The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker: Lavinia’s Book Pick, March 2019

the silence of the girls.jpgThe Silence of the Girls is yet another retelling of mythology – these are ‘toute la rage’ now, as the French undoubtedly say, and I have read the good, bad and ugly of them, so it was with both a little shiver of anticipation and a heavy dread deep in my stomach that I sat down to enjoy my birthday hardback. A hardback is always a commitment – a heavy weight to lift, and a constriction to reading at home rather than on the train – and I wanted it to be good.

Reader, I was not disappointed. The Silence of the Girls is not always an easy read. Being narrated by the Trojan prisoner Briseis, and set among the Trojan prisoner-women in the Greek camp, the content is heavily focused on rape. But it is not written about in a voyeuristic or exploitative way, offered up for titillation or framed as something that eventually becomes romantic. It is handled with sensitivity, nuance, and – among the women in the camp – a kind of grim nihilistic humour that feels very real.

One of the real charms of The Silence of the Girls is the way it avoids that tedious historical/mythic fiction ‘forsooth good sir’ way of talking. The characters speak to one another like real humans (in that way it’s very much like The Favourite). Occasionally this comes out rather oddly – there’s something slightly jarring to me about the characters saying ‘for God’s sake’ in a polytheistic culture – but that’s easy to forgive when it’s in service of a realism that conveys the powerful emotions and human relationships of the Iliad in a way that feels convincing and immediate.

Of course, despite being a book told by and about women, it is also heavily dominated by the figure of Achilles. In the Iliad itself Achilles spends most of the time sulking, but The Silence of the Girls offers another side that considers his relationships with his mother, with Patroclus, and with life away from the battlefield. He appears as an overgrown child, a complex and caring friend, a brute, and sometimes as a sensitive diplomat.

You’ll love this book if: 

– You like a good retelling of ancient myth
– You like a new perspective on an old story
– You like historical/mythic material told with humour

You might want to avoid this book if:

– You are sensitive to portrayals of violence, esp. sexual violence

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Normal People – Sally Rooney

Rating: 3 stars

Marianne lives in a small town in the west of Ireland; her family are obviously wealthy but she attends the same school as Connell, whose mother Lorraine cleans the “white mansion” where Marianne, her mother and brother Alan live. Alan is a mean bully, treating Marianne with a casual violent contempt, knowing she is a frightened loner. Against the odds, Marianne and Connell strike up a friendship, having a respect for each other’s intelligence and a love of facts and learning. In school they never speak to each other – she’s quiet, friendless, and he’s a popular member of the soccer team, adored by all.

Their friendship rapidly becomes an affair, secret from their families and his friends until the night of the fundraiser when he rescues her from older bullying and taunting gate-crashers, and she reveals that her late father used to hit her mother. At the point in her life when most of her school colleagues are out having fun, Marianne’s life is already dominated by a combination of love of learning, and of being a repeated victim of violence. She and Connell both apply to study at Trinity College, Dublin, but by the time their studies start their relationship has foundered.

normal people.jpgJust months later, at university, Connell and Marianne’s positions are reversed: she’s now the centre of a bright social set, well-to-do, attractive and vivacious; he’s struggling on the fringes, feeling socially out of his depth. It didn’t seem at all real to me that just months after their awkward break up, after which she abruptly leaves school, she is now the popular centre of attention among a group of rich and confident friends. The barriers which existed between her and and her school peer group had seemed far more to do with what she was inherently like, introverted and bookish, than with the wealth and social gap between her and them. I found it hard to credit that in the space of the summer vacation she’d suddenly changed into a confident party-goer.

Gradually they inch back into a relationship, but again it’s fated not to last. The pattern of their lives is set. They understand each other better than anyone else, they love each other, but they can never be together for long. Marianne’s doomed to have a series of difficult, often physically and verbally violent relationships; Connell is doomed to be with people who don’t share or understand his feelings for the world or for literature. They drift together and drift apart repeatedly, although, as time goes on, when they’re apart they constantly communicate, each telling the other of ideas, thoughts and feelings which no one else is told, not even their current partners.

I loved the opening section of Normal People, titled January 2011, with its descriptions of growing young relationships, and of what it is like for some educated and articulate people to be young in the 21st century, but, for me, the book faded away and lost my interest, despite its being under 270 pages in length, so that long before its final section, February 2015, I really wanted Marianne and Connell to have moved forward in their lives and become more interesting. Perhaps I’m too old and jaundiced, or perhaps I have read too many books! Clearly not only most reviewers but the Costa Book Awards panel disagreed with me, as this has been awarded the Costa novel of the year for 2018.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Skylarks’ War – Hilary McKay

Rating: 5 stars

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My secret trick for dealing with winter blues: children’s fiction, both classics like The Secret Garden and Ballet Shoes, and modern classics in the making like Five Children on the Western Front (Costa Children’s Book Award winner 2014). I’ve been delighted during this winter’s long, dark evenings not just to reread some of my old favourites, but to find some new treasures, like this year’s Costa Children’s Book winner, The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay. Hilary McKay had already won the Guardian Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Exiles, the Smarties Prize for The Exiles in Love and the Costa Award for Saffy’s Angel.

And The Skylarks’ War is a very worthy second Costa winner for Ms McKay, another fine work which I’m sure children will enjoy for many years to come, and one which parents will delight in reading alongside their youngsters.

It’s a simple tale, beautifully told, of Clarry and her older brother Peter, who spend their summers staying in Cornwall with their grandparents and much-loved older cousin Rupert. Each September brings a return to normal humdrum life with Rupert and Peter at boarding school, while Clarry is stuck at home. Her father is often out, and when he is in he seldom seems to notice her presence; and when he does it never seems to be in a favourable light, seeing no need for her to receive a good education. Instead she is sent to

Miss Pinkses’ Academy for Young Ladies …. bare walls, shabby paint and dark windows … ‘It’s those three rooms at the top,’ said Clarry’s suddenly ruthless brother, pointing (while Clarry lurked miserably behind). ‘She’s been going there for years, ever since she was six, and she has never learned a useful thing. Sewing handkerchief cases, that’s all she did last term!’

When Peter’s school friend Simon Bonnington comes into their lives with his sister Vanessa, Clarry sees that there might be another way for her to live, and secretly applies to take the entrance test at Vanessa’s grammar school, much to her father’s annoyance and disappointment when he learns that she has been awarded a place.

In August 1914 Rupert enlists as soon as he possibly can with his school friend Michael and they go off to France together; Peter will never be able to follow them, having badly damaged his leg jumping from a moving train in the summer of 1912, in the hope of avoiding being sent to boarding school. Instead Peter leaves school and goes to Oxford on a scholarship, and encourages young Clarry to apply for a place as soon as she is old enough.

McKay writes brilliantly about the difficulties faced by young people during the First World War, whether it’s men struggling to be themselves at school, then being forced to grow up rapidly in the trenches of France, or women – particularly intelligent, clear-minded young women like Clarry and Vanessa – wanting to find a new way forward in life, despite the low expectations for girls at the time. The Skylarks’ War is realistic in that while Peter becomes a professor, Clarry is a teacher, enjoying her life, but clearly capable of doing just as much as her older brother. And it’s Clarry who, during the war, has to learn to run the household, cook and clean, as staff gradually leave her father’s house for war work.

This is no fairy tale, a happy-endings-all-around children’s book: Clarry and Peter’s father remains a remote and distant figure, attending neither Peter’s final school speech day nor either child’s Oxford graduation, and he is clearly not part of their adult lives; much-loved friends and relatives are dead – characters we have come to love and appreciate. The Skylarks’ War is a wonderful work, which I’m sure will stand the test of time, and will be added to my own personal set of “essential rereading” books.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Lido – Libby Page

Rating: 5 stars

If, like me, you’re feeling that summer is an awfully long way off, now’s the time to turn to a book to make you feel better about the wait, and I thoroughly recommend turning to The Lido. Like Flora and her mother Ingrid in Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, the two leading characters in The Lido, Rosemary, who is 86, and Kate, 60 years her junior, feel liberated and free when they are swimming. But whereas in Swimming Lessons the swimming is done in the open sea in Dorset, for Rosemary and Kate their liberating swims take place in Brixton Lido, a much-loved local venue. Rosemary has swum there for her entire life and it’s the key cornerstone in her whole being, as she’s watched the city she grew up in changing and shifting around her. So when it’s under threat of closure for redevelopment as part of a proposed luxury development called Paradise Living, she starts a campaign to prevent this. Kate is a young reporter working on the Brixton Chronicle who is assigned the task of covering the story.

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In this, her first published novel, Libby Page writes beautifully both about her characters – Rosemary and her late husband George in particular are an unusual central focus in modern fiction, working class and childless, and portrayed in tender detail – and about her setting. The descriptions of Brixton are vivid and capture a real living place, chronicling vividly its changing nature, from Rosemary’s childhood in wartime right up to modern times. (George’s old greengrocers’ shop in Electric Avenue has become a trendy cocktail bar, for example.) Rosemary has many friends in the streets of her home town, so her shopping days are happy outings punctuated by long chats and treats; at home, however, she’s alone and missing George desperately.

Kate, on the other hand, is desperately shy, with no friends either at work or outside it, spending her evenings crying in her room in a house share.

She doesn’t tell anyone that often she feels like a sad, matted teddy bear you might see forgotten under a bench on the underground. She just wants someone to pick her up and take her home. … Kate’s loneliness sometimes feel like indigestion, at other times it is a dull echo at the back of her eyes or a weight that makes her limbs feel too heavy for her body.

Gradually Kate finds her way back to enjoying life – she has her eyes opened by Rosemary and her friends, and starts to become friends with them herself as she becomes aware of sides of Brixton she’d never previously known existed. She and Rosemary swim together and work together on a campaign to save the pool; she draws from Rosemary’s strength to become stronger herself, and when Rosemary is ill Kate steps in to find she is capable of doing so much more than she’d previously known – each of them needs the other in sometimes surprising ways. In addition, there’s a rich cast of other characters we come to know: members of Brixton’s eclectic community, from the teenage boy swimming at the Lido, to the gay couple in the bookshop, from the staff of the Brixton Chronicle to those working at the Lido, Rosemary’s old friends and colleagues. All play their part in this celebration of the triumph of hope, friendship and community over loneliness and feelings of loss.

Congratulations are due to Ms Page; I can’t wait for your next novel! Fingers crossed, too, for a film version of The Lido – there are two great lead roles here for both an older and a younger actor. Suggestions for casting?

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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A Spark of Light – Jodi Picoult

Rating: 5 stars

I have to confess that this was my first ever foray into a Jodi Picoult book. I’d heard good things, of course, but always with the word ‘chick-lit’ floating around, and with pink covers with loopy writing, and a general reputation of being ‘girly’. I was young and foolish, readers, and even though it’s been a while since I shucked off those silly preconceptions, I hadn’t really got on the Picoult wagon, until this Christmas when I received this book from – if not Father Christmas himself – then one of his handsomest elves.

a spark of light.jpgA Spark of Light tells the story of an abortion clinic in America in the midst of a hostage situation. It’s a story that brings together a great number of perspectives, both pro- and anti-choice (I know they prefer to be called ‘pro-life’, but they’re not writing this review; I am) and deals with both sides in an open-minded and compassionate way. It is – according to the author’s note at the back – informed by interviews with people from both sides of the debate, and time shadowing doctors and nurses in an abortion clinic, and it shows. It features a graphic but scientifically accurate description of a second-trimester abortion based on this observation. It deals with sensitive and difficult issues without feeling heavy or moralising.

In fact, it skates relatively free of landing anywhere on the debate, though perhaps I think that because I am pro-choice, and the author is also. I thought there was compassion and understanding for those on the other side of the debate, and even an understanding of the horror and upset inherent in the difficult decision to end a pregnancy.

As well as delving seriously but compassionately into this issue it is also a gripping and entertaining read – time peels back from the end of the hostage situation and we learn more and more about all of the people present, including the gunman. It’s tight and pacy, and has everything it needs in balance.

From my perspective, then, a very strong recommend. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, with some violence and gore, but ultimately an exciting, moving, thought-provoking read.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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2018: Our Pick of the Bunch

Well, what a year it’s been! 2018 has been long, and twisty, and decidedly weird. Fortunately, it’s also been peppered with wonderful writing, which we’ve been lucky enough to read and review. In no particular order, we’ve picked out the best of the bunch, and are featuring it here. Most of the books listed came out in the last two or three years, and others have been around for a little bit longer. What they all have in common is that they are wonderful, transporting pieces of writing.

 

birdcage walk

Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, and Birdcage Walk, released that summer, is her final novel. It’s a deeply poignant look at one family’s life, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. A beautiful book, and a fitting testament to a much-missed author.

Click here for our review, from February.

And here to find Birdcage Walk on Amazon.

 

snow gardenA Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

A Snow Garden, published in 2015, is a set of seven interlinking stories, all set at Christmas time. Joyce’s writing is witty, but warm, and the stories have a bittersweet quality to them. Too late to give as a Christmas gift this year, alas, but always a wonderful read.

Click here for our review, from March.

And here to find A Snow Garden on Amazon.

 

eleanor oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

One of the breakout hits of 2017, Gail Honeyman’s first novel is a beautiful piece of work. Charming, funny, and often unsettling, it deserves the hype.

Click here for our review, from May.

And here to find Eleanor Oliphant on Amazon.

 

the good people

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s 2016 novel The Good People is a dark and twisty sort of story. Set in a small community in Ireland in 1825, there’s not much in the way of escapism here. A really intense and interesting look at religion, and superstition, and the effect they have on people. Everybody wants to be good, but it’s not that easy.

Click here for Lavinia Collins’ review, from June.

And here to find The Good People on Amazon.

 

one moonlit night

One Moonlit Night – Caradog Prichard (translated by Philip Mitchell)

A bit of a curveball, we’ll admit. One Moonlit Night first came out in 1961, and is translated from the original Welsh. Something of a forgotten classic, Prichard’s book is a Gothic, hallucinogenic kind of read. Very funny, and very strange, it might be the perfect novel for 2018.

Click here for our review, from October.

And here to find One Moonlit Night on Amazon.

 

And that’s it from us for this year! If you’ve enjoyed these reviews, please check out some of the others on the blog. These were just our absolute favourites, and there are tonnes of others that we’ve read and loved in 2018. Have a great New Year, everyone, and best wishes for 2019! We’ll see you there.

Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

Rating: 5 stars

Most people by now will have heard of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, famously adapted into a television series starring Nicole Kidman. Alas, I’ve not managed to see the adaptation, but I loved the book on which it was based. And now I’ve loved Moriarty’s Three Wishes, originally published by Pan in 2004 and republished by Penguin in 2016. Three Wishes was written as part of Moriarty’s master’s degree at Macquarie University in Sydney and was her first novel.

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Ms Moriarty’s light touch is again an absolute winner, so we can empathise and sympathise with each of the three leading characters in turn. The opening pages are told through the voices of various onlookers, mostly fellow diners and staff at the restaurant where blonde-haired Lyn and Cat, and redhead Gemma are out celebrating their 34th birthdays. What starts out as a joyful and noisy celebration turns suddenly into a hideous fight, disturbing the peace of everyone in the busy Sydney seafood restaurant and ending with one of the blondes throwing a fondue fork at the redhead (who is pregnant), then fainting flat out on the hard floor. In most novels this would sound like sure-fire screen adaptation material; but there’s a catch.

One of them said it was fantastic being a triplet. She just loved it! The other one said it was terrible. It just made her feel like a mutant or something. And the third one said it was nothing, no big deal, no different from being any other family.

And here we see just what the problems will be in making a screen adaptation of this tale of a year in the life of identical blondes Lyn and Cat, and their non-identical triplet Gemma – apparently this is scheduled to start production in 2019, and we’d love to know who’s going to be cast in the three lead roles.

So many of the scenes made me laugh out loud, I had to stop reading this on crowded tube trains. The sisters have followed different paths in life: efficient and organised Lyn owns and runs the highly successful Gourmet Brekkie Bus, has taught aerobics, and is married to Michael, with a teenage step-daughter and a toddler; Cat is a marketing executive in a chocolates business, and, although they’ve been trying for a baby, she has recently learned that her husband Dan has had an affair; and Gemma is a bit of a drifter, constantly changing boyfriends and jobs, and regularly acting as a paid house-sitter rather than having her own home. While Cat and Dan’s marriage is struggling, Gemma is getting on very well with a new boyfriend, locksmith Charlie, and quite hoping that this time she and he will get past the six-month mark. The sisters’ lives entwine and get confused, and gradually their long-hidden secrets are revealed. Their long-divorced parents are bemused onlookers trying to help and offer advice and support, while at the same time rebuilding their own relationship.

Moriarty creates many great characters in this book, beyond the triplets and their parents and partners. There’s Lyn’s 15-year-old difficult step-daughter Kara, and Kara’s annoying mother Georgina, constantly changing arrangements at the last minute; the girls’ grandmother Nana, a feisty, “annoyingly spry” widow; and marriage counsellor Annie.

Three Wishes isn’t a book with fairytale, all-wishes-granted endings for all the leading players: Cat breaks up with Dan but finds a new direction and purpose in her life; Lyn struggles to go against all her natural controlling instincts and also find a way to get on with Kara; and Gemma isn’t welcomed by Charlie’s family, with whom she’s clearly going to feel an outsider for a very long time, but does reveal a hidden talent for making money on the stock market, and tells the truth to her sisters about her former fiance Marcus, how he treated her, and what she actually felt when he died. Life isn’t going to be plain sailing for any of the three young women; relationships will always be difficult and volatile amongst them and with their friends and family. Perhaps a sequel set some years on would be welcome!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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