Book Review : The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James has been bobbing around on my radar for a while now. It is published by BlueMoose Books this month and is part of their fantastic initiative to publish only women writers this year. BlueMoose have never let me down yet, and hey, it looks like they are some of the few people on the planet getting 2020 nailed!!

Everything I had heard, and indeed continue to hear, about The Sound Mirror is overwhelming positive. Twitter is alive with fantastic reviews every day and this book has created a buzz even before it has been published. Who doesn’t want to read a book like that?? So thank you Heidi and Blue Moose for my gifted copy, and spoiler alert; it’s going on the forever shelf.

Anyway, enough of me blathering, let’s get to the meat of the matter… What is The Sound Mirror all about?

This is the story of three women; Tamara, Ada, and Claire. Each story is told gradually, each interspersed with the other. Their stories are told in the third person, but in the present tense, which became very important to me as the novel progressed. Because it is through the use of the present tense that you have a sense of really getting to know these women. The writing and the way it is constructed is a window into their thoughts, preoccupations and struggles.

The three stories span different times and places. Tamara’s story in grounded in the present, with a sense of looking back. Her narrative is less linear and much more fragmented that the other women. This fractured narrative reflects the nature of Tamara’s story, adds a sense of intrigue and tension which runs throughout the novel, driving it forward. And Tamara’s story begins the novel with a blinding opening line…

She is going to kill her mother today.

The Sound Mirror – Heidi James

I mean who doesn’t want to follow that line up!!!

The other women’s stories are set over a comparable time frame. We meet them in the 1940’s and move with them through the narrative to the end of their lives. Claire is one of a large catholic Italian family, living in London, helping out with the family grocers business, falling in love and moving forwards. Ada is mixed race, leaving India at the end of British rule, the fall of the Raj. Used to a life of colour, warmth and plenty, the grey skies and constraints of a life in England are hard to adjust to.

These two women are different on many ways. There are clear differences in lifestyle, class, opportunities and outlook. But equally there are many things that bind them, both are constrained in many ways. Expectations and the judgement of society continually intervene to change the course of their lives. The frustrations they both feel in different ways about their own wishes, wants, talents and needs being ignored shape the choices they make, their interactions with others, their own mental health and ultimately future generations. Heidi James shows us how other characters perception of these women begin to colour their sense of self . How much, we are encouraged to ask, are we a product of our experiences and how far does this reach into our lives and the lives of those around us?

All three of these women are multi layered, complex and ultimately flawed. They are relatable, believable and even though they are sometimes hostile, and unsettling, as a reader we care about their narratives. These are women each with a clear voice who aren’t static in their representation. They change throughout the novel, life and experiences change them. And consequently our opinion of them changes too.

For the majority of the novel these narratives move along quite separately. Although themes and issues unite them, the characters themselves don’t interact. But then, suddenly, the narratives come together in a way that is perfect, not contrived not forced, just a reflection of the skill and care the author has displayed throughout.

Running through out this novel is an exploration of the theme of motherhood in all its forms and guises. Heidi James depicts and equally challenges the accepted societal definition of motherhood. She raises a myriad of questions throughout. What happens if you don’t want children? What gives society the right to impose motherhood and it’s impossible standards on all women, regardless of their own ambitions and inclinations? What makes a ‘good mother’, and who indeed defines what a good mother is? What is the effect of a ‘bad mother’? What does it takes to be a mother emotionally and physically? Is the balance of motherhood’s rewards and trials equal for all women, and what happens when everything becomes overwhelming? Is a mother’s love unconditional ? What do you bring from one generation to the next and is the past always going to be a defining part of you?

This book is packed with questions, considerations and empathy. It takes the traditional lot of women, grabs it by the ankles and gives it a damn good shake. At times it will make you smile, you will nod along in understanding, you might just feel uncomfortable and it will definitely ignite the fires of injustice and anger in your belly. Thank you Heidi for the chance to read this beauty. You have a winner on your hands here.

Rachel x

Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

I have been aware of this book for a long time. It seems that everyone whose bookish opinion I trust has read and worshipped this book. Honestly, the praise has been overwhelming and wholly positive. There is so much love and admiration out there for Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books.

So why you may ask has it taken me so long to get around to reading it? Well, firstly, the usual and quite boring answer is I have so much stuff to read I haven’t found the time. But the second is, if I am honest I found all that love a bit overwhelming. What if I didn’t feel the same? Would I be the one who missed the magic? Not sure if this is an example of my stubbornness or insecurity but I didn’t want to be the one who didn’t love Leonard and Hungry Paul.

I am here today to tell you I was an idiot. When I finally dived into this book I didn’t come up for air. For 24 hours I was immersed in a quieter, gentler, less judgemental world and I didn’t want to leave. When I started this book it was a ‘read but not review book’, but there is no way I can put this one on the shelf without sharing my thoughts and adding my own small stitch to the blanket of love that is quite rightly wrapped around this book.

This is a novel centred on the friendship of two men; Leonard and Hungry Paul. Both in their thirties, both reserved, unassuming but both equipped with a perception of thought and emotional intelligence that is so often missing in today’s crazy world. Leonard, works as a ‘content supervisor’ for children’s factual books. He has until recently always lived with his mother and is currently mourning her passing. Hungry Paul lives at home, working on a casual basis as a postman. He is close to his parents Peter and Helen and his sister Grace, successful and high achieving, is about to marry. It is the run up to and culmination of the wedding which frames the novel.

This is a novel truly driven by and filled with it’s characters. The plot is the stuff of their hopes, fears and achievements. The novel focuses on their domestic challenges and changes; those things that may seem insignificant, but are in truth the stuff that makes the world go around.

Painted with true care and addition to detail, these are characters that feel so real you could almost touch them. Each character has a depth, a past, opinions and a true motivation, all seamlessly constructed and conveyed. In short here are characters you can believe in. I revelled in the quiet voices of Leonard and Hungry Paul, with their board game evenings, sense of duty and gently harboured dreams. I sympathised with Grace, close to her parents, loving her brother but equally frustrated and worried about his future and how his unwillingness to leave the nest might impact upon her. And the marriage of Helen and Paul was an untold and insightful joy; devoted to their children but still in love with each other, and trying not to lose sight of their own identify as a couple.

Rónán Hession has blessed us with an intensity of writing that is a simple joy. Throughout the prose possesses a targeted accuracy and undeniable reality; words are constructed in such a way that you are pulled into a novel that is truly immersive and authentic. There is a gentle and perceptive humour, threading it’s way like silk throughout the book. At times provoking a wry smile, at others a deep and genuine belly laugh. And for all that humour and reality, there is a bedrock of wisdom. And it was this I appreciated and adored the most.

At a time when it seems that loud voices and grand gestures are the things being lauded and sometimes demanded, this book is a welcome change of pace and perspective. This book embraces, empowers and champions the introvert. It is a celebration of those who truly observe and move gently on the backroads of life. They are no less important, no less relevant and often filled with a perception and vision others have lost.

A true novel of still waters running deep, I can’t help thinking the world might be an easier and more harmonious place if we were all a bit more Leonard and Hungry Paul.

Rachel x

Book Review: Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught

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.

Rachel x

You can purchase Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught from Bluemoose Books right here