is Lord Lockwood merely protective of his grieving daughter, or is his concern motivated by his need to control? And what really lies behind the strange occurrences in the house? Is there a supernatural presence stalking the halls or are it’s secrets bound up in something closer to home but all together darker?
The setting of this novel, right at beginning of World War Two seems a perfect reflection of the uncertainty and fear with the Manor it’s self. The world is changing and those both within and without the Manor are struggling to keep pace.
In the two female characters of Hetty and Lucy we see two woman who both feel they have disappointed by the standards of their age. Neither have married, and both feel themselves judged by the men around them. Both express self doubt, but both ultimately question whether the conventional path society expects them to follow is right for them. These women are complex, and skilfully portrayed as such.
Running through the novel is the feeling of change; the feeling that old norms are beginning to crumble and things that have hidden in plain sight will be revealed.
This novel is truly a thing of beauty, both in style but most importantly in substance. Step into Lockwood Manor. You won’t regret it.
It’s time to bid farewell to April 2020!! And that’s not a month any of us are going to forget in a hurry.
I know this post is about books read and adored but if we are honest there is no way you can do any kind of wrap up of the last month without mentioning ‘the C- word’.
Yesterday my 12 year daughter said to me, “Mum, don’t you think it’s strange we are living through something that kids are going to be taught about in history?” And she is right! Scary, hard and life changing times such as these will change our country, and this is historic.
‘Lockdown’ has dramatically changed our lives. For our family despite the challenges there have been some lovely positives. I can’t remember the last time we consistently ate together at least once a day. We are eating more home cooked food. We are using local shops more and more. We have house trained the puppy. I see my ‘working away’ husband everyday.
But there are things I miss desperately. Friends and family above all else. But also little things like the ability to browse a bookshop for five stolen minutes, having the house to myself and savouring the absolute quiet, throwing my hands up and saying ‘Sod it! Let’s get a takeaway’, that sustaining thought that we have planned things to look forward to. Going out the front door to work and school.
Don’t get me wrong, our lives under lockdown are no where near as difficult as others. I know we are lucky, but this time has and will continue to challenge and change us.
So in some ways blathering on about books read seems small fry. Probably it is, but it is my constant. My marker in the sand during strange and shifting times. And when my grandchildren are learning about this in history in the years to come, this might not be a terrible thing to share. Because it will be real, tangible and mine. April 2020 also marked the First Year Anniversary of Bookbound. It’s been tethering me for one whole year and that is something to celebrate.
And now, on to the books!!
So this month has been quite heavily dominated by The Women’s Prize . Just before the short list was announced on 21st April I published my own musings, possibly ramblings, which you can find here
I outlined the books I had read from the long list and offered my humble opinion. During the month of April I read Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell, The Mirror and the Light- Hilary Mantel, Red at the Bone – JacquelineWoodson and A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes. And do you know what, I loved every single one of them!
Red at the Bone is compact and quirky. For a short book it manages to paint the picture of one Black American family’s life from the 1920’s right up until the present day. Woodson is author who uses her words sparingly, treating each like a precious commodity. Brevity is her superpower and it’s one I love, having never acquired it myself!! I am not going to lie to you, I was gutted that this one wasn’t on the short list.
A Thousand Ships is a beauty. If you loved Circe, The Song ofAchilles or Silence of the Girls step right this way. Haynes has given the females of the Trojan war, both before, during and after the conflict, a voice. She has given them validation, provoking anger, outrage and admiration in equal measure. These woman are strong, they have their own stories and they have an emotional intelligence not previously explored. my personal highlight were the letters of Penelope to Odysseus, edgy and heavy with shades of Carol Ann Duffy’s brilliant poems The World’s Wife .
The Mirror and The Light is a beast of a book. At nearly 1000 pages this took over a quarter of my reading time this month. Regulars to the blog know I love a bit of Tudor history and this series by Mantel is the definitive work within this genre. This is the culmination of the trilogy devoted to the rise and life of Thomas Cromwell. It is quite simply brilliant. I know the books aren’t for everyone. They are dense and packed with research, political and religious history and often darkness. But I love them. This was always going to make the Longlist. And I am sticking my neck out and saying it will win the Booker.
And finally we come to Hamnet. This book!! I honestly don’t know where to begin. This one quite simply blew me away. It is billed as the story of Hamnet, Shakespeare son who died as a youth, but it is so much more. It is a celebration of family, of love, of sacrifice, of fear, of that terrible feeling of loss and inevitability, of power and powerlessness, of grief and every emotion in between.
I had every intention of reviewing Hamnet. But I know I can’t do it justice. It is a book you just have to experience. It is O’Farrell’s best work to date and quite possibly her masterpiece.
And from one of my books of the year to another. Ladies and gentlemen I give you The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. Any one who follows me on Twitter will know that I have been tweeting like a woman possessed about this book since finishing it a week ago. My review can be found here . This book is my new obsession and it is going to take something very special to topple this one from the books of the year pile.
I have also been involved in two fantastic blog tours this month. One was in celebration of a breathtaking debut novel Conjure Women by Afia Atakora. The story of Miss Rue, a black midwife and healer, it spans the period from the end of slavery, through the American Civil War and into the new and uncertain territory of freedom. I read this at the beginning of the month and I am still thinking about it now. If this her debut I can’t wait to see where Afia Atakora goes next.
And from a novelist at the beginning of her journey to one firmly established; I throughly enjoyed reading and reviewing I Am Dust byLouise Beech. In these strange times when you can’t get to the theatre, I Am Dust brings all the thrills and more to you! Set in my university city of Hull, this is a unique novel. My blog tour review can be found here.
This month has also been about ‘dipping’ for me! By that I mean having a few books around that I can dip in and out of when I have a few moments of head space and clarity. One such book has been The Moth . I saw that Maggie O’Farrell has included this part of her Reading Hour on World Book Night and I was intrigued. A stunning celebration of oral storytelling I plan on blogging about this one very soon.
I have also been loving the collection of works by women poets through the ages, skilfully put together by Ana Simpson. She is Fierce, is quite simply sustaining me on a daily basis. Stunning .
And a dipping book that became a devouring book is the delightful collection of short stories A Registry Of My Passage Upon The Earth by Daniel Mason. This one is due out on the 14th May, and a review is coming. I am only allowing myself to say that this is one of the best collections of short stories I have read in a while…Watch this space!
So all in all quite a month. Not too many physical books but lots of love for those I read. I should also mention I have just emerged from the enveloping warmth that is the final two CazaletChronicles, listened to on Audiobook. It is my mission in life to bring these books to every household in the land. Long live Elizabeth Jane Howard!
Not because I didn’t love it, but because I wasn’t sure I could find the words to do it justice.
The Bass Rock was one of those books that I was immersed in completely and immediately. I kept telling myself to slow down, savour it, don’t rush. But I didn’t. I devoured it.
There was so much I loved about this book, that I almost don’t know where to begin…
At it’s heart is the story of three women. Sarah’s story is in the distant past. A young girl, accused of being a witch, blamed for hard times and disease that had befallen her village.
Ruth’s story begins in the period after the Second World War. After losing her beloved brother in combat, she has married a widower, Peter. Living in a large house on the shores of North Berwick, transplanted from her London life, Ruth is trying to get to grips with being a wife and a step mother to Peter’s sons.
And finally, in the present, we meet Viv. Having recently lost her father, she too is struggling with her grief and an apparent lack of purpose in her life. She has been sent to Berwick to clear out her Aunt’s house.
The stories of the three women are woven together in a stunning narrative. There are ways in which the women are physically connected, which emerge throughout the novel. But most importantly they are tied by themes and experiences which focus on the treatment of women throughout history.
This book has a a number of core and important messages which I will try and uphold the brilliance of. However I just want to take a moment to highlight the skill of the writing within these pages.
There were so many phrases that just took my breath away. Evie Wyld has that rare ability to weave words in such a way that the reader is able to paint truly vivid pictures in your mind. Whether it is simple description of a dog stretching…
The dog stretches out her long legs and spreads her toes, groans with the weariness of a saint.
The Bass Rock – pg 187
…or the interaction between a man and his wife in church…
A man coughed and was shushed by his wife. The man held up his palms. What would you have me do, choke to death? And the woman shook her head. I’m not listening to you. The man settled back against the pew and the woman stayed so still and so straight it seemed she might lift off the seat and float in irritation to the ceiling of the church.
The Bass Rock- pg 84.
…the clear simplicity of the writing means you are there. As a reader you are present within this novel and for the message it brings home this feeling of connection is so important.
When we meet these three women they are all somewhat disconnected from the world. All are grieving, all feeling the effects of lost and all seem to be on the outside of their lives looking in. There is a sense of these women trying to find their place in the world, trying to push back against a complex web of family relationships and past grief.
Within this context, this novel is a meditation on the treatment of women. Despite some hard scenes of physical abuse, the most striking and distracting element to the narrative is the inherently casual nature of the abuse of women. There is recurring and underlying feeling that it is, and always has been, expected and indeed accepted that women will be mistreated, minimised and ultimately silenced.
The men portrayed in this novel aren’t comic book villains. They are rounded, functioning, successful participants in normal life, each displaying a softer side. So when the pivotal moments of abuse occur, it’s ingrained and almost incidental nature is even more shocking. Through their words and deeds Wyld upholds a sickening sense of inevitability; that men will use women, that there will be reasons and excuses, and that blame will always lie with the female of the species.
This is the key thread that binds these women. With it’s reoccurring motifs of foxes, wolves and dogs there is the pervading sense of the hunter and the hunted running through the pages.
But there is hope, and that hope is found in the ties that bind the women themselves. The answers are found in the shared history of these women, both within the present, the recent shared past and the more distance past. For this novel has a supernatural element, a gentle and ongoing presence in the house which never feels out of place or contrived. Instead it feels essential, as if some female presence in the house is bearing continuous witness.
This book is stunning. It made me laugh, it made me angry, it made me hope. It has important things to say, and it deserves every ounce of the praise that is being heaped upon it.
It is my absolute pleasure today to be taking my turn reviewing I Am Dust by Louise Beech. Huge thanks go to Louise, Anne Cater and Orenda Books for inviting me along to celebrate this truly unique novel.
The novel spans two time frames, both encompassing the central character Chloe. In the earliest timeframe, Summer 2005, we met Chloe as a teenager. In love with her best friend Jess and involved in the local youth theatre production of Macbeth, she is wrapped up in those heady days of summer.
However when Ryan, Jess’ ‘on/off’ boyfriend suggests dabbling with a Ouija board events take a much darker turn. All three teenagers are talented, all three are looking for bigger and better things, but which one of them has the power to command the game they have begun? And what will the consequences be?
For there are consequences, even if they are not feel until much later.
Fast forward 14 years and Chloe is working as an usher in the iconic Dean Wilson Theatre. She is coasting, unfulfilled both personally and professionally. The scars of her past are emotional and physical. No one, can explain the blackouts she has suffered for years and she hides evidence of longstanding self abuse from her friends and colleagues. Working alone in her room, writing her script she dreams of bigger things, without really daring to reach for them.
Suddenly Chloe‘s world is turned upside when the ailing theatre announces the return of it’s most successful ever show. The musical Dust was the venue’s first performance, frozen forever in cult status. An incredible production made iconic due to the death of it’s leading lady Morgan Miller, murdered in her dressing room during opening week.
The original run of Dust holds many special memories for Chloe, but it’s return is about to bring the past and present together in a spectacular way. The return of a familiar face means that Chloe is forced to face long ignored demons and suppressed memories begin to come to the fore…
I Am Dust is quite simply a book that almost defies classification, It is very much a ghost story, and a breathtaking one at that, but it is so much more.
It is a story which deals with complex relationships. It questions how we define ourselves through the eyes of others and what that means for our personal growth. It considers the lengths people will go to satisfy their desires and how power is a game played with dangerous rules and unforeseen consequences.
The plot and character dynamics of the chosen summer play, Macbeth, are matched by the characters with in the novel. This ‘story within in a story’ sheds new light on the power balance between the three experimenting teenagers. The roles they take on in Macbeth offer insight into their personalities and ultimately clues to their fates.
Ryan is Macbeth; desperate for the power but weaker than he seems. Jess is Lady Macbeth; initially appearing submissive but driven to ruthlessness and regret. Chloe is one of the witches; nameless, overlooked but possessing the ultimate power.
Throughout the novel there is a feeling of duality. Love quickly spills into hate, admiration into envy, life into death, truth into lies. The dual time frames are skilfully and seamlessly woven together to create a feeling of reckless inevitability as history looks destined to repeat it’s self.
If you are looking for a cracking ghost story look no further. But I repeat my assertion that this novel is so much more.
IAm Dust is a book that drives you forward in a mesmerising rush. But stop…take some time to savour what Louise Beech has created here…
Because, believe me, it is special…
And there is more…
For more reviews of this gem of a book, check out the rest of the tour …
Just that really! On Tuesday of this week the Short List for the 25th Women’s Prize for fiction will be announced.
The Long List this year is :
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Actress by Anne Enright
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Led
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Girl by Edna O’ Brien
Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
Weather by Jenny Offill
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Every year I set a completely unrealistic goal of reading each book before the Short List is announced and every year I fail spectacularly. I always forget how many other brilliant books I want to read that aren’t on the list!
This year out of 16 books I have managed 6. In fairness one was 900 pages long, so could actually count as 3 books! And I have 6 more waiting on my shelves.
But I can’t let Women’s Prize Short List week go by without marking it in some way, so I bring you my thoughts on those I have read.
Red at the Bone – Jacqueline Woodson
I thought this was an incredible book. It was short and I read it quickly. Probably too quickly. I am convinced that it is one of books that you need to reread to pick up all the inferences and cleverness you missed first time around.
It is an inter generational novel, set in NYC, chronically the changing fortunes of one black family. It had a time frame that reaches as far back as 1920’s, detailing the Tulsa Massacre and encompasses the 9/11 tragedy.
For a book with relatively few pages it paints a detailed picture of a family beautifully and effectively. I love a long book, but I also really appreciate a book that uses words sparingly and makes every paragraph count. This is one of those rare books.
Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams
This one was a Christmas gift. I had heard lots of good things and was intrigued.
Set in London this is the story of Queenie, a young black woman whose life is spinning out of control. There is so much humour, love and life in this book.
And there is also darkness and pain.
It is a book that creeps up on you. At the beginning it seems light, easy to read, unassuming, but as the story develops it becomes clear that this a skilled exploration of mental struggles and the journey back to health. It is about how our past shapes us, can scar us but how sometimes the support we need can be found where we least expect it .
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
Twelve black women of Britain, all different ages, all with a different story to tell.
This book is a collection of perspectives and experiences bringing seemingly separate stories together; all cleverly intertwined through the characters within their tales.
When I heard about this volume I wondered if I would find it disjointed and disconnected. Nothing was further from the truth.
It is a glorious melting pot of sexuality, gender, politics and family identify. A triumphant representation of Black Women in Britain today.
I adored this book. It is going on the forever shelf.
The Dutch House – Ann Patchett
I might as well come clean now and say I am a huge fan of Ann Patchett. Her novel Commonwealth has stayed with me for a long time, so I had high hopes for this one.
Again, in the interest of transparency I think it is only fair that I admit that I listened to this book. With Tom Hanks narrating it was likely to be a winner, but it was so much more than that.
The story of Maeve and Danny, growing up in The Dutch House in the suburb of Elkins Park, Philadelphia. When their Father remarries, they find themselves increasingly isolated.
It is a story that spans five decades, told in detail, a beautiful portrait of siblings tied together through hope and adversity. In their lives the unique and beautiful house in which they spent their formative years becomes a symbol and a focal point.
This is a story that is told with the attention to detail and the understanding of family dynamics which is Ann Patchett’s own particular strength. It is a joy.
The Mirror and The Light – Hilary Mantel
This needs very little, if any introduction from me. The third book in her epic Trilogy documenting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, it is quite simply a masterpiece.
At over 900 pages it is a challenging read, but in all the right ways. A host of complex and vivid characters, each vividly painted and woven into the novel seamlessly.
The historical research and accuracy of this novel is quite simply staggering. But for all that attention to detail, nothing of the emotion of the situation is lost. Quite simply this novel broke my heart. Being a Tudor geek I knew in glorious technicolour what Cromwell’s end would be. But Mantel had me believing that we could rewrite the story, she summed in me a hope that was cruelly dashed.
And have producing one volume of this brilliance seems impossible, to have produced three is staggering.
It is hard to believe that this won’t win awards. Possibly it will follow it’s predecessors and claim the Booker, completely the Triple. Will it win the Woman’s Prize ? Who knows, but I will be amazed if it isn’t on the Short List.
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
And finally we come to Hamnet.
I am not sure where to start with this book. It may not be the 900 pages of The Mirror and The Light. But it is a little drop of perfection.
I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing. I find her one of the most skilled and versatile contemporary authors whose work I have read. Hamnet is, I feel, her masterpiece.
The fictional account of Shakespeare’s son’s short life and death and the love of a mother, skilled in healing but unable to protect him. It is also a testament to the love between parent and child and how loss shapes our lives.
The characters of this novel, burst off the page. For example Agnes, his wife, individual, strong and devoted; looking into the future with her curious gift of sight, facing down demons and healing the sick. Agnes is a creation of such skill and empathy that it is hard to see another novel being able to topple this from my read of the year so far.
I am going to put my neck on the line and say I would love this to win the Women’s Prize. And I will throw quite an unseemly tantrum if it isn’t shortlisted!
And what of the rest…?
In addition to the six books I have read I have another six waiting for me on my shelves.
I am particularly excited byFleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The publication of this novel as, due to ‘current circumstances’ been delayed. I am scheduled to be on the blog tour for this one later in the year and have a gifted copy waiting for me. For which, I am as always very grateful.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo is another one waiting in the wings. After seeing it described on Twitter as a cross between The Cazalet Chronicles and Little Woman, I knew I had to have it. Seriously hoping it lives up to that label!!
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes has been sitting on the book trolley for a while and I am pretty sure that is where I am heading next. Circe, The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls have all been winners for me in the last couple of years; I quite fancy losing myself in Ancient Greece again for a bit.
And finally, Girl by Edna O’ Brien, Actress by Anne Enright, and How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Led have all been waiting for me while. Plenty to be getting on with as always, and plans might well change when the short list is published !
So, a couple of predictions from me, but I haven’t read nearly enough of these stunners to predict the whole short list. I will be watching and waiting with anticipation, and as always really interested to hear your thoughts.