Review: Conversations with Friends

conversations with friends ppb

paperback published, 2018
Well I’m gay and Frances is a communist.

Frances and Bobbi, both twenty-one and very bright, are university students in Dublin. They’ve had a gay relationship but are still best friends; Frances is an aspiring writer and she and Bobbi perform spoken word poetry at night. When they meet Melissa, a photographer in her thirties who wants to write a profile on them, Bobbi is attracted to Melissa and Frances begins an affair with Nick, Melissa’s glamorous actor husband.
Everyone labels Frances as cool, but it is more that she is guarded and reserved – there’s a history of family instability and, in spite of her political beliefs, she’s financially dependent on her father, a sad shadowy alcoholic. Seen through Frances’ eyes the world is flat, colourless and cerebral. She’s detached from her own emotions and, as she and Bobbi analyse their lives, without becoming emotionally involved, the language of the novel reinforces this sense of distancing.
I had a headache, I hadn’t eaten. My body felt used-up and worthless to me. I didn’t want to put food or medicine into it anymore.

At first Frances hardly knows herself – she is young and naïve; it’s only by observing her own actions and reactions that she comes to a level of understanding, as she tries to reconcile her intellectual beliefs with the messy reality of relationships. She falls in love with Nick but, of course, he comes with his own baggage and vulnerabilities – a complicated backstory of depression and his wife’s infidelities.

Frances keeps the affair secret and ultimately runs the risk of alienating everyone she cares about: her father, Nick and Bobbi. She uses her ‘coolness’ as a shield to hide behind and when everything starts to go wrong, both emotionally and physically, she starts to fall apart and takes it out on her own body.

By the end of the novel Frances is beginning to grow up: she has learned that it’s impossible to live in a completely cerebral way; like everyone else, she is subject to the limitations of her body. If she wants to be happy she will have to compromise.
You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.

In this intriguing novel. Sally Rooney shows how precocious intellectual brilliance can mask ordinary vulnerability, and she has achieved a rare feat in letting us observe the complex process of Frances coming to terms with how to live her life.

Review: A Secret Sisterhood

A secret sisterhood

Now out in paperback, A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney, explores 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 emmaEmily Midorikawa and Emma Clare Sweeney

Review: Painter to the King

Painter to the King.pngA compelling portrait of the long professional relationship between the painter, Diego Velazquez and his master, the 17th century King of Spain, Philip IV.

Amy Sackville uses the paintings themselves to create a vivid evocation of a dark, claustrophobic court where power is concentrated on the person of the king. As a young man, Velazquez is summoned to the court and (apart from a few visits home to Seville or to Italy) for the rest of his life there he stays, painting portraits of the king and members of his family.

In times of peace and war, and in the face of personal bereavement, Philip must be seen as a king who makes his confession to god and although melancholy by temperament he must be A Planet King, a golden king to warm and shine upon this golden age. We see the extravagance of the court but we also see the precarious nature of favour – the use and abuse of power; who’s in and who’s out. Inside their black clothes in the dark, [the courtiers] sweat like animals. The overriding requirement is for Philip to provide an heir (male) but this proves to be difficult; and over decades, as he ages and loses members of his family, the king gradually becomes increasingly world-weary. All of this is recorded by Velazquez’ paintbrush.

At a time of primitive medical knowledge, with the ever-present shadow of death waiting in the background, we see the fragility of life. A lot of people die in this novel, whether it’s children taken by a fever, women dying in childbirth or people simply succumbing to one of the many illnesses that were untreatable at the time. The brooding sense of imprisonment creeps into Sackville’s own sense of life passing, of the skull under the skin.

The story is told through the eyes of both painter and king, but what makes this intriguing novel even more nuanced is that throughout the work the author places herself in the narrative, as in the work of W G Sebald. In the present day we see Sackville travelling in Spain, researching the period, following in Velazquez’s footsteps and searching for traces of his life beyond that of his paintings.

None of these things, these solid objects on an outdoor table at the centre of this plaza in Madrid this evening, now seem as solid as that glossy red onion that rotted almost four hundred years ago.

Sackville’s language is lyrical and poetic, rich and minutely observed. She describes a feast:

… the larded lamb, the tongues of oxen mute and resting heavy on their silver plates; and the costly scents of spices, of saffron, of chocolate, shipped from the Americas… the almond confections and sticky honeyed fruit and cakes…

What is so striking about this novel is the link between the observer and the observed, how a painting conveys life but (like a photo) is a record of a past moment and, in the case of a court painter, of people who are long dead. Sackville uses words to convey a sense of what perhaps it feels like to make art, the habit of art as a daily occupation; which for an artist is so fulfilling and all consuming. Her own work echoes this obsessional need to work.

Painter to the King is a moving treatise on the brevity of human life, and of how little most of us leave behind, unless it’s art. This is not a depressing work. A moving, thought-provoking and fascinating glimpse into history and into all of our lives.

Amy Sackville, author of Orkney

                Amy Sackville (from The Guardian)

Writing update – when routine becomes a rut

Illness and holidays get in the way of blogging, but bring a much-needed new perspective on life.


I’m still reading and writing as much as I can, but not too much. Which was why I was ill in February and had to take to my sofa/bed like a neurasthenic Victorian heroine to rest. Ah the bliss of doing nothing but listening to music and lighting log fires. Pyrotherapy (have I just invented a new word?) should be part of a new approach to mental health. There’s certainly a therapeutic effect in building the layers of paper, kindling and garden logs then the feeling of success when you apply the match and it gets going. The hiss of the wood, the constant movement of the flames, the colours.(You’ll tell me I’m contributing to global warming or adding particulates to our already polluted air, but I’ve given up driving and try to shop on foot/buy local, so don’t get all green police with me!) Sadly I’d run out of logs by the time the snow came, so it was back to the central heating…

And of course a holiday, a proper break, made the crucial difference – NO writing allowed, only travelling, looking, exploring and talking. And eating new food, new flavours. So I’m back from a tour of Morocco (with the company Explore) – five imperial cities in ten days. Exhausting, but in a good way (and I did get a short story out of it, I confess).

recalled to life

In Dickens Tale of Two Cities Dr Manette is released after many years in the Bastille – he’s been recalled to life. On a smaller scale that’s exactly how I feel.


‘Love’: a review


An evocative and moving gem, Love is a novella, but it packs a punch that leaves a bruise that takes a long time to fade. With its spare, pared-down prose and constant sense of brooding unease, this is literary Norwegian noir with all the snow and isolation, but without the crime. Written in 1997 by prize-winning author Hanne Orstavik, it’s now accessible to English readers for the first times in this fine translation by Martin Aitken from Archipelago Books (from mid Feb, 2018)

Vibeke and her eight year old son, Jon have recently moved to a small village in Norway to make a new start. She hopes he’ll make friends and that she’ll find a boyfriend. Everywhere is covered in snow, it’s Jon’s birthday tomorrow but his mother would rather spend her free time reading:

a good book, a big thick one of the kind that leave an impression stronger and realer than life itself.

They spend the evening separately: Jon goes to sell raffle tickets to his neighbour while Vibeke goes to the library, and their stories seamlessly alternate and echo each other. Jon loves his mother and is excited about his birthday. Vibeke fantasises and builds up the perfect love affair from one meeting with a stranger:

I can wait. I’ll sheathe us both in speechless intimacy, until we’re ready for the abruptness of words.

Orstavik tantalises the reader by setting up the kinds of scenarios you’d expect in a horror movie, then skilfully sidesteps at the last minute: Will Jon go down to the cellar with the old man? Will Vibeke go back to a stranger’s caravan? Does Jon get into a stranger’s car? Does Vibeke go with the man to an isolated bar? As each possible decision is taken and played out, the atmosphere becomes darker. But the ending still comes as a complete shock. The reader has been anticipating one or both will come to a sticky end, but ultimately it is a misunderstanding, not an act of violence, that leads to tragedy.

Love explores modern family life, loneliness and what we expect from love, in all its forms. A beautiful, moving story that never let’s the reader off the hook.


Swan Song – a review

SwanSong.pngSexy, sweary, drug and alcohol-fuelled, and very funny, Polly is a heroine for the 21st century. She’s failed the year at university, slept with her housemate’s boyfriend and thinks she and a friend might have accidentally caused the death of a Spanish student. Police are calling for witnesses so, instead of a holiday sunning herself on a beach, she’s staying with her mother in Scotland and trying to catch up on her uni work. The weather is terrible, the people worse and Polly doesn’t think she’ll survive a summer there, in spite of access to drugs and porn.

Then everything gets more complicated: there are strange happenings (real or imaginary or too much weed?) and she gradually becomes more and more involved with a local man. Swansong is a fascinating depiction of one man’s extreme isolation and oddness; the way it brings out more of Polly’s curiosity and determination is what drives the novel. What starts off as a rollercoaster of drink, drugs and endless exploration becomes a tender, heart-breaking love story that is almost unbearably poignant.

The language is brilliantly inventive with similes always taken from Polly’s jaded, urban worldview. When she’s walking on the beach the seaweed makes ‘bubble-wrap pops under my hands’. Or a ‘black and white bird with a long, neon-orange beak flew low making little rape alarm calls.’ Or she describes ‘tons and tons of sky, the clouds all whipped up into a TV chef’s best egg whites and moving fast.’

It’s refreshing in a contemporary novel to read what a protagonist would really see, smell and feel. I was less convinced by the italicised passages in the voice of… is it a girl? is it a bird?, which isn’t revealed until the end; but this is a very satisfying story with a tough, flawed heroine. Although we don’t want Polly to change and settle down, we do want her to be happy and by the end of the novel she’s grown up and learned how to love.

Kerry Andrew, a musician and composer, uses myth, legend and storytelling in this innovative literary debut. The language may not be to everyone’s taste but in Polly we have a tough female protagonist to rival any larger than life male hero.

kerry andrewKerry Andrew

Dead dogs & angels : a review

dead dogs and angels.pngDon’t let either the cover or the title put you off this novella, published on 25 January by the independent press, Holland House Books. I nearly did. Who wants to read about dead dogs?

This debut from the very talented Mickela Sonola is a seemingly naïve tale about a ten year old dual heritage girl, Yinka growing up bored and lonely in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents don’t have much time for her so she turns to one of the house servants who gives her sweets, money and attention. But, when she finds herself unwilling witness to a burglary and is accidentally kidnapped, Yinka has to rely on all her limited resources to find her way back home from the bush. As an unreliable narrator her voice is very effective although occasionally slips into being over-naïve (I was really not keen on the use of Capital Letters to signal Powerful Words in her life); but interspersed with viewpoints from other characters in the story, it all builds up to a powerful short novel with a shockingly dark heart. What begins as the story of a child’s attempt to get home turns into an examination of the way some men groom and abuse vulnerable girls and young women.

Mickela Sonola uses Nigerian tales and magical realism to elevate Yinka’s story to one that stresses the vital importance of telling stories and the development of the imagination to make sense of the world. The language used is often very beautiful: ‘Darkness was pouring into the sky now. The red light drained into the horizon, leaving behind a blanket of black, pin-pricked with stars.’ But Sonola also uses it for more sinister effects: ‘The sharp glint of a knife appeared against his throat and there was a sprinkling like raindrops splattering pitter-patter, on the leaves around her, on the ground, on her skin.’

This is a stunning debut with a strong voice, comparable to the poignant child’s voice of Leon in Kit de Waal’s best seller, ‘My Name is Leon’. I look forward to reading Mickela Sonola’s second novel.