I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).
The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.
This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…
How remarkable. I have just had my view of someone changed by a segment on the One Show. This is not usual behaviour for me (or, probably, for the One Show) but watching Chris Packham on the programme earlier this week clarified impressions which I had gained from reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – a memoir of his childhood and his relationship with the natural world – so that the penny, which had been half-way down, finally dropped. I had always considered Packham to be an excellent naturalist and an enthusiastic advocate for the animal kingdom. I thought him outspoken on the subject but passionate in his beliefs – like most people I assumed this was mostly an honest manifestation of his character but partly a tv persona. But reading this unusual memoir I gradually began to feel that there was more to Packham than met the eye. And when, during his interview, he began to refer to autism and Asperger’s I realised that this was the aspect I’d been missing.
This isn’t necessarily an easy memoir to read – the focus moves around through Packham’s childhood, the late 1960s to the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s, and drifts back and forth over that period; the language is unusually poetic, with some passages I had to read twice over to get the meaning; but it is certainly worth persisting with. He is obviously an unhappy child, bullied at school, uncommunicative; he enjoys many of the normal hobbies of boys his age, airfix models, subbuteo and sneaky peeks at pornography, but the only thing that seems to give him peace is immersion in the natural world. His early experiments in the biological sciences are not always successful (it turns out a sunny window-sill is not the best place for a jam-jar full of tadpoles) but his fascination with animals and birds is all-consuming.
What made the complexity of his descriptions worthwhile to me was the reminder that these were the words Packham uses to explain how nature grounds him. He is a complicated human being (as so many of us are) but an interesting one (unlike some…). If you take the effort to hear what he has to say he can tell us a lot about what it is like not to fit in and how it can be possible to carve out a place in the world that works for you.
Nailing colours to the mast here – I come from a family of West Ham supporters. However, I tend to get distracted from the actual football by everything else in life and don’t really keep up with teams, matches or much else. (Also, this season, I’ve been looking the other way because we’ve not had a very good year…). I’ll always root for Bradford City – who can forget that Cup run in 2015 – but West Ham is the team closest to my heart. For some people, however, football is an all-consuming passion – they know the players, the stats, the names of all the support staff, who supplies the best pies, where the reserve team train: everything. And this isn’t just for the big name clubs in the Premiership, Serie A, the Bundesliga or La Liga – small, local teams can inspire just as great an obsession. Possibly more since you are more likely to have either been to school with the goalie or bump into the Chairman at the local chippie. I, personally, love this kind of local support – it takes it back to the days when your team was about your town, not about who can buy the best players regardless of where they are from…Anyway, this is a bit of a digression but it is, at least tangentially, relevant to Ross Raisin’s latest book.
Raisin seems to specialise in writing about the male psyche – and especially about men in difficult emotional situations. We read about women going through hard times a lot – and in some excellent books – but men’s emotional issues are often overlooked. Raisin’s first book was about a troubled youth in rural Yorkshire and his second about a middle-aged Glaswegian dealing with grief and homelessness – now this one looks at professional footballers. Of course, most of what we hear about this group – the inflated salaries, lavish lifestyles and drunken antics – means that we don’t expect to sympathise with the characters but the realities of the day-to-day life of young men in the lower reaches of the English leagues seem much harder. We follow two players through the novel – Tom, released by the Premiership side he played for as a schoolboy, and Easter, the team captain who is losing his form – but are shown the experiences of many men. Youths earning £1000 a week, perhaps, with no-one to stop them developing expensive gambling habits, entire teams at the mercy of bullying managers and the weaknesses of their own bodies: when to be injured is to risk losing your place in the team but not giving your all physically runs the same risk. And, above all, the impossibility of showing any emotion in an environment where the fear of appearing to be anything less than a ‘manly’ man is paramount. And, of course, all in an environment where men are regularly in physical contact and frequently naked – the only thing feared more than being thought to be gay is actually being gay. In this atmosphere we explore the emotional repression and self-hatred of men at the peak of physical health but suffering mentally. Not such a cushy life, after all.
Do you ever wonder whether certain things are becoming more common or if they are just following you around? Around where I live there seem to be an awful lot of cats – mostly playing cat chess against each other on every fence-post, bit of wall and flat roof going – or maybe it is just a few who congregate around me. Is every programme on tv in the mornings about property, antiques or fraud or am I just too lazy to change the channel? And, on a more serious note, are mental health problems more prevalent these days or is it just that we are becoming more open about them? My opinion is that it is the latter – problems like depression, anxiety and mental illness have always been there. It has to be a sign of progress that we can be as accepting now of OCD as we are of MS. This higher visibility of issues of mental health and disability is happening in real life but also, increasingly, in fiction. Books like Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident or Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall have helped to familiarise us with autism and schizophrenia – they have shown us the human beings who live with these conditions.
In The Mirror World of Melody Black the focus switches to bipolar disorder: a condition which is thought to affect 1% of adults at some point in their life, often in their early twenties. So the main character, Abby, is in many ways a typical sufferer. Her highs and lows are detailed with little sentimentality – we see it all from her point of view so why would she be sentimental about it? And from what I have gleaned from friends who have bipolar many of the things that Abby goes through are completely typical – manic cleaning, over-indulgence in drink or drugs, anxiety attacks, crashing levels of self-esteem, days when getting out from under the duvet are not going to happen. I was struck by the way that phrases we all use towards friends who are going through problems, like ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ are good for most people but go very wrong when, like Abby, your brain chemistry is just a bit wonky.
As well as giving a detailed (and, given that Extence is also a sufferer, a personal) view of what it is like to be bipolar we also get a glimpse of how it feels to care for someone with the condition. Letters which Beck, Abby’s boyfriend, sent to her while she is in hospital give us a similarly realistic view of his side of the relationship. We don’t get the same amount of depth on her relationships with her parents and sister – because we only hear it from Abby herself – but there is a suggestion of how hard it must be for all concerned. Amazingly though this isn’t a bleak book, it is shot through with a very dark humour. You really like Abby. It is hard to dislike someone who says that despite not being ‘a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing, I certainly admired his willingness to push the alcohol envelope’…
This is a very honest book. It has warmth and humour but it doesn’t flinch away from some dark and difficult issues. Gavin Extence is added to my personal list of authors whose work I will always want to to try.