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Devoured by Anna Mackmin. A book review by César Castañeda

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

Anna Mackmin’s tragic and satiric novel Devoured follows a 12-year-old girl’s coming of age in a 70s hippy commune in Norfolk. The protagonist, whose name we only discover near the end of the book, has an unusual upbringing in Swallow’s Farmhouse, where she lives with her parents, her sister Star, a group of intellectual and outlandish commune dwellers, a dog named Jessie and other animals. What appears to be an idyllic, caring and loving community proves to be a façade for selfish and reckless behaviour. Throughout the novel the protagonist deals with house chores such as cooking for the whole commune or coping with their mental breakdowns, since no one can be bothered to do it, Meanwhile, she is also entering puberty and starts discovering her sexual desires.

The story is narrated by the protagonist and she addresses herself as ‘you’, making it somewhat difficult to understand initially but, as the novel progresses, the same technique enables the reader to get to know the character’s personality. The whole narration is marked by a series of broken sentences and ellipses, which are in tune with the fragmented household structure, where everyone seems to behave as they please. Although she appears very mature for her age, sometimes the lack of contact with the outside world gives her naivety away, especially when it comes to sexuality and grown-ups:

‘How could you have been so childish? Sleep with him means sex. You understand about sex, you have known about sex all your life. We have no secrets. Of course you know it’s for making babies and love and everything and you also know it’s something sometimes happens because adults are complex and have complex needs and you will understand fully when you’re an adult but why did you not hear them when they said ‘sleep with’ over and over? They have tricked you’

The protagonist has a very strong bond with her sister, Star, who has selective mutism and does not speak for the most part of the novel. They do not need to have conversations to understand and support each other in this eccentric community. Their mum is agoraphobic and their dad suffers from depression episodes and gets drunk. In the parents’ effort to treat their two daughters as adults from an early age, they sometimes use very abusive language: ‘Star you fucking idiot. Why the hell didn’t you come and find me?’

The commune seems to show the hypocrisy of some people who think of themselves as idealists, morally superior and not subjugated to society’s norms, but who end up behaving like the rest. Although they are intellectuals who have decided to go against the establishment and live together, away from urban centres, most of the characters are selfish and stubborn. This is presented with a mixture of dark humour and satire to the reader, although it is ultimately tragic. The protagonist has to deal particularly with Bryan, or Hairy Dolly as she calls him, a commune dweller whose behaviour gives a stronger and clearer meaning to the book’s title.

Although somewhat challenging at the beginning, Devoured is an interesting and thought-provoking reading which will hook the reader up with the main characters of the two girls and their fate.

César Castañeda

Devoured is published by Propolis Books

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. A book review by Phoebe Alice Gilroy

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

The mother-daughter relationship in Everything Under is unconventional and it is with this that Daisy Johnson has demonstrated that women are far more than their archetypal roles. Our realities are often far from and far more than convention – what is the conventional family, anyway? – which makes this novel that is so entrenched in the fantastical and that plays around with narrative structure and language all the more real. As Iris Murdoch in a 1962 article for The Spectator wrote, ‘the mythical is not something ‘extra.’ We live in myth and symbol all the time.’

Gretel’s mother disappeared sixteen years ago and she has been searching for her ever since. The narrative is tangled, swinging backwards and forwards in time and the assumption is that the narrator is grasping for a reason for her mother’s disappearance, all the while grappling with feelings of loss and anger. This exploration of the Oedipal means that we are never fully satisfied and quite rightly so: one can never truly understand another’s reasons for anything. Gretel warns that ‘there are more beginnings than there are endings to contain them’, and perhaps it is always true that there is never really an end to anything, only new beginnings. To this end, the portrayal of Gretel’s mother is mercurial: ‘You were the messy river,’ Gretel says. ‘You were the pines shedding bark in summer and the ground littered with my metal traps.’ Reminiscing on their shared language (The water ‘effs’ along; everything that comes down the river is a ‘sprung’; time spent alone is ‘sheesh’ time) there seems a waning by Gretel into a fondness, yet elsewhere Gretel searches for her mother in hospitals and boathouses and by habitually calling up local morgues because ‘sometimes I thought that I kept doing it to make sure you were not coming back.’

Underpinning and binding with this narrative is the threat of something that lurks beneath the water in the rivers of Oxfordshire that is the setting for the novel. The ‘Bonak’ is oft referred to ‘as everything you are afraid of’, including forest fires and thunderstorms but most recurrently takes the form of a creature that is ‘double-headed, has more limbs than it must need, flings in and out of the dull pockets of candlelight’. The monster is also a shared symbol of tragedy which may or may not be the reason Gretel’s mother left, and the later catalyst to a murder. Here, Johnson proves herself a master weaver of plot and of the mystical with the everyday, fit to rival Angela Carter.

Phoebe Alice Gilroy

Everything Under is published by Vintage

The Chameleon by Samuel Fisher. A book review by Ralitsa Chorbadzhiyska

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

If you are one of those people who takes a book with you everywhere you go, then imagine if that book was actually sentient. More than that, imagine every book you take is the same sentient book that changes content to follow you through your life. Lifetime after lifetime, this book is now 800 years old. It is called John and it is the narrator of Samuel Fisher’s brilliant and ambitious debut novel, The Chameleon.

John has ‘lived’ for over 800 years and now he chooses to tell the story of a British Cold War spy while interweaving hundreds of years of his own experiences. The narrator is looking at Roger, a former Cold War spy, from a shelf in his bedroom while Roger is on his deathbed. John makes an effort to retrace the full extent of his owner’s life for the reader. Roger was a smart and tacit university student reading Russian when he was recruited to join the British secret services. The first time Roger met Margery, John was disguised as a copy of The Idiot by Dostoevsky, so he was able to observe the flirtation between the two of them. But the love story in the book is not an easy one. Roger soon has to leave England and go to Moscow as a spy. He takes John with him, but Margery is left behind. Eventually the two find a way back to each other and after a brief time together in London, their daughter Ruth is conceived. Meanwhile, Roger is transferred to Siberia where he manages to produce good intelligence by meeting a secretive Russian Colonel that is asking to be taken to the UK. The interests involved and political mixed with personal are too much and eventually catch up with Roger and his family in a tragic turn of events.

The title of Fisher’s book, The Chameleon, allows for straightforward interpretations, but also one that spans through the entire text. The most obvious metaphor is for the narrator as a chameleon, a book that can disguise itself as any other one and have people never question its sudden appearance or disappearance. But the first time a chameleon is actually mentioned, it is in relation to the protagonist Orlando in the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf. Orlando begins the narration as a man but by the end he has become a woman. When John retells the story, he calls Orlando a chameleon. Yet the more interesting observation is John’s comment about Orlando as a woman – ‘She is a character that I can sympathise with’.

This is a thread worth following through John’s narration, even as he passes to Ruth’s daughter Jessica upon Roger’s death. Before finishing off the story, John tells an anecdote that features a crow, a pitcher, some stones and water. He confesses that the story had not made sense to him for a long time. He used to think he was ‘the crow, the pitcher or the stones’, perhaps because he is able to morph into any book and is used to taking different shapes. But after a time, John realised he was the water that Jessica, as the crow, should drink. At this point the chameleon becomes the reader – John is a narrator but also a reader of fiction that feels a need to identify with certain characters. Like John, the reader of any novel will search for shared traits to align themselves with the characters. Here the meta narration is complete with the suggestion that the real chameleon is the person experiencing the text and going in and out of the different characters, experiencing the story through them.

In all, The Chameleon offers its readers an experience of the British intelligence during the Cold War, but more so one of a difficult but committed love story. All that is enabled by a unique narrative style that constantly challenges the reader’s knowledge of a wide literary canon and their sense of empathy.

Ralitsa Chorbadzhiyska

The Chameleon is published by Salt

Hold by Michael Donkor. A book review by Harriet Furze

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

Hold by Michael Donkor

Hold is the debut novel by author Michael Donkor. He was born in London and raised in a Ghanaian household.

Hold tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Ghanaian girl Belinda, who is sold by her mother as a housegirl to a wealthy Ghanaian couple, Aunty and Uncle. Belinda is diligent and polite, and a stickler for the rules. She prides herself on her ability to do her job well, bringing honour and respect to the household to which she serves. Mary, who is only eleven, is her friend and sister, and sole comrade in meeting the whims of Aunty and Uncle. She is irrepressible and requires Belinda’s sisterly guidance. However, after only six months, Belinda is shipped off to London to befriend Amma, a troubled and spoilt teenager, and tasked with the purpose of ‘fixing’ her unruly behaviour and teaching her the ways of their culture. Mary is heartbroken when Belinda leaves.

The narrative starts with a funeral procession in Ghana where Belinda is quite clearly affected by whomever has died. Donkor then proceeds to take the story back through the past year, across Ghana and London, before leading the reader back to the funeral which has occurred at the beginning. As I continued reading, this scene was forgotten and after understanding Belinda, Aunty and Uncle much more, upon returning to this scene, it turned out to be a pivotal end to an emotional and heart-rending story.

There is a carefulness and gentleness to the way in which Donkor writes, which complements Belinda’s own nature. Her momentary outbursts send a clear message that her calm, polite and respectful exterior is a facade that even she struggles to control from her darkest secrets.

Donkor managed to touch on some really complex issues in this book surrounding culture, shame, identity, sexuality, sacrifice and loss. Of how one should live alongside one’s culture and how one needs to have the courage to live and love for oneself and support others around them. There is a clear lack of emotional support surrounding Donkor’s characters, and the constant effort to show pride in the face of their fellow Ghanaians means they are unable to show emotions or support each other when required. Amma’s ability to freely show her emotions by acting up and making public scenes at important cultural events and in public spaces is the reason the Otuo’s ask Belinda to come to London in the first place as her emotional behaviour is seen to be bringing disrespect to the family. When Belinda returns to Ghana, Aunty and Uncle are more concerned with funeral arrangements and the outcome of the eulogy rather than for Belinda’s emotional state. Interestingly, the only person who seems to be able to emotionally support others is Amma. By the end it is Amma that is left supporting Belinda and, despite all that Belinda stands for, through her diligence and respectfulness, Belinda is less prepared to deal with the emotional turmoil when it comes to it. Perhaps this is because those like Mary and Amma are more able to openly express their emotions as part of their general interactions.

It was interesting to see how Donkor incorporated Twi expressions throughout the speech. A glossary is provided but unfortunately not all the terms and phrases were accounted for, so at times a little guesswork was required and therefore some uncertainty as to whether I had interpreted the phrases correctly. Whilst there weren’t too many to confuse the story, there was a need to keep flipping between the prose and the glossary, which, for me, broke up the narrative on occasion. Despite this, Donkor’s inclusion of these expressions helped to cement the authenticity of the Ghanaian culture throughout the novel.

One of the striking things I noticed about this novel is that almost all of the characters are female. Whilst there are two male characters within the novel, Uncle and Dr. Otuo, they have such small parts to play that they are almost non-existent. This is so refreshing and makes it much more accessible for younger audiences because the story is so relatable, although its female-centricity could also make its reach limiting to teenage girls and YA audiences only.

My only criticism of the novel was that I didn’t feel Donkor’s characters were developed fully. Only on reaching the end of the novel did I start to feel as if I were truly understanding these characters, especially Belinda and Amma, and would have liked to have seen how their relationship continued to develop after such a traumatic event. Both Belinda and Amma wear each other down as they slowly start revealing their worries, anxieties and issues to each other, which they don’t share with anyone else, but I wasn’t truly convinced of the strength of their relationship and, as such, struggled to understand how close they actually were by the end. To me, their relationship seemed more of an appreciation and bond because of their issues rather than an actual friendship. I would have also liked to have seen how Amma’s own situation developed and whether she confronted her family about her sexuality.

Overall, Donkor’s coming-of-age novel was beautifully written, funny and moving. However, if the issues raised had had more time and space to have been developed further, this novel had the potential to be exceptional. Donkor is truly an author to watch in the future.

Hatti Furze

Hold is published by 4th Estate

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther. A book review by Charisa Gunasekera

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

A Perfect Explanation by debut author Eleanor Anstruther is an evocative work of historical fiction set in the cultural tumult of interwar England. Inspired by the author’s own grandmother’s life, the novel is based on true story of Enid Campbell, the beautiful and aloof granddaughter of the 8th Duke of Earl, through her loveless marriage and disastrous attempts to be a mother under the strain of post-natal depression in London’s 1920s upper-class society. In this fictionalised retelling of the traumatic events of her life (ultimately crowned by her decision to sell her younger son—the author’s father—for £500), Anstruther deftly alternates between Enid’s ‘perfect explanation’ of her neglectful motherhood from her Christian Scientist’s nursing home in 1964, and the real-time progression of the dysfunction surrounding her and her three children through the 1920s and 1930s.

Enid is an entitled and incompetent mother, yet something about her tragic story is irresistible. Anstruther lays her history bare with skilful prose and astonishing empathy, so that readers are thrust into a compelling narrative. This story is told from the point of view of a woman who was not made to be a mother, yet, after her eldest brother is killed during World War One, is suddenly expected to provide an heir for her aristocratic family regardless. Enid marries her middle-class husband Douglas primarily to spite her mother, who openly favours her younger sister Joan over her. This is a preference Enid cannot forgive Joan for, cruelly teasing her through childhood and then resenting her sister’s bohemian lifestyle in an adulthood spent battling her own unacknowledged depression.

Nevertheless, Enid also dutifully bears a son who is born with hydrocephalus, the signs of which she ignores as she drowns under what the doctor terms ‘Mother’s Blues’, until the boy has a near-fatal accident while under her neglectful watch. With the heir now ‘damaged’, Enid attempts to remedy the situation by turning to the more questionable practices of Christian Science as well as by getting pregnant again to produce a new heir. Instead, she conceives a daughter whom she finds she cannot love in this gendered climate and thus ignores. Finally, she births Ian, the author’s father, the climax of the story upon whom all the family’s hope and fortune rests.

Seeing the world through Enid’s eyes is profoundly uncomfortable, yet fascinating. She is small-minded, selfish, and incapable of taking responsibility for her own actions, let alone the care of her three children. But the consequences of Enid’s petty rivalry with her younger sister whose lesbianism she detests, her contemptuous marriage to a man whose proposal she only accepted as a rebuke, her traumatic and lonely motherhood, and finally her shocking decision to abandon everything to dedicate herself to the radical doctrine of the Christian Scientists are profoundly haunting. Her actions echo through her life history into this compelling contemporary story of familial dysfunction, aristocratic brutality, and gradual vilification of a misunderstood woman’s life.

A Perfect Explanation is a brilliant historical novel that will make readers question exactly what makes a mother fit and who has the right to the ownership of a life. Anstruther’s characters are deeply cerebral and internally developed, reckoning with unspoken traumas and, consequently, believably justifying the most inexplicable and unforgivable of choices. Therefore, its compelling narrative, arresting characters and vivid writing make A Perfect Explanation unquestionably a strong contender for this year’s Desmond Elliot Prize.

Charisa Gunasekera

A Perfect Explanation is published by Salt