Review: The Bends

by: Matt Barnard
published by: Eyewear Publishing Ltd, 2017

The Bends Matt Barnard

Eyewear Publishing aims to produce beautifully-designed, brilliantly-written, affordable books and has a great track record of publishing new and interesting poets. Matt Barnard’s debut pamphlet is an excellent collection of eclectic and wide-ranging poems that combine musicality with precise language; often surprising and entertaining, and always thoughtful and reflective.

It’s clear why the first poem, Eel, was highly commended in the 2015 Bridport Prize – its narrative of horror and empathy, as well as wonder, is particularly moving: in spite of the ‘oily body slick/ with power and potential’ someone takes pity on the eel and ‘with tender fingers/ sluiced the water through his gills…’ Matt Barnard has a steady eye when it comes to the natural world, and his language reflects this precision. In the wonderful Fallen Angels God has punished the angels by turning them into gannets: ‘perfect/from their stencilled beaks/to their rimless blue eyes’.

In several poems Bible stories are re-imagined: in The Old Whaler, Jonah the ‘retired prophet’ lives with the remains of the great whale ‘bones like words without the freight of meaning.’ In Noah to God we feel Noah’s fear and bewilderment – his ‘grief moves like the sea’ and, breathing in the smell of the animals, he can still hear the screams of his neighbours and their drowning children.

In the title poem, The Bends ‘those who return too fast from a foreign element’ are warned to ‘Listen/ to your breathing’ and be thankful for your own life, your own limits; the earthworm ‘eats his element’ and ‘knows the vengeance of birds, their iron beaks.’ There are also poems about neighbours, parenthood, old age and the brevity of life, with a leavening of humorous poems in Dogdom and the final playful poem, A Gibbous Moon.

This is a strong debut  with well-wrought, enjoyable and moving poems that look at life in all its strange variations. I’m looking forward to Matt Barnard’s first full collection published by The Onslaught Press in early 2018.

Matt blogs here:

The Bends is available from:


Review: The Destroyers

The Destroyers.png* * * * *

Ian Bledsoe, red-haired and ‘a professional big heart’, has been discredited and disinherited, so leaves the U S to make a last ditch attempt at starting over on the holiday island of Patmos. Charlie, his childhood friend, runs a business letting out luxury yachts and, very soon takes Ian on as his ‘Number 2’. Ian thinks his luck has turned: he’s got a job on an idyllic Greek island, he’s mixing with the rich and beautiful and he meets an old girlfriend. But no one is quite as care-free or innocent as they seem.
Growing up, Ian and Charlie used to play ‘destroyers’: a game in which they set up increasingly dangerous imaginary scenarios for each other to escape from, like an elaborate game of chess. The novel is based on the conceit that Charlie is now playing for real; and when he goes missing, Ian is unwittingly pulled in. ‘One lie concocted between old friends… [grows] to the size of an island’ and soon he’s involved in the murky dealings of Charlie’s real enterprise, complete with dodgy priests, a shady group of hippies hoping for the apocalypse, and drugs, diamonds and dynamite; all set against the tragic background of the Syrian refugee crisis.
The Destroyers examines: loyalty & friendship, fathers & sons, the use & abuse of power, as well as deception & self-deception. The fast-moving plot twists and turns, the characters are all suitably flawed and interesting, and the prose is a joy to read.

I read this book in two sittings; it would make a fantastically absorbing holiday read.

Review: The Unseen

by Roy Jacobsen, trans. Don Bartlett & Don Shaw
published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books [August 2016]
My rating *****
The Unseen.png
Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

The Unseen is a powerful evocation of the lives of a family living on Barroy, a tiny, remote Norwegian island at the beginning of the last century. Against a background of extreme poverty their lives are harsh and simple, but despite ‘a dark disposition, they are beset not with fear but solemnity.’ There is a sense of time passing very slowly, of lives being lived on the island over hundreds of years; even the location of their house is ‘the product of collective inherited wisdom, built on bitter experience.’ These are the ‘unseen’, the ordinary people.

The family is small: Hans (the father, ‘a human machine’ keen to improve their lives), his sister Barbro (who has learning disability but is a hard worker), his wife Maria (who came from a different island and yearns to go back) and his father Martin, (who is aging and always angry), ‘his great hands resting like empty, immovable shells on his knees.’ Then there is Ingrid, the daughter, a laughing, carefree five year old who develops ‘a strange gravity’ as she becomes a young woman repeating but altering the patterns of her parents. There are occasional visitors but they ‘create a loss’ and those left behind learn ‘the island’s slow lessons in loneliness.’ When Hans arranges for their milk to be collected and sold, the family becomes ‘a name on the map, they are visible.’ But it’s Ingrid who by the end of the novel, makes the family financially secure and, symbolically, paints the house white so that ‘there wasn’t an eye that couldn’t see it.’ The family is no longer ‘unseen’, reflecting the huge changes in ordinary lives that take place during the 20th century.
The island is rarely quiet. We think of The Tempest – ‘the isle is full of noises’ but on Barroy they are not ‘sweet airs that give delight’, they are the sounds of howling winds and the severe storms that batter the island; as well as the constant sound of the sea. When there is silence it is ‘a tiny glimpse of death they have while they are still alive.’
The Unseen is told simply with almost monotonous detail about processes: construction, farming, cutting peat, mending nets and drying fish or collecting down from eider ducks. The translators have invented their own dialect to reflect how the islanders speak to each other: ‘Hva did A tell tha!’ Hard pithy exchanges. Inner life and introspection are rare – there is too much to do to afford the luxury of ‘self’, and such instances are usually bound up with a sudden appreciation of the beauty of the island, the very fact of being alive. ‘The next day the sea was calm. The sky was blueish black and as lustrous as a luminescent sea.’
Jacobsen’s language, in this fine translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett & Don Shaw, is spare and plain, echoing hard physical lives pitted against the elements; but it is shot through with a yearning beauty: ‘if you hold a ball of uncarded down in one hand and a ball of carded down in the other you cannot bear the thought of not cleaning it all, it would drive you mad if you didn’t remove the small bits of twig and grass and shell, you would rather die than suffer that.’
By the end of The Unseen, there is an overwhelming sense of the repeating patterns of human existence: people work, have children, then grow old or lose their grip on reality and die; they return to the earth, and become part of the island. Then the cycle begins again. But this is not a depressing novel: the iteration of their unrelenting, daily struggle in this harsh but beautiful environment, ultimately has a cumulative effect which is extraordinarily moving.


Review: A Secret Sisterhood

A secret sisterhood

In A Secret Sisterhood, Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney explore the often forgotten, or glossed-over, friendships between women writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Historically, male literary friendships whether supportive or acrimonious, have been meticulously scrutinised and recorded, with whole volumes devoted to: Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Verlaine and Rimbaud to name but a few. And, in this traditionally male-dominated society, important friendships between women writers have been consigned to oblivion. Austen is remembered for her place in the family and for her unmarried status; Charlotte Bronte is cast as the devoted older sister, defined by her early death; George Eliot is seen as a solitary figure shunning convention to live with George Henry Lewes, and Woolf has been defined by her mental instability and by her vindictive relationship with Katherine Mansfield.


A Secret Sisterhood turns this ideal of the ‘angel in the house’ on its head. Yes, these women may have had siblings and partners to support them, but they also benefitted from complex and close female friendships that rewarded and challenged them, both emotionally and as writers. Austen valued the friendship of her niece’s governess who wrote dramas; Charlotte Bronte found it in Mary Taylor, an early feminist, and Eliot enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with Harriet Beecher-Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Woolf’s relationship with Mansfield was precarious, but they recognised in each other the literary genius in the ‘echo coming back to me from her mind’. A Secret Sisterhood shows us how friends and family hid these ‘sisterhoods’ and suppressed documentary evidence of friendships that didn’t fit the image of the ‘lady writer’. I was particularly taken by Charlotte Bronte’s friendship with the feminist Mary Taylor who said of her decision to learn algebra ‘it is odd in a woman to learn it, and I like to establish my right to be doing odd things.’ She also defied convention by travelling to New Zealand as a single woman.


Beginning with their blog Something Rhymed, Emily and Emma have minutely researched the correspondence and diaries of these four writers, as well as bringing to light new evidence, to provide a fascinating exploration of writerly relationships. In their own friendship they have supported and celebrated each other’s literary careers since the first meeting in their early twenties when they admitted to each other that they were writers.


They have a fine eye for period detail, although for any reader already familiar with Victorian and early 20th century novels, it may be unnecessary and indeed occasionally strays into over-writing. But, with a foreword by Margaret Atwood, known for her ability to hold the mirror up to societal norms, A Secret Sisterhood is a much-needed piece of research as well as very readable and accessible. The research is so well integrated that it’s only when you look at the extensive notes and bibliography that you see the detective work that has gone into the book. A Secret Sisterhood also benefits from a beautifully designed and eye-catching cover which would make it a fine present for a book-loving friend.


For a woman, until relatively recently, it was so ‘odd’ both to be a writer and to have female friends that it was largely kept hidden. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Clare Sweeney have done us a great service in bringing the secret out into the open.


emilly and emma

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Clare Sweeney



My interview with Clare Fisher about ‘All the Good Things’

Thanks to Penguin for including me on the blog tour of Clare Fisher’s stunning debut novel All the Good Things. Do look at other blogs too!

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Ali: Thank you, Clare for agreeing to speak to me about your writing, and the publication of your debut novel All the Good Things. What I find compelling about this novel is the voice – completely original, down-to-earth and engaging. How did you develop Beth’s character? I know writers hate being asked this, but readers are always curious, so how much does Beth reflect any particular person you know?
Clare: It’s funny you mention the voice, because that is exactly where this novel began: I was going to sleep one night and I just heard it. I told it to please wait until the morning, but it refused, so I got up, scribbled it into my notebook, and Beth grew from there. I wrote the first draft quite quickly but I had to go back and rewrite to make her character more nuanced and detailed, sorting her reactions from my own. Beth isn’t inspired by a particular person — I can’t imagine writing any convincing fiction that was — however, growing up in south London and then working with young people in education, I came across many young women like Beth, and was always struck and bothered by how little they were represented in fiction.

Ali: How did you come up with idea of the diary of ‘good things’? It works particularly well as a structure for a novel. It could so easily have been a depressing read which it definitely isn’t. Instead, although desperately sad, the novel left me feeling uplifted.
Clare: The idea of the good things came quite early on — it was what kept me going back to Beth. The list also enabled me to find the universal in what is a very particular experience; trying to find hope in life is something we all will struggle with from time to time. I also think a lot of women — myself included — really struggle with self-esteem, constantly criticising and doubting themselves. If Beth can learn to see herself as good, surely we all can.

Ali: You paint the intensity of child birth and bonding with a new baby very realistically, and your evocation of prison sounds frighteningly authentic. How did you research the novel? How much of it is based on your own experience?
Clare: Beth’s life is a long way from my own life. Although I was born in south London and brought up by a single mother, our similarities end about there. I’ve never given birth, however I’ve always been fascinated and terrified by the whole business; growing a creature inside you, getting it out into the world, looking after it… How do we just keep on doing it? This was what drove me through these sections, although I also did a lot of Googling and talking to women I know who have gone through it, to make sure of the details, not least my own Mum, who has always been very open with me about this and many other things. The prison sections were developed hugely by reading books written by those in prison, speaking to some very helpful researchers and people who’d worked in both the prison and the care systems, and visiting a women’s prison myself. The prison visit was really valuable, both for showing me the physical details I could never have imagined, as well as the wide variety of women who are in there —- women who are so much more than the label ‘prisoner’ would lead you to believe. I also got the sense that being in prison had forced many into a kind of reckoning with themselves — the kind it is so much easier to avoid in everyday life. A majority of women in prison have histories of abuse as children and of domestic violence; for many, prison is the first chance they’ve had to understand their journeys, heal and grow. I hoped to capture this atmosphere of emotional intensity and immediacy in the novel.

Ali: I’ve worked (in education) with vulnerable children and families like Beth’s. I love the way you’ve given a voice to the people on the fringes of society, the ones many novel-readers might only encounter on say the Jeremy Kyle show, and easy to dismiss in a glib way; but you give her a strong individual voice as well as dignity, pathos and a sense of humour. The novel raises question about society in general: the social care system, how people with mental health issues are supported and how women are treated by the prison service. All very big issues. What made you want to tackle these in a novel?                   Clare: Thanks! Having worked with vulnerable children in education, and grown up in an area of south London which was incredibly diverse, I’ve always been aware that there’s this vast area of society which is little represented in contemporary fiction. When we do hear about young women such as Beth, it’s often in a derogatory, moralising, sensationalized way, as you point out. When I write fiction, the starting point is always the character, their voice, and trying to make them as real and nuanced as possible; I hoped that in doing this with Beth, I could show how the structural inequalities and injustices you mention impact on a person who is not the monster of tabloid headlines and ‘freak-show’ style TV documentaries but an individual with strengths and flaws, just like any of us. I like to read fiction that takes me to places, be they psychological, cultural, geographical, that I would not normally go; Beth’s story gripped me from the moment I started writing because it felt, at last, like I’d found a way to do this myself.

Ali: I understand that you’re planning to publish a collection of short stories later in the year. How much of a resurgence do you think there is in the shorter form?
Clare: Yes, that’s right, I will publish a collection of (very) short fiction, How The Light Gets In, in early 2018 with Influx Press. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to talk about the resurgence of the shorter form in general; but I certainly love it myself! I still don’t quite understand why reading short fiction has yet to become a widespread national habit the way novels have; it’s so much more suited to modern lives, bisected as they are by busy jobs, commutes, Smartphones, etc. But there is certainly a growing interest in the shorter form, and the rise of spoken word and live literature events is definitely providing a lot of new and exciting avenues for this infinitely shareable form. It’s exciting!

Ali: Which writers do you admire and emulate most (living or dead)?
Clare: Oh wow, where to begin? There are so many. Just so many. I like writing which shakes me, which really delves into difficult places, places I’ve not been before, and which will change how I experience the world from the moment of reading onwards. A few writers who have done this for me are Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Eimer McBride, Lydia Davis, Warsan Shire, Leonora Carrington, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Kate Tempest … I could really keep going for a very long time, and I’m sure some male writers would emerge, eventually, but I’ll leave it there, I think.

Ali: You talk about the importance of ‘letting our stories grow’ and listening to others – do you think we’re losing the capacity to listen and to tell stories, with our obsession with information and addiction to social media?
Clare: I think social media prioritises a certain kind of story, which is not really a story, but a very superficial kind of information exchange. Inevitably — and I say this as someone who spends more time on social media than I should! — this eats into time where people might otherwise engage with something more nourishing. However, I think the hunger for complex, satisfying stories is one that will never go away; the internet and social media can also be a great way of discovering new stories, books, places, etc. It’s when it becomes an end in itself, that the trouble starts… But I have faith that people’s real appetites will always win out, eventually.

Ali: You grew up in South London and now live in Leeds. I read that you see London as ‘edgeless; you can dive into it and swim around, coming across new people, new places, new ideas and movements seemingly forever.’ Do you find the same in Leeds? And do you feel as if you belong to both equally?
Clare: When I first moved to Leeds I was struck and quite disturbed by the obviousness of its edge: even from the centre you can look out and see vast stretches of green. You only have to go a few miles out to find woodland, unclaimed land, even the occasional stray horse. It is, of course, a far smaller city; it would be unfair to expect the same metropolitan buzz as London. It does, however, as I have discovered in the years since I moved here, have its own and very special beat. There is more space and, seemingly, more time; I doubt I’d have written a novel whilst working full-time in London, for example! There are all sorts of thriving arts scenes and people are friendly and supportive of one another. It’s easier to try out new things even if you don’t have a ton of money — which, sadly, seems less and less the case in London. I’ve come to love both cities in different ways and feel very lucky to be able to call them both home.

Ali: Thank you very much for answering my questions, Clare and good luck with your amazing book.

All the Good Things is available from all good bookshops and from Amazon:






Review: ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’

My rating *****

My review

A stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G invites a retired judge to watch his show. Afterwards he wants to know what you saw…What do people know when they look at me…the thing that comes out of a person without his control. But it’s hardly an evening of comedy: even when he laughs, his look is calculating and joyless; the jokes are tasteless and cruel, and the slapstick is violent. No one is exempt – those with disabilities and even victims of the Holocaust: she had a lot of experience with camping…although her camps were more of the concentration variety.

Soon, as the jokes are dropped and the show becomes more autobiography than stand-up, members of the audience start to walk out. But, like the judge, we can’t turn away or avert our gaze. We want to know why – what has happened to the funny kid with glasses and prominent lips that the judge once knew as a child forty years previously, to turn him into this monster? As Dovaleh’s show spirals down, and the judge experiences increasingly gloomy and often angry memories, we gradually piece together a version of the story. The final scenes are stretched out to an almost unbearable breaking point as we witness the trauma that has marked Dovaleh for life and is constantly in his dreams. Such dirt on me, such pollution… God, all the way to my bones…We watch like voyeurs, but we still can’t look away. We’re gripped until the end.

This profoundly moving novel holds up the conflict inherent in using human suffering for art, the relationship between the performer and the audience, our complicity and the uncomfortable space where these all meet. We witness both the inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity of ordinary personal loss (the judge) and the loss that never stops and colours a whole life (Dovaleh). We see how we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves and what we choose to forget.

The overarching question raised by this deeply sad but often very wild and funny novel, is the question of anti-Semitism, the ‘Jewish’ question, whose echoes continue to reverberate down the generations since the Holocaust.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is not an easy read – it is harrowing, poignant and powerful. But it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and now a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017, shared between the author, David Grossman and his English translator, Jessica Cohen.

David Grossman & Jessica Cohen