Sally Rooney Conversation’s With Friends

conversation's with friends

Short Review

Sally Rooney’s first novel focuses on Frances as she comes into herself as a woman and a writer. A performance poet, student, and ‘not quite writer’ who is drawn into a world of art and culture by an older photographer and essayist Melissa. Alongside her former lover and second half Bobbi, Frances’ life is disturbed by the entrance of Nick, Melissa’s husband and Frances’ future paramour. A summer spent in the continental sun and in Dublin’s culture hotspots Conversation’s With Friends interrogates class, culture and conversation with wit, intelligence and precision. Rarely captured in literature Rooney depicts a post – crash Dublin that has dispensed with religion and is aware of its fragile roots. This was the book that broke me out of a reading drought. Absorbing, thought provoking and enjoyable Conversation’s With Friends is worthy of the praise lavished on it and demonstrates Rooney’s precocious writing talent.

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Nutshell

nutshell

“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams” Hamlet

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan is an unusual short novel with an intriguing premise. It is written in the first person from the point of view of a foetus. At eight and a half months old (if that is the correct way of phrasing it?) and soon to enter the world he has a one of a kind view on the feelings and actions of his mother. His mother, who he loves deeply but isn’t always sure he likes, is having an affair with his paternal uncle. The pair are plotting to murder his father. They are not exactly star crossed lovers, more a highly sexual and somewhat sinister pairing who spend their time drinking and going over the steps they will take to carry out this act. The unborn child seems to take up little of their thoughts or interest.

 

The unnamed narrator is exceptionally intelligent, having consumed information and knowledge through his mother. At times he goes off into analysing the modern world. There is a wonderful section that looks at liberalism, safe spaces, freedom of thought, the increasing censorship on University campuses and so on. Nutshell is in part a way for McEwan to address issues of the day indirectly. Well written and a speedy read at times it feels as though McEwan is using his unpoliticised protagonist to look at some of the absurdities of the modern world. Terrorism, the global markets and pop culture all get a look in.

 

Set in the middle of summer the atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic. Mess, dirt and clutter pile up in hallways. Laundry is never done and the kitchen is cased in filth. Trudy, the mother, spends her time sunbathing, listening to podcasts and drinking wine. Caught beneath the relentless gaze of the sun the household feels like it has been stopped in time. Once the father has been removed the pair hope to inherit the house and set themselves up for life. On one of the few times the foetus is mentioned it is in passing. He is something to be offloaded, passed on. Trapped inside the womb he hears everything but has no control over his fate. He can however see the obvious flaws in his mother’s plan and he often exhibits more wisdom than the adults. The title is reminiscent of a 1957 poem by former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, The Newborn, which includes the lines “This morsel of man I’ve held – / What potency it has, / Though strengthless still and naked as / A nut unshelled!”. Celebrating the birth of a child this is a beautiful image that contrasts with the treatment of Nutshell’s protagonist.

 

The novel is littered with sex scenes that feel very uncomfortable. This seems to be one of the few activities that unify the pair however reading about it from the point of view of the narrator inside his mother is a strange experience. Claude is a dull and unpleasant man. It is difficult to see why Trudy would be so interested in him. McEwan is of course a very good writer and their relationship begins to make sense when one sees how cruel and vindictive Trudy can also be. Neither are very pleasant and this story would probably not work if it was told from another perspective because it would be too hard to empathise with the murderous duo. Unlike typical murder focused narratives here the reader is given the who, why and how from the off. The murder is clearly detailed and the reader follows each step towards cold blooded murder. It is interesting to be given an insight into the actions and thought processes behind this action.

 

Nutshell received positive reviews from the book club. Although this is our first Ian McEwan novel between us we have read his entire back catalogue. It is a unique novel and one wonders whether it was also created as a writing exercise to come up with something different that would allow the author to comment on world affairs without having to deal with comments sections and twitter. Coming in at only a few hundred pages this is one of McEwan’s quicker reads and it has a fluidity that some of his earlier novels lacked. If you are looking for something different this is worth a read.

 

Nutshell, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, London, 2016.

Once by Morris Gleitzman

*This review contains spoilers*

once morris gleitzman

When Felix sits down to an uninspiring bowl of soup he is stunned to discover a whole carrot. He hides it in his pocket for fear of causing a riot. This is how the extraordinary Once begins. An English A Level teacher gave me this to read to provide an alternative insight into war literature. This is one of the few books that nearly made me cry and I was curious to know how it would affect me ten years later.

Written by Morris Gleitzman for older children Once takes place in wartime Poland and is told entirely from the point of view of the young Felix. Set in 1942 Felix has been kept away from the war until now. His parents left him in the care of Mother Minka, in a Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. It is when they pray “to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler” that the reader knows that this will be a different type of story and that for Felix, the world he left behind three years and eight months ago is has almost been erased.

Felix’s imagination serves a barrier between himself and the horrors of the world. It is his imagination has protected him from so much over the years and his ability to conjure stories from thin air saves Felix and his friends over and over again. Early into his journey Felix hears gunfire and assumes the Nazis must be hunting rabbits. The spare prose makes the reader shiver. “Look at that. The river has suddenly turned red. Which is a bit strange, because the sunset is still yellow. The water’s so red it almost looks like blood. But even with all those gunshots, the hunters couldn’t have killed that many rabbits. Could they? No, it must just be a trick of the light”.

The reader has so much more knowledge than Felix does that at times this book is heart breaking. His path through life evokes fear in the reader, and yet for the most part he does not feel the same fear. At times Felix sees awful things. Gleitzman should be credited for not shying away from the darkness of the period. Seeing these things through the eyes of the child strips away the history and politics and shows them for what they are.

When Felix finds a man and a woman lying dead, still in their nightclothes, their house aflame, he reasons that they must have been Jewish booksellers who put up a fight to protect their books. Their young daughter Zelda however has survived. She joins Felix on his journey to find his parents. They end up joining a convoy being marched into the ghetto. Here they meet other children hiding from the clear outs. Looked after by Barney, a dentist who survives by treating the soldiers in the ghetto, they carve out a life in a cellar, only venturing out after curfew. When Felix has the chance to save himself he chooses instead to join his friends. This is how he finds himself being loaded onto a train that will carry him and hundreds of others to their deaths.

Felix does not die, nor does Zelda. They are some of the few to escape. Barney stayed behind with the children who didn’t want to take their chances and jump. When they hug goodbye Felix feels the needles in Barney’s pockets. It is here that he realises that if needs be Barney will inject the children with an anaesthetic that if used in sufficient quantities will put them into a sleep they will not awaken from in order to protect them from the advancing horror. This is portrayed as a moment of mercy and kindness, as a man is prepared to go to his death in order to spare the children any suffering. Here Felix finally understands what sort of world he is living in. It may sound strange but this is beautifully portrayed and leads up to the books final few lines, “I’ll never forget how lucky I am. Barney said everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.”

It is important to emphasise that Once is suffused with hope and moments of friendship and kindness. Although deeply sad Gleitzman also shows how imagination can save, how unlikely friendships can grow in the most unusual circumstances and how, in the form of dentist Barney, humanity and decency will always survive. Once also suggests that innocence can be lost, not just from children but also from adults. A man who once lived alongside Felix’s family has become too scared to help the boy when he returns to his home village. A Nazi officer takes a story home for his young daughter the same day that he ushers Jewish children into trains to be taken away. A young girls parents are murdered by Polish partisans. The ending is a wonderful mix of the hope, fear and devastating sadness.

Although technically a children’s book there is much here for adults too, who will approach Felix’s story with the knowledge of the atrocities and heartbreak that boys like Felix witnessed, but will perhaps still be surprised and uplifted by the hopeful ending, and the feeling that as life continues, there is always a chance.

 

Once, Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 2005, Australia

Exit West Mohsin Hamid

“He understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

Exit West was listed by Barak Obama as one of his most inspiring reads of 2017 which makes this an interesting novel to review. I read this after I had finished reading but I wonder how much external reviews and recommendations affect the way we approach a novel? Exit West has been lauded by literary critics with the Guardian describing it as “magical”, in the New Yorker as “instantly canonical” and as one of The New York Times top ten books of the year 2017.

As it is the first half of Exit West is very enjoyable. We meet Nadia and Sayeed who live in an unnamed country (general consensus was Syria) as conflict and extremism starts to encroach on their lives. They are very different people when they meet. Nadia lives alone and has a wanderer’s spirit. She wants experiences and isn’t afraid to follow her feelings.

Clocked in black she separates from her family, has sex, indulges in recreational drugs, goes to underground concerts and does not pray. In contrast to this Sayeed has a comfortable home life with his parents but he dreams of travel and the stars. Far more devout that Nadia neither are quite what they seem.

Hamid allows us to peak inside the early days of their romance. First dates at Chinese restaurants, the reliance on smartphones and social media for communication, the slow path of discovery. It is sweet and believable. Although their city is swelling with refugees who have fled conflict they are preoccupied by everyday concerns and interests.

However, over time their lives become threatened. The government loses control to rebels and fighting breaks out; edging closer and closer to their city. Soon their city is under military control. Hamid does not dwell on the horrors that plague the city from this moment but there are moments that capture the brutality of life and the lack of control individuals soon have over their destiny. The novel begins to reflect the traumas of the past few years as the time spent under military control is resonant of the stories pouring out of areas previously held by ISIS. Soon we are taken on a journey to join the thousands of refuges who wash up on foreign shores.

Nadia and Sayeed hope they are not too late to find a way out of the city. They scrape together all the money they can and set out to find a trafficker who can get them to Europe. Hamid has a novel approach to their journey. A touch of surrealism seeps into the narrative and pulls Nadia and Sayeed along.

At one point there is a beautiful and clear description of the feelings of Saeed’s father, as he realises that the best thing he can do is to let the young pair go. He understood that they had a better chance of survival without him slowing them down. Again, the way Hamid describes this echoes the feelings that surely all parents must have at some point when they have to let go of their child’s hand. This was one of my highlights. “He had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent …”

Hamid has a way of writing that is full of colour and precision. His sentences are very long and one thing that is surprising is exactly how short the novel is. Although I really enjoyed the way he writes there were other book clubbers who were not so keen, struggling with the way he played with grammar and sentences that were so long they felt unwieldly. One thing we all agreed on though was that the second half wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the first. As Exit West progressed it failed to hook the audience and lost much of its purpose. Arguably literary technique took the place of narrative control.

The dystopian cities they encounter are frightening in their possibility and as civilisation becomes harsh, spiky and then begins to crumble, so does Nadia and Sayeed’s relationship. The life of the land reflecting the changes in their partnership. Whereas Nadia is freed from her home and her upbringing Saeed struggles. The further he travels the more he begins to identify himself with his homeland and all that was left behind. The way in which Hamid understands and captures this change is striking. Very rarely does one find such a nuanced depiction of migration. This is something that can be seen and experienced whether in regard to moving away to study or fleeing unimaginable violence.

Hamid details the dislocation and strangeness of the refugee experience with the human reality side by side with black magic of lost spaces. A worthwhile read for the new year.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry Review

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“we feel the lure of the unknown future distil into our bones”

It is difficult to know where to begin with such an exceptional novel. Days Without End, the 2016 Costa Book of the Year award winner, continues the success of celebrated Irish author Sebastian Barry.

This is part of his series dedicated to charting the fictional lives of two Irish families; the Dunnes and the McNulty’s. This book can be read alone. It is the first novel by Barry that I have read and he has been added to my list of authors to catch up on. Within the first few pages one realises why this is such a feted novel. Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty, a Sligo born American, who finds himself caught up in the shifting landscape of the birth of modern America. He experiences the wars with Native Americans and then the Civil War. In between all of this he flees the Great Famine, finds his soulmate, dances with miners, graces the stage and raises a family of his own before going back out to live the life of a soldier. His thoughts on what it is to be a soldier are fascinating.

“We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars. We ain’t saying no laws in Washington. We ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us, and battles, and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind. Happy to breathe because we seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles weren’t wrote for us nor any books. We ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven. But if God was trying to make an excuse for us He might point at that strange love between us”.

McNulty’s voice feels natural and believable providing the route into his thoughts and feelings. The novel does require some concentration as the language flows from McNulty’s mouth and mind. This carries the reader along but it also means that this is not a book that can be easily picked up and then put down again. Instead each chapter has to be consumed whole. It is through McNulty’s voice that Barry gets deep into the skin of McNulty, and through him into the forming body of a new nation.

“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.” From these lines one can glimpse at how the language moves from the earthy reality of soldiering to philosophical moments captured between battles; in nights spent freezing and starving.

McNulty has an attitude informed by his early childhood in Sligo. The moments that touch on his life during The Famine and emigration are harrowing and make the past feel as though it can be touched. He tries not the think back on The Famine or the ship where he was “worth nothing”. The silence around the Irish in America, and the way in which they start to define themselves as American, speaks volumes about the horrors that had been left behind in Ireland. “In the army you meet a dozen men a month came from Ireland but you never hear them talk about it much. You know a Irishman because he has it writ all over him”. The reader learns that McNulty lost most of his family, watching them starve to death without hope or dignity. He travels by coffin ship to Canada where he and his fellow refugees are held in quarantine. The short description of this is powerful and sticks in the throat. After such tragedy he holds close any scraps of happiness, softness and love are available in such an inhospitable world. This imbues the narrative with a sense of awe and wonder.

Those who have already read this book will have noticed one glaring omission from this review. There is a love story, a friendship, that runs throughout Days Without End. It is delicately written and quietly beautiful. I am very keen not to spoil it for other readers. Many other reviews such as Harriet at Shiny New Books have touched up this while also investigating the ideas of personal identity that play an important role in the novel. For those who are interested in reading further on the subject here is an article from The Guardian, which although not specifically about Days Without End, is still worth reading. Personal and national identity, formulation and actualisation are timely topics. Importantly they feel natural, not as though they have been shoehorned in. This is also important when it comes to the representation of Winona, a young Native American girl who becomes a significant part of McNulty’s story.

Days Without End also has the feeling of a Western. Alongside the Irish trying to make their way in this new country early in the novel are clashes between Native Americans and the frontiersmen trying to branch out and control this new, often hostile and threatening terrain. The interactions between these two groups are frequently horrific and deceitful. “There were stories everywhere of rapes and robberies and sudden and vicious visits on out-of-the-way premises. Unless you were a witness how could you that what was true”. With the benefit of history however the reader knows not only the fate of the Native American tribes but also that this conflict will soon be usurped by another; the Civil War.

The novel is frequently very violent yet is line by line with a soft dreamlike quality that makes this such an unusual novel. Days Without End is surely one of the best novels of the year and deserving of a place on every bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

Jo Brand Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down

Jo Brand Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down Review

Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down is the follow up to Brand’s successful Look Back in Hunger. Although I missed the first instalment of her life story I have read and enjoyed each of her novels and love Jo Brand as a person and comedian. With each novel her writing has become increasingly fluid and engaging. So how did Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down measure up?

The book begins with an author’s note stating that it is more a collection of memoirs rather than a transitional chronological life story. I probably should have paid more attention to this as it would have helped me to contain my expectations.

Brand picks up the story from Look Back and tells the reader about her journey through comedy clubs, open mic spots, festival and finally TV. As she tours she picks out the best and worse of each situation to share with the reader. It improved as it went along and increased in detail. The first section about gaining prominence on the comedy scene lacked detail and contained too many lists and point by point paragraphs. Although the title of this and Look Back both reference size and food there is little of this mentioned in here except for a retelling of a very funny run in Jo had with TV stylist Trinny and Susannah. This section alone made the book a worthwhile read.

Perhaps one of the best recommendations is that I have already had several people asking to borrow the book. It seems there is a Jo Brand fan around every corner. She guards her family’s privacy, with only a few images of her husband and daughters. There seemed to be a constant difficulty here in that she wanted to write a book but without giving much of herself away. There are moments where she reminisces on holidays with a group of fellow comedians which gives just enough information to peak ones interest but too little to actually tell you anything.

I really enjoy her sense of humour and would have enjoyed the chance to get to know her better. One probably gets to know more of her from her documentaries, game show appearances and charity work with this book being a nice accompaniment.

 

Jo Brand, Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down, Headline Review, April 2011, Paperback.

Lena Dunham Not That Kind of Girl

Lena Dunham Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”

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This book came to me by accident when I stumbled across it in a charity shop for 50 cents. I should confess that I have never seen Girls and I stopped reading Dunham’s newsletter Lenny after just a few weeks. However I used to work with several young women who all loved Dunham and her approach to life and feminism so I was interested to find out more. And of course Dunham takes up so much media space that it is almost impossible not to be aware of her.

October 8th 2012, Dunham signed a $3.5 million deal with Random House to publish her first book, an essay collection called Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. This is reason enough to find the book intriguing. In these days of self publishing and award winning authors having to go back to their day jobs it is rare to hear of such a large book deal. This is testimony to her fame and Random House’s faith in her ability to sell volumes. One could argue that this is also a vote of confidence in female authors writing about the female experience. Dunham is a self proclaimed feminist and much of her USP circles around this. “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman,” she writes.

This is not a straightforward autobiography or memoir but instead a collection of essays about herself. Dunham does not shy away from self exposure and using her own life as inspiration. This enable readers to connect with her and feel moments of kinship. Although this relentless self investigation can also be a turn off for others. Sections covered include Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and The Big Picture. I particularly enjoyed the chapter Emails I Would Send If I Were One Ounce Crazier / Angrier / Braver. Having sent one of those emails I can confirm that it is not the sensible thing to do but it does feel fantastic. At the end of it is difficult to know though how much she really has learned, as ideas of self worth and belief seem to still trouble her. It seems exhausting to be so continuously self conscious.

Although this was an enjoyable enough read I am perhaps less interested in Dunham than Dunham is and for me there were very few of those ‘I recognise that moments’. The parts that stood out for me most were where Dunham talked about her health difficulties with clarity and honesty. I didn’t really need so much information on diet and her interest in therapy.

The collection is written in the conversational and easy going style of a natural writer. I read through this in one day and very much enjoyed her fluid writing style. Not That Kind of Girl opens a window into a different way of life. Her privilege and experiences as a woman and a writer are so different to mine which made this an entertaining read. It was enjoyable if not worth a revisit.