Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

Disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

 I received a proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!

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20 thoughts on “Early Spring Reading

  1. You’ve convinced me of something I’d already expected: that Milkman just isn’t for me. (I can’t stand it when a book doesn’t have chapter breaks, section breaks, or paragraph breaks!) I’ll also give Night Tiger a miss.

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  2. Milkman is next on my Monday Book Group list. Knowing the group as I do, I really hope we aren’t going to get hung up on the lack of paragraphs. OK so it will annoy me too, but I am not going to automatically assume it means a lack of grammatical knowledge as I know some of them will. Ironically, I’m the one with the PhD in English Language Studies. The Erin Kelly is in my up and coming pile and I am really looking forward to it.

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  3. Milkman was my book of the year last year. I found it absolutely rivetting. I think some books you just have to read without thinking about them too much, for example Time Travellers Wife, you just have to go with the flow.
    As you say she is a superb writer. She actually conveys very complex issues in very sparce language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s something I struggle with a lot in my own writing, how much to explain to the reader and how far the reader will accept without explanation. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a great example – if you think about it too hard it would be a really confusing read, but it somehow works anyway.

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  4. Milkman is a cracker, isn’t it. The infrequent paragraphing is frustrating, but obviously intentional, and I agree there’s something about it that keeps bringing you back – I read it over the Christmas holidays and was utterly hypnotized.

    I’m also in agreement with you on The Night Tiger, which was overlong and didn’t have enough direction, and am very interested now by Stone Mothers – I read the first few chapters of He Said/She Said last year and was bowled over but somehow failed to read the whole thing, so Erin Kelly is on my list of authors whom I feel I owe a proper go.

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    • Oh yes, obviously a deliberate choice re paragraphing, I guess I’m just questioning whether the artistic value is worth the loss of reader engagement. But others seem to have handled it better than me!

      Stone Mothers is really good, I think you’d enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I truly liked Milkman when I read it with the Booker Prize group on groups.io. As you mentioned, the lack of paragraph breaks can be somewhat annoying, but once the action picked up in the second half of the book I had acclimated myself to it. There’s a subtle satiric undertone to the story; middle sister’s troubles with the milkman are offset by the humor found in other characters, like the “wee sisters” who, each time they appear, had me giggling like mad. Remember when middle sister tells us that if their mother isn’t back home in time for wee sisters’ bedtime, middle sister was going to have to read their Hardy story to them? The little ones have already been through their Kafka period and their Conrad period … “Which was absurd as none of them had yet reached ten”. How funny is that?

    The wee sisters are described one day as sitting on the floor in the living room with newspapers from “across the border” (Ireland) and “over the water” (Britain), and when asked why they tell middle sister that they think if they understood the opposing viewpoints it might help them better understand the Troubles. If the adults on all sides did the same perhaps an end to the Troubles might be found. From the mouths of babes, eh?

    This is my first time reading your blog, and I’m anticipating more good reviews and comments here.

    Thanks,
    Karen Virginia Flaxman
    notesfromthereader’snook.wordpress.com

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! Totally agree with everything you say here, I adored wee sisters. I also really liked the bit where Milkman is telling middle sister that wee sisters are really clever and should get more attention at school and she’s basically like ‘I’ve never thought about this because they’re just wee sisters’ and then there’s a great description of their generally weird behaviour 🙂

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  6. I have been intrigued by this book ever since Clare wrote about it. tbh, it’s the stream of thought aspect that has sealed the deal for me! I loved ‘Pond’ by Claire-Louise Bennett, and have been looking for something like it!

    Liked by 1 person

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