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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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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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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The Reindeer Hunters, by Lars Mytting
It’s been a while since I read The Bell in the Lake (which I loved). The Reindeer Hunters is the second in Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy and I do recommend you read/refresh the opening novel first, mainly because it’s so damn good but also because this next would be hard to navigate without the earlier history of the Stave Church and how it came to be in Dresden and what happened to Astrid and the bells and who were the Henke Sisters…and so on. It is a complicated plot spanning a few generations and secrets.
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A Fish in the Swim of the World, by Ben Brown
Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
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