Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Book Review | Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Louise, a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office, makes the mistake of kissing her charismatic new boss, David. In her defence, she doesn’t know he’s her new boss – not until the morning after the night before, when he walks into his new surgery with his glamorous wife, Adele, in tow. Louise bolts for the loos, trying to compose herself.

Against her better judgement, Louise (who has enough on her plate as a single mother of a six-year-old), falls for David’s charms again. He has the decency to act guilty about it – they both know he’s married – but she just can’t help herself. She’s characterised as bit of a frumpy, plain, do-gooder. I get that she’s supposed to be relatable, but it was all a bit depressing.

She gets herself into a very sticky wicket when she also becomes friends with his wife, Adele, who just so happens to bump into her after she’s done the school run. Behind her glam exterior, Adele seems timid and afraid of her husband. Over at Adele’s for lunch one weekday, Adele happens to mention the large cupboard of prescription meds David is making her take. And she also makes Louise swear she won’t tell David about their friendship. Louise is worried that David is abusive, but this is all undermined by the chapters in Adele’s perspective. There’s really no mystery here. Oh, and there’s the obligatory time travel passages that take us back a decade to Adele’s teenagerhood after her parents have died. All this does is interrupt the plot without adding anything else in terms of intrigue or character empathy.

I think this book was a bit of a case of the sunk cost fallacy. It was long (was it? Or did it just feel that way. I’m not sure) but I kept going with it, thinking that all might be redeemed by some hair-raising twist in the second half. And by the time I realised that probably wouldn’t be the case, it was too late to really stop – I’d invested too much.

I very rarely struggle to find positive things about a novel that I end up finishing (I rarely finish books I’m not enjoying. Very rarely indeed) but this winds up having a supernatural/paranormal element which could not be further from my thing. Not to say I’d completely rule out any genre, but this is pitched as a psychological thriller – and then it veers into territory I most certainly had not signed up for.

Perhaps if you go into it with that expectation, you’ll enjoy it a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Netflix adaptation.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday | Books with numbers in the title

Welcome back to another Top Ten Tuesday! I love these creative themes and they always get me remembering books I’ve not thought about in forever. This one is pretty self-explanatory, so here we go…

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Since I recently read and adored The Kite Runner, this has just been bumped up my TBR.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I so enjoyed this journalistic tour de force, a deep dive into the love and sex lives of three real women. Check out my full review here.

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls

I know I’ve found a way to fit this into a top ten tuesday more than once, but I can’t help it. It’s so charming and moving and funny.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Back at the start of the pandemic, I was on a pandemic-book-themed reading sprint, and this was a very good addition to that oeuvre. Full review here.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 – famously the temperature at which books burn (cannot confirm). Not a book that I loved like I’d hoped I would, but a worthwhile read none the less. Full review here.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books were the background to my mid-teen years, and while she doesn’t always get it right, she doesn’t shy away from heavy topics. And boy does that woman know how to write a page turner.

Slumdog Millionaire by Vikas Swarup

Is this pushing the boundaries of the theme? Quite possibly. But it’s close enough. I don’t remember all that much about this book, which I read over 10 years ago, but I enjoyed the film (if enjoy is the right word).

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve not read this nor do I really want to watch the TV adaptation, but I know it’s hugely popular and it fits the tag so here we are.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Rachel Cusk, and I think I would enjoy her writing, but I’ve not yet summoned up the strength to give it a go.

Thanks for reading!

6 Books I Read In One Sitting

You may notice that this topic looks awfully like yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I half drafted this weeks ago, and since then work has been very busy (I start my new job on Monday), then Tuesday came and went, so this is where we find ourselves…

The days of curling up with a book and reading non-stop now seem to be few and far between – but over the years I’ve had delightful read-in-one-sitting experiences. These are some of the most memorable.

One Day by David Nicholls

I took this with me on a 2-month trip to India in 2012, and the host family I stayed with definitely thought I was strange for being so absorbed in this book. Tony Parsons on the cover says it’s totally brilliant, and I can’t put it better myself. A contemporary classic (and I love the film, Ann Hathaway’s accent excepting).

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Holidays. The perfect time to indulge in lying-on-the-sofa-reading behaviours for days on end. I read Such A Fun Age during Thanksgiving 2019, and was so engrossed it even distracted me from shopping in the Black Friday sales.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling

This was published on the 21st June 2003 – how is that a whopping 18 years ago? But I remember the day like it was yesterday – chasing the postman in his red Royal Mail van around the village so that I could get my hands on it as soon as humanly possible. I think my first read was over 2 days, and then I promptly started it all over again and finished it in 24 hours.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Everything I Know About Love accompanied me for a full cosy winter’s day in 2018 where I read it in one sitting, apart from breaks for tea and snacks. It feels like a chat with your best friend and is highly recommended millennial woman reading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

One of my favourite books of all time from the greatest Modernist writer VW – I’ve read this in one sitting on multiple occasions. It’s a short one, too – so if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This may be cheating a little, as took me about a month to get through the first chapter, but after that I was hooked. I read the rest of the novel almost in one sitting lying on the bottom bunk in a hostel on the Chinese island of Hainan, in summer 2015, and I would not stop talking about it.

Thanks for reading! Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

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Book Review | Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Malcolm Kershaw runs an independent bookshop, Old Devils, in Boston, specialising in mystery fiction. It’s the depths of winter – an oppressive cold and dark pervades the novel – when an FBI agent comes to his door and begins to question him on a blog post he wrote for the bookshop several years ago. His piece was ‘Eight Perfect Murders’, a write up of the murders in fiction that are the hardest to crack. Near enough ‘perfect’ as can be.

It appears that someone has taken his piece as a challenge – copycat murders from this list are appearing across Massachusetts and the surrounding areas. The FBI start to take quite an interest in him, utilising his expertise in mystery fiction to help him piece together the puzzle. The only problem is that his own personal history is inextricably linked with these deaths. He’s not a suspect, but he isn’t not a suspect. Whatever is going on here, there’s no doubt that it is personal. Somebody has an axe to grind, and he doesn’t know where it’ll fall next.

Swanson has a laconic style, one that can be off-putting at first, but that ultimately works as a reflection of his twisted protagonists. Even in first-person narration, there is a sense that the reader is being kept at arm’s length – and then Swanson masterfully breaks the fourth wall. Reader, he tells us, not all is at it seems, and the nature of his duplicity begins to be revealed.

‘A line of poetry went through my mind—someone is dead, even the trees know it.’

The premise of this book is solid: interweaving other mystery greats in a clever, meta way that adds multiple layers to the narrative. Spoilers abound, so be warned, but this book is a homage to the genre that will especially appeal to mystery aficionados.

‘Books are time travel. True readers all know this. But books don’t just take you back to the time in which they were written; they can take you back to different versions of yourself.’

Unfortunately, it feels at times that the book rests too heavily on this clever premise, and fails to build out a substantial plot or structure in its own right. It’s a slow burn in a novel that really needs to be tauter, with a greater build-up of suspense and a more of a teasing out of plot points and characters to earn the reader’s investment in the narrative. Embedding classic mystery greats within the novel only serves to throw into sharp relief that this, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. It is, nevertheless, an entertaining concept, even if not exploited to its full potential.

‘I truly imagined that my adult existence would be far more booklike than it turned out to be. I thought, for example, that there would be several moments in which I got into a cab to follow someone. I thought I’d attend far more readings of someone’s will, and that I’d need to know how to pick a lock, and that any time I went on vacation (especially to old creaky inns or rented lake houses) something mysterious would happen. I thought train rides would inevitably involve a murder, that sinister occurrences would plague wedding weekends, and that old friends would constantly be getting in touch to ask for help, to tell me that their lives were in danger. I even thought quicksand would be an issue. I was prepared for all this in the same way that I wasn’t prepared for the soul-crushing minutiae of life. The bills. The food preparation. The slow dawning realization that adults live in uninteresting bubbles of their own making. Life is neither mysterious nor adventurous.’

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Read if you enjoyed: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, Grist Mill Road by Christopher Yates 

Book Review | Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

How do we rebuild a life of meaning in the wake of senseless tragedy? 12-year-old Eddie is on a cross-country flight from New York to LA when the plane falls out of the sky. He’s the only survivor. His parents and older brother were also on the flight, and suddenly Eddie finds himself in an earth-shattering new reality.

Suddenly, the boy who was Eddie no longer exists, and he assumes the identity Edward.

‘There are grown-ups, children, and then you. You don’t feel like a kid anymore, right?” Edward nods. “But you won’t be an adult for years. You’re something else, and we need to figure out what you are, so we can figure out how to help you.’

Hailed as a miracle, Edward finds himself at the centre of a media frenzy, one that is carefully shielded from him by his childless Aunt and Uncle, who are now his guardians. The loss of his parents is devastating, but even more painful is the loss of his brother, Jordan. Despite being a few years apart in age, the two shared a powerful bond that endures even beyond life. There’s a particularly poignant scene when the family’s belongings arrive at his Aunt and Uncle’s house in New Jersey, and from that point on Edward will only wear Jordan’s clothes, despite them being far too big for him. In Edward, Napolitano has depicted a realistic, empathetic teenage protagonist, exploring his unimaginable grief in a way that feels true and sensitive rather than clichéd.

Navigating a new reality is almost impossible for Edward over the first few years after the crash. He’s always been home-schooled, and now he’s attending public school. He’s always shared a bunkbed with Jordan in the family’s NYC home, now he lies awake on the bedroom floor of the girl next door, Shay. His proximity to and bond with Shay is the only thing that keeps him going, desperate to escape from the well-meaning adults who are also grieving in their own right.

‘He feels the plane seatbelt around his waist. His hands are cold, like they were when he pressed his palm against the wet plane window. He remembers pressing the window, then pulling his hand away. Edward feels the warmth of his brother’s body next to his. It doesn’t feel like a memory. He feels the tightness of the airplane seatbelt around his waist as he sits on the folding chair. Edward can feel the heartbeats of the mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, cousins, friends and children upstairs. His body syncs up with their sadness.’

While Edward is protected from the intense scrutiny after the accident, his uncle John is intensely investigating what happened. One day, Shay and Edward find padlocked duffle bags in the garage. Guessing the entry passcode – the number of the flight – they open them to find hundreds upon hundreds of letters written to Edward, the ‘miracle boy’, looking for him to fulfil ambitions and dreams that their loved ones on the plane were prevented from doing. In replying to these letters, Edward is able to assuage some of his survivor’s guilt and find a way to rebuild his life.

The novel has two concurrent narratives running alongside each other, the first a minute-by-minute account of what happens on the flight that fateful day, and another of Edward coming to terms with his new life over the course of the years to come. This is a clever structure that alternates the pace and sustains our interest. Through the narrative of the flight, we get an insight into some of the other passengers, all leading very different lives but bound together by that moment in time. Napolitano writes vivid characters that come to life, even when you only have a small insight into their lives. It makes the tragedy of the crash even more astute, as the reader is invested in the life not only of our protagonist but also the lives of those who were also on that journey with him.

This novel is moving but unsentimental, Napolitano’s writing measured and clear-eyed at all times. While I think this is a conscious stylistic choice, and one that is well-accomplished, it kept me at a distance somewhat, preventing me from feeling too emotionally engaged in the story. That said, her exploration of a teenage psyche undergoing the most unimaginable trauma is commendable, and handled with deftness and sensitivity.

 

Book Review | Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Like so many of us, Emira is in her mid-twenties and feeling adrift. She works part time as a typist and the rest of the time as a babysitter – not a nanny – for the wealthy Chamberlain family and their 3-year-old, Briar.

She’s about to lose her parent’s health insurance, and has a nagging feeling that she should get started on ‘the rest of her life’, but isn’t quite sure where to start. There’s also the fact that she adores Briar, the first daughter now somewhat neglected with her new baby sister on the scene. Reid writes of the bond between them so beautifully, painting Briar in a very real way as a curious, enchanting child who is similarly devoted to Emira, ‘Mira’.

On her own and at her best, Briar was odd and charming, filled with intelligence and humour. But there was something about the actual work, the practice of caring for a small unstructured person, that left Emira feeling smart and in control.

One night, the Chamberlains call upon Emira in a panic. They’ve had an incident at the house and they need her to come and look after Briar for a few hours. Emira takes Briar to the supermarket, where they wander the aisles, Briar enchanted by the colourful packaging and bright lights. But the sight of an African-American woman with a white, blonde little girl walking around a supermarket late at night catches the eye of the security guard, who accuses Emira of kidnap. The whole incident is captured on video by a well-intentioned white male bystander, Kelley, who encourages Emira to release the video. Mortified, Emira adamantly rebukes the suggestion. Being in the public eye is the last thing she wants.

Privilege, class and race are at the heart of this compelling and intensely readable debut novel. It exposes the difficulties of talking about race with well-meaning white people who are desperate to prove they aren’t racist – and in doing so veer dangerously close to developing a white-saviour complex. Briar’s mother Alix, known simply as Alex before her personal rebrand, is one such character. Whilst Emira is technically staff, Alix is determined to have her as ‘part of the family’, horrified at the supermarket incident and desperate to somehow atone.

Reid has developed nuanced characters who avoid falling into stereotypes. She takes a simple premise, adds a racist encounter, and crafts a narrative that centres the African-American voice in an exploration of contemporary society and racial politics through the lens of everyday people in everyday interactions. A deceptively deep and important novel for anyone looking to better understand the difference between impact and intent, the gaping racial and social divides in 21st century America, and the challenges of talking about it all – written with an accomplished lightness of touch.

I voluntarily reviewed this advanced copy from the publisher. Such a Fun Age will be published in January 2020 by Bloomsbury.

Book Review | On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Born into a society in ruins after a catastrophic war, a boy – known only as Little Dog  – and his mother flee Vietnam for a life in America – to be precise, the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut, a place of unbearable winters and drug addicts and thin apartment walls, where a few miles away lie expanses of tobacco fields and nothingness.

Little Dog’s mother works in a nail salon. With very little English, her most spoken refrain is ‘sorry’. She returns home at night with aching bones and the smell of acetone on her skin. Years later, now a grown man, Little Dog writes her a letter, poring over their life together. It’s a letter he knows she’ll never read: ‘The very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it possible,’ he writes.

‘I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck – the pieces floating, finally legible.’

The ripple effects of war are an undercurrent through the novel; leaving their mark on bodies, memories, language. The power and the failure of language and the bridges it can build and break are explored in a fascinating way: Little Dog, the family’s translator, is left humiliated when they go out to buy Oxtail and none of them know the right word in English, resorting to miming the animal and being met with pitiful and blank stares. The language Little Dog and his mother share is also, in a sense, paralysed in time, her never having finished school.

‘As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all – but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.’

Little Dog’s mother, whose English name is Rose, has a frenzied love for him that spills over into violence. Herself a victim of violence, both in her home with her ex-husband and in being a product of a wartime union between an American GI and a Vietnamese girl.  The transmission of trauma between generations is deftly explored, both in the oral histories passed down from grandmother and mother to son, and implicit in the reactions to seemingly harmless scenarios:

‘I stood bewildered, my top army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.’

One summer, when he is fourteen, Little Dog begins working in the tobacco fields some eight miles away from home. It’s there that he meets Trevor, an older teenager who was prescribed OxyContin for the pain from a dirt bike injury and is now hooked on drugs. They discover a desire for each other that Trevor can’t reconcile with his image of himself, an ‘all-American boy.’ He wonders out loud to Little Dog if it’s just a phase.

The novel is intensely lyrical, laden with a musicality of language that is unsurprising when you learn of Vuong’s background as a poet. There are, on occasion, moments of inscrutable prose, or metaphors not fully explored – things you can get away with in poetry, but to a lesser extent in literature. But while it’s is exquisite with language and the subject matter is heavy, Vuong still manages to make the prose accessible. It’s truly a unique talent and a feat of accomplishment, especially for a first novel.

Vuong captures human experience in all its pleasure and pain, a bittersweet melancholy in even the most innocuous of sentences. One night, Little Dog sits by himself, kicking his light-up trainers – ‘the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.’

Book Review | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds living in Atlanta. Roy is charming, proud, and stubborn, Celestial his independent, artistic, talented wife. Their marriage is still very much in its infancy when something life-altering happens. While staying in the fictional town of Eloe, Louisiana, visiting Celestials’ parents, Roy will be accused of raping a woman in a hotel room – a crime he did not commit.

‘You know what they say: if you go five miles out of Atlanta proper, you end up in Georgia.’

African-American men are incarcerated at a vastly disproportionate rate in the United States, and Roy’s imprisonment and 12-year sentence show that even being HBCU-educated, articulate and holding a good job – the poster boy for upward mobility – won’t save you from the gross injustices of the American justice system.

‘I have one thing to say to you, as a black man: Roy is a hostage of the state. He is a victim of America.’

But the way in which Roy’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment transpires is not dwelled upon in the narrative: it almost seems like the inevitable, an inescapable fate in contemporary America. This isn’t a courtroom drama or an overt polemic. Instead, what follows is first-person accounts from Roy, Celestial and Celestial’s old friend Andre, who are all struggling to navigate this new reality.

We also witness the slow disintegration of the couple’s communication through their letters. The lost art of letter-writing is still very much alive between incarcerated persons and their loved ones who have no access to modern communication, and in this case they provide documentation of deep emotional turmoil and the fraying of the ties that bind. Roy’s life is suspended, but Celestial’s must go on: she becomes a successful artist and grows ever closer to Andre. Time waits for no man, and Roy finds that the world – and his place within it – changes irrevocably.

‘Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder?’

A searching, intimate and timely (and yet also somehow timeless), portrait of a marriage, Jones explores the fractures in communication and the pressures on modern-day marriage. I would have liked to have read more about Roy’s conviction and to have had that side of the novel explored in some more detail, but I can see why Jones wanted to focus on the wrongful imprisonment as the catalyst, rather than the central focus of the narrative. It is lyrically written without being florid, and the complex characters make it hard to apportion blame or pick sides. It’s a truthful and emotional look at the modern-day realities of American relationships and the forces that shape us.

Book Review | The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In a city readers of the previous three novels will know well, we are back in Barcelona – only this time, it’s the late 1950s. The ripple effects of the civil war are unforgotten but unspoken, while many still reel from the horrors committed in the name of Francoism. In the midst of this, Don Mauricio Valls, Franco’s culture minister, vanishes, and in comes Alicia Gris, the formidable female heroine we’ve been waiting for. Alicia is relentlessly driven, smart, and by all accounts, mesmerisingly beautiful. She also takes no prisoners.

Alicia and the policeman instructed to work with her, Juan Manuel Vargas, begin to piece together the mystery surrounding Valls’ disappearance. It’s a journey that takes them to the bowels of decaying Barcelona mansions, luxury suites at the Gran Hotel Palace, and, of course, the winding and interminable passageways of the cemetery of forgotten books.

Because of course, books are at the heart of this story, just as in the stories that preceded this one. The threads of literary mystery run deep, pulling us back to the questions about fact and fabrication, truth and lies, and the power of books to commemorate, to heal, to live long after their authors are gone. And with the reappearance of the cemetery of forgotten books, we find ourselves with the Sempere family once more. For the horrors of the Franco regime and terrors of the war aren’t an abstract piece of history – this family, as with so many others, have suffered greatly.

“There, in the heart of old Barcelona, where neither machines nor their disciples could penetrate, Alicia wanted to believe that time flowed in circles and that if she didn’t venture beyond those narrow streets through which the sun only dared to tiptoe, perhaps she would never grow old and would be able to return to a hidden time, rediscover the path she should never have left.”

Alicia and Vargas dive deeper into the underbelly of a past that many people want forgotten, and they begin to learn more about how and why Valls disappeared, and what he was responsible for as governor of the notorious Montjuïc prison. They have an unwavering commitment to the truth, to bringing justice upon those responsible for unspeakable suffering. But it will come at a cost.

“Bea watched Fermín leave in a blue twilight that threatened sleet. She stood there, looking out as people filed along Calle Santa Ana, hidden under scarves and coats. Something told her that winter, the real winter, had just collapsed on them without warning. And this time it would not go unnoticed.”

Both intricate and expansive, this final instalment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is a testament to Zafón’s masterful skill, his ability to hold you in rapt attention for over 700 pages and nine decades as we explore the final mysteries of the Sempere family. The characters Zafón has created are a pure joy to read, the incomparable Fermin Romero de Torres being one of the most memorable and funniest characters in all of modern literature, and the city of Barcelona itself, as many have noticed, as much a life form in these novels as any person.

It isn’t flawless – it took me a little while to warm up to the novel, and I found that picking it up and putting it back down was not going to work for me – I had to truly invest and devour hundreds of pages at a time to keep up with all the narrative threads. The ending was, I felt, a little drawn out, but I could understand that Zafón would not want to put this series to rest without giving the characters a fitting, holistic farewell. I adored visiting Zafón’s universe for a final time, and most of all what I loved is what is at the heart of this novel – the unwavering reverence for the enduring power – and immortality – of books.

“Tell our stories to the world, and never forget that we exist so long as someone remembers us.”