Monday, 11 December 2017

Guest review by Nicky Singer: MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent

Nicky Singer is a novelist, playwright and librettist. Her first book for children, Feather Boy, won the Blue Peter ‘Book of the Year’ Award and was adapted for TV, winning a BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama. In 2010 she was asked by Glyndebourne to adapt her novel Knight Crew (a re-telling of the King Arthur legend set in contemporary gangland) for an opera with music by Julian Philips. 2012 saw the premiere of her play Island (about ice-bears and the nature of reality) at the National Theatre. She re-wrote Island as a novel and no mainstream publisher was remotely interested. So she published it herself via Kickstarter with illustrations by UK Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell. Somehow it managed to claw its way onto the Carnegie longlist. Her new book (forthcoming July 2018) is already sold in France, Germany, Italy, Israel, China and Russia as well as the UK. #FunnyOldWorld

I know what reviews are supposed to be. They're supposed to be relatively impartial summations which allow a third party access to a book. This isn't going to be a review like that. This is a writers’ review blog and this is going to be one writer’s extremely personal – visceral even - reaction to a fellow writer’s work.

I gorged on this raw, pulsing, thrilling book.

My Absolute Darling is the story of a powerful man and his soon-to-be-powerful daughter locked in an appalling, abusive embrace. Set against a throbbing landscape of sea and pond, poison ivy and sodden spiderwebs, it’s a book that strips away much of how we live now – our technology, our twittery busy-ness - reducing things to ‘bloody marrow’ and ‘hollow thighbones’. It allows no easy assumptions – confronts you at every level. The monstrous, survivalist father sits by his guns reading Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Vile, loathsome and compelling, he is, of course, not always so: intelligent and damaged, he both defends and cares. His daughter, similarly, both loves and hates him, waiting for him at night ‘touching the cold blade of her pocketknife to her face’ because ‘by turns she wants and does not want it’. Violence lurks on every page but so does poetry. Not poetry of the rhyming sort but poetry which captures big thoughts, big landscapes or big emotions in small, exact ways: ‘His touch brings her skin to life, and she holds it all within the private theatre of her mind, where anything is permitted, their two shadows cast across the sheet and knit together’. The talent of Tallent (sic) is to insert this poetry - this quality - into the driving force of the narrative (the guns, the horror, our growing sense of where all this must end) without once slackening the pace.

This is not a book you read leisurely. You consume it – as it consumes you. And you also shout at it. Or at least I did, finding myself being confronted by all my own prejudices and story tropes. If someone doesn’t help this girl out in the next chapter, I shouted, I’m going to get in there and do it myself! Although, of course, I knew perfectly well that the only person who could save this girl – if she was to be saved – was the girl herself. Turtle. Turtle Alveston. And here’s another sly piece of Tallent’s genius - the heroine’s many names. Her ‘real’ name is Julia. This is what she’s called at school. Her Grandfather calls her ‘Sweetpea’. To her father she’s just ‘kibble’. Kibble without a capital ‘k’ – like a piece of dog food. It hurt me every time he named her so. Turtle is the name she gives herself. It’s never explained but one can guess about the hard shell and the retreating, hiding, quivering inside. In moments of real self-loathing she also uses one of her father’s other terms for her: ‘illiterate little slit’. Illiterate little slit? Right, that’s it. I’m going to go into the book to kill the bastard. Now. Because where the hell is the prince in this story anyway? The prince is Jacob. Only he doesn’t find her – she finds him, lost and without shelter one night in the harsh Mendocino landscape. The landscape which she knows like the back of her hand. So, of course, it is Turtle who does the saving and Jacob who does some more naming. Now she’s the ‘chainsaw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, once-and-future queen of post-apocalyptic America’. And yes, of course, part of Turtle is this magnificent, imagined person. Part of her is also way out of this privileged boy’s league. But he has access to the world outside Turtle’s closed life. So, he can do something, can’t he? Make something happen, save her after all? No, of course not.

If I’m being really snippy, I’d say Tallent doesn’t quite solve the final question of the would-be prince’s place in the final spectacular – and thrillingly expected – denouement. But I’m not being snippy because this is a big, passionate, written-from-the-soul book. And they don’t come often. Although when they do come they come, increasingly (for me, anyway) stripped to these same essentials - people, landscape. Take A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, for instance. Quieter of course, but with the same truth. Or the 2017 Booker shortlisted Elmet by Fiona Mozley which features another powerful man and daughter in a wood you can also smell and chop. So now I’m thinking – is this some new trope? They used to say that to write a good kids’ book you need to get rid of the parents. Is it now that, to write a great adult book, you have to strip away the technology? That we can no longer say or mean deep things inside our everyday techno lives, and that we must return to the visceral dark and the hurting to understand the important and real? This jolts me to the realisation that my own new book follows a girl and a boy through six thousand miles of guess what – landscape: sand and stars and stone. I hope my book has some of the same blood and passion as Tallent’s book. Actually, I hope it has a tenth of the blood and passion of Tallent’s book. My Absolute Darling. Oh, my absolute darling. Read it, please. It’s the new way to be alive.

My Absolute Darling is published by 4th Estate.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Guest Graeme Fife admires Maggie O'Farrell's novels

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history, four studies of the mountain ranges of southern Europe and, like many of us, waits with the patience of Job for decision on a number of manuscripts.

‘I am somewhere. Drifting, Hiding. Thoughts running around tracks, random and unconnected as ball-bearings in the circuit of a pinball machine. I am thinking about the party at work at which John and I didn’t meet, how we must have circled each other round the room like moths at a light bulb…’ (From After You’d Gone)

This might be a considered analysis of O’Farrell’s work: the random encounter, the missed encounter, the light of the novel’s heart glowing throughout. Her narratives might seem to be merely playful: they hop, skip and jump from serendipity to chance to puzzlement and surprise but rather she is exploring the disconnects in our experience. We do not see or feel what happens to us in linear and logical form, but often as a curious loose linkage of events. To shape a narrative on such a premise is bold, but O’Farrell has a fine instinct for how to pull apparently disconnected events into a compelling, a coherent narrative which enriches the emotional currents of the story and the characters caught up in it. For, in this episodic approach, she mirrors the thought processes, the jump-shot cinema of our mind and memory, most clearly evinced in dream. The power of dream, often to mystify, sometimes to explain, always to beguile. This is O’Farrell’s chosen way and it is deliciously seductive. She weaves a story punctuated by What next? Where to now? How did that happen?

Occasionally she teases the reader by introducing a character who has no obvious place in the narrative so far but, in the course of unfolding her, or his, story, the connection is made. It is, perhaps, a way of avoiding a sequential plod, to interrupt the flow as a way of saying that this is how our moods run, this is the lurch of our thinking from what we think we know to what puzzles us, to the sudden certainties, which may appear to be too late…except that they may prove not to be too late. This is the charm of the O’Farrell novel: the piecing together of the story rather than the simple narrative line. Perhaps not to all tastes. As a friend of mine said, not a book to read in bed at the end of a tiring day. You need to be alert.

Her plots are close-woven, the forward drive of the story irresistibly powerful, in part because she manages to keep so many secrets hidden in the course of balancing the tug of the various strands she has spun to lead us on.

This is as far as I’ll go. I’ll give nothing away because it would do O’Farrell a grave disservice to dwell on the structure of the novels, even to hint at what happens. No spoilers and I add a plea: never read the blurbs of these novels. (In fact, I would extend that plea to any blurb. Go in unapprised, surrender to the writer.)

The great virtues of her writing - the skippy fluency of her prose, the colour of her language, the accuracy of her descriptions - embrace the emotional heat and the veracity of her insights. She knows the mind and heart, she writes without flinching from the uncomfortable aspects of human relationships, she is willing to prod and poke the wounds inflicted by love as well as to evoke the glorious surge of passion and the oddities of attraction. Nothing soft, often very tough, both her men and her women, in their yielding, their courage.

She’s particularly sensitive to the intensity and irrationality of first love and how it shapes its own reason. Thence, how, in the maturing of a relationship, the peculiar rationale melds with the practical into a more diverse – perhaps problematic – depth of mutual sympathy and, perhaps, failure of sympathy.

It was reading After You’d Gone that prompted me to this review. At that point, I’d read all her novels bar The Distance Between Us (having been completely hooked by the first I read, The Hand That Once Held Mine.) That final novel I reserved jealously, like a kid hoarding chocolate for a feast to look forward to. And now…the feast is eaten. Damn.

After You’d Gone is a work of sumptuous gift, beguiling and very moving. The final section explodes in consummate drama. I gasped when the novel hit the buffer of the final full stop. And I began to urge people to ‘read this book’ just as a friend had urged me to read The Hand That Once Held Mine.

Maggie O'Farrell's novels are published by Tinder Press.