Out of Touch: Book Review

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Thank you to Net Galley for sending me an Advance Reader Copy. Note to readers: there are details from the novel mentioned in this review but (hopefully) no plot spoilers!

 

Out of Touch by Haleh Agar is a soulful story about two siblings, Ava and Michael, and the ways in which they try to make sense of their family’s past.

Michael lives in New York. Ava, England. And as their current lives unfold we are given glimpses of the way things were between their parents when Ava and Michael were growing up.

Towards the end of the novel, their father, Lee asks ‘What do good families do?’  and it is this uncertainty, this search for a happier future to eclipse a tricky history which seems to fuel both brother and sister in their daily lives.

Earlier in the story, a request is sent by Lee to see both his adult children urgently. As readers we are intrigued to discover how this part of the tale will develop.

The scenes in New York where Michael lives with his partner and son are vividly told, ‘everything in mason jars’ and with a straightforward realism which is compelling and enjoyable to read.

And the appearance of an artist neighbour who is able to see into Michael’s apartment adds an interesting dimension – a twist on the idea of the male gaze – for as she watches him and his young family go about their daily life, it is the female gaze making Michael conscious of his actions, affecting the choices that he makes.

Out of Touch is well paced and yet there is a captivating stillness to its prose, an acute sensuality reminding me of the film, ‘Yes’, by Sally Potter which also looks at shattered family dynamics and cultural crossings.

The international angle is delightfully told, not just through the dual scenes set in the U.S and UK but via the backgrounds of the characters themselves — Lebanese, Greek Cypriot and Iranian. Culturally-specific details add texture to our understanding of the main characters and a liveliness to their histories.

There is much depth portrayed in this novel but also a pleasing lightness to the writer’s style which makes it a book which is hard to put down (I read it in two sittings and I’m generally not a fast reader!)

It was refreshing to read how the twin taboos of physical and emotional pain are tackled and the myriad ways in which humans try to face or avoid them.

When something frightening happens to shake Michael and his partner’s family life in New York, his partner Layla responds by becoming overly cautious, taking a hammer on car journeys in case of an accident, deciding to try to become the ‘God’ of the family by checking everything she can. Layla’s anxiety which seems to stem from a disconnection from the nominal faith of her childhood is insightfully handled through the narrative.

While the difficult legacy of Michael and Ava’s mother, Elena, is portrayed in detail there is also space for complexity in our understanding of her. And it is this grappling with the dynamics of family and the way characters try to overcome their histories through new choices that this book is at its most captivating. We are given a window not only into the pain of the past but also the ways in which repair may occur in the present.

The love story at the centre of the novel plays out beautifully. Sam is earnest and believable, Ava wavering and confused until she has to make a decision either way.

There is something warm and life-affirming and ultimately important about the way human difficulties are addressed in this book. I was left at the end with the sense, as a reader, of being seen. The existential questions the characters face – whether it’s possible to make peace with the past (can old disagreements be mended?) and why a look at what happened long ago might shed light on our present responses – feel universal and timely.

I look forward to reading more from Haleh Agar.

 

Out of Touch is published by Orion, available to purchase from April 2nd 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with Me before You by Jojo Moyes, which also handles deep themes with a light touch and has a central premise of a young woman trying to move on.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

Please note – I am currently reviewing selected books whose launches have been affected by the current Corona virus outbreak. If you are an author or publisher please feel free to get in touch (see below) if this is of interest.

If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

 

 

 

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton : Book review

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(SPOILER ALERT… Contains some references to plot)

It’s been more than 2 years since my last blogpost… Reader, where has the time flown?

I’ve been working on a novel and was planning to return to this page in the new year, but I must confess I missed the buzz of blogging…

A character from fiction grabbed my attention. It was Frannie, heroine of Sara Collins’ debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton. 

A few weeks ago, as reviews filled the Twittersphere and The Confessions of Frannie Langton was ‘Book of the Month’, I was approached by a Waterstones bookseller saying he doesn’t usually read novels but…

‘Try this,’ he urged, holding the paperback pictured below.

I took his advice and bought it.

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The premise? A grand Victorian house in 19th century London, a young woman sent to work there from Jamaica, and the accusation of a crime, the double murder of her bosses, for which she may hang.

As she awaits her trial, Frannie gives an account of what actually happened before she was imprisoned. She hopes to set the record straight, taking us through a life spent resisting the servitude into which she was born.

At the centre of the intrigue is the love between the servant Frannie and her mistress, Marguerite, a French ‘eccentric’.

‘Knowing a person’s story, and how they tell it, and where the lies are in it, is part of love.’

And in each of their interactions, as in the rest of the novel, Frannie is determined to be treated as equal, in a household – and world – set on keeping her in her place. Her courage is the engine which keeps the pages of this mystery turning.

There are court testimonies by other dwellers of the house. Not just the masters but the staff too. We meet them in the kitchen and peek at the food that they prepare:

‘…the room was musty and dim, and still reeked of salt and old mutton fat. The cake made up for it. Golden and sweet, and no matter that I knew only too well how the sugar was made.’

Like the hit TV series Downton Abbey, exchanges between the servants are as central to the story as those of the family, but no cosy historical is this. Imagine characters, with grins and bones protruding, a little larger than life, and you get the idea. Much of The Confessions of Frannie Langton is decidedly gothic.

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We also see snippets of a journal written by Benham, one half of the murdered couple. This adds to our picture of Frannie, a forthright mix of bookishness and protest at her lot, an avid reader who even hides the pages of Candide into the seam of her dress so she may continue the story without being seen.

This devotion to literature gives Frannie the language of her oppressors, the tools with which to face them. It’s a wonderful surprise in this suspenseful novel to find that books are not just Frannie’s lifeline but her secret weapon, giving her the confidence to speak her mind, shocking those who would expect her ignorance, and compliance.

If you spend time writing anything lengthier than an email you’ll know that the mechanics of plot can be a challenge to get right. But Sara Collins has nailed it; the pacing of this novel is superb.

In one sense, it’s a classic ‘whodunnit’, but the language is so rich and the literary allusions detailed that another layer is added to what might have been a more generic mystery.

The descriptive passages too are evocative of a London we only usually meet, as modern readers, in the pages of a real Victorian novel (or perhaps a TV adaptation). Yet this book, published in the Spring of 2019, conveys life in the 1820s in exquisite detail.

There’s a sensuality to the prose which makes the voice of Frannie visceral and true.

‘If it was a crime, then I am guilty of it and I confess it here. But I just wanted to keep that book as close as I could get it to my skin. Not to remind myself happiness was still possible, but to remind myself that anger was.’

The novel entwines entertainment and message to extraordinary effect, standing face to face with England’s legacy of racialism without flinching. It enlightens the reader on the part played by pseudoscience to fuel the pro-slavery agenda of the English ruling class in the 19th century.

In another blogpost I describe the challenges writers may face when attempting to marry a thrilling story with a serious point. In The Confessions of Frannie Langton the plot is so deftly handled that Frannie’s righteous anger is made tangible through every twist of the tale. Line after line so well conceived, I must confess I drank this novel.

It brought not just the pleasure of a great yarn – the joy of another world to go to – but a strong social message in the tradition of Charles Dickens.

Frannie Langton’s struggle against appalling cultural forces is made memorable through her bold, unforgettable voice, and the gothic imagery which abounds, shining a light on the ugliness of racial injustice while leading us through the most entertaining – and educational – of confessions.

…………………………………..

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin, available to purchase at all good book shops.

This blog recommends pairing this book with A True Story Based on Lies by Mexican-American author Jennifer Clement, which addresses class discrimination and female servitude in contemporary Mexico.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement. If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

Anxiety’s cloak – Thoughts on ‘Love & Fame’

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In the 1980s, before fan-girling was officially a thing, YA author Judy Blume used to receive letters from her teen readers.

‘How did you know what we were thinking?’ they would ask, as though her novels had reached magically into their minds and located the things which mattered most.

Ever since I started reading Susie Boyt’s columns in the FT, the same thought has often popped up:

How does she know?

Her latest novel, Love & Fame opens with a theatrical monologue. No sentence is completed, thoughts are left hanging, each one linking to the next like an echoing voiceover. We hear the incessant worries of a person who feels everything.

Newly married actress Eve and her husband, Jim, who is writing a book about anxiety, are honeymooning in Chicago. Soon we meet Beatrice (‘Beach’) a bereavement counselor and her sister Rebecca, a journalist. All are connected by the passing of Eve’s famous actor father, John Swift.

But it’s anxiety itself which gets the starring spot in Love & Fame. Eve’s new husband Jim writes about it but Eve, herself, is living it.

‘Is your conclusion that anxiety’s a bit of a dark hero in a cloak?’ she asks him, for beneath his research lies a premise: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even?

Eve thinks not. At dinner with Jim and his agent, Max, she allows her thoughts on the subject to overflow:

‘I would say anxiety has cost me some of the very best things in my life.’

Suddenly Jim’s earlier remarks about anxiety being like a helpful friend – the type who prods you when you’re straying from what you actually want – are re-cloaked. As readers, we are left to reflect on our own experiences.

Those who loved Susie Boyt’s famous FT column will enjoy the same detail and intensity in this novel. Like the ‘Legendary’ cheesecake which Eve passes on her nighttime walk, such delight is sometimes best savoured in small mouthfuls. And yet – as with the best confectionery – I found I could not put this down.

Its serious subject is lightened by a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces. Boyt is brilliant on middle class liberal do-gooding. Jean Swift, while deep in mourning for her husband continues to invite young ex-criminal mothers into her home to learn cookery. A couple of the mothers are described as ‘lovely ex-shoplifters’ – the book is peppered with surprising juxtapositions and one-liners. There is a warmth and love of human frailty in Max’s comment which could equally be true about Love & Fame itself:

‘Eve – this is really a book about kindness.’

Perhaps it is in kindness that the antidote to anxiety lives. In the forgiveness that Jim finds so easy, or in Beach’s endless listening. When grief is allowed to surface, anxiety beats a path to the back door.

Judy Blume used to answer her readers’ questions, saying that she wrote from the memories of her own childhood. “When I dream. I’ll frequently dream of the house where I grew up.”

Nothing in fiction is truly invented; there’s a reservoir of joy and pain and memory which in reading this novel, shimmers translucent. These are the parts of Love & Fame which move for it is in the story’s mining of these personal depths that as readers we find our own worries normalised.

This is a book so brimming with heart, its dialogue so finely tuned and touching that it felt like the best kind of musical. A triumph of love over suffering that I did not want to end.

In the opening scene when thoughts are rushing around the character’s head, tailing off in anxious uncertainty, I realise what a gift we have in Boyt’s prose. In answer to the question, how does she know? It is her characters who show us.

In funny searing chapters we are reminded how hard it is to be alive sometimes but that a listening ear can change everything. Anxiety, in the end, may be neither hero nor antagonist but a sign that there is more left to grieve. Only after tears have been allowed to fall – on Beach’s couch perhaps – may we see anxiety slink away, or at least begin to speak in a softer tone.

Love & Fame is published by Virago, available to purchase November 2nd 2017. Pre-order here

All views expressed in my posts are my own. If you would like me to review your book, please visit my contact page, here.

A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold, ‘the mirror up to nature’.*

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’ At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary: ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín.

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours. When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)