THE FINAL FINAL has been Emma’s and Lucas’ preferred bar for years. But on her 35th birthday, Emma isn’t anymore the woman she used to be. She is drinking alone, acknowledging the other regulars and thinking about what has gone wrong in her life during the last couple of years. Her professional choice which deeply annoyed her success-oriented father, her marriage with Lucas which was never easy but also not too bad, the happiness when their son Lionel was born. And now she is sitting in a bar drinking and ignoring the texts from her friend Grace who seemingly has arranged something for her birthday. The more the evening advances the more the tension in the bar rises and unexpectedly, she learns things which lead to a dramatic end.
What I liked most about Anna Bruno’s novel were first, the atmosphere of the bar and second, the development of the protagonist. On the one hand, we have a place where you typically do not find an average single woman drinking alone. At first, everybody is friendly, they have known each other for years but keep a natural distance, they are only bar acquaintances it seems with no further connection and know not to trespass the personal sphere of each other. Over the course of time, you learn more about the other guests and slowly the heat is rising. This comes quite as a surprise which only underlines how perfectly this has been developed.
The whole plot centres around Emma and her pondering. It does not take too long to understand that something important must have happened that lead to the separation and deeply impacted her psychological state. It is just those things that happen in life, evidently ordinary hazards.
I loved the structure of the novel, having two timelines interwoven which each other which culminate in a distressing climax. Vividly narrated at a moderate pace, I really enjoyed delving into it.
Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.
Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.
It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.
Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.
Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.
An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.
Summer in Italy can be rather boring when all the friends are on holiday with their families. But Grace’s boredom finds an end when she stumbles across an ancient god, Dionysus. Quite naturally she doesn’t believe his story in the beginning, but slowly recognised who or rather: what he really is. When her friends Caroline and Sara return, she tells them about him and they are eager to meet him, too. So is the ancient god and since he has been longing for nymphs to feed him, the three teenagers are a welcome prey for his doings. Dionysus, not only the god of grapes and wine making, but also the god of ritual madness and religious ecstasy will lead the girls to somewhere they have never been before.
I am torn between finding it wonderful and shaking my head when it comes to Alexandra Turney’s second novel. On the one hand, it is beautifully written and I was captivated from the start, on the other hand, it is all a bit too much and too unrealistic. I was waiting all the time for some kind of revelation that could explain it all. Maybe it is just my being a bit too serious that keeps me from imaging an ancient god being reborn and founding a new kind of cult.
What I found quite realistic, in contrast, was how the three girls are spell-bound by the god and become addicted to his wine. It doesn’t take them too long until their whole thinking only circles around their Friday evening ecstasies. They eagerly sacrifice everything that was important to them before for their new god and the feelings that arouse when being drunk. They aren’t even scared when they realise what they are capable of doing when being drunk.
An extraordinary book that sure captures the spirit and atmosphere of Rome where you sometimes are lead to believe that all is possible and where the long history can carry away your thoughts easily.