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Everything Under is a transposition of an ancient Greek legend into modern-day England. I did not know which legend when I read the novel which allowed a slow dawning to take place. Other reviewers have named the legend and I cannot help feeling that knowing where things are heading would make the reading both simpler and less satisfying, Therefore, I will skirt around much of the plot. Having said that knowing the direction of travel would make the reading simpler, it must be said that without this knowledge, the reading is far from straightforward. There are 8 main sections, each broken into subsections headed "The River", "The Hunt", "The Cottage", etc. These are in fact parallel narratives that continue through the novel. They are opaque in terms of who is narrating and when they take place. This is further complicated by some characters having more than one name and more than one role; and the general absence of names through much of the work. Timelines seem to clarify and then blur again. It is not easy to see how the narratives inter-relate and for the first quarter (at least) of the text, there is a fog of confusion. There are river boats, a senile woman, a lexicographer, a cast of people who live on the canals and in the woods... With time, little chinks of light are let into the narrative. Piece by piece, things start to fall into place. By three quarters, most pieces are in place and by the end, it is mostly transparent. It is as if the fog has lifted and some of the things that happened in the fog don't look too well in the clear light of day. Everything Under is actually a really dark and menacing work. That doesn't make it unlovely, though The description of the houseboat community is brilliant. I took this to be set in Oxford - where our lexicographer works - but perhaps that is adding two and two and getting five. The descriptions of unconventional childhoods, of fluid gender identity, of ambiguous sexuality are all fabulous. There are abandonments - walking away from children, walking away from families. There is the kindness of strangers mixed in with the threat of monsters - the canal thief and the Bonak. Everything Under feels perfectly balanced. The gradual reveal makes the book progressively easier to read and makes the reader feel smart as the penny drops, time after time, just before a significant detail is revealed. There is delicacy, there is complexity. I loved Everything Under. My only reservation is that the parallels to the Greek legend slightly diminish the experience and make something bizarre and quirky feel a bit contrived. As some novels grow in power after they have been put down, this one feels a little as though it is losing its edge. But that's just me; I am sure others will feel differently. It's still a bit of a masterpiece. *****
Tin Man bills itself as "the most moving book I have ever read". It was good, but I wouldn't go that far. Tin Man is a short novel that gives us two sides of a triangle - one told by Ellis, a middle aged panel beater at the Cowley car works, told in the 1990s and one told by Michael, a gay journalist whose life turns upside down in the 1980s as those around him fall victim to AIDS. Ellis and Michael had been childhood friends who welcomed Annie into their lives to form the third side of the triangle. Much of the novel is told in memories, so although there is a "current" story told in the moment, the back story some decades before is what matters. That back story was about childhood and youth, love and discovery. It was about forming a tight trio who could take on a hostile world dominated by stern parents and privileged students. This meandering back and forth over time can be quite tricky to navigate. It is not always well signposted and further complicated by the fragmented and non-linear nature of the "current" narrative. But at the same time, it's not a cryptic crossword and you can work it out. There are great evocations of place - Oxford, London and France - from the 1980s and 1990s when I knew them well. And it is great to see East Oxford getting featured; most Oxford novels never venture far from ivy-clad quadrangles so the mention of the Leys, South Park, Divinity Road and Headington is very refreshing. The town perspective on the university is not heard sufficiently often and Sarah Winman presented it convincingly. By the same token, I thought Michael's portrayal of the London scene in the 1980s in the grip of AIDS was really convincing. Michael, for me, was the most realised character. Even above this, the real gem was the opening sequence where Ellis's mother wins a painting (a replica of Van Gogh's sunflowers) at a raffle. This managed to convey hope and freedom from an oppressive marriage and the drudgery of poverty. The sunflower theme and colours come up as a leitmotif throughout the novel and, like the reproduction painting, are always somehow tainted or compromised. But where the novel fell short, I felt, was in its portrayal of the relationships. I never quite believed in the triangle, and never quite believed in Ellis. The other relationships seem to be well done, it is just this central one that isn't quite right. And that is a pity, because that is very much what the novel was supposed to be about and it lessened the impact of what was otherwise a really rather lovely book. ****0