Something very strange happened while I was reading Paul Sussman’s book. I was up at night feeling unwell and made it half way without even taking a break. I had never read any of his books so as far as I knew this could have been a debut novel or one of hundreds. I launch straight into books without reading introductions, forewords or acknowledgements because I don’t like to be swayed by them. I don’t want someone else to tell me how to read a book, or in what context; I like to make up my own mind and read them later. I must admit on this occasion I was drawn in by the cover, but beyond that and the back cover blurb I knew nothing.
I realised half way through that I was reading with a smile on my face, despite feeling physically grotty! It made me smile because of the dark subject matter, the humour and sheer ingenuity of Raphael. I put it to one side and thought ‘I really wish my husband Jez had been around so I could read this to him’. He died 7 years before I found this novel and prior to his death he couldn’t read himself. He couldn’t hold a book and couldn’t see to read for himself. He could get listening books but there were certain, funny, books that we liked to share so we could fall about laughing together. They would usually be ingenious, darkly comic and just a little bit bad – rather like this. This was definitely one of those books. I then turned to the foreword and noticed it was written by Paul Sussman’s wife Alicky. I was so sad to read that she had been through the same loss I had, but amazed by the parallel. I contacted her and she was lovely, sharing about her loss and listening to mine.
The character of Raphael Phoenix is irresistible. A cantankerous old pensioner, living alone in a castle, he decides that 100 years of living is enough. He has a plan and he also has a pill. He has had the pill his whole life since his birthday party with his childhood friend Emily. Emily’s father is a chemist and in his poison cupboard, among the ribbed glass bottles, is an innocuous white pill with a simple nick in one side. It has very particular ingredients that ensure an almost instant and painless death and it is the only thing he wants for his birthday so the pair replace the pill with mint of the very same size, with a nick from the edge to match. Raphael keeps the pill with him through his incredible life either in his pocket, in a gold ring or in more difficult circumstances, sellotaped under his armpit. He trusts his pill and knows that it will deliver the death he wants as he sits in his observatory, with an expensive glass of red wine (over £30 a bottle) watching the millennium fireworks. However, before then he has a story to tell us, several stories in fact, which take us through some of the most important periods of the 20th Century and he has a very peculiar way of splitting these stories into sections. Raphael has had some very singular life experiences, and has a talent for getting into scrapes and challenges. Even more surprising are his ways of getting out of them.
I had no idea what to expect and so I was surprised and charmed by this magical piece of work. It manages to be both, earthy and funny, but also incredibly poignant. The only two things he can depend on through his life are the pill and his friend Emily. Emily isn’t always by his side, but just manages to be there at the right times and seems to set his various destinies in motion. Raphael works backwards with his tales until the reader is desperate to know how all of these incredible twists and turns are set in motion and also whether his trusty pill will work so he gets the end he has been working so hard towards. I would read this if you enjoy dark humour and tall tales and like your narrators to be, ever so slightly, morally ambiguous. It is darkly enchanting and I fell in love with it.
‘At the turn for the Northside quays, the bus missed the lights. A woman in front of Kate said to the person next to her, ‘There’s so much traffic we’re going backwards.’ The seatmate agreed and the conversation went relentlessly round, each of them talking over the other, saying the same things, until Kate felt that she might never get off the bus. The windows had fogged again and the vents at her feet piped sour heat up to her face. She popped a button on her coat, elbowing popped a button on her coat, elbowing the man beside her by mistake. ‘Sorry,’ she said. He ignored her and leaned forward for another bite of his breakfast bap. The yolk split, smearing the ketchup like pus into blood. Kate moved as far away from him as she could, which was not very far at all. Her right ear started to ring, a kind of static fuzzing inside her head. Across the aisle, a toddler screamed, his sharp little cries sucking the light right out of the sky.’
This book was one of those ‘slight’ novels but it really does pack an emotional punch. As I started to read Dinner Party, my brain meandered back to my university days and the first time I read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which was like nothing I’d ever read. The above quote, following Kate through the city as she shops for the dinner party she’ll be holding that evening, reminded me of the scene where Clarissa Dalloway takes the omnibus. The writing is simply beautiful, we’re on a bus ride so nothing much happens but everything happens all at once. We get such a sense of Kate from this short passage: her anxieties, her fears, the irritability with other passenger’s foibles, the disgust with food and how her senses become overloaded to the extent that a baby crying takes all the joy out of her.
Today Kate is cooking a meal for her siblings to mark the sixteenth anniversary of their sister Elaine’s death. Every year the Gleeson siblings gather, but this year is a little different. Elaine was Kate’s twin, and she still feels utterly bereft:
‘But a twin can never get over a twin. It was like someone asking you to forget yourself.’
Kate has decided to host the dinner party for her two brothers and her sister-in-law in the flat she plans to leave soon after. As the four settle round the table, to enjoy the food Kate has taken so much trouble over, they begin to talk about their mother. Peter defends her as he always does, but Ray and his wife Liz challenge his excuses for her cantankerous nature. When they leave, earlier than she expected, Kate performs the mental ritual of counting the number of bites she’s taken. Several life events seem to have plunged her into a crisis. She has just been rejected by the married man she’s been having an affair with, which somehow seems worse now she’s thirty-three. Her work holds no challenge and could be done by a junior colleague and she has fewer friends to support her. This is not her first mental crisis, they started in her third year at university when she was hospitalised for anorexia. Counting bites and controlling her food offered an escape from the pain of loss that never seems to go away, not to mention her mother’s anger and constant criticism. The author then takes us to a year later, as another dinner party marks the seventeenth anniversary of Elaine’s death but this time things are different for all three siblings.
This is a psychologically complex novel and I loved that, being a therapist. Kate is constantly over-thinking, re-evaluating and performing rituals in an exhausting monologue that seems constant for her. As the product of a critical parent, her self-talk is largely negative. She has internalised her mother’s criticism and now carries it with her wherever she goes. It stifles her ability to self-soothe, a vital skill for adult life that allows us to make ourselves feel better. Instead she needs constant input and encouragement from something outside herself, often a person who shows merely a hint of kindness or approval. However, another means of gaining approval is through achievement and Kate is definitely an over achiever, constantly setting herself standards and markers against which she can better herself and feel more valued:
‘She could never pin down the problem; it was a shifty kind of thing, something to do with routine. Shopping in the same supermarket, buying the same foods, wearing the same outfit in different colours, or even with things she enjoyed like music or exercise, running the same stretch of beach, having to reach the railing she’d reached the day before—all these arbitrary markers of success or failure that seemed to somehow captivate and imprison her. Devika said it was just the break-up blues making her feel inadequate, but the truth was, it had been going on for years, long before Liam, this impulse to do things to exhaustion. It was extreme living. Or it was living for two. Wringing the sponge, Kate felt the energy leave her body. She sat on a stool and began to count. Three. Then five—no four—it was only four. And a sprout. Less than ten bites in total, a miracle with all the food.’
The author has created incredible multi-dimensional characters here with all their flaws and imperfections on show. We spend a lot of time inside Kate’s head and it’s a very tiring place to be. Even shopping and cooking for this simple dinner becomes a marathon as she stretches her culinary abilities with a Baked Alaska for dessert that doesn’t make the table. However, don’t think this is a litany of misery. The author’s depiction of the sibling’s dreadful mother is almost comical in it’s awfulness. Yes it’s a very dark sense of humour, but I understand it. This is just one of the defensive strategies the siblings have; if they find her funny it doesn’t hurt so much. Despite Kate being our doorway into this world, it’s important to remember that Elaine’s death isn’t just Kate’s loss. This is a family tragedy and everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Kate seems to know that their mother’s irascibility has been heightened by the loss of her daughter. All the remaining siblings know they can’t measure up to a ghost. The Elaine their mother misses probably isn’t a real person any more. A mother doesn’t just grieve her daughter, she grieves the life she’d imagined for that child: the achievements and milestones of life like her wedding day, or a first grandchild. Death has erased Elaine’s flaws, creating a saint-like girl that no living child could live up to. Perhaps this is why the siblings hold their anniversary dinner without their mother, or maybe because her criticism has subtly damaged each of them, just in different ways. Yet, their mother isn’t a two-dimensional monster, which she could have become in a lesser writer’s hands.
I liked the structure of bookending the story with each, very different, dinner party. I could imagine the book being turned into a play or screenplay very easily. I loved the forays back into the past, to see all the siblings but mainly how Kate and Elaine related to each other. The past sections truly do inform the present, either explaining a sibling’s present behaviour or simply showing us the depth of what this family have lost. With themes of mental ill health, anorexia and suicide this isn’t an easy read at times, but nor should it be. The author is showing us how tragedy can be a legacy, one event leading to inter generational pain and trauma. I found her depiction of this moving, but also helpful in a strange way. Some parts are painful, especially if you’ve lost someone very important to you like I have. However, it’s also enlightening and leaves you feeling that you’re not alone in the world. That there are other people who have once felt and thought like you. The trick is to stop the pain passing on to the next generation, to let the trauma end with you. This is a wise and beautifully written debut from an author I’ll be watching out for in the future.
Published by Pushkin Press, 16th Sept 2021.
Meet The Author
SARAH GILMARTIN is a critic who reviews fiction for the Irish Times. She is co-editor of the anthology Stinging Fly Stories and has an MFA from University College Dublin. She won Best Playwright at the inaugural Short+Sweet Dublin festival. Her short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, New Irish Writing and shortlisted for the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Award. Her story ‘The Wife’ won the 2020 Máirtín Crawford Award at Belfast Book Festival.
With her usual focus on families and relationships, this prolific author has turned her hand to crime fiction for new novel I Have Something To Tell You and she’s created a very competent murder mystery. Jay and her husband Tom work in the law; Jay is the senior solicitor in her father’s old law firm and Tom is a barrister in chambers across town. They live in Clifton, and have two teenage children who are very excited to be taking a gap year in their education and going travelling. When a new case comes to Jay, everything in her perfect world starts to shift. Edward Blake, local architect and property developer, has been arrested for the murder of his wife Vanessa. The details are perfect tabloid fodder, young beautiful wife is found strapped to her bed with stirrup straps, naked and it looks like she’s been strangled. Jay knows this is going to be an interesting case and immediately leaves for the police station, where she meet DI Ken Bright and his right hand woman DS Hamble. He’s quite clear that it does not look good for her client. Last night he had arrived home, realised his wife was not there but didn’t find that odd. Possibly because their house splits at the top of the stairs – to the right is a master bedroom suite where Edward Blake retires and to the left the guest bedrooms. It is only the next morning when Blake starts to become concerned for his wife’s welfare and when checking the guest bedrooms, just in case she came in late and didn’t want to disturb him, he finds his wife’s body. He now finds himself the prime suspect and he’s relying on Jay to keep him out of jail. Who has killed Vanessa and can Jay succeed in helping her client?
I enjoyed the double storyline, as time was split equally between the case and Jay’s personal life which hits rock bottom as she works with her client. With their children’s imminent departure on their travels, Jay and husband Tom have been looking forward to some quality time together. Both work long hours and this is their chance to slow down, maybe take some time off here and there, and start to enjoy their time together again. Daughter Liv has been struggling in an ‘on again – off again’ relationship with the son of one of their friends and Jay is there as a listening ear. However, it’s Tom who lobs an absolute bombshell into their lives and we get to see how Jay copes under the double pressure of a tough murder case, and trouble at home. At home Jay finds it difficult to sleep and to keep her head. At least work, tough as it is, gives her some respite from troubles at home. She finds an unlikely listener in her client, no matter what state his case is in, Blake notices if Jay is off colour or has things on her mind. He enquires whether she is ok and Jay admits to feeling emotional and being concerned for her marriage. However, this is only a moment of weakness, I was fascinated by the way Jay is usually able to put her game face on and lose herself in the case, undertaking investigations with her trusty P.I. Joe, and becoming embroiled in all the twists and turns.
I thought I’d identified the murderer at the halfway point, but I got it wrong which was a great surprise. Blake and Vanessa’s lives were complicated by another death in the family, and grief had eaten away at their lives and relationship. Vanessa is very troubled and vulnerable from that point on. I found myself a little uneasy with Blake and his position as ‘victim’ in their marital problems. Motives range from sexual jealousy to wrangling over money and potential inheritance. We meet a whole host of characters during the investigation, some of them real horrors that it must have been great fun to write. Vanessa’s stepmother sticks in my mind, because she’s a manipulative and vindictive old woman. She’s sitting on a fortune thanks to the ruined, Gothic, pile she insists on living in even though she can barely afford to heat it. This should be inherited by Vanessa, but could other members of the family have resented that? Especially since Blake and Vanessa already own three incredible properties where they live.
The author pitched her characters perfectly, whether it’s the professional, middle-classes or those who’ve had their money a bit longer. These characters all have beautiful, elegant, homes that sport giant kitchens/ family rooms where they can cook, dine and watch TV together. Blake’s a property developer so his own home is spectacular and very seductive. It’s real Country Homes and Interiors perfection, with it’s well placed riding boots in the hallway and bifold doors in the rear extension with incredible views of the Cotswolds. I wanted to live there. I’d have even taken the guest bedroom where the body was found! Each character had something that made the reader suspicious of them, and I looked forward to each new revelation in the case. I liked Jay’s relationship with her investigator Joe, ex police officer and friend of her father’s, he is a solid presence in her life when everything else is shifting. The author brings in themes of empty nest syndrome, infidelity, betrayal, and the impact of trauma. I thought her portrayal of long-term relationships was probably very realistic. She showed how we change as we get older, but also how life events change people and their priorities, creating the potential to derail even the strongest of marriages. The ending was unexpected, leaving one final twist for last which is always satisfying and not tying up every loose end neatly in a bow. This was an enjoyable read and a successful foray into crime fiction and domestic noir.
This book has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, because I loved the blurb of course, but also because I’ve had a lot of luck this year with fantastic books that have a lighthouse on the cover. The Lighthouse Witches was even darker than I expected and I enjoyed it immensely. In the late 1990s, artist Liv Stay finds herself homeless and without work so travels all the way up to Scotland and an island called Lòn Haven where a friend has recommended her to paint a mural. She travels to the coast, with her three daughters Saffy, Luna and Clover. There she meets Isla, caretaker of the bothy they’ll be staying in next door to the sea lashed lighthouse where she’ll be painting the mural. The mural is planned out on a large roll of paper and Liv is bemused to see a diagram of sorts, full of runic symbols she doesn’t understand. Getting this accurate in a circular building is her first challenge, and the second is to inject some of her own creativity in the design to make it beautiful. The girls are a bit shell-shocked to be brought to this remote and wild place, and there are certainly some unanswered questions as to why and how they ended up somewhere so remote and creepy. Liv carries a huge secret inside her, but the family are about to find out that Lòn Haven holds its share of secrets and ancient beliefs too, causing the whole family to disappear.
The story is told through different characters in three main time zones. Liv narrates the main section in the 1990s, then we meet her grown-up daughter Luna twenty years later, but we also go back into the history of the island and the witch trials of the 17th Century. The grown-up Luna is drawn back to the island when her sister Clover is found. However, to Luna’s shock, her contact Eilidh the social worker takes her to a little girl. Clover should be around thirty years old. Yet, Clover recognises her childhood toy and his name; she immediately squeezes Gianni the Giraffe like an old friend. Luna can’t understand why the social services haven’t noticed the anomaly in Clover’s date of birth, but her instinct is to protect her sister. So when asked, Luna fudges her date of birth and takes Clover away with her to the Air BNB she’s booked. At times, once they’ve settled, Luna does wonder if everything is okay with her sister. There’s the strange marking like a brand on her skin, which has four tiny numbers inscribed. There’s also a look she has, as if she isn’t present in her body and doesn’t recognise Luna. Over a couple of days she also displays some disturbed behaviour. Luna finds Gianni with his insides pulled out and his head cut off and then Clover floods the bathroom on purpose. Luna is desperately trying to find some sort of disease or syndrome that might have regressed her sister’s age. The only other explanation is a supernatural one and Luna isn’t sure she’s ready to accept the the local folklore she heard when she went missing all those years ago. However, she’s pregnant and alone with Clover in the middle of nowhere, so what if she isn’t her sister?
The author creates a brilliant atmosphere across all three time periods, starting with the name of the lighthouse, The Longing. Rather than full on horror, it’s a sense of the uncanny that starts to unsettle the reader. We all know that sense of rising tension when we feel so on edge, that anything would scare us. Here, it’s glimpsing a baby in the water that’s flooding the floor of the lighthouse, when it’s just a doll; a small child’s arm reaching out from behind Liv’s art materials; or opening a door to see your own double standing there. As we delve into the past and the history of The Longing, we are faced with the real-life horror of the 17th Century witch trials encouraged by King James, the first joint King of England and Scotland who ascended the throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir. Women with skills such as herbalism or midwifery could come under suspicion, but more usually local disputes and grudges led to women being branded a witch. In this case the local midwife, her friends and their daughters have all been accused and in matters like this the islanders stick to the rule ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Accused women in this time period were often checked for the Devil’s mark – a mole, birthmark or blemish of any kind – had their hair shorn, were stripped, humiliated and then burned. The history of the island shows that a burning happened on the very rock, that now serves as a foundation to The Longing. I wondered how the old beliefs, in the fae or fairies, witches, and strange children called wildlings still held sway in the present day. In the 1990’s narrative there is still a definite undercurrent of ancient beliefs, with their followers having enough reach to influence both the police and the richest man on the island, owner of the bothy and lighthouse. Liv comes up against the reach of these believers when she reports seeing a small boy who looks like he’s been living wild. The police don’t want to know when she reports him missing, and it feels as if they view her as a nuisance, someone who doesn’t understand the island’s ancient way of life. When you visit Lòn Haven, as Luna does years later, there’s a sense of the ancient past existing alongside the present, as if time isn’t linear but looped upon itself.
I did get a little confused at times, especially with the elements of time being manipulated, through the cave known as the Witches Hide. There is old magic here. I was trying to understand the marks and numbers branded on Clover and others, and match them to the different time frames. In the end I gave up and decided to just go with it. I found this quote, in a letter from mother to daughter, very apt:
‘I’m not sure if I’ll make it, Luna. I’m not sure I’ll be able to hang on long enough to see you one last time. I’m going to try. But if not, if I slip away before I get the chance to hold you again, I wanted to write down the story of what really happened on Lòn Haven. As you’ll see, Cause and Effect in this tale do not fit easily together. The pieces are odd and mis-shaped because truth is messy and porous’.
I enjoyed the ending, despite feeling it was untidy. I thought it was a great story of women, and how their power and position changes over time. It also has a lot to say about mothers and daughters, how they communicate and the stories they tell each other to help navigate a world that can be set against women. I felt so much for Saffy, a very confused 15 year old who, in the midst of all the supernatural activity, is dealing with the usual teenage angst. Unsure of herself and this new place, she is lured into sexual activity and sending explicit pictures to one of the local boys. This is a girl who desperately needs her Mum, and isn’t getting any support or advice. There’s one occasion where Liv honestly has no idea where Saffy’s been for the last 24 hours. I wanted to give this girl a massive cuddle and help her set boundaries that she’s comfortable with instead of being coerced. The author mixes the present day perfectly with ancient folklore, supernatural happenings, and time travel, which is not an easy feat. Not to mention the depth of historical research that underpins the more fantastical elements. So, it seems my attraction to books with lighthouses on the cover, has paid off once again.
Meet The Author
C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com
This was the book that first started my love affair with Lucy Atkins’s writing. I remember when I first read this novel for my book club, I was so impatient to find out what happened back in the 1970s to Elena and Susannah. A terrifying and traumatic event has linked these two women for over 30 years and it can’t stay a secret for ever. In the present is Elena’s daughter Kali, who has just lost her mother to breast cancer, a mother she could never make sense of or bond with as she wanted. In the aftermath of Elena’s death, Kali is trying to make sense of that difficult relationship when she finds a hidden pile of postcards from a woman called Susannah in her mother’s things. Thinking she has found the clue to her mother’s past she pursues this woman to find out about events leading up to her birth and a family history that has resolutely stayed hidden.
Driven forward by grief, and the constant worry that her husband is having an affair, Kali takes her son Finn on an odyssey to unearth her mother’s secrets and to find herself. She has many theories about what she might find: maybe her father had an affair; could Susannah have been his lover or her mother’s? Yet, what she finds is something she never suspected. Set against the backdrop of wild North America and Canada we learn about a woman’s quest to understand the Orca. Distressed by witnessing the killer whales at Seaworld in California while doing her PhD, a young Elena leaves everything to record killer whale pods in the, ocean. The Seaworld orca gave birth to a calf that was so disorientated by his tiny tank he kept banging himself against the glass trying to navigate through echolocation. His desperate mother keeps pushing him away from the sides to protect him from damage, but in her efforts to protect she forgets to nurture and the calf dies because she has forgotten to feed him. Kali was similarly starved of nurturing by her mother because she was so intent instead on protecting her from this awful secret.
The novel is an incredible insight into relations between mothers and daughters. Kali’s sister Alice has a great relationship with her mother that seems easy, whereas Kali and Elena clash over everything. Kali sees that her mother finds her hard to nurture and believes it is her fault. It takes putting herself in danger to find out why and in finding out she also discovers that essential piece of the jigsaw that tells her who she is and grounds her in a history. The novel shows how when you become a mother it becomes more importantu cc than ever to know where you are from and how you belong. It also shows how the secrets of one generation have a huge impact on the next, even if the secret is kept with the best of intentions. The book cleverly shows the difference between generations since we have now moved into a world where we put our own lives on show for fun. In a world where counselling and therapy are becoming the norm it is no longer seen as acceptable to keep such huge secrets and we know as post-Freudians what effect those early years of parenting have on the adult we become.
Aside from the complex human relationships are the family ties within the Orca families. We see how there are resident pods and transient pods with different feeding habits and rules to abide by. It is also clear that parallels can be drawn between the whale relationships and the human ones. Elena is so moved by their mothering instincts and the possibilities to map their language and understand their emotions. She gives up everything to spend as much time with them as she possibly can even going to sleep on her floathouse with the sounds of whales drifting up from a microphone in the water. I learned so much about these incredible creatures without losing the majesty of them and the awe a human being feels when a huge tail rises up out of the water next to their boat.
The book reads as a dissection of family relationships, a thriller, a study of whales and a study of grief. Grief causes Elena to suffer with depression throughout her life, grief traumatises Susannah to the extent that she is unbalanced by the things she has witnessed and it is grief that compels Kali to jump on a plane to Vancouver with nothing but a few postcards and the internet to go on. I struggled to put the novel down because of the thriller element. Like a good crime novel, you desperately want to know the truth of who- dunnit. Yet it is those final chapters I like best, after everything is resolved and each character is living in the aftermath of exposed secrets and recovery from physical and mental injury. The novel could have ended there and I am glad that it went further, back into Elena’s past so that we can see her happy on her floathouse making coffee and then hearing those whales come to greet her.
She would go back to that throughout her life, right to the very end. But the last time, when the world had shrunken to the contours of her skin and she leaned over the railings, it wasn’t the whales that she saw in the water. And so she jumped.
Meet The Author
Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her most recent novel, Magpie Lane, is a literary thriller set in an Oxford college. Her other novels are The Night Visitor (which has been optioned for TV), The Missing One, and The Other Child.
Lucy is a book critic for The Sunday Times and has written features for UK newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, and many magazines. She was a Costa Novel Award judge in 2017, and teaches creative writing to Masters students at Oxford University.
She is mother of three and has also written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, First Time Parent (Collins). She has lived in Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle and now lives in Oxford, UK.
‘But what if monsters walk among us and they aren’t nut jobs? Sebastian was a seemingly normal guy who grew angry, so angry, he could have killed me. Anger isn’t a mental illness. Maybe regular people do terrible things all the damn time.’
I was really looking forward to getting lost in this book because it has such a great premise. The blurb sounded like a cross between the twisted relationships of Single White Female and the exotic locations of TV’s Race Across the World. Having read SJI Holliday’s Violet last year I was looking forward to experiencing more dark deeds in remote locations off the usual tourist track. Emily and Kristen have been friends since college, but Kristen left her Milwaukee roots and is currently living in Sydney. Emily wasn’t brought up in Milwaukee, but she’s fallen in love with this city and it’s old houses and community spirit. Now they’re living on opposite sides of the world, they have an agreement that once a year they’ll pick up their backpacks and visit somewhere different, to experience the real way of life away from tourist spots. At the opening of the book the girls have met in Chile, rented a car, and are giving off serious Thelma and Louise vibes. Unfortunately, they have no idea how true to the film their experience is going to be. When Kristen meets a Spanish backpacker in a bar on their last night, she’s keen to spend some alone time with him. However, Emily is very uneasy about the plan. Kristen asks her to stay in the bar for an hour, giving her some alone time in their room with her new beau. Emily agrees, but her unease becomes too much and she leaves early, rushing back to the room. She finds Kristen spattered with blood and the backpacker dead on the floor with wide open eyes, a picture that will linger in her head forever. Kristen tells Emily the backpacker attacked her. Emily wants to support her friend, but isn’t this a huge coincidence? Why would something so dreadful happen to them twice?
Emily’s concerns about Kristen being alone with someone she’s just met, came from very bitter experience. Last year, in Phnom Penh, Emily made the same choice. She met a man called Sebastian and invited him back to her room where he sexually assaulted her. Emily froze up, but suddenly Kristen burst in and started fighting Sebastian off. In the struggle, he was hit on the head, which accidentally killed him. Despite this being self-defence, the girls chose not to go to the police and instead they managed to smuggle his body out of their digs and conceal their crime. Now here they are, only a year later, going through exactly the same experience. When it happened to Emily she went to pieces and Kristen was the best support, staying up all night with her if she had to and slowly putting all Emily’s broken pieces back together again. Kristen seems strangely okay though, organised and dedicated to concealing another crime they’ve committed. How can she keep herself together like that? Emily doesn’t want to judge, she knows people react to trauma in different ways. As they fly off to their respective homes she expects Kristen’s emotions to hit as she reaches the safety of her apartment. It never happens. As Emily settles back into normal life, working at the organic pet food business, taking yoga classes at the studio and continuing her fledgling relationship with Aaron, she does unwind a little. Emily had been unsure about mentioning she was seeing someone to Kristen, so she’d played it down but things are going well. She wonders why she was so reticent and organises some counselling with a woman her friend Priya recommends. She wants to talk about her relationships, but the face of the dead backpacker keeps flashing up in her mind when she least expects it. She imagines rain coming down and uncovering his body. What if the police piece together his last movements and go to the bar, where staff might remember two American backpackers with dark hair? She’s trying to get back to normality and enjoy Aaron, when there’s an unexpected knock at the door. She’s shocked to open it and find Kristen standing there. What is she doing turning up like this? Emily feels very disloyal, but wonders how she’s going to manage her normal everyday life and spend enough time on her new relationship with Kristen here?
We’ve all had those friendships where we’ve felt uneasy or as if we’re in competition – this is the situation that the word frenemy was invented for. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Kristen is doing, but the undercurrent is there. Emily is very unsure of herself anyway and doesn’t have that stability of a family around her, since her parents split when she was a teenager. This has made her cautious and inward thinking, we do spend a lot of time in Emily’s head and get to know her well. Of course I was very interested in how the author tackled the sessions with her counsellor, Adrienne. She describes her as calm and present, and I loved how she describes imagining Adrienne as so well rooted in her chair she never moves, as clients travel through as if on a conveyor belt. I think this stands out to Emily because she’s never had anyone in her life who feels that permanent. I enjoyed looking for those red flags, where Adrienne puts her pen down and asks Emily to pay attention to what she’s just said. It brings her into the moment, and reminds her to listen to her self- talk; most clients have all the answers within them. Emily mentions that by having Aaron in her life she feels like she’s ‘abandoning’ Kristen, which is strange because she should be able to have a boyfriend and a best friend shouldn’t she? She also wonders whether the distance they had wasn’t a good thing? She’d been getting over Phnom Penh, but with Kristen closer she ‘wondered if the distance between Kristen and me had been a blessing: a long and narrow but viable path toward healing. Now I felt myself sliding the opposite way like someone dragged by the heels.’
Kristen is more difficult to get to know, mainly because we are not inside her head. She is good for Emily in some ways, pushing her to try new things and be more spontaneous. Emily gets a small glimpse into Kristen’s early life when she drives her home to the grandparents who brought her up. Although lovely and polite, Emily notices that all of their questions are focused on her, rather than Kristen. There’s no real fanfare that she’s come all the way from Sydney to see them, in fact they seem quite dismissive. Aaron is a lovely guy, one of the ones who ring when they say they will and make a new date at the end of the last one. Kristen has been a lifesaver before, pointing out when previous boyfriends were not putting the effort in or manipulating her. She’s desperate for Aaron and Kristen to get along, but she also wants to enjoy him without Kristen’s interference. On the first night he goes back to Emily’s apartment with her, Kristen messages that she needs her. Feeling obligated to drop everything, she jumps out of bed and Aaron goes home. When Emily finally gets through to Kristen on the drive over she claims it wasn’t serious and Emily could have just phoned. I was so suspicious at this point and found myself begging for Emily to see what’s happening.
Once the girls have come home from Chile, the tension and pace drop a little to more of a slow burning thriller. Yet as I came towards the end and the revelations started to come, the pace picked up again. I really felt the claustrophobic, trapped feeling that Emily is starting to experience. When she has a panic attack, and it affects her asthma, I did find myself holding my breath. I thought the issues faced by today’s young women, as brought up by both characters, were sadly very true. Emily makes the astute observation that men choose to put themselves in a position of danger – by playing dangerous sports for example – because they want to feel a moment ice cold fear, to make them feel ‘the icy jolt of feeling alive. They crave it because they have no idea how miserable it is to feel that frigid blast a hundred times a day.’ Women should be allowed to roam the world with a backpack without fear, but the truth is they can’t. The author taps beautifully into a rage that women feel, because the remedy for this inequality doesn’t seem to lie in teaching boys not to rape, but in curbing women’s freedom further. The girls also bring up the real-life case of Amanda Knox and the way her sexual experiences were used as a weapon to beat her with in the tabloid press. Both girls know that liking sex can get a woman branded: as promiscuous; as abnormal; even as a murderer. The author paints a scary picture of coercive control and emotional abuse, that can happen in any type of relationship, such as the quiet way Kristen’s grandfather dismisses her. In turn, Kristen manipulates Emily into being a perpetual victim who she can rescue over and over. Woe betide anyone else who steps in to this drama triangle or Emily if she chooses to step out. This novel is a sinister and obsessive look at female friendship and is a fascinating insight into the 21st Century world young women must occupy.
Publisher: Michael Joseph3rd August 2021
Meet The Author
Andrea Bartz is a Brooklyn-based journalist and the author of the forthcoming WE WERE NEVER HERE. Her second thriller, THE HERD, was named a best book of 2020 by Real Simple, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, CrimeReads, and other outlets. Her LA-Times bestselling debut, THE LOST NIGHT, was optioned for TV development by Mila Kunis. It was named a best book of the year by Real Simple, Glamour, Marie Claire, Library Journal, Crime Reads, Popsugar, She Reads, and other publications. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Martha Stewart Living, Elle, and many other outlets, and she’s held editorial positions at Glamour, Psychology Today, and Self, among other titles.
This was a complicated and fascinating book about art, but also how difficult the relationship can be between mothers and daughters.. I really believed in this story and it’s portrayal of the difficulties in making art. I was not surprised to read that the author had been an art writer, because of the detail and truth in the process of creating. Set in the art world of NYC, Lisa is a painter in the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1950s. She starts to be sidelined when she becomes pregnant, but truly believes she can be a mother and still create great art. Studying in NYC is a dream and I think she really felt she’d found her people, her tribe. Fellow artist and lover Hank, goes up against her for an exhibition and is surprised when it’s Lisa’s work that really gets noticed. We then jump to 1966.
When her daughter Rouge was born, Lisa found herself butting up against the male dominated art world, surprised to find it quite conventional after all. I loved the feminist take on what we imagine to be a fairly free and bohemian world. It was an area of life that I’d imagined had less barriers. I really felt for Lisa and understood her disillusionment when her ex-lover is suddenly a new darling of the movement. Especially considering how similar their work is. The psychological effects of this realisation include resentment building between mother and daughter. The resentment is felt, even where it isn’t knowingly expressed or acknowledged. Lisa ends up teaching in college to pay the bills, she also starts to drink more heavily and take risks. Years later, when her daughter Rouge takes an interest in art she chooses photography as her medium. She looks for a mentor and finds Ben Fuller, who happens to be one of Lisa’s old lovers. This acknowledgment, and from a male member of the art world, adds another layer of resentment between mother and daughter. If Rouge’s photography is going to be noticed, how will Lisa cope and what lengths will she go to in order to deal with these negative feelings? Would she consider sabotage?
When she was pregnant Lisa could have chosen another road, she could have walked through a door of her choosing and be living a different life. She hasn’t intentionally made Rouge feel unwanted, but the choice to stop creating art held within it so much self-sacrifice, that it’s some unconscious negativity and even anger has come through to her daughter. Now her daughter is going to take the acclaim that Lisa feels is rightfully hers. However, Rouge is also angry, about the drinking and the revolving door of lovers who come in and out. She is so dismissive of her mother’s choices that she’s very surprised to find one of these lovers had anything useful to teach her. If her photography is good enough, she can imagine doors opening for her. It could be an escape from home and her mother.
I loved that all those elements and difficulties of a woman creating are expressed through Lisa’s world and it’s likely the author has felt similar constraints herself – they haven’t really gone away half a century later. I still feel guilty if I’m writing instead of doing the housework, or doing something for the family. I even find it hard to tell friends I can’t see them because I’m writing. Writing isn’t seen as real work until you’re published, but if you can’t write that never happens. Everyone thinks it can just be moved to tomorrow, and I know I’m not alone in putting it off. Some of that could be imposter syndrome, but it’s also saying it out loud. If I tell people I’m writing, then it’s real with all it’s chance of failure. However, the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s is a huge one culturally, There’s the pill for a start, leaving women in developed countries in charge of their own fertility. Between that and the more permissive attitudes in society it’s clear to see why Lisa would feel there is a huge gap between her generation and her daughter’s. Rouge is free to network and really sell herself. She can curate her own image as an artist, whereas mothers already have one. The author depicts the artistic journey so well – that imposter syndrome, the dreams, the crushing reality and self-sabotage are all seen in these two women. The author shows, quite beautifully, how mothers and daughters misunderstand each other: not knowing the cultural differences between their generations; not even understanding, never mind appreciating, the sacrifices made and the love behind them. This book is about that distance between mothers and daughters, a distance that can only be bridged through openness and honesty, as well as space and time. This was a fascinating and psychologically complex read.
Meet The Author.
Lis Bensley is a writer living in Santa Cruz, CA. She has worked as a journalist at The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, when she lived in Paris and studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu. Subsequently she wrote The Women’s Health Cookbook. To entertain her children, she wrote The Adventures of Milo & Flea about the antics of their cat and dog. She is currently hoping to publish her novel The Glimpse and is working on sequels to the Milo and Flea story.
I’m a big fan of this author’s previous novels Into The Water and TheGirl on the Train. Incidentally, I didn’t like the latter’s film relocation to upstate New York, because I didn’t feel it had the necessary grit of the book’s London location and lost something in translation. I’ve been looking forward to her new novel and I spent the weekend on my chaise longue reading it with a bar of Green and Blacks Sea Salt. Pure bliss! The novel is set in London, on a stretch of the Regent’s Canal between Bethnal Green and Islington. We open with a body being found on one of the canals, the deceased is a young man his neighbour only knows as Daniel. When she boards his boat and finds his body covered in blood she knows she must ring the police. However, in typical Hawkins fashion, the author wishes to unsettle the reader and leave them unsure of who to trust. So, although his neighbour Miriam looks like a run of the mill, middle aged and overweight woman, used to being ignored, she does something unexpected. She notices a key next to the body, and as it doesn’t belong to the boat she picks it up and pockets it.
Our other characters are members of Daniel’s family, who live within walking distance of each other in this area. Daniel’s mother Angela is an alcoholic, in a very strained relationship with her only child until his death. Then there’s his Aunty Carla and Uncle Theo who live near the boat. Daniel appears to have a closer relationship with his Aunty Carla, than he did with his mother, but is it really what it seems? Miriam has noticed some odd comings and goings from the boat next door. This is a family with secrets, both old ones and current ones. Miriam noticed that the girl who works in the local launderette, Laura, was with Daniel on the night in question and they had a row. Laura could have killed him, but Miriam doesn’t think so. Then there’s Irene, an elderly lady who lives next door to Angela and has also noticed some strange behaviour next door too. She knows the family well although Angela has often been too distracted by her own life to form a friendship. Irene does have a soft spot for Laura who helps her out from time to time, by going shopping or running errands. Like Miriam, Irene is also wondering if everything is what it seems with this murder. Lonely people observe a lot and although the family won’t realise this, she’s in possession of a lot of information. Something seismic happened to this family years before, something that changed the lives of everyone involved. Might that have a bearing on their current loss? Could that be the small flame, burning slowly for many years, before erupting into life and destroying everything?
I absolutely fell in love with Laura. She has a disability that affects her mobility and, along with many other symptoms, she has problems keeping her temper. Her hot-headed temperament has led to a list of dealings with the police. This isn’t her normal character though, this rage seems to come from the accident she had as a child. She was knocked down by a car on a country road while riding her bike and broke her legs, as well as sustaining a head injury which has affected her ability to regulate her emotions. Further psychological trauma was caused when she found out the man who hit her, was not just driving along a country round, but driving quickly away from an illicit encounter. Who told him to drive away and why? Laura feels very betrayed and now when she feels threatened, or let down, that rage bubbles to the surface. She’s her own worst enemy, unable to stop her mouth running away with her, even with the police. She has a heart of gold, but very light fingers. She’s shown deftly whipping a tote bag from the hallway of Angela’s house, but in the next moment trying to help Irene when she can’t get out. I found myself rooting for her, probably because she’s an underdog, like Miriam. Miriam feels that because of her age, looks and influence she is completely invisible. She has been passed over in life so many times, it’s become the norm. However, there is one thing she is still angry about. She wrote a memoir several years ago and showed it to a writer; she believes he stole her story for his next book and she can’t let that go.
I love how the author writes her characters and how we learn a little bit different about them, depending on who they’re interacting with. They’re all interlinked in some way, and their relationships become more complex with time. As with her huge hit The Girl on the Train, the author plays with our perceptions and biases. She doesn’t just plump for one unreliable narrator, every character is flawed in some way and every character is misunderstood. We see that Miriam is not the stereotypical middle-aged woman others might think she is, as soon as she pockets that piece of evidence at the crime scene. Others take longer to unmask themselves, but when they do there’s something strangely satisfying about it. We even slip into the past to deepen our understanding of this complicated group of people, letting us into all their dirty little secrets, even those of our victim Daniel. When I’m counselling, something I’m aware of is that I’m only hearing one person’s perspective of an event. Sometimes, that’s all it needs, some good listening skills and letting the client hear it themselves. Yet, it is only one part of a much bigger story. Occasionally, I do get an inkling of what the other person in the story might have felt and I might ask ‘do you think your wife heard it like that or like this?’ If I say ‘if my partner did or said what you did, I might feel….’ it makes the client think and asks that they communicate more in their relationship. Sometimes the intention behind what we say becomes lost in the telling. That’s how it was reading this book, because we do hear nearly every perspective on an event, but also how each event or interaction affects the others. The tension rises and it was another late night as I had to keep reading to the end. Paula Hawkins has become one of those authors whose book I would pre-order unseen, knowing I’m going to enjoy it. In my eyes this book cements her position as the Duchess of Domestic Noir.
Meet The Author.
PAULA HAWKINS worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, Paula moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. Her first thriller, The Girl on the Train, has been a global phenomenon, selling 23 million copies worldwide. Published in over forty languages, it has been a No.1 bestseller around the world and was a No.1 box office hit film starring Emily Blunt.
Into the Water, her second stand-alone thriller, has also been a global No.1 bestseller, spending twenty weeks in the Sunday Times hardback fiction Top 10 bestseller list, and six weeks at No.1.
A Slow Fire Burning was published on 31st August by Doubleday.
I was so blown away by Fein’s beautiful novel People Like Us earlier this year, that I immediately jumped at the chance to read her new novel early. I was ready to be immersed in her incredible characters, historical background and unique perspective. At first glance this novel seemed different to her last novel. Set in England in the 1920s we meet a pair of sisters, Eleanor and Rose. Their parents died young, and as a result of supporting each other from then on, they have been inseparable. The book opens as Eleanor and her daughter Mabel set off on their pony and cart to meet Rose at the railway station. She is returning from a period of time in Paris, to live with Eleanor and her husband Edward. However, before Rose arrives something very strange happens to Mabel, as she sits quietly on the grass outside the station. One of the train guards notices first and alerts Eleanor, who rushes over to sit by her daughter. Mabel is making repetitive jerky movements, her eyes have rolled back and she is oblivious to Eleanor’s attempts to rouse her. Once it’s passed, Mabel seems exhausted and she travels back to the house, wrapped in a blanket and looking very sleepy. Eleanor’s concern is twofold: firstly, will Mabel be ok? Secondly, how will husband Edward respond if it happens again, considering he’s one of the leading lights of the eugenicist movement?
Eugenics was a movement that emerged in the aftermath of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The idea was to improve the human species by actively encouraging breeding between people with certain desirable traits. Of course that also meant actively ‘breeding out’ invisible disabilities like epilepsy, as well as people thought to be the wrong colour, of low intelligence or mentally unwell. Even criminal tendencies and poverty were thought to be undesirable traits that could be ‘bred out’ of society. In the early 20th Century, eugenics was a legitimate area of scientific enquiry here in the U.K. but it was even more popular in the USA where it made its way into marriage legislation in Connecticut as early as 1896. It became illegal for those who were ‘feeble-minded’ or epileptic to marry. The Eugenics Record Office was then set up to track families and their genetic traits, concluding that those deemed unfit were a victim of negative genes not racism, economics or other social issues. This is the type of study that Eleanor’s husband Edward is undertaking. As a psychology professor he’s using eugenics to shape education policy. He’s studying children from poorer families to test their intelligence against those from middle-class families. He’s expecting the theory to hold and the poorer children to be genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. This will be the basis for streaming children into different educational programs and is the basis for our real life grammar school system; the top 25% of children are determined by the 11 plus exam and streamed into grammar school education, something that still happens in my home county of Lincolnshire. Yet eugenics took a very dark turn in America where there were thousands of forced sterilisations in mental institutions and for the Native American population right up till the 1970’s. So contrary to most people’s understanding, Germany were not the only proponents of eugenics theory, but their use of the theory to murder six million Jewish people, as well as members of the Roma community and disabled people, is the most horrific act of genocide the world has ever seen.
Edward isn’t just dabbling with eugenics. He’s a true believer. Eleanor changes considerably throughout the novel. At first she sees Edward as a saviour, looking after her and her sister Rose. We first see tension in the novel when Rose returns from Paris and announces she is in love with an artist. It feels as if Edward takes a more fatherly role, or saw his role as a old-fashioned protector of the sisters, especially since they have no parents. Eleanor agrees with her husband that Rose could make a far better match, someone with more money and prospects would be the ideal. As Edward denies Rose’s request to see Max or perhaps bring him to dinner, Eleanor is torn between them but trusts her husband’s judgement for now. She even allows him the final decision over Mabel’s care. These were the most difficult sections of the novel for me. They have to be there so that we understand the reality of epilepsy in the early 20th Century, but the treatments feel brutal and my heart broke for this little girl who is having all the spirit drained out of her. There’s some very impressive research behind this part of the story, not just into treatments, but into the theories and the superstition surrounding the illness. In my head I was screaming at Eleanor to follow her instincts and intervene, although even if she had, would she be listened to? I found the pompous and arrogant attitude of the doctors in the novel, sadly true to life. Neurology is a discipline I’m very used to and to some extent there is still a difference in the way some neurologists treat men and women. In fact, apart from Max, all the men in the novel are caught up in their own ego, and seem to want public credit for everything they’ve done, along with deference and respect from women and those lower than them on the social scale. They have full belief in their skills and methods, and will not be questioned on their decisions.
I wanted Eleanor to stand up and fight for her daughter, with both the institution and Edward. I was shocked at the lengths he was willing to go to, in order to prove his theories right. There needed to be a shift in his relationship with Eleanor where she starts to see him more as an equal, a fallible human being rather than a saviour. Only then could she decide whether she was willing to work on their relationship, where it felt to me he needed to be a husband rather than a father-figure. I felt so tense as we moved towards the ending, and I found it satisfying for these characters, but there was still that concern inside me, about how eugenics developed in horrifying ways. I knew I would be thinking about the novel for some time afterwards. I wondered what would Edward feel about eugenics a few years later with Nazism on the rise and Hitler’s dream of creating a master race in its first stages. I’d also thought of Max, Rose’s artist, and whether he stayed in England to be with Rose and missed out on the fate of many other Parisian Jews, who wrongly expected to be safe in France. As a person with a disability, the eugenics movement both terrifies and angers me. The thought of the suffering endured by people with disabilities, at the hands of scientists, fills me with rage. Even before WW2 the Nazi Party we’re starting their crusade for a master race. On July 14, 1933, the Germany passed the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” The law called for the sterilisation of all people with diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.
When the law passed the Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against the disabled, regularly labeling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society. Many people in the disabled community feel there is a similarity to 21st Century rhetoric around benefit claimants and fraud, framing disabled people as dependent on the state and drains on resources. I must admit that it drifted into my mind as I was reading. There is a claim that the withdrawal of benefits and support from the disabled community since 2006, has led to a genocide of disabled people. The figure often quoted is 120,000 additional deaths caused by austerity. Even before the the Final Solution, the Nazis were using the term ‘’euthanasia” for the systematic killing of the institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, even children. Using the term euthanasia made it sound as if death was a kindness for those who were really suffering or terminally ill, but this was not the case. The secret operation, code-named T4, in reference to the street address (Tiergartenstrasse 4) of the program’s coordinating office in Berlin, followed systematic sterilisation of groups in society they wanted to reduce or eradicate. I studied eugenics as part of my dissertation on disability in fiction in 2004 and it is an insidious theory that still hasn’t fully lost it’s influence on the world.
This book stirred up so many thoughts and feelings for me as a disabled reader. Knowing you are one of those people who would have been eradicated is unsettling and leaves me feeling very sensitive to the language used by governments and their attitude towards the disabled community. If people with disabilities are veterans or Paralympians they are acceptable, but otherwise their existence is problematic and I often wonder what it would take for the tide to turn and history to repeat itself. So, I appreciated the depth of the author’s research and the care she took in telling Mabel’s story. The First World War veterans struggling to adjust and live back in society, were a really interesting thread too. Edward is supporting one of his men financially, for reasons that extend all the way back to the battlefield. I enjoyed the adjustment that has to take place in Eleanor and Edward’s marriage once all the secrets he’s been keeping are out in the open. If they stay together they will have to start from a basis of honesty with each other. If Edward is not a war hero or an academic with integrity, who is he? Can Eleanor love the real Edward, especially now that she’s grown up and become a stronger, more independent woman? I loved the way Louise Fein takes this volatile part of history and creates a story that is both personal to these characters, but global in it’s reach and influence. It affected me profoundly, not just because of the disability issues, but because of Mabel who I fell completely in love with. I kept reading because I wanted the best resolution for her, safe and looked after with her family around her.
Meet The Author.
Louise Fein was born and brought up in London. She harboured a secret love of writing from a young age, preferring to live in her imagination than the real world. After a law degree, Louise worked in Hong Kong and Australia, travelling for a while through Asia and North America before settling back to a working life in London. She finally gave in to the urge to write, taking an MA in creative writing, and embarking on her first novel, Daughter of the Reich (named People Like Us in the UK and Commonwealth edition). The novel was inspired by the experience of her father’s family, who escaped from the Nazis and arrived in England as refugees in the 1930’s. Daughter of the Reich/People Like Us is being translated into 11 foreign languages, has been shortlisted for the 2021 RNA Historical Novel of the year Award, and has been long listed for the Not The Booker Prize.
Louise’s second novel, The Hidden Child, will be published in the Autumn of 2021. Louise lives in the beautiful English countryside with her husband, three children, two cats, small dog and the local wildlife who like to make an occasional appearance in the house. Louise is currently working on her third novel.
Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers. Anything she writes is a pre-order in my house, so there may be some bias in my next statement. For me, she is one of the best writers of the 20th Century with, hopefully, more to come. More recently, she has dabbled into the early 20th Century and even WW2 for her novels The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, but she started back in the 19th Century and this is my favourite from that series. Amazon calls her genre Lesbian Victoriana, which made me giggle a little, but I think Waters is doing more than that; she is chronicling women’s experience. She includes lesbian encounters and women falling in love with women, but in this book that’s an aside rather than the main focus of the plot. I think to term these novels as lesbian novels is reductive and has a sense of prurience. I remember the fuss and excitement when Tipping the Velvet was serialised at the BBC, and male journalists practically salivating over Rachel Stirling and Keeley Hawes. I think they’re intended to be read as women’s experiences of living in Victorian England, with the women’s sexual relationships as part of an unspoken subculture only just emerging into the open. She is using the device of ‘writing back’ to the historical period and bringing a group into the limelight who were hidden at the time and never portrayed in fiction. It’s about seeing the Victorian era and women’s lives in totally new eyes, and accepting that the literary canon only shows us a small part of a vibrant and varied world. As with history being written by the victor, literature of the early to mid 19th Century tends to be written by white, straight, middle-class males. Waters is trying to redress the balance and give us a minority viewpoint which I love.
Orphan, Sue Trinder, lives in a family of petty thieves and is trained to become a ‘Fingersmith’. Based in London, the den is run by a motherly woman who has a hard and ruthless side. All the thieves congregate and bring their wares to ready them for sale, while a baby farm is run on the side. It is here that a man called ‘Gentleman’ recruits Sue for a scam to defraud a wealthy heiress. We also meet a young woman called Maud Lily, she’s an orphan too, but with a home in a gloomy mansion as the ward of an odd Uncle. She has a very comfortable life, helping him with his work as some sort of secretary, but his subject matter might raise an eyebrow or two. He is an avid collector of Victorian pornography. This makes Maud very uncomfortable, but it seems an unspoken agreement that her help is in return for his protection. This strange upbringing makes Maud very sheltered and naïve in one respect, but also strangely knowing in others. Gentleman has devised a long con that starts when Sue is placed within the mansion as Maud’s lady’s maid. She will then encounter the Gentleman who will try to court Maud. They hope, that with Sue’s encouragement, Lily will fall for his charms. His long term aim is to marry her, because according to 19th Century marriage law, all of her fortune will then become his property. Then it’s a simple case of claiming she’s mad, and as long as a doctor agrees, a man could sign his wife into an asylum leaving him free to use her money. If she helps, Sue will be entitled to some of the ‘shine’.
As always with Sarah Waters books, the depth of research is obvious and this feels so real. The sense of place is so strong, in the filthy detail of the London terrace streets and the silent unease in the mansion. These two places feel entirely opposite. Where Sue grew up there’s constant noise, people running in and out, babies wailing upstairs and other people’s belongings being appraised and sold on. There’s squalor and poverty, so for her, the change to being a lady’s maid is a massive leap. By contrast the mansion is quiet with the sound of ticking clocks, days without seeing another soul. There’s a feeling of being imprisoned somehow, it’s stifling and the scene where she works in the library with her Uncle feel so uncomfortable. The tension as the con slowly starts to work is terrible. Then, in what is probably my favourite twist in fiction, the pace picks up and the reader is left reeling as everything changes.
In the second section of the book we go back in time a little to Maud’s story, some of this overlaps with the first part and some of it is her history and how she ended up closed away with only a perverted Uncle for company. We follow Sue’s journey as Maud’s lady’s maid and see how a friendship develops between the two young women. Maud is living like a prisoner and has experienced years of coercive control leaving her timid and unsure. The con would only work if Sue stays focused and doesn’t get involved with her new mistress, but their friendship is deepening and Sue is starting to have doubts about the plan. There is an attraction between the two women that was unexpected, but is there anyway to back out of the plan or is it too late? There is something hypnotic about this book. It is a long read, but unlike the Victorian novels it emulates, it didn’t feel long-winded or become boring. I was engaged at every point of the story, absolutely fascinated with the twists and turns of the plot and never quite sure who is telling the truth. I was desperate to find out who has really been conned in the end. This is one book where BBC adaptation is very good too, with great casting and a definite feel of the book.
However, the novel is perfection. It’s a historical thriller, told through unexpected heroines and delving into the more deviant side of Victorian life: pornography, pick-pocketing, theft, fraud, confidence tricksters, and baby selling. Not to mention the lesbian aspects of the storyline that would have been unthinkable in fiction of the time. In fact I clearly remember a tutor at university telling me that all the focus on deviant sexual behaviour was focused on gay men and prostitution – intimating that the thought of two women having a relationship was so taboo that it didn’t even exist in most Victorian minds. I loved that we were seeing a totally different section of Victorian society and it had a voice. There is a feel of Dickens in the poverty and living conditions, and of course he had his own wife detained in an asylum. However, there’s none of that Victorian moralising that comes with fiction of the period. This is the underclass speaking for itself and the character of Maud’s Uncle hits home the idea that even the middle classes were not necessarily as respectable and God-fearing as they seemed. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction whether in the form of historical novels or of the period. It’s also a great thriller with enough double-crossing and revelations to keep any reader satisfied. This really is Sarah Waters at the height of her writing powers and should be on your TBR list immediately.
Meet The Author.
Sarah Waters OBE, was born in Wales. She is the author of six novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, which have been adapted for stage, television and feature film in the UK and US. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and she has won the Betty Trask Award; the Somerset Maugham Award; The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger. Sarah has been named Author of the Year four times: by the British Book Awards, the Booksellers’ Association, Waterstones Booksellers; Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade in 2015; Diva Magazine Author of the Year Award and The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2017, which is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work. Sarah was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sarah Waters lives in London.