Sealskin by Su Bristow

A ‘selkie‘ is a mythological creature found in Scottish, Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore. They are creatures that live in the sea as seals and can shed their skin on land to temporarily obtain the human form.

Su Bristow has taken one of the legends, which is better to discover after you’ve read the story, and woven a coming of age story around it, about a young man unsure of himself, who, through his encounter with a selkie, transforms into a more confident and emotionally intelligent version of himself.

Living on the Scottish coast, Donald is uncomfortable in his own skin and resistant to his mother’s suggestion, that he join his Uncle and the lads who’ve mocked him in the past on the fishing boat, the work his father had done before the sea claimed him. He prefers the solitary task of checking his crab pots, staying close to the shore, his brooding thoughts uninterrupted.

“Picking his way down the path to the shore, on his own at last, he began to feel easier. A night like this! Where else would he be but alone? Cooped up on the boat with the others, there’d have been no time to look, to listen,  to breathe it all in; but out here, with the vastness of sky and sea all to himself, a man might witness marvels.”

Donald and his mother’s live will change course quickly after that night, after he observes something mystical and makes a terrible error of judgement. He in turn, ignores, accepts and tries to atone for his mistake, his life becoming evermore entwined with the fates of his extended family and the people of his village, in doing so.

He becomes more observant and aware of human frailty and how his contribution might ease the path of difficulty and pleasure for those around him.

“It came to him that the way she watched was different from his own. He dealt with people warily, looking out for blows or pitfalls, always glad when the ordeal was over. Nor was she like the priest, watching in order to manage his flock rather than to be like them. She seemed to have no sense of separation, no self-consciousness, and yet she was set further apart then all of them.”

As soon as I heard about this book and its premise, I knew I wanted to read it, it has a little of the magic that made Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child such an enigmatic and yet compelling novel to read. It also reminded me of the equally wonderful novel The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris, based on the true story of Italian prisoner of war soldiers held on the Scottish island of Orkney.

It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking narrative that combines the harshness and wonder of a coastal landscape and lifestyle, with its moments of beauty and hardship, and how it is be different within a community of relatively like-minded souls, how to celebrate that difference and learn to accept it within ourselves. Perfect summer reading!

 

Advertisements

How To Be Brave by Louise Beech #Type1

how-to-be-braveHow to Be Brave isn’t just a book you read, it’s a story that you feel like you are living while reading, right down to sharing the symptoms and emotions of some of its characters. I didn’t just read this book, I experienced it, developed symptoms and was grateful for medicine and the time to rest and recuperate from it. But fear not, it’s totally worth the ride.

Natalie is the mother of 9-year-old Rose, whose father Jake is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan when Rose has a crisis which we learn is caused by a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. While they are in hospital both mother and daughter are visited and spoken to by a man who reassures them and whose voice leads them soon after to the discovery of dusty diary in a long abandoned box belonging to Natalie’s grandfather Colin.

As the two struggle to adapt to their new life routines that diabetes has forced upon them, they begin to share the story they have uncovered, of the destruction of the ship Colin had been working on and his long survival at sea before rescue.

The narrative of mother-daughter daily life and the passing of days at sea by Colin are interwoven so closely that we live the two simultaneously, there is a strong connectivity between what passes through the mind of young Rose and that of her great-grandfather.

They develop a routine that each time they must do the finger prick test and the insulin injection, they will narrate a portion of Rose’s great grandfather’s story; they don’t read from the diary however, rather, they take what they know and imagine the days, entering the minds and bodies of the men who shared the enormous challenge of trying to survive in a lifeboat floating with the currents at sea, and keeping their spirits up.

We meet Ken and Fowler and Scown and others and Scarface, the menacing shark that never gives up its pursuit, whose instinct is sharp and head-butting intentions lethal.

how-to-be-brave2Louise Beech has created a page-turning, moving story that on Day 2 of reading, which was also Day 2 post-op for my daughter who also has Type 1 diabetes (diagnosed at 9 year-old), but who is recovering currently from spinal surgery to correct a scoliosis related curvature, I began to develop symptoms of headache, dehydration and my body ached all over. I wasn’t sure if it was sympathetic pain for my daughter or for Colin, I couldn’t read, just as Colin and the men couldn’t always find the energy to keep a lookout and gave into sleep, and so did I, after a quick trip to the pharmacy for medicine and water, so dehydrated! Miraculously, the next day I was completely fine.

In between the created narrative which mother and daughter eventually share, coinciding with Rose taking more responsibility for doing her tests, preparing her insulin and even doing her own injections, they also open the diary randomly, using it as a kind of oracle and as one would expect, discovering just the reflection they needed to hear at that moment, as they travel their own journey.

Just as I do now with this book, while I live one day at a time with my daughter’s pain, and today as the morphine is removed and she has taken the paracetamol and all the medicine she is allowed, and the pain is still there and there is nothing more to give but a mother’s love, yes, I too open the book for reassurance and get this:

No one spoke. Even the sea seemed to listen, calm for a moment, its many colours merging into sparkling gold. Colin cut off thoughts beyond two days ahead. He was unable to imagine his hunger on so small an amount of food and so little water. Looking around at the craggy faces of his mates, he could see in their eyes the same fear. But it had to be. Much as the craving was there,they couldn’t eat more heartily for fear of how long rescue might be in coming.

Louise’s book has been my little escape these past four days, and these notes more like a journal than a review. I had intended to take a literary ocean escape with me during this time and meant to begin with Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes which I will begin today, as she shares a similar love of the sea and ocean to me and likes the same kind of nature writing, however Louise’s book reached out to me and I decided to begin there, not realising how much of it takes place at sea. I couldn’t help noticing the synchronicity of this giant picture of a roiling sea, tossing a ship in its swell, right opposite us, the first thing I see every time I leave the room:

at-sea

When Rose suggests she is ready to take more responsibility for her diabetes preparation and injections, her mother is initially reluctant, seeing her still as small child, wanting to avoid her immersion into the serious world of managing the medical challenge. In the same way she resists Rose’s desire to take up some of the storytelling, until Rose shares the words she’d whispered into Colin’s ear, during her night-time dream:

Rose patted my head, gentler now.
‘I said, If you don’t live, I’ll disappear Grandad. Can I call you Grandad? You’re really my Great Grandad, but I like Grandad better. If you don’t live Grandad, I won’t be able to come back and stroke your hair. I’ll just dissolve like a salty ghost. So then I got a bit of the canvas logbook and drew us all in there; you and me and Dad. I wrote above it that I was learning how to be brave, and he was making it a lot easier.

I loved everything about this book, brilliantly conceived and written, I would almost say channelled, as we are totally cast into Colin’s experience and made to feel it, and that doesn’t come from mere words scratched on a page. And I loved how mother and daughter become twin storytellers of the story, using their imagination, feeding into and drawing from their night dreams and day dreams and the bittersweet ending. Oh the magic of fiction and of life.

Highly Recommended.

Click Here To Buy A Copy of How To Be Brave

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

The Extraordinary Happens Every Day

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls

You may remember that last year Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls was one of my few 5 star reads for the year, a young adult novel, it told the story of a teenage boy coping with his mother’s illness and his nightly visits from a tree-like monster creating an allegory that captures the angst and silent rage of a fearful boy like nothing I have ever read.

Not only is the storytelling incredible as well as moving, the author was telling a story that another author Siobhan Dowd wanted to tell, but her own illness kept her from doing so. If you haven’t read it, keep an eye out for it, it is a timeless classic.

I had seen a few reviews for The Crane Wife, an adult novel by Patrick Ness that sounded intriguing and when our local English bookstore put the hardcover version of it out in their sale, I snapped it up and immediately stopped everything I was reading to begin reading. Such is the power of words written by Patrick Ness for this reader. He is a writer who deftly uses a touch of magic realism which I like, not to dwell in it all the time, but when used sparingly with purpose to elevate or create a turning point in a story, I find it no trouble to accept.

The Crane Wife is inspired by the Japanese myth of the same name Ness was read in kindergarten by the Japanese-American teacher he adored, in which a sail maker finds an injured crane and helps it and the next day a mysterious woman walks into his life, whom he falls in love with and marries. She tells him, “I can weave you beautiful sails, as long as you don’t watch me weave”. She does so, they grow rich, until he becomes too consumed by greed and curiosity and breaks his promise, only to experience irretrievable loss.

The_Crane_Wife__pentaptych_by_Crooty

The story stayed with the author over the years and then many years later he heard The Decemberists song The Crane Wife 1 which captured the emotion of the story just as he felt it. It was the catalyst to start writing, he was ready to tell the story that had been in incubation for so long. And what a beautiful song, I can’t stop listening to it myself.

In this novel, George wakes one morning to hear a mournful keening come from his backyard and in the freezing temperatures, investigates to find a large crane with an arrow shot through its wing. He assists the crane and then watches it fly off. The next day in his print shop as he is working on his latest obsession, making paper cut-outs from second-hand abandoned books, in walks a woman we come to know as Kumiko, an event that marks the beginning of an artistic and love bound encounter, touching the lives of George, his daughter Amanda and those close to them.

George is in his 40’s and in something of a comfortable rut, amicably divorced, running his small shop with the help of Mehmet, his assistant and alter-ego. His daughter Amanda lives alone with her son Jean-Pierre, her uncontrollable anger having driven out her French husband, despite their still burning love.

Crane Wife

There is much unsaid between characters and that which is communicated, isn’t always done so as it was intended, until Kumiko and George begin to collaborate through their art, work that affects all who see it, accessing those uncommunicative wordless depths and giving them expression. The work affects them all, artists and observers.

It is a story about humanity, how even those who act out of kindness make mistakes, are tempted by greed and suffer tragic consequences. It is also about how a story changes depends on who is telling it, the power of the imagination in creating different perspectives, viewed in the shadow or in the light. Kumiko says,

‘A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’

‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.

‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story-‘

‘And explain it-‘

‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never, all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely, would.’

In the beginning I was reminded a little of Nick Hornby, the London novel set in a shop, the banter between employer and employee, the vulnerable, angry young woman, the great dialogue and strong characters that come to life from the very first pages and the immediate interest in what will befall them, wondering what consequences their flaws will make manifest. But then Kumiko walks in, a traveller from afar and I remember this is Patrick Ness, something extraordinary is going to happen, even if it is not immediately apparent.

He writes with compassion and as a reader I trust him, whether it’s tragedy, darkness or exhilaration, he handles it all with responsibility, without resorting to cliché and makes me want to slow read every word.

Coincidentally, yesterday on The Guardian, Patrick Ness participated in the books podcast performing an exclusive short story, an addition to his short story collection for adults Topics About Which I Know Nothing which is to be republished and talked to Claire Armistead about writing short stories and the differences in writing for adults and teenagers.

Armistead thought he was being coy about the differences between young adult (YA) and adult fiction, suggesting YA books had a ‘more cheerful trajectory’ to which he replied:

‘I always say the concerns of a teenage novel tend to be about testing your boundaries and finding out who you are and finding out the limits of yourself and crossing those limits and discovering it hurts or discovering that it’s a new thing that you can be and are, and an adult novel tends to be …about someone whose boundaries are already solidified and the story tends to be about what happens when you are taken outside those boundaries or how those boundaries are limited to you …both make for fantastic stories, intellectual ones, complex ones, the concerns might be different, but it’s not a simplistic thing, that you must be direct in one and indirect in another’ Patrick Ness

The Night Circus

120912_2017_GreatChrist6.jpgI bought this back in November and put it aside to be my post-Christmas read, a time when I am happy to indulge in a little magic realism, which this promised to be and most certainly was.

Since finishing it, I have come to see it more and more as a metaphor of the reading experience itself, Le Cirque des Rêves is a circus like no other, it opens at night and closes at dawn, full of enchantment and extra-sensory pleasures, where everything exists in black and white and whose followers, les rêveurs (dreamers) wear a splash of red to identify themselves.

Now, sitting in this cave of lightly perfumed silk, what had seemed constant and unquestionable feels as delicate as the steam floating over her tea. As fragile as an illusion.

night circusEach tent offers an extraordinary experience and like a good story, invites its readers inside to share the temporary illusion. It struck me the way the circus moves from city to city, from country to country with its fans following to be a little like the blogosphere itself, this place where we easily circumnavigate the globe, visiting blogs and reading/experiencing their content, like les rêveurs ourselves.

We lead strange lives, chasing our dreams around from place to place.

The Night Circus follows the lives of two young people, Celia and Marco. Marco is an orphan plucked from obscurity in 1874 by a somewhat slow aging illusionist to be trained as his protégé, a pawn in a seemingly never-ending game he continues to wage against Prospero the Enchanter, who chooses to nurture (in his own cruel way) a daughter he discovers he has when she arrives on his doorstep in 1873, with a suicide note pinned to her coat written by her mother. The two youngsters follow the different schools of thought of their masters, destined to meet and compete in a game where only one can be victorious and where the rules are deliberately obscure.

Along the way a catalogue of characters are drawn into this web of entanglement, along with the reader, never quite knowing exactly what drives and controls the outcomes, but mesmerised nonetheless within the fascination and charm of the circus and its characters.

BettleheimThis book prompted me to pull out an old copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment – The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales; a child psychologist, he was a fan of the value of  fairy tales for young people, believing they provided a safe environment to liberate their emotions.

… how wandering in enchanted worlds, children develop their own sense of justice, fidelity, love and courage… not as lessons imposed, but as discovery, as experience, as an organic part of the experience of living.

Books like Erin Morgenstern’s  The Night Circus, invite us to return to that world as adults, discerning a slightly different but no less valuable meaning, as we have grown older and a little more cynical, able now to find deeper meaning in the analogies offered.

It is a tribute to the imagination, to a darkness that is not despairing and the light that always finds a way to reignite the flame.

Lucretia and the Kroons

Unsure quite I was pre-approved to read Lucretia and the Kroons’, published in July 2012, I was however curious to read Victor Lavalle’s novella, described by Gary Shteyngart as a master of literary horror.

After reading an audio transcript of an interview between Lavalle and Amy Minton on Narrative Voice, I decided to download his book and find out what it was all about, it being good to read outside what one would ordinarily choose.

It’s an adolescent literary horror of the tame kind and might even be considered magic realism depending on how you interpret it.  The world Lucretia enters can be seen as a metaphor for that which we either witness as an observer or experience as one who is mortally ill – that place somewhere between the living and the dead. Lavalle’s flourishing imagination takes two girls to a place that may or may not exist on an adventure of a zombie-ish kind.

Lucretia celebrated her 12th birthday without her best friend Sunny because she was too ill to attend. Lucretia is determined to spend time with her friend to make up for it and so arranges with much difficulty for Sunny to spend an afternoon with her, convincing her mother to leave them unsupervised for two hours.

Just before Sunny’s imminent arrival, Lucretia’s brother Louis tells her a story about the Kroons, the people who used to live two floors up and relishes warning her, as only older brothers can do, of the horrors that can happen to children. Lucretia is afraid for herself and especially for Sunny, who lives one floor up, so decides to take matters into her own hands with the intention of rescuing her friend.

The experience of reading Victor Lavalle is a little like Murakami for teenagers, unique multi-layered interpretations of reality or non-reality which require the reader to let go and read with an open mind. I found myself looking for and finding many parallel meanings, not necessarily those the author intended, but that is the magic of the book, that her entrance into this other worldly place can be interpreted in different ways. It did leave questions which a successfully written magic realism story inevitably does about what really did happen and the answer I find is always best when left to the reader’s interpretation rather than dictated by the author.

The author does offer an alternative interpretation in the final pages of the book, which really I almost prefer to ignore, because it was not required and added nothing to the story and might only serve to confuse younger readers and make it less likely to be something they could relate to.

The Tragedy of Lucretia Sandro Botticelli ca.1500-1501 via Wikipedia

I think this book and others like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline are interesting for young people who are drawn towards the much more imaginative, often dark, transformational kind of oeuvres. It is not what I read as a child, but it is what my daughter likes to read and create (graphic novels included) characters that are different from the norm, semi-gothic at times, avant-garde (not even sure of an apt word to describe it) and wonderful in a kind of ghoulish way, though the troubles they must overcome are no different to many others, who might read about them in a more conventional way. I think Lavalle is onto a good thing.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.