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

Find this book on Amazon

The Skylarks’ War – Hilary McKay

Rating: 5 stars

the skylarks' war.jpg

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

Find this book on Amazon

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5 stars

This book by Gail Honeyman was the winner of the Costa Book Awards 2017 for a first novel. And what a fine first novel it is.

Told in the first person, the narrator opens with a description of her everyday humdrum life, and I was gripped right from the outset. Eleanor Oliphant is nearly thirty and works in the accounts receivable office of a graphic design company. We know straightaway that her life has been difficult. She believes her boss, Bob, took pity on her when he employed her nine years ago: “I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.” Clearly she’s had a difficult period in her life (to put it mildly) and now wants nothing more than a poorly paid office job and routine. Eleanor also tells us within the opening pages that her weekends are spent on her own drinking vodka, and that she speaks to her mother each Wednesday. She’s clearly lonely and troubled, but would admit to neither of these should she ever allow anyone the chance to talk to her for long enough to ask.

eleanor oliphant.jpg

Eleanor is a loner, annoyed by other people’s slovenly or imprecise use of language, keen to point out ways of saving money; now, though, having been given free tickets at work for a gig she’s felt obliged to use them and is on a mission to meet the singer in a band, whom she fantasises is “the one”. She sets about making improvements to her appearance and to her contact with modern life, teaching herself about the internet, Twitter and Instagram. Very soon we find ourselves wrapped in Eleanor’s world – the one that has gripped tightly around her for years – and the sudden changes that come about both from her mission to find out about and meet the singer, Johnnie Lomond, and from her actual meeting with the company’s IT expert Raymond Gibbons. By chance, she and Raymond get involved in the life of Sammy Thom, an elderly man whom they help when he has a fall, and his family. Bit by bit, Eleanor’s life changes and she discovers an ability to relate to people and feel an empathy she didn’t know she could ever feel.

Gail Honeyman slowly and delicately reveals the secrets of Eleanor’s past, always in Eleanor’s precise and careful voice, and describes her gradual and painful thawing and her difficultly in dealing with her own childhood secrets which she has for years hidden from herself in a tightly sealed box in her memory. She discovers that she has abilities and emotions she didn’t previously acknowledge or realise, and that she can learn to trust people and relate to them in ways she, at the outset, would have found completely impossible.

I was completely gripped by this book – I found Eleanor entirely believable and her life by turns sad and funny. At times the humour rings through so strongly that I laughed out loud, particularly at the situations in which she was placing herself in her quest for Johnnie. Her growing compassion for her fellow workers and other people she meets, such as Raymond’s widowed mother, rings true throughout. This is a beautifully written tale about loneliness, secrets, relationships, and trust. A well-deserved prizewinner.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

Find this book on Amazon

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

elizabeth is missingI reckon that many fiction publishers have latched onto the fact that there are a lot of very keen readers for novels which switch between different times and different narrators. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, it’s actually the same narrator – Maud – but in a voice much altered by the passage of time, so that the effect is almost of two distinctly different people.

Or so it seems at first. The more you read, the more you see the similarities between the younger and older person. Maud as the older narrator is suffering from dementia and her voice and obsessions have become simple and child-like. She can no longer remember what she’s done earlier in the day, but parts of the distant past have become crystal clear to her. Maud is now obsessed with trying to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing through some ill treatment. Maud repeatedly goes over the same ground (literally), going back and forth to Elizabeth’s house and, apparently, to the police station to report her disappearance. Maud writes herself notes to try to aid her memory and to keep a record of the important facts she’s convinced she’s discovering.

Maud’s present-day journeys awaken memories of her sister Sukey and of her efforts to find her when she went missing many decades before. In her search for Elizabeth, Maud discovers the truth, or at least a part of the truth, about Sukey’s disappearance. The younger Maud had become ill and was protected by her parents, and now that she is old it is her daughter and granddaughter, Helen and Katy, who are trying to protect her. Time and time again we see struggles within families with different generations attempting to look after parents living in difficult situations or fighting mental instability or infirmity. Young Maud’s family had a lodger, Douglas, whose home had been bombed out and who was secretly trying to protect and look after his elderly “mad” mother, while also repeatedly hunting for Sukey.

All the characters in Elizabeth is Missing are coping with the loss of a loved one and/or the loss of possessions and a home. Sukey’s husband (and possible nemesis) Frank, goes from being surrounded by an abundance of possessions – so many that it’s hard to move around his house – to having nothing and being reduced to living on the outside of society. Maud, too, both as a child and as an old woman hoards possessions, whether these be oddments which she regards as clues found while walking and looking for her sister or for Elizabeth, or tins of peaches. Like Frank, like the bombed-out Douglas and like Elizabeth, she is finally inevitably reduced to having to have very few possessions.

Emma Healey deals with these ideas with clarity and sympathy, without ever losing sight of her current-day or older characters or plots. To anyone with older relatives or with close friends or family members with mental health problems, this can be a difficult book to read, being at times painfully honest about the problems faced in a relationship where communication has often broken down to the extent that one side no longer recognises the identity of the other. This is the well-deserved winner of the Costa First Novel Award for 2014, and I look forward to reading more from this terrific new talent.

Rating: 5 stars

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

Find this book on Amazon