Friday, 27 February 2015

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

There are a lot of novels about people doing the right thing during the war, looking dashing in their uniforms, young debs suddenly flung into the secret service or the Wrens, and what have you. It's a lot less glamorous for Lissa Evans' evacuee - ten-year-old Noel Bostock who has an unglamorous name and ears like jug handles, but an extensive vocabulary.
    Noel finds himself in St Albans living upstairs in a flat overlooking a scrapyard with Vee. She's thirty-six, a widow with a chubby son who works downstairs as a night watchman so it doesn't matter that she hasn't a spare bed for Noel because he can sleep in Donald's - he only needs it during the day after all.
    It's a peculiar set-up, even more peculiar because of Vee's mother, who was so shocked by Vee's pregnancy at sixteen that she fainted, hitting her head, an injury that has deprived her of speech. She spends all day plugged into the wireless, writing letters to Churchill about where he's going wrong and what he ought to do next.
    However Noel's life in London was also unusual, having lived from the age of four with Mattie, his godmother, an elderly former suffragette with interesting ideas about education. She had ignored the calls for Noel to be evacuated, her mind starting to go, and Noel was happy to stay as he knew she needed him. When the worst happens, Noel's fate seems to be in the lap of the gods until he winds up with Vee.
    His new carer is not particularly educated - she's a bit common, to put it plainly - but has a sharp mind always darting here and there on the look out for the main chance. She's not smart enough to be very good at her get-rich quick schemes, but when Noel takes an interest the two make a winning team. The novel follows their see-sawing fortunes as the Blitz continues to wreak havoc, and Noel slowly comes to terms with his grief.
    This is a wonderful book - such a breath of fresh air - about ordinary people who are also less than ordinary, and about the strange paths love can take. The plot is original and the characters quirky, shown warts and all, and running through everything, a rich vein of comedy, which would for me make this a terrific read alone.
    But what makes the book even more superb is the quality of the writing. Evans has taken time over her prose and throws in just enough description to make the world of Vee and Noel come alive. Her imagery is spectacular too. Noel experiences fear 'like a cold scarf wrapped around his neck, a stomach full of tadpoles'; or how about this about a poorly-tuned wireless: 'the sound of a dance-band flared and receded, as if someone were opening and shutting a door'.
    Lissa Evans has been nominated for the Orange Prize (Their Finest Hour and a Half) and other awards. I do wonder if Crooked Heart will be similarly recognised - it certainly deserves to be.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Landscape with Solitary Figure by Shonagh Koea

Shonagh Koea's novels are difficult to pigeon-hole. Many of them deal with a similar protagonist, a woman of middle age, solitary and happy to be so, often avoiding the people who threaten to unsettle her peace. There will be events from the past that bubble away in the background, and this backstory is slowly revealed in Koea's wry and carefully considered prose.
    And so it is with Koea's latest novel. Ellis Leigh lives by herself in a bungalow by the sea, when a letter from a man she knew ten years before disturbs her calm. In the intervening years, Ellis has made a much needed escape - from another town by the sea that was once home, when she had a husband and young child. She has mistakenly returned thinking she will be happy there again, but the town is unwelcoming, its inhabitants sneering or frosty to the point of nastiness and even the climate is harsh.
     Her short time here, while she inhabits a beautiful house she has filled with fine furnishings and antiques, ends because of an act of singular cruelty.
    But now after all this time, Martin Dodd, tall and impeccably dressed and with a mellifluous voice that caresses every syllable, has had the gall to write her a letter. If she had known the letter was from him, she'd have bunged it unopened in the bin. Suddenly the past comes flooding back and the reader is treated to a slow unravelling of events as the story is filled in like patchwork.
     Having escaped to the city, Ellis mulls over what has happened and Koea treats us to rich descriptions of interiors and gardens, of fabrics and furnishings, which help make Ellis's story all the  more vivid. I love the small incidents, such as how Ellis acquired a particularly sought-after type of clivia, or a description of a garden party where her young son is bullied, the truly awful birthday party, in another garden - there are lots of gardens after all. And each one adds to the atmosphere, for this is a very atmospheric novel.
     This is not one of those books that seems to be full of dialogue - Ellis is too solitary for that- but when we are treated to them, the conversations are often darkly funny. Poor Ellis is treated to some rather off hand and belittling comments. It's only her son in London who is kind, sending money for airfares every other year, while a friend of his lets her use her apartment in Paris for a holiday - for once a place where Ellis feels safe.
    Koea creates a narrative on a fairly small scale, and perhaps this adds to the claustrophobia that is Ellis's over-riding fear, but it is a picture delicately wrought - rather like the cover of the book. You won't get carried away on a tide of action and sudden swoops of storyline that leave you breathless in a novel by this writer. It is more like something you savour - one of the fine wines that Martin Dodd waxes lyrical about perhaps. You have to be really good at what you do to write a book like this. And Koea is very good.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Pierced Heart by Lynn Shepherd

It must have been difficult being a private inquiry agent in Victorian England, if Lynn Shepherd's protagonist, Charles Maddox is anything to go by. Benighted could be one way to describe him and this is obvious from page one, when Charles is travelling by train to a remote part of Austria, a journey that must be completed by a lengthy ride in a coach.
    The weather is miserable and so is he, having two months before lost his occasional lover/servant and the child he hadn't realised she was carrying to an ectopic pregnancy. He is full of guilt and remorse but things get worse when he arrives at the imposing ancestral home of Baron Von Reisenberg, a pale, thin, chilling man who shuns the light and has strangely long teeth.
    Aha, we are in vampire territory, says the reader. And yes the term 'exsanguination' does crop up throughout this book, but knowing Shepherd, you can be sure she will find a plausible explanation for anything too fanciful, that is both ingenious and likely to keep the reader guessing until the final page.
    But back to Austria. Charles has been sent on behalf of the Bodleian Library to discreetly examine the suitability of a bequest that his Austrian host would like to offer this venerable establishment. While he's there he witnesses many strange occurrences, and by night hears some peculiar sounds, and being the determined investigator that he is, decides to explore. This upsets his host no end, and Charles finds himself mowed down by Von Reisenberg 's guard dog before things really take a turn for the worse.
     By the time Charles gets back to England he's even more unsettled, while London is full of people gathered to see the Great Exhibition at the purpose-built Crystal Palace. This makes his usual dashing about even more difficult with the streets unusually congested. And dash about he must as Sam, his policeman friend, has called on his help over a series of grisly murders involving prostitutes. Could there be any connection to Von Reisenberg who has mysteriously arrived in England?
    Charles's investigation is mixed in with the diaries of Lucy, the daughter of a kind of illusionist cum showman who wants to develop Lucy's talent as a medium in order to improve their fortunes. Her health and treatment by an Austrian doctor with alarming results ups the tension of the novel. Charles's discoveries and Lucy's experiences are set to dovetail as the plot hurtles to an exciting end.
     Shepherd writes wonderfully with her vivid present-tense style that keeps things fairly pacy, while her distant third-person narration adds a suitably Victorian tone. It amazes me how she can make this work, but some how it does and adds to the reader's enjoyment hugely. The use of Lucy's diary (both first person and past tense) throws in a nice contrast so you never tire of either.
    I adore these books - they're probably my favourite mystery series at the moment - and I particularly love how Shepherd draws on research and her depth of knowledge of literature and history from the period. It all adds up to a particularly rich as well as entertaining reading experience.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I don't often read this kind of thriller - there is so much tension that you know you're not in for a relaxing sort of reading experience. On top of that, The Girl on the Train has all these characters who aren't very likeable.
    First off there's Rachel, our main narrator. After a failed marriage she's in a bad way having lost her job because she's an alcoholic and she doesn't have the wherewithal to do anything to fix her life. She keeps up a charade to her flatmate Cathy of a normal working woman taking the train to work each day, but the reader knows this would be impossible on the amount of wine and ready-mixed gin and tonics she consumes.
    To make matters worse she can't seem to let go of her husband and continues to phone and leave him messages, even hanging around outside her old house. Naturally this upsets his second wife, Anna, who wants to be left alone with her husband and baby.
    Then there's the fantasy world Rachel dreams up about the couple she calls Jess and Jason, who she can see from her commuter train when it stops at a signal. Jess and Jason epitomise the kind of loving relationship she would like to reinvent with her ex-hubby, Tom, made more real to Rachel by their proximity just along the road from her old house, the house Tom now shares with Anna.
    But one day Rachel sees something from her train that shocks her and soon after, Jess, whose real name is Megan, disappears. Rachel becomes a bit like an amateur sleuth - she has time on her hands after all - and contacts Megan's husband, not Jason but Scott, and does even more cringe-worthy hanging around and snooping, fuelled by all the alcohol she gets through.
    Further down the list of unlikeable characters we come to Megan, who narrates part of the story in the months before her disappearance, and we learn that Megan is at least as flaky as Rachel. Other chapters are narrated by Anna, who can be smug and unsympathetic.
    However what makes these women unreliable also makes the plot hum along. With Rachel there are her blanks in memory, the humiliation of people's disgust over events she cannot recall. As she puts the story together of Megan's disappearance, she begins to wonder if she had a hand in it herself. And why does she experience so much lurking fear?
    The police of course are no help at all. They want Rachel to keep her nose out of things, but they don't seem to be getting anywhere and don't believe anything she tells them. She's a pathetic fantasist and a drunk, so you can't blame them.
    I can see the appeal of a book like The Girl on the Train as it reels you in from the opening chapters and is superbly engrossing. It gives you a grim view of marriage, of the kind of stifling suburban misery that goes on in behind closed doors and the cruelty that lurks in what seem to be the happiest of relationships. But there's too much happening for the reader to dwell much on any of that and you just have to get to the end to see what happens.