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Bad DreamsI was looking forward to reading Tessa Hadley’s new volume of short stories, Bad Dreams, but it was even better than I expected. I feel a strong connection to her writing, her contemporary settings and characters, and I couldn’t stop thinking about some of these stories afterwards. The stories in Bad Dreams range across different times and places but always focus on relationships and families, memories and women’s experiences, and the defining incidents in people’s lives: a moment of realisation, an event that set someone’s life on a different path or a childhood experience that they always remember.

There are many reasons that I like Tessa Hadley’s work so much: her characterisation and psychological insight, the way her characters seem alive, without any cliche whatsoever. The way she can describe and strongly evoke places, whether it’s suburbia in the 60s or modern-day Leeds and London. I especially notice the vivid way she describes houses and the secret life going on inside a home. Some of her stories miraculously capture a child’s point of view and the sense of viewing the adult world from an outsider’s perspective, with a child’s curiosity and anxiety and gradual understanding.

One of the most striking stories was the first, An Abduction, which is set in the 1960s and describes how a teenage girl ended up getting in a car with a group of older boys, students on holiday from university. Jane, the main character, is portrayed as ordinary, conventional, from a conservative background and lacking in confidence, while Daniel, the leader of the boys is charismatic, intellectual and self-destructive. The events of the story are surprising and show that Jane has more of a rebellious streak than first appears. The setting is rather dreamlike and nostalgic and to me it seemed to capture the youth culture of the 1960s and a sense of different worlds being thrown together. A sort of coda at the end of the story, which describes what happened to the characters later on, is very powerful, as it shows the different ways people can view the same event, how what is important and life-defining to one person can mean nothing to another, and how a successful person can have a buried past that not even they themselves really know about. There is a sort of understated anger and intensity to the ending.

Probably my favourite story however was Flight, the story of Claire, a 40-something woman with a successful career in America, returning to visit her childhood home and sister’s family in Leeds. I loved the way the family relationships were described and the sense of distance Claire felt from the others, which was something she had deliberately chosen and welcomed but also grieved over. I really liked how Hadley gradually revealed more about the family background and hinted that Claire was more troubled than she first seemed. The ending was perfectly written and I felt there was something heartbreaking about it.

Another story I enjoyed was The Stain, a story about a young woman working as a carer for a wealthy and elderly man. It’s a very realistic, contemporary story and it is really refreshing to see working-class characters who are complex and real and not cliched at all. A few stories move earlier into the 20th century; Deeds Not Words is set at the time of the first world war and women’s suffrage movement, while Silk Brocade is about two young seamstresses in the 1960s. Most of my favourites are the contemporary stories, however; apart from the ones I’ve mentioned, I really liked Experience, about a 20-something woman house-sitting for an older, more glamorous woman and what happens when she starts to reads her diaries. I felt this story had an emotional impact because of the contrast between the narrator, who feels she hasn’t really lived properly, and Hana with her destructive love affairs and unapologetic way of living. I really liked the way the narrator’s and Hana’s roles were reversed at the end of the story.

To sum up: in case it isn’t obvious, I thought this book was wonderful and I’m sure I will think about these stories for a long time to come.

Another Mothers SonSet in contemporary London, Another Mother’s Son is an intriguing and unusual novel which follows events in the lives of the narrator, Lorna, and her three sons as they struggle with adolescence and moving into adulthood.

Lorna, an archivist, is divorced from the boys’ father, Randal, who left her to start a new relationship and family. Oliver has left for university and hardly ever sees his mother, while Ross, the youngest son, has recently started going out with Jude, a girl from school, whose own parents are having difficulties in their marriage. Ewan, the eldest, is the most troubled, as he dropped out of university after a term and now lives in the attic room of Lorna’s house, barely speaking to her, not studying or working, and only occasionally leaving the house on solitary expeditions. The main focus of the novel, however, is an incident at Ross’s school involving his English teacher, Mr Child, and the consequences for the students and parents.

One thing I really liked about this book is the realistic way it describes modern urban life. Everyday details are narrated in a detached, emotionless tone, which distances the reader from them and makes them appear fresh and even slightly surreal at times. The deadpan narration brings out the humour or strangeness in minor events and encounters. It reflects Lorna’s alienation from most of the people around her: the parents at Ross’s school, her ex-husband, a disturbing visitor to her archive who wants to write a novel abut a historical transport disaster, and the irritating Jane, who appears to have set her sights on marrying Lorna’s elderly father.

The novel explores motherhood and more generally the relationships between the generations. Lorna sees her sons’ generation as under pressure and at risk from modern technology and social media in a way she wasn’t when growing up. Ross’s school, Lloyd-Barron Academy, is portrayed as a terribly unsympathetic, humourless and over-regulated environment. The headmaster is obsessed with management-speak and only concerned with marketing and creating a perfect image for the school. Meanwhile, the group of middle-class parents and their attempts to interfere with issues at school is described precisely and wittily.

The dialogue between Lorna and her sons seemed very believable to me. I could feel Lorna’s anxiety and attempts to build relationships with her sons, as well as their irritation with her. The relationship between Lorna and Jude was interesting because they seemed to grow to like each other, despite their initial awkwardness and distance. Lorna sees everything from the outside as no one really confides in her and so she has to piece events together, always discovering the truth later than others.

Although I liked the book, I found its events at times almost too mundane and disconnected from each other, lacking in any meaning. I was most interested in the events at Ross’s school, the interactions between the parents and teachers. The novel left me wanting more; for example I found Ewan’s situation intriguing and wanted to explore that. I wondered why he seemed to have given up on life and spent his time in bed or sitting at his desk for hours on end. I liked the description of his intricate artwork, elaborately drawn but executed in the most throw-away materials possible, cheap biro and lined A4 paper. Perhaps the mystery and lack of explanation reflected the way Lorna felt, as if she had no idea how Ewan had reached this point and had already exhausted all possible ways of helping him. The whole novel is written in a muted, melancholic tone, as if Lorna is just watching events unfold and is unable to help her sons or have any impact on the world around her.

I have now read and enjoyed all Janet Davey’s novels. Another Mother’s Son seemed a more personal book than the others, with its introspective first-person narration. If you enjoy fiction by Anita Brookner and Tessa Hadley, I would recommend picking up Davey’s books.

This must be the placeThis Must Be The Place is a novel like a patchwork quilt that weaves together many stories, all starting out from the central character of Daniel, a linguistics professor from Brooklyn, who now lives in a remote area of Ireland with his wife Claudette. Claudette used to be a famous film star but notoriously disappeared from that world about 15 years ago and now lives a reclusive life in an isolated cottage with Daniel and her children. One day Daniel is listening to the radio when he hears an interview which reveals to him a shocking fact about an incident from his student days. He has tried to put the incident behind him but now feels compelled to discover the truth about what happened years before.

The novel is told from many different points of view, moving back and forth in time and across the world. Each chapter starts with a different person, a year and a place, and although the narrative is told in the third person, we experience events through that particular character’s eyes. I really like the technique of different viewpoints when it is done well, as it is here. Each character has a distinctive voice and way of thinking that mostly feels true to life and makes the novel interesting to read. The leaps backwards and forwards in time kept me absorbed, as events from the past revealed more about Daniel and Claudette’s previous lives. Some chapters introduce new characters’ viewpoints or are set in unexpected time periods and I liked the unpredictability. These small glimpses into minor characters’ lives (for example, Maeve or Rosalind) left the rest of their stories untold, which I found intriguing.

I liked the complexity of the characters, particularly Daniel, Claudette and some of Daniel’s friends from his university days. I think one particular strength of this author is how she captures the way people’s family backgrounds and early life experiences can influence their later lives, without bludgeoning the reader over the head to make the point. The parts of the novel I liked the most were the depiction of the central incident which affected Daniel so much, the encounter with his friend Todd, and in general the stories of both Daniel’s and Claudette’s lives in their early twenties. I felt the novel describes vividly how it is (or was) to be a student or recent graduate. OK, so it’s set in glamorous environments but it captures realistic emotions and experiences from that time of life, both the excitement and the darker side. I was slightly less interested in Claudette’s experiences as a film star, although I liked the character of the director, Timou, who I imagined to be a Lars Von Trier figure, while Claudette would be more of an Isabelle Huppert! O’Farrell also experiments with different ways of telling the story, for example there is an interesting chapter which is written in the form of an auction catalogue at a sale of some of Claudette’s personal belongings.

Because of how much time, space and plot the book encompasses, it doesn’t seem to have a central theme and maybe the variety is the point. Perhaps the intention is simply to explore how this incident affects Daniel and his marriage, or to express how complicated and sprawling one person’s life can be, particularly today when global travel is more commonplace and people are less likely to stay in the same place they grew up, around the same people, for their whole lives. If I had a criticism, it would be that later in the book O’Farrell crams too many themes and issues into one family and it became slightly clicheed and superficial how complicated it all was. Despite this, in general I enjoyed the novel because of the main characters and central plotline. I wondered why O’Farrell chose the title This Must Be The Place and think maybe it expresses the sense of recognition that someone feels when they find home, either in a physical location or with a person. I am still thinking about the novel a couple of weeks later and will be looking for more books by Maggie O’Farrell.

Station ElevenStation Eleven sparked my imagination like no book had for a long time. This post-apocalyptic novel presents a vivid and perfectly created world: a setting that is deeply atmospheric, both chilling and beautiful. It has been categorised as science fiction but I would say it is a dystopian novel related to the works of Cormac McCarthy and J.G. Ballard. I think Emily St John Mandel resembles Ballard in her visual imagination and ability to portray a civilisation breaking down, although Station Eleven presents a much less bleak and cynical view of human nature and society than Ballard’s works.

The novel opens when a famous actor, Arthur, collapses and dies on stage playing King Lear in a theatre in Toronto. At around the same time a flu pandemic begins to spread throughout the world, killing the majority of the world’s population and causing a complete breakdown of the modern, technologically advanced society we know. The novel then moves forward twenty years to follow Kirsten, who was a child actress on stage with Arthur in the production of King Lear and is now a member of the Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare plays in the settlements that have developed following the pandemic. The novel also follows various other characters, all connected with Arthur in some way, and mixes present-day events with flashbacks to their lives before the collapse.

I found Station Eleven completely absorbing and very inventive. Set in a recognisable, everyday world, the effects of the pandemic are plausible and realistic. The pandemic is gripping and frightening to read about, but this section is relatively short. The main action of the novel, set twenty years later, has a distinctive tone of nostalgia for the world we live in now, which I found interesting. The characters longingly remember everyday objects and technology that most of us take for granted. St John Mandel also explores how this nostalgia affects different generations. Children born after the collapse know nothing else and consider descriptions of, for example, electricity as incredible fairy stories. Alternatively, they show no interest at all. The book asks if those who are older adults and spent most of their lives in the pre-pandemic world are more or less fortunate, as they have lost more but have a greater store of memories to recall. Kirsten falls somewhere in between, as she was eight years old and therefore has only a few, almost dream-like, memories. I wondered if this was the most difficult position to be in, as Kirsten and her friend are constantly searching through abandoned buildings trying to find tokens of civilisation, such as books half-remembered from childhood or magazine photos of Arthur.

In this novel, material objects are repositories of memory. Trivial objects attain an intense significance to people once they become scarce. One of the older characters sets up a Museum of Civilisation, in which items such as laptops, phones, shoes and newspapers are preserved. The importance of the museum is to keep the memory of the former world alive, both for those who knew it and those who never experienced it. The book has an elegiac tone and creates a distance from the present-day world that made me see it as more precarious.

In fact, the novel really succeeded in making me imagine what it would be like to live in a world where modern civilisation had disappeared. It is always implicit in the novel that it would be impossible to communicate with anyone elsewhere in the world, and that without the internet or even a postal service, you would never know what had happened to people you were separated from at the time of the pandemic. I think for me this is the most striking aspect of this imagined world.

Although it is disturbing, I felt the novel also imagines a certain beauty in a post-technological age, describing how, following the pandemic, plants and animals start to encroach on the built environment humans had created, or how the stars appear much brighter at night. It creates parallels with the Shakespearean age, when plague frequently swept through London, and makes it seem appropriate that the Travelling Symphony perform only Shakespeare plays to their audiences. Nevertheless, I agree with other reviews I have read that it is strange that no one seems to create any new art or music after the collapse. I don’t know if this is a deliberate decision by the author, to show that people would concentrate on survival to such an extent that the creation of art would be an impossibility. Another unexpected aspect of this world is that traditional religion seems to be almost entirely absent, and in its place new cults have emerged in certain settlements. Again, the novel never mentions traditional religion so I wondered if its disappearance was something the author felt would be inevitable in these circumstances.

The post-pandemic world begins as a violent and dangerous place in which many people are killed and those who survive are traumatised. However the novel keeps returning to the fact that, after twenty years, the world is becoming kinder and more civilised again. I felt that the author sees civilisation as a strong, perhaps innate, human impulse that can survive almost anything. Even with the limited resources they have, people start newspapers, libraries and, of course, the theatre of the Travelling Symphony. I don’t describe it well but in the novel it is a very moving and powerful theme. There is almost the sense that a new cycle of history is starting, which will rebuild what has been lost.

Perhaps because there was such a large cast of characters, some were memorable, while others, such as Kirsten’s friends in the Travelling Symphony, weren’t particularly distinctive. I felt sympathetic towards Kirsten, who is perhaps the character the reader identifies with and follows the most. Jeevan, a paparazzo who photographs Arthur, was one of my favourite characters, as I found him likeable and the scenes involving his brother Frank moving. I also found Clark, Arthur’s friend, very sympathetic. Although I enjoyed the flashback parts of the novel, I never particularly grasped what everyone saw in Arthur and was unsure whether he was powerful enough as the central pivot for all the other characters. To me, Miranda was one of the most interesting characters, an artist and very private person who I felt prioritised her art and internal, imaginative life above everything else, organising her existence so she could concentrate on the creation of her new world.

Overall, I would recommend Station Eleven as a beautiful and unsettling novel that lives in the memory long after reading.

lucia-berlinI hadn’t heard of Lucia Berlin before picking up this book but soon became engrossed in this collection of vivid, moving and surprising short stories. The author was born in Alaska in 1936 and lived in Chile, New Mexico, California and Colorado, places in which many of her stories are set. A Manual for Cleaning Women is a selection of stories published between the 1970s and 1990s. Although she was appreciated and celebrated by readers during her lifetime, it seems that this posthumous collection has brought her to a wider audience and greater acclaim.

I really liked this book and read most of the stories over a few days. Because some of the same settings, characters and themes appear repeatedly in the stories, I found I read the book as quickly as a novel, while still appreciating the impact of each story on its own. Set mainly in Chile, Mexico and the USA, the stories mix realistic detail with the unexpected, and certainly took me, as a reader with no experiences of those places, into a different world.

Some of the stories look back to unconventional and sometimes difficult childhoods and adolescence (Stars and Saints). Others are set in adult life, veering from the glamorous and adventurous to the precarious or lonely, or encompassing all those within the same story. Some describe the experience of alcoholism in an ironic and self-aware way (Her First Detox, 502). Often the stories explore the protagonists’ experiences at work, teaching, nursing and cleaning, in a witty and absorbing style (Emergency Room Notebook, 1977, El Tim).

One of my favourite stories is Toda Luna, Toda Ano, about a woman who travels to Mexico after her husband dies and joins a group of locals who teach her to dive. I also thought Here It Is Saturday, a story about a creative writing class in prison, was brilliant, for its dialogue, wit and emotional impact. Good and Bad, a story about a wealthy teenage girl and her Communist teacher, was also memorable. A few of the stories are very sad, especially those about grief, and the author doesn’t go for the sentimental or easy resolution. At other moments she somehow captures happiness and vitality in a story’s vivid details.

I’d describe the writing style as plain but evocative. The stories are often written in a first-person and colloquial narrative that is intimate and amusing. I have read that Lucia Berlin has been compared to Jean Rhys and Raymond Carver. I can see the truth in both of these comparisons but also think her way of looking at the world is very original. I would highly recommend this anthology.

When authors make real historical people into characters in their fiction, the results can be controversial. Even if the author adds a disclaimer that their work is imagined and does not claim to tell the whole truth about Vermeer or Cromwell or Henry James, a fictional image can be just as powerful as a biographical one and add to our collective impression of that historical figure. Personally, I think that a writer has a responsibility when they begin writing about people who actually lived, and the less famous their subject, the greater the responsibility. For example, with so many images and narratives of Virginia Woolf in existence, people will not take Michael Cunningham’s portrait of her in The Hours to be the definitive truth. I think most people piece together their ideas of historical figures from many different sources, rejecting fragments that don’t fit with the rest and threaten to disturb the whole. But what if the character imagined is not Virginia Woolf but an obscure young woman who in 1818 boarded a ship from the Scottish Highlands with her father and brothers to make a new life in North America? Someone who died nearly 200 years ago has no one to defend her and if an author happens to explore her life and make it into fiction, this is probably the only representation she will ever have for us in the 21st century.

In The View from Castle Rock, the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro turns her own life and the lives of her ancestors into fiction. She explains in the foreword that the book grew out of the research she carried out into her mother’s side of the family, who originally came from Scotland, and then became combined with a set of autobiographical stories she was also writing at the time, stories ‘in which I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.’ The stories in this volume move forwards through time (although always reminding us that they are being imagined or researched by Munro in the present), beginning with her visit to the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, the home of ancestors who themselves lived obscure lives but were connected to famous figures such as James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott, and ending with a story based on the author’s own life in the present but very much concerned with mortality, past generations and the history of her local area, from the geological history of the landscape to the recent history of churches and crypts.

Not everyone likes books that combine fact and fiction in this way, and I’m not completely sure what I think. Sometimes, while reading, I wondered how much was true and how much invented; sometimes I just became immersed in the stories, not caring whether they were true or not. This was especially the case in the title story, which was my favourite and to me the most memorable. This story is about the sea voyage of an elderly father and his sons and daughter, who are all emigrating together from Scotland to Canada in the early 1800s. One son, Andrew, is married and his wife, Agnes, gives birth on board ship; Mary, the daughter, is small, shy, plain and overlooked, and finds her greatest joy in looking after Agnes’ children; the younger son, Walter, begins writing a journal about the voyage and makes friends with a young consumptive girl who is travelling with her wealthy father.

In this story, Munro invents the thoughts, feelings and dialogue of these people, who all really lived and whose gravestones can still be found in a churchyard in Canada. That raises the question I mentioned earlier, whether there is something disturbing about giving made-up voices to people who may have been very different in reality. However, Munro does use facts discovered in her research too, along with, most interestingly, the real journal of the sea voyage that Walter kept and letters written by the father, James. There is a clear dividing line between fact and fiction, because at this distance in time the characters and their feelings cannot be known and must have been invented, but they are imagined, as Munro puts it, ‘always within the outlines of a true narrative’. In this story, history and fiction stay in their own categories, but their juxtaposition has a kind of magic power, truly managing to convey the immigrants’ vulnerability and the wonders of their journey, the risks they were taking by leaving their old lives behind.

In the later stories, the ones about Alice Munro’s own life, the line between fact and fiction is less clear and I found myself wondering more often which elements were autobiographical. The first-person narrator remained recognisable throughout, rebellious and unconventional, awkward, easily embarrassed but sometimes arrogant, not at home in the place she grew up. Her ambitious mother who found the happiest time of her life selling furs in a grand hotel, her quieter father who turned to writing later in life, and her brash and tactless stepmother are also essentially the same in all the stories, and I think this is where the truth of the book lies, so that it doesn’t matter so much if the other characters and incidents are invented. Writing honestly about people who were so close to the author is much more dangerous than writing about long-dead ancestors. In a way, I think it’s natural for the reader to want to know whether what is written is true, even if only one person’s subjective truth. But Munro insists that these stories are fiction: ‘I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.’

I believe a writer’s imagination cannot be constrained and although it might begin with facts, it soon travels far away into a world of fiction that has a different kind of truth. But I still feel that a writer has a responsibility to people who actually existed and had their own secret lives that nobody can ever know about. I wonder how much a writer can speak for others who lived long ago.

Last night I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Marilynne Robinson in Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford. First Marilynne read two extracts, one from her latest book, the collection of essays When I Was A Child, I Read Books, and the other from her beautiful novel Gilead. The essay extract was an interesting piece about her childhood and the culture of the American West, where she grew up. It seemed to be a response to people who find it difficult to believe that she became a writer after growing up in Idaho, and are curious about how she could possibly have ended up being educated and writing books. The extract from Gilead described how the narrator, John Ames, fell in love with his wife after seeing her in the congregation of the church where he preached. I liked the way Marilynne read – it was very expressive but gentle and relaxed. She also brought out the humour of the passage, so that I was surprised by how funny it was (I remember Gilead as being a more serious and poetic novel).

The reading was followed by a discussion based on audience questions, which were mainly about her essays and her thoughts on religion, science, politics and history. I have read all (three) of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and like them very much (my favourite is Home which I liked even more than Gilead) but I have never read her non-fiction collections. Maybe because of this, I would have liked to hear more about her fiction (although I am a hypocrite and never dare to ask questions at these kinds of events!). I was interested to find out that she wrote Housekeeping partly in order to inform people about, or explore, the experience of living in such a remote place. I also liked a question that was asked about where the character of Ames came from. Marilynne’s answer was that Ames presented himself to her when she was staying alone in a hotel room – that she suddenly felt this man’s voice taking over her mind. She said she wasn’t surprised that she’d imagined a minister but she was surprised that he was a man who liked baseball! That must be an example of real inspiration. 

I have also read several books recently, all of which I quite enjoyed but none of which I feel compelled to write whole posts about, so I will be very quick! Wanting to read more by Muriel Spark, I chose The Driver’s Seat, a novella about a young woman who goes on holiday by herself to an unnamed foreign city. It proved to be a dark and twisted story with the atmosphere of a bad dream, if the dream also had some comic moments. The concept behind the novel was interesting and unusual enough in itself to keep me reading. I’m not sure whether this concept, a surreal crime story, is based on psychological insight into the character of Lise or is just meant to be bizarre and playful. I’m leaning towards the psychological interpretation because that’s what I find more interesting but there is a kind of distance and lack of emotion in the narration that makes me unsure. I also read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, another dark but not entirely serious tale, after Litlove’s review made me curious, and found the central mystery and the atmosphere of the novel quite compelling. And at the other end of the spectrum, I read The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, which wasn’t dark in the slightest but was charming and whimsical.