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.

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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.

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.

Try Not To Breathe by Holly Seddon Review

Last month the book club made a welcome change towards contemporary thrillers with journalist Holly Seddon’s debut Try Not to Breathe. Although there has been a plethora of female driven psychological thriller’s in recent years this is my first foray into the genre. Despite my slow start this was definitely a good introduction.

In 1995 15 year old Amy was found having been raped and left for dead by an unknown attacker. However she didn’t die. Instead she fell into a vegetative a state: a form of a coma where there are no obvious signs of life except for neural changes. When freelance journalist Alex visits the hospital to write about advances in neuro medicine she becomes intrigued with Amy. They come from similar backgrounds and are the same age, except as Alex has aged and lived through the past 15 years Amy has remained as if in stasis. Soon Alex finds herself investigating Amy’s case and is determined to hunt down the killer. In doing so will she find herself in the process?

Alex, who holds the primary narrative voice, is an intriguing character. A young, successful woman who ought to have the world at her feet is falling apart at the seams. Her marriage and work have been crushed and she is ‘dealing’ with this by attempting to drink herself to death whilst denying her alcoholism. Her interest in Amy offers a glimmer of redemption and brings her into contact Amy’s mystery visitor.

The main characters are well fleshed out and their less than ideal aspects help to make them recognisable. For example Amy’s confusion and naiveté, Alex’s drinking and others hiding behind silence, rounds them out to become characters that could walk off the page and sit next to you. Sometimes characters are at their most realistic when they are at their most undesirable. However it is important to note that Alex is a pleasant travelling companion for the novel and it feels as though you could bump into someone like her in the street. What is intriguing is what people do not say. How Alex has to chase down answers and knock on locked doors in order to try to recapture Amy’s final days. Journalists make good protagonists as they take the reader on the same journey they are on.

It is also interesting to look at a case such as this without the filter of social media and mobile technology, where someone can have secrets, can disappear. Sneddon’s past as a journalist can be seen throughout as the writing is well crafted and skips along navigating the line between storytelling and description well. The medical information comes across as accurate and useful. It is lightly dropped into the novel – as it would be in a good piece of journalism – so as to provide the needed information in a manageable manner.

The murder mystery aspect has readers scouring the text searching for clues and turning points. Can you work out what happened before Amy does? Most of the book club kept pace with Amy’s investigation and found the writing and characters kept them reading even more so than the thriller aspect. The end is wrapped up rather quickly and little time is given over to get to know the perpetrator. It might have been nice to have had a chapter or two near the end narrated by the murderer. Seddon does not do this, perhaps in part because she avoids making the murder sensational or gratuitous, instead keeping human, frail and real Amy – the victim – at its centre.

Full of suspense Try Not To Breathe hooks the reader in from the start. The quality writing keeps one reading as much as the level of intrigue. It is one of those books that once you have started will not be able to put down until you reach the end. Set aside a day or two to get lost in Sneddon’s writing to really enjoy the novel

 

Ballantine Books. London. 2016. Hardback. ISBN: 9781782399452.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

“‘The past is what you leave behind in life, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”

Atkinson’s exceptional debut novel open with the birth of Ruby Lennox and follows her as she comes of age in England in the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime we are introduced to her family, the Lennox’s, who live above their pet shop and where she and her sisters often work and play. Ruby’s life is told in the first person and she makes an interesting eye into her life and her family. Alternate chapters offer flashbacks; going back to her great grandmother Alice and then following each generation through wars, affairs, bereavement and love. These chapters are told from the view point of each individual. The women are given more space than the men and we are shown what it was like to be powerless, to be a mother, to suffer loss and to find a way to save yourself. Ruby’s mother Bunty in particular is a fantastic character. She is frequently frightful, difficult and unlikable, but she is so completely recognisable. Sibling relationships and female relationships, mothers and daughters, are investigated throughout Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

There are several brilliant comedic scenes. The wedding that has been timed to coincide with the 1966 World Cup final, where England played West Germany and for the only time ever won is a masterclass in written comedy. At no point does it seem farcical as disaster piles upon misunderstanding until the whole wedding is a riot. Later on the family go on holiday with their next door neighbours. This was disastrous for many reasons, one of the most obvious being that one should never holiday with both your husband, your secret lover and his wife. Putting all together in a small cottage in a remote area of Scotland along with a bunch of children and a surly teenager was not a winning start, but a fabulously entertaining read.

When the first chapter opened I wasn’t sure that this was going to be the novel for me, however it very quickly picked up and became a wonderful, fascinating read. The ending fell a little flat as our favourite characters had quickly changed and grown away from the surroundings and history that made her. However the bulk of the 500 page novel was a compulsive read. Referring to the title there is a saying that we are the curators of our own lives, which perhaps has little meaning to others. This is a museum of Ruby that stretches back to a rare set of photographs taken of her great grandmother and travels down through the decades to her. It is also fascinating how characters keep repeating the patterns of their ancestors without realising it; almost as though a combination of conditioning and genetic memory keep these things in the family. This is also a story of mothers and their children, often losing their children.

Some members of the book club felt that the quantity of characters made things confusing. This isn’t something I found though. The novel is concerned with the history of one family and a family tree at the beginning of the novel may have been useful. However in this case I feel it should be the other way round. A traditional family tree branches out however with this one it feels as though the focal point, the point of connection should be Ruby, with the branches reaching out from her and into the past.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum has a very strong awareness of space and time, of how different people, families and generations can inhabit one space. Atkinson suggests that elements linger on in the buildings and in ruins. In the first few pages our protagonist has this to say “there has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due proportion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our back”. This idea is touched upon throughout the novel. Much later on Ruby states “if I stand on the stairs and close my eyes, I can hear the voices of the household ghosts being carried hither and thither on the current of air. Do they miss us, I wonder?”.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is very readable, in the best sense. It is one of the many popular novels that shows you can tackle the big themes and ideas of life through strong entertaining character driven plots that do not trip over themselves to be ‘literary’

Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, (Transworld Publishers, London, 1995) 490, Paperback

The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe Review

“You see the title of this record? It’s called The Rotter’s Club. The Rotter’s Club: that’s us Lois, isn’t it? Do you see? That’s what they used to call us, at school. Bent Rotter, and Lowest Rotter. We’re The Rotter’s Club. You and me, Not Paul. Just you and me.”

 

Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club takes us back to 1970s Birmingham. Beginning in 1973 it takes in the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments before ending with the day of Thatcher’s election and the start of the long 80s. Being from the West Midlands reading this novel felt familiar and important as it catalogued the industrial power hub in its final days. From my father’s generation nearly every man you meet from the West Midlands will have worked at some point in one of the many car factories and at secondary school our tutor groups were named after car manufacturers that used to use Coventry as their base: Alvis, Humber, Triumph … It is difficult to exaggerate how important this industry was and how the impact of its demise is still being felt. This coming of age story is deeply funny and irreverent throughout. The lives of the adults in particular are convoluted at best but their effect is perhaps best felt through their children who take us with them on their riotous journey to the end of adolescence.

 

Benjamin Trotter is essentially the novels main character however his group of friends take up the backbone of The Rotter’s Club as they navigate their school days at a direct grant all boys academy. Alongside Doug, Philip and Claire Benjamin passes through adolescence trying to discover himself through music, writing and an unrequited love affair with Cicely Boyd. Benjamin is one of the least interesting characters and yet because of that he is interesting. Coming from a relatively stable middle class family his life and future seem mapped out. It is the way those around him move and change that is so vibrant. Benjamin is a great entry point for the reader as we often share his view on the evolving world around him. As each of his family members seek out the stability, love or intellectual entertainment they find themselves moving further and further away from each other. As the decade closes will they still exist as a cohesive family unit or will life have exploded their domestic comfort?

 

The resurrection of the school paper brings together an eclectic mix of people and the desire to shock, to create copy that will be read and not necessarily inform is particularly pertinent to today. Rivalries and love affairs are bought out into the open as the power struggles of the outside world also take place within the supposed safety of the school walls. From the prefects, to the highly select Closed Circle debating society and most dominantly between the school’s two leading athletic and intellectual stars: Richards and Culpepper. Richard’s as the only black pupil faces racism and then false acceptance as he works to be the first member of his family to make it to University. Culpepper, an unpopular contemporary has it in for Richard’s from the start. This rivalry escalates throughout with very real effects. At the same time unionists, management, racists and progressives are all fighting to have their voice heard at the still booming British Leyland plant. Coe incorporates many real life events and people into the novel with excellent effect, drawing the reader in to the hub of the action.

 

Class and class divides are expertly scrutinised throughout the novel. The nature of fee paying private schools, and the hierarchy that comes with it parallels that of the Leyland employees and highlights how each person is affected by their class. Will Richards, from a working class background, be able to use education as a stepping stone to something more? For people like Benjamin is an easy life guaranteed? When writing for the school paper he is confused and disappointed that he is the only writer who seems unable to stir any controversy. Significantly the novel ends on a positive note however with Thatcher’s electoral victory in the background the reader is aware that what comes may have significant or even devastating impact on our much loved characters.

 

The title comes from Benjamin’s relationship with his older sister Lois. It is here that moments of pathos and the disappointment of life are best shown. At 16 Lois meets Malcolm, aka the hairy man. Soon they become a couple but the end of their affair is devastating. Coe is careful not to overdo this. After coming to the end of their chapter it is difficult not to be moved by what has happened. It is a reminder that the violence of the world, the politics and power plays, involve real ordinary people.

 

The only slight query would be as to the last chapter. Short and told from Benjamin’s perspective it is written as one sentence. Perhaps to show the joy and freedom the character is feeling at this point? Does the stream of consciousness show how he has now been freed from the constraints of school? According to the BBC the final chapter is made up of a 13,955 word sentence, making it the longest single sentence in the English language at the time of publication. This rather unique accolade however seems to do little for the actual telling of the story. A BBC TV series of The Rotter’s Club made more of the adult story lines that are only peeked at in the novel. In case of the affair between Barbara and Mr Plum this worked excellently and proved to be one of the funniest points of the series.

 

Excitingly the Author’s Note at the end of the book says that there is a sequel. Called The Closed Circle it meets up with the characters in the late 1990s. I am very keen to read this. The Rotter’s Club was my first introduction to Jonathan Coe’s writing but I hope to read and review the follow up for you all in the near future.

 

Dad’s Review

My daughter passed this book onto me thinking I might enjoy it and I would happily recommend it to others. The Rotter’s Club is such as good story with plenty of twists and turns. Coe must have lived through that time in history. The way he evoked the history of the unions and civil strife in late 70’s Birmingham was similar to how I remember it being. Red Robbo is mentioned in the book. This took me back to the day that as an apprentice I saw shop stewards from the Transport and General Workers speak to a field of union members before they declared strike action on his behalf (that if memory serves only around one third of people actually voted for!). The relationship between the car industry and the local community defined our lives but now that time has passed. I liked the way the character Stephen was used to show up the inherent racism in the system. The way that life will always be easier for some than others. The writing was witty and wry and made me laugh out loud. There was one particular scene, between Lois and the Hairy Man, that made my heart twist. It started as a sweet lovely evening out but turned into something that nearly made me cry. It was not overdone but told simply and delicately. This scene has stayed with me.

 

Jonathan Coe, The Rotter’s Club, (Viking, London, 2001) ISBN 0375413830. 414pp., Hardback