“Sarah Thornhill” by Kate Grenville – when life takes on different shapes viewed from different angles

Sarah Thornhill by [Kate Grenville]

A sequel to the prize-winning bestseller “The Secret River”, this can be read as a stand alone novel. Sarah Thornhill is a bright, shrewd  and spirited girl, but illiterate since no one sees any need for a girl to be able to read and write in C19  rural New South Wales.  Her father is an emancipist,  a euphemism in this case for a freed convict, who has worked hard and gained wealth and status through land, although at what price remains a guilty secret which would blight his descendants’ conscience and peace of mind once revealed.  The widow of a respectable soldier, Sarah’s step-mother is dedicated to drumming genteel ways into her husband and the children she has taken on.  All hell breaks loose when Sarah’s intention of marrying Jack Langland becomes known. Although  the  son of a well-off neighbour, he is unacceptable as a husband because his mother was a native girl, exploited at a time when  few European women were available.

Using Sarah as a narrator, Kate Grenville provides a vivid visual portrayal of  the Australian outback as it was first settled by Europeans, up to the sharp range of mountains marking “the Limit of Location”.  Daily life was underlain by the tensions, injustice  and casual brutality which resulted from the contact between white men in search of land assumed to be free for the taking, and aborigines with attitudes and  customs which incomers discounted or despised, their innate prejudice for the most part blinding them to the possible interest or  value of anything that was simply different.

The author spins a good yarn, dry wit mixed with poignancy, but the climax of the tale seems too implausible in some respects, contrived to serve a particular purpose and make points which the reader may find it hard to accept. Yet on reflection,  Kate Grenville has succeeded in producing some thought-provoking insights: the children of settlers may never feel that they truly belong to any country; those  who have profited unwittingly  from their parents’ exploitation of a native population may be driven to extreme measures to assuage their guilt.  Charitable gifts are insufficient – the only way fully to understand and empathise with  another culture is to experience it firsthand, in the process learning how it feels to be alien in one’s own.

“The Girl who Died” by Ragnar Jonasson: marmite effect of Scandi supernatural crime noir

The Girl Who Died: The Sunday Times bestseller that will take you to the edge of the world by [Þ. Ragnar Jónasson]

Having enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson’s “Dark Iceland” series of psychological crime thrillers for their strong sense of place, plot twists and well-developed characters, I was somewhat disappointed by this stand alone novel.

Written in a rather wooden, clichéd style, which may be due to the translation, the frequent intrusion of creepy menace seems rather heavy-handed, alternating with slow-paced, generally rather dull scenes which admittedly reflect daily life in a tiny, inward-looking isolated coastal community.

This is where Una, “a Reykjavik girl through and through” decides to spend a year teaching the only two children in the fishing village, rather implausibly without first visiting the place to experience just how eerily quiet it is, checking out the ten inhabitants or being “vetted” in person herself. It also appears unlikely that she would previously have given up her training to be a doctor for supply teaching, although it is suggested from the outset that she has been traumatised by some previous event which remains tantalisingly unexplained until near the end.

The author employs the usual devices: the prologue to provide a “hook” of chilling suspense (which proves to be a chapter repeated later on); a sinister apparently unconnected sub-plot interwoven in short chapters written in italics with the main storyline. There is a difference from the author’s previous novels in the strong suggestion of the supernatural, although this could always be attributed to Una taking too much refuge in red wine or simply being mentally disturbed. After a final ingenious and poignant twist, the ending may seem weak and rushed, but leaving the situation, “what happens next”, open to interpretation may in fact prove more satisfying for many readers.

On reflection, there are the ingredients here for a novel as outstanding as it is falsely hyped to be, but it feels dashed off too quickly, perhaps to meet a deadline.

“Blank Pages” by Bernard MacLaverty: made up truth

In this collection of twelve short stories mostly set in Northern Ireland, the author’s consistently clear, spare style provides vivid images of the daily experiences, actions and trains of thought of mainly ordinary people leading unremarkable lives. If there is a common thread, it is their stoical acceptance of fate in whatever form –age, bereavement, loneliness, or the turmoil of the Troubles. Otherwise decent and caring people hold unconscious prejudices of religion, Protestant versus Catholic, or racism, such as against black American soldiers in Belfast during the 1940s.

So far, so banal and bleak,  only slightly relieved by a tendency to end on an upbeat note.   What makes the writing so  compelling is the anticipation –   precisely when or even whether  Bernard MacLaverty may choose to introduce some dramatic event or unexpected twist,  some sharp insight or striking image.  “A Love Picture” not only describes a type of film but also portrays Gracie’s memories of her son, whose fears of being torpedoed at sea have come to pass. The sight of his bicycle in the hall prompts the image of him as he once “walked beside her down the street – steering his bike from the back by simply holding the saddle”.  What is the mysterious urgent “night work” which cleaner Lily has to carry out on behalf of a sculptor? This is just one of the stories taking a quirkily original course, as is also the case with “Blank Pages”,  which contrives to reveal a great deal about human relations through Frank driven by writer’s block to lay out sheets of white paper on the carpet, and the behaviour of a well-observed cat.

Some stories may appeal more if they mirror one’s own life, as in “Glasshouses” where an elderly man lost in his own thoughts suffers the sudden panic of finding that the two grandchildren in his care have disappeared, or the employee whose business meeting finishes unexpectedly early uses the time  gained to visit his mother’s care home,  an indication of his sense of guilt.

Yet perhaps Bernard MacLaverty’s skill lies in enabling readers to connect with situations they have not experienced first-hand.  Is it necessary to have  seen patterns on the frozen windowpane as a child to be struck by the “cold sandpaper roughness” of frost “which had covered the inside of the glass with feathers”? Also, the image of the artist Egon Schiele, traumatised by grief yet relentless in his need to paint his wife who has just died from the Spanish flu, chimes with one’s own recent experience of the effects of the Covid pandemic.

For my part, perhaps the most effective story is “Sounds and Sweet Airs”, where a superficially mundane account of an elderly couple making a ferry crossing  in rough weather between Ireland and Scotland   impressed me through both  its construction and mix of  character development, insights,  and poignancy laced with humour. “Blackthorns” is also recommended,  but other  readers will be drawn for different reasons to other stories in this varied collection.

“La Belle Créole” by Maryse Condé or “The Belle Créole”: No escape?

La Belle Créole (French Edition) by [Maryse Condé]

Set on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officially an overseas department of mainland France, but with the legacy of past colonial exploitation, and ongoing tensions between former slaves and the descendants of their economic masters, the White Créoles or “békés”, the action takes place in the 1990s. This is a period of particular unrest: demands for independence from France, union-led strikes cause power cuts, mountains of waste fester uncollected, and ferocious packs of wild dogs terrorise the streets, while the rich rely on fierce hounds to protect their villas from thieves.

The novel opens with the unexpected acquittal of Dieudonné, a young black gardener charged with the murder of his middle-aged, wealthy, white employer Loraine. Since it appears unquestionable that he killed her, and he unfortunately shares a name with an infamous real-life French comedian, the reader may feel uneasy about sympathising with him. In this highly publicised case, Dieudonné is recognised wherever he goes, and opinion is divided, with some of his own relatives reluctant to give him shelter.


Covering the twenty-four hours after his release, Maryse Condé gradually reveals the circumstances of his crime, together with details of the past which shaped him. Perhaps it was the love and care for his mother Marine, crippled by an accident, which led him, after her death, to transfer his affections to Lorraine. A once beautiful woman, ambitions thwarted by poverty, Marine grew embittered after her abandonment by the wealthy man who has never lifted a finger to help their son Dieudonné. He was given a brief taste of “the good life” when the Cohens, a family visiting from abroad, took a fancy to him, taking him on trips aboard their boat, “La Belle Créole”, even letting him steer, until all contact abruptly ceased after their return home. The boat is left to rot in the marina, a refuge for Dieudonné’s criminal friends or his eccentric mentor, the penniless poet Boris – one of the novel’s larger than life characters.

The novel is peppered with Créole words which are explained in a glossary at the end of the English translation, but unfortunately not in the original French version. It is well worth making the effort to look these up in order to appreciate the book fully.

Apart from his acquittal, a series of unfortunate coincidences seem to dog Dieudonné. Yet he also makes a frustrating anti-hero in that, partly through being so damaged by life, he seems incapable of pursuing opportunities when they arise. The snare of his obsession with Loraine, his plight of how to deal with an unexpected freedom when he has lost the one person he loves, weave the at times wearisome thread binding this novel together.

Beneath this lies what is for me the essence of the novel: the vivid portrayal of Guadeloupe, with its strong sense of place combines with the searing parody of a range of often exaggerated characters to raise our understanding of life there and arouse sympathy for those like Dieudonné whose existence has been blighted by circumstance.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi: sins of the fathers

Homegoing by [Yaa Gyasi]

Maame, an c18 tribeswoman in  what is now Ghana, has two daughters who are fated never to meet and to lead very different lives. Beautiful Effia, born of a casual relationship,  is drawn into a bigamous marriage with the white governor  of Cape Coast Castle, the notorious British slave-trading post on the Gold Coast, although she may never fully realise this. She is cut off from her roots, but lives a life of relative ease. Fathered by  a respected warrior,  Esi’s carefree life is shattered when her village is destroyed in an act of vengeance by an enemy tribe and she is  captured to be sold into slavery at the selfsame castle.

The novel traces the two lines of descent through seven generations, focusing in turn on a specific character in each chapter in order to show many aspects of the longterm effects of slavery up to the present day when Marjorie and Marcus, raised in the United States, educated and free,  are still irrevocably affected by past events, while  remaining unaware that they are in fact related.

We see how a privileged half-caste man, like Effia’s son, and his son in turn, can never truly feel that he belongs to either race. The  warring tribes of the Ashanti Empire are complicit in the slave trade: whichever one holds the upper hand sells the defeated enemy to the white men. Transported to the plantations of the Southern states, enslaved Africans are beaten into submission. If  captured, those who attempt to escape to the North are returned to their master for brutal punishment, even publicly killed to serve as an example. For Esi’s daughter Ness, the only defence is the loss of ability to feel emotion.  African Americans living in the northern states, regardless of whether “runaways” or “born free” risk  being kidnapped and transported to a slavery they have never known.  Even post the Civil War, they face   arbitrary arrest as a source of cheap labour in the mines. And so it goes on, until an angry young man who feels alien in the white areas just beyond Harlem may ease his pain with heroin, or a bright black girl, with educated parents, cannot go to the school prom with the white boy she fancies, because he has been advised by the teachers that “it would not be appropriate”.

To make its point, the novel condenses so much brutality, injustice and bad luck into a  few lives that it is at times unbearable, although leavened with a strand of sentimentality   that one feels uneasy about criticising, just as one hesitates to find fault with the style because of the grim reality of the essential facts .  The thread of magic realism – Maame portrayed as a fire woman, inhabiting the dreams of her descendants,  and the talismanic  black stone veined in gold passed down through Effia’s line,  may seem too contrived, although superstition,  even fatalism, are clearly important influences. It is often hard to engage with a main character who may seem two-dimensional in the few pages of being the main focus of attention,  which one knows will end either in a cliffhanger or drift away inconclusively. I began each  new chapter feeling irritated at being jolted into a new  situation, and distracted by  the need to discover the fate of the previous set of characters. Perhaps the book would have been better  written as a series of short stories, each with a  clear narrative arc.

The historical facts are too often disjointed and unclear,  perhaps understandably so from the viewpoint of the characters, but sometimes confusing for the reader. Although I appreciate Zadie Smith’s  comment, “Homegoing  is a novel I wish I could have read when I was a young woman”, and it is all a matter of taste,  I would have preferred to read a well-written history of this complex, appalling yet fascinating subject, about which there is something for everyone to learn.

“La Révolte” or “The Revolt” by Clara Dupont-Monod: like father, like son or sons and mothers?

Prized for her beauty and prosperous lands, Eleanor of Aquitaine showed remarkable independence for the C12, divorcing the pious King Louis of France, to marry only a few weeks later the virile and dynamic Henry 11 of England, eleven years her junior. This relationship proved stormy: infuriated by Henry’s brutal tyranny over the nobles of Aquitaine and humiliated by his public affair with the much younger, “fair” Rosamond Clifford, Eleanor incited her three eldest sons to lead a revolt against their father. This was only the first in a series of tortuous struggles in this dysfunctional family, which we know are doomed to end badly since the youngest child is of course destined to become King John of Magna Carta fame.

The tale is mostly narrated by Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart. Clara Dupont-Monod’s poetic prose can be quite powerful, as in the description of the perilous crossing of the Channel to England which Henry insisted on making during a violent tempest, with a seven months’ pregnant Eleanor and her ailing infant son in the hold, pitched and tossed in a pool of seawater mixed with wine the broken barrels rolling around them. Another vivid description is Richard’s siege of the great fortress at Acre, where the catapults alternate a barrage of stones with the putrid carcasses of cattle and horses, which must land inside the walls in order to trigger an epidemic.

Yet I often felt unengaged in the narrative, largely because the focus on describing past events reduces the dramatic tension. It is so disjointed and sketchy in places that it seems essential to have some prior knowledge of the background history. Yet this creates the problem that Eleanor is not as one expects. Although clearly clever and highly educated for a woman, with her retinue of admiring troubadours, she is portrayed as cool and controlled, concerned about her children but showing them no affection (except grief for the first-born she lost), manipulating her sons to perform the acts she cannot, as a woman, carry out herself.

The Revolt by [Clara Dupont-Monod, Ruth Diver]

The lack of dialogue also distances the reader from the characters. Their rare speech tends to take the form of contrived monologues. When the new young French king Philippe offers Richard his support and soldiers to fight Henry, “Plantagenet”, yet again, it takes up more than two pages. Only near the end is there a touch of dramatic menace to imply Philippe’s dubious motives, “Look, here’s my falcon. His beak is red.”

In many ways this novel is more about Richard the Lionheart than his mother Eleanor. His acts of brutality in war, excessive even by the standards of the day; the violent rages to match those of his father; his complex relationship with his mother, in which even his wife clearly takes second place, all combine to form what could be an intriguing, if inevitably speculative psychological study, but in this, the book falls short.

I have at least been left with a strong interest in finding out more about the characters and events described, and the impressive crusader castles in the Middle East at least some of which hopefully still exist.

“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo: cracking eggs or making omelettes?

Girl, Woman, Other: WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019 by [Bernardine Evaristo]

The daughter of a political refugee from Ghana who “ended up working on the railways in London” where he met her “half-caste” mother, Amma is anticipating the opening at the National of her play “The Last Amazon of Dahomey”, unbelievable success after its years of rejection. She is a middle-aged, black, promiscuous lesbian, who has mellowed somewhat from her youthful habit of heckling shows that “offended her political sensibilities”.

This gives a flavour of the twelve characters born female, each given a section in turn to portray her or “their” inner thoughts and experiences. They are all black, or of mixed race to some degree, all have suffered as the children of immigrants or through some childhood trauma, yet managed eventually to achieve professionally, materially, or to find emotional fulfilment. So this proves an unexpectedly upbeat read, with a “feel-good” ending for most of them. They are all clearly linked in groups of three, more tenuously overall, as blood relatives, friends or acquaintances. One of the most interesting aspects is how they perceive each other. Any loose ends to explain the connections between them are brought together at the end in the device of “the after party” to celebrate Amma’s success, with an epilogue to accommodate the two who could not attend.

Frenetically packed with often quirky detail, the narrative is surprisingly easy to read, given the lack of standard punctuation, until one notes how it is artfully contrived in the use of whole phrases, commas, short paragraphs and lots of white space to carry the reader along. This gives a vigour and energy to the prose, at the cost of seeming at times too gimmicky and glib.

In the same way, sharp insights and moving moments crop up frequently, but embedded in references to a horde of characters, often stereotyped to the point of caricature and parody, so numerous that it may be hard to keep track of them, or to know whether this is necessary since they may never reappear.
An ambitious novel with a “marmite effect”, this is a book with no plot, more an accumulation of impressions to deepen an understand of the life of women of colour, or perhaps give them an inspiring book to which to relate. Is this a work of literature meriting its Booker Prize win? Is it more likely to appeal to younger women? What do male readers really think of it, since men tend to receive rather dismissive treatment? I cannot answer any of these questions.

I avoided reading this until it became my book group’s choice, since I rightly feared an excess of strident pontification. However, examples of this – as when Amma and her friend Dominique somehow manage to launch into feminist topics at the end of a long party night involving drugs and booze – are offset by wry humour, self-parody and some unexpectedly nuanced arguments. So when Dominique’s new love Nzinga recalls sobbing over the four hundred years of slavery which the white man has a lot to answer for, she refrains from replying “that the African man had also sold Africans into slavery so it was a lot more complex than that.”

It feels about a hundred pages too long, my interest flagging over the rather pedestrian final sections set in rural Northumberland decades ago, perhaps because (apologies if I am wrong) the author has no real familiarity or rapport with this setting, but needed to show how people from very different environments may be linked.

Although I found it slick creative writing rather than profound (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe comes to mind) this novel certainly has the power to provoke discussion.

“Les Choses Humaines” by Karine Tuil – What price justice?

Much of this novel resembles a soap opera, with a cast of somewhat stereotyped characters in a formulaic world of the Paris media. Jean Farel is a celebrity TV presenter, a charismatic Rottweiler of an interviewer who entertains the public with his fearless attacks on famous politicians, yet behind his façade lies a terror of ageing and enforced retirement. To preserve his image, the separation from his much-younger high-flying journalist wife Claire has been concealed. Her new love is a Jewish teacher who has been fired from his job at a strictly orthodox school because of this affair. Meanwhile, Jean and Claire have failed to take on board the degree to which their academically brilliant son Alexandre has been emotionally damaged by his upbringing.

The plot is punctuated with reference to real-life sexual scandals, beginning with the “hook” of the Monica Lewinsky affair while Claire was supposedly employed as an intern at the White House although this may mean little to readers too young to remember the Clinton presidency. Would-be French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career-destroying encounter with a hotel maid, and the attacks on young women in Cologne, supposedly by young muslim men recently given sanctuary there under Merkel’s controversial acceptance of a million refugees, underpin the theme of how men tend to exploit and abuse women, at what cost, and how society should respond.

I never grasped the relevance of the short prologue which describes the process of preparing to shoot a gun, which seems to take too far the technique of trying to “hook” the reader from the outset. Beginning Chapter 1 with some rather overblown scene-setting descriptions delivered via indigestibly overlong sentences, the drama builds gradually with a string of cliffhangers, some strong dialogues, and moments of black farce. It culminates in a court case, sensationalised by the media, over what appears to be a serious sexual crime, in which the person in the dock turns out to be not the only one on trial. Right to the last page, it paints a somewhat bleak and cynical picture of western society – at least in middle-class Paris and New York.

At times, some quite profound reflections on, for instance, the definition of rape, the penalties which should be imposed for it, and changing attitudes, as with the impact of recent movements like #MeToo and #Balance ton porc, rise up through the plot twists of a steamy soap designed to entertain. The most powerful, even moving, chapters are those where the prosecuting and defence lawyers sum up their respective cases.

I suspect that this novel may fall between more than two stools by offending some feminists on one hand, those who find some details too sordid on another, and also disappointing readers who judge the disconnection between spiced-up satire and insightful analysis too great. Although this novel did not entirely work for me, apart from providing some useful practice in reading French, it did prompt me to reexamine my own gut feelings and prejudices.

“The Nest” : failure of optimism

The Nest - DVD

Rory O’Hara, a successful British commodity trader,  is lured back to London from New York by the opportunities to make yet more money which he is convinced will  arise from the deregulation of the UK financial markets in the 1980s. Is a modern audience more disturbed by his wife’s incessant smoking, or by his cavalier chauvinism in expecting her to give up her riding school job, not to mention the disruption to the lives of their two children?

We gradually realise that charming, fast-talking Rory is putting on an act to persuade would-be clients. Out of his depth trying to negotiate business mergers,  relying too heavily on income he has yet to receive, his spending is out of control: renting a vast, dark and frankly creepy country house; getting a riding school built for his wife; sending his son to a posh school without noticing how he is being bullied there, and so on.

He is slow to grasp that  financial deregulation does not mean the  freeing up  of class-ridden British society, which perhaps he has half-forgotten after his years in the more informal States where it is simply money that counts.  The source of his driven personality becomes clearer when he pays a visit to the mother he hasn’t seen for years and we understand that he comes from an impoverished background, brought up in a rundown council flat.

Operating on different levels, this film is hard to judge, with often disjointed scenes: one minute it is a comedy, with Rory’s wife puncturing his phoney  spiel at a business dinner; at another, it is a horror film in the dark, possibly haunted house; camera work at odd angles with some striking images make it an art film, and so on.  The acting is generally good and if Jude Law sometimes seem to be overdoing it, that is part of his image, and his problem. Overall, there are some powerful or moving scenes, so that if the film does not quite work, it is due to the way they are linked.

“The Survivors” by Jane Harper: contriving to deceive

The Survivors: Small Town. Dark Secrets . . . by [Jane Harper]

When Kieran Elliot returns from Sydney with his partner Mia and infant daughter Audrey to his hometown, the small Tasmanian coastal town of Evelyn Bay, he has good reason to feel apprehensive. His father’s premature dementia has become so bad that his parents are moving house so that he can go into a care home, and Kieran expects to meet with some hostility, since local people have not forgotten the disaster for which he was responsible a decade earlier. The situation worsens when a murder victim is found on the shore near his parent’s home, and the local social network is filled with speculation and blame as the crime seems to have links with the earlier tragedy.

Having admired Jane Harper’s earlier books, “The Dry” and “The Lost Man” for their original plots, well-developed characters and striking sense of place, namely the Australian outback, I had high expectations for “The Survivors”. Despite the steady trickle of revelations that all may not be as it first seems, the succession of “red herrings”, and a sensitive portrayal of guilt, grief and blame, I was left somewhat disappointed. The characters tend to be two-dimensional: Kieran’s partner Mia is too good to be true, and the young male characters merge in one’s mind. The contrived plot proves rather thin, padded out with some dull, repetitive scenes which miss the opportunity to develop potentially interesting themes. The final denouement, which has to be explained by the “villain” is tortuously unsatisfactory.

I agree with reviewers who suspect the author may have been committed to a publisher’s deadline, so that more work on the construction and style, which would have made it a much better novel, was sacrificed.