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!)
A debut novel. A bloomin’ debut. Such power and emotion in his first book. Take a bow Paul Mendez.
Now. Be warned.
It is a bit rude in places. Ok, it’s pretty feckin’ graphic. Those of a sensitive nature might find their eyes watering in the early stages. The full force created by the urges of the young man at the centre of this story are quite openly exposed. Mendez writes with an ferocious passion. The story deserves every bit of the raw sex which sets the scene early in the book.
Before that though, the book begins 50 years earlier with a young Jamaican couple (from the Windrush generation) struggling to come to terms with their decision to move from the Caribbean Island to the Midlands of England. They are, of course, linked to the story which follows. This sets a bleak backdrop of racism and forgotten dreams and gives context to the rest of the book.
Jesse, a young black man, brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, finds his life in the Black Country capitulating and ends up fleeing to London where he finds he can use his youthful black body for financial gain. His journey to this point is delivered with a series of necessarily blunt blows within the narration. A white step father is kept from getting close to Jesse by a mother who shows nothing but resentment and disappointment towards her son.
I believe Rainbow Milk is closely personal to Mendez and his delivery of both the rough physical moments, the heart-breaking cries for help as well as Jesse’s many cringe worthy and naïve moments is so exquisitely poised. And the issues at play are voiced with such force that I struggled to get my head around this being a debut!
The crushing isolation felt by Jesse as he becomes increasingly desperate to express himself both emotionally and physically leads to him mistakenly seeking sexual attention from a fellow young Witness. This leads to his removal from the Jehovah’s Witness fellowship and cements the estrangement from his mother and step father. It also sets the scene for him fleeing to London.
He suffers at the hands of some of the men he encounters but also finds the sexual joy he imagined with others. Amongst the one night stands, quick and quickly forgotten fucks in toilet cubicles, gradually a love story unfolds. After a particularly rough customer, Jesse finds himself needing to quickly understand the risks still at play of AIDS.
The drinking, the drugs and the debauchery are just as full on as the sex, until a near tragedy slowly brings him together with a man, Owen, who seems to truly love him. Paul Mendez gives us hope amongst the chaos and is maybe saying there is a way to navigate this life if we have faith in ourselves. Jesse battles an abusive childhood, religious oppression, relentless racism and homophobia as well as rejection, loneliness and terrifying health scares.
The musical references are fabulous, Jesse finding solace and motivation in some of the great R’nB and soul greats, as well as cutting edge contemporary artists. Through Owen, the man who he falls in love with, he discovers the music of Joy Division and Public Image Limited and finds himself deeply entranced (helped by the drug use naturally) by some of the sounds from my era!
Mendez had me rooting for Jesse throughout and plenty of tears were shed along the way.
A riveting, heart wrenching and ferocious read which manages to caress the senses as well as battering them.
I’m saying nothing more, you’ll have to read it to find out for yourselves!
PS: The title isn’t referring to what I thought it was….
Here we go. Having been humbled by the prose, the depth, the power and the sheer beauty of this book, I’m struggling to find sentences worthy of describing it.
Colson Whitehead’s 2016, Purlitzer Prize winning novel is just tremendous. Why? I shall try and explain.
Firstly, it is exquisitely crafted. There isn’t a wasted sentence in the book. My novel writing ambitions (and indeed, my efforts to date) feel like the surface of a puddle after delving into the oceans of depth on offer here. And that’s before we start on the extraordinary story. This is the second Colson Whitehead book I’ve read, and they have both been magnificent. (The other being The Nickel Boys)
The story is exquisite. Taking the metaphor of The Underground Railroad to mean so much more than just a series of safe houses runaway slaves might use for shelter. In the book, set in the first half of the nineteenth century, there really is a secret underground railway. There are engineers and conductors, each with their own reasons for taking the risk on behalf of the slaves. It is a bright and inventive take on one of the darkest times in history.
I found it scary that even within a few hundred pages I could start to become anaesthetised to the horrors of slavery and the casual murder enjoyed in some of the southern states particularly. The author doesn’t push any parallel with the racism of today, but as a reader, these were never far from my mind. In fact, Whitehead delves further back into history to highlight the massacre of Native Americans rather than labour any contemporary (or indeed populist) narrative. I keep saying it, this book is terrific in ways I’d never thought of.
It is so powerful, honestly. So powerful without seemingly trying to be. The main character Cora finds herself anew in each of the states into which the railroad deposits her. She has followed her mother’s footsteps (or so she thinks, but no plot spoilers). The narrative seems to gather poignancy as the book draws to a close with some breathtakingly, heart breaking moments of realisation.
Cora’s escape from the plantation in the deepest south is far from smooth and throughout the book, literally from start to finish, she suffers unimaginable pain and loss. She really is our hero, and her strength is solid. I could not fail to be inspired to look for everything positive in my own life by her seemingly natural ability to push on.
Colson Whitehead graphically portrays each state’s methods of dealing with “the negro problem” and doesn’t hold back with the horrific imagery. Yes, it is a bruising read, but somehow sublime in its telling. I lost count of the number of times I said to Nicky (my gorgeous wife and fellow member of our two person book club), “I bloody love this book”!
I am left enriched and moved and felt I’d travelled an uncomfortable and torrid journey from Africa, through the deep south into the faintest of promised lands further north.
As I write this in April 2021, I can’t help but think we’ve gone backwards, as a (human) race, in so many ways. I hope that if the time came to be counted, I would be brave enough to become a conductor on The Underground Railroad. This will never be my history. I am in the utterly privileged position to say that. BUT, I feel even more privileged to have Colson Whitehead show me THIS history.
The last book review I posted was of Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, a densely plotted, artfully crafted and challengingly narrated tome. After such a hefty read, Coetzee’s 1999 Man Booker Prize winning Disgrace was a much more straight forward tale in comparison. Not in any sort of simplistic way, far from it, but J.M. Coetzee delivers his depth in a more naturally chronological order. As I keep saying, as a writer myself I enjoy reading far and wide to try and absorb some of the language and style used by these extraordinary authors.
Skim reading Disgrace would do this gorgeous book a disservice. Peel off the top layer and you’ll find subtle explorations of contrasting themes running through the story.
David Lurie, a twice divorced teacher at the Technical University of Cape Town has a compulsive affair with a student. The affair itself is awkward and clumsy. Coetzee’s direct and pointed narrative exposes the main character’s weaknesses and his traits as the whole episode unravels. From a position of respect and comfort, Lurie’s life is dismantled and he finds himself seeking refuge with his daughter, Lucy. Lucy lives on a countryside smallholding and her lifestyle, as well as the company she keeps, is a startling departure for David.
What Coetzee does so well with this book is blend the personal, intricate details of lives being lived with the deeper issues of class, race and gender as South Africa attempted to prepare for the 21st century. I found myself opening up to the realisation that so much in life is just accepted. The casual disregard for women, which feels almost institutional in the early stages of the novel, for example. Also the assumptions of how the colour of skin determines our status. Not only that, the horrific crime which occurs at Lucy’s farm (as well as the later crime David suffers) is almost expected. David struggles to understand Lucy’s acceptance of what happens (without giving anything away) and he has an undercurrent of shame which just adds to the disgrace of the book’s title.
There is a brutal honesty about a middle aged white man believing that he “…has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” He hasn’t of course, as becomes apparent early on. He believes that it is alright to have women slot into his life, purely to fulfil his desires. As I have said, this is both awkward and shameful in its telling. Coetzee, as I’m sure a more scholarly reviewer would better explain, seems to parallel South Africa’s attempts at truth and reconciliation with David’s lived experience. I find myself humbled by writing as eloquent as this. The narration prods and embarrasses the reader into glancing at the mirror to check for signs of the flaws being portrayed.
I don’t think I’m going overboard when I describe this as a ‘masterpiece’. I’d previously read just one of Coetzee’s works, his thinly disguised memoir of adolescence, Boyhood, and in some ways the themes there are taken into later adulthood with Disgrace. I have no doubt there are autobiographical elements to Disgrace too, and I know he speaks directly to those of us similarly aged and privileged as David appears to be in the book.
I wonder how women readers feel about David? I found him frustrating and at times downright offensive. And yet, somehow, I was still rooting for him as the book drew to a close. Lurking behind the decisions made (often as a result of nothing more than his sex drive), there is a man who cares deeply about his daughter, one of his ex wives and the other women he encounters in the book. He also develops as a man (in my opinion) as his empathy for the dogs, which feature prominently, grows. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he still felt that women should accept their standing and make life choices accordingly.
In a relatively small number of pages, Coetzee has managed to have me nodding in agreement, lowering the book from my face in embarrassment and pausing to imagine myself in David’s situation. Oh, and he also had me walking around the house with the book in my hands as I simply couldn’t put it down.
So chuffed to be invited to take part in this Blog Tour.
This is Gerard Nugent’s debut novel. As a natural song writer, Nugent found himself forming the idea for this book after attending a local creative writing class. The idea was to find themes for his next batch of songs, but, combined with a chance encounter with an ex Brit Pop star working in a music shop, he found the plot for a novel forming in his head.
Let in the light is a bright read, the language and prose style both feel spacious – a feel good story some might say. But you don’t have to scratch far below the surface to find there is plenty of poignancy in this compelling page turner.
I like how the author has built this plot. The first half of the book switches between ‘then’ and ‘now’ – feeding us the build up to Richie’s catastrophic 15 minutes of fame whilst following him as he tries to recover in the years afterwards. Set on the fictitious Hope Street, but in the very real world of Edinburgh, Let In The Light has a community of characters featuring on Richie Carlisle’s journey. All of the supporting cast seem to have intriguing back stories and Nugent gives us glimpses into their worlds as they interact with the plot. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that Let In The Light is the first in a planned series of novels about the personalities on Hope Street.
Dialogue is plentiful throughout the book and I found myself drawn into the conversations, nodding in agreement or rolling my eyes as Richie struggles to make good decisions. It is a modern, honest book – the exchanges between Richie and the mother of his child, Pen, are full of truth and expose the pain of their relationship. The responsibility and heartbreak of parenting through separation is sensitively explored. Their son, Finn, is never far from the centre of things, much as it is a tale of how music affects our lives.
The portrayal of Richie’s struggles, the dark times he battles after the failure as a ‘rock star’ and even darker times dealing with the fall out of Penn’s pregnancy and how they struggled to make things work after Finn was born, are all scrutinised. These issued aren’t forced on the reader, there is a pleasing lightness of touch to the language which seems to give us time to absorb the impact of the big decisions in Riche’s life.
As the book progresses, the interwoven histories of the characters are revealed, including Richie’s band mates and his boss in the music shop where he works. I won’t spoil any of the plot, but I think it’s important to note that all of this affects the mental health of Richie and others. The impact of deteriorating mental health is nakedly visible and on at least one occasion quite shocking. Like I said, this feels like a truthful book. Gerard Nugent is supporting the mental health charity, Health In Mind, with Let In The Light and all profits are being donated to this great cause.
A great tale of city life and how communities are formed and revealing that, within those communities, unlikely bonds and friendships can be formed. The writing feels accomplished and the author gives us plenty of great detail around the music and how musicians can work well (or not) together. The relationship many of us have with music, just how important it can be, the power of the song, are also constants throughout the narrative.
I was rather chuffed to be asked onto the blog tour for Harriet Tyce‘s second novel, The Lies You Told. I eagerly ripped open the envelope and delved straight in. It had barely left postie’s hand!
My lovely wife had really enjoyed Tyce’s debut, Blood Orange and I had to get my book mark in quick to bagsie The Lies You Told, denying her the chance to read it first.
The book promised to be a thriller with dark and chilling plot twists. On the face of it this is not something I would ordinarily pick up. Joining the blog tour gave me reason to step outside my reading comfort zone. And I’m so, so pleased I did.
Our main character, Sadie finds herself with no choice but to leave her life in America, returning to London, the city of her childhood. Her life has taken some sinister turns with her husband and she packs and leaves with her daughter, Robin. In running from her present life she finds herself arriving in a past she had previously rejected.
Returning to the home of her childhood, Sadie rediscovers the haunting memories of an estranged and emotionally painful relationship with her late mother. There are many strands to this book, the mystery of her husband’s behaviour in America plays against the unravelling of her mother’s last wishes. The truths of these parallel stories are only drip fed to the reader in the clever narrative.
The chapters build the plot in layers. As more characters gradually enter the fray they add texture and depth, the tensions and dramas build. In fact, the long distance runner in me found the pace was like a well executed marathon. The early stages feel comfortable and the pain, tension, suffering all mount as the intensity rises. I particularly enjoyed this. Rather than throw me all of the juicy bits early, Harriet Tyce kept me turning the pages, eager to see where I was being taken to next.
Back in London, and with her daughter attending the select and competitive school of her own childhood, Sadie finds herself embroiled in school gate politics. These are particularly cruel and elitist fellow mums and Sadie is soon struggling to fit in. The same is happening inside the school for Robin. The world of education amongst the higher classes appears to be more vicious and cruel than at any level I’ve ever experienced. No plot spoilers, but these parents harbour deeply sinister secrets and some will stop at nothing.
More and more threads starting weaving their way into the story as Sadie, after linking up with an old friend and colleague, returns to the legal world as a junior barrister. The case she ends up working on involves defending a teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. I’ll avoid spoilers again, but the twists start coming thick and fast once Sadie is back in chambers and in the court room. The anxieties of the school community and the never-far-away mystery of her failing marriage loom large in Sadie’s mind as she tries to focus on her role in court.
Interspersed through the book are vignettes of Sadie’s state of mind as Tyce hints at dramas yet to unfold. This is a clever tool, placing these fears and doubts in the readers mind before returning the narrative to the present. I have no idea what an ‘airport’ novel is, but I could easily imagine picking this up (assuming we are able to travel anytime soon) in an airport book shop and be racing through the furiously paced final chapter before unpacking my suitcase.
Clearly written from a position of knowledge, the courtroom drama is full of rich and satisfying detail. The uncertainty about the past, present and future of the book’s varied cast is exaggerated by Sadie being the narrator; sometimes the reader is ahead of her as her attention switches between the different avenues the story takes. I like that the tale unfolds in Sadie’s own voice and the added possibility of her not always being the most reliable narrator.
The book is perfect if you’re looking for a multi layered, thriller which gradually ups the ante as you turn the pages. It will also satisfy readers who are trying to work out who can or cannot be trusted – and be warned you might finish the book still not convinced about that.
Harriet Tyce grew up in Edinburgh before studying English at Oxford University. She went on to do a law conversion course at City University. Her subsequent MA in Creative Writing – Crime Fiction at the University of East Anglia followed 10 years of practise as a criminal barrister.
She lives in North London where her cat, Dougal, is very proud of her writing achievements.
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.
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.