I’ve been meaning to write a review of some of the books that have most impressed or moved me in the last few months, and at a time when the news is filled with a lot of dark and troubling stuff, it seemed like a good time to write something positive.
So here are the four
- My name is Leon by Kit de Waal
- This is London by Ben Judah
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
- The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
All four of these authors have also been super-nice when I’ve contacted them by Twitter to say how much I liked their work, which is one of the things that I most love about Twitter, and on days when it is exploding with loathing and angst and over-reactions, I remind myself that you can tell an artist that you liked their work and why, and very often they can say something back in a matter of minutes or hours. That is really astonishing. If YOU have read something that you like, and the author is on Twitter, please tell them. It’s a nice thing to do.
- My name is Leon by Kit de Waal
Right. I am a TOUGH, TOUGH audience for this book. Firstly, it is set in a world that I know a lot about and spend my days in – that is the world of children who are not living with their parents and who are in care. That means if it isn’t accurate, if it makes short-cuts for dramatic licence, if it isn’t properly researched, I’ll smell it. It is like when I lived in a house with four nurses and had to stop watching Casualty because they’d just be shouting all the time “You wouldn’t put a line in like that” or “I think you’ll find that’s FORTY FIVE CC of meta-Phenylcosine Glucosate”. Secondly, I don’t really like sad books, and because this was telling the story of a child in care and him being split up from his little brother, there are bits that are really sad.
So, I’m a tough audience. And I absolutely loved this book. It absolutely GOT the world that I spend my days in. It got the detail right, the sequences of events right, the way that people act right, the dialogue right. It then took this world that I know so well and made me look at it in a completely different way, by placing the reader in the child’s point of view. The child isn’t the narrator, but all of the action, all of the dialogue, all of the emotions are told as though the reader is looking just over Leon’s shoulder. He’s a fascinating character – he’s very angry and very troubled, and he has every right to be, but he’s also warm and funny and passionate and loyal to his brother. Many of the adults in his life let him down, and sometimes they do it without even realising and sometimes they are trying very hard not to and sometimes they are oblivious, and once in a while one of them connects with him in a way that takes your breath away and it just crackles on the page. The scene where social workers come to Leon’s foster home and try to explain something utterly unexplainable to him, that though he loves his brother, because his brother is a baby and has white skin, there will be a forever family for him, but not for Leon, is told SO well, and in a way where the pain and confusion just pours out of the sentences. It is told, from a child’s perspective, in a way that is totally vivid, totally plausible and immensely powerful.
The book is also a beautiful object – there are sketch illustrations at the start of each chapter – of something important to Leon or something that will play a part in the chapter, and a little illustration of a bike by each page number.
Could not recommend this more highly. It is NOT like a busman’s holiday, even if you do this work, and it isn’t the Angela’s Ashes type of misery memoir. There’s a lot of spirit and things to be uplifted about in this book, but the author hasn’t shied away from the rawness of pain when it is called for.
2. This is London – Ben Judah
This book isn’t fiction. It is journalism – of the type that George Orwell used to do. Ben Judah wanted to write about London, and the immigrants living in London, and not in a hand-wringing way or a demonising way. He just wanted to go out and spend time with people – from all sorts of nationalities, whether they are working in shops, dealing drugs, being Russian millionaires, Philippino housekeepers, down and outs. And that’s what he did. I don’t mean that he spent a few hours interviewing them – he tried to live, for a while, the lives they were living. He sleeps rough with Romanian gypsies, lives in bed and breakfasts with Polish electricians and builders, soaks himself into the lives that they are living. Then he tells their stories. It is a fascinating book – many parts of it are deeply shocking – some, like the Philippino housekeepers where he writes about the underground organisation that rescues the ones who are being abused by their employers has a fairytale ending that would make a wonderful Neil Gaiman story. You will absolutely NEVER look at one of those handwash dispensers the same way again after you read this.
3. The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
Back to fiction. This is set in Victoria times (which is normally a major turn off for me in a novel) and involves a woman named Cora who has just been widowed from an abusive relationship and sets out to live the life of her choosing. As part of this, she descends on a small town in Essex where the villagers are being plagued by what was thought to be a mythical creature known as the Essex Serpent. Cora wants to find it, others want to destroy it, still others want to deny its existence. Sadly, she leaves a wake of broken hearts in her path and is a force of nature in the book who at various times I loved and adored and other times I wanted someone to shake her. I always like books where there’s a close knit group of characters and where the reader’s loyalties shift between them at various points and this really delivers that. It is a love story, where sometimes you are desperate for the potential lovers to stay the hell away from each other, sometimes you are yearning for them to conjoin. The story is told with immense richness of language and huge passion and it is impossible to read this without wanting to pull on a pair of boots and go out into the country and get spectacularly muddy. Sarah Perry makes the experience of trying to pull a sheep out of some mud sound as exciting and enriching as flying on a magic carpet over Istanbul. It’s an extraordinary piece of work. Read a chapter of it in a bookshop and I’ll be amazed if you don’t end up at the till with it in your hand, wondering if you can read it as you walk down the street without doing yourself a mischief.
4. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon
I REALLY like Joanna Cannon. She was a blogger just like me, and honed her writing muscles doing that before writing this piece of fiction. It is set in a small street in sububia in the 1970s and is narrated by a young girl, Grace who is fierce and determined and ever so slightly selfish. One of the neighbour’s wives disappears, and Grace makes it her mission to find her, thinking that she is investigating a crime. Everyone else thinks that this woman has just left her husband. At least that’s what they start off by thinking. In her investigations, she visits all of the other neighbours and piece by piece we are building up to understanding the real mystery of this street, which isn’t what Grace is investigating at all. The book is really rich in language and detail, and Grace is really well observed as a character. Just as with Leon in the first book, seeing the story unfold from the perspective of the child means that there are things that Grace sees and hears that go over her head but mean something very different to the adult reader. There are some genuine rug-pull shocks towards the end but not shocks for the sake of it, the author has been carefully laying these foundations all the way through, and on a second read the story absolutely stands up and even improves (which isn’t usually the case with twists)
There are some really funny lines and scenes in it too. The sequence where an Indian family move in, and in desperate attempt to make small talk and ingratiate themselves and not appear racist or ignorant, one of the men tries to make a cultural connection by telling the new man that he “loves Demis Roussos”.
By page 6, the author has deployed this beautiful line “My mother had spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down” and you just know that you are in the hands of someone who can make words dance on the page. It’s a lovely book, and it has a powerful message about modern times, which I can’t raise because [SPOILERS].