Twitter is my only ‘go-to’ place for a bit of a social media fix having deactivated my Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn (whatever that was) accounts, and this is where I picked up the Flamingo vibe. As I write, the book is heading for another reprint, and deservedly so. I have to be honest, I took a while to get around to ordering, but when I did I decided to go all-in with Bearded Badger – Gummerson’s novel plus 5 splendid chapbooks of cutting edge poetry, most with a regional bent around Badger’s native Derbyshire.
Anyway, I distract myself, I was here to review the novel.
It is indeed, as it says in the title, set over a week at the Flamingo Hotel. The hotel has kept its name despite us soon finding out that the actual flamingos met a grizzly end on the nearby motorway. The cover and title might tease you into thinking that this is set in some classic American freeway motel with cool tunes on the jukebox and even cooler visitors. It’s not. The Flamingo Hotel is firmly ensconced in a faceless, nameless grubby town and sits perilously close to a motorway. And its visitors, not to mention staff, are a disparate and sometimes desperate bunch to say the least.
It’s hilarious. Let’s get that straight. The number of bums and penises which feature, either as methods of transmitted Morse Code or being, willingly or otherwise, manhandled is startling. The book will, honestly, have you snorting with laughter. The author dishes up a feast of non-stop revelry mixed with relentless drudgery. Our main character (who remains nameless throughout) is either drifting into fantasy worlds where he will become hugely successful and popular or attempting to find fun and adventure to see him through his long days as a kitchen porter.
The pace is furious, almost told as a stream of consciousness. Occasionally I folded the book onto my lap to draw breath, or cringe in embarrassment. The collection of players in the story are wildly diverse and offer the protagonist an assortment of distractions, both real and imagined, from his day to day life.
Amongst the frivolity and cheeky narrative there is a genuine coming of age tale unfolding too. Being told in the second person had me, as the reader, checking myself for any of the traits as the book prods you incessantly with “you will”, “you have”, “you are” narration. I love it for that.
That narration is hardly chronological, but all distractions into the actual past, or imagined future, are set within the context of the seven days. It is chaotic, but feels just right to be so. Different moments in each day evoke memories or prompt visions, often in frankly bizarre and unlikely passages. Quirky doesn’t quite capture just how ‘off the wall’ the book is in places. It is a fast read, there are no pauses for reflection, our character’s life barrels from one scene to the next without dwelling on any point.
Beneath the seemingly light-hearted and sometimes frivolous telling of the story, we are slowly learning about the sad and distressing past which might explain some of the behaviour and how the character is maybe in denial about what he actually desires from the world, or indeed from the people, around him.
My advice to readers looking for something fresh, lively, as well as tongue in cheek could do worse than check out this great book. But also, as I have learned to do, look beyond the 3 for 2 tables in Waterstones, there is some brilliant work happening out there which all deserves its moment in the limelight.
My beautiful wife Nicky is always surprising me with new challenges. Let’s learn to swim – and then tackle a 2.5 challenge across Weymouth Bay. We run marathons – let’s try and run 100. Let’s cycle the length of France (she’s already a Lands End to John O’Groats veteran) So it’s hardly surprising that these challenges have now extended to books!
Let’s read the shortlist for the Women’s Prize and pick our own winners.
And so a cardboard box duly arrived and we treasured that ‘new books’ aroma as we teased this gorgeous collection out into the light.
The Women’s Prize originated as The Orange Prize, after the male dominance of book awards reached the ridiculous stage of there being no women on The Booker Prize shortlist in 1991. Please check out the story of the Women’s Prize and the great work they do year round beyond the headline prize.
This year’s judges include Bernadine Evaristo and Elizabeth Day, have a listen to what they are looking for in a winning novel.
Here’s the thing, I briefly started reviewing books I’d been given – kindly passed to me by authors or publicists. I find that so, so hard; so I have stopped signing up for ‘free’ books. I couldn’t stand the guilt or the pressure to ‘enjoy’ a book before I wrote about it. With the Women’s Prize challenge that Nicky and I have taken on, we have ordered and paid for the books which feels much more comfortable when it comes to appraising them. Which is handy, because I sadly haven’t loved all six of these.
I created a score card for the books – marking them out of ten for things like originality, emotional impact and whether I would hunt out other work by that author.
So. In reverse order……
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood. (DNF!) If I don’t enjoy a book, or worse, I abandon reading it, I am in no doubt that says as much about me as it does the book. I suppose I still see reading as an escape from the random scroll of doom of social media. This book is told via a social media ‘timeline’. The random nature of the posts show a narrative unfolding amongst the chaos. I’m afraid I read the first 20 or so pages a couple of times and then had a nosey at the prize’s reading guide. By this point I was confused and frustrated and moved on. I know I should embrace challenging themes and forms, but I really was struggling!
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyashi. (42/90) A poignant and dark study of immigrant reality in America. A very sad story in many ways – a tale of family and loyalty as well as addiction and the frailty of friendships. I found it a restless read as I squirmed at the exposure of an addicts deterioration and the depression of our protagonist’s mother. Gifty, the story’s main character is obsessively working on mice in her laboratory, hoping to explain the brain process of her own brother’s addiction. All the time her mother is cocooned at home sinking deeper into her gloom. The book tackles many issues, including the racism and rejection of ‘other’ in small American communities, and I can see how it has found it’s place amongst the potential winners of this fine literary prize.
HOW THE ONE ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE by Cherie Jones. (54/90) It never ceases to amaze me when I look up an author after reading their book and see the words ‘debut novel’. This is a powerhouse of a book – far beyond ordinary achievements of the average debutant. The main character, Lala, is trapped in a violent and controlling marriage and the book doesn’t flinch from the painful reality of such a life. Set in the ironically titled Paradise on the Caribbean island, Barbados, we get a full exposure of life below the glossy images in the holiday brochures. The book starts with a horrific murder and carries on from there. Cherie Jones holds the reader just out of reach and I couldn’t help but turn the pages despite slightly dreading what might come next. There’s no doubt the author is an extraordinary talent; the book may not have quite impressed me the way the following three have, but it is a masterclass in characterisation and controlling a wild narrative.
PIRENESI by Susanna Clarke. (59/90) Here we go. A fantasy novel. A flippin’ fantasy novel. Obviously I would just skim read this and cast it aside as slightly bonkers. Except I absolutely loved it. Sure the setting takes some getting used to for those who like their novels set on the streets of Sheffield or in the grimy apartments of hidden New York. Once I got my head around the endless halls and gothic statues which dominate the story. The main character, known as Piranesi after being given the name by the ‘Other’, methodically maps the statues and the waters which ebb and flo around them. These, at least to start with, are the only characters. They meet weekly and quite early on I found myself suspicious of the ‘other’ and willing Piranesi to be less trusting and more questioning. The writing is exquisite and I couldn’t help but feel myself entering this strange world of legend, an underground complex with its tidal flooding and bones of previous lives. I can’t say too much, the whole book is a slow reveal. The main character is a fabulous study of an innocent mind living in isolation followed by a slow drip of realisation as the truth of his surroundings become apparent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this won.
UNSETTLED GROUND by Claire Fuller. (72/90) What a beautiful book this is. The cover is simply gorgeous. I nervously turned to page one hoping not to find the contents an anti climax. Far from it, this is a belting story. So many of the characters in all of this short list are living tough and almost unthinkable lives. Here, middle aged twins, brother and sister, suddenly find themselves marooned in a life they barely understand. They had lived with their mother until she passed away at home (an episode not without its dark humour in the telling) and left them ill equipped to sustain their existence. A whole barrage of history related to the land on which their cottage sits and the land owner himself reveals itself as the twins’ world starts to implode. Julius, who is more wild and adventurous and his twin sister, Jeanie, are as frustrating as they are endearing to watch. Their inability, or in some cases, refusal, to accept or engage with the help that is available had been pleading with them! Claire Fuller writes this so elegantly and her portrayal of the existential crisis endured in the twins’ simple country life is mesmerising. There’s a cracking, slowly revealed story here, don’t think for one minute it is all contemplative puddle gazing. An impressive tale of country life, family and the secrets they hold. Should it win? Well, for me it is this or:
THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet. (75/90) Using my highly scientific scoring method, Brit Bennet just pips Claire Fuller to be my pick for the Women’s Prize. This book too features twins and they are also from a strange and remote town. There the similarity ends. The twins in Bennet’s epic novel are from the (fictitious) town of Mallard in Louisiana. Mallard is populated by ‘light’ but black folk. The town’s population would “never be white” but are also determined “to never be treated like Negroes”. Two teenage twins, girls, Desiree and Stella, find themselves hemmed in by the oppressive way of living in the town and run away to find a new life. The are quite different in their outlook and they find themselves forging different paths. Stella almost accidently discovers that she can pass as ‘white’ and is soon pushing this lie to forge a new identity and existence. It covers intense friendships, appalling relationships, loss, the deep history of racism and the pull and push of racism. The supporting cast are a colourful bunch and they each had me along for the ride; performing queens, a bounty hunter, a spoiled teenager rebelling against her privilege as well as the ever present townsfolk back in Mallard. The writing is pitch perfect, the ambitious writer in me was drooling over relentlessly beautiful sentences. Should it win? Yup (although my heart can’t let go of Unsettled Ground!)
This small book set me on a journey of discovery. I’d not heard of the author until I listened to the book being discussed on Radio 4’s A Good Read. The program is a rich source of reading suggestions and often encourages me to delve further into less commercial areas of literature. I was fascinated by the debate about this book and immediately added it to my wish list.
It is a small book (a ‘novella’ perhaps) and as such is a quick read. What it lacks in thickness is more than made up for by its depth. It challenged me to pause and consider again just how war plays out for those in the middle of it. The story is set in the depths of a Polish winter during World War II. We see a brief snapshot of the war for three German soldiers. The book’s narrator is one of the three and he delivers an almost monotone account despite the most awful circumstances surrounding their roles in Poland.
The three are desperate to avoid the “work” which is carried out at the German base. This work, it turns out is the most horrific imaginable, acting as executioners to the Jews who have been captured and brought back. They convince a commanding officer to instead use them to go out into the freezing wilderness to find Jews and bring them back to base. To their inevitable fate. It is chilling. And breathtakingly awful.
The whole story is made so much more grizzly by the matter of fact way the Germans talk about their roles. This is a translation from Mingarelli’s native French (Un Repas En Hiver) by Sam Taylor. Sadly I don’t read in any other language than my own native tongue, because I’d be intrigued to know if the sparsity felt the same in French. For me the tone conveys a numbing and a weariness in the soldiers. They had been part of a gruesome Europe wide crusade and the sheer magnitude of The Holocaust seems to have sanitised their minds to the task. Their humanity remains only tenuously intact, although they aren’t portrayed as out-and-out monsters.
The Jew they capture is hiding out alone, cold, hungry and filthy. The three soldiers find he offers no resistance as they begin their freezing journey back to base. On the way, they hole up in a derelict cottage. They need shelter and warmth as the night approaches. They are spooked by a local Polish man who mysteriously joins them. The animosities are large in the small building, but the Germans nervously accept his presence.
The Pole is hateful and hostile to the Jew and our soldiers find themselves protecting him from the extreme anti-sematic attitude of the unwelcome visitor. Like I say, the narration implies an ambivalence towards the Jew – whilst they don’t seem to care about his fate, they certainly wouldn’t let the Pole dictate the options for him. Despite the light touch of the narration, I formed a very clear mental image of the cottage, right down to the distances between the characters and the nature of the shadows cast by the light from the fire they light. I’d be a happy man if I could write such detail without needing to resort to gushing and descriptive prose. It is, in my opinion, a beautifully written book.
Mingarelli published A Meal In Winter in 2012 (this translation followed in 2013) and was nominated for some prestigious awards. There are some big questions for the reader here. Who did I feel sympathy for as the group of four prepared and ate a meal (after an unspoken debate about whether to allow the Jew his share) with their collective, and meagre, supplies? The answer is obvious, or it should be, and the powerful emotions which rose in me serve as timely reminders to never forget.
In a clever and hinted at sub-plot, there is a mortal fate awaiting one of the three. It is striking that his worries are more about whether his own son will grow up to be a smoker, for example, than the horror about to be dealt to their captive if they carry out the mission to deliver him to base.
Without having a common language between them, the Germans, the Pole and the Jew play out their moral and desperate choices through their actions and gestures. It is truly remarkable to witness this interplay between the five of them through Mingarelli’s prose and the spaces within it.
A quick read which left me reeling. I’m now two and a half books later still getting flashbacks to A Meal In Winter.
Stephen Morris never really got on with formal education. You’ll discover the extend of his aversion to the classroom through the early part of this excellent memoir. That he writes with a wit, with a passion and with aplomb is down to his passion for reading I reckon. He spent many an hour in his youth in libraries, book shops and, of course, record stores. But not so much in school! His love of music is maybe predictable but the extent of his passion for literature came as a pleasant surprise.
I ordered Record Play Pause after hearing Morris on Radio 4’s A Good Read. He impressed me with his enthusiasm and critical commentary on the books being discussed. Through this BBC podcast, he introduced me to the (very) leftfield world of author David Keenan (read my review of Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device here).
All of which meant I was very much looking forward to creasing the spine of Record Play Pause.
Well, what a joy this book is. There is always a level of trepidation when turning the first page of a memoir (or autobiography). How many are launched in hardback and given as Christmas presents – selling in large numbers simply because of the name on the front? Too many I reckon, and a large proportion will be dry, bland, descriptive affairs destined to gather dust and never be read.
I needn’t have worried. The attention to detail which we all enjoy so much in his musicianship is on display here in his words too.
There is a humble self awareness about Stephen Morris, which is comes through wonderfully on the page. Here we follow his childhood, teenage years and the all too short career of Joy Division (Morris is promising a Part II which will take in the New Order era), the book combines his determination to follow his dreams with a darkly humorous catalogue of mistakes and mishaps.
It would have been easy (and lazy) for him to let the narrative follow the life of Joy Division’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, leaving Morris playing a secondary role – the mass media only ever mention Curtis and one particular Joy Division song (Love Will Tear Us Apart) – so he could have ‘cashed in’ on that angle of the story. Not a bit of it, this is the world of Stephen Morris through the words of Stephen Morris. Given the beautiful way with language the man has, my library of musical memoirs is so much richer because of this book.
The sad suicide of Ian Curtis is dealt with tenderly but without gushing romance. Morris’ fondness of his friend and bandmate comes through in the passages around the time of Curtis’ death. It is dramatic and a turning point in all the band member’s lives, but I like the way the author shows us that moment in time without melodrama nor voyeurism. He pulls no punches but also doesn’t add any unnecessary band-standing to the story.
I could claim that the book will appeal to everyone, whatever your musical tastes, age, or your record buying history, but that may not be completely true. It would more than stand up alongside any other autobiography of a musician trying to find his way in the world, but I found myself nodding along as Morris reminded me of bands and venues as well as music press and radio which have also featured in my life when I was a young man. Without these reference points, the reader might possibly become lost in the chronology. That said, because of the popularity of New Order, and the legendary status of Joy Division, I’m sure nearly everyone will enjoy the story.
Anyone with even a passing interest in music (and a love of the written word) will finish this book enriched. The very northern, very ‘real’ nature of Joy Division and their association with the emerging Factory Records and the legendary Hacienda night club is told in eloquent and honest detail.
Stephen Morris writes in a coy, subtly humorous and thoughtful voice which is a delight to read.
I heartily recommend this book and eagerly await Part II!
Regular readers (for there are a few!) might remember that I made a few pledges in my manifesto for 2021. One of those pledges was to keep buying books from independent publishers. I chose this beauty from Gallery Beggar in January. Like a full roast dinner I wasn’t put off by it’s size and woofed down all 300 pages in a couple of days.
Paul Ewan has created the fictitious Francis Plug and tells the tale of learning about how authors behave in public through Plug’s eyes. On the front cover The New Statesman declare it “a comic masterpiece”, and I’m not going to argue. From quite early on I found myself irritating my wife as I burst out laughing. Francis Plug isn’t so much a car crash waiting to happen, as constantly in the middle of one. On more than one occasion I found myself looking away from the page cringing as it became apparent what inappropriate questions Plug was about to ask.
Ewan pulls off a neat trick – quite early into the book I was living the story, I’d forgotten that Plug was a creation. He attends literary events, armed with a copy of each author’s Booker Prize winning novel and attempts to get them signed whilst observing the writers’ behaviour, attire and manner. All of this is research for the book he’s writing, How To Be A Public Author. Which, of course, is the book you are reading. Even though it is fictitious. For me, Paul Ewan has been fiendishly clever in making Plug believable – there are pictures of dedications to Francis Plug at the start of each chapter and Plug’s behaviour plays little tricks with the narrative in relation to each author. Or rather Ewan does.
He attends some events as a genuine ticket holder, others he simply waits outside for the signing and others still he enters through devious and dubious means. The same goes for the books themselves, although I won’t spoil this brilliant little twist for you.
For sure it is a literary tale, there are anecdotes about 25 or more Booker Prize Winning authors, but the joke never tires because it is different every time. Parallel to Plug’s literary journey is the disintegration of the rest of his life. There are moments of poignant beauty alongside the humorous carnage. Plug is a lost and lonely soul and I couldn’t help but feel sad for him as his work and meagre domestic life start unravelling. The drink is never far away as he battles his own self-destruction. The ultimate goal is to culminate his research at the actual Booker Prize ceremony leaving him both able to complete the book and also prepare himself for when he is awarded the prize himself. He is happily deluding himself that this is a given.
Written in a such a way that I couldn’t help but march forward from chapter to chapter. Plug notices some charmingly obscure details in each of the surroundings he finds himself. He takes these little details and creates new behaviours for himself. Peeling stickers off the books on supermarket shelves to decorate the trolley handle, whilst adorning the books with labels he’s taken off the fruit. Maybe it’s just my humour, but those quirky anecdotes kept me smiling throughout the book.
My lovely wife Nicky has just started reading Wolf Hall and so I had to share with her Plug’s challenge that maybe Hilary Mantel had made up the name of the town where she lived, Budleigh Salterton, in order to throw people off the scent. A quite lovely scene.
Now that I’m working harder at my own writing I can only imagine the years which have gone into creating such a richly detailed tome, whilst retaining the light hearted romp through the literary world.
There is a sequel. It will soon be joining my ‘to be read’ pile.
If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading have a gander here. Or for more reviews, why not feast your eyes here.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, reading books is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Unless, I suppose, if you only read one author in one genre of fiction.
So, with Nicky having given The Motel Life an “It’s…… o…..k…” I thought I’d find out for myself. Some books have a build up – this was featured on Radio 4’s A Good Read and Benjamin Myers (one of my absolute favourite authors) described Willy Vlautin as one of (if not the) best American novelist around.
What is all the fuss about?
I’ll tell you, The Motel Life is a novel about life. About two brothers living on the margins of society. About rolling with the punches but also about being defeated by the punches. About loyalty, family, responsibility. About opportunity, but mostly about the lack of it. About guilt and a deep sense of right and wrong. About finding (or not finding) love. About pain.
Two brothers, surviving on the scraps thrown to them, go on the run after an error of judgement leads to a fatal accident. They then rummage through the mess of small town America. Our narrator, Frank, and his elder brother Jerry Lee (along with the dog they acquire along the way) bounce off a small cast of characters. They are far from simple, but their story is told with an uncomplicated delivery.
Vlautin’s prose is personal, crisp and percussive – I could feel the rhythm of the story pulling me through the pages. I’m no American cultural expert, but The Motel Life could be an early Springsteen album. Jerry Lee drives the narrative – cracking the top off another beer and facing each challenge without a dramatic build up – and is a comfort to his brother as their luck deteriorates and a boost when good fortune comes their way. He also did that for me as a reader, Vlautin (through Jerry Lee) explores a persistent but fragile humanity which I felt obliged to believe in and left me needing to root for the brothers despite their desperate, poverty stricken cause.
Day to day life is often complicated for ‘normal’ people and Willy Vlautin demonstrates this with these naive but strangely determined brothers. I suppose you could call it Americana (it just wouldn’t fit set in my small town here in the UK) and for me it is an understated gem.
I absolutely loved it.
To see what else I’ve been reading, have a click here or for more reviews here.
After reading the hundred year old dystopian classic, We, I thought I’d bring myself right up to date with the genre. I have previously devoured two of Adrian J Walker’s futuristic tales (The Last Dog On Earth and The End Of The World Running Club). Both were excellent page turners, emotionally charged and set against desolate, post apocalyptic landscapes. Was I hoping for more of the same? Another dystopian journey while our actual lives during the last year has at times felt like they are being lived in a bleak work of fiction, is that what I wanted?
I needn’t have worried. Walker’s latest opus (it was published during 2020) is not only quite different from other futuristic tales, but also a beautiful read.
At first glance there appears to be all the ingredients for a dystopia – 500 or so years in the future, the earth no longer inhabited by humans, but with this book we are almost immediately treated to some hope. The race (The Erta) who now sparsely inhabit the planet were originally one of the last human projects. A last ditch attempt to reverse human damage. Well over those few hundred years that is exactly what The Erta have achieved. So, unlike a typical dystopian, or science fiction tale, the earth is in fine fettle.
Why The Human Son? Well, The Erta decide that their work is done and an experiment should be carried out in trying to create Homo Sapien again in the form of one child, to see how he (for it is a boy, eventually named Reed) will respond and adapt.
Walker has an eye for the soul in his characters, and so Ima (chosen to be the boy’s ‘mother’) immediately had my backing in the project. The writing is almost poetic at times. The book became part of me for the whole read. I always know I’m enjoying a book when my phone goes untouched during my break at work. Or if I read a few pages while I cook.
With reference to some of the literature, journals and podcasts about literary fiction I’ve been consuming lately, The Human Son felt almost refreshingly light in its delivery. Not that it is lacking in any depth at all, just not trying to go beyond giving the reader the actual story. Despite this, there is nothing formulaic. Walker has created Ima to be ‘imperfect’ and the idea that the science of The Erta will trump the emotion of humanity is challenged throughout.
The Human Son is imaginative, but so much more too. The deeper I went in, the more I was getting out. I found myself using the book as a mirror too. The human behaviour which led to the earth reaching its tipping point in the book is going on all around us right now. This isn’t force fed by Walker, it is crumb fed. And that feels right.
Sure it’s a climate emergency book, but it is also a study of how society can fall apart, how even a supposedly scientifically created race can lapse into factions and quarrels. Not only that, it is a wonderful study of parenthood, of childhood and coming of age.
Boasting almost 500 pages, the book soon had me turning the pages and there is nothing daunting about the story. I’m finding myself tired of book labels – who decides what is genre fiction, or literary fiction? What I like about Adrian J Walker’s books is that he seems happy to be classed however the world of books decides. For me, his books are thrilling, exciting, dramatic and pacy, like any thriller. And yet, the levels of poignancy and moments of stillness lend his books an atmosphere of contemplation at times too. That particularly goes for The Human Son. Emotions are gently exposed and discovered as the truth of Reed becomes apparent to both him and Ima.
Walker also pulls off the trick of narrating in the first and second person – Ima is telling the story for Reed to find at a later date. This produces a little bit of clumsiness for me towards the end of the book, but not enough to put me off my reading pace.
A fine read which had me asking myself plenty of questions about existence and truth.
I posted a picture of this book on social media recently prompting a good friend to remark that he read it 50 (fifty!) years ago. And it was already nearly 50 years old by then. Written originally in Zamyatin’s native Russian in the 1920’s, it wouldn’t appear in print in his homeland until the 1980’s. There have been various translations over the lifetime of the book. My copy is the 1996 Clarence Brown translation, which seems to be universally acknowledged as faithful to the original.
Often, probably too often, We is referred to as the book which inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I don’t dispute the comparison, and the timing is certainly right, I’m looking forward to re-reading the Orwell classic to make my own mind up about this. As an aside, Aldus Huxley is rumoured to have been unlikely to have had a chance to read We before publishing Brave New World.
None of that mattered once I’d sat down with the book, it is a fine piece of stand alone literature. I’m a sucker for a good dystopia, but this is so much more than that. It’s more of an anti-utopia I reckon.
Set in One State, a world where nature and the ancient ways are excluded by a green wall. One State is ruled by The Benefactor, to whom all humans now both worship and service. It is narrated in the first person, by way of a series of written records to be carried to other worlds, by our protagonist, D-503 (people all have code numbers instead of names).
It is an intense read, it doesn’t have the grand gestures or jingoism of other dystopian fiction. The narrator gives us the story of rebellion and glimpses of past worlds (as well as the life still happening outside the wall) with a very personal, intimate and increasingly emotional delivery.
Like 1984’s Winston, D-503 is drawn into becoming involved with anti-One State thoughts by a woman. I-330, as she is known, is a corrupter, seducer but more, she is a leader, capable of influencing even the most loyal minds to follow her rebellion.
Often the prose is, to use modern slang, quite ‘naval gazing’ and, like I say, very personal to D-503. His mental health deteriorates and improves in waves as his loyalties are drawn from side to side. I sometimes found the abstract telling of his thoughts quite challenging and there was a bit of re-reading as I tried to uncover his motives.
I imagine generations of people have read We and used the story to hold a mirror to the fears of whichever time it was being read in. That the masses actually felt that One State was utopia, perhaps echoes the fears of what is sometimes imagined to be socialism, certainly communism. But, conversely, the tables could be turned and fears of a fascist state with a leader who can’t be removed are also here.
It would be churlish of me to expand further and spoil the plot. We is a powerful and deeply thought provoking book which does require the reader to get involved in order to enjoy its full impact. Don’t expect a racy, pacey, hard hitting dystopia, but do expect to be challenged and maybe need to look away occasionally as the text provokes your own reactions.
If I’m going to be ever able to say “I read We fifty years ago” I will need to live to an unlikely age…….
What can I say? I read it in a couple of days, despite work etc, so I must have loved it!
Let’s set the scene – a novel about the post-punk music scene in Airdrie (think early 1980s). But it’s entirely fictional. But told as a sort of documentary. But a documentary collated and curated by two (fictional of course) non-journalistic types. It is wonderfully chaotic.
Through conversations, interviews, letters and memories, the short life span of the band, This Is Memorial Device, is pieced together. There is no ordered chronology which seems to be pitched perfectly for the book. The level of detail in here kept me having to remind myself that it is indeed fiction. This includes a discography as one appendix, with a list of all the bands and derivatives, in Airdrie, during the period the book covers in another.
Like I say, it really is chaotic – a cacophony of random noise and an entourage of bizarre narrators, each offering their mostly psychedelic takes on the music, the relationships and the band itself. These voices are friends, family members, lovers, members of other bands and the curators themselves. If you find yourself irritated by a narrator, fear not, there’ll be another one along in a minute. And then another, and then another……
Having briefly been in a band and enjoyed the interplay between the characters, I found myself smiling at some of the ensuing carnage. But this carnage is at a whole new level. As is the prose, this book will never be criticised for ‘descriptive’!
Pretty much all of the voices are a step removed from the physicality of what they are describing. There is so much psychological wandering with dreamy and figurative metaphor. Apart from the sex! The ‘cocks’, ‘scrotums’ and ‘tits’ are described in admirable detail.
Honestly, I’ve never read anything like it. I bought into the story completely and devoured it in a couple of days. But you need to want to read it, you can’t just fall into it. I’m just glad my life has none of the random unpredictability the book describes.
If you’re looking for something new and completely different to challenge your reading brain, and maybe are of a certain age to appreciate some of the reference points in the book, I’d recommend giving this a whirl.
Matt Haig has cemented his place firmly in the nation’s hearts. Last year’s The Midnight Library was a huge best seller and a quite glorious read. I heard him recently on Radio 4’s Open Book talking passionately and eloquently about libraries which have featured in great literature. As I have discovered with Reasons To Stay Alive, Haig’s journey to revered author has been rocky to say the least.
I stepped back to 2015 and soaked up this clever, poignant and quite frankly, important book. Part memoir, part pocket guide, Reasons To Stay Alive is oozing honesty and charm. So much of what we read holds a mirror to our minds or guides us to a view through the open window. This does both.
. That’s a mirror I mostly avoid. As he points out repeatedly, it is good to remind yourself where you’ve been.
But I also found myself nodding and smiling, sharing with the author a passion for those great medicines for our minds – the outdoors, exercise, loving, reading and, of course, writing.
As Matt Haig himself explains, often authors explore their relationships with themselves, the world around them and their own mental through works of fiction. He cites his own novel, The Humans, as an example of this. But with Reasons To Stay Alive, the story is ruthlessly personal. That Haig can achieve this without any sense of ‘woe’ or self pity is testament to the quality of his writing.
The book is written in easily digested passages, switching between his own story, pointers to surviving our times and a series of checklists. The shifts in focus feel effortless as you move through the book. In fact, the brief snippets are clever antidotes to the tougher memoir passages. My favourite has to be the list entitled “Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression”
Reasons To Stay Alive is readable and relatable without ever being bossy. Yet it is full of great advice and nudges us towards accepting our own minds and their workings.
It should be a lazy cliche to describe it as ‘important’, but as an open and gentle guide to living life alongside our mental health, I reckon it really is.
It is a quick read and a ‘pocket sized’ book, but one that’s worth keeping to hand as one of our tools for navigating our way through life.