Book Review – Started Early, Took My Dog

Book Review – Started Early, Took My Dog

Title – Started Early, Took My Dog

Genre – Crime fiction

Author – Kate Atkinson

Published – 2010

Enjoyment rating – 7/10

*       *       *

This novel is a whodunit (indeed, a whodunexactlywhat), combined with a pursuit thriller and leavened with plenty of humour.

A whodunit requires a good plot, and this novel certainly ticks that box. There are numerous characters, and the mystery to be solved is how those figures were involved in a murder and a kidnapping. To make the mystery more difficult, these events took place some thirty years earlier. The novel is told with flashback as a means of revealing the characters and motivations of the principal actors. We know the outline of the solution from early on, but there’s plenty of satisfying detail to hold the interest.

In addition, there is a storyline set entirely in the present day. One of the principal characters, Tracy Waterhouse, was a rookie police officer at the time of the earlier crime; she was one of the officers attending the scene. In a not quite entirely unbelievable way Tracy acquires a small girl, and is then pursued both by those investigating the old crime and those trying to cover it up.

Just in case this isn’t enough for you, the novel is laced with plenty of humour. This is not humour that raises a quiet smirk; it’s laugh out loud stuff. I couldn’t help reading out the funniest bits to anyone who would listen.

The three strands of this novel were ample to pull me in and keep me reading, with the humour ensuring that I enjoyed what I read. The solving of the mystery involved some bloodshed, but this was set in the context of a fairly upbeat emotional resolution to the storylines. Even the obligatory nods in the direction of nihilism were faced down by the author’s fundamental optimism.

The novel has a substantial sub-plot involving an actress, Tilly, who has passed her prime. What does she add to the story? Her story collides with the main plot, but I’m not convinced that this is necessary. In retrospect, I realise I skim-read the passages in which she appeared.

I wasn’t completely happy with characterisation, either. Most of the characters were sketched in with little detail.

The main character (in terms of words devoted to him) is a private investigator named Jackson. Although the author supplies plausible motivations to drive his actions, I don’t find them convincing. I don’t really sympathise with him, either. I don’t wince when he gets beaten up.

Tracy Waterhouse, though, is a different matter. She engaged me from the start, with her laconic humour, and her plethora of little vices. There’s something immediately endearing about a person who regularly buys Thornton’s Viennese truffles as a treat. Her actions are highly unlikely and yet they feel believable, in part because her motivation is the desire to have a child.

She acquires a child, and what a child she is! Wonderfully idiosyncratic in the way of all children everywhere. I could believe in her, no trouble at all.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and it kept me reading which is the first requirement of a novel. Profound it is not. Entertaining it certainly is.

Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith

Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith

Title – NW

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Zadie Smith

Published – 2012

Enjoyment rating – 9/10

*       *       *

This novel is a tour de force. It’s only a little over 300 pages long, but it took me a full week to complete even though I was reading several hours every day. I wanted to savour Zadie Smith’s writing, which had me hooked from the very first page.

The novel has two principal characters, Leah and Keisha/Natalie. By the end of the first page, Zadie Smith hasn’t told us this; all we know is that one of them has red hair, and a husband, Michel, whose politics differ from hers. What we have instead is dazzling description, a reference to Shakespeare, philosophy, politics and a terrible pun.

If the novel is about anything, it’s about the nature of friendship. Or the nature of love. Or the futility of life. Or a hymn to the tight-knit communities of London villages. Or a dissection of human motivations, in particular the urge to project a consistent narrative about one’s life. Or all of the above.

It is carefully constructed; very carefully indeed. One of the climactic events is foreshadowed at least twice, and yet it’s still a shocking surprise when it comes.

The principal characters are Leah Hanwell, daughter of Irish immigrants and her best friend Keisha who is BAME. We learn of their childhood friendship, and how it evolved from a chance dramatic event. We read how they approach life, Keisha even going so far as to change her name to Natalie to achieve her goal and become a highly paid lawyer. We see how their life-choices take them into quite different social worlds, and yet they retain their childhood friendship.

Men, their thoughts and needs, are not prominent; for example, Natalie’s husband, Frank, is more noticeable by his absences than by his presence. Even Leah’s husband Michel, who is written fairly sympathetically, is excluded from crucial actions by Leah, who decides and acts unilaterally.

The novel portrays men’s principal characteristic as desire for sex and respect. And the novel suggests an answer as to why respect is so important to the men of this community; it is because society, backed by the Establishment, doesn’t show them any. There is a very telling scene where a young man is smoking in a children’s play park. The women, with Natalie prominent, order him to stop; they overwhelm him with their criticism. It is no coincidence that Natalie is a lawyer – here, she symbolises the weight of the Establishment.

But it’s the two women and the constancy of their friendship that is the heart of this novel. Their affection isn’t romanticised; they argue, criticise, even steal, and it’s clear that in many ways they’re very different. And yet the bond is there, unbroken. The novel closes with Leah and Natalie doing something that is the adult equivalent of how they behaved together as teenagers, showing that despite the stress on their friendship, it remains solid.

I have to say, this novel enthralled me. It is so well written, and so thought provoking I’ve returned to it again and again.

Book Review – The Cleaner of Chartres

Book Review – The Cleaner of Chartres

Title – The Cleaner of Chartres

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Salley Vickers

Published – 2012

Rating 6/10

*       *       *

I enjoyed this novel. It kept me turning the pages. The central character, Agnes Morel, caught my sympathy to the extent that I wanted to know how her story developed. The plot was intriguing, with a twist that took me by surprise.

The novel depicts human nature convincingly. There are good characters and bad characters, weak characters and strong characters, and they play out their roles in a satisfying manner. Skilful writing shows different facets of their personalities, and gives insights into how they became the people they are. Salley Vickers has a humane view of people, and this glows through the way she depicts her cast.

So, why only 6/10?

The problem I have with this book is that it constantly feels like an excellent novel trying to escape from the strait-jacket of one that is run-of-the-mill. It has flaws that reduced my pleasure as a reader.

For example, language. The very first line of the novel is, “The old town of Chartres, around which the modern town unaesthetically sprawls…”. Unaesthetically? Really? I nearly closed the book then and there.

Then the characters. I realised quite soon that I was struggling to remember who was who, so, when I had finished the novel, I counted how many significant characters there were. There were at least eighteen. When reading, I had to make a special effort to identify the characters as they appeared.

Having so many characters brings other problems too, one of which is the characters’ voices. Professor Jones’ voice caught something of the Welsh lilt, but I felt that the voices of most of the characters were inauthentic, or just plain dull.

The central character, Agnes Morel, is attractive. She’s also believable; but only just. Her wardrobe is a strange mix of shabby and glamorous, just as her intellect is a mixture of limited and unusually insightful. More than once she is referred to as a savant, which is fair enough. Her character requires a willing suspension of disbelief, and the writing is strong enough to maintain that.

The novel is written in a mix of contemporary and flash-back, and uses the third person universal point of view. The action takes place in four places, Chartres, Evreux, Le Mans and Rouen. Every chapter is headed with the location so we know where and when the action of the chapter is set. I occasionally found this confusing.

In summary, a good novel, one I could imagine reading again, one which had me thinking about what it is to be human, but a novel with irritating flaws. Definitely worth reading.

Book Review – Hallucinating Foucault

Book Review – Hallucinating Foucault

Title – Hallucinating Foucault

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Patricia Duncker

Published 1996

Rating 10/10

*       *       *

Wow! Just – wow!

I first read this novel about twenty years ago. I was impressed, yes, and some images stayed with me, but I remember feeling uncomfortable and slightly bemused.

In retrospect, I can see why that was; for all sorts of reasons I lacked the emotional generosity to respond authentically to a challenging love story – for, at its heart, ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is a love story.

It’s a simple, linear narrative, the quest of a young scholar to find and free Paul Michel, the writer whose works have enthralled him.

Or is it?

The quest story lies nestled in a story of old passions; the passion of a man for his first love; the passion of an artist for his art; the passionate need of a writer for his ideal reader. By the time we reach the last page we can see a monumental structure, solid as concrete, against which the hapless scholar has been mercilessly broken. We can make out seductive whispers, just below the threshold of audibility, blaming Fate and denying human responsibility, even as they admit human agency.

We never learn the name of the scholar. It is as though he exists only in relation to Paul Michel. And yet, we care. I cared passionately for him. I shuddered with trepidation as the inevitable denouement approached. I wept at his destruction.

Few books have moved me like this one. Few books have given me such delight by the sheer quality of their writing.

Read this novel for its superlative writing. Read this novel for its insights into human love and life. But, above all, read this novel for pleasure; it’s a delight.

Normal People – a review

Normal People – a review

Author – Sally Rooney

Genre – Literary fiction

Rating – 9/10

This is an outstanding novel that explores the redemptive power of human love.

Marianne and Connell live in a provincial town in Ireland, and have known each other since childhood. Connell is popular; captain of the school football team, and with good social skills. Marianne is unpopular, derided for her looks, her dress sense and her refusal to conform to the social norms of her peers. Connell is poor; Marianne is well off. Both are extremely intelligent.

In their last year at school, they feel a powerful sexual attraction to each other, and make love. The experience reaches a level of intimacy that startles them both – but they conceal this. As far as the world knows they are casual friends.

Although by the time they go to university they have ‘split up’, the attraction is as strong as it ever was. They struggle against it, forming sexual relationships with other partners, but there is always that spark when they meet.  

Gradually we are led to understand how each of them is damaged. Can their relationship survive this? Can it, indeed, save them? For salvation is what they need; the stakes couldn’t be higher. If they get this wrong, they can never fulfil their potential; they will shrivel and die as individuals.

I found the novel gripping. Having read it once, I admired it so much that I read it again intending to learn from it. Lo and behold, I was about three pages in and the story took control again, and I just read it for pleasure. It really is that good!

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

I feel very tentative about reviewing this novel by V S Naipaul – he is, after all, a Nobel laureate, and I have no qualifications other than a love of the world of ideas and the writing of several novels that nobody wishes to publish.
The trouble is, I don’t like the book. I finished reading it, but the further through it I read, the more I was having to grit my teeth.
There are several reasons why.

First and foremost, this is a nihilistic book. It decries human aspiration and emphasises its futility. Only one character achieves his life’s goal, and that goal could be said to be bizarre: the character is an Afro-Caribbean man whose ambition is to have a perfectly white grand-daughter that he can acknowledge publicly. And he is a minor character.

The second reason I dislike the book is that it has a lack of credible emotions. The most glaring examples occur when the protagonist, Willie, is a member of a Maoist cadre in India. On one occasion he is present when his colleague blows out the brains of a man believed to have been an informant. Does Willie feel doubt? Guilt? Fear? Satisfaction? The author doesn’t tell us, doesn’t even hint. On the second occasion, he shoots dead a villager for no reason other than to terrorise the remaining villagers. Once again there is no emotion. Later on in the text, being an accessory to the first death fetches Willie a 10 year prison sentence. Does he think about the person who was killed? Not at all.
I can understand the emotionless killings in the nihilist context of the book. They could be said to be a metaphor for the lack of any value to a human life. One can imagine a psychopath being unemotional about the killings. The trouble is that later on in the novel Naipaul describes sexual relationships between men and women. In these, too, there is a lack of emotion – indeed, the only real emotion described is embarrassment.

The third thing I really dislike about the novel is the politics described towards the end. The poor are described in terms that are disparaging; they are viewed through the lens of far-right politics. This upsets me – but it’s also a flaw in the novel because it’s not true. Not merely is it not true, it neglects the genuine social progress that has been made during the period in which the novel is set – progress that in many cases arises from those who live in social housing who are so denigrated by the novel.

In the world that I see around me, people love, people hate, people feel. Love, especially family love, can work miracles. I don’t find any of that in this book.

The writing is bloody brilliant, of course…

Book Review – Pachinko

Pachinko cover 191231

Reader rating 8/10

“Pachinko” is a novel about a Korean family who emigrate to Japan. It covers the period from 1910 to 1989, and tells the story of four generations of the family. It’s a novel about racism and oppression. It’s a novel about identity. It’s a novel about what it means to be Korean, and, in particular, a Zainichi Korean who lived in Japan during the twentieth century.

It’s full of drama; a child conceived out of wedlock; several premature deaths, both violent and from natural causes; success and failure; love and hate.

The women are the most interesting characters, and the most resilient in hardship. The central character, Sunja, is the one who keeps the family solvent when circumstances are at their worst. Sunja’s sister-in-law, Kyunghee, becomes her best friend. While Sunja is homely in appearance, Kyunghee is beautiful. The pair are shown maintaining the family, raising the children, and nurturing the men. On several occasions throughout the novel, one of the women will remind the other that ‘women suffer’. This is not said in tones of complaint but in tones of acceptance; this is how it is, and we get on and live our lives regardless. It’s plainly intended to point the reader to the source of the women’s strength.

Much of the action is by the men, and their emotions and motivations often felt obscure to me. In fact, they seem to be emotionally illiterate. This could be deliberate, but personally I found it rather frustrating. I don’t think most men are ignorant of their emotions, they just perceive them differently from women.

The novel is written in plain English; it is not ‘fine writing’. It is, however, effective. Some of the scenes are conjured up vividly. Even so, I wonder whether there could be less explanation. I know most readers will know little. if anything, of Korean or Japanese life, but couldn’t this be told descriptively rather than didactically?

The novel kept my attention by the events; it’s well plotted. However, it was only towards the end that I started to feel emotionally involved. The last scene is very moving, with Sunja grieving in a cemetery before returning to her best friend, Kyunghee.

This is an important novel because of its subject matter. On one level it is a powerful polemic against racial prejudice and discrimination. At a deeper level it looks at the harm such prejudice can cause through the psychological pain caused by the inability to live an authentic life. Perhaps most importantly, the novel gives a voice to a group – the Zainichi Koreans – whose sufferings are not widely known.

This is a book with flaws, but it’s still well worth reading. You may feel tempted to give up halfway through, but I would encourage you to persist – it’s worth the effort. And despite the flaws, I’m rating it 8/10

Butterfly – a great TV drama

butterfly 181029 02

Butterfly – a great TV drama

“Butterfly” has been a terrific drama. There were three episodes each shown on a Sunday evening at 9 pm on ITV. If you’ve missed it, do watch it on the ITV hub – it’s well worth it!

At the centre of the drama is an eleven-year-old child named Max, who was assigned male at birth on the basis of his anatomy. Max, though, feels that he is a girl, and has felt like this for years. He suffers from a condition known as gender dysphoria. The drama is about the efforts made to resolve this and their consequences.

Before I go any further, I feel I ought to say that although this article is about “Butterfly”, it isn’t a review. It’s my personal response, as a transgender woman, to a powerful drama about the transgender experience.

At the start of the drama we are shown how Max’s gender dysphoria has split the family, with the father, Stephen, living away from his wife and two children. He has access to the children, though, and Max attempts to please him by feigning enthusiasm for football.

But Max must be Maxine. The drama follows the journey made by the whole family as he/she seeks to achieve this. The drama shows us that a sufferer from gender dysphoria experiences acute distress as a result of a mismatch between the gender they feel themselves to be, and the gender suggested by their anatomy. It’s a serious condition. Sufferers, including children, have a high rate of self-harm and suicide.

Max, being eleven, is going to enter puberty soon, possibly within months. His voice will break and he will grow facial hair; his whole body will become, irreversibly, that of an adult male. This will bring two big problems; firstly, Max will suffer great distress at the physical changes; secondly, those changes will make it harder for him to live in his chosen gender role when he’s an adult. What’s to be done?

Well, certain drugs block the hormonal onset of puberty and delay the development of adult secondary sexual characteristics. So, Max’s voice won’t break, and his body won’t develop the characteristics of an adult man. This will allow time for him to mature before any irrevocable decisions about gender role are made.

This is the heart of “Butterfly”; the struggle by Max/Maxine, championed by her mother Vicky, to obtain puberty blockers. We see the family at an NHS clinic, and at a private clinic; we see Maxine start to live full-time as a girl, with the inevitable bullying at school; we see her feeling so unloved that she self-harms, with almost fatal consequences; we see the family pulled this way and that by their response to the situation. The biggest problem is that before anyone will prescribe puberty blockers both parents have to give consent – and Stephen simply will not do this.

Vicky resorts to desperate measures. The courts become involved. The Local Authority child protection team become involved. There is a real risk that Maxine will be taken into care, and then what would happen to her?

I won’t give any spoilers, except to say that the drama is tense, nail-biting, and has a believable finale.

Is it true to life? Yes, very much so. The common theme in all the responses to Max’s gender dysphoria is a personal agenda – I’d call it a moral agenda, except that prejudice is hardly a moral stance. Nobody was actually neutral, even the professionals who really ought to be even-handed. And that is completely true-to-life.

Even more poignantly, and powerfully, the drama captures little details like Max’s difficulties with the school toilets. He couldn’t bring himself to use the urinals, and clearly found the whole masculine environment overwhelmingly hostile. How well I remember that!

So “Butterfly” is both powerful and authentic. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to consider its implications in the real world.

In recent years there has been controversy about intervention where children feel themselves to be transgender, and “Butterfly” contributes to that debate. Watching it, and thinking about it, has crystallised my thinking on the matter (yes, the drama really is that good). In brief, the effective treatment of gender dysphoria requires irreversible changes. One viewpoint is that we should not give such treatment to children, “because they might be mistaken”; the other viewpoint is that where there is a clear and strong diagnosis of gender dysphoria we should intervene as early as possible, before puberty if possible.

Drugs to block puberty blur the lines of the debate a little by allowing time for the child to mature. They seem to be safe, but some people have questioned the reversibility of their effects if administered over a long period.

The current treatment of gender dysphoria is for the sufferer to live in the gender role that they feel is appropriate, supported by whatever surgical and hormonal treatment is necessary. Gender confirmation in this way has a good record of success.

If you don’t treat gender dysphoria, the afflicted individual goes on suffering. Because the suffering is intense, the individual is at a (much) higher risk of suicide. In fact, there’s only one thing worse than not treating the condition and that is treating gender dysphoria as a mental illness. This has a dismal record, especially where it is linked to condemnation of the transgender feelings, and has led to many suicides.

And yet, despite these facts, people persist in wanting to treat gender dysphoria as ‘special’, ‘different’ or just plain ‘morally wrong’. This inevitably finds its way into the treatment of transgender children. People say that they must be protected from these strange urges until they’re old enough to make a mature choice (of course, by that time puberty has well and truly done its worst…).

What would I like to be available for everybody who suffers from gender dysphoria?

Prompt referral to clinical specialists (the current waiting time is far too long).

Where gender dysphoria is diagnosed, prompt availability of treatment (currently once you have your diagnosis it’s at least an eighteen month wait before you can even discuss the options with a surgeon, and many months more before surgery takes place)

Treatment of everybody with a confirmed diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Age should not be a factor (subject to NHS guidelines for consent). Gender confirmation is a life-saving treatment, and this applies to young people as well as adults.

It’s worth looking at the NHS Guidelines for Treatment of Children and Young People

These set out the following criteria for consent.

“Children under the age of 16 can consent to their own treatment if they’re believed to have enough intelligence, competence and understanding to fully appreciate what’s involved in their treatment. This is known as being Gillick competent.

Otherwise, someone with parental responsibility can consent for them.

This could be:

  • the child’s mother or father
  • the child’s legally appointed guardian
  • a person with a residence order concerning the child
  • a local authority designated to care for the child
  • a local authority or person with an emergency protection order for the child

The person with parental responsibility must have the capacity to give consent.

If a parent refuses to give consent to a particular treatment, this decision can be overruled by the courts if treatment is thought to be in the best interests of the child.

If one person with parental responsibility gives consent and another doesn’t, the healthcare professionals can choose to accept the consent and perform the treatment in most cases.

If the people with parental responsibility disagree about what’s in the child’s best interests, the courts can make a decision.

In an emergency, where treatment is vital and waiting to obtain parental consent would place the child at risk, treatment can proceed without consent.”

These guidelines seem to me to be all that is needed to safeguard young people. There is no need to treat intervention for gender dysphoria as something special; it’s just another medical procedure that will improve the lives of most of those who receive treatment.

“Butterfly” has done a great job of highlighting these issues, and I hope it helps to improve society’s treatment of young trans people. And, whatever your stance on the issues, do watch “Butterfly” – it’s a cracking good drama!

 

Book review – “The Memory Stones” by Caroline Brothers, published by Bloomsbury

The memory stones, from CB

BUENOS AIRES, 1976. Osvaldo Ferrero and his wife Yolanda escape the city’s heat with their daughters, Julieta and Graciela, who is madly in love. On their return, the military junta stages a coup, and Osvaldo is forced to flee. Graciela is abducted and becomes one of the ‘disappeared’. Yolanda fights on the ground for some trace of their beloved daughter, while Osvaldo can only witness the disintegration of his family from afar.

Soon Yolanda and Osvaldo realise that Graciela was expecting a baby when she was snatched; perhaps they are fighting for an unknown grandchild as well.

This is a great novel, in the sense that ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by Steinbeck is a great novel. It is driven by passionate indignation that men should do such wicked deeds, it tells the story through believable characters, and it is written with quiet words that nevertheless sing.

Caroline writes beautifully, and uses some vivid metaphors. There is, for example, a three page story of the travails of a letter through the streets of Buenos Aires. It tells the reader of the appalling crime that has been committed against Graciela with a forcefulness that description could never achieve on its own.

It’s difficult to bear the sadness and loss of the central characters. There were times when, despite the enthralling writing, I picked up the book with reluctance because it hurt so much. In reading the novel, I learned that the regime’s rule of terror took more than the lives of most of those who disappeared; it also took fulfilment from the lives of those whose families and friends were taken.

I was glad that I persisted in reading. Osvaldo and Yolanda are people of integrity, determination, and, above all, love. By the end of the story, love has won some victories to set against the evil of wicked men, and those victories are important. When you read this book – and you really should, for it is a deeply enriching experience – summon up your own integrity, determination and love, summon up your courage, and immerse yourself. It’s well worth it!

You can read more about the novel at https://www.facebook.com/MemoryStones1/

Review – My Husband Next Door

Author: Catherine Alliott
Enjoyment rating: 6/10
This is a literary novel; I think. It’s a love story (definitely a love story) but not a romantic love story (on the whole). You may by now have noticed that I find it difficult to categorise…
As the plot is important, and there’s something of a twist at the end, I shan’t provide any spoilers. Without giving away anything essential, I can say that the story is about Eleanor (Ella) who lives in a ramshackle farmhouse with her two teenage children. Her husband is a famous artist, Sebastian Montclair, who is now struggling to finish any paintings at all. He lives in a converted outhouse of the farm. Ella’s parents have a dysfunctional marriage, which reaches a critical point at the start of the novel. The story explores how the combination of circumstances affects Ella.
Ella is written in the first person. She is a maelstrom of disorderly emotions and the writing evokes this very well. In fact, at times I had to stop reading for several hours to calm down. She is by a long way the most believable character in the book.
Her husband, Sebastian, doesn’t feature very much in the action, but he’s very much at the heart of the story. The author uses great skill in showing how all the characters are aware of his presence, and how they respond to it.
The other characters are to a certain extent caricatures, although they permit some entertaining comedy. I particularly enjoyed one scene where Ella is receiving acupuncture treatment from her best friend (Acupuncture? What could possibly go wrong…?). Not all the comedy is successful, unless you like the ‘cringe with embarrassment’ school of comedy (which, personally, I don’t).
The reason I describe this as a literary novel is that it attempts a psychological rationale for the characters’ fates; it’s not simply about the outcome, but the way the outcome is achieved. There is a sense of negative actions and attitudes prompting further negativity in a downward spiral, and positive actions and attitudes similarly prompting a virtuous upward spiral. I’m not sure I found it convincing for these particular characters in their specific situation.
Even more importantly, I wasn’t convinced by the psychology of the painting, and the inability to finish. Never mind, it doesn’t spoil the read. This is definitely worth borrowing from the library!