The Push by Ashley Audrain

Book Review | The Push by Ashley Audrain

There’s a certain toxicity around notions of motherhood. I’m not a parent, but friends have spoken of the horrors of the internet forum Mumsnet, where everyone has 101 opinions on the only right way to raise children. The pressure on mothers is a particular and peculiar kind of scrutiny that fathers, by and large, escape from. It is mothers who are under the microscope, bound to societal expectations of unflinching devotion and dedication.

In Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, Blythe is all-too-aware of the immensity of parenthood. And whilst her husband, Fox, has a picture-perfect mother to model his own parenting on, Blythe comes from several generations of mothers who are at best absent, at worst abusive.

The narrative flips between the present in Blythe’s voice, and back through the generations as Blythe’s mother and grandmother chart the dysfunctional and disturbing accounts of their own childhoods.

‘We are all grown from something. We carry on the seed, and I was part of her garden.’

It doesn’t have to be the same for Blythe, though – does it? Putting her misgivings to one side, she and Fox have a baby girl, Violet. With the arrival of Violet, Blythe struggles to remember who she is – feeling that her life is now devoted to taking care of a baby who appears to love Fox but recoil from her touch. There’s an expectation gap separating the ideal – gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes – and the real, a baby who screams constantly. And it is this lack of a bond with Violet that Audrain explores unflinchingly throughout the novel. When the pair have another baby, and tragedy strikes, things spiral for them all.

‘Motherhood is like that – there is only the now. the pain of now, the relief of now. the despair of now, the hope.’

It was intriguing and refreshing to hear a story that isn’t often told; one that sheds light on a darker and likely more common than we’d think phenomenon. Audrain explores the guilt and shame that Blythe feels, and yet she is also an unreliable narrator. We are so deep into her psyche that we can’t help but question the way she sees her daughter. And yet by casting aspersions upon her lived experience, we are no better than the reams of people in her life who do not believe her, who silently brand her a hysterical woman, a bad mother.

The second-person narration in Blythe’s narrative, addressing her account to ‘you’, her husband Fox, is cleverly-done. I felt that the flashbacks to the accounts of her mother and grandmother were somewhat lacking – they felt like they slowed down the pace without providing us with that much insight, beyond ‘traumatic childhood.’ This is very much a psychological drama, rather than a thriller, and should be treated as such – don’t go into it expecting twists and turns, as major plot developments are few and far between – which doesn’t help with the pacing. I liked the novel for exploring a lesser-seen experience of motherhood, but felt that the reading experience was hampered by the pace and the lack of depth to the narrative.

With thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced review copy. The Push will be published by Penguin Michael Joseph on January 7th, 2021.

Book Review | Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

The narrator of Topics of Conversation is acerbic, witty, dark. In a fragmentary narrative, we are guided – or perhaps pulled – through a 17-year period of her life, as seen through a fragmentary series of conversations. We get the impression that she’s excavating her inner life, in the effort of imposing some kind of narrative meaning to it, refining and honing the prose of her experience. ‘Look,’ as one irate character remarks, ‘you’re all imagining yourselves as people in some kind of story.’

And yet our unnamed protagonist realises – has always realised – that it is a ‘folly’ to settle on the governing narrative of one’s life, especially at the young age of twenty-one, when we first meet her. The particularly powerful parts of the narrative are when she interrogates the self-conscious way in which we tell stories and in which we stack together the moments of our life as if they were part of a story, as if we are winking to an unknown reader.

‘Perhaps sometimes you find yourself doing things because you think the narrative arc calls for it, or because you’ve grown bored with your own plot.’

Despite our narrator’s references to narrative arc and plot, there is none of the traditional narrative trajectory here. All we get are moments. This isn’t a novel for readers who want a clearly defined beginning, middle and end – or even any kind of plot that can be put into words. It’s not always easy to get at the essence of this novel, to articulate clearly what it is ‘about’ – and that almost seems to be the point.

‘Truth didn’t help. Everything that had ever happened could never be integrated into something coherent. The trick was picking the right moments.’

With a startling intimacy, Popkey interrogates modern womanhood and all that comes with it. Our narrator unflinchingly talks to us about sex and power and motherhood – what it means to desire and to be in control and what it means to desire and not be in control. The novel takes us to some complicated and nuanced places. It’s a dark and difficult territory for our narrator, who is steeped in self-loathing.

‘When we thought about sex we thought mostly about ways to defend against what we didn’t want instead of ways to pursue what we did.’

The breathless writing style is circuitous and rambling at times, folding back on itself and bending the conventional rules of grammar – which, if you can get past it (and apparently many readers cannot), is arguably a true reflection of the way that conversations between people happen.

This is an extremely polarising book, if the Goodreads reviews are anything to go by, and it definitely won’t be for everyone. It isn’t the perfect example of an experimental or fragmentary style. The prose is overwrought at times, and some of the passages are more worth investing in than others. And yet, I could hardly stop reading. At one point, our narrator remarks – ‘conversation is flirtation. Tease out enough rope and the listener, she’ll hang on your every word.’ And I did.

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With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Topics of Conversation was published in January 2020.

Book Review | The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Yona Ko works at a Korean travel company, where her job is ‘surveying disaster zones and turning them into vacations’ – putting together the most compelling and lucrative packages to inspire the adventurous traveller. Yona and her colleagues do very little to interrogate the ethical nature of their work, instead framing it through a purely transactional lens: there is money to be made in disaster.

‘A package has to be powerful to survive. We’ve got earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes, avalanches, floods, fires, massacres, wars, radioactivity…The packages Koreans like are those with something exotic, the spirit of adventure.’

After being sexually assaulted by her manager, Yona agrees to go on one of the trips to the remote island Mui, off the coast of Vietnam, where a sinkhole swallowed most of the island’s residents some years ago. It will be Yona’s job to experience the vacation as a tourist and assess whether it’s worth the company renewing their contract. Whilst she’s there, she gets drawn into a dark and twisted plot to sustain the cachet of the island – at any cost.

This short novel packs a punch, showing us a dystopian vision that takes our modern-day voyeurism to the extreme. It implicitly interrogates our consumption the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the never-ending exposure to global tragedy – whilst also recognising the desensitisation that occurs from such consumption. It also is a scary magnification of the kind of exploitative practice of touring sites like Chernobyl or the favelas in Brazil, trips that already happen on a regular basis to tourists clamouring for the ‘authentic’ experience.

‘The disaster has to be on a certain scale for busy people to take the time to sympathise and pay attention. The world is overrun with stimulation, so that’s just how it is.’

It’s an offbeat, quirky narrative, with a chilling nonchalance towards the bounds of behaviour in pursuit of profit – including on the part of our protagonist, who rarely self-reflects on her complicity in a way that I found somewhat frustrating. There is a precision to the language that I’ve seen in other works of translated Korean fiction, and I enjoyed having a non-Western protagonist guide the story. However, it veers off into the nightmarish surreal as the novel reaches its conclusion, and introduces plot points I felt were underdeveloped and rushed (e.g. the love interest). There’s a lot the novel is saying, with a fascinating premise to explore, but more could have been done for it to reach its potential.

***

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With thanks to the publisher, Counterpoint, for the advanced copy. The Disaster Tourist will be published in August 2020.

Book Review | The Vow by Debbie Howells

Here are all the elements of a stock psychological thriller: an eerie rural setting, a shady past, an unreliable narrator. And the premise is intriguing: a jilted woman, weeks before her wedding day – her fiancé missing, her a prime suspect.

There is a clever push-pull as we switch to different points of view, teasing out the answer to just how much can we trust our protagonist? Amy has suffered with depression before, after her first marriage fell apart. Her therapist vouches for her unstable state of mind. We see her smashing plates in the kitchen.

Matt, her fiancé, was unable cope with her mood swings, the gaps in her memory, her refusal to sell her beloved cottage.

But Amy maintains theirs is the perfect relationship, and that he’s the man of her dreams.

What is a clue and what is a red herring? Our interest is sustained as Debbie Howells shifts perspectives and makes us question what we can believe. Like Amy, we start looking at everyone as a potential suspect. Howells also writes a dual-time narrative, with flashbacks to 1996 and a tragic incident that occurred in childhood. It doesn’t take long to connect this event to present-day circumstances.

The main reason that this thriller fails to really capture the imagination is that the twist fell somewhat flat, although there was some satisfaction in things being neatly tied up with a bow. The second was the lack of a sustained atmosphere, although all the elements were there to create one; particularly the cottage in the countryside with the herbalist’s garden, the implicit power of nature to heal and to destroy.

This was a fast-paced read, and a strength of the novel was its ability to keep the reader in the dark and its exploration of gaslighting, raising awareness of insidious forms of emotional abuse and manipulation.

‘Nothing too aggressive to start with, just a subtle undermining, chipping away at your reality, until before long, you’re so under their spell, you believe everything they tell you, to the point you question your own sanity…’

I voluntarily reviewed an advanced copy from the publisher. The Vow will be published by Avon UK in October 2020.

Book Review | Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

The resorts in the Caribbean often fall into a trap, by well-meaning but unobservant tourists, of being part of some indistinguishable mass, a ‘lovely nowhere,’ as Alexis Schaitkin terms in the opening of this literary mystery. Saint X, a fictionalised Caribbean island, is the generic paradise where the Thomases have escaped to for a week of rest and relaxation, with their two daughters – Allison, eighteen, and Claire, seven.

A privileged, white middle-class family, they revel in the hospitality of the island. They sip on endless cocktails and soak up guaranteed sunshine, revelling also in their rapport with the staff, the questions about the best places to get local cuisine that are painful in their self-consciousness. But in the lap of luxury, tragedy strikes. Schaitkin has atmospherically drawn out the paradisiacal setting to a point where it seems untenable. The beautiful, self-possessed older daughter goes missing, and her body is found a few days later.

Prime suspects in the case are Clive and Edwin, two local men who work at the resort and were seen with Allison the night she disappeared. But without solid evidence to convict, the men are released and the case turns cold.

Decades later, Claire – now going by the name Emily – is living in New York and working for a publisher. One day, she happens to get into the back of Clive’s cab. This chance encounter takes hold of her imagination, and leads her down a path of obsession with this man, her sister’s disappearance and a desperation to get answers.

‘We see so little of people. We forget how much submerged darkness there is around us at every moment. We forget until we are forced to remember.’

Through Allison’s death, Schaitkin explores the morally nebulous exploitation of murder for entertainment. When Claire begins to lift the lid on what happened to her sister, she discovers numerous documentaries, Reddit threads, conspiracy theories and even a guided tour on the island, exploring the last sites Allison was seen alive. Being witness to this shaping and reshaping of a narrative for titillation and curiosity’s sake, from the point of view of a loved one whose life has been forever altered by the tragedy, certainly gives food for thought about our current culture’s obsession with true crime as entertainment.

Claire hardly knew her sister, she realises, beyond the point of view as an adoring child in awe of her older sibling. It is through parts of the story told in Allison’s point of view – both real and imagined – that her layers are revealed to us.  Schaitkin explores the facets of our identity – race, class, family, tragedy – that makes us who we are. Because there is a part of Claire’s identity inextricably wound up in Allison’s life – and more precisely, Allison’s death.

‘At times, it could be very difficult to distinguish where my authentic pain over my sister’s death ended and where a performative emotionality, a giving over to the drama opened up by Alison, began.’

Pieced together between narratives from Saint X, New York, and across different characters and moments in time, Schaitkin stitches together the elements to form an immersive, visual and complex novel. This isn’t a fast-paced mystery, and the ending is not necessarily neat or satisfying. But it is a well-accomplished slow burn of a novel, interrogating important truths about how we see ourselves – and how the world sees us.

‘The longer he walked, the more the city receded, until the world around him rendered itself invisible and he began to hear water lapping against the edges of the metropolis, which became water lapping at the edges of another island, and then he was not walking through New York anymore, but through the landscape of that other world, that other life.’

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. I reviewed this advanced copy voluntarily. Saint X will be published in the UK in June 2020.

Book Review | When I Was Ten by Fiona Cummins

Catherine Allen has spent the best part of twenty years pretending the formative decade of her childhood didn’t exist. But when her sister goes on live TV, talking about how her parents – Dr and Mrs Carter – were brutality murdered with a pair of scissors when they were children, the life she has built for herself starts to rip at the seams.

“Her life – the ordinary, dull, precious life she had fought so hard to build – tilted sideways.”

In the eye of a media storm, the story garners intense public interest. Having gripped the nation when the crime first occurred, in the late 90s, it re-ignites questions about children who kill, and what possible pathway there can be to their redemption.

Brinley Booth, who grew up with the sisters in the same rural village, is now a reporter who is assigned to the case. In the cutthroat world of news journalism, there’s only one thing that matters – getting the story. But revisiting her past isn’t easy for Brinley, either, and a return to her childhood home dredges up parts of the past she’d rather leave forgotten.

“Now I’m back in the place that has haunted the hollows of my life, and the ghosts of my childhood walk alongside me, murmuring in my ear.”

The narrative also travels back in time to the 90s, to the seemingly idyllic Carter family home. Behind the facade – the doting parents, the father the village GP, Fiona Cummins exposes a believable and horrifying family reality, where emotional abuse and manipulation are the norm. The writing in these parts of the novel was strongest, with suspenseful and emotive scenes that built up the characters effectively, especially that of the youngest sister, Sara.

The dive into the world of news journalism made up my favourite parts of the novel, an insight into what it takes to carve out your career in that field. Cummins explores predatory journalistic practices and putting your life on the line if it means getting that front-page byline – and how so often these sensationalist crimes end up being trial-by-media.

Ultimately, there were things that didn’t work for me – the subplot of the Tory Justice Secretary and his unceremonious downfall, some on-the-nose plot moments and metaphors (in the midst of otherwise very accomplished writing), and – without giving away any spoilers – the motivation for the later killings, which seemed to be included for shock factor rather than plausibility in the context of the story. However, this was still a gripping novel that explored an interesting premise, that largely sustained the suspense throughout.

I voluntarily reviewed a copy from the publisher via Netgalley. When I was Ten will be published by Pan Macmillan in August 2020.

Book Review | Our House by Louise Candlish

Trinity Avenue is your typical suburban, leafy London street. Well, typical in the sense that the houses are worth several millions of pounds – one of the most coveted postcodes in the area. Properties on this street are gold dust; once you have one, you hang onto it –for better or worse.

So when Fi returns home one January afternoon from a romantic getaway with her new boyfriend, only to find what looks like removal men outside her front door, she thinks that there must have been some terrible mistake.

Only she’s not mistaken. A young woman is standing in the kitchen, directing the movers, equally as befuddled. She and her husband have been coveting one of these houses for an age, and now it’s signed, sealed and delivered. The contracts were exchanged that morning. And Fi’s estranged husband Bram is nowhere to be found.

‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same … you’ll be a man, my son!’

We learned that at school.

They didn’t tell us that the worst disasters would be those of our own making.

This is a chilling domestic noir – perceptive, sharp and unsettling. The bounds of credibility are stretched taut – but Candlish never oversteps the mark. Even when the premise seems ridiculous, the story that unravels takes us deep down a rabbit warren of deceit, desperation and dark depths of despair in such a way that makes the whole tale real and believable. The story is divided into three narrative threads; Fi, telling her story on a radio show called The Victim, Bram’s Word Doc version of events, and an omniscient narrator tying together the spaces in between. These voices work in tandem to construct the events that lead to that fateful afternoon in January. But with two unreliable narrators, who can we trust? Our memories are so imperfect. Not to mention, there are things we would rather conceal – even from ourselves.

What is extraordinary is just how ordinary everyone is; regular people living regular lives. There are no serial killers lurking in dark spaces, no kidnappers ready to snatch away your little ones. Real fear comes from not knowing the people closest to you, having no idea what they are capable of. And whilst this novel felt a little bit convoluted at times, it nevertheless kept me guessing – right up until the last page. When I read that last line, I had shivers all up and down my spine.

I voluntarily read this copy provided by NetGalley. Our House will be published on August 7th 2018.

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Read if you enjoyed: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware, Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan 

Book Review | Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall

Mike loves Verity – V – more than anything. Since they met at university, they’ve been inseparable, and Mike can’t imagine life without her. Their relationship isn’t, perhaps, what you’d call conventional – one of their favourite pastimes is a game they play, called the Crave. A game involving manipulating strangers in order to scare them – and they love the rush, the turn-on, the feeling of power.

But Mike’s love for V gets a little bit too intense. He moves to New York on a temporary work contract, and things start to fall apart – from her perspective, in any case. When he comes back at Christmas, the relationship crumbles, and life as Mike knows it is over.

It can’t be, though – right? This is him and V. They are soulmates, destined to be together. He sets about making his beautiful Clapham house just the way V would have wanted it – an edenic English garden, bursting with flowers, to take the place of grey concrete and stone. Even when he gets an invitation to her wedding, he can’t believe it’s really over. It’s all part of the game, see. All part of the Crave.

This psychological thriller gripped me from the start. It’s a perverse love story, told from Mike’s perspective as he awaits trial – for what, we’re not yet sure. He writes it all down, reflecting back on the events that led up to that moment; how it all transpired. We learn about his troubled childhood and trauma at the hands of a neglectful mother; his lack of friends; his obvious delusions. You can’t help but pity him, even as you feel sickened by his behaviour.

‘I could look at V when she came in from wherever she’d been and know instantly how she was feeling. Every time she rang I knew it was her without looking at the screen. When we watched a film or listened to music I knew what her reaction would be without speaking. I knew how to make her scream and moan and thrash, every inch of her body mapped indelibly on my mind. Connections like that cannot be broken, however much we are separated.’

All the while, I kept expecting this novel to turn out differently from the way it did. I kept thinking I had it figured out, but I didn’t. Mike refuses to believe what V has told him, time and time again – that it’s over between them, that she’s moved on, that she loves someone else.

In the end, though, we get it. We get what Hall has been trying to tell us all along. This isn’t about some big twist, some jaw-dropping turn of events ­– the truth has been right under our noses this whole time. Whilst not what I was expecting, this is nevertheless a gripping, twisted tale, one that makes you think long after it’s over.

I received a copy of this title through Netgalley. Our Kind of Cruelty will be published on 8th May 2018.

Book Review | Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

It’s the same as any other hectic night on the labor and delivery ward in a Connecticut hospital. But for experienced nurse Ruth Jefferson, it’s a night that she’ll never forget. Used to seeing patients from all walks of life, Ruth knows that the most important thing is for mothers to deliver safely with healthy babies. But mistakes happen.

The problem is, what happens when the mistake involves the baby of a white supremacist, and you’re an African-American?

Before Ruth knows what is happening, things begin to spiral out of control and the careful, quiet life she’d established for herself and her son begins to fall apart at the seams. Having spent a lifetime trying to keep under the radar – working hard, being successful, having a stable income – she now finds herself on trial, in a case where race is the elephant in the room. Glaringly obvious but forcibly unspoken.

“Any public defender who tells you justice is blind is telling you a big fat lie.”

The story is told from the point of view of Ruth, her public defender Kennedy, and the white supremacist Turk. It does not make for comfortable reading. We hear of Ruth’s daily microaggressions; despite being a respected professional, she’s followed around in supermarkets, patronised over her son doing well in a good school, assumed to be the student when the other person in the room is a white man. Kennedy, a well-meaning white woman who ‘doesn’t see race’ is forced to confront her prejudices head-on – when it finally becomes clear that the courtroom conversation cannot ignore race any longer. And Turk, the most terrifying of all – telling us about unshakable belief in the superiority of the ‘white race’, his horrifying attacks on those he believes to be less than human, the swastika tattoo on his skull. It’s deeply uncomfortable. But that’s the point.

“When you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what’ it’s like to be put down because of the colour of my skin.”

Given the landscape of race relations in America, there’s never been a more pertinent time to have this conversation. Picoult’s latest book is a testament to these troubled and frightening times. There’s been much made of her writing as a black woman, a lived experience she couldn’t possibly understand. Where are the shelves of bestselling books about women of colour written by women of colour? That said, a privileged white woman using her work to open up these discussions about race and justice – is at least using her platform for good.

“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

Picoult doesn’t shy away from thorny, polemical issues. It’s a difficult read in terms of content, alleviated by Picoult’s natural storytelling capacities, developed characters and pacy plot. It is undeniably heavy-handed and melodramatic at times, and falls back on clichés and conveniences to hammer home the message. It ticks all the boxes for a textbook Picoult novel, but what is also does is open up difficult conversations, challenges assumptions of the well-meaning but ignorant, and crafts a story that resonates and forces the reader to reflect on the state of contemporary society.