After far too many weeks when my reading was impacted by ill-health, it was a joy to return to “normal” reading once more. Here’s some of the highlights …
The Outcast – Sadie Jones
This was my first foray back into normal reading and it wasn’t the obvious choice. I knew nothing about it, other than its prize winning status (Costa First Novel Award in 2008).
Set sometime after WWII, it features the lives of the Surrey set – a world filled with hypocrisy and alcohol, where social and professional bullying were the norm, where emotions were to be buried and everyone had to present a stiff upper lip and put a brave face on things. Lewis is the centre of his mother’s life during his father’s wartime absence. Upon his father’s return, Lewis’s mother has a struggle to maintain relationships with both the males in her life.
But when Lewis is only 10 years old, he loses his mother in the most tragic of circumstances. His father, being of the stiff upper lip type, drowns his sorrow and expects Lewis to behave like a man, rather than a shocked and distressed little boy. We watch as Lewis’s emotions spiral, more and more out of control, until finally he receives a custodial sentence. Our tale opens as he returns home following his release. His tragic past is revealed in flashbacks, as his present behaviour demonstrates his continuing emotional damage.
Before being sent away, Lewis was part of childhood group. The youngest member of that group was Kit. Her older, beautiful sister is the one who causes Lewis’s pulse to race. Their father, Lewis’s father’s boss, is a bully who regularly beats his wife and children. As the book comes to a close – we can see the possibility that Lewis and Kit might just be able to save one another.
Anytime people want to hark back to the good old days, they should read a book like this. Those old days weren’t always good, and our newer, kinder, more politically correct todays, can be better.
Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss – Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Chandra is a cranky old curmudgeon, divorced, living alone, in a strained relationship with his kids. A man expected to win the Nobel Prize, who then doesn’t. Not quite the script for a light and amusing read but, recommended by Marian Keyes, that expert of incorporating serious stuff into amusing reads, this is exactly that – an amusing read which doesn’t dodge serious stuff.
His ex-wife’s new husband is almost a charicature – Californian, a therapist, someone who’s tripped and experienced life on the more relaxed side – it’ offers us a guilty pleasure to join Chandra in loathing him. His elder son – whose achievement of massive professional success having creating an industry out of happiness, initially has our sympathy and possibly even admiration, until we end up slightly perplexed and as concerned as Chandra himself. His youngest daughter – the baby of the family – who goes off the rails, failing her exams and experimenting with drugs because she’s not as smart as her siblings, ends up joining a buddhist monastry where Chandra goes in an attempt to find his bliss. Finally, his oldest daughter – the one he loves the most, who is most like him, the one he loves to argue with – returns after an extended period of no-contact.
So, does Chandra find his bliss? Well, I guess it depends how you define bliss. Read it and find out – I was glad I did.
Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale
Running alongside each other are the tales of Eustace today – adult, out, living in London, and Eustace in the 1970s – a child, unaware of his sexuality, living in Weston-Super-Mere.
His parents run a boarding house-come-care home in Weston, something that makes Eustace feel even more of an odd bod when compared with his school-age peers. Two things happen which start a period of significant change for Eustace – he makes a friend, and he discovers the cello. His talent recognised and encouraged by a local teacher, who becomes interwoven into not only his life but his mother’s, Eustace is encouraged by both to believe he has a future in music. Attending an intensive week of residential training with other talented musicians, he appears to be marked out as special, until his his parents are unable to afford a specialist education and he has to follow a different path. Life also changes in other significant ways. His mother finds religion; she tries to cure his homosexuality using religion, and his parents divorce.
Fast forward to now and we find Eustace online dating as a mature adult, having made a good living in a more prosaic industry. The tale of his unfolding courtship is a breath of fresh air in the current world of online dating horror stories, is blighted along the way by the discovery that he has cancer – treatable, but still cancer. Eustace’s decision to keep his diagnosis and treatment private, sharing the knowledge with only one close friend, is made possible by the long-distance nature of his courtship. Just before they meet in person for the first time, Eustace undergoes radiation therapy where, when he leaves, he must take nothing with him … not even his clothes.
A really lovely read.
Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
This paperback has been at my bedside for literally years. I rarely have the opportunity to read real books, what with the Kindle’s portability and its low-level light allowing me to read in bed without waking Himself. Things came to a head recently when there was no room for new purchases (mostly professional books) on my bookshelves, as no fiction had been deducted in an age. So when a change in schedule provided an opportunity, I grabbed it.
In short, Songlines is the tale of creation told from an Aborigine perspective. Every Aborigine alive is descended from one of The Ancestors who emerged at creation. As they walked across the country, they named everything they saw. Each following their own path, singing out names as they travelled – this became their Songline and the Songline of their family for ever more. Each Aborigine is a member of an animal family (say an emu or lizard) and as they grow up, they learn their history – or Song – along their Dreamline. Each family has their own line, their own holy places, but they also have a complex form of mutual co-operation whereby a neighbouring family have managership over each other’s lands.
Chatwin tells his story via the cast of extraordinary individuals he meets in Australia. It’s a fascinating tale, filled with colour and character. The only point when it becomes a chore to read is when Chatwin shares the many quotations he has gathered about man being a people who are better when walking than when settled. There are some absolute gems among the quotations, but the sheer volume was overwhelming and I fear many more gems were lost, buried in the crowd.
This was a read which proved well-worth the wait.
© Debra Carey, 2019