Made in Britain – review

‘Every Town’, the near-mythical setting of Gavin James Bower’s post-industrial landscape in Made in Britain, is peopled with dysfunctional families, suffused with social disengagement, law-breaking and public disorder. It’s a bad but normal British town. A bit too bad. It’s as if an evil giant has gobbled up the moral fabric of this ‘dirty old town’ and spat it out to lie in the gutter – unnoticed, unloved, and unwanted. If the townspeople are waiting for their fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and turn the clock back to a golden age of full employment, to a time when money made people nicer, it isn’t going to happen. The mills and mines scarring the hills and streets around ‘Every Town’ point to a longer trajectory and a bigger problem.

Parents are over-worked or workless, children are neglected and neglectful. The future is hopeless, yet, ironically, and authentically, their lives are centred on school and the fake promise that education is a golden ticket to possibilities. Going unsaid but lingering in the air above the sex-obsessed teenagers waiting anxiously for their results is, ‘what’s the point?’ I wondered that too. We know it’s Grimm ‘up North’ – have known since the century before Orwell hurried past Burnley on his way to Wigan Pier.

 [Charlie] I’m up the canal, and can see the whole town from where I’m sitting. The old mills to my left, the rows of terraced houses boarded up now on that side of town, and the council blocks where Trafalgar Flats used to be, before they knocked them down. Straight ahead’s the new bus station, lit up in purple. To my right’s the new sports centre, which used to be the multi-storey, which used to be the sports centre.

Nicely done and preventing the story from tipping into relentless misery is a fractured narrative that follows three distinct but ‘typical’ Northern teens: Russell ‘the lonely boy’ is a bit weird [or nearly normal]. Day-dreaming his way through life, imagining a perfect love and a perfect life, he’s scared of his street-wise peers and lives with an uncaring, troubled mother who stays home all day and won’t even raise herself to wash his shirts, for goodness sake. He imagines city-life [Leeds not London] as a portal, a release form responsibility – and ‘because there’s always someone who’s more different than you. You can just get on with being yourself.’ Charlie is Russell’s doppelganger-figure; clever, yet wise enough to realise the futility of academic qualifications, he purposefully sets out to utilise his skills in other ways and for other means. Motherless; Hayley lives with her two-jobs-and-no-time-for-fun Dad and flaunts pent-up sexuality at the naive English teacher, Mr Mitchell, while at the same time she lusts after Charlie. Her imagination works overtime: always set to ‘compare’, constantly coming up short.

Made in Britain is smarty-pants clever. Stock tropes from teen novels, such as text-miscommunication and a triangular lust plot are packaged within a tissue-paper layer of poignancy that dares us to care. Russell is not Holden Caulfield; Hayley’s eyes are not ‘the bluest’; Charlie is not Renton. The characters are more archetype than realistic and the humour is too sincere to devastate. And yet, it’s a bleakly wry anti-Bildungsroman. A dead body lies unheeded in an open grave, and Bower takes us down a more sinister path than the grimmest of Northern crime fiction. Who can bother to report it – who cares enough to begin an investigation? An absence of blue and white tape is more revealing than Hayley’s bare behind.

Published last year, reviewers said Made in Britain was ‘timely’, and made comparisons with disenfranchised teens and summer riots.  Perhaps. Depressingly, Bower reveals how little has changed since Trevor unleashed his racist vitriol on the local jobcentre in David Leland’s 1982 TV drama-cum-movie of the same title. Nowadays, no one in Every Town would waste their energy lobbing a brick through the window.

And no one would notice if they did.

Book Review: Into the Darkest Corner

Into the Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad Editions, 2011)

It had to be an exceptional book to break my book-blog-block and this is it: Into the Darkest Corner — a nervy, heart-racing, page-turner —the debut thriller by Elizabeth Haynes. The story is common-place enough: party-going good-girl meets dark, handsome stranger with mysterious past… except—, Haynes takes the outline of a common-place story and creates an enthralling read. It’s a one-sitting—impossible- to- put- down kind of book.

The story begins slowly, in May 2005, with a scene in Lancaster Crown Court between a lawyer and the accused, named Lee Anthony Brightman. Brightman is giving evidence about his relationship with a woman named Catherine—who, he says, was “jealous” of his working away, “convinced” he “was having an affair.” There were “rows …she had some emotional problems … would start an argument … was violent towards” him. Only once, “the last time” did he “hit her back”. It seems as if the story is heading for murder— Catherine’s murder — told in retrospect. Unexpectedly, the next chapter opens on “Thursday, 21 June 2001” on the “derelict no-man’s land between the back of the industrial estate and the beginnings of farmland”, with an unnamed murderer standing “motionless, one hand on the shovel”, over the dying body of a girl named “Naomi Bennett”.

These are preambles to the story proper, building the tension, slowly infusing an unsettling tone which ripples through the opening pages and unfolds into the remainder of the book. Most of the story is told in the first person from Catherine’s point of view. The action takes place in different time periods and different places, switching effortlessly, scene by scene, between past and present and back again until the last pages, which are set in 2010.

Here’s a snippet:

Tuesday 12 February 2008

[…]

By the time I got to Talbot Street the sky was getting dark and it was getting colder. I walked along the alleyway at the back, looking up at the back of the house, at my flat, at the balcony, and the curtains. I looked at the gate, hanging off its hinges and the thick grass behind it.

The curtains hung exactly the way I’d left them. I looked at the faintly yellow space of my window, staring intently, trying to see into the room beyond.

It all looked perfectly fine, just as I’d left it.

In its depiction of obsessive-psychosis it reminded me, a little, of Nancy Price’s 1980s bestseller-turned-Julia Robert’s movie- Sleeping with the Enemy. But it’s grittier, cleverer, more authentic and more tightly plotted—and the twist is more devious.

If I had to single out one aspect of the book for high praise it would be its pacing: the story slows down, gathers momentum and races to the ultimate ‘don’t open the door!’ moment at exactly the right spot every single time. Just when the party-going begins to get tiresome, the tone shifts;  just when Catherine’s OCD becomes overly manic, she finds peace and the pace settles but, just when things are looking up, everything heads downhill.

This is not to say that Into the Darkest Corner is flawless. There are a few eye-brow-raising too-neat coincidences but they don’t spoil the story. It seems too pat for Catherine to find a specialist at just the right time or to bump into someone from her past at exactly the wrong moment. Then again, Agatha Christie got away with them.

Elizabeth Haynes is living the writer’s dream just now—: On her website she lets us into her journey to publication from first beginnings in a flush of frenetic writing during the madness that is NANOWRIMO and from there to finding an agent and then signing a contract with Myriad Editions. If you’re ever in doubt or in need of inspiration it’s worth hopping over there.

And the news just gets better for Elizabeth— Adrian Weston [rights agent] reports that she’s secured a three-book deal with Cargo, an imprint of the distinguished Dutch publishers de Bezige Bij — Into the Darkest Corner is now published in nine different countries

And The Bookseller reports that Haynes won the first “Amazon Rising Star Award” for best debut novel – beating A. D. Miller’s Booker-nominated Snowdrops (Atlantic) and putting her in the short-list for overall best debut of 2011.

Into the Darkest Corner has 193 Amazon reviews; 173 of them are 5 stars. Read it — I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.

Trespass: Review

Trespass, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, 2010; Vintage, [pbk] 2011)

It isn’t hard to find why Trespass was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It’s a terrific, multi-layered story, which demands more than one reading to uncover the depth of Tremain’s imaginative and intellectual achievement. At its simplest, the incisive shifting viewpoint reveals how damage inflicted in childhood shapes adult desires. Cumulatively, through careful structuring, convincing characterisation, and a probing narrative, Tremain puzzles all the possible meanings of ‘trespass’.

The story opens and closes with Mélodie, a girl who is unhappy and homesick in her new home in the Cévennes region of France. She misses her Paris apartment and friends and hates the inhospitable, constantly moving countryside and the unkindnesses of her new, bullying classmates. Although Mélodie is absent for the next 200 pages or so, Tremain’s tight plotting ensures that she remains firmly in mind. Childhood taunts and jealousies, whispers of war collaborators, silk worm farming and the Cévenol landscape are woven through the unfolding story as constant reminders that we have left her alone and screaming beside a deep pool.

Tremain moves between France and England and two very different sets of aging siblings as she builds slowly towards a dreadful crime. Anthony and Veronica Verey carry childhood burdens, while Audrun and Aramon Lunel carry past hurts and secretly plot against each other. When their paths cross the tension is finally released, and for a while, the story focuses on the crime and its solution. But this is not a ‘who-done-it’ crime thriller, although it does have a crime and it is thrilling. Tremain’s focus is on the detritus of cruelty and unkindnesses accumulated throughout childhood  which resurface in adulthood.

Anthony is a self-important antiques dealer, more in love with his objects [his beloveds] than people. A ‘descending curve’ in his sales ledger prompts an impulsive visit to his sister, Veronica, and her timid partner, Kitty, at Les Glaniques in the Cévennes.

With Anthony’s arrival, Veronica, or ‘V’, is torn between passion and familial love, while the inappropriately named Kitty Meadows moons around like a huffy teenager. An only child, Kitty can’t understand the close-ties and long-standing responsibilities of sibling love. She is jealous about losing Veronica’s attention and asks herself,

“Doesn’t every love need to create for itself its own protected space? And if so, why don’t lovers understand better the damage trespass can do?”

Self-interest is a major trespass or sin in the novel. Kitty’s self-interest prevents her from understanding that, as much as she wants to keep Veronica all to herself, at this point, it is she who is encroaching on the Verey’s ‘protected space’.  

Anthony decides, again impulsively, that here, in Veronica’s adopted land, he has found the happiness he craves and, with Veronica and Kitty in tow, he commences a search across the region for a new home. It is this search for happiness, for self-fulfilment, that leads to tragedy.

Fate would have it that, at exactly the same time as Anthony begins his search, Aramon Lunel puts the ‘Mas Lunel’, his neglected family home, on the open market. He suspects that his sister Audrun’s modern bungalow encroaches his land and he plots to remove her so that a sale can go through uncontested. Audrun, meanwhile, is plotting how she might repossess the ‘Mas Lunel’ and exact retribution from Aramon for the abusive years she spent as the sole female under its roof.

Tremain’s figurative language brings depth and credibility to her characters and adds texture to the narrative. Of Anthony, she writes, “His plans chattered away in his mind like Happy Hour drinkers, ”, and Audrun “imagined how she would jab the bowl on his [Aramon’s] face, like covering a spider with a cup.” A paraphrased quotation from the old Book of Common Prayer (1692) reinforces the cyclical imagery of Nature, which lies at the heart of Trespass: “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live … He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower, he fleeth as it were a shadow … Earth to earth, ashes to ashes….” 

Through Audrun’s deep-seated rage against her terrible past, Tremain ponders profound questions of ownership and neglect. Who owns the earth? What happens when man neglects his role as caretaker?

 

[…] it was the land that mattered. In recent time, their mania to make money from their houses, thousands of Cévenol people had seemed to forget their roles as caretakers of the land. Diseases came to the trees. The vine terraces crumbled. The rivers silted up. And nobody seemed to notice or care –  as if these things would cure themselves, as if Nature would do man’s work while he sat – as Aramon sat – in front of his vast TV, lasering his brain with kilowatts of meaningless light.

 And what about the new people, the foreigners, who were buying the land? They’re helpless, Audrun thought. Helpless. It isn’t their fault. They’re affected – she knew they truly were – by the beauty of it. They begin by believing they can care for it all by some means. But in fact, they don’t understand one single thing about the earth.

Ultimately, Tremain reveals the redemptive power of both confessing our trespasses and forgiving those who trespass against us. The last image of ‘white blossoms remain[ing] luminous and bright’ is a hopeful one and a reminder that “the turning of the seasons brings their own, more kindly alteration”.

 Trespass is another title from the Richard and Judy Book Club list – [for Spring 2011]check out the website for some very mixed reviews.

Or you can join in the Telegraph Book Group discussion thread.

Vanessa and Virginia, by Susan Sellers

(Two Ravens Press) ISBN 9 78-1906 120276

The lives of the ‘Bloomsbury-group’, including the Stephens’ sisters, Virginia [Woolf] and her sister, Vanessa [Bell], are well documented. The curious reader can pick over the facts of their rather risqué, Bohemian life-style and learn of their artistic accomplishments in any one of the authoritative biographies and collections of letters weighing down the literary shelves of bookshops and libraries. And of course, who hasn’t seen the Oscar-winning film, The Hours, which tells the story leading up to Woolf’s suicide? Yet, even if you have lived on Mars for the last forty years and have never heard of Woolf, or Bell, or Bloomsbury, it matters not because this is a work of fiction.

Sellers, an English Professor at St. Andrews University and expert on Woolf, cleverly avoids all that has gone before to give a fresh insight into how the stresses of family life moulds the creative artist. Taking Vanessa’s point of view, but writing in Virginia’s free-flowing narrative style, she portrays the full force of their love-hate relationship. Sibling rivalry crackles below the surface of their creative energy as Vanessa, weighed down with the responsibilities of every-day life, of having babies, and keeping house for absent-minded lovers, struggles to find time to paint and to forge a new style, while Virginia, seemingly effortlessly, produces ‘crisp prose’. Vanessa’s jealous reaction to Virginia’s first published book is utterly convincing. She is relieved to find that, while it is well written, it is not ‘a masterpiece’. The tension between the desire to create and the desire to please is handled brilliantly throughout.

Salacious details are dealt with sensitively: Sellers does not set out to shock. Vanessa’s ménage-à-trois at Charleston with the artists, Duncan Grant and his lover, David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, is retold in a manner that exposes her need to love and be loved and explains why it was she who suggested the odd arrangement. Sellers makes a subtle comparison between the three-some and the childhood trio of Virginia, Vanessa, and their brother, Thoby, so that the reader sympathises rather than scolds.

Much is packed into this little gem. Late-Victorian austerity gives way to Edwardian freedoms while fierce pre-war debates cannot halt destruction and new hardships. To capture the full lyrical intensity of Sellers’ writing it’s best to read the whole book at once. An easy task, really, as there are no chapters in this short novel of just 181 pages. Written in sections, some a mere sentence or two, which represent the fractured, fragmentary nature of memory, the story fairly rips along. And, even although we know the end of their lives, their last hours so to speak, it is a page-turner.

The life of the book lives on well after the last page. Many of Vanessa’s paintings are vividly evoked with Sellers offering a new perspective of the creative impulse behind some of them.

The front image of two little blonde girls looking out onto the world through a rain-spattered window cleverly sets the tone of wistful desire and loss of innocence to come. This is a perfect little package that raises big questions about the relationship between family life and the impulse to create.

See also Newbooks Review Directory.