Listening In by Jenny Éclair

First Written for Shiny New Books

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Listening In Jenny Eclair

 

Listening In is a collection of 24 short stories from comedian and writer Jenny Éclair. Her last literary outing was the well-received novel Moving, reviewed on Shiny New Books here. Running at around 10 pages per story it is perfect bed time reading. Black and white illustrations by the author are dotted throughout the collection which add a personal touch.

Each story is written from the first person, giving them an intimate feeling, plunging the reader straight into the mind of the protagonist. They really do feel as though you are ‘listening in’. The secret thoughts, conversations, hopes and disappointments that would normally remain lock up inside are explored.

Although each story is unique and stand-alone the theme of revenge does run across multiple stories. Those small moments of success and comeuppance, feature throughout. As in the case of the protagonist of Margot’s Cardigans or A Slight Alteration these moments have taken a long time to emerge and have only really occurred by accident. Those serendipitous moments in life where a long-suffering wife or loving mother has the chance to rebalance their surroundings. Many of the stories are deeply funny. None more so than those in which good intentions turn in on themselves and women who seem to be one thing turn around and surprise their families.

Combining both revenge and a comedic turn of events is Christine Paints. Here a couple have moved out to the countryside so that the husband can pursue his writing career in peace. At the same time, his wife has been finding ways of integrating into the local community, of making new friends. One way she has done this is through a local art class. This one morning a week event which will go on to change her life in ways she could never have predicted. The ending had me punching the air with joy as Christine was able to do what everyone who has ever been betrayed or mistreated has dreamt of.

“It’s never easy, the first day, it it? First day anywhere really, school, new job, holiday?”. In Fantastic News, a middle-aged couple go on holiday, leaving their adult children behind: 23 year old University student Scott, and the slightly more troublesome twenty nine year old ‘spoken word’ poet Tamsin. When Tamsin sends her mother a mysterious text, imaginations start to run and hopes climb. The relationship between the unnamed woman and her husband John is incredibly realistic and entertainingly told. One doesn’t have to have had the same experiences to be able to recognise the patterns they have fallen into. The ending, which I shall be careful not to spoil, was quietly beautiful.

Anthea’s Round Robin is laugh out loud funny from beginning to end. It starts out as one would expect but quickly descends into a catalogue of a failing marriage. It seems that Anthea has only ever dreamed of one thing: “I had plans drawn up for a new kitchen extension, because let’s face it, what woman in her right mind doesn’t dream of a laundry room-cum-larder-stroke-boot room and pickling kitchen?”. She sounds middle class and middle aged. A woman who has lived for her children for so long that she has largely ceased to live herself. Her husband is another matter altogether. Their picture-perfect life falls away with each sentence and the reader is given an hilarious insight into Anthea’s life so far.

In Carol Goes Swimming a woman has been pushed into going swimming by her nurse. It is time to focus on her health and weight (although this is something that the nurse seems to believe applies only to patients and not to medical professionals). The smell of chlorine never changes and it pricks her memory into action. She is taken back to school swimming lessons, teaching her children and to meeting her best friend Sandra. Now Carol has a new life to navigate but an encounter with the past will remind her that she is not alone. This story is a testament to the importance, romance and power of lifelong friendships.

The collection started life as a BBC Radio 4 series called Little Lifetimes, which are still available to listen to online. This very popular miniseries demonstrated Éclair’s way with words and ability to craft intriguing first person narratives about seemingly ordinary women with hidden depths. This wonderful volume is very high on my list of favourite short story collections and is not to be missed.

 

Jenny Éclair. Listening In (Little Brown Book Group, 2017) 9780751567731, 246pp., Hardback. .

MOVING BY JENNY ECLAIR

movingMoving is the latest literary offering from Jenny Eclair. It is the fourth novel from the comedian, who has published three other successful novels;Camberwell Beauty, Having a Lovely Timeand Life, Death and Vanilla Slices in her varied career. Eclair is perhaps best known as a comedian, being the first woman to win the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s Perrier Comedy Award. She has also appeared on Loose Women, numerous reality TV shows and was one of the originators of the Grumpy Old Women series and tour. More recently she has turned her attention to writing and has found success as a novelist.

There can be some scepticism when a comedian or TV personality releases a novel. Publishers often expect that placing a famous name on a book cover will sell more copies with little focus on the often comical contents. However Eclair turns these expectations upside down with her absorbing, well-crafted fourth novel.

Moving is Eclair’s most accomplished novel to date and also her most complex, interweaving multiple perspectives and time frames in order to unravel the mystery that lies at the heart of one family. She has set herself, and achieved, the difficult challenge of making each voice as humourous and interesting as the last.

The novel opens with the voice of the elderly Edwina. She has lived in the house for over fifty years, watching as it has gone from a bustling family home to a dusty museum of memories. As she leads the estate agent through each room her story opens up, showing that the frail old woman that the reader first meets has lived a vibrant, complex life full of love and difficulty.

We are introduced to her family, her first love Ollie and their twin children Charlie and Rowena, before meeting her completely different second husband Dickey and her stepson, whose name she cannot even bring herself to say. Eclair manages to create a family that is both unique and very recognisable. The delicately observed family dynamics help to pull the reader in, spiking an interest in the tragedy that is at the centre of the story. This is developed upon by the excellent use of language.

When the twins go away to university, the differences between them and their step brother become even more apparent. As Charlie leads a life of hedonism and idleness in 1980s Manchester, his almost inevitable decline is captured by his on – off girlfriend Fern. From this point on the plot begins to tie together before finally coming full circle and ending once again with Edwina.

The characters are believable and fully fleshed out giving a seeringly honest portrait of the secrets and betrayals that can fester within a family. Her characters are told with compassion and humour as she gets into the nitty gritty of their often selfish and confused motivations and behaviours. This is particularly so with Edwina’s character. Edwina is such a well formed character, never described with clichés or stock ideas about old age but instead having a strong and distinct voice. The reader feels empathy for characters that are not instantly likeable, and is keen to race to the end to find out what happens. Further Éclair’s gift for humour is illustrated throughout the novel which is as funny as it is captivating.

The house plays its own role in the novel, rooting the reader and the characters around this one central point. It used to be a full family home, as if Edwina and her family expanded to fill the space, but as they left it became too big for her; leaving her and her memories behind. The gentle movement between past and present scratches away at the surface. Why is Edwina so alone in her old age? What happened in the house to cause such turmoil that she has no family and cannot bring herself to recollect certain events and people?

The title refers to both the physical act of moving home that Edwina is to undertake but also to emotional moving on of memories that each character goes through. As Edwina physically moves through the house and prepares to leave, it is as though she is also moving though her own past before being able to move on from the memories and mistakes that still live with her.

The novel is split into three sections, each with a different voice and time setting, spanning from the 1960s to the present day. This serves to move the plot forward, revealing the unknown tragedy that lies at the heart of the story which is slowly peeled away by the different characters. The change in voice that comes with each section feels a little abrupt at first. Once you have taken to a character you are reluctant to leave them behind. However this is short lived as it starts to become clear how the characters relate to each other.

The ending to the novel is unexpected and surprising. Just when the reader thinks that have finally gotten to the heart of this family another layer is pulled back, finally getting the truth, opening up the secrets that have so long haunted Edwina’s home. Moving is a compelling novel, full of humour and compassion with characters that will stay with the reader long after the end.

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Jenny Eclair, Moving (Little Brown Book Group: Great Britain, 2015). 978075155094 8, 387pp., paperback.