Turning for Home – Barney Norris

A number of my Facebook friends (some writers, some academics, some teachers) have recently been reacting to a Guardian article about modern literary fiction and how it has, in many cases, sacrificed good storytelling on the altar of beautiful writing.  This, to be honest, is one of the reasons why I rarely read or review books from the more literary end of the spectrum. I’ve said it before: I can recognise wonderful use of language when I see it but I prefer to read a gripping story so long as it doesn’t mangle english so much that my brain hurts. Whisper it but, most of the time, I’ll even turn a blind eye to poor spelling, rogue apostrophes or random punctuation so long as I can make out the intended meaning easily enough. Since a large part of what I read is advance reading copies (which have often not yet been proof-read) this is just as well. I did, though, do a degree in English Literature – more years ago than I care to mention – so when language, story and plot do combine I like to think that I can appreciate it. Barney Norris seems to be an author capable of this feat in my eyes.

31551199This, Norris’s second novel, is centred around a party being held by Robert Shawcross a retired senior government official who used to work in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The party is a big annual family gathering but Robert isn’t looking forward to it – his beloved wife has recently died and he realises that the party was more about family than himself, despite it being held to celebrate his birthday.  His granddaughter, Kate, is staying with him but she seems to have her own problems – this is her first attendance at a party for three years and she is dreading seeing her mother. This domestic scene is set against the Boston Tapes – which really did get made in the early years of the 2000s, a series of recorded interviews with both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. The participants were assured of anonymity so they confessed to more than just the motivations the interviewers were expecting – murders and other atrocities – and so, inevitably, the British government is very keen to get hold of the tapes. A figure from Robert’s past, Frank Dunn, arrives at the party to reprise their roles from the 80s – liaisons with the British government and IRA respectively.

All the action in the book takes place over one day – the day of the party – but there are plenty of flashbacks: to the aftermath of Enniskillen, to the early days of Robert’s relationship with his wife, and, in the case Kate, to her difficult relationship with her mother, the love of her young life and the accident and illness which changed her world. This doesn’t sound like a lot of plot or story but there is enough there to keep you thinking about your own life and family. And the way it is written, the actual words on the page, is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Proper literature…

Jane

 

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The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa (translated by Philip Gabriel)

After my last post – mostly spent exploring the history of bicycles in Taiwan – we are still in the far east. This time, however, I’m back on the more familiar ground of a novel written from the point of view of an animal. My last pet narrator was a post-apocalyptic dog so a street wise Japanese cat  makes for an interesting contrast. Obviously a much more self-centred sort of character – when I was 6 years old I thought our pet dog was my best friend, now I have a cat who won’t even consider sitting on my lap and spends most of her time sat behind the hi-fi speakers – because, well, cats…

34728079The cat in this story begins as a nameless stray, willing to accept food from a kind-hearted human but happy living on the streets of a Japanese town. He permits himself to be taken in after an incident with a car leaves him with a badly broken leg and soon finds himself a beloved pet, with a name and a strong attachment to Satoru Miyawaki, his rescuer. He has become a fully fledged companion animal and, although he’s sure he could go back to living as a stray, he becomes as attached to Satoru as a cat can. So, when Satoru begins trying to find someone to take the cat, now known as Nana, off his hands we are, initially, confused. As Satoru takes Nana to visit various friends from his childhood and early adulthood (to see if cat and friend are compatible – they never quite are…) we begin to realise that there must be a serious reason for him to be parted from his beloved pet. It didn’t take me until the final scenes of the book to realise what this ‘serious reason’ was but it was only the closing few pages that had me sobbing.

This was a wonderful book. Beautifully written (and translated) with a lovely contrast between the personalities of sensitive, kind Satoru and tough, straight-talking Nana it tells a deceptively simple story of a young man seeking to rehome a pet. But the heart of the book is a reminder of the fact that we are made most human by the love we show for others (even if you are, in fact, a cat).

Jane

 

The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce writes wonderful books. Not necessarily with the most beautiful, flowery language (although they are good words, honest and accessible) but with characters, plots and emotional sucker-punches which make me very, very happy. I’ve never met a Rachel Joyce novel (so far) that I didn’t love but, boy, do they bring a tear to the eye. In an oddly satisfying way. It feels quite hard to describe why I love these books so much beyond the fact that they get me right in the feels (as the kids no longer say…) – lets hope I can convince you to read them and find out for yourselves…

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_This book opens in 1988. In a music shop which is resisting the rise of CDs (although not modern music) and the march of progress generally. It is on a street with a small parade of the kind of shops which are closing down all the time – the book opens in a sort of dead-end. But it is the kind of glorious dead end that I, for one, would love to have on my doorstep. The owner of the shop, Frank, is a bit of a lost soul who is still mourning his beloved (but rather difficult) mother, who shies away from relationships and who, despite all this lives to help others through music. The man with the unfaithful wife who listens only to Chopin is reminded that he is not alone via the work of Aretha Franklin; a bank manager’s baby is lulled to sleep by The Troggs Wild Thing. He is, in the early days, pretty astute about music – he’s the only shop locally to stock the Sex Pistols and stocks all the big indy labels – but the rise of CDs is a problem. Frank won’t stock them and he becomes persona non grata with all the reps from record companies.

Of course, if this were just the story of a shop it wouldn’t be quite as satisfying (apart, possibly, to those of us who work in shops and have a vested interest) so there are also some fascinating characters to meet. Frank himself is a gentle, rather shabby, giant of a man who, despite trying to avoid relationships, is essential to the lives of all those around him. Then there are the other residents of Unity Street – a Polish baker, an ex-priest running a religious gift shop, a pair of elderly undertakers, a combative tattooist, little old Mrs Roussos – who are all given life and character and who all become part of Frank’s ‘family’ (for want of a better word). Add into this his hapless (but big-hearted) assistant Kit and a mysterious German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, and it seems that Frank hasn’t been able to avoid all relationships after all.

I loved this book because of those wonderful, warm and complicated human relationships. I loved it because it made me cry as much as it made me smile and I loved it for the music. Frank’s approach to music is unusual, to say the least, since he is possibly the total opposite of High Fidelity’s obsessive alphabetiser but his tastes are broad. I loved the fact that its four parts are presented as being the four side of a double album (a concept album, obviously). And, for my money, any novel which opens with a quote* from Nick Drake deserves all the praise I can give it…

Jane

*Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me