This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Month: July, 2015

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors‘I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful.  All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.’

I could easily do a one line review, Twitter-style, for this novel: Like sex and plants?  Then you’ll love The Seed Collectors.  (Fear not, at no point in The Seed Collectors do carnal relations between humans and plants feature.  That would be a mite odd, even for Thomas.)

But a one line review would fail to do justice to this dazzling novel.

The eponymous Seed Collectors were Grace, Plum, Quinn and Briar Rose: Clem’s and Charlie’s mum, Bryony’s parents and Fleur’s mother, respectively.   They went missing on an expedition in the Eighties where they were trying to find a miracle plant.  But this novel is less about these Seed Collectors, and more about their children and their children’s children: in other words, it is less about their lives, and more about their legacy.  And what ‘legacies’ they are: Clem is, like Thomas, a university lecturer, who was Oscar-nominated for a film about the walking palm; Bryony is, rather less interestingly, an estate agent and part-time literature student; Charlie is a botanist who works at Kew; and Fleur runs Namaste House, a celebrity retreat.  Successful as they all are, like nature, they are not as pretty and glossy as their surfaces initially suggest.  Underneath it all, they are fickle, vain and rather quite nasty at points.  It is to Thomas’s credit that, despite her characters being intensely unlikeable, the novel is nevertheless a great success.

I read an article in the Guardian weekend a few months ago in which Thomas detailed her increasing obsession with her Fitbit.  Surely, herein lies her inspiration for her Madame Bovary-esque character, Bryony?  Conversely, however, it is not fitness Bryony is obsessed with, but food – and shopping. (I’m guessing she’s seen the magnificent play, Shopping and Fucking.)  In my favourite scene in the novel, she embarks on a post-prandial, drunken shopping spree which culminates in a rather hot scene in a Southeastern train toilet (I’ll let you read it, rather than reveal anymore.  Let’s just say, you’ll never look at those loos in the same light again.)

My one issue would be that, as with Laura Barnett’s fantastic debut, The Versions of Us, I had to keep flicking back to the family tree at the beginning to remind myself who people were and how they were related.  (N.B. There is a more accurate family tree at the end – but no peeking!)  But then, social media has arguably addled my brain.  Clearly, this is never an issue for this original, and shocking as ever, writer.

Many thanks to Anna Frame for the review copy.

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Blog Tour Day 8: Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey With A Guest Post From Melissa

9780099584957If I came face to face with a mermaid, I will hand her the jar, my heart bottled and    stoppered and offered freely.  And if she sees how much I love you, perhaps she shall speed me on my way.

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I’m so excited I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

I wish Mum could come with us.

But I can tell her all about it when she’s back.

Freya, grieving widow and mother, packs in her job and returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on the Scottish island where she, her husband and son, Jack and Sam, spent so many happy summers.  Her parents and sister are amazed at her decision; after all, it has only been a year since Jack and Sam went missing at sea, presumed drowned.  But Freya feels she must be near them, even if they are no longer here, as those of you who have grieved will understand.

However, despite losing the two loves of her life, Freya is not alone for long.  Soon enough, her foul-mouthed, fiercely independent sister Marta descends on her, and provides some much needed comic relief from Freya’s grief, which has supposedly turned her hair white overnight (flippant as it sounds, this was yet another thing which made me feel sorry for her).  Opinionated and straight to the point, she is the perfect foil to our introverted protagonist.  One of my favourite moments in the novel occurs when Freya and Marta have just visited Fingal’s Cave, one of the trips Sam and his father made and which Sam mentions in the diary Freya discovers.  Freya thanks Marta for accompanying her, to which she replies: ‘No problem.  It’s amazing.  As Sam said, even the guy who got nits still enjoyed the visit.  So it says a lot for the cave.’.

Another foil in the novel comes in the shape of Daniel, the haunted-looking man whom Marta and Freya rescue from his storm-wrecked boat one night.  Compared to Pol, the initially gruff but kindly man from the lighthouse board, and Callum, island tour guide who offers Freya a shoulder to cry on (and without whom the novel could have ended very differently), Daniel seems secretive and even offhand at points.  I was surprised somewhat at how suddenly his character changed, but arguably, he is the catalyst for Freya to accept that she cannot change the past, but she can, if not embrace, then at least hold the future’s little finger.

I underestimated Beyond the Sea initially; I dismissed the writing as too Anita Shreve, a bit ‘mid-brow chicklit’ (I appreciate that makes me sound like a book snob).  For the novel is beautifully researched (I loved discovering how Irish and Scottish folklore intertwine), and captures fictional grief as precisely as Cathy Rentzenbrink captures true grief in The Last Act of Love.  What’s more, how could I fail to love a story which brings to mind the great J. Alfred Prufrock?

 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

To paraphrase the great Will Shakespeare, ‘though [it] be but little, [Beyond the Sea] is fierce’.

Many thanks to Melissa for the review copy and asking me to be part of the blog tour.

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And here’s a guest post from Melissa – enjoy!

My top five books

I hesitate to say that these are my five favourite books of all time – that choice is perhaps too difficult to make – but they are five of my very favourite books. So on that basis here they are:

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This strange and surreal tale follows the life of everyman Toru Okada, after first his cat, and then his wife, disappear. Okada’s mundane world, in which he cooks spaghetti, drinks beer and listens to jazz, is suddenly transformed by a succession of exotic and menacing characters who propel him on a dangerous odyssey of self-discovery. Set in contemporary Japan, still haunted by the brutality of its past, it is a tale of love and war, dreams and reality, of what has been lost and can never be recovered. It is a powerful, philosophical story, told in Murakami’s perfectly pared down prose. And I promise, if you read it, you will never look at a well in quite the same way.
  2. Under the Skin is Michel Faber’s first novel and has one of the most exciting opening chapters I’ve ever read. Isserley, driving through the Highlands of Scotland, in her decrepit little car, is eyeing up hitch-hikers. But not just any old hitch-hiker will do. She wants a buff one, a hunk on legs, as she says. What does she want them for? As the novel takes off, and that question is answered, the reader is taken on a journey they could never have predicted. A twisty turny sci-fi fantasy adventure, it’s a wild rip roaring ride.
  3. The Passion is my favourite of Jeanette Winterson’s novels. An eclectic blend of history, fantasy and dark fairy tale, it follows the intertwining paths of Henri, a young French soldier cook, tasked with satisfying Napoleon’s immense appetite for chickens and Villanelle, the web footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, who miraculously can walk on water but who has lost her heart to the mysterious Queen of spades. ‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories,’ is the self-referential refrain the characters repeat. And trust me when I tell you that this story of love, betrayal and passion, exquisitely told in Winterson’s spare yet poetical prose will not disappoint.
  4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best ghost stories ever. At its heart is the governess, despatched to an isolated house in Essex, to care for two young orphans. She soon begins to suspect that the children are being haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Written from the perspective of the governess, the novel’s brilliance lies in the way it sheds doubt on the reality of the ghosts, questioning instead her sanity. James ratchets up the tension and the book’s thrilling denouement still haunts me to this day.
  5. Owen Meany, small in stature, with a damaged larynx and a permanently high-pitched voice, is the unlikely hero of my favourite John Irving novel (A Prayer for Owen Meany). At the outset of the book, Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball match, which accidentally strikes and kills his best friend’s mother. But Owen doesn’t believe in accidents. He believes he is God’s instrument. A story of faith, fate and friendship, comic and tragic by turns, this is a perfectly plotted novel in which the ending, although foreshadowed throughout, feels not predictable but simply inevitable. Irving himself said, ‘I have the last chapters in my mind before I see the first chapters…I usually begin with endings, a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first?’

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

 

VErsionsOfUsCover

 

It was as if she had been split into two, even three versions of herself – living, breathing simulacra – and lost sight of the original. 

The Versions of Us has been called the new One Day.  Well frankly – and don’t tell David Nicholls – I think it’s better than that.  (Plus I have great hopes that it will be made into a great film, unlike One Day.)

I was very privileged to attend the launch for Barnett’s debut at Daunt Books.  It was not only my first trip to this bookselling Mecca, but also the first time I had felt such a concentrated shock of love within one room for a book.  There was a very fitting sense that this much-awaited novel, fought over at auction by so many publishers, had been a long time coming.  (You will know what I mean by ‘fitting’ if you have read the book.  If not, what are you waiting for?)

The novel, as you might have guessed, tells three different ‘Versions’ of a relationship.  The ‘Us’ of the title is Cambridge students Eva and Jim, who meet by chance one day when a cycling Eva swerves to avoid a dog.  Thereon in, Jim and Eva’s lives are in some way intertwined, whether as acquaintances, lovers or spouses.

What I found particularly clever, and what made the novel far more plausible, was Barnett’s easy way of incorporating events in more than one version of the story.  For example, early on in the novel, in Version Two, Jim’s friend Peter tells him about a girl’s failed suicide attempt (she is saved by her ‘billowing’ skirts, which form a sort of ‘parachute’).  Much later on, the same story is told again, only this time, Jim merely overhears it in the pub, and yet the man’s face is strangely familiar to Jim.  This strange familiarity, or deja vu, which Jim experiences is something we have all felt at times, and emphasises just how true to life Barnett’s characters are.

My only quibble with The Versions of Us would be the concentration required to keep abreast of the three different versions.  So do not read this too late at night!

It’s difficult to say much more about the novel without giving the plot (or plots) away.  Suffice it to say, this is a truly sparkling debut, and the honesty and love within will break your heart not once, not twice, but thrice.

Many thanks to Rebecca Gray at Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the  review copy.

You can see the different covers Weidenfeld & Nicolson toyed with here and also a fabulous blog on how they decided on the final cover here.

There is an interview with Laura Barnett on the W H Smith blog which you may find interesting.

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I had a brother. I learned about love by loving him. He had the first bits of my heart. He died.

I wanted this book to be a work of fiction.  It would make a wonderful, albeit incredibly sad, story. But unfortunately, it is true.  Fortunately for us, however, Rentzenbrink writes so gloriously that we are glad, for all its tragedy, that she has shared her story – Matthew’s story – with us.

It was a summer’s night in 1990, much like any other one for Cathy and Matthew Mintern, a sister and a brother with barely a year between them. They had worked a shift at their parents’ pub and then carried on the night at a disco nearby. The turning point for Cathy was when a friend offered her a lift home. With awful irony, Matty declined, saying that he ‘might get lucky’.  Barely a couple of hours later, he was knocked down by a car, and Cathy prayed that he would not die. Little did she know that death would be a better fate than what lay ahead for Matty.

For Matty did die – but only after the Mintern family brought a court order seeking permission to withdraw all hydration and nutrition. This was after 8 painful years of no progress, and their parents looking after him 24 hours a day for most of those 8 years.

This is a truly tragic, but nonetheless inspiring, story.  I am so glad that Cathy shared it with the world, that she realised it wouldn’t be ‘imposing…heartbreak’ on us, but rather encouraging others to share their own tragedies. What’s more, her writing is stunning, and I very much look forward to seeing what she does next. (I have a feeling it will be fiction.)

Many thanks to Francesca Main at Picador for the review copy.