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.

Speaking in bombs: Book Review – Song of Gulzarina by Tariq Mehmood

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After three years of studying (yeah right) at Manchester Uni I decided to stay on another year. I couldn’t get enough of the Northern drizzle: gobs of fumey water threatening to turn everything grey. Sometimes the sun would appear and a bright blue blanket would cover the city, lighting up the red brick of the warehouses.

I arrived in 1996 when a bomb planted by the IRA had gutted the central Arndale Centre. Terrorism in England in the twentieth century was all about bins in railway stations, bombs in Wimpy Bars, the targeting of political buildings. Scary, yes, but somehow in parallel with normal life. Not at its centre.

Manchester is the setting of Tariq Mehmood’s recently published novel, Song Of Gulzarina, an absorbing read which travels between the North West of England and Pakistan, along with the main character, Saleem Khan.

The story picks up pace at a mill, in an incident involving unsuitable toilets at Saleem Khan’s workplace. The Pakistani workers request sanitary facilities. The white British manager, Mr Andersen abuses the men:

‘You filthy Paki bastards always sticking together.’ Mr Anderson picked up another pipe and hit Salamat Ali Teka across the face.

This racist violence paves the way for Saleem Khan’s journey through pain, into war, loss and eventual expatriation.

Love features too, in this novel, as Saleem falls for Carol Anderson, the daughter of his boss. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the way the writer has his characters speak. As Carol and Saleem chat, she responds to Saleem by speaking to an invisible onlooker:

‘How did you find out?’

‘How did I find out, he says,’ she said leaning back into the setee.

Her turn of phrase is real and affecting, betraying something deeper than its outward flippancy. In fact I was originally drawn to review this book after Tariq Mehmood’s humour showed up on a mutual facebook friend’s page. Mehmood has a gift for pithy – often witty – dialogue switching between registers with pitch- perfect precision.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on writing dialogue at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. The take-away was that speech in literature is artificial but you have to make it sound plausible; each character should appear authentic and different (try it – it’s not an easy task!) Tariq Mehmood gives his characters language which is earthy, often coarse and angry and it makes his characters visceral, believable.

The sense of place in Song Of Gulzarina looms large. Not just in Manchester where:

The white pigeon with a black circle around its left eye is now perched on top of one of the toll gates, oblivious to the cold Mancunian wind.

but also in Pakistan where the depth and sensuality of the detail reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s descriptions of Bangalore in The White Tiger:

‘Other than the smoke from the exhaust of a rickshaw, nothing hit us.’

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——-SPOILER ALERT——-

The final section of the book – please look away if you don’t want a SPOILER – takes the character of Saleem Khan to a darker place:

If the book begins with racist humiliation, it ends in exile. The distancing of our hero from his own humanity, hell-bent on revenge, his heart closed and life little more than an alcoholic blur.

Ravaged by multiple losses: his wife, girlfriend, cousin, and the disdain of his daughter, Khan’s heartbreak has turned its face upon the world. He plans to avenge his disillusionment on the British ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair who has come to Manchester to speak. Strapped to Khan’s body are enough explosives to take out far more than the former PM.

In this last section, the reader is kept on tenterhooks as Khan wanders around Longsight and Wilmslow Road in this state ready to activate the mobile phone at any moment.

That our protagonist chooses Tony Blair as his target is unsurprising. There is a terrible irony that much of the IRA terrorism mentioned above was curtailed by an agreement in 1998 of which Blair played a significant part. Five years later, the invasion of Iraq and all of its rhetoric served not only an illegal war but a media machine which placed people like Saleem Khan in a cold and terrifying place.

Cast out by a British government acting with unspeakable hypocrisy, it is easy to understand why Fight or Flight became, for some, a way of life.  Add in the United States response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism becomes a very real language. ‘We are here,’ cry the suicide bombers. ‘You thought you could ignore us. But: ‘Look at me. I’m the captain now.’*

That Khan’s decision to blow himself up is not associated with his religious beliefs but a quest for social justice is significant. In fact he declares himself an Atheist, his faith has long since died. “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” wrote Baltasar Gracian in the 17th century. Saleem Khan’s self-rejection is so complete, hope so long-gone that he will go to any lengths. His radicalisation has come not from pious rhetoric, but from the sense that nothing will be lost when he kills and dies.

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For this is a novel about alienation, about looking for home and finding only estrangement. From the woman who treats Khan at Manchester Royal Infirmary and comments with horror at the amount of hair on his body, to his close white friend who runs away as they watch the events of 9/11 unfold on the telly; Saleem Khan is left without sanctuary.

Mehmood skilfully navigates the nuances of Islam in the West. When Khan’s daughter Aisha is aggressed by men in a passing car, the Muslim youths outside the mosque stand impassively. Khan chastises them:

‘How can you just carry on selling books?’ I ask the bearded youth, pointing a shaking finger. ‘You saw what they did to your sisters.’

The youth replies that all will be taken care of in the Hereafter – a view which ignores traditional Islamic belief (which highlights the importance of balancing both Earthly matters and a spiritual focus on the next life) – and instead of helping his Muslim sister, uses fundamentalist religious rhetoric to do nothing.

Towards the end of the book, Khan remembers seeing a snake as a child and playing with it until he was urgently warned to move away. As he walks, in the present tense, through Rusholme with explosives attached to his chest, he recalls his mother telling him of how casually he toyed with the serpent. The adults were afraid of the creature because they had experience but the child was safe in his innocence. Nothing had caused him to prejudge it, to antagonise it, and the snake did not attack.

Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this author has used his considerable skill to create the compelling novel: Song for Gulzarina.

For more information about the book click here

Header photograph from the book Manchester, England (by Dave Haslam), by Aidan O’Rourke (www.aidan.co.uk)

*Words of the sea pirates in the film, Captain Phillips (2013)