Book Review: Walking Wounded

By Sheila Llewellyn

waling wounded

“Daniel stared at the white-ish brain matter clinging to the haft and clogging up the eye of the needle. Can it really be as easy as that – to scrape out someone’s depression, their melancholy, their anxiety? To scrape out someone’s emotions?”

So assured is Sheila Llewellyn’s writing, one would never guess Walking Wounded was her first novel. Her portrayal of the emotional devastation caused by armed conflict, and the often unintentional misery brought about by misguided attempts to repair the damage is staggeringly accomplished.

Set in Birmingham’s once highly influential Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, it is tempting to conclude we are entering Pat Barker terrain – a writer well known for focusing on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Like Barker, the author has an uncanny ability to evoke the appalling mental anguish induced by war, she is seemingly able to fathom the suppressed male subconscious, and many of her characters are based on historic figures – but there the similarities end.

Inspired by her own experience of treating victims of PTSD in Northern Ireland, the author’s narrative switches back and forth between the fictitious characters: psychiatrist Daniel Carter and Corporal David Reece. It is 1947 and both doctor and patient have been profoundly damaged by their ordeals, but they also have the subliminal power to heal one another.

From the morale-destroying Burma Campaign to life in the old industrial city of Manchester (just before and immediately after the Second World War), Llewellyn’s historical and topographical research is scrupulous yet subtle. Speaking personally, as the daughter of a Mancunian who lived through the period described in this novel, I find her descriptions of the Manchester Blitz, and of The Manchester Guardian’s candid reporting of the Nazi atrocities, particularly fascinating

Walking Wounded is a brilliantly crafted, often harrowing, powerfully intense piece of work, which deserves to win awards. I hope very much that Sheila Llewellyn plans to write a second novel.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for gifting an advance copy of this title.
Advertisements

Book Review: The Reservoir Tapes

By Jon McGregor

reservoir13

First there was Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s highly acclaimed 2017 novel in which a teenage girl on holiday with her family goes missing. Eight months later we have The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece, offering insights into the events leading up to Becky Shaw’s perplexing disappearance.

Set in a rural village in England’s Peak District – an upland area at the southern end of the Pennines – The Reservoir Tapes was first aired on BBC Radio 4 as a specially commissioned short fiction series (read by Neil Dudgeon), and has now been published as a volume of fifteen ‘prequel’ stories.

McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he also edits the in-house literary journal, The Letters Page. Born in Bermuda in 1976, he grew up in Norfolk before moving to Nottingham, where, in 2002, he wrote the first of his four novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, while living on a narrowboat. Since then he has won the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

He now gives us the opportunity to scrutinize the thoughts and actions of individual villagers associated with the Reservoir 13 investigation, looking back at events in their lives and focusing on their precise memories of the girl. He is a perspicacious observer of ordinary folk – in this case an old quarry worker, a cleaner, a young wife, park rangers, the local butcher, a newspaper delivery lad, an adolescent boy, a journalist, a prostitute and several others – giving us a tantalizing coup d’œil of a community with its own tale to tell.

McGregor is equally attentive of the surrounding wildlife and writes with exactitude of a deep, unstable quarry reclaimed by the natural world. A quarry at the very centre of this mystery. He leaves us wanting more.

Many thanks to 4th Estate for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle

by James Dixon

Edinburgh – capital of Scotland – a delightful, stimulating, multi-ethnic city, which draws workers and visitors from all corners of the globe. It is the second largest financial centre in the UK, and from its ancient castle overlooking the bustling streets to the wonderful architecture of its Old and New Town, one can see why it was chosen as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

For those who care to look a little closer, however, Edinburgh, like so many beautiful old cities, is notorious for its homelessness.

Writer, James Dixon, a south Londoner by birth, lives in Edinburgh with his wife, the psychologist Dr Lauren Hadley. In this, his latest novel, he has created an offbeat protagonist in Willem Gyle: a slow thinking, hard working labourer who loses everything – his job, his mother, his home, his dog – in a short space of time, and is henceforth divested of his dignity by sneering bureaucrats and pettifogging officials until he winds up living on the streets.

What happens to Willem doesn’t make pretty reading. He is pitched into a filthy, vicious, desperate world where every proffered lifeline is a deceit, and self-respect becomes an absurd impedimenta – so that eventually he is brutalised beyond salvation.

If you demand redemption for your fictional characters then this book is definitely not for you, but if you have a taste for gritty, unrelenting realism, this twenty-first-century allegory is well worth your time.

Many thanks to Thistle Publishing for supplying a review copy of this title.

Book Review: Novel On Yellow Paper

by Stevie Smith

I rather like Pompey Casmilus, the narrator of this slightly off-kilter stream of consciousness novel, which in Stevie Smith’s opinion makes me a “foot-off-the-ground” sort of person. Not only is this a jolly good thing to be, but it is wholly necessary if one is to fully appreciate her exuberant chatter.

This was Smith’s first novel, printed in 1936, and could perhaps be described as a frenetic, not quite fictional, ingeniously funny memoir. The sagacious Pompey (secretary to magazine publisher, Sir Phoebus Ullwater) confabulates on topics as diverse as sex, The Church, Nazism, single women, death, matrimony and oh so much more. She discusses and analyses the people in her life – characters quite obviously based on Smith’s actual friends and relatives – and leaves the reader feeling altogether exhilarated, enervated and not infrequently bewildered.

I expect people either love or loathe this book. I loved it!

NB The text is peppered with German words and expressions (Latin and French, too), but this wasn’t a problem for me because my Kindle offered instant translation.

Also see: Book Review: Me Again: Uncollected Writings Of Stevie Smith

Book Review: Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

It is difficult to know how to define Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Costa Book Award winning novel. It is part Historical Fiction because of its authentic depiction of English life both during and between the World Wars, however, since the protagonist is repeatedly reincarnated into the same life, it could more precisely be placed in the Sci-fi sub genre category of Time Travel.

It all begins (and keeps beginning) on 11th February 1910, during a particularly heavy snow storm, but the end date varies according to what at first appear to be quite minor decisions on the part of Ursula – the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd – which only too often lead to devastating, life-changing and not infrequently tragic consequences for herself and those around her.

This is a book about second chances and what-ifs. It also reveals hidden secrets, explores love in its myriad forms and displays sheer British pluckiness in the face of nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. All this is borne with understated humour and stiff upper lip by the Todd family as they move through varying versions of the same life.

Kate Atkinson’s ingenious novel shows us how small changes of behaviour can have seismic repercussions throughout history. She also left me wondering how some of the terrible events of the 20th century might have been avoided.

Incidentally, this is the first in a duology about the Todd family, the second being A God in Ruins (2015).

Book Review: Zennor in Darkness

by Helen Dunmore

The British poet, novelist and children’s writer, Helen Dunmore died of cancer at the age of 64 on 5th June 2017. Sad to say, I have only now come to her work with this, her very first novel, published in 1993.

Winner of the McKitterick Prize, Zennor in Darkness could best be described as a rich, intricate, intensely lyrical historical novel. Set in the spring of 1917, at a time when the controversial author, D.H. Lawrence, and his German wife, Frieda (pejoratively referred to as “Hunwife” by wary locals who suspected the unconventional couple of being enemy spies) sought refuge from war-obsessed Britain in a tiny Cornish coastal village close to St Ives. Their story is interwoven with those of finely drawn fictional characters, in particular, Clare Coyne, a young artist they befriend.

This mesmerizing, poignant novel, which explores what it means to belong and how it feels to be an outsider in a tight, ultra-traditional community, seeks to define courage amid a miasma of gossip, scandal and innuendo.

All told, Dunmore published twelve novels. I intend to read each one of them, probably in sequence. Sheer indulgence? Maybe, but I’m thoroughly hooked and have much catching-up to do!