by Virginia Moffat
published by: Unbound, 2017
Three generations of women are linked by repeating patterns of love, loss and conflict in times of war – the 1991 Gulf War, the 2nd World War and the 1st World War. This well-researched and very well written historical novel takes place in and near Echo Hall where the mysteries of thwarted love and disappointing relationships echo down the generations. In a climate of suffocating English reserve, women are kept in their place and silenced, while men go to war or are imprisoned for their pacifist beliefs. There are echoes of Wuthering Heights: love turns to obsession and bitterness, and the atmosphere of the novel is one of dark brooding and revenge. There is even a character called Earnshaw.
When Phoebe Flint visits Echo Hall in 2014 she begins to uncover the story of her family, the Flints (aptly named) who owned a stone quarry. Virginia Moffat has structured the novel in a very satisfying way: from the present we work our way back in time through the generations of Flints, to see the origins of all the sadness, then we travel back to the present again so that the story is resolved. A very pleasing arc.
The voices of each character are effectively evoked by mirroring the speech patterns of the appropriate time (1990s, 1940s and Edwardian). And there is just enough historical accuracy to make the story completely believable, rather than striving for effect by including too much detail, which often happens in historical fiction.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book is overlong; as the layers of family loss repeat themselves and accumulate, rather than making the story more powerful, the tragic effect is dulled. The repetition also means characters from each generation tend to blur. Initially I saw this as a fault, but on reflection this demonstrates just how effective the echoes of the tragedy are.
Overall Echo Hall is a good, historical family saga with some memorable scenes: the sudden death of a spouse, the delivery of a baby without medical assistance and the shared pleasure of watching a meteor shower. It is a story to read at a leisurely pace, to enjoy the gradual accumulation of sadness and the discovery of how misunderstandings happen.
Aha! Finally made the leap from sofa + notebook to office chair + my pc. I even opened a new folder and wrote the date + working title (very pretentious so I’m not going to tell you what it is). Strange to think that all these notes and random thoughts might be a novel after all. At the moment I have two unconnected voices, one of which I prefer so I may go with that one. But it’s exciting to see that after only a week I’m on page 19. OK some of the dialogue is clunky but this is the First Draft and it can all be revised. Or binned.
Reading: Echo Hall by Virginia Moffat. Crowdfunded by Unbound. Three generations of women experience love, loss and conflict in times of war. So far it’s a very good, old-fashioned ghost story (I think) like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
Travelling: to Leeds again. For birthday celebrations tomorrow with my daughter.
Exercising: a good way to think, come up with ideas. Jogging, walking and swimming.
Coming in at only 140 pages, Megan Hunter’s fascinating experimental novel is more a prose-poem or novella, but with the intensity of a short story. The text is divided by *** and interspersed with quasi biblical quotations. Everything has been pared down to the minimum: sentences are often so short as to be almost cryptic and names are only initials.
In a near future London floods catastrophically:
An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children. Ours.
The unnamed narrator has just given birth (to Z) so she and her partner, R head for the hills with millions of others, like mass hitchhiking with no lifts. The horror of sudden disaster and the struggle to survive is brought home by the stark contrast between the universality of what happens to them and the particulars of baby Z’s developmental progress:
here he is in his serious reaching, his controlled opening and sucking and swallowing… Z is trying to roll over… like someone trying to turn over a car with his bare hands. Impossible.
Megan Hunter’s debut novel is a tour de force of concision and emotional intensity. Not a word is wasted:
Here are some of R’s words for what happened: tussle, squabble, slaughter.
A sudden death is described almost as briefly as a telegram:
Panic. Crush. G. Panicked. Crushed.
There is also room for dark humour. When the family is trying to reach safety there is the disconnect between their previous comfortable, on-line lives and the present:
He has not spent hours poring over comparative reviews of refugee camps.
Without giving too much away this short tale of disaster could be bleak, but ends with the triumph of hope over adversity, the human will to keep going and survive. I’m working on a similar theme in my new novel so now that I’ve read The end we start from I’m really going to have to up my game!
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel is an intriguing story about the complex psychological life of Ada, a young Nigerian woman. Her multiple personalities are envisaged as figures from Igbo mythology and Christianity, and there is constant conflict and emotional stress as these characters fight to gain control of Ada. A difficult subject dealt with in a fascinating and original way. But this is not an easy book to read on any level.
I found the magical realism off-putting and sometimes confusing and there is a tendency towards unnecessary repetition; but Akwaeke Emezi is a skilled and imaginative writer and I look forward to reading her next novel.
My rating * * *
A coming of age novel set in 1950s Canada. When their mother marries Eugene, Willa and her older sister Joan are thrown together with his sons, Kenneth and Patrick, the ‘demigods’ of the title.
Their mother spends her days drinking and smoking, arguing with Eugene while the girls are left to their own devices. Joan and Kenneth quickly pair off leaving Willa with Patrick. There’s an unspoken attraction between them, but it’s laced with bullying and cruelty. In the first scene Patrick makes Willa go out in a leaking boat and she’s badly stung by jellyfish, but she colludes in hiding what has happened. The novel then focuses on key episodes as they grow up and meet, each time the erotic attraction becoming more intense, until it goes beyond experimental cruelty and lives are at risk. By the end, the demigods are brought down to size.
We see the fragility of children growing up with parents who are damaged or who have mental health problems, and in this wonderful debut novel Eliza Robertson achieves the intensity and focus of the short story (a form she has already mastered). Towards the end there is arguably a drop in energy, but this is a new and exciting voice in fiction. ‘Demigods’ is a compelling novel written with extraordinary freshness and originality.
* * * * *
Between catching trains, hospital visits and hosting leaving parties for my daughter (going travelling for 6 months) I’ve only been able to write in short bursts this week. I’ve written more than I imagined… still all notes and sketches longhand, but it’s coming together slowly. Perhaps limiting myself to these constrained units of time is more productive. A good way to make myself focus. It’s certainly generated some unexpected characters and phrases. Including: ‘whatever is lost must look for me’. Odd.
Reading: ‘Demigods’ *****
Travelling: to Leeds and to Aldeburgh (on a rail replacement bus)
Listening: to Charles Causley’s poetry set to music by his relative the folk singer, Jim Causley. Beautiful.