Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

It’s the anniversary the siblings spend together like every year. Kate has neatly prepared everything in her small apartment for her oldest brother Peter and the younger one Ray with his wife Liz. 16 years were not enough to get over the loss of her twin sister Elaine whom she remembers like yesterday. The atmosphere is tense and soon after dinner the guests leave, but Ray returns with a special present which sends Kate back in the time when she and Elaine were just kids, then teenagers and the fateful day of her death. Yet, it was not just this tragic event that made the family unhappy, even long time before, none of them did real lead the life they wanted and, seemingly, neither do they in the present.

I was a bit astonished about the novel, even though the title is “Dinner Party”, Sarah Gilmartin grants this only a brief chapter in the novel, however, it is the event that triggers the memories in Kate and explains how she became the lonely, highly obsessive woman we meet at the beginning. The author added a subtitle, “A Tragedy”, which is totally adequate in terms of the suffering and the sorrowful event the protagonist has to go through. Yet, I am not sure if the reader can feel something like a catharsis while reading. For me, it was a very sad novel showing the impact parents and the family constitution can have on a child and the adult he or she becomes.

Quite naturally, the young twin sisters have a strong bond and can understand each other without words. On their farm, they are far away from other kids and exposed to their mother’s moods. She comes from one of the best families and expects her kids to excel in their ascribed fields, Kate play the piano, for Elaine it is horse-riding. The older brothers have long been a disappointment for the mother, especially Peter with his plans to emigrate to the US. Becoming teenagers does not help the situation and the tensions between mother and father, but also between the two sisters become more and more obvious.

The protagonist is naturally the most striking character. Even as kids, she and Elaine have never been really equal. Elaine was to more extrovert and outgoing twin, she dictated for both of them what to do. From fear of her mother’s frequent outbursts, Kate quickly tries to become the diligent and obedient girl who does everything right. Also as a teenager, she does not rebel but she cannot get over the feeling of being the less loved daughter, the one who does not achieve what is expected from her, the one who can never do anything right. Controlling her feelings and emotions ultimately leads to an obsessive behaviour and when she has found something that is totally controllable, she quite naturally develops an eating disorder.

Dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love and positive support – the best ingredients to hinder a girl from becoming an emotionally stable and self-confident adult. The experiences of the young Kate reflect the problems she shows as an adult. She isn’t able to have a good relationship, she is much too insecure and, on the other hand, she never could get free of her mother and her impact on her feelings. A great character development which gives you also a lot of food for thought.

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Even though the Middle Ages are over, superstition and strange beliefs are still widespread among people. Thus, in 1615, Katharina Kepler finds herself accused of witchcraft by the people of her hometown of Leonberg in southern Germany. Times are hard, the Plague is spreading the Thirty Years’ War has just begun and somebody must be blamed for all the things happening. Katharina is an elderly widow, illiterate and mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. She leads a simple life, attending to her cow Chamomile. One day, however, Ursula Reinbold, accuses her of witchcraft, having offered a bitter drink which allegedly poisoned her, and surprisingly, the court not only listens but more and more people come forwards with testimonies of Katharina’s ill-doing. Only her neighbour, old Simon, who prefers to keep to himself, stands by her side.

Rivka Galchen’s story is based on a true story, Johannes Kepler’s mother was a healer and herbalist and arrested for witchcraft. The famous son stopped his research in planetary motion to defend his mother. Not only Katharina became victim of this kind of accusation, the town’s advocate Lutherus Einhorn accused 15 women in one trial and had executed eight of them in 1615.

At first, Katharina doesn’t take the accusation seriously, it is just talk for her, until she is put to prison and has to learn that more and more people come forward with other stories which seem to underline her doing black magic. She tries to counter the attack by accusing Ursula and her husband of slander, yet, her own case vanishes somewhere in the depth of local jurisprudence.

“We all know she’s a witch. We’ve always know. The matter of how we came to know is simple – we already knew.”

The accusations brought forward rage from poisoning, causing lameness, several deaths, injuring a woman’s foot, harming numerous people and animals – a long list which is getting more and more absurd during the story. I liked the interrogations of the inhabitants since they show not only the superstition they fall prey to, but also the dynamics of a small town which turns against one woman. Everything ill that has ever happened is simply attributed to Katharina. The allegations are so ridiculous that you could laugh weren’t it for Katharina’s case and the fact that the people’s testimonies seem to be believed.

Even though the plot is based on a well-documented historical case, you can see more or less the same thing happening today. It is not the small town anymore, but the world wide web in which often just one single person brings forward an accusation – no need for proof anymore – and masses jump on the bandwagon and have their twitter trial even before the issue is sorted out. It doesn’t matter if the accused is later discharged or not, the only thing that counts is public opinion which is quick at passing a sentence.

An entertaining read which outlines the dark sides of human nature – envy, greed, malicious gossip – and the danger that might come from it.

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

When Dot dies from a stroke at the age of 70, she leaves her twins Jeanie and Julius behind. Even though both of them are well in their adulthood, they still behave like children and therefore are totally overstrained by finding their mother dead on the kitchen floor. The three of them have lead a decent life at the small cottage since their father and husband Frank was killed in an accident, they have never needed much and could rely on their garden and the small amount of money Julius could make in providing a helping hand with all sorts of craftsman jobs. Yet, Jeanie and Julius do not have much time to grieve before all sorts of people turn up from the village claiming money their mother allegedly had borrowed. They can hardly believe it; this does not fit to the image they had of Dot. But this is just the beginning, without the strong and determined woman in the house anymore, the twins become an easy prey and soon have to face an unexpected problem: they are being evicted from what has been their home for decades.

A couple of years ago, I already enjoyed Claire Fuller’s novel “Swimming Lessons” which presented complex characters and a challenging family structure. In “Unsettled Ground”, too, the reader is confronted with a couple of highly interesting characters and an all but usual family construct which slowly unfolds its real tragedy in the course of the novel. Neither Jeanie nor Julius or any other character is easy to sympathise with, the world they have created for themselves is undoubtedly quite unique and takes some time to understand.

The novel has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction which is nevertheless easy to understand. It presents two characters at the critical point in their life when all they have known is threatened, when everything is about to fall apart and when all they have taken for granted and believed to be true has to be reassessed. Jeanie and Julius have a strong bond which nevertheless does not hinder them from coping with the threats they face totally differently.  Ultimately, it is the struggle of survival in a hostile world, the attempt to build a life on the broken pieces of the truths they have held to be true but turned out to be all but that.

Admittedly, reading “Unsettled Ground” makes you feel depressed more than once, the story is hard to endure at times. Yet, this surely can be attributed to the author’s skill of transmitting atmosphere and mood in a brilliant way. It’s one of those novels one does not really want to dig deeper in while at the same time one can hardly put down once started.

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Felix Pink works as a so called Exiteer which means he accompanies people during their last hours to decently transit from this to another world. Normally, they work in pairs and so far everything has gone quite smoothly. They do not leave any clues about their presence and don’t use their real names even with their colleagues. When Felix is called to his next client, it is his first job together with Amanda who is new to the business. When they have accomplished their task, a bit more demanding since the old man this time seems to have become reluctant to die in the last second, they are about to leave the house. At this moment, somebody shouts for them, obviously, they haven’t been alone in the house as expected, but there was a witness – waiting for them to assist his suicide. Felix and Amanda have made a huge mistake and have to face reality: they have just killed somebody and the police are already on their way.

“He had made a terrible mistake, but hoped there was a good reason why. He just hadn’t found it yet.”

I was first allured by the idea of the Exiteer business since assisted suicide has been fiercely discussed and surely isn’t an easy topic. However, Belinda Bauer’s novel turned out quite differently than expected. From the rather serious and gloomy start, an incredible plot develops which is full of fine irony and humour, wonderful characters who are diligently drawn and all the absurdities life can offer.

“‘Bloody hell,’ said Pete. ‘I did not see that coming.’ Calvin thought that spoke well of Pete, because you’d have to be pretty sick to see that coming.”

Felix Pink is a decent elderly widower who is a bit lonesome but as Exiteer has found a task which gives him the feeling of being helpful. Finding himself suddenly in the middle of a crime is something he absolutely cannot cope with. He is full of pangs of conscience which leads him to worsen the situation even more. Yet, it is not only the Exiteer who is breath-taking to observe but also the dead man’s family – consisting of his son Reggie and his father Skipper – who have quite some story to offer and also the police is a set of extraordinary characters.

A remarkable plot which offers quite some surprises one surely cannot see coming.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

When his wife Miriam days from cancer, Wolf has to take care of their 16-year-old daughter Ruth whom he hardly knows since the couple has been separated for quite some time. Miriam had one last wish: to have her ashes scattered in the Hudson River. Thus, Wolf and Ruth leave London for New York where he also hopes his daughter can find a new home with his former wife’s Jewish family. They arrive at the holy season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Wolf has never really been religious and also their daughter has not been raised to follow religious traditions. Yet, with Miriam’s believing relatives, conflicts lie at hand. They only seem to have one mission, yet, there is something else the father has to announce to his daughter.

Austin Duffy’s novel “Ten Days” tells the story of people who have to cope with the loss of a beloved mother and wife. Even though they have not been living as a couple anymore, Wolf’s memories come back when he shows Ruth where they met, where their first kiss took place and where everything began. It seems to be quite difficult for him to deal with his intelligent and at times rebellious teenage daughter, however, the more the narration advances the more questions arise about Wolf’s behaviour which becomes not only quarrelsome but strange.

I totally enjoyed the novel since the characters are lively drawn and really appear to be authentic in the way they try to make sense of Miriam’s death. Ruth is quite independent and strong-willed, when Wolf’s secret is revealed, however, we also get to know another side of her character.

Not a totally emotional read, much more a slow novel which makes you ponder.

Jane Harper – The Survivors

Jane Harper – The Survivors

It’s been twelve years since that one day which changed Kieran’s life. Now, with his wife Mia and their three-month-old daughter Audrey, they come back to Evelyn Bay to visit his parents. His father’s dementia has been deteriorating more quickly recently and thus they are moving house and sorting out stuff. Only shortly after they have arrived do they also meet their old friends: Olivia and Ash, now a couple, then also victims of that fierce storm which not only took Kieran’s brother’s life but also Olivia’s sister. And they meet Sean and his nephew Liam who lost his father and who still holds Kieran responsible for that. When the young waitress Bronte is found murdered on the beach, the memories of that unforgettable day resurface and all the emotions, too. Will twelve years after the disaster, which brought so much suffering and pain, the same happen again to that small community?

I liked Janes Harper’s novels “The Dry” and “Lost Man” since she is brilliant at catching the atmosphere and transferring this in her novels. “The Survivors”, too, has a special ambiance which defines the novel. The small circle of characters who all share the memories of that disastrous day and who all, in their own way, still can feel the pain that is connected to the storm and its outcome. Thus, the murder case at hand quickly becomes much less interesting than the question if people are hiding something, if the narrative of the events has to be re-written.

At first, I was misled by the title which I thought referred to the people who had survived the aforementioned storm, however, it is something completely different yet decisive for the plot. Even though the investigation on Bronte’s murderer seems not really to advance, the novel gets increasingly thrilling with more aspects of the storm day being evoked. Many characters act highly suspiciously which I totally adored since it made me spin one theory after another about the events. In the end, Harper provides a credible solution and no questions remains unanswered.

It is the landscape and the people formed by it who move at their own pace and who make “The Survivors” a wonderful read. It is a novel about how you can survive when others have died and especially how you can live with the guilt of being a survivor. For some however, being alive does not mean having survived, it is a daily fight against death. For me, the strongest novel by the author so far.

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Tully Dawson is the best friend one could ever wish for. When James’ struggles with his parents become unsupportable, he takes him to his home. Their friendship is based on music and the bands they admire and what both of them are sure of: they never want to become like their fathers. Ayrshire sooner or later becomes too enclosed, simply too small for them, so together with some friends they plan a weekend in Manchester, one of 1980s hot spots of music. And they do have the time of their life in only a couple of hours. Even though they all move on afterwards, the friendship between Tully and James goes deeper and even though they live on different ends of the island, thirty years on, James is the person Tully calls first when he has bad news.

“I suppose we could have (…) asked his opinion, but being young is a kind of warfare in which the great enemy is experience.”

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel oscillates between celebrating youth and the time of total light-footedness and the darkest side of human life. In the first part, we meet a bunch of youngsters for whom the Tenth Summer festival at the G-Mex centre in Manchester is the biggest event in their life so far. In 2017, they have not only aged but also acquired another attitude to life. Both have their time and place, it is the privilege of the teenage years to be carefree and live for the moment, harsh reality will come later, and it does.

“ ’It’s like an explosion of life happening and then it’s gone,’ he said. ‘We had our time, buddy. I’ve come to terms with it (…)’”

What I enjoyed most was to see how James and Tully had formed a bond for life. They shared the good times and also the bad ones. Nothing, not even their wives, could come between them since only with each other they could talk openly. Tully is a truly charismatic character which you come to like immediately which makes it even sadder to see how fate does not grant him more time on earth. The end is deeply moving, but seeing how full of emotion and life the first part war, you can accept it even if you don’t like it. It raises some very core questions each reader has to answer for himself, the way O’Hagan confronts us with them, however, is brilliant.

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Two sisters, September and July, just 10 months apart in age but sticking together like twins, even more, just as if they were only one person. In Oxford, where they first lived with their mother, an author of children’s books featuring two girls just like her own daughters, they were always in trouble and didn’t make friends with the other kids. By moving to the old family house, their mother hopes things will get easier. However, the spooky surroundings with walls who could tell decades of dark stories, triggers something between the girls which makes their unhealthy bond even more dangerous for the younger and weaker of the two sisters.

Daisy Johnson portrays a sisterly connection which goes far beyond what is known to link siblings. The fact that the girls are born within only a couple of months makes them grow up and experience everything together. They are like one person separated incidentally, also their character seems to have split in the two: September the wild and furious one, July, in contrast, obedient and more thoughtful. Since she is younger, she easily gives in to her sister’s will and thus follows without ever challenging her.

The atmosphere is gloomy in every line. Right from the start, you sense that some catastrophe is looming and just waiting to present itself. Even though at times, the sisterly bond also seems to be protective, the negative impact is obvious. Their mother is detached, she suffers from a depression which makes it impossible for her to see what is coming, she senses that the relationship her daughters have formed in detrimental, even harmful for July, but she is unable to do something about it.

An intense and vivid narrative with quite some eerie notes.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

akwaeke emezi the death of vivek oji
Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

When they hear some noise outside, Kavita opens the door and finds her son Vivek dead on the porch. There was some commotion at the local market and Vivek had wanted to go there where he obviously was killed. But who would ever want to do something to her beloved son? Yes, he had always been different, a bit strange which also made it hard for his cousin and childhood best friend Osita who witnessed strange occurrences such as Vivek’s mind wandering away and making him believe being a different person. And that’s just what he was, secretly, without his parents’ knowledge. But Osita, too, has some secrets he keeps from his and Vivek’s family, some just because they do not fit in their village’s idea of a young man’s life, others because they would be impossible to endure for anybody.

Just like in her novel “Freshwater”, “The Death of Vivek Oji” centres around a young protagonist who differs, whose mind works in a very singular way, yet, Vivek’s is less extraordinary than Ada’s. Nevertheless, the main conflict is placed between the individual and society: a person who does not comply with general expectations and cannot really reveal his emotions and most certainly cannot live the way he would prefer since this simply does not work in the place he lives.

“We can’t keep insisting he was who we thought he was, when he wanted to be someone else and he died being that person, Chicka. We failed, don’t you see?”

The story is told in flashbacks to describe the long road that lead to Vivek’s death. Alternately, Vivek and Osita narrate from their point of view what they experienced and how they felt. Both are trapped somehow since there are things they cannot talk about to anybody except for each other, at the same time, it is difficult for Osita to support Vivek’s otherness. The struggles they go through are very well established and easy to relate to. From a western perspective, it is incredible what is done to Vivek, especially the exorcism performed on him, but there are still places where binary thinking is the rule.

There is some mystery to solve, yet, it is much more about young people who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can live in a place where fixed rules and high expectations do not go well together with who they are. Even though it is, in the end, a rather sad story in many ways, I’d consider it a great and noteworthy read.

Ali Smith – Spring

ali smith spring
Ali Smith – Spring

Just as the years moves on so does Ali Smith with the third volume of her seasonal quartet. Now, its spring time, the time of the year between death and re-birth, between the end and a new beginning. A promising time, but also a time which can surprise and is hard to foresee. This time, we meet Richard, an elderly filmmaker who is still shaken by his former colleague and friend Patricia Heal’s death. He remembers his last visits when she was already between here and there. Richard is standing on a train platform with clearly suicidal intentions when a girl and a custody officer rush by. Florence and Brittany are headed for a place which they assume somewhere in Scotland, on their journey this unusual couple also addresses the big questions of life and humanity which Brittany can hardly find in the prison she works where the detainees are dehumanised and not even granted the least bit of privacy.

Just like the two novels before in this quartet, Ali Smith captures the mood of the country at a very critical point. In my opinion, “Spring” is absolutely outstanding since it has several layers of narrative, it is philosophical, literary, sociological, psychological, political – an eclectic mix of thoughts and notions that come together or rather have to be put together by the reader. While, on the one hand, being were close to an archaic understanding of the concept of time and the natural course of a year, there are many references to artists and the imaginary world.

Underlying the whole novel is a certain despair – Richard’s grieve, Britt’s disillusion with her job, Florence’s detachedness from humans which makes her almost invisible – in a time of political shaky times: Brexit, migration crisis, an overall suspicion in society about what (social) media and politics tell them and more importantly what they do not tell. Will there come a summer?  And if so, what will it be like? As spring always is a new beginning, something might be overcome or left behind and something has the chance to flourish, at least the hope remains.

I found it a bit harder this time to find my way in the novel, therefore, “Autumn” remains my favourite so far and I am quite impatient to see, what “Summer” will bring.