Category Archives: authors

Memoir: Ghost in the Bone by Penny Bunton – A remarkable tour de force

Ghost in the Bone - Penny Bunton

Confession, reflection, defence, distortion and misdirection, catharsis from pain, reliving joy, a chance for cold revenge on one’s enemies, rediscovering ourselves through our past,  or simply to set the story straight from yours, truly: These and many more are reasons to write a memoir.

Besides, we’re an insatiably curious and reflective species: Basho, the 17th-Century Haiku poet and traveller, wrote:

It is deep autumn

My neighbour

How does he live, I wonder.

I admit freely that I wonder, too. And more: I wonder, of others, what that argument was about, and what made the person behave like that, and who did what to make the child such a monstrous adult.

Hell, if I could only – and invisibly – peer over my garden fence into the neighbours’ backyard during summer time while they all chinwag, or magically appear at their childhood home or even those of perfect strangers (besides those whom are famous), and take notes unhindered of family gatherings and private thoughts and conversations.

But since I’m not the sort to shamelessly – what a shame, what a loss! – to listen in, nor – god forbid – to jam my ear lustily onto a down-turned glass – itself jammed up against the wall dividing my neighbour from my curious self – instead, I’m sure I must – at least in part – be overly compensating by reading and joyfully amassing oodles of published memoirs, journals and diaries, personal correspondence and biographies.

Not only, of course, has the memoir long been published – how could I not reference Augustine’s astonishing Confessions, of the 4th-century AD – it has also long been read. In fact, they sell in their millions: we buy them by the juggernaut-load – and, throughout the 1990s to date, they have remained one of the biggest selling categories of book, with publishers and us readers never seeming to get enough of them. Remember the appetite for Angela’s Ashes; A Child Called “It”; Night; Dreams of My Father; Thinking in Pictures; Me Talk Pretty One Day; Eat, Pray, Love; Prozac Nation; Girl, Interrupted; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Lucky; Chronicles: Volume One? No doubt each of you recall many others, including those of your personal favourites.

Besides the endless avalanche of memoir published by celebrities, actors, designers, artists, politicians and leaders past and present, fashionistas, scientists, has-beens and wanna-bees – most of the aforementioned, sadly, written by ghost writers – there are also those written by unknowns or relative unknowns: that is, often until they publish their story and we few or many are given the opportunity to delve into their past with them, simply by opening the covers of a book.

And now we have Ghost in the Bone, by Penny Bunton (UK paperback and Kindle edition here, and the US Kindle only edition here). It’s the memoir of an “unknown” – though in fact you may well have seen the author any number of times on screen or in a TV drama and simply not known her, as she’s been an actress in supporting roles for decades, including RED 2 (2013), The Murder of Princess Diana (2007) and the long-running British TV serial hit, Medics (1990).

While I must have read hundreds of memoirs over the years, some famous and some less well-known, Ghost has already become one of my favourites and, having read it twice, I know without hesitation I’ll be reading it again. Why? Because this book is a tour de force. Not only is this the author’s first ever published book, but also in one swoop she has mastered the art of the memoir, which is such a difficult and challenging form of writing.

After all, if you were to write one, just consider the overwhelming choices you’d have to make: which memories do you include and which should you leave out? Should your story be episodic, thematic, or only chronological? What of those many moments of guilt, of embarrassment, of intimacy, anger or failure? How much do you reveal about your relationships with lovers, friends, family, professional colleagues, your own thoughts and feelings about them, and what of the anxiety about how they’ll react on reading it?

I imagine all these and more as obstacles and the struggle with myself to attempt to account for them, but soon give up even in my imagination, because I feel friends, family and my past breathing down my neck, peering over my shoulder as I struggle with the conflict between telling my version of the truth and being reasonable to the outside world, yet wanting to spill my guts and blood and tears over all my pages, come what may. Yet my significant others look over my shoulder still and at what I’m typing on my screen. I hear them tutting, muttering, twittering, derisively sniffing and roaring with laughter – all in the wrong places, mind. And didn’t I just hear eyeballs rolling in the back of their heads, too? So for these reasons and more (a lack of courage, a lack of perspective), I don’t think I’ll ever write my memoir.

My hats off, then, and most of my head in joyful obeisance to those who not only have written their memoirs, but who have also, like Penny, been gifted enough as writers to produce something remarkable, too.

It’s the story of a little girl told at the awfully tender age of two by her Dickensian character of a mother – of whom, more in a mo – that, before she was born, she “grew in another lady’s tummy. When you came out, you were kept in a special home with lots of other babies […] It doesn’t mean we love you any the less; we love you just the same. Because we chose you.”

As an adult looking back at this scene, she writes:

In that instant, my heart became a piece of jigsaw, with a hole in one side and a rounded bud looking for another hole on the other. In the space of those few minutes, the state of anomalousness in which I lived had been revealed to me, and I embraced my status as though granted the key to grace. The knowledge was an escape, an exculpation, a release. I had been as it were given back to myself – and to my mother. My blood mother.

This is the story not only of the impact of the life of one individual who has been adopted, but also the psychological duress she endures growing up in an emotionally sterile house through which “there ran beneath the surface activity a current of unspoken thought, of covert observation and singular psychic combat.”

We learn of the emotional abuse inflicted on her by Helen, her adoptive mother, whose almost unceasing mood swings, occasional histrionics, calculating looks and sociopathic indifference to Penny, besides her cruel remarks and actions, make everybody tip toe around her in nervous fear. Here’s Helen for you, then:

My mother took to being an invalid. On the excuse of […] a history of weakness in her chest (one always knew where she was in the house by the boom of her catarrhal cough), my mother retired to the sofa and to her bed, and ruled the house from a horizontal position. Every exertion required a corresponding amount of ‘rest’: after cooking, marking exams or homework [she’s a teacher of physics at a training college], after going for a walk, carrying a vase from one room to another or brushing the dog my mother would feel the need to ‘put her feet up’, and off she would limp to an appropriate horizontal surface. We were required to creep about and keep quiet while her eyes were closed.

And, when her adoptive parents permanently separate, her father John soon living with another woman and in the proceeds of a divorce, mother remains hungry to devour news of her ex, sinking her teeth into Penny’s neck for the nourishment:

Back in the chilly Cambridge house, greedy for pictures of the alternate ménage from which to torment herself, my mother picked at my experience of my father’s life much as a child will a scab on its knee. Often a sore was exposed, and she would lick at the blood. What did we eat for dinner? How often did we have steak, would I say?: three times a week? More?

(Note: steak to Helen was an outrageous extravagance she could never tolerate, being so tight-fisted and miserly – she keeps unwanted gifts over the years in a “Present Drawer”, parcelling them up anew for everybody else, including many joyless ones for her own children up to, and including, their adult years.)

Her adoptive mother’s miserliness is also only the surface residue of a deeper, almost savage cruelty that lurks below and appears with such insouciance. Explaining the reason for the ungraciously tiny amount of money Helen is to leave Penny in her will, Helen has this to say:

‘Because you haven’t been a very good daughter. I think that’s fair enough, don’t you?’

A fretsaw wheels in the corner of my eye. I feel dizzy.

‘I don’t know, Mummy,’ I say. ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’

‘Yes,’ she says, with decision. ‘Why not?’

Yet Penny manages to give a marvellous, brightly defiant response that must have been so hard to say with a beating heart and ears still ringing from being battered by words of such coldblooded indifference:

‘Well, if you’re asking me whether or not I think it’s fair that you do what you wish with your own money, then the answer to that is yes. If you’re asking me whether or not I think it fair that you are leaving me a smaller portion because you think I haven’t been a very good daughter, then the answer is no. I don’t, for instance, think that you’ve been a very good parent.’

‘Is that so?’ she says, surprised; and then, as though she found this of academic interest: ‘When do you mean? Now? Or then?’

‘Well – both,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ she says. She might have been told that no post had come today. [My italics.]

But this is not a relentless “misery” memoir of those childhood years, despite the fact her “mother’s unhappiness was a net that she threw over everyone […]”.

In fact, there is more pensive reflection and sadness and rarely a note of anger, nor an ounce of revenge, even though you feel Penny would have been more than justified in expressing rage and moving across the page of her memoir-writing with a daggerly pen. Instead, and throughout the memoir, it is clear how much she loves all of her adoptive family – and this, despite their many wrongs against her. Rather, she is one to pull no punches on her own account, despite you feeling she deserves to be so much kinder to herself, she doesn’t hesitate to be unswervingly self-critical:

Facing my mother is ordeal enough, without facing my brother, too. I will lose my breath, I will drown in my guilt and my shoulders will snap like twigs. I know that were we to meet, my brother and I, he would look down pleasantly on my face, would surprise me with his mildness of manner […] so what am I frightened of? The inarticulate weight of our history, the dark lane between us in which our parents war and walk; my own frailties and failures, my stupidities and fecklessness – my brother is a mirror of all these things. I have bewildered him with my difference, and he has taken it in as betrayal.

Now I do feel the need to hasten and reassure you it is far from all doom, gloom and shocks in the tradition of Mommie Dearest. When you turn the pages you find there are many moments in this memoir that express genuine happiness in her young life and, among those she loved were her father, John, who in turn loved her so as a child:

[…]When my father came home, the air moved. He opened the front door on a Friday night and my heart along with it, bringing with him life from Outside, a small breeze that blew all weekend-long, and which was shut off as he pulled the door to on his way out on a Sunday evening. After that, until the following Friday, the au pair and I were sealed in with my mother.

And, whenever there are good times to be experienced among her growing pains, the author relishes them, never hesitating to be appreciative of them and to portray lovingly those whom are good, kind or just plain delightful to remember.

Take two of her childhood friends, Mary:

Mary kept hamsters – a source of great envy […]. In fact, the appearance of either of the younger brothers would prompt her immediately to say, in her quick, energetic way, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here; and out she would flounce, leaving me to follow on like an apprentice geisha. Mary was a sly, practical child, her thoughts always a hundred moves ahead of my own, which churned slowly like cake dough in a mixer.

…and Kirsten:

The other spectacular thing I would discover about Kirsten [her Canadian cousin] was her temper. It was no mean thing. When seized with a fit, her voice would warble up to soprano heights, her nose would go red, and complaint was often accompanied by the stamping of a foot – even both feet. These tempests were aw-inspiring. Shocking, thrilling. I admired them tremendously. I admired her tremendously: at six years old, she struck me as a person fully formed: commanding, imperious, funny, dear. She was by quite some margin the most interesting person I had ever met. And her voice (due to a host of household allergies […]) had a hoarseness to it that distinguished her. If a lamb could talk, it would sound as Kirsten did at six years old.

She’s no less marvellous, too, at capturing adults:

Her nose was prominent, her skin sallow, and she possessed a particular voice, thin, slightly broken, like a tricking tap. Her natural expression was that of a person whose thoughts are sad and far away. Mrs Anderson was a beautiful woman.

On Brenda, her elderly stepmother (the second wife of Penny’s adoptive father):

Bathed in the orange light of the close-curtained room she lay in the vast white bed, a tiny frail immobile creature, the suggestion, only, of a body beneath the thin cotton sheet […] The once strong mane of hair was thin and puffy now, the blonde reduced to smoke. A pinprick of red, showed at her temple, and above the knobbly protuberances of her cheekbones her small eyes shone black with her anger. She was very, very angry.

And she’s just as good at quiet, sweet-and-sour comedy drawn from her observations of those around her: Of being in Palm Springs, she writes of a fleeting moment that most memoirists would most likely have overlooked, but thankfully Penny is a true writer, so doesn’t:

At breakfast, from the cool interior of the brasserie we have chosen, I gaze through the window at the palm trees plugged into the sidewalk at intervals of about ten feet. These have great hives of old leafage around their trunks: apparently all sorts of things make their homes inside – even rats. Not that I’ve seen anything either entering or exiting – not even a bird. Hopeful of seeing a rat, I have been looking carefully.

I become aware of a man and woman at the table next to ours. Sotto voce I say to Andrew:

‘I wonder if they live here, or whether they’re on holiday.’

The woman is English, but dressed in sporty American style: white trousers, crisp white shirt, wedge trainers, the uppers made of some sort of quilted material. An expensive pair of sunglasses sits on her cleavage, attached to a gold chain.

‘You never support me,’ she is saying to the man. ‘I sit there, saying what you ought to be saying, while you say nothing.’ Her energy is enthralling: it is concentrated, utter, directed. It is only seven o’clock in the morning.

The man is looking out of the sheet glass window, probably waiting for a rat to pop its head out of the palm tree. […]

                ‘Are you listening to me? Why don’t you respond when I’m speaking to you?’

The man does not take his eyes from the palm tree. Maybe he’s seen the rat and I’ve missed it.

Dear reader, I confess I laughed my tits off at that passage, and re-read it immediately and several times with much joy, in awe of the sheer control, and the delicate observation of what was obviously a tense, difficult moment between a couple in public, while admiring the brilliant seam of humour that cheekily shines through it and makes of the piece something both sad and joyfully funny at the same time.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for quoting so much from her memoir, but I do so in large part because I wish to convey to you the sheer excellence and vividness of her writing, of how wondrous she is at capturing people as well as the turbulence and see-saw of her significant experiences, from her first boyfriend to the loss of her adoptive father, adoptive mother, and the journey you take with her from her childhood of the 1960s (she was born in 1961), in middle-class but stultifying Cambridge, to the 70s, of two glorious holidays in Vancouver with her adoptive father’s brother and his own family, with a fast-forward-and-back to an astonishing account of her attempts in the millennium years to connect with her birth mother, much of which is nerve-wracking yet utterly gripping to read.

Allow me to quote one last time for you and to remark on it further. This, on Brenda, again:

[She] died three years after my father, in December 2009, a cramped wizened bird of a being, thin-skinned, twig-fingered, possessed of an enormous appetite for scones, which I fed to her in tiny bite-size pieces, laden with jam and cream. She ate with astonishing zeal, chewing with her mouth open. This was not, as might be imagined, a function of advanced decrepitude, but a life-long habit. Surprising in one for whom extreme femininity had been a calling card.

Isn’t that simply astonishingly good writing? It would be perfectly at home in the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and echoes the steely intelligence and driest of wit of the brilliant but neglected Ivy Compton-Burnett.

It’s probably obvious to you by now that I found no imperfections in the writing. But while this is not a criticism, in terms of story I do admit to wanting to know all about a vast swathe of her life that Penny doesn’t touch on at all: of her studies and time at Oxford University (her adoptive parents seemed to believe not a jot in her intelligence or talent; and neither, sadly, did she when growing up), and, too, her no-doubt many adventures as an actress in her adult years (albeit we do have a fleeting glimpse in her late teens of a friendship with Colin Firth during a brief spell at the National Youth Theatre).

On every page, you’ll find time and again there’s always something to bookmark, underline or note in your journal, and to share with your bookloving friends. It is a memoir of writing so touching, moving and funny, so gentle and loving and thoughtful, it is literature of the first rank. It deserves to win prestigious nonfiction awards and those for first-time published authors. It deserves them all, and then some.

If you are a true booklover, you know well the excitement felt when you’ve read something wonderful and excitedly wish to press a copy on every friend you know who also loves literature. And, if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you may access it for free straightaway – lucky dog, you! The physical copy is a lovely edition, with a beautiful cover, and the price to purchase a copy is generously low. I would love to know if you read it, and your thoughts. Do drop me a quick comment, below, or at the least, anyway, do please promise yourself that you’ll look out for a copy and add it to your list of books to read next…

A final thought: one of the telling signatures of a great book is that, as a reader, you want more and don’t wish it to end, anticipating the sadness and disappointment of reaching the final page; the rush to the first page, again, to re-read it straightaway. So, I do hope the author will return at some point with another memoir, to reflect on those other times, too. I’ve no doubt, based on this book, how captivating it would be. But then, whatever she may write, the same confidence in it would be justified, because Penny Bunton is the real deal: a gifted, funny, sad, moving, thoughtful writer.

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Filed under abuse of women, Actresses & Actors, authors, books, memoir, non-fiction, non-fiction title, Penny Bunton, Women Writers

Curiouser and Curiouser: My Favorite Alices – Post by Christina Henry, bestselling novelist

Blogging/editorial note from bobbygw: In celebration of the UK publication of Alice by bestselling novelist Christina Henry  (also author of the highly successful Black Wings trilogy, comprising Black Spring, Black Heart, Black City), this post is by her as part of her blog tour series to promote this great novel. There’s more info about her entertaining tour at the end of this post, so you can read all her posts in the series at your leisure. Note: Titan Books publish Red Queen, the sequel to Alice, on July 12 2016 in paperback and ebook editions.

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One of the most influential fantasy stories of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’ve written before that Alice and her story have become embedded in our cultural memory in such a way that even people who’ve never read the original story feel as though they must have.

Alice’s story is so iconic and has such a fairy-tale-like, almost mythical quality that many filmmakers and authors (including myself) have dipped into that sandbox to create our own Wonderlands (or in my case, more of a Nightmareland) and shape our own versions of Alice.

There have been lots of direct interpretations of the story, and I love many of them, but I’m especially interested in the stories that have Alice’s DNA without being specifically Alice stories. After all, any story that has a hole for the hero/heroine to fall through or a magical door to another world owes a debt to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Here are my four favorite Alices (and almost Alices):

4) Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland film – This is the first version of the story that I remember seeing, and it remains one of the most enduring for me.  The Cheshire Cat, in particular, becomes much more whimsical and charming in this version. In the book I always felt he just enjoyed thwarting Alice, but his mischievous expressions in the film mitigate that to some degree.

3) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Supernatural passageway to another world? Check. Young heroine who discovers a magical world and creatures and accepts them in a matter-of-fact way? Check. Much is made of both the Christian allegory and epic fantasy elements of this story, but at its heart this book is Lucy’s Adventures in Narnia.

2) Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – Here Alice is called Coraline, and the passage she goes through brings her to a place that seems wonderful at first but quickly turns dark and frightening. There’s even a black cat whose helpful unhelpfulness rivals the Cheshire’s.

1) Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice” from The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThis story has a loose tie to Through the Looking Glass and also to a version of Little Red Riding Hood. I adore Angela Carter and the way she interpreted the darkness in well-known fairy tales. In this story Alice becomes a self-aware adult, which is a theme that runs underneath the Carroll stories – all along Alice is becoming less childlike, more grownup.

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More about Christina Henry’s wonderful blog tour:

 

Alice Blog Tour Banner#2

Welcome to Nightmareland: A blog tour with Christina Henry, author of Alice and Red Queen

 

 

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Filed under abuse of women, authors, fiction, fiction title, Uncategorized, Women Writers

Let’s Celebrate! The Magic Wagon – A Classic Joe R. Lansdale Tale is Available Once Again

The Magic Wagon by Joe R. Lansdale - Kindle edition cover

Click on the book cover to buy this Kindle edition for $2.99

This new edition is a cause for celebration. First published in 1986 when Joe R. Lansdale was little known, and re-issued in 2001 by Subterranean Press, the wonderful US indie publisher, The Magic Wagon has sadly been unavailable since then.  Well, not only is it now easily available because it’s a Kindle edition, the price is a mere $2.99. It’d be worth it at triple the price.  And, even better, this early Lansdale fiction remains one of his very best.  In fact, it’s worthy of the title classic: a funny, quirky and utterly charming literary fiction, brilliantly told.

Set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, The Magic Wagon is the tale of Buster Fogg’s life as well as other eccentric characters that he encounters. By the time he’s 17, his life has been pock-marked by tragedy, yet Buster tells you about each sad event in such a way as to make them Candide-like – tragic-comic, even farcical.

It reads like a combination of an S. E. Hinton novel (Rumblefish, The Outsiders), in its convincing account of a boy’s youth and, throughout, a feeling that if Jorge Luis Borges had ever written a literary, magical Western, I think he’d have been proud to have the result that is The Magic Wagon.

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Filed under authors, books, fiction, fiction title, Joe R. Lansdale, literary classics, strange / unusual, The Magic Wagon

The battle of the sexes in fiction – Lawrence Naumoff’s Taller Women

Click on the image to buy this book for a penny, excluding postage & packing.

Occasionally a novel comes along that swallows you whole, making you sigh with pleasure, think deep thoughts, and blink with a delighted astonishment. Taller Women is just such a novel. Following hot on the heels of Naumoff’s previous novel, Rootie Kazootie (Harvest Book), it continues the theme of wise women, filled with hope and sadness, and near-silent men afraid of the truth in their hearts and the questions from their lovers.

In manic Lydia and whimsical Monroe, Naumoff portrays a tangled relationship that steers off the road into emotional territory for which neither has prepared. Like the shifting plates beneath the earth’s surface, they bump and grind, facing mutual confusion and a hope for something better around the corner. With off-beat humour and genuine insight, Naumoff recognises the sad, funny, scary and absurd battles that occur between the sexes.  He is a wonderful novelist and, absurdly, not well-known or appreciated enough.  Try him, he’s marvellous and I don’t believe you will be disappointed if you like the view above.

 

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Celine’s existential nightmare novel on the human condition

To buy with free worldwide delivery, just click on the book image. Nice!

This was Celine‘s second novel after Journey to the End of the Night and is a prequel to it. It focuses on Ferdinand Bardamu‘s (Celine’s fictional alter ego) troubled childhood and youth in Paris.

Reading Celine, you experience his incredibly intense emotional and intellectual understanding of our desperate, existentialist and unresolved – conundrum – human condition.

Celine makes it clear he sees no escape and that humanity – what there is of it – is pathetic, disease-ridden and without hope. The one consolation? To grasp a few moments of joy in a life of poverty and hardship. It is a story that is powerfully told, and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by it.

His raw, unadulterated, yet poetic style of writing – the use of ellipses and hallucinatory scenes mixing with the gutter and destitution – worked powerfully with his themes of desperation and poverty. In the 1930s there was no one with whom to compare him or to match him for the depth, complexity and violent negativity of his impoverished world.

You find yourself being drawn into and compromised by Bardamu’s viewpoint, anger and hatred. You drown with him and his constantly argumentative father and are at a loss to help his exhausted-to-the-bones mother.

You also can’t forget Celine’s deep and abiding compassion and that he later qualified and practiced as a doctor who worked only in the poorest, most deprived neighbourhoods of Paris (about which he writes so effectively in Journey to the End of Night). Nor, too, the fact that he was himself persona non grata before and after his “profession”; and you are further troubled by knowing that, besides, he lost his reputation as a writer – shunned by the literati of Paris – in his own lifetime because of his fascistic views (even though it’s important to note that in practising his medicine, he attended to everybody, irrespective of whether the person was Jewish or otherwise).

And while Celine and Bardamu both hated “humanity”, both were always specific, explicit and thankful for those few people that made a difference in their lives, including the wonderful characters of certain women, who plied the trade of prostitution, Violette, Lola (in Journey), and others.

It is a compelling novel, and in some ways is even darker and more troubling than his first, and most famous novel. If you come to this having been impressed by Journey, you will be all the more so when you finish reading this prequel.

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Filed under authors, books, Death on the Instalment Plan, fiction, literary classics, Louis-Ferdinand Celine

To sever your head from your heart: Dangerous liaisons & Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

To buy this with free worldwide delivery, just click on the image

A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels.  The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was the overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, also reviewed in this blog – click here).  More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – ahem).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense.  Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end).  Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know  she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic.  (To learn more about her life, click Iris Murdoch – Biographical profile, which includes sources/resources, and is written by the estimable Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash).

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A Visit from the Sh*it Squad: Jennifer Egan’s novel about watching toxic paint dry on cr*ap music

To order the Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Sh*it - oops - I mean Goon Squad, with free worldwide delivery, click on the book image here

Ah, dear reader.  I can tell from this post’s title and you clicking on it that you’re obviously expecting a rave review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, aren’t you? (Ahem.)  In fact, this really is a brilliant, wondrous, stunning novel and one of the masterpieces of 21st century literature.

Actually, no. Sorry. It really is Sh*it.

Don’t leave yet!  Please allow me to tell you why, because this snapshot review will be sure to save a few hours of your precious time by helping you to avoid – I hope – making the same mistake I and many other horribly disappointed readers did by purchasing this novel and believing it was actually, really literature.

No, it’s not. I’ve read pulp fiction with more class and intelligence than this. And certainly more entertaining.

So why is this novel – notably a winner of prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize – and recipient of rave reviews and accolades from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Village Voice and countless others; that was endlessly cited as one of the Best Books of 2010 (Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Village Voice and more, besides) – well, why is it so frickin execrable?!

Well, first, obviously disregard the positive reviews. They must have all been snorting washing up powder or something.

Egan’s attempts to be wry, clever and ‘with it’ – in this instance, the focus is on the American music industry, and the trials, shenanigans and viewpoints of some individuals within it and its periphery – leave you feeling nothing at all for her characters (because they’re all ego-inflated bores).

Sadly, pathetically (in every sense), her attempts at being clever amount to nothing more than sophistry, and two particular scenes/chapters highlighted by many reviewers to date as good are uninspired and tiresome. These involve a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, detailing in schematic/diagrammatic form a family matrix and its individuals’ views and connections; and an article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, including – of course – footnotes and digressions galore (arguably an homage, more in truth a dull-witted effort, with none of the brilliance or ingenuity or riffing, clever tangents that Wallace so effortlessly produced in his fiction and journalism).

You keep on hoping it will get better, but sadly, miserably, it doesn’t. Plodding stuff that will bore you to tears and, unless your proclivities include watching paint dry or wallpaper peel, I’d stay clear of this abysmal, contrived effort.  Spend a couple of hours with a friend. Call a family member you’ve not spoken to in a while and have been meaning to catch up. Paint your nails.  Do your hair. Take a long nap. Bunjy-jump.  Do a Tom Cruise backward jump onto a sofa (impossible spontaneously, so it’ll take you probably the same time as reading this novel to succeed). But don’t, under any circumstances, be fooled by this Empress’s New Clothes.

If you do, be sure to hold the book with a pair of kitchen or gardening gloves. Do not contaminate your skin!  Apart from that: enjoy!

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