Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

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Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

When Dee returns from an overnight trip to London, the Oxford College Master’s Lodging is a mess: Felicity, the girl she nannies and who suffers from selective mutism has vanished. Her Danish stepmother Mariah never bonded with the girl and since she has given to her own boy, she is totally exhausted and incapable of taking care of this extraordinary 8-year-old. Felicity must have sleepwalked, something she frequently does during her nightmares which have intensified since they moved to the old spooky house. For the police, Dee is one of the prime suspects because Nick Law, Felicity’s father, is convinced of her guilt. So they interview her over several days to get an understanding of the girl’s special situation and the relationship she had with her loving nanny who could never do her any harm, could she?

Lucy Atkins’s “Magpie Lane” is a very clever and creepy novel which brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of an old, dark house where you immediately believe ghosts could wander and haunt the inhabitants. Apart from this, she has created lovely characters who are not only very peculiar but with whom you bond straightaway even though some doubt about Dee’s involvement in Felicity’s vanishing is looming over the story.

I totally adored how Atkins uses the old university town in her novel. First of all, the house itself which provides a long and spine-chilling history, but also the cemeteries and walk ways which have a lot to tell. Apart from the surrounding, the people there also seem to live in the past which is especially tricky for a modern woman like Mariah. Even though she, on the one hand, is kind of “evil stepmother”, things are not that simple. I can understand how frustrating her situation is there: she is just “the wife of”, ignored for not being a real part of the Oxford community and everything with which she normally can charm people does not work here. Additionally, the situation with Felicity is undoubtedly highly challenging for her and then, things become even more dire with her own child crying day in, day out from colic.

Even though Dee is telling the story through the police interviews, Felicity is at the centre. This girl is surely a challenge for everybody but due to Dee’s sensibility you come to love and understand her increasingly. Her nightmares and obsession with death is somehow bizarre and unnerving yet understandable when you get to know her story. My personal highlight was the character of Linklater. The eccentric historian who seems to be completely unaware of the world outside his head fits perfectly in a place like Oxford and plays an important part in creating the somehow Gothic atmosphere.

Atkins’s way of foreshadowing adds to the suspenseful atmosphere and makes it a wonderful read that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Rachel Cusk – Kudos

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Rachel Cusk – Kudos

Faye, a British writer, is on her way to a book conference somewhere in southern Europe. She is expected to give several interviews and to take part in social events. The people she meets all have a story to tell – and they do. Faye herself hardly ever talks, especially not about herself, she somehow makes people around her open up and share their thoughts with her. First, it’s the passenger seated next to her in the plane leaving London. Later she meets interviewers who much rather talk about themselves than about their interviewee, her publisher shares her thoughts on the book market and fellow authors who want to convey a certain image of themselves.

“Kudos” is certainly a very special novel. I do not think I have ever read a book in which a first person narrator tells a story and at the end you ask yourself if you got only the slightest idea of the narrator herself. Faye hardly reveals anything, even though she is interviewed over and over again, we only know about a divorce and a son and the fact that she’s a writer – we do not even know what her current is actually about.

Yet, I think Faye might have another function that providing a clear picture about herself. She is more like a canvas, she motivates other characters to paint themselves on her, she is their means for expression. This goes quite well with the title “Kudos”, praise for exceptional achievement or fame, especially in the arts. However, what has Faye done? We know nothing of her own achievement, she is well known for sure, but what exactly for remains in the dark. What we know is that her private life has not been that successful, the separation of her partner and a son who prefers to stay much rather with the father than with her. Only once, at the very end of the novel, is she in contact with him, but only because he cannot get in touch with his father and needs an adult to share his nightly disaster with.

The things the characters share with Faye vary from professional fulfilment and familial shortcomings, over feminism to literature and its quality. Yet, their opinions are neither discussed not questioned, they are just statements that you can ponder. I do not really know what to make of this, I like characters sharing strong opinions on something and thinking about it, but I also appreciate if an author provides a kind of objection or agreement.

“Kudos” is the concluding novel of Cusk’s trilogy which started with “Outline” in 2015 and continued 2016 with “Transit”. I haven’t read the previous ones thus I do not know if we get a better idea of her protagonist through them. However, I didn’t feel like having had to read them to enjoy “Kudos”.

The novel is remarkable in several ways, it reveals a lot about human nature and in particular human narcissism. The words are carefully chosen and the sentences wisely constructed, the language is simply beautiful. All in all, an outstanding piece of art. Kudos for that.

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

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Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

When he first sees her, author Ezra Blazer falls for Alice, a young woman working at a publishing house. Their lives could not be more different, just as the age and the experiences they have. But nevertheless, their love develops slowly and again and again, Alice is astonished by Ezra’s generosity and affection. However, when it comes to his friends, Alice is not presented as his partner; she is just someone he works with, he even invents a new name for her. In Halliday’s second chapter, we meet Amar, a young American of Iraqi origin who is detained at Heathrow Airport and waiting to be released to spend a couple of hours with a friend before boarding anew and travel to his parents’ home country. In the very last chapter, we meet Ezra again, being interviewed and talking about his love for music and women.

Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.

This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.

In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.

Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.