'If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes, acts, or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don't know how to explain.'
In the early Seventies a glamorous and androgynous couple known collectively as Evie/Stevie appear out of nowhere on the isolated concrete campus of a new university. To a group of teenagers experimenting with radical ideas they seem blown back from the future, unsettling everything and uncovering covert desires. But the varnished patina of youth and flamboyant self-expression hides deep anxieties and hidden histories. For Adele, with the most to conceal, Evie/Stevie become a lifelong obsession, as she examines what happened on the night of her own twentieth birthday and her friends' complicity in their fate. A set of school exercise books might reveal everything, but they have been missing for nearly forty years. From summers in Cornwall to London in the twenty-first century, long after they have disappeared, Evie/Stevie go on challenging everyone's ideas of what their lives should turn out to be."
I found this an unsettling book. Adele is living through what could almost have been one of my alternative stories; not that I'm from Liverpool and the only child of a Jewish rogue but Adele is my age and I was advised to go to York university to read English, probably becuse like Adele I didn't have quite the right fit for more traditional establishments. It felt distnictly weird reading about somewhere I've always rather regretted that I didn't go to, (I'm not sure I'd have fitted in to Adele's York though) and comparing what I was doing at certain key events such as the Hyde Park bombings with what she was doing.
Libda Grant's writing, is as ever, wonderful and her depiction iof university life and her eye for picking out salient details is spot on. However once Adele has left university the plot seems to lose its way, the charecterisation is more sketchy, the plot more jerky and the tone becomes somewhat downbeat in place and the narrative loses its impetus. I thought the ending was really pretty weak. However it is a memorable book and I raced through it. 5 stars for the first half, only 4 for the second.
The Outer Circle is set over the course of five days, shortly after the end of the London 2012 Olympics. The story is set on the other side of the city in the very affluent area of Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A man walks into the Regents Park Mosque with a flamethrower...
We follow the event and the aftermath through the eyes of five different characters:
Saul - an older man who walks through Regents Park to get his daily treatment for prostate cancer Rashid - who works in the bookshop at the Mosque, a recent convert to Islam Deena - a black police officer Tom - a student Jan - a journalist
The narrative is broken into sections that drop in and out of the characters' lives, all trying to unpick what has happened. At times the characters can seem a bit cliched, and the dialogue can sound pretty clunky at times, but the story is compelling enough to capture the reader. The book's real strength is the sense of place. Regents Park is a pretty small area, even though, as we're told more than once, it takes a while to walk the length of the park. It is an area with cafes and bars, bandstands and bunkers. It has a high footfall from tourists, locals, dog-walkers, homeless... The park is almost a place apart from the rest of the city; the roads through it are closed at night and feel like secret roads; there are lawns and trees and bushes instead of the buildings and CCTV cameras; the park has its own rules and those who use the park feel temporarily relieved from the rules of the rest of the city.
But as well as adhering to the strict geography of the park, there is also a sense of multi-cultural London. It has been in broadcast into every home around the world through the Olympics, it has folk of all colours and creeds. The cultural diversity is great enough that, for the most part, people can walk around unnoticed in a busy and somewhat impersonal city. We step into the world of politics and prejudice - with a firmly left of centre editorial policy applied sometimes with a heavyish hand.
The novel is pacy and the pages seem to turn themselves. All five characters have their individual quests and part of the fun is seeing how they interlink. This is a light, entertaining read that sometimes promises to provoke thoughts and sometimes succeeds in doing so. This would be worth taking to the beach on holiday to deliver a taste of home.
This is quite simply a very, very good book and one that I would never have even looked at if it hadn't been for MM's priase of Linda Grant's writing. Thank you so much!
It's 1946 and Evelyn Sert, a reluctant hairdresser from London, sets sail for Palestine where Jews from all over the world are gathering in the hopes of making a Zionist state in Palestine. Evelyn has no particular strong political feels, it's her "Uncle Joe" , her dead mother's protector, who is passionate about the idea of a Jewish homeland, and since he can hardly go and help set it up himself as he has a "real" family to look after in London he despatches his ex-mistress's daughter instead under the guise of being a Christian tourist, the only way she can get a visa for the country. Evelyn has no idea what she is going to, she quickly discovers that kibbutz life is not for her and flees to the city, where an innocent in the middle of a cultural melting pot she's only half aware most of the time of what's going on around her.
This book works on so many levels. The writing is superb, as is the charecterisation and though the story line is hardly fast moving I fund the book absolutely mesmerising because Linda Grant evokes a sense of time and place so very well that you feel that you're living along with Evelyn. It's also utterly unjudgemental and even handed. I loved it.
Lenny Lyskey sets off for a medical for National Service in 1950s London, confident that his wheeler dealer uncle will pull some strings and get him off. He does get off, but his uncle's bribe was wasted: Lenny has TB, as does his sister Miriam, and they are soon shipped off to a sanitorium in Kent under the newly formed NHS.
This is the starting point of Linda Grant's novel, which tells the story of sanitorium life at the point when the antibiotics which went on to cure TB weren't freely available. It has a great cast of characters - a sanitorium is a great setting to bring together people from all walks of life. I learned lots about the gruesome approaches to treatment, and I felt really involved with the characters.
Linda Grant has written lots, and it shows. There was a beauty in the writing which wasn't showy or intrusive, and which I really liked. I will need to look into her other stuff.
I have always found Alison Kennedy's books a bit dull, which is a shame because in real life she is a live wire with a mordantly dry wit. So I approached Serious Sweet, courtesy of its Booker longlisting, with a bit of trepidation.
I needn't have worried.
Perhaps it is the basic premise - a middle ranking civil servant working in Tothill Street finds himself out of favour at work and bored by his lonely home life. I was that person, right down to working in Tothill Street, way back 15 years ago. Or perhaps it is the sardonic take on London life in the 21st Century. But whatever it was, I couldn't get enough of Jon Sigurdsson. Meg Williams, on the other hand, as a clerical worker in an animal shelter felt less immediately accessible.
The novel itself is a bit like Ulysses. Jon and Meg wander around London over a 24 hour period with a vague intention of meeting up but being waylaid by various people. Meg spends time in hospital, almost as a parallel to Joyce's scene in the maternity hospital. And whilst there is a love story between the two of them, what you really have is an extended study of two characters, set against a wider study of contemporary London (and the wider nation and its government). Neither Jon nor Meg is terribly likeable - Jon is pompous and Meg is a whinger - but neither is either of them contemptible. They are complex, flawed characters who are unhappy with life; the reader comes to want them to have a chance of happiness even if it is not going to be in the terms of a Hollywood Rom Com.
The writing really is stellar in terms of creating a sense of person and a sense of place. Kennedy uses a device of third person narrative blended with italicised first person stream of consciousness from both Jon and Meg's perspective. There are also little vignettes dropped in of everyday city life - life in cafes, on the streets , in parks or on the Tube. This scene changing offer welcome relief from what might otherwise have felt too claustrophobic. It also offers enough hooks that anyone who has lived in London will recognise details. Kennedy has a way of making everyday details seem significant, and in such a way that the reader gets an "a-ha" moment on recognising each of those details.
The novel is long; there's no getting away from that. And at times, the lack of plot driven action can feel a bit like meandering (which is, of course, what Jon and Meg are doing). There are diversions into politics, philosophy and personal history. There is a wealth of words dedicated to the gap between the personal and the public self. And at times, it can feel slow. But, again like Ulysses, if parts of the text can feel like a bit of a slog, the impression at the end is one of heartfelt beauty and grace. For the reader, it comes together as a complete experience that handsomely repays the effort it took to get there.
Over the passage of time, the memory of some novels grow and others recede. I suspect this one is a grower.