Tuesday, 30 November 2010

'how unsure of ourselves we are'

The Brainstorm 
by Jenny Turner

I mentioned Fiction Uncovered earlier in the month (you can find out more about it here) and on the day it launched this title was the first (of what I fear will be many) to inspire me towards a purchase. Recommended by novelist and journalist James Meek, he describes it as 'Funny, clever and disturbing, with a uniquely subtle, British take on 9/11'. Well the take on 9/11 must be very subtle because I'm not sure what he means by that, especially with a book set in the late 1990's, but it is certainly both funny and clever. It also has a rather lovely jacket - nothing says 'office tension with hilarious consequences' like several colourful elastic bands straining around the cover. Another recommendation was the realisation, thanks to good old Twitter, that Jenny Turner was the author of easily the best review I read of Tom McCarthy's C. If this novel contained anything like the enthusiasm and erudition of that piece then I was sure to be in for a treat.

Anyone with a taste for the Fleet Street novel will lap up this skewed take on the inner workings of a newspaper. Turner herself worked for the Independent on Sunday in the 1990's but the fictional broadsheet at which she places her heroine, Lorna, as part of the editorial staff, is a newspaper that 'had a good name and an illustrious reputation, though the reputation, by the time Lorna got her job there, had long since begun to drop.' This is the modern world of newspapers, away from the ink and nicotine-stained corridors of Fleet Street into the glass-fronted and sterile towers in Docklands. And the period is a specific one, socially speaking, the economic consequences of which we are living with today.

Back then, in the mid-to-late 1990's, the spots to which the mad glare of wealth did not extend were beginning to look burnt out and forsaken, although they had looked just normal, only a year or two before. Wealth was getting more intense and more prevalent, and the world shone like the television inside it. Poverty was getting more forgotten, more marginal, more squeezed out by the day.

The novel has a central conceit, the brainstorm of the title, and from the opening sentence we are aware of its impact.

Lorna looked around her, puzzled. Good, she thought, I'm still here then. I'm sitting in an office. I have a desk and chair.

Is it some kind of memory loss? Almost as though she has come to at her desk Lorna must bluff her way through the rest of the day, slowly feeling her way through the motions that will help her to establish who she is, what she does, who she likes, where she lives, and how all of these pieces fit together. This conceit allows Turner to play with quite a few things. Firstly we have the perfect opportunity to see the workplace afresh. Turner is a great observer of people and the office is filled with characters who may recall some of the real faces from that era but which are very much their own. Lorna has only her instinct to turn to when sorting out the friends from the foes and she can often sense how she feels about each character from feelings buried somewhere deep inside,  but we all know how deceptive first impressions or hunches can be.

We also get a chance to look at the environment in a new way. Turner has a wonderful way of making the office a place not of beauty but at least of promise and potential. Processes, technologies and systems that we take for granted are suddenly seen as the miracles that they are, especially by someone looking for structure and order.

Lorna, too, felt excited as she booted up her computer. She loved the way the pages came to the desk, electronically, through plugs and cables. She loved the shapes of the letters, the way they leaned into one another to make words. She loved the way the words made phrases and sentences, and somewhere in that, the miracle of meaning, lucidity and purpose: the possibility of structure, the possibility of hope.

Environment extends into a sense of place too. The glass and steel cityscape of Docklands and the constant construction around it refer back to that polarisation of wealth mentioned earlier and also Lorna's search for her own personal architecture.

Lorna's eye bounced and bounded across in freedom. 'As Hegel would say, it's a dialectic, innit,' she thought to herself quite suddenly, with an awareness that she voiced this thought quite often, and that she said or thought it because in some way it was true.

The dialectic is hugely important to this novel. I'm not going to pretend to know anything about Hegelian philosophy or phenomenology but Turner clearly does and Lorna's dialogue with herself (which could be seen as a dialogue between old Lorna and new Lorna and their quest for agreement) and the way in which the book itself is constructed (together with the structures of consciousness as they return to Lorna) make this a novel that doesn't attach philosophy to itself to appear clever but has it as its very foundation and support, all whilst remaining an easy read - that really is clever.

I've read so many novels now where some conceit or other leaves the narrator as a blank slate or the world as a mystery. Some are more successful than others but the sheer prevalence of them now means that they need to be special to stand out. Whilst this book didn't bowl me over like Remainder, by the author Turner so clearly admires from her review of C, or indeed impress me for exactly the reasons Meek highlighted it for in the first place, it was an impressive and intelligent read, a book rooted in reality that dares to play with something just outside of it and one that despite the difficult journey of its heroine manages to contain a hopeful message.

She didn't know what it was or how it had happened, but she was being given another chance.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

'language is the sound of longing'

The Secret Lives Of People In Love
by Simon Van Booy

The very marvellous Rob Around Books has been a passionate advocate of Simon Van Booy, a writer I'm ashamed to admit I had never head of before Rob brought him to my attention with pieces about each of the stories from this collection in detail. Once you've seen a picture of him he's difficult to forget, cutting a distinctive figure with his trademark smart clothing and typewriter or even when divested of his vestments for this rather bizarre portrait with bookshelves and picnic. Born in London, raised in Wales, with stints living in the US, Paris and Athens, Van Booy's stories have a similar internationalism, moving from location to location as they explore various themes around love and allow us into the private world of their protagonists.

This rather handsome collection from indie publisher Beautiful Books has a P.S. section at the back with more information about the author and words from him about his process, inspirations and the importance of finally finding his own voice. Unlike some other examples of this kind of postscript, it was genuinely enlightening to read his thoughts about hotels written on their distinctive hotel stationary and to see copies of the discarded train tickets that had been the seed for some of his stories. The discovery and adherence to his own authorial voice is all important as it dominates the style. This is both his strength and perhaps the only criticism I would make of this collection. Written in a pared-down prose, Van Booy's stories are characterised by memorable phrases, moments of poetry and what I will call the surprise of profundity - sentences hidden amidst the story that jump out with humane observations like maxims. The slight criticism is that this style is so consistent that despite several first person narrations it is Van Booy's voice we hear rather than an individual character's. I say it is a slight criticism because this consistency never feels like homogeneity, it is an author proudly displaying the voice he has developed, and that voice produces so many moments of pure reading pleasure that this reader easily forgave him.

The very first story, Little Birds, provides one of those surprising maxims on only the second page. It is a prosaic scene: our 15-year-old narrator observes American tourists on the Pont des Arts laughing politely at the jokes of a filthy homeless man. He is mature enough to spot their politeness but that still doesn't prepare us for the throwaway comment that follows.

I suppose the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn.

The stories are filled with moments like this. I hope I haven't made it sound like fortune-cookie wisdom in isolation as that isn't how they read. Our narrator's perceptiveness about others is matched by his naivety of himself and we will learn more than he can through his own words. His father figure, Michel, provides a rather neat description of how Van Booy's writing can linger with you after closing the cover having explained his love of the poet Giorgio Caproni: 'his words are like little birds that follow him around and sing in his ear.'

Quite often those birds are a pitch-perfect phrase. A train that 'grieves into the station', a cold warehouse where workers wear their 'breath like beards', or 'the fleshy star' of a child's hand. But Van Booy isn't limited to occasional fireworks. Some Bloom In Darkness is a perfect short story. Saboné works as a ticket clerk at the train station. A lonely man prone to dreaming and sketching, his dormant desire for the companionship of a young lady is awakened after witnessing a violent incident at work. He finds himself suddenly obsessed with a girl who stands in a shop window that he passes every day on his way to work.
For days he held the image of this shopgirl in his mind, carrying it around like an egg until he could get home and escape into sleep where it hatched into fantasy.

To say anymore would genuinely spoil a quite magical story about loneliness and desire, a story that left me feeling that I needed no more from this collection for it to have been worth reading. Apples is another gem where we learn the genesis of an apple orchard in the middle of a vacant lot in Brooklyn and the perennial apple festival it has inspired. In the midst of grief and shortly before leaving his native Russia, Serge spends an evening in his family orchard.

At dawn, with a film of dew upon his skin and clothes, Serge rose to his knees in order to kiss the gravestone one final time. However, at some moment during the night, an apple had swollen just enough to sit perfectly on the head of the stone. Serge was breathless and picked the apple so the branch - madly and gratefully - could return to the tangle of branches above.

'Madly and gratefully', that's the part of the sentence that elevates the writing into a higher tier for me. There is humour too, often in the strangest places. Perhaps no more so than in The Shepherd On The Rock which finds a mad Irishman living out the last days of his life in John F. Kennedy airport, a place he sees as quite natural given that he'd 'always been attracted to the idea of heaven'. A former seminary student he has reason to question the existence of a God - '(I'm not saying there isn't - I'm just saying that I don't believe in Him, like a mother who's given up on her son's delinquent ways)'- and it is it is quite an achievement to include a wry humour in a story that details his madness and retreat into himself. There is something far more experimental in French Artist Killed In Sunday's Earthquake, where we are witness to last moments of the life of Marie-Françoise; a literal translation of a life flashing before one's eyes, carried off with far more aplomb than my rather pat description of it. 

Having recently discovered his voice Van Booy's stories in this collection have a bravery about them, he's nailing his colours to the mast whether you like them or not. The final story, The Mute Ventriloquist, gives another description of their appeal, and of the short form generally.

Children spend the mornings of their lives in a sea of imagination before being hauled out onto rocks by jealous adults who've forgotten how to swim.

Occasionally it pays to live like a child again and dive right in.


Tuesday, 16 November 2010

'You bear what is'

A Clash Of Innocents 
by Sue Guiney

This is another review that I shall begin with a disclaimer. Sue Guiney, as well as being a writer, is Artistic Director of Curving Road, an organisation that aims to support the artist at some point in their career. The artist might be a playwright, actor, visual artist or something else but the aim is to support them in a way that allows them to truly develop and 'go on to produce art that changes societies and lives.' One example was their support of Leo Richardson, a young actor and writer. His play Sh*t-Mix was produced by Curving Road and directed by my wife at Trafalgar Studios. Since then it has been adapted into a TV pilot called Stanley Park for BBC3 and has just been bought by Fox for transfer to screens in America. I think we can call that a pretty successful piece of artistic nurturing. So, I know Sue, and when she contacted me about her new novel she was aware that I might feel a bit odd about reading and reviewing it. She was right, I had thought about it and stalled especially after the furore that erupted over on the virtual pages of The Guardian during their Not The Booker Prize competition. Accusations flew around about authors getting their blogging mates to promote their books, using social networking sites to drum up votes, and the whole enterprise ended with a slightly nasty aftertaste. But, I decided to rise above all that and approach the book as I would any other. If Sue is brave enough to send it to me then I'm sure she can take both the compliments and the criticism on the chin.

A quick word first about the new publisher Ward Wood. With a similar ethos to that of Curving Road, commitment and nurturing are an important part of their relationship with authors. As well as publishing work by established authors they aim to foster long term relationships with emerging talent, helping them work towards publication. Sue has previously published novels, plays and poetry and this new novel was inspired by a trip she made to Cambodia and the conflict that coloured her own life the most: Vietnam. To be honest, it's unlikely I would have read this book based on its blurb as I'm not naturally attracted to books set in faraway places (don't ask me why, it's an irrational aversion). The cover I'm afraid wouldn't have drawn me in either, there's a clash all its own happening there. But let's get past the outward appearance and into the meat of the book itself. Our narrator is Deborah, an indomitable 60-year-old American, matriarch at the Khmer Home for Blessed Children in Phnom Penh, an institution once run by nuns but now maintained by Deborah and irregular support from others. How does a woman brought up in the America of the 1950's and 60's, 'a make-believe land where every child had two parents, home-cooked meals and a black-and-white TV set', find herself running an orphanage in Cambodia? We will slowly discover as the book progresses, for this is a novel where the details of people's pasts are slowly revealed and their hidden motivations with them.

I was a good girl. Maybe that's why when the tornado that was America back in 1970 finally did suck me into its eye and spit me out again with such ferocity and violence, I landed on the other side of the planet feeling nothing but anger and humiliation.

That storm was America's involvement in the Vietnam War and for Deborah in particular the Kent State University shootings of 1970. Opposition to American attacks on Vietnam's neighbour Cambodia found voice on the campus of many universities. When state troopers opened fire on one such protest in Ohio, leaving four students dead and several injured it became a defining moment in their cultural history, particularly with regard to the rights of protesters and the idealogical differences between the younger hippie generation and Nixon's 'silent majority'. Directly involved with the trauma of that dramatic day Deborah has been able to bury many of her feelings about it by employing her nursing qualifications in Cambodia itself and dedicating herself to the care of those in need. But as her own adopted daughter, Samnang, nears student age and the opportunity of attending that very same university appears she cannot help but reconnect with the fear and confusion, all of which plays on her anxieties about letting her daughter grow up and leave the safety of her protective wing.

For Samnang it is about achieving her potential. Near the beginning of the novel Deborah has told us that there is no hope in Cambodia - 'It may sound horrible, but here in this tiny, useless, captivating country, the less hope you have, the better you can get on with living every day.' But the novel's plot plays out against the background of the looming tribunal which is supposed to bring the perpetrators of Pol Pot's brutal regime to justice. As it slowly comes closer and closer to becoming a reality we begin to sense the very hope that Deborah has deemed absent, and find in Samnang a symbol of a younger generation who might just be given the opportunity to draw a line under the past and be whatever they want to be.

The plot is driven by the arrival of another American, Amanda, who literally turns up on the doorstep offering her help. We of course know as little of this woman as Deborah does and she turns out to have significant reasons for hiding details of her past. Driven by the need for help Amanda manages to make herself indispensable and it is only when there is another arrival on the doorstep, this time an abandoned infant close to death, that the fragility of her seeming self-confidence begins to be exposed.

For the first time Amanda started to approach. She even reached out to touch the baby's cheek who then grabbed onto Amanda's finger. I have never seen a more complex set of emotions surge across one person's face in my life. I didn't know what Amanda was feeling but evidently she was feeling quite a lot, and my instinct told me I had to put an end to it - quick.

Echoing Faulkner, Guiney aims to show that 'We're never really free of our pasts'. Deborah is still affected by the events that sent her half way around the world, Amanda becomes totally absorbed in The Baby (the only name they ever attach to the abandoned infant), seeing in it a chance to redeem her own past, and Samnang has a long way to go before escaping the cultural shackles that convince her she is not worthy of anything more in life. But what also unifies these character's journeys is the theme of the nourishing love of a mother and the difficulty that comes when it's time to let go. As a physician, one of the orphanage's allies, explains to Amanda

'Children die for many reasons...They live for only one. Love. Without love no child can live. With it they can hold on even when their bodies are gone.'

Deborah's whole existence in Cambodia has been about providing the love and support that her charges lacked and yet of course she finds it difficult to make the final expression of that love to Samnang by setting her free. Amanda's personal trauma finally catches up with her and turns out to be the very thing that she has nurtured like a child, protecting her pain as though it made her special, something that she is shocked to discover is far from the truth in a country where almost every family has a story of brutality and violence. She has also forgotten the crucial fact of her survival and that, at the end of it all, is what unifies them. They are the survivors, they are the ones with the responsibility to make something of their lives.

So definitely a book for readers who enjoy a redemptive personal journey. I appreciated a look into another country that never felt like it was bonking me on the head with 'exotic' details or heavy research, believing entirely in this experience of Cambodia. In fact a slightly strange criticism might be that there were times when I felt more as though I was reading memoir than fiction. Perhaps this was because Deborah, as a narrator, has a tendency to make everything explicit, leaving little work for the reader in terms of making our own connections and conclusions and the dialogue too in places seemed to sacrifice character and truth in the service of plot development. But that con is also a pro, the book feels genuine and there is no doubting what Guiney wants to say.


Tuesday, 9 November 2010

'There is nothing here but danger'

The Mountain Lion 
by Jean Stafford

When I reviewed A Meaningful Life, another NYRB Classics title, back in May, it was part of the Spotlight Series tour highlighting the output of this marvellous publisher. As a thank you for taking part they sent me an attractive tote bag and a proof of this novel which was to be published by them shortly afterwards. It seems entirely fitting that I publish this review during a week that is being called NYRB Reading Week by a couple of bloggers keen to draw more attention to this fabulous publisher. It has taken me a while to get around to reading it for a variety of reasons, one of which being that if you haven't chosen a book for yourself then the 'right time' for it can take a while to come around. A quick glance at the blurb didn't make it seem like the kind of book I'd pick myself either but the joy of finding a publisher like NYRB Classics is that it's almost possible to choose blind and not be disappointed. That said, I'm not sure I ever really connected properly with this book. Having finally taken it down from the shelf I found it very slow going, often losing track of what was going on and struggled to know how I might approach a review. That's why you're stuck with this rather lame opening; it may not be the most ringing endorsement but I shall at least try an honest response.

Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories and whilst the short story seems to be the form with which she enjoyed most success she also wrote three well-received novels too. Originally published in 1947, The Mountain Lion follows the adolescence of Ralph and Molly, a brother and sister growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles whose lives will be altered by their regular trips to the Colorado mountain ranch of their uncle. Nosebleeds are often seen as a bad omen and the book opens with one, or should that be two, as Ralph and Molly both suffered from scarlet fever last year, when ten and eight respectively, which has left them 'half poisoned most of the time' and causes them terrible and often synchronised nosebleeds that send them home from school. On the day that they are expecting the regular annual visit of their grandfather they meet 'with gushing noises outside the art supply room' and scamper home, sharing their favourite joke (about a cow) which floors them both with paroxysms of laughter and intensified bleeding. From the outset Ralph and Molly are the book's crowning achievement. Wonderfully characterised they are immediately the misfits of the family. Their genteel mother and her two elder daughters are almost a different breed from Ralph and Molly and when the three of them leave on a tour of the world halfway through the book they seem to do so with barely a thought about the siblings left behind. But whilst Ralph and Molly are united in their difference we notice in just the first few pages the beginnings of the antagonism that comes from such proximity.

Of late, Ralph had had moments of irritation with her: often, when he had finished telling a joke or a fact, she would repeat exactly what he had said immediately afterward so that there was no time for people either to laugh or to marvel. And not only that, but she had countless times told his dreams, pretending that they were her own.

Ralph worries that she will ruin their favourite joke, one that he so wants to impress Grandpa Kenyon with, and so agrees that they should tell it together as a dialogue. The moment never materialises, Grandpa Kenyon's visit is cut short by his passing away and when his son, the children's Uncle Claude, comes to collect the body the wheels are set in motion that will see Ralph and Molly travelling to what might as well be another planet as far as they're concerned and encountering the brutal consequences of growing up into a adult world.

The house, spacious and rambling, made of white brick, faced north upon the fast stream called the Caribou River which cut the pasture land in half. On its banks grew cottonwoods and weeping willow trees, and dense amongst them, chokecherry and sarvis berry bushes. Here beavers made their clever dams and here hoot owls warned at night: there was no place that was not alive with something.

Stafford's descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding terrain are pitched just right, never straying into romantic landscape prose or 'beautiful writing', in fact the writing throughout is far from flashy (perhaps one of the reasons why my stylistically battered reading senses were slow to adjust). The regular trips to Claude's intensify the divide opening between Ralph and Molly. Ralph occupies a larger part of the frame, the approach of manhood and his relationship with his uncle, who becomes the father figure Ralph never had, dominating. The big cat of the title also appears, another potent symbol signifying all the danger inherent in the landscape and the approach of maturity, and both Claude and Ralph become determined to be the one to shoot her down. Molly is less ready to leave the indulgences of childhood, her passion for writing expressed in her constant diary writing and the curious poetry that convinces Ralph that his sister is going crazy.

He looked at his weedy sister with dislike as she crouched on her heels, plucking the lilies all around her, and when she looked up at him, her large humble eyes fondling his face with lonely love, he wanted to cry out with despair because hers was really the only love he had and he found it nothing but a burden and a tribulation.

Despite the classic one-liners that she delivers, often puncturing the social niceties as effectively as a pin to a balloon, Molly doesn't get a chance to shine as a fully rounded character until much later in the novel. A scene in which she takes a bath is a masterful piece of character fiction, suddenly giving us what we needed to better understand the girl that 'no one could ever say...was wishy washy.' I don't need to say much about the plot as Stafford keeps things relatively simple, the book working subtly with its themes and with great compassion and understanding. There is a slight inevitability about where it's heading, those ominous symbols keep popping up but that actually doesn't take away much from what the jacket describes as the book's devastating end. I'm prepared to admit that the shortcomings are my fault and I longed to have the opportunity to read the introduction by Kathryn Davis which was unfortunately missing from my proof. It probably made clear, in a way I'm ill-equipped to, the real strengths of this book and its place amongst the rest of the publisher's fine cannon.


Thursday, 4 November 2010

Fiction Uncovered

Fiction Uncovered is a marvellous new initiative that aims to draw attention to great writers and writing that may have been overlooked. I have written a little piece for them about a book originally published in 1953 that deserves to be rescued from the second-hand stacks. Before my review went up there were 19 copies on Abebooks. Two have already gone. Can I tempt you too?


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'I'm all yours'

Mr Chartwell
by Rebecca Hunt

Winston Churchill famously described the state of depression that affected him for much of his life as a 'black dog'. In Rebecca Hunt's début novel the metaphor has been made flesh or, perhaps more accurately, fur. Mr Chartwell, as he is known in the novel (named after Churchill's famous residence of course), is a black dog all right, but one who stands six feet and seven inches on his hind legs and speaks perfect English. Esther Hammerhans is understandably flummoxed when she opens her front door to the gentleman who is interested in the room she has to rent and is confronted by what seems to be a huge Labrador from whose 'monstrous grey tongue' droplets of of saliva fall to the floor. Churchill himself is less surprised by the reappearance of his long-time foe, greeting his presence with a terse 'bugger off'. I can think of plenty of books where animals have been anthropomorphised but here we have a mental state which has been both characterised and physicalised, a tactic that could have gone horribly wrong but which Hunt pulls off with great ease. The book has its shortcomings but there is a charm and sensitivity about it which tends to make you forgive and forget them.

Esther is a library clerk at Westminster Palace (the House of Commons to you and me) who is looking to fill the spare room in her home. We gather immediately that she hasn't always cut such a lonely figure but was widowed two years ago. When Mr Chartwell arrives at her door and she has got over her initial surprise she begins to probe into what exactly he does. His services it seems 'consist of periods of time when I visit specific people, people who experience a specific darkness.' That darkness is depression, something from which her husband Michael suffered, towards which Esther is heading and with which 'Churchill is a regular'. Rather neatly Hunt has Esther sent down to Churchill himself, who is on the verge of retiring from parliament, in order to help take down his final speech. When these two characters come together, each will recognise the other's association with the black dog immediately. These 'two unenthusiastic and melancholy allies driven together to complete a duty' will work together, Churchill able to impart his hard-won experience with this particular foe, his speech-making skills put to great use in order to try and release Esther from a lifetime association with his 'bête noire'.

Each of the characters is brilliantly differentiated through dialogue with Churchill unsurprisingly given some of the more delicious language. Mr Chartwell has been away from him for some time it seems and his reappearance at such a moment of finality makes his weight even more of a burden.

'I understand that we share a wicked union, and I know the goblin bell which summons you comes from a tomb in my heart. And I will honour my principles, labouring against the shadows you herald. I don't blench from my burden, but -' here he let out a deep breath, laying the glasses down gently - 'it's so demanding; it leaves me so very tired. It would be some small comfort to me if I could ask how long I must endure this visit. Please, when do you leave?'

But as Chartwell says rather chillingly to the resilient Esther, 'I can wait.' Esther misunderstands at first when Chartwell mentions depressing people, thinking of the physical act of adding weight but for both of them it is almost that physical. Chartwell does literally weigh them both down at times, in the way only a sleepy dog can, and for Churchill especially the experience of a lifetime makes the metaphorical weight of his legacy something far more manifest.

'I admit I feel such doubt about how I will be judged for the work I have done in my life. And now, as I prepare to leave it behind, I feel uncertainty bearing down on me.'

What adds a lightness to the novel is the charm that comes before that weight. As Esther discovers, Mr Chartwell is in many ways an intoxicating presence. For those who are lonely his company alone is refreshing and his devotion, like that of man's best friend, is complete, his attention to each of his clients unwavering. Depression it seems is a seducer, tempting the sufferer towards inaction, indolence and a breakdown of relationships and Hunt successfully embodies that in the great, black bulk of Mr Chartwell. The subtle shift that turns devotion to control is handled brilliantly and much of the novel's drive comes from wondering whether Esther will succumb to it or break free.

As one might expect from a début there are times when the writing tries a little too hard. The opening paragraph for example threatens to sink the book immediately.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill's mouth was pursed as if he had a slice of lemon hidden in there. Now eighty-nine, he often woke early. Grey dawn appeared in a crack between the curtains, amassing the strength to invade. Churchill prepared himself for the day ahead, his mind putting out analytical fingers and then coming at the day in a fist, ready for it.

Later when Esther wakes suddenly, 'The primitive departments of her brain, the units that dealt with anciently evolved instincts, were wiring encrypted telegrams to her consciousness.' But for every sentence weighed down by too much forethought there are others that glide past with inspiration. The approach of evening that brings the kind of light that photographers call 'the magic hour' gives rise to one of the more arresting paragraphs.

Light made a pair of tennis shorts over the bedroom wall. A shirt dropped on the floor had developed a modest beauty, cultivating the painterly creases of a restaurant napkin. On the windowsill was a small balding plant. The magic of the late light made it gorgeous and exotic.

 A 'migration into the dusk' is how Churchill describes the onward march of the physical body and with this quirky novel Hunt shows that whilst there is little that we can do to arrest the approach of that darkness, our mind remains a place where we can battle to stay in the light.


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