Sometimes you just click with a character. The first thing they do, the first words they speak just make you smile. Maybe you’re reminded of someone, or perhaps even a little of yourself. Whatever it is that chimes with you, the particular magic of that moment, the particular skill of the writer is in the spell they cast. You’re there. You’re in the room, in the scene, in the moment. It’s so good, of course, that you don’t even notice it. As a writer it’s most definitely something worth striving for, worth noticing, worth studying.
Meeting Mattie in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart is an exemplar. Straight away there’s an emotional attachment, nestled in the line, ‘At first it was quite funny.’ In fact, nestled in the first two words of that line. And Mattie is funny, which means we already know she will cease to be so. We’re not even off page one and we’re already sensing the bitter-sweetness of it all, fearing for Noel.
And here’s the second stroke of genius Lissa Evans pulls. Noel is a precocious little brat. No mistaking it. Take out the prologue and I suspect every reader to a person would be wishing him less than well. But how the experience of growing up with Mattie frames him, shapes him. How we feel for him, root for him because we feel the injustice of just how much has been taken away.
It’s a really lovely book, all the way down to the fractured shadows and angular lines on the hardback cover. Lissa Evans serves up some interesting moral questions, providing the blurriest of lines for us to walk along. She mines her characters for their humour expertly, playing their particular quirks with finesse. There’s a real deftness too in the way Lissa Evans alludes to the depths of sacrifice Vee sinks to to try and keep one step ahead. There are some desperately sad undertones that are all the more powerful for not being paraded. The finale is all quiet glory. Truly touching.
Maybe you like reading about the era. Maybe it’s great characters, or a slightly quirky outlook. Maybe a new perspective or just a good old-fashioned, well-put-together tale. It doesn’t matter. Pick a reason. But pick up the book and read it. It’s an absolute joy.
Crooked Heart was published by Doubleday in 2014, ISBN 978-0-385-61433-7
You can find Lissa Evans on twitter @LissaKEvans or on her website, http://www.lissaevans.com
Suddenly it’s a worrying thought: Steven Strauss and I, sitting together in companionable silence, looking out at the world and saying, ‘people! Pffh!’
It’d be all the connection we need. I suspect we’d get on.
I am profoundly grateful to the Curtis Brown Book Group for bringing me Anthony Trevelyan’s The Weightless World as my last book of this stint. We started with a very high bar and with this book we’ve most definitely finished in a similar stratosphere. What you need to know about the story I think can be summed-up with two words: Antigravity machine. This is enough to get the book into your hands, but it’s a very, very long way from all this book has to offer.
Raymond Ess and Steven Strauss are on their way to meet Tarik – if he really exists – somewhere in very rural India to buy his invention, an antigravity machine – if it exists. But why shouldn’t it? The magic of Skype can bring Steven’s girlfriend half way round the world to talk to him. Harry’s SmartSpecs can bring the full force of the Web to his eye as he sips his hotel bar cocktail. Why not a machine that can render any object weightless?
The writing is, I think, really rather wonderful. Steven’s voice is exquisite and the trajectory, the positioning of events is really superb. The skill with which the author takes us back in time, reveals a little of the past is evident in just how natural those moments feel. Their very looseness in the narrative belies the control inherent in their perfect placement. It’s a lean beast too. I was reminded of Checkov’s gun, though not only by a gun. Nothing is wasted.
With such a cast of characters it’s perhaps unsurprising that it proved to be an unsettling read. Everything requires scrutiny, Steven’s narration perhaps most of all. It’s a skewed lens he looks through, though I’d struggle to state he’s unreliable. It seems more that he struggles with his worth, struggles to connect with people. Perhaps more that he can’t be entirely honest with himself rather than with us. There are trust issues for Steven and reader alike. Ess, Harry, Asha, Tarik? Take your pick.
It is evidence that you don’t have to like the protagonist to really like the book. Or maybe I’m being disingenuous; after all, I suspect we’d get on…
It won’t be surprised to see this book at the very least on shortlists, if not on podiums for prizes. I’m still questioning what it is saying to me, and I’m sure I will go back and read it again, delight in the story, the characters, the writing, again. It is, I think, that good. It carries a certain sense of – how should I say it – gravity.
I should start with the highest accolade: Iona Grey’s Letters To The Lost gets the Mrs Van Seal Of Approval (not lightly nor frequently bestowed). I can follow with the fact that this isn’t a book I would likely have picked up myself so I am very grateful to the Curtis Brown Book Group for providing me (above and beyond the call of duty, I might add) with the opportunity to read it, because I really liked it too.
It’s a quietly compelling book. There are two timelines, two threads woven nicely together. There’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary about either of them, no twists in the tail or blind corners, and that’s something I’m so very very glad of. It’s a story that you first realise could have happened to anyone, could have happened to your parents, or to you. And then you find that it’s a story that seems to be happening around you. The sheer plausibility of it all and particularly the incidental detail in the characters and settings sucks you in and you’re there, up in the dome at St Paul’s with the hairs standing up on the back of your neck and a febrile grin on your face hearing that whisper race around the walls.
Okay, you might raise an eyebrow and mention coincidence but for my money it’d be a hollow concern. Sure, there are coincidences but none of them made me feel cheated as a reader. None of them made me sit up and think, okay, let’s see where it goes. I’ve had things happen in my life that are less believable. In any case, if you were to raise such a quibble, I simply counter with characters.
The characters – more so I think in the wartime period – are perfect. Will and Jess, for me at least, took a little longer to warm to, but with Dan, Stella, Nancy and even Charles I felt instantly connected to in one way or another. By the end of the book I defy you not to be rooting for them, both in the past and the present.
Charles is particularly interesting for the neutral cast the author presents. He could so easily have been a pantomime villain, yet (though God knows he’s a villain in Mrs Van’s mind, alongside The Ship’s Michael Paull) there’s a mitigation (I struggle to say tenderness) in the way Iona grey writes him – that would have been my question had I been there for the discussion with the author: Was he the hardest to get right, to get balanced, to care enough about (to find a likeable aspect of?) so that he didn’t become a caped and jeering vaudevillean?
There were tiny things that lifted me momentarily out of the story, an odd simile that just didn’t work for me, or the word incandescent appearing a few times, but there were far more of those really lovely moments where I had to stop and smile at what I could see in my head (the delphinium sky stays with me). And more than that there is a real sense of warmth, of feeling in the telling of this story. It feels more than possible, it feels real. There’s not much more a writer can ask than that.
What Mrs Van and I are now wondering: when’s the film coming out?
If I were to pick a single to word sum up Nathan Filer’s The Shock Of The Fall I would choose honest. There’s nothing here by which a reader could feel misled or set up or let down. It’s a tale told simply and told well and it carries about it a sense of truthfulness that bleeds beyond the enclosed world of a novel.
This is, I think, anchored in the surprising lack of emotional trickery in play – where the author could have leaned heavily on the heart-strings in fact he seems to have gone out of his way to avoid any whiff of sentimentality. There are genuine lump-in-the-throat moments, but it’s their very ordinariness that makes them so. This is why the story rings so true. Matt Homes, the protagonist, is not the sentimental type, so will not allow us, the reader, to indulge. When those moments come it’s what we feel for those on the page that provokes that emotional response, rather than those characters acting out what they feel. It’s an honest response.
There is a finely-tuned ambivalence in the performance presented. Matt clearly knows that something is not right, and yet at the same time it seems wholly natural to him (I don’t think I’m pitching a spoiler here) that his dead brother should be inviting him to come and play. His good manners often battle with his wayward emotions. He frequently – and how this chimes with us as a reader, how true it feels – says or does something to his own detriment to spare another’s feelings. Yet he pulls no punches. He shows his anger, his frustration. He hurts those close to him. He shows the terrifying creep of his mania – his own impotent awareness of it.
It’s a sensitive portrait, not of a person, but of a family fractured by the shock of the fall, each struggling in his or her own way to contain the pain of it, to live with the wound it left behind. It’s also a hawk’s-eye view of the treatment process, the facilities and professionals arrayed to provide the care Matt wants/needs/is required to have. It’s a portrait of a system trying to do what it can, trying to make sense of something that really doesn’t make any sense at all.
It is a bright light illuminating a subject that continues to be something of a taboo. Through books like this it’s fair to say that awareness is growing, and I think perhaps there are the tentative shoots of tolerance, of a desire to understand breaking through. A step closer to Matt Homes is a step closer to knowing how fine a line there is between what it is to be mentally well and what it is not to be.
The Rocks is a family history told from finish to start. Spry, gutter-mouthed, somewhat malicious (at least where Gerald is concerned) and yet strangely endearing Lulu and raddled, bone-stricken and wheezing Gerald together meet their end. There is history between them, cryptic words at the last, and accusations. When their children from separate marriages meet to gather their last effects those words are echoed. There’s a mystery somewhere back there. But there’s clearly choppy water betwixt Luc (Lulu’s son) and Aegina (Gerald’s daughter) too. And they’re weary, coloured by this mystery that separated Lulu and Gerald, yet seemed to hold them too in proximity on the small holiday isle.
The Rocks is an engaging read. It took me a little while to settle into the story and get to grips with who is who, but once there the intrigue of it all steadily drew me in. Of course it’s not just Lulu and Gerald’s big secret that we head towards, but a number of other incidents that are either magnified or simply reflected in the light of new information each time we take a step further into the past.
The story really jumped into life for me when in Morocco. The adventure of it all, the proximity and possibility of the situation keeping me turning page after page. The same too with the closing chapters of with Gerald and Lulu. There are a couple of passages presented from a child’s point of view which are charming, and Peter Nichols has clearly met enough Spanish officials in his time to understand that laconic indifference with which they meet both temperamental foreigners and local figures of authority.
It’s as much Luc and Aegina’s story as it is Lulu and Gerald’s and Peter Nichols’s handling of their shifting characters is what stands out for me. They are recognisably themselves throughout, yet are noticeably different too. Luc’s world-weary despondency giving way to his hunger, his need to succeed, giving way to his fragile optimism giving way to his boyish physical desire. There are moments with both Luc and Aegina where I wanted to shout SAY IT, or else STOP! It’s easy to shake your head at their mistakes, less so to admit you’d probably have done the same at that age.
When it comes to Gerald and Lulu I found myself liking her less as time moved backwards, and him more. There comes in the end a fundamental question: was she right to cut him off the way she did?
I’ll leave you to answer that one for yourself.