The thing about George Saunders is he always makes you think. This is definitely a set of stories for those who enjoy being intellectually challenged by an unusual world rather than for readers who take comfort in the known and seek familiarity in a story. If you loved Saunders’ prize winning but weird Lincoln in the Bardo, or have pretensions to literature and study his texts on writing craft, hey, here’s a book for you.
His stories often have the theme of some kind of sub-category of humans, exploited or trapped, those who don’t fit the mainstream. Lincoln in the Bardo had this with the dead wandering the graveyard unable to escape purgatory. In this collection, three of the futuristic stories also explore this idea, the sub-groups being exploited by the more powerful who, the way Saunders describes it, are acting within the expectations of prevailing society.
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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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Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout
I read this in one sitting (long haul flight) and was totally consumed. Our narrator Lucy talks directly to the reader, repeating herself, I mean, repeating herself like a speaker would, telling you what she’s going to tell you, and then telling it, and there’s an easy rhythm to her chat. This is an intimate memoir of New Yorker, Lucy Barton, and her ongoing affection for her ex-husband, the titular William, with the oh! representing all the times she feels sorrow for him, or frustration, or exasperation, or pathos. There’s a lot of Oh Williams! because she does still care, deeply, about this man, the father of their two daughters who, after they split, went on to other wives and lovers and then found himself, in his seventies, alone, with no one to tell him his trousers are too short. Oh William!
(My kids ‘oh Mum!’ me. I know how many different ways there are to say it).
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The Promise, by Damon Galgut
Like I often say with the Booker – read the shortlist.
I didn’t find any joy in this novel. It is set in South Africa in the 1980s as apartheid falls apart, but we don’t venture out into the country much. The action, such as it is, concerns a white family who live on a farm. The characters are all unlikeable. The only one with any shred of decency is the youngest daughter, Amor, who cannot stand up for her beliefs and opts out, not only of the family but also, by being so damn wet, pretty much out of her own life as well. To call her uncharismatic is being kind. She is moderately interesting because she was struck by lightening as a child and lost a toe, but that’s about it. She’s absent for most of the book.
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Milkman was destined for my Books that don’t make the cut list, but I’ve had second thoughts and decided I really do love it. A year after nearly expiring from the sheer weight of reading it the first time I’m ready to go again. Eagerly ready, in fact, which is the sign of a good book. I don’t know many people who loved it straight off. It takes a bit of distance, perhaps.
To be sure (to be sure) this is one for a book club ready for a bit of a shot in the arm. It’s not a beach read. It’s one girl yabbering non-stop into your ear endlessly. She gives you it all, Northern Ireland in the 1970s through the eyes of a teenager who is trying to go about her life: work, family, boyfriend and avoid the big picture unavoidable stuff – like car bombs and the paramilitary, tribalism and her disturbing stalker, the Milkman. “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him.” No, he’s a gang-boss thug and one of the creepiest characters I’ve met in recent literature.
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