“Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan – Taking the consequences

Set in the Irish town of New Ross on the River Barrow in County Wexford, this novella is set in the run up to Christmas 1985, when the economy was drifting into recession, and “the times were raw”.  The viewpoint is that of Bill Furlong, a moderately successful coal merchant and a hardworking, decent man who treats his employees well, and devotes his little free time to his possibly even more industrious wife and five daughters.  He lives in a hidebound community, where conformity is maintained by the desire to avoid being the subject of the rampant grapevine of gossip, but even more by the fear of falling foul of the Catholic hierarchy of the local convent and church.

The crystal clear, plain prose leavened with a lyrical, quirky Irish turn of phrase (a puchaun being a male goat) reveals a remarkable amount in little more than a hundred pages.  In the course of describing Furlong’s somewhat dull routine, we learn not only about the situation and values of his society, but also, through flashbacks, the details of a childhood which has invisibly set him apart and marked him for life. His mother was an unmarried domestic servant whose widowed Protestant employer, Mrs Wilson, kept retained her despite her pregnancy, ensuring that Furlong was supported sufficiently to have a chance of succeeding in life.

So when in the course of delivering coals to the convent he is confronted with positive evidence of the abuse suffered by the unmarried mothers employed at the laundry there, the moral dilemma he faces is harder for him to accept than for his pragmatic wife. At one point, she justifies the widespread philosophy of not looking after those in trouble who are “not one of ours”, by stating that Mrs Wilson was only able to choose to help his mother because she was  “one of the few women on this earth who could (afford to) do as she pleased”.

Most novels involve dramas of pain, suffering, danger, and so on, which are generally resolved with an at least partly happy ending.  Here, the build-up of tension, the sense of menace and risk is subtle, leading to Furlong’s final moral choice which forms the novella’s climax.  Yet at first, I felt a little cheated by the abrupt, inconclusive ending, even thinking that the author had evaded the challenging task of writing about what happens next. On reflection, I decided that being left to speculate was effective, giving space to consider whether Furlong was right to take his decisive, unplanned action, what its implications both immediate and long-term might be, and how much he and others might suffer from his good intentions.

So, a novel attempt to explore an issue which has shamed both the Catholic church and the Irish government subtly both inspire us to take a stand against injustice and helps us to understand why so many of us decide not to do so.

The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles: “A Novel Approach”

In 1955, former composer turned writer Paul Bowles published “The Spider’s House”, intended to be a record of daily life in the Moroccan city of Fez, a medieval throwback operating in the C20 world. The extreme unrest which broke out at the time, as French colonial rule was attacked by Istiqlal, the independence movement, whose leaders in fact wanted to modernise the country themselves, transformed the book into what he regarded as the political novel he had not meant to write. It struck me as more of an exploration of contrasting, clashing cultures, observed through the eyes of two very different individuals whose paths eventually cross by chance.

Stenham is a cynical, sophisticated, rootless American expat author, apparently modelled on Bowles himself, who has mastered Arabic and acquired a deep knowledge of traditional Moroccan life. He realises that, whoever wins, Fez will be destroyed beyond recognition, but has the further telling insight that “It did not really matter whether they worshipped Allah or carburettors… He would have liked to preserve the status quo because the décor that went with it suited his personal taste”.

On the other hand, the Arab viewpoint is conveyed through Amar, an intelligent and resourceful young Moroccan, the illiterate son of a healer who has allowed him to skip school and indoctrinated him with the traditional teaching of Allah, so that he accepts Fate, and is easily shocked and perplexed by western social habits. So he would have understood at once the quotation from the Koran which gave the book its title:

“The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider’s house, if they but knew.”

This novel is remarkable for its vivid descriptions of Fez, enabling one to experience walking through the ancient city, and to visualise the surrounding landscape: “…wandering through the Medina at night was very much like being blindfolded…. He knew just how each section of a familiar way sounded when he walked it alone at night….. The footsteps had an infinite variety of sound.…..the water was the same, following its countless courses behind the partitions of earth and stone….”.

Streets of Fez or Fes Medina - Souks Stock Photo - Image of prayer,  lantern: 135258934

Bowles also has the ability to capture the fleeting thoughts of his main characters, a particular achievement in the case of Amar. However, the tourist Polly Burroughs, who trots out the simplistic view of Moroccans as being entitled to rebel in order to live like westerners, is portrayed in a stereotyped, even sexist way, perhaps reflecting attitudes to women when the novel was written.Despite moments of high tension, the meandering plot has probably driven away many readers. Digressions into apparently minor scenes last for pages, major incidents may only be implied. It is too frequently unclear who some characters are and exactly what is happening – rather like real life. Yet the hypnotic power of the prose, the continual insights, kept me reading and thinking. I doubt whether I have ever taken so long to read a 400 page novel, because Bowles forces one to focus on his words and reflect on them. So if the book had been edited more ruthlessly, would a vital quality have been sapped in the process?

I agree that some aspects of the plot are implausible, and I understand why even admirers of the novel find the end an unsatisfactory anticlimax. At first, I assumed that plot was unimportant to Bowles, but it could be argued that he drifted between events, with occasional bursts of action, to provide the flavour of what the experiences of life felt like to the characters. Also, the carefully constructed final scene, although superficially inconclusive, can be viewed as a very powerful final comment on the attitudes and relationships between the main players.

This deserves to be regarded as a classic, and to be read slowly, possibly more than once – if one has the time.

On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne – knowing where to draw the line

“If you want to know how you’ve done in life, tell your eighteen-year-old self in the mirror whether you have disappointed him or lived up to his expectations”.

For much of this novel, narrator Adrian Gyle clearly falls into the former category. After years spent in Hong Kong chasing trivial news stories, he appears cynical, unattached, often too hungover to pursue a lead as he drifts towards the inevitable point when his editor’s patience finally snaps.

It was not always so. In his youth, feeling socially out of place at Cambridge, he made an unlikely friendship with another outsider from a very different background: Jimmy Tang, son of a vastly wealthy Hong Kong business family, who inspired him to share the challenge of translating classical Chinese poetry into English.

Following the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, life has changed abruptly, as the new authoritarian regime sets about dismantling democracy, sparking increasingly violent street battles as the police crack down on student demonstrators. One of these is Rebecca To, Jimmy Tang’s latest extra-marital lover, whose activities create the threat of reprisals from those in power against both her own wealthy family and his.

So this forms the basis for a topical thriller with a strong sense of place, Lawrence Osborne being a travel writer as well as a novelist. Yet it may disappoint those expecting suspense and action, since the most dramatic incidents tend to occur offstage, fail to materialise or leave the reader uncertain as to whether a particular crime has actually been committed at all. The author seems more interested in the dynamics of a long friendship between two very different men linked by a few common interests and shared memories. His aim is to explore the varied moral positions that individuals or groups take to particular issues and situations.

Having been very impressed by a recent reading of “The Forgiven”, I did not find the descriptions of Hong Kong as striking as those of Morocco, but maybe the latter simply lends itself to this. Perhaps years spent as a “nomad” observing people in different countries accounts for the distance which the author creates between us and his characters, so that one does not care too much about them. This mattered for me in the case of Jimmy Tang and Rebecca To who seem quite thinly developed. The “inverted” nature of this novel results in, for instance, Jimmy’s long-suffering wife and Rebecca’s father appearing more authentic despite being minor characters. The focus on a few exceptionally wealthy, good-looking people, with no opportunity missed to display a knowledge of fine wine gave the serious theme a shallow quality. Admittedly, the dilemma facing influential Hong Kong Chinese who have a lot to lose if they risk dissent needs to be understood.

Displaying the bones of an excellent novel, I was left disappointed when the plot slips away to a bland conclusion.

Les Possibles by Virginie Grimaldi: French hen lit

When a carelessly discarded cigarette end sets fire to his home, Jean takes it for granted that his daughter Juliane will take him in indefinitely. Her stolid husband Gaëtan tolerates the situation, five-year-old Charlie is delighted by his grandfather’s childlike antics, but Juliane is exasperated by the often implausibly eccentric and inconsiderate behaviour which in the past drove her mother to divorce Jean.

It is only when he begins to show signs of dementia, likely to advance rapidly, that Juliane begins to appreciate Jean’s zest for life, and freedom from the constraints of caring what other people think. With her own lack of self esteem, she could benefit by learning from this. So she can laugh nostalgically with her sister of the time when, to slay a child’s nightmares, he vanquished an imaginary dragon in the downstairs loo with the aid of the garden hose.

Largely “rave reviews” from readers extol this novel’s humour and “feel good” factor, while the darker aspects are airbrushed. So the last chapter (in the original French), «Stairway to Heaven» – Led Zeppelin, is a clear reference to the inevitable outcome, but Jean’s last days are completely glossed over. This milking of a potentially moving situation, with its focus on sentimentality and denial of painful reality seems superficial, even dishonest.

Published in 2015, French author Virginie Grimaldi’s first novel was an instant bestseller and by 2022 she had produced eight more, heading up the list of “the most read” novelists in France. Reading “Les Possibles” for a French book group, I gained some useful vocabulary, but the novel seems quite formulaic: eighty-two short chapters, often barely three pages in length; a string of incidents padded out with “tick box” modern issues to which readers can relate – narrator’s eating disorder, dysphasic son (who displays little evidence of this) lesbian sister and so on. The final chapters which focus on a US road trip along Route 66 are each titled with the gimmick of the name of a pop song in English, linked to the story line, such as «Little Girl Blue» – Janis Joplin, a cue for the sisters’ shared recollections of Jean from their childhood.

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne: “La Bess” – “No evil” in the land of the outraged jinns

Drunk and bickering with his wife Jo,  English doctor David Henniger drives too fast on an unfamiliar road through the Moroccan desert, already late for an obscenely extravagant weekend house party thrown by a gay couple, Richard and Dally,  who have created an exotic paradise in an isolated oasis. This tense, engrossing tale reveals the aftermath of the fatal accident for which David appears to be responsible.  It  grips us with the remarkably vivid and original descriptions of  the landscape and “sense of place”, since the novelist is also  a  nomadic travel writer, which may account for the  acute, dispassionate observer’s eye which he casts on a group of generally quite unlikeable characters, although he tends to supply extenuating circumstances or redeeming features for the most flawed.

He also portrays the cultural gap between the local people and the wealthy,  hedonistic expats and visitors from Europe and the States. The former scrape a harsh living, extracting fossils from the rich supplies for which the country is famous. They  still use child labour, since, suspended on ropes, only small bodies can squeeze into the small caves in the cliffs where some of the best fossils can be found for sale at exorbitant prices. The native Moroccans are appalled by the infidels’  godless ways,  their drinking, “distasteful sexual habits” and “profligate” expenditure, but admire their wealth and rely on them to provide employment and purchase their trilobites at inflated prices.

In turn, the Westerners may admire the beauty of the young servant boys, but generally  ignore the Moroccans, despising their  apparent ignorance and  abject poverty. They are more interested in the country as a place to indulge in hedonistic pleasure, free from censure and  constraint: to become stoned on kif every night, while served “stemmed glasses with a pricked peach in each one submerged in champagne”. If their excessive consumption becomes repetitive to the point of tedium, that would appear to be the author’s intention.

Almost everyone, either side of the cultural divide, is distanced from the reader by a marked lack of natural, spontaneous emotion.  This may be explained by past misfortune or disappointment, harsh treatment,  or  the insulating effect of  an inflated sense of entitlement.

An intriguing character is Hamid, the indispensable factotum who has “insinuated” himself into the lives of the gay couple “with a subtle intuition of the ways of rich foreigners…an awareness of how to deal with men who have known little hardship”. He rises to the occasion in a major crisis, giving practical help  (“It is the police. I will put away the drinks”), but enjoying their helplessness and evident fear of Moroccans, despite not fully realising “how little liked they were by the indigènes”.  Filled with “disengaged fatalism” Hamid draws on his vast store of quirky native proverbs: “Piece by piece the camel enters the couscous”.

Minor characters often prove more insightful than the Hennigers who seem passive victims of circumstance. Take the American guest Day:  the glamorous young giraffe-like girls from his own country “made him remember that he was almost old, in that phase of pre-oldness that was curiously more alive than the preceding stages, but alive because it was ending”.

Lawrence Osborne has been called “A Modern Graham Greene”, compared to Paul Bowles of “The Sheltering Sky” fame, as well as  Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith  since he does not flinch from menace and defeat, although they are leavened by wry humour and irony. The ambition and complexity of this novel makes it more than a psychological thriller. The author is deeply concerned with issues of morality: guilt, acceptance of responsibility, retribution, making amends,  and forgiveness.  As he enters into the minds of a  wide range of characters, it is sometimes hard to know whether he is imagining their reactions, or expressing his own opinions on the state of the world.

The novel sometimes seems overlong, while the occasional  lapses in the quality of the style, a few typos and continuity errors ( the ice found at the bottom of a glass which had contained a drink served without it)  suggest a lack of editing. Too little effort was made to give an important plot development plausibility,  while  the ending left me dissatisfied, yet feeling it could not have concluded any other way. Yet over all, this is the work of a talented writer: many of the descriptions and observations repay reading more than once, and the story lingers in the mind, giving pause for reflection. I shall certainly read more of Lawrence Osborne’s work.

French Braid by Anne Tyler: “This is a story that never ends, Yes, it goes on and on my friends…”

Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, several books after her publicly stated intention to give up writing, is the saga of the Baltimore-based Garrett family, spanning four generations from 1959 to 2020 in the throes of the Covid pandemic.

With its focus on only eight specific situations or incidents over this period of time, this really seems more like a series of short stories, in which many significant events like a marriage or a death have to be inferred. The continual change in the point of view provides insights into how some characters perceive each other, but with many family members and friends being two-dimensional “extras”, so numerous that it is hard to keep up with them, I rarely felt emotionally engaged.

It is probably intentional that there are so many mundane details of ordinary daily life, from which Anne Tyler can conjure the farcical situations, by turns amusing or poignant, and the wry insights for which she has long been praised. US readers old enough to recognise and recall the cultural references from the 1950s may feel waves of nostalgia, although I had to look up Salk vaccine (developed in the US for polio) and just gloss over the Amercanisms. However, more so I think than with her earlier books, at times I found the banality and weight of descriptions, often expressed in a folksy style, unbearably tedious, and persevered to the end only to avoid missing some final “big reveal”, which would of course be very “untylerish”. In fact there are a couple of minor revelations at the end – to the characters concerned, if not to the reader.

The novel raises a few questions for discussion. After marrying too young, when Mercy Garrett’s children leave home, she feels free at last to pursue her desire to become an artist. Without formally separating from, or even divorcing her devoted husband Robin, she leaves him to go and live in a studio, but does so gradually, returning to cook the evening meal, or do the laundry, but never facing up to an open discussion about the situation. Accepting this as feasible, is this an act of courage or cowardice? Is it, as some readers believe, a belated assertion of feminist independence, or simply the act of a self-centred, calculating person?

Just as an undone French braid leaves “ripples” in the hair, “that’s how families work too,” as one character observes. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever”. This is patently clear, but hardly an original thought. The way families may “hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions”, both “little kindnesses” and “little cruelties” is a more interesting issue.

“Light Perpetual” by Francis Spufford: Making light of it?

In 1944, instead of flying four hundred yards further to land in a park and kill a few pigeons,  or even failing to launch at all, a German warhead  explodes in a branch  of Woolworths in the fictional London Borough of Bexford. Amongst those atomised are five  young children out shopping with their mothers as they stand transfixed by a rare delivery of gleaming saucepans.

Based on a real event, this situation prompts a remarkable opening chapter in which the author displays his verbal pyrotechnics to describe the action of the blast wave in the minute detail  which is a feature of his many subsequent flourishes of creative writing.

The remainder of the book plays out the lives which these five children might have led, captured at fifteen year intervals against the backdrop of the marked social changes in Britain up to 2009, when Alec, Vern, sisters Jo and Val and Ben are all pensioners.

Perhaps the novel will resonate most with those old enough to recall primary schools in the fifties, the battles between Mods and Rockers  in seaside resorts, the  rise of the teenager and pop culture, the use of new  computer technology to crush the power of  the printers holding newspaper owners to ransom with hot metal typesetting,  the channelling of white male insecurity into the violence  of fascist groups like the British Movement, the property boom, the financial crash of 2008, the transformation of urban areas into multicultural communities, and so on. Yet with limited space, the novel can only give a flavour of the massive changes of the second half of the C20.

Our awareness from the outset that the children’s lives are imagined, “what might have been”, should give a sense of poignancy, but in fact one soon forgets that this is  is the case. It even seems irrelevant, since it is so apparent that  random  chance, fate, force of circumstance, call it what you will, affect us all to such a degree, causing the lives of the five children to diverge so markedly, although ironically they all end up in the vicinity of Bexford.

The  mainly working class characters appear for the most part stereotyped. Greedy bully Vern grows up to cheat people to finance his property deals. Smart Alec, married and child-bound by his early twenties,  is too delighted by his skills, enthroned as “king and alchemist” of typesetting,  to grasp that the writing is on the wall – or rather on the computer screen. When he eventually finds a new role,  it is too late for him to achieve his full potential, and his gains are made at  considerable personal cost. Maybe as a result of being born too long before the “women’s liberation” of the 1970s,  sisters, Jo and Val, spend too much of their lives allowing themselves to be dominated by men with whom they are infatuated. Jo’s sudden sense, aged 70, that her whole life rests on accidents, that “surely her real life is waiting to happen” is a telling insight  on what many people must feel.

Although Francis Spufford has the skill to make watching paint dry interesting,  his trademark of shooting off on tangents of minutely detailed descriptions of a sensation or incident  may be great material for a master class in creating writing but can prove wearisome  –  overwritten and repetitive. Examples are a” matter of opinion, but I am thinking of obsessive Ben’s anxiety attack (involving “CHARRED RIBS) on a London bus while inappropriately employed as a bus conductor, or the description of Jo’s attempt to work on composing in her Californian apartment a piece of music, years in gestation,  to which her self-absorbed pop singer employer, some-time lover will never bother to listen and promote. The  full pathos of these two situations is  lost in the verbiage.

Despite proving entertaining overall,  by turns comic,  profoundly sad and philosophical,  this feels like a soap opera which could have included many other scenes en route, or continued until all the characters are  made to pass on at the age of 100.  The conclusion actually reached seems disappointingly woolly:

“Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align. Into a clockface of transparencies. The whole mess a rose, a window.”

Of course, one may feel that this links back, cleverly but contrived, to the bomb explosion at the beginning.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut: Four Funerals and no Weddings

In the final years of South African apartheid,  twelve-year-old Amor overhears her dying mother extract from her husband Manie Swarts a promise to give their faithful black servant  Salome the decrepit house she has occupied for years.

Over more than three decades, from the mid-1980s to 2018,  the failure to honour this promise, even when the excuse that it would be against the law for Salome to inherit the house no longer applies,  is a symbol of the blight that contributes to the family’s decline.

“The Promise” of the title can be construed in different ways. Amor’s  handsome, intelligent older brother Anton does not fulfil his youthful promise.  Has he never recovered from  the “wonder and despair” of the day in his  national service, when he shot  dead a  black female demonstrator as she stooped to pick up a stone,  and learned of his own mother’s death?  Does the tension between the ingrained prejudice of his Afrikaner upbringing and his awareness of the family’s untenable position seal his fate?  There is a parallel in  the failure of Salome’s son Lukas  to realise his potential,   because his anger over the injustice of their situation drives him to violent resistance.

The title could also refer to the betrayal of the hope sparked by the  end of apartheid,  by Mandela’s elevation from “a cell to a throne”, the vision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  and the growing  international acceptance of South Africa to the point of hosting and winning the 1995 World Cup. All too soon, corruption at the highest level  destroys respect for a black president and  and the growth of violent crime, forcing wealthy white families behind ever higher security fences,  undermines the progress to a better society.

Despite a plot focussed on the Swarts meeting up for four funerals over some three decades, the novel is less depressing and more entertaining than might be expected. Damon Galgut’s narration is for the most part a quirky black farce. For instance, having saved his daughter from a lightning strike, Manie repents of his former gambling and womanising,  only to fall under the spell of a manipulative local pastor. Manie not only gives him land for the “big, ugly…The First Assembly of the Revelation Church” but agrees to fundraise for it. He rashly trusts  that his faith will save him from a lethal bite when he  climbs into a glass case with a cobra from his own “Scaly City” reptile park,  a business venture to boost the  income from his family farm on the dry veldt.  

I can forgive the occasional flirting with magic realism or tendency to address the reader directly, because of the author’s skill in sustaining a quicksilver slide from the situation and inner thoughts of one character to the next,  requiring the reader to pay attention, for this is a novel that “shows” rather than “tells”.  No doubt it won the Booker Prize not only for its original style – a kind of C21 William Faulkner, with a wry humour – but also for the insights into human nature and the state of South Africa which continually break through the irony.

Take Amor’s return to the farm after a decade’s absence, most recently in England:

“Return feels more like a condition than an act, one for  which she’s in no way prepared. The suddenness of it…like a great white concussion, a sort of impact. Inevitable but also unbearable. She can’t sleep on the flight..How ordinary and how strange human life is. And how delicately poised. Your own end might lie just in front of you, under your feet…………”

Later, “the view from the taxi window is a bit amazing….South Africa is playing France later, and the pavements throb and throng with bodies. Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!”  Which, of course, it is.

“Des gens comme eux” (People like them) by Samira Sedira – “On est plus criminel quelquefois qu’on ne pense”.

In this short novel, based on a real-life shocking crime, Samira Sedira explores what could motivate “normal”, decent, mild-mannered Constant Guillot to murder five members of the Langlois family, recently moved to the fictional village of Carmac, a close-knit, insular community in rural France on the banks of the aptly named river, “La Trouble”.

The narrator, Constant’s wife Anna, begins with a lulling description of the peaceful, orderly way of life in Carmac, only to break the spell with a shocking reference to the carnage which erupted while unheeding neighbours tidied up after their evening meal. The succeeding chapters alternate between scenes of Constant’s trial, and flashbacks to reveal gradually the events leading up to the crime. These create a degree of sympathy for Constant, who has suffered some major setbacks of which the sharp practice of Bakary Langlois proves the last straw. However, acute resentment, a sense of injustice, and envy of the newcomers’ apparent wealth and flashy lifestyle provide scant mitigation for acts of such disproportionate violence. There is the suggestion that, as in real life, some of the antagonism towards Bakary was because he was black, but this theme is not developed.

There are some well-observed scenes: an awkward Christmas party to which Bakary invites his less prosperous neighbours, apparently having left it too late to arrange for his “old” friends to visit; the evening fun fair at Carmac where everyone is briefly brought together dancing to the old hit ABBA song “Dancing Queen”. Yet these do not shed much light on what led to the crime, and tend to reduce the dramatic tension.

The plot is quite disjointed, with the unsatisfactory omission of the major events, apart from Constant’s account of the murder, made all the more chilling by his dispassionate delivery at the trial. So we have to infer too much from what is implied as to, for instance, how Constant comes to be charged, how those who know him react, how Anna chooses to act when the trial was over, and so on.

Some telling insights emerge. Anna feels herself to be blamed as the wife of murderer almost as much as he is himself. She has failed to see her husband’s true evil nature in time to prevent his crime. After the event, she is criticised continually for her failure to act appropriately, for being too coldly lacking in sympathy or hysterically self-centred, too intrusively present or lacking the decency to show up when she should.

I was most struck by the observation at the end that none of those around Constant is innocent, “We all collaborated”. Perhaps it is the author’s intention to leave it to the reader to reflect on exactly what part each individual plays in triggering Constant’s violence. However, it seems a weakness that this was not more fully explored as the novel moves to its abrupt and rather weak and nebulous ending.

The idea that we are all more criminal than we think, even capable of a savage act if “pushed to the limit” may lie at the heart of this novel. However, it left me feeling somewhat unengaged and unconvinced. I was at least motivated to read about the rather different real life case of the fate of the Flactif family in Haute-Savoie in 2003, which proved quite intriguing.

Published in English as “People like them”

“The Fell” by Sarah Moss: “life to be lived, somehow”

Conceived and written during the first series of Covid lockdowns (assuming there could be more), this novel has the ring of authenticity which may be of interest to future generations, although do those who lived through this period need or wish to be reminded of it?

In a close-knit Peak District community, divorced mother Kate cracks under the prospect of fourteen days quarantine required because she has tested positive. Without telling her teenage son Matt, she grabs a rucksack and takes off over the fells. Those who spent months cooped up in tower blocks may have little sympathy, but perhaps the lure of lovely scenery just beyond the garden wall makes the sense of imprisonment even harder to bear. Kate’s breach of the rules is ironical, since before being furloughed from the local café, she was the only one who challenged customers who failed to wear their masks.

Events are revealed through the viewpoints of four characters: Kate, Matt, elderly well-to-do neighbour Alice, vulnerable owing to her recent cancer, and experienced volunteer rescuer Rob, whose dedication to a role he regards as more worthwhile than anything else has cost him his marriage, and provokes his daughter’s resentment.

There is clearly the potential for a page-turning build-up of tension with an unpredictable outcome. Will Alice, despite all the help Kate has given her, inform the police? Will an accident prevent Kate from returning without being caught out? Will she end up not only injured but liable for a fine she cannot afford to pay? What will be the impact on Matt? How ruthless is the author prepared to be?

The novel is remarkable in that each chapter sustains a stream of consciousness from beginning to end. This tends to seem contrived, particularly when it extends to a raven which becomes the uncomfortable, truth-telling facet of Sarah’s flagging thoughts. It is realistic to portray the mind as focusing on quite mundane or irrelevant details in moments of stress, but they too often make repetitive and tedious reading, serving only to pad the tale out to novel-length.

There are some telling insights into social contact during Covid, such as Alice “having dinner” with her daughter’s family, which means sitting at a computer screen to watch each other eat- grandson Seb “appears briefly, dizzyingly, so close to the camera tht his nose and one eye fill the screen”. However, there is a missed opportunity to convey fully the sense of unreality punctuated with moments of fear during an unexpected pandemic. Unless one ended up in hospital on a ventilator, it was hard to believe most of the time that there really was a need to keep 2 metres apart, let alone sanitise every supermarket item before allowing it into the kitchen. This contrasted with the small hours when the most rational of people would wake convinced they could not breathe properly and were going to die.

I admired “Ghost Wall”, the first novel by Sarah Moss which I came across. It succeeds on all counts: plot, structure, dialogue, character development, description, humour and poignancy mixed with tension and menace. The more recent “The Fell”, even more so than the intervening “Summerwater”, seems more of an overworked series of exercises in creative writing. Knowing Sarah Moss to be a teacher of this subject, I am perhaps looking out too keenly for the techniques she is putting into practice. However, without the injection of more plot, it would have been more powerful and moving if written as a shorter novella, perhaps less abrupt and more “fleshed out” at the end.