Archive | July, 2016

Van has finished reading…The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

28 Jul

I’m not wholly comfortable with the idea of suspending disbelief as a reader. I think it paints us in a somewhat cynical shade, suggests that even before we’ve opened the cover we’ve got the knowing face on and we’re waiting for you, dear writer, to impress us with the way you pull the wool over. I rather prefer to approach a book with the view that I’m going to learn about someone else’s truth, whatever that may be. This distinction, I think, cuts to the heart of whether you’ll like this novel or not. If, like me, you’re of a more accepting stance with your reading then you’re in for an engaging, sometimes amusing time, with the odd wrench of the heart thrown in for good measure. If you’re of the other camp it’s possible you’ll be rolling your eyes and huffing in disgust.

It’s all down to that central action that precipitates that most beloved of engines for fiction: the road trip. You see, to me it didn’t seem that far-fetched that Hattie should decide to pile the kids into the camper and leave the country in search of something that might be more appropriately described as adult supervision. Like just about everyone in this book (even the dog), Hattie has been rejected by the people she needed the most, and while it’s a question of degrees that favours Hattie she is in fact only marginally less damaged than her hospitalised sister, Min, mother to the aforementioned kids.

Of course, if you’re not like me you’ll be wondering just how hard it is to pick up the phone and ring social services, thereby making the book about three quarters shorter than it is – or a good deal longer and several shades darker, depending on your view of government-funded childcare.


Me being me, my heart aches for young Thebes (and not just because she’s called Thebes). There’s something really touching about the relentless optimism of a damaged child and Miriam Teows sets her exquisitely against the foil of equally-damaged-but-far-more guardedly-hopeful older brother, Logan. The three intrepids tread the fine line between optimism and despair, anger and elation as they search for someone to stand by them, or with them, or for them.


The Flying Troutmans was published by Faber on the 6th August 2009 ISBN: 9780571224029

You can find Miriam on Twitter @MiriamToews

Van has finished reading…The Green Road by Anne Enright

27 Jul

I’m hard-pressed to think of a writer who can unpick a family dynamic as tidily as Anne Enright. I remember being blown away by The Gathering and just how much the author could make you feel what her characters were feeling. Her sense of place – and more importantly of character in place is second-to-none, and she has this incredible knack of conveying those things with a turn of phrase. You find yourself reading a sentence and thinking you know exactly what that scene sounds and looks and feels like, even from the inside. ‘I like you now,’ Rosaleen says to her daughter at one point, and there’s the stunted expectation, the swell of neediness, the disappointment the child must feel; there too is the mother’s desire to needle her children, to frame her family in the context of herself, to feed the future she can already see with all the anxiety it deserves.

The Green Road is something of a fractured novel. It deals with a fractured family so it’s not surprising this disjointedness would be there. As the novel moves forward from 1980 we meet each of Rosaleen’s children in their own chapters as they move away from Rosaleen’s vicinity, if not her grip or the ripples of her nature. They each feel as real and complete as you’d expect from Anne Enright and their relations with each other turn on the finest of points: which buttons to press, or not; the habits that are old and fallen back into against those that are new and expose the differentness of a new incarnation; the awareness of the favourites from the also-rans. But where it falls down for me is in the second part. The second part deals with the family coming back together for what might be a last Christmas together in the family home. It runs in a more linear and conventional way that feels like it’s there to draw events together. I found myself looking for the conclusions I should draw at the end when in fact I didn’t want to draw conclusions at all. What I wanted was more of that wonderful collection-of-linked-shorts feel that the first half had. I wanted to stick with the glimpses, with the joining of the dots and the sublime ambivalence of familial cause and effect.

There’s so much to admire in the way Anne Enright tells a story – her eye for character, her lyricism, her uncanny accuracy with a turn of phrase – and these are all in evidence in The Green Road. But if I were to recommend an Enright title to you it would still be the Gathering.


The Green Road was published by Jonathan Cape on 7th May 2015 ISBN: 9780224089050

Van has finished reading…The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

14 Jul

That thing where you pick up a book and it feels as beautiful as it looks and there’s an energy about it that positively defies the use of a comma in your first sentence. Then you open the book and begin to read…

You’re not reading your way into a story. You’re not taking in the surroundings and building a picture in your head. You are quite delightfully and unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a feeling, a sensation. It’s a cold hand at the base of the spine, hairs lifting at the nape of your neck, bristling along your arms. It’s a whisperer, this book. It’s a body standing just behind your right shoulder where you can’t quite see it, unrolling the story in a hush across your ear. It is fabulous.


Cora Seagrave, recently widowed, finds herself on the Essex coast seeking evidence behind the rumours that abound of a terrible serpent that crawls up out of the sea to take livestock or people. Rational and independent, Cora believes something prehistoric to be at work, a ‘living fossil’. Just as steadfast in his belief there is a rational explanation – though naturally opposed to Cora’s reading of events – is local vicar William Ransome. As staunch as each other in their views, each recognises a kindred nature in the other and a turbulent time ahead is unavoidable. Skirting these warring friends are Cora’s companion, a staunch socialist, her autistic son Francis, her physician friend Luke Garrett and The Ambroses, moneyed and high-ranking conservatives. There’s a realness to all these people that is truly rare, no-one feeling as though they’ve been inserted to assist the plot or appearing not-quite-complete. For me, Luke Garrett is particularly vivid. There’s a palpable vibrancy about him, an intensity that borders on the audible.

Sometimes when writing these reviews I have to be very careful not to give away what a book is about. With The Essex Serpent, it’s hard to know where to start. Sarah Perry covers a monumental amount of ground with this book, it’s about so many things. Chief among them is that dark heart of the Venn diagram that is religion, science and superstition. Where does belief end and knowledge begin? Where is safety, where salvation? What’s truly exceptional about this book is that Sarah Perry asks those questions at every level, from the most intimate and individual to the broadest possible.

The language is glorious. There’s an almost biblical lilt to it at times, deepening the sense of place and moment, and heightening that creeping undertone that’s at the heart of the story. The passages that bring us up to date with recent events are prime examples of this. There’s a tone about them that could almost be tongue-in-cheek, relating the facts, filling us in. Yet that insidious voice lurks within them. Is it real, it asks, can you trust this? Is it what you think, or is it something else? Look at them, it says, back then on the verge of all that discovery. They thought they knew so much. But what about you? Do you think you know any more, any better?

One thing I can say for certain is that it’s an absolute delight to read, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be appearing on any number of shortlists by the end of the year.


The Essex Serpent was published by Serpent’s Tail on 27 May 2016 ISBN:9781781255445

You can find Sarah Perry on Twitter @sarahgperry and on her website


My thanks to Isabel Costello (who has a book of her own out, which you should also read) at the Literary Sofa for sending me this wonderful book.