Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Sarah MossReturn
May 04, 2022

Humans and ecosystems are intertwined in this meditative, beautifully sustained novel about coming of age in a globalised world

Daisy Hildyard’s first novel, Hunters in the Snow, was lyrical and haunting and brought well-deserved critical success. She followed it with a book of essays on climate change and human relations with plants and animals, The Second Body. In Emergency, Hildyard develops the strengths of her first novel and the concerns of her nonfiction. There isn’t exactly a plot but there are spiralling, intricate meditations on plants, animals, humans and ecosystems, gracefully told through an approximate coming-of-age story set in a village in a nondescript part of northern England.

Emergency begins with the narrator “old enough to be outside and alone”, sitting above a quarry, watching a kestrel and a vole who have not yet seen each other: “We all waited to find out who would move first.” This incident leads to the memory of playing with the children next door; then to a pet rabbit that ate its young (“Even today, she seems to me very human in the way her principles forced her to self-destruct”). We move on to an uneasy relationship with an eccentric elderly neighbour; then back to that moment in the quarry, which produces “gravel that was sent all over the world, the requirements of Norwegian motorways and new cities in China determined the shape of the quarry and the size of the shape it left”. The narrative touches on a neighbour’s work in the local abattoir; watching foxes in the garden at night; the arrival of the first computer in the village primary school, where one of the teachers usually carries bruises and fractures from her husband’s assaults.

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Mar 17, 2022

A devastating, blackly comic portrait of middle-class dysfunction and a family with a monster at its centre

Charlotte Mendelson’s four previous novels are clever, funny, ferociously observant and unapologetic about their origin in and passion for a particular corner of the bourgeoisie. Mostly set in London and north Oxford, looking towards Hungary in 2013’s brilliant Almost English, her fiction dissects the lives and minds of families who own messy Victorian houses, send children to Oxbridge and manage transgressive romantic lives. In the tradition of novels of middle-class dysfunction – Austen, Flaubert, Woolf and their descendants – the personal is political but politics simmer in the background: Mendelson’s version of England is a safe enough place for her characters to focus on domestic and professional life.

The Exhibitionist has been longlisted for the Women’s prize. It opens bravely with Ray Hanrahan, patriarch and painter, who lives in a large house in north London amid the chaos of “books everywhere, wizened tangerines and cold coffee”, declaring that “Tolstoy was an idiot.” “We’re famously happy, aren’t we? Aren’t we? And totally unique.” Ray believes himself unique as an artist and his wife and children unique in their devotion to him. Partly because fiction is almost by definition uninterested in the unique – we read to learn and see patterns – the novel turns on Ray being wrong. His family’s devotion makes him happy, or would if there were ever enough of it, and other people’s happiness doesn’t concern him because he doesn’t believe in other people. Meanwhile, Ray’s wife Lucia, also an artist, is lying on her studio floor, ignoring the phone because it will be her gallerist calling with good news for her, which will upset Ray: “He tends his grudge like a sacred lamp.” Lucia has spent decades sabotaging her own career in order to be “the perfect assistant, honoured to be elected to serve the genius”. Having learned all this in the opening pages, the reader spends the rest of the book wanting her to take that call. (She does. It’s big.)

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Mar 11, 2021

In this postcolonial satire at a girls’ boarding school in the 1980s, both comedy and tragedy are hauntingly understated

Our Lady of the Nile is a girls’ boarding school high in the hills of Rwanda, very near the spring that is the source of the Nile; there is a plaque announcing its “discovery” (“Cock Mission, 1924”), and a statue of the Virgin Mary, or possibly the ancient goddess Isis, erected by a Belgian bishop in 1953.

In the 1980s the school is run by French nuns to educate the daughters of Rwanda’s elite, training them “not simply to be good wives and mothers, but also good citizens and good Christians … to spearhead women’s advancement”.

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Aug 22, 2020

During lockdown, there have been horror stories of neighbours reporting each other over small acts of kindness or comfort. Her new novel Summerwater asks: do we still recognise enough common humanity to save each other?

I published my first novel, Cold Earth, which is set during an epidemic, on the day the World Health Organization declared avian flu to be a pandemic. I hadn’t, of course, predicted that particular disease, but the story of pestilence, like those of war and famine, is always in the offing, and you don’t have to know much to understand that humans’ destruction of animal habitats keeps us at constant risk of zoonotic viruses. The story was there before the disease had a name.

My seventh novel, Summerwater, was written before Covid-19. I was surprised by how many people asked me if I had to make last-minute changes, asked if it would be impossible or even irresponsible to promote a book in which people go dancing or share food or hug now those pleasures are forbidden. It didn’t occur to me to want to change anything. After all, the novels of the 1930s are more, not less, precious for their innocence of what is to come, for their glamorous journeys and lavish parties, and also for their dawning horror. The stories of that growing dismay are important as well as beautiful: what did readers and writers see and what could they not imagine? How does literature meet, or fail to recognise, war (or plague or famine)? Novels speak of their moment but the good ones don’t go off.

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Jul 30, 2020

This Booker-longlisted tale of poverty and addiction in 1980s Scotland offers deep insight into the relationship between a child and a substance-abusing parent

We first meet Shuggie Bain as a 16-year-old in 1992, living alone in a dirty bedsit on the Southside of Glasgow and working on a supermarket deli counter where his boss overlooks lapses in hygiene because underage labour is cheap. This debut novel tells us how he got here.

Back to 1981 and Agnes Bain is leaning from the window of the high-rise council block where she, her second husband and her three children live “all crammed together in her mammy’s flat”. Agnes is drinking, smoking, playing cards and betting the housekeeping money with three friends, “their respite from ironing in front of the telly and heating tins of beans for ungrateful weans”. The evening degenerates until “Big Shug Bain” returns from driving his taxi and takes the other women home, returning hours later; she knows what he has been doing because that’s how her own relationship with him began. Alone, Agnes remembers an early holiday together in Blackpool, Shug dragging her up the stairs of a cheap B&B by her hair when she was too drunk to walk, raping her and then offering to take her dancing the next night.

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Jul 16, 2020

Fear and female camaraderie combine in this tale of three Dublin medics’ experiences from the author of Room

This must be the only book this year whose publication date has moved forward, from autumn to midsummer, and that is because it’s set in a Dublin hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic. Reading it now offers a particularly eerie version of the time travel of historical fiction; one can’t stop thinking that it was written in 2018 for us to read in 2020, based on records from 1918 – dizzying swoops of both time and imagination. The novel’s Dublin is certainly uncannily familiar for this year’s readers, plastered with injunctions to “Stay out of public places … See only those persons one needs to see, refrain from shaking hands. If in doubt, don’t stir out.” Another poster announces that “The government has the situation well in hand,” and “There is no real risk except to the reckless.” Meanwhile, schools and shops are closed, and those forced by necessity on to crowded trams regard each other with a volatile mix of fear and camaraderie.

A defining strength in Emma Donoghue’s work is narrative voice, and here it is as strong and compelling as Jack in Room and Lib in The Wonder. Like The Wonder, The Pull of the Stars is narrated by a nurse, a woman necessarily involved in the defining moments of strangers’ lives, charged with both expertise and kindness, her professionalism and her femininity an unsettling combination for her era. Julia is working on the maternity fever ward of a city hospital, which is desperately short-staffed because of war and contagion, caring for pregnant women with severe flu, working beyond her training because there is no one else available. Patients stay long enough for Julia and the reader to learn to read their bodies and speech as more than symptoms, to recognise that class privilege is no protection from grief, that a half-starved 17-year-old doesn’t “bruise easily” unless someone bruises her, that poverty and overcrowding and malnutrition tell their final tales in hospital beds.

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Jun 26, 2020

This knowing rewrite of Mary McCarthy’s classic novel plays on bourgeois white female neuroses

It is intriguing that Lara Feigel, who has previously wandered the debatable lands between academic research and experimental nonfiction in writing about Doris Lessing and postwar Europe, should have felt called to reimagine Mary McCarthy’s 1963 classic, The Group, in her first novel. The original follows the lives of six Vassar graduates in and around New York in 1933, when prosperous young white women have some choices about careers and marriage, although in most cases marriage is the end of choice. The Group was the novel of a generation, esteemed by AS Byatt and Hilary Mantel, later the model for Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. It has the flaws of its time and place: elitism, racism, complete self-absorption, but the prose is strong and the frank writing about women’s lives was revolutionary. Norman Mailer, perfectly missing the point, dismissed it because the women’s lack of agency made the plot diffuse.

As in McCarthy's novel, a group of women learn in mid-life to understand the world and their position in it

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