Small Things like These, by Claire Keegan
The Magdalen laundries, tool of the Catholic Church and Irish state, was closed down in 1996, to abject disgrace. In 2013 the Irish government gave a much belated apology to the women who had suffered in these prisons of forced labour. Women who had ‘fallen’ and needed to be removed from society. Some thirty thousand women are estimated to have been incarcerated, their babies adopted out. A shocking number of babies died.
Fallen. That word. Young women ‘fell’ pregnant. Their fault for being a bit clumsy, tripping up because they weren’t paying attention.
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So continues my love/meh relationship with Ian McEwan. There’s no doubt this is a huge book, a deep immersion into an Englishman’s life from childhood to old age. Our narrator, Roland, is a decade-and-a-half older than me so what happened in his formative years went on to form me. Ian McEwan covers all the big political issues of those years through Roland’s eyes, from war-damaged parents and Arab nationalism to the threat of nuclear destruction, the Gorbachev years and the end of the cold war, women’s liberation, Thatcher, Major, and then Blair’s Britain (remember that huge positivity that the world was, finally, coming right?), and on to financial crises, corporate greed, global warming and covid. McEwan/Roland is intelligent, left-wing and an interesting political commentator. The problem is, though I think I probably like McEwan, I don’t like Roland at all.
Roland is eleven, sent away by his parents to boarding school (his father, the Captain, had them stationed in Lybia with the army) is kissed and fondled by his piano teacher, a woman a decade older who wears a seductive perfume. He is confused and awakened and a few years after the lessons cease he goes willingly, seeking her out, desperate to have sex before the world ends in nuclear destruction. He cannot die a virgin. This is the most obvious lesson in this Book of Lessons, and we see his self-destructive life path in the aftermath of this abuse. He learns other lessons from his parents, the way a mother can abandon a child to keep a marriage or hide a secret, and also from his wife, who vanishes in the second chapter leaving Roland to raise their child alone. A husband and child would cramp her style, she says and tells him not to look for her.
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We seem to have been waiting such a long time for this book. Kāwai is truly groundbreaking and I hope that it clears the way for more stories in this historical and cultural setting. So what’s the big deal with Kāwai and why has it been so phenomenally successful?
Firstly, no one has published such an epic saga of Māori life before, and the timing now is impeccable. It seems Soutar has been coming all his life to be writing this story now (for such a time as this), when not only does he have the necessary contacts and learning and experience, but there is an audience with a huge appetite for stories and discussions of our history and people. Just look at how the bestsellers lists over the past three or four years have been dominated by things Māori. We’re open and primed for a big, readable Māori story that would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten years ago. And here it is and it’s fascinating.
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The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey
Last book of the year and an absolute favourite. I devoured this in a couple of long sessions after Christmas and it’s a splendid read, just perfect to take on holiday (or mooch in the hammock at home ignoring things, as I did). I hand on heart recommend this to anyone. It’s such a great yarn. Very rural kiwi.
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Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver
Yes, yes, yes. Can Barbra Kingsolver write yet another ground-breakingly brilliant novel? Can this intellectual powerhouse of a woman, at 67, write convincingly as a troubled, drug addled, abused orphaned boy? And finally: how on earth does she do this – is she a shape-shifter? As to the question: do you have to read David Copperfield first to understand Demon Copperhead? The answer is no. The book stands on its own, the nod to Dickens a realisation that the societal blindness of 170 years ago hasn’t changed. The bottom of the pile still stinks.
Hillbillies. They’re a bit of a joke, surely? It’s an historical term for unsophisticated, rural folk who live in the boondocks and marry their cousins. This story takes us there, into the hills of Lee County, Virginia, to the deprivations of trailer-life poverty and a boy, Damon, growing up hungry in a fully dysfunctional life. They try to own the word “hillbilly” but it still owns them.
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The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
It is Renaissance Florence, and Lucrezia de’ Medici is married off at the age of 13 to Alfonso, 23, the dashing, wealthy Duke of Ferrara. She’d met him once, when he was engaged to her older sister and he passed her on a walk. Their eyes met and they both felt cupid’s arrow. When the sister dies, Lucrezia gets the call.
The plot line and characters sound straight out of some Mills-and-Boon-type romance but the comparison ends there. This is a superbly written novel with gloriously textured descriptions and some pretty luscious history, and the hate him/love him of popular romance is reversed; the sweet romancer turning into a chilling murderer. The child bride can’t make sense of her husband, the dashing Duke Alfonzo who is intuitive and caring to Lucrezia one minute, and brutally cruel the next. The family needs an heir – as they always do, without ever having a plan B – and Alfonzo takes to his task with dedication. Gentle and caring at first, and then not so much. He is fighting to maintain his throne and his family is part of the power play.
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Through the Lonseome Dark, by Paddy Richardson
It’s the early 1900s and Pansy is living poor on the West Coast in Blackball, which apparently is a charming town these days. Pansy’s a smart kid. Smarter than her pa. Today you’d hope this would be a positive thing and she would be given every opportunity to make use of her talents, to be educated and offered the chances that would help a small town girl rise to fulfill her potential. You’d hope that someone would notice the bruising on her face and not turn away.
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This is a family story where an off-the-rails daughter living in a caravan gives birth to a fish. Our narrator (first person, never named, so I’ll call him the Fish’s uncle) is pretty clear about this. The thing being held up to be admired is an oddity, slightly revolting, not quite human. A thing with a gulping lips, a rubbery mouth. With gills, and an overwhelming fishy smell. What kind of creature the baby is we never really learn and this makes the whole story intensely curious. Although the Fish’s uncle refers to ‘it’ and ‘the Fish’ or ‘our Fish’ throughout, the others give it a masculine pronoun and the Fish is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery. The Fish grows up and goes to school, leaves school, goes to work in the family junk yard, goes on holiday. He may be a boy with some kind of horrendous congenital disability or the horror may belong to the view of the Fish’s uncle but we, the readers, are unwillingly (for me, anyway) made complicit in the relegation of the Fish to ‘freak’. The Fish is part of the family and loved even, with a kind of every-family-has-its-cross-to bear embarrassment, but an object who is is given no internal life of his own. We meet him as onlookers – never communicate directly with him, never try to understand.
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Still Life, by Sarah Winman
After a strange first chapter this book leaps into absolute gorgeousness and oh God! It helps that I read it in Italy. The Allied Troops are waiting to enter Florence. With them, is a young man, Ulysses Temper, and his Captain Darnley. Darnley has seen to it that the younger man should fall in love with Italy. “A little over a month before, they’d driven up to Orvieto, a city built on a huge rock overlooking the Paglia Valley. They’d sat on the bonnet of the jeep and drunk red wine out of their canteens as bombers roared overhead towards Mount Cetona, the boundary of Tuscany. They’d stumbled into the cathedral, into the San Brizio chapel, where Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece of the Last Judgement could be found. Neither of them believers, the images had still held them to account.” As they drive away their jeep is waved down by Evelyn Skinner, art historian, who needs a lift.
The dialogue between Evelyn and Ulysses is perfect. English, clipped, wry funny, understated. You can tell these two are going to be friends for life. In the fast way of two people who click but realise they will probably never meet again, Evelyn sums herself up. Kent. Sixty-four. Unmarried. Childless. We feel she’s also posh, independent and full of zing. He’s: London. Twenty-four. Married, no kids. He tells her he’s the son of a globe maker. “Find a Temper & Son globe and you’ll find my mum’s name hidden somewhere on the surface.” Lots of little villages called Nora. How romantic is that?
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The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller
This felt like an over-crafted book from the start. We get the climax scene (haha, literally) and then, in dribs-and-drabs, the day that builds up to it and the day that follows, jabbed through with a long (and perhaps irrelevant?) history of the protagonist, her mother, her grandmother, her father – so many back-story characters slowing down the read. I just wanted to skip over them and get back to the main plot.
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