Category Archives: Fiction

We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_hrAt the end, they handed her enough drugs to last Ed the thirteen weeks until his next scheduled visit. There was a jolt of promise in the bag of medications. She wondered for a moment whether, if she gave him the whole bag at once, he would be his old self for a few days, an afternoon, a couple of hours. It would be worth it, even if the rest of the time he was a mess. She knew it didn’t work like that, though. His real self wasn’t hiding in there waiting to be sprung for a day of freedom. This was his real self now.

Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves is a huge sweeping novel about Eileen Tumulty, who grows up in an Irish community in New York, the daughter of hard drinking parents. She is a girl with big plans. She grows into an ambitious woman and surprises herself by falling for Ed Leary and, eventually, marrying him. But it turns out Ed doesn’t share Eileen’s ambition, and doesn’t seek better paying opportunities when they come along. In time Eileen notices a dark change in his personality and as Ed withdraws she is left to solve the riddle of what is to become of her family.

Ed’s withdrawal and subsequent personality changes are due to Alzheimer’s. And, far faster than anyone would expect, Ed is whittled away by the disease. Eileen variously copes, doesn’t cope, struggles and does the best she can. Meanwhile she forces herself through full time work, striving to claim the medical benefits on offer after ten years of service.

The story is sad, and happy, and moving all at once. The devastation of the illness, the need to cope but impossibility of coping, it is woven through. Eileen’s character is a remarkable, three dimensional creation, she is by turns driven, intelligent and proud. It isn’t just a story of Alzheimer’s, it’s a story of life and love and family. I enjoyed it and sprinted through far quicker than its 620 pages would suggest.

But here’s a thing. I don’t know if it’s a thing worth mentioning or not. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this novel, had it been written by a woman, would be dismissed as too “domestic”. I don’t know why I feel that. But it does seem that family driven dramas are deemed women’s business when written by women, but when written by men it is a brave foray into the human condition. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Thomas’ work. It was just something that circled my head as I read, like a moth drawn to a single lightbulb. Take, or dismiss, it as you will.

We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas: 4 stars.

Read it when: you have a long stretch of time in which to luxuriate in its length.

The desire to bleed


I have a short piece called Blood up at Danse Macabre’s DM du Jour today. I don’t know why all the pieces I’ve written lately are so dark. But I enjoy them. Hope you do too. Have a read, feel free to comment if you like it and enjoy your weekend.

The End of Seeing by Christy Collins

theendofseeingWe lived between nappies and traffic jams, mobile phones, and a small stretch of green we called our own, which we rarely saw in the daylight. We reminded each other of garbage collection schedules, the child carers’ names, and which jabs Mia had had. We attended dinner parties, pulling threads from our clothing, pushing our hair into place, smelling of the contents of bottles that still line our bathroom cabinet, and wondering if this was really how we wanted to spend our free time.

And we were still, there was no doubting it, the privileged.

Christy CollinsViva La Novella winner The End of Seeing is just 190 pages long but it took me an eternity to read. It is so beautiful and so, so painful that I had to take it in small doses. Read a few short passages, put it down, shake my head to clear the lump in my throat, and return to the sunlight for a moment.

The protagonist, Ana, is grieving. She is grieving the loss of her daughter Mia and on its heels the disappearance of her partner Nick. Her family and friends tell her to give up waiting. They bury an empty coffin. And she goes home to the empty house in the suburbs they moved to to give Mia some space, desperate for a life that had room for them, though it was never the life they planned.

Nick was drowned, it is assumed, when a leaky boat full of asylum seekers went down in the Mediterranean. Ana cannot let go of this end, she cannot believe he was on that boat. She goes to Europe to follow him, she has print outs of his black and white images, and traces the trail of his last photojournalism assignment. The big one. The one that meant something. And the one that eventually got Nick disappeared.

From the shores of the Mediterranean to the hotel laundries, brothels and cramped apartments, this is a story of a flood of people with nowhere to go, with no hope, with nothing but a series of bad options. And it’s about the forces that would rather their stories weren’t told. Ana’s grief is tangible, it leaps off the page and threatens to crush you, it grows from the singular grief for two lost loved ones, to a wide ranging grief for the world, for the life she leads, for the lives of others who are lost, lost, lost. I wanted to write to Collins after I finished this book, which took me nearly a month to read, rather than the half hour its length suggests. I wanted to say “Christy, you hurt me. And it was just what I needed. It was perfect.”

It’s not just an emotional punch lurking within these pages. This is a novella that seems important in a global, the time is now, kind of way. But it’s a painting, a sonnet, not a protest march. Or perhaps it’s both. Please read this.

The End of Seeing, Christy Collins: five stars.

Read it because: it might change you forever.


The Eye of the Sheep: Sofie Laguna

the eye of the sheepI ran into the bathroom where the tiles were white and cool and I leaned my cheek against the wall. I looked at the crisscrossing lines. I traced my finger up and down the grooves where the mould collected, growing thick and black with spores that shot out from strings attached to the main body. Each spore was poison but you would need to lick every crack in the bathroom wall and the guttering at the base of the shower and the circles around the taps before you showed the symptoms.

The cold of the tile against my cheek slowed my cells to a cycle per second. One . . . turn . . . two . . . turn . . . three . . . turn . . . I closed my eyes and made a picture of my dad’s hands.

I think I’ve been putting off this review. Granted I’ve been busy, I’ve been away, I have had a whole roller coaster ride of brain chemistry and I’ve not had the patience to sit at the computer for long. Which is a problem for a writer. But that’s a whole other story.

The Eye of The Sheep is an affecting novel about Jimmy, a little boy who, though it isn’t directly mentioned, is on the autistim spectrum. He lives with his mum who is huge and has asthma, a constant wheezing he recognises as her breathing ebbs and flows. He also lives with his brother whom he worships, and his father, who needs to be left alone with the bottle with the Cutty Sark on it fairly often. The family home is a fragile, tense place, until it is plunged into tragedy and Jimmy is thrust into the wider world.

There are so many high points of this novel. The tone of Jimmy’s narration, its unique tenor and view of the world speaks so many truths. The quiet threads of domestic violence, inherited violence, weave together so subtly you barely notice them until they’re everywhere. The characters are real, believable, Jimmy’s world is tangible and his losses are painful to watch.

Laguna’s novel is brave. It’s brave in a big way, a broad sweeping way, the way it tells the stories of families in peril through the eyes of one particular boy. It’s also brave in terms of the personal experience and tone of her protagonist. Her interpretation of Jimmy’s world could have gone wrong, it could have come across as patronising, it could have put Jimmy in a position of being “inspirational” in that horrible demeaning way. But it doesn’t. Jimmy speaks from his own view, plain and simple. I particularly understood his relationship with the dog. Dogs are the best people.

I really enjoyed this. Will it live with me forever until I die? Maybe. Will I ever read it again? Probably not. But I do recommend this one. I seem to recommend everything I read. But such is life.

The Eye of the Sheep, Sofie Laguna: four and a half stars.

Read it for: a masterclass in showing not telling.

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball

a cure for suicide– I mean, if someone is dead, then that person is gone. A gravestone does nothing to fix that. And if it makes a place that others can go to be near the body of the dead person – then how does that help anything? It just prolongs the grieving. Better to simply pass on along the road, thinking nothing of it. But,

He kicked at the grass with his foot.

-But, if life is just that, just being reasonable, then there is nothing in it – nothing worthwhile. So, the yearning that we have to keep dead things living – to to make unreasonable things reasonable. That is why a person should live.

I usually leave a review for a few days after finishing the book. I need to let the ideas and my feelings about them percolate for a while, to form a measured response. But this time, I think that was a bad idea. Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide is a strange, deeply affecting novel. There is so much to it, delivered in such a subtle way, with this distance I think I’ve lost touch with how it made me feel. Let me describe the story to you.

It starts with an examiner meeting her new client for the first time. She is responsible for teaching him how to live in the world. She explains simple things, this is a chair, this is a picture, today we will sit together and eat breakfast, I will say something and you will say something in response, because that’s the way people behave. She explains to him that he was very sick, that he was dying, but that he came to her for help. She helps him by allowing him to dissociate from his memories, he is a new person, he takes on a series of names that are not his, his past is like someone else’s dream, distant, perhaps confusing, but not painful. But the process does not work. He must go through it again, the treatment, the drug, the rebuilding of his psyche. Each time he goes through it more is lost of his brain, his ability to think, to process, to become the person he once was. But this is what it takes to give a person a new life.

The second part of the novel involves a man meeting the Interlocutor. He requests the cure for suicide. He will not be forced into anything, he will decide of his own will whether this is the cure he wants. The man tells his story, the events that lead up to his wanting the cure. It is a story of a love and a loss and an unwillingness to go on. The Interlocutor shares his experiences, and discusses the nature of the cure, which is such that it removes a person from their life that is unlivable and gives them another. Drug administration will remove memories that are painful, and he will live in a series of villages in which he learns again how to live. He will never see his family or friends again, they will receive a yellow slip in the mail explaining that he has taken the cure for suicide. He is a new person.

It is strange. It is philosophical and sad and compelling. The publisher’s blurb on the back describes it as a novel of “love and illness, despair and betrayal”. But it’s also about something deeply, hideously human. What makes us who we are? How much are we willing to give up, how can we bear the unbearable? The prose is simple, almost distant, but the concepts are so rich that you’ll be glad for the economy of language. In some ways I wonder if Ball is being a little too clever for his own good, but in others I’m so glad he wrote this bleak novel. It’s wonderfully imaginative and disturbing. Recommended.

A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball: five stars.

Read it to: find out if you’re human.

Severed limbs and fresh air: Formaldehyde by Jane Rawson

formaldehyde-coverSo when the streetcar slammed hard into something and the people were screaming and there was the falling and more of the screaming and copies of The Idiot were drifting in a pretentious snow around him, he was kind of relieved. What with everyone falling to the floor and the tumbling out the gaping hole where the front of the car used to be, he seemed to be the only one left holding on to the pole. He took a second to savour his victory. The Chinese guy was nowhere to be seen. He looked out at the park and saw that the deformed dog had escaped and was chasing cats, while rabbit girl had come to rest in a furry, flopsy lump on the floor. The nurse – Derek – reached down to give the bunny a hand to get to her feet, but the hand pulled right away from her little bunny sleeve in a gush of blood. Despite both his medical training and his loathing of the stereotypes of 19th Century Russian literature, he followed a brief spate of vomiting with some serious falling down.

I’m not sure it says good things about me that I found this novella hilarious. It is dark, absurd and very, very strange. Apparently that’s just my cup of tea. Several different story arcs, in two different times, somehow weave themselves around each other until they’re braided in a nice, satisfying rope connecting this nightmare world to some kind of recognisable reality.

Here’s a thing. I love novellas. I think they’re so underrated. This one is a complicated tale, at a satisfying lazy Sunday type length. This year’s Seizure Viva La Novella winners – Formaldehyde, Marlee Jane Ward’s Welcome to Orphancorp and Christy Collins’ The End of Seeing – are the first novellas I’ve bought in hard copy and it’s even more satisfying just because of their slender, put in your back pocket size.

Rawson’s winning novella is funny in the darkest, driest way possible. I laughed out loud and I was confused and I was shocked and a little bit sad. It’s surprising, quietly political and has a freshness that I enjoyed so much. I don’t know what it says about me that I have on occasion considered walking into another room and lopping a limb off, because damn everybody, but you know, that kind of thing is only for fiction. I’m glad Rawson gave voice to this kind of absurdism because she did a great job.

Formaldehyde, Jane Rawson: 5 stars.

Read it: on your commute. And pray for no severed limbs.


The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The razor glinted in his hand – he was bored again, and tiring. He unclipped the leash and shoved at the chair so it jolted forwards, tipping her out. She fell but stumbled, recovering, upright. All the stoner’s placidness was gone now; he shoved at her, his strong hands at her back, yelling, “Next,” as he forced her through a different door and Yolanda went sprawling, exactly as a sheep would totter down a slatted chute into the shocking light and shit and terror of the sheep yard, until she found herself in yet another room. Full of bald and frightened girls.

the natural way of thingsYolanda wakes, with no memory, in a bare room. She doesn’t know where she is, She is dressed in a strange, Little House on the Prairie smock, she’s drugged and slow. Later she is taken out and her head is shaved. And it emerges 11 other women are also there, dressed identically, led around on leashes, beaten, brutalised. Something connects them. But what could it be?

Charlotte Wood’s latest novel is receiving rave reviews from every corner and I’m afraid I have to be deathly boring and add my voice to the applause. This is a tour de force. A blinding indictment of misogyny, the ways women are punished for breaking the rules – of sexuality, of decorum, of asserting their humanity. Comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are apt. It reads very similar but also different, the women in Wood’s story are reduced to animals and in a way, that’s freedom. It is scary, moving and wonderfully constructed. Please read this.

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood: five stars.

Read it if: You loved The Handmaid’s Tale. And even if you didn’t.

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