Review: The end we start from

The end we start from.pngComing 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!



Review: Freshwater

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 * * *


Siberian tiger tracking… the preparations

What an amazing opportunity!


Two weeks today I will be airborne on my way to Moscow, then Khabarovsk, then deep into the taiga of the Far East… a long journey undertaken in order to track the majestic Siberian tiger.

A small group of us, along with a guide, translator and cook will spend our days in temperatures of up to -30C, snow up to six feet deep, with the occasional blizzard, learning to read the signs of ‘The White Book’. These are the marks, tracks and other traces of the elusive kings of the forest, and their prey. When we find somewhere they are likely to be, we set camera traps in hope of capturing them on film.

I am also making sound recordings of the trip and the experience (hence picture of me with headphones and ‘dead kitten’)…

IMG_1384 2 This is what £2k of specialist kit looks like… and I STILL haven’t got the…

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Review: Demigods

Demi gods

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.

* * * * *

Writing update

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.

Is city life damaging our health? A review: Spring Garden

Spring Garden.jpg

by Tomoka Shibasaki (translated by Polly Barton)

published by Pushkin Press, 2017

Winner of the Akutagawa Prize in Japan, Tomoka Shibasaki’s novella, Spring Garden, is a study in loneliness and loss, the passage of time, and the human relationship with the built environment.

Taro, recently divorced and grieving for his dead father, is one of a handful of people still living in an apartment block, due to be knocked down for redevelopment. His time is spent on his own: going to work, lying down at home and observing his neighbours. He becomes intrigued by Nishi, a woman who lives upstairs and who obsesses over an old, sky-blue house which features in a book of photographs she owns. Nishi and Taro strike up a friendship and when she wants to see inside the house he helps her.

This is a quiet and often humorous short novel which looks with fresh eyes at the often lonely and alienating way we live in cities, in identikit houses far removed from the natural world. It questions the power of photographs and memories to capture and freeze ‘the past’. Do the pictures in Nishi’s book reflect reality, or are they staged? What do we mean by happiness? And is it possible to find a place and way of living that makes happiness achievable?

A subtle and poignant book.


Review: The Maid’s Room


The Maid's Room

The gorgeously colourful cover of The Maid’s Room hides an ugly truth. The rooms most of the 230,000 maids in Singapore can call their own are ‘bomb shelters’: concrete, airless and windowless, where the tumble dryer adds to the already intolerable humidity. In this debut novel rather than laying the indignity and unfairness on with a trowel, Fiona Mitchell uses humour and a light touch. Expats lounge around the pool of their luxury condos getting bored, bitching about each other and having affaires, while the maids look after their children, cook meals, clean their houses and are blamed for everything. For them their bosses are always Ma’am and Sir. They work six or even seven days a week and have very few legal rights.

We see this community through the eyes of three main characters:

Jules the newly-arrived Brit, is desperate to get pregnant and enduring her third round of IVF, after a job (oh irony) as a midwife in the UK.

Dolly works for ex-pats, Amber and Tor bringing up their two boys: Sam (adorable) and Colby (out of control) and uses her attractiveness to make extra money from one of the straying husbands. Another sad truth about how desperate the maids are to supplement their poor wages.

Tala, Dolly’s older sister is the maverick maid, playing the system to maximise her earnings by working as a cleaner for a number of the ex-pats.

All of the domestic workers are Filipina; leaving their families for better-paid jobs in Singapore they send money home so their children can go to school and have a better life. But there’s a blogger at work: the odious ‘Vanda’ blogs about keeping tabs on your maid:

Rule 2 Boyfriends: your maid must not have a boyfriend. After all, if she gets pregnant, she’ll be deported and you could be forced to pay her airfare home.

And Tala is angry. She’s determined to tell the truth about what life is really like for a domestic worker so sets up a rival blog, ‘Maidhacker’ and reveals all. It would have been easy to make Jules, as the new-arrival, the rescuing hero of the novel, but it’s Tala: middle-aged, worn-out, a shoulder for the other workers to cry on, who is the true hero. She’s also funny, feisty and very sweaty. A memorable character. To add more layers to lives that are already fraught with intolerable work and disgust, Tala’s boss and landlady, Mrs Heng, is an almost Dickensian grotesque, filing the rough skin off her feet and piling it on the arm of a chair. Male characters in the novel are more sketchily drawn – feckless, absent or lecherous. It’s the women who make this story.

The world of The Maid’s Room is completely contemporary – blogging, Instagram, laptops mobiles and Skype. It’s simply told, in a way that will give it general appeal, and has an energy that hooks you into the story. This novel is an eye-opener to the desperate lives of ‘maids’, and to the hypocrisy of ex-pats in Singapore. With women’s health and reproductive rights under threat and the plight of domestic workers here in the UK and across the world in the news, the story is highly topical.