Review: All my mad mothers

All My Mad Mothers

At the core of All My Mad Mothers lies a complex network of parent figures. For the poet, this has meant the challenge of growing up with a kaleidoscope of mothers, fathers and step-parents, especially the ‘mad mothers’ of the title poem. We see mothers: driving ‘round and round in shrinking circles’ or ‘in a bath of extra virgin olive oil’ or ‘dispensing strings of aphorisms on the subject of assertion’ or who ‘bagged up all my old words, took them to / the charity shop’. Yet, rather than fragility, there is a sense that the ‘I’ of the poems has achieved strength and resilience. She’s learned how to adapt to these shifting patterns of parenting, both as a daughter and later as a mother.

Many of the poems and prose poems in this collection are playful, inventive and surprising. In Crete, 1980 Jacquie Saphra gently sends up early attempts at sexual relationships: she is ‘girlish and abandoned,’ and ‘I howled into the drunken dark for / stupid reasons’. In Virginity she recalls her mother’s advice to lose her virginity before a continental holiday rather than ‘drag / the weight of it / along with my other baggage / all that way across the English Channel.’ Volunteers, 1978, a poem about working on a kibbutz, perfectly captures the frivolousness of privilege and the ignorance of youth, when military service and the possibility of being shot is ‘really, really funny.’ There are also poems about the surprise and pleasure of love in later life. In a beautifully achieved villanelle, Kiss/Kiss, she describes: a ‘deeper’ love that in a kiss has ‘all the years of reckoning pressed / between our lips.’

There is humour and warmth as well as pleasure in the poems that focus on friendships but, as in Soup there is often a sting in the tale – friends discussing ‘why death, that common leveller, always comes / as a shock’ find themselves imagining how it would be if a friend were to die on the day of another’s wedding. In the deeply sad and moving poem, The Sound of Music the poet realises that problems in later life are already encapsulated in innocent childhood games: when a sister takes an overdose – ‘you can squander a lifetime / trying to stay small and pretty’.

Poems that deal with the loss felt when children grow up and leave, coupled with pride in a daughter or son’s achievements are poignant. Many of the poems evidence a strong thread of feminism. In The Doors to my Daughter’s House the narrator has ‘lingered’ until her daughter is ‘one with the horizon’ – and ‘she’s made it plain that I must never lean against / those doors she’s carved,’ – a beautiful image of how children move away and start their own lives. In listing all the ways in which children mark out their own individuality – the ‘dogs and woks and all things green’ we feel ‘the helpless / love one creature must bear another.’

This is a delightful collection of moving, funny and clever poems with snippets, anecdotes and observations that always ring true. As a contemporary, many of these poems resonated with me. Ultimately Jacquie Saphra gives us a wry look at life that, in spite of everything, always returns to the strength of friendship and the love of family, to soup and safety. All My Mad Mothers is a collection to come back to and reread.


Jacquie Saphra’s new book, A Bargain with the Light: poems after Lee Miller from Hercules Editions will be published in September 2017.


My name is Leon


by Kit de Waal

published by Penguin books, 2017

A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you’d least expect to find one.

My review:

The story of one boy’s search for a family. Set in the early 1980’s, Leon looks after his baby brother, but increasingly has to care for his mother as well; and he’s only nine years old. When social services become involved his whole life changes. His baby brother is white and is adopted, but Leon’s father is black so he is separated from his brother and fostered by kindly, larger than life, red-haired Maureen.

In spite of his mother’s mental health problems and the neglect he suffers, Leon loves his mother and wants to bring his family back together, but everything is against him.

Set against the IRA hunger-strikes and the overt racism of the early 1980’s this is a vivid, well-written story that builds to a nail-biting conclusion. Told entirely from Leon’s point of view, the reader sees how family break-up, especially the separation of siblings, can lead to emotional fall-out, but, ultimately, with the right care can lead to a new kind of stability and happiness.

I found many echoes of Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son, set in Northern Ireland at a similar period also with an unreliable, working class child narrator. This debut novel from acclaimed and award-winning short story writer, Kit de Waal is warm and funny and is told with an authenticity and unaffectedness that makes it heart-breaking.

Highly recommended.




           Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Kit de Waal, born in Birmingham to an Irish mother and Kittian father, worked for fifteen years in criminal and family law. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers and Oxford Narrative Group.

After securing the book deal with Penguin, she used some of her advance to set up a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London to improve working-class representation in the arts. In a Guardian interview (3.2.16) de Waal describes how: “When I got a better deal than I ever thought I’d get, I wanted to do something that could make a difference, rather than just buy a car,” she says. “I wanted to really change someone’s life. A creative writing master’s is a guarantee of absolutely nothing, but I wanted to give somebody the chance. A chance they’d never normally have, or even dare think they could have.”

The award is designed to help some of the most marginalised people in society gain access to creative writing opportunities. People from low-income backgrounds or with disabilities, ex-offenders and black and Asian applicants are all encouraged to apply.



Review: American War

by Omar El Akkad
published by: Picador, 2017

American War (Amazon)

*** Disappointing

In the near future, climate change, rising sea levels and war have changed the global political and geographical landscape, with power shifted away from the US and into the hands of China and the Arabic Bouazizi Empire. North America has suffered catastrophic flooding and is in the grip of a second civil war over the banning of fossil fuels. The south won’t give up. South Carolina is shut off because of a crippling plague.

American War centres on Sarat, one of twins, whose family tries to make it to the north, to escape their hand-to-mouth existence in the south, but end up living for years in a sprawling refugee camp. There’s a constant threat of ‘Birds’, drones flying overhead to drop bombs, as well as from ‘homicide’ bombers carrying bombs or bacteria and viruses. The novel gives a bleak portrait of how an intelligent girl, marked out by her unusual physical size, becomes radicalised, and the terrible consequences of global warming and world war. Sarat’s story is pieced together, from her own diaries and from historical documents, by her dying nephew.

In this, Omar el Akkad’s first novel, we see a vividly realised world – the logical consequence of our love of fossil fuels and indifference to the scientific evidence for climate change. The novel is chilling in its bleak vision. But, clunky dialogue, too much ‘telling’ and a tendency to include whole chunks of description, make it disappointing. With a few more drafts and the possibility of some hope (surely essential to any novel about the survival of the human species) it could have been a superb debut.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn Ali SmithAs ever, Ali Smith shows off her prodigious talent for challenging the novel form. In Autumn, she focuses on themes readers will be familiar with from previous novels: the vital importance of reading and art, relationships that don’t meet conventional expectations, the gaze, and the mutability of time. Set shortly after the Brexit referendum, she moves between characters, and jumps forwards and backwards across years and decades to create a flickering world where time stretches and contracts. ‘Time travel is real…We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.’ At the heart of the novel is the unconventional relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel who met when she interviewed him for a school project about neighbours; she was a child and he already middle aged, but it was a meeting of minds that gradually turned into love.

When the novel begins Daniel is in a nursing home dreaming, in the ‘increased sleep period’ that happens when people are ‘close to death’ and Elisabeth is an adult. In a faintly menacing scene the box-ticking mentality of many contemporary jobs is sent up as Elisabeth attempts to renew her new passport. ‘This isn’t fiction, the man says. This is the Post Office.’ Since the vote to leave the E U everyone is in a ‘sullen state’, neighbour against neighbour and ‘All across the country there was misery and rejoicing.’ The shocking death of the M P Jo Cox hardly registers because news is changing so rapidly ‘like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.’ As well as the refugee crisis, zero hours jobs, student debt and Brexit there is also the ominous ‘wedge’ of lies between people, and the ‘end of dialogue’ and trust – the insidious ‘fake news’ under Trump. Everywhere there are fences, both literal and metaphorical.

When Elisabeth finds out that Daniel, who she’s not seen for several years, is gravely ill, she goes to sit by his bedside and waits for him to wake up, with his usual playful greeting: ‘What you reading?’ Hope comes from reading and from art. ‘Always be reading something,’ Daniel tells Elisabeth ‘Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will be read the world?’ I was fascinated to discover the pop artist Pauline Boty and to see how, as so often happens with women, she was largely forgotten after her early death, despite her ground breaking work. It is Boty’s art, made by ‘a woman full of joy’, that Ali Smith holds up as a protest against the darkness. She wanted to be ‘accepted as a human being, a person with a mind,’ who ‘really liked making people happy’. A hugely important message for these troubled times. Ultimately Autumn is about hope – we are in dire and quickly changing political times, but love and art can still triumph over our own transience.

published in paperback by Penguin, 2017

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017

Review: Midwinter Break

Midwinter Break

A finely nuanced story. Warm, tender and funny, as well as moving.

Stella and Gerry, in late middle age are having a break in Amsterdam. They have the kinds of habits that only develop over a long marriage – kissing in a lift if they’re on their own, always holding hands to cross roads. Then there’s ‘ailment hour’ when they devote no more than sixty minutes to their various aches and illnesses. Gerry’s a retired architect and sees life in terms of space and distance; Stella is more spiritual and has reached the stage where she can’t live with his alcoholism. They spend time together and apart visiting the sights of Amsterdam and keeping warm, and as Gerry keeps up a constant stream of jokes and gently mocks the religion that Stella has been turning to more and more, his alcoholism is outlined in all its self-deceptive steps. Drink brings a ‘distancing’ for Gerry; he can ‘spread his wings, rising on the thermals of the first couple of glasses’ but he’s constantly monitoring in case Stella sees him and, making sure of his ‘Traveller’s Friend’, to know he has access to alcohol. He knows his health is suffering and he sees ‘stars against the night sky. Marcasite jabs and darts.’ He fears he might have a stroke.

Looking at a painting together of The Jewish Bride Stella describes it as a painting about touch: ‘Hands. Hands everywhere,’ and goes on to say ‘You can see he cherishes her… but she’s not so sure…’ which also describes their own relationship. She wants a change and one reason she’s chosen Amsterdam is to explore the possibility of joining a women’s religious community. For her the ‘break’ of the title could be more permanent than a holiday, but ‘how could changes be made at her age? To even think of leaving seemed such an impossibility.’

The point of view moves seamlessly from Stella to Gerry, and from present to past, showing the intensity of their relationship when they first met: ‘To her ear his speech seemed fresh-minted’ and he remembers how her skin was ‘flawless, translucent, smooth. It seemed to have light coming from it in the dark.’ Particularly poignant when a separation is a strong possibility. We find out that when Stella was pregnant, during the Troubles in Ireland, she was accidentally shot – ‘Death had winged her.’ In hospital she’d vowed to ‘devote the rest of my life to You’ if the child lived. Now she suffers from flashbacks to the shooting, and also guilt because she hasn’t kept her side of the promise. She wants to ‘live a more devout life’ and tells Gerry: ‘we’ve cut the cloth of our lives wrongly. It doesn’t fit.’

Towards the end of the novel, their flight home delayed for hours because of snow, they reach an uneasy compromise. They’re so much part of each other and Stella knows he’ll only quit drinking if she helps him. For Gerry ‘her presence was as important as the world. And the stars around it. If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.’

Midwinter Break is a subtle and beautifully written novel.

Review: Madame Bovary of the Suburbs

by Sophie Divry
published by: MacLehose Press, 2017

Mme Bovary of the Suburbs

The French title of the novel La Condition Pavillonnaire, could be literally translated as ‘Suburban Life’, but for an English reader the Flaubert reference is made explicit. Madame Bovary of the Suburbs focuses on a woman (like Flaubert’s heroine) who marries a dull, plodding, timid man ‘a reassuring support’ and subsequently has an affair. When she’s rejected, unlike Emma Bovary, instead of resorting to arsenic, ‘you’, or the character sometimes referred to as M A stays with her husband; and we see her ordinary life unfold from childhood to old age and death, from the era of VHS to iPod, and from suburban 1970s to the present day. This excellent translation by Alison Anderson captures 1970s slang and subtly changes as M A ages.

In this wry take on Flaubert’s masterpiece, written in the strangely intimate but at the same time distancing, almost anonymous second person, ‘you’ are Emma Bovary transposed to the suburban life of the late 20th, early 21st century. Nothing has really changed from the 19th century; in a materialistic world women’s lives are still marked by the struggle between freedom and comfort. As a mother, ‘you’ have to ‘conscript your body in the service of the smooth operation of the family machine…overwhelmed by the bodies of others.’ Ultimately, in this very French novel, this conflict results in an existence where something is always missing; and you constantly look for the ‘tug of novelty’ to give your life meaning, whether it’s through work, children, affairs, material goods, yoga or art. This struggle to feel fulfilled, results in an existence that is absurd. The human condition.

Although we believe we’re all unique and individual, the patterns, set by social norms, by child-rearing, by ageing and by our own personalities, are inescapable; ultimately, we find we have become our parents. Then it starts all over again: ‘another pregnant woman will come to live under this roof.’ Until we realise that life is made up of ‘the present tense of a sentence in which one is breathing, not on an event situated in the future’, we are doomed to frustration and after every new experience we’ll find ourselves ‘standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’ In this surprisingly moving book Sophie Divry shows us that if we always expect life to consist of ‘intense’ experiences, we’ll be disappointed.

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs is a profound, modern, ironic take on the human condition.