Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

It is Friday afternoon, time to write my thoughts on another Bailey’s longlist title, so I open my trusty notebook at the relevant page and I find…nothing. Not a word. Only a heading, Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, written in purple ink (with the election campaign at full throttle I realise my choice of ink colour is somewhat unfortunate, but rest assured I also possess a rather nice shade of green.) I am new to blogging, as you probably know, and yet in this short period of time I have learnt something about my note-taking habits: the more I enjoy a book, the less I write; the less I enjoy a book, the more I scribble.

Without my notes to fall back on I conjure up impressions, write them down – moving, heartwarming, delightful – which is all well and good, but if I came across a review containing this banal set of adjectives I would imagine it to be exactly the kind of book I wouldn’t want to read. Crooked Heart may indeed be moving and delightful, but it is far funnier and blacker than these hastily plucked adjectives imply.

Noel Bostock is a ten year old orphan who lives in London with his godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who has a somewhat unconventional approach to life. Noel adores Matttie, but her memory is starting to fail and he is forced to take on more responsibility as her health deteriorates. War is declared and, without wanting to giving too much away, Noel is evacuated to St Albans.

Vera (Vee) lives in St Albans with her mute mother and her only son Donald, a shiftless ne’er-do-well. Vee is forced to live by her wits but is none too successful. She decides to take in Noel, not out of the goodness of her heart, but because she sees in the limping, sickly and apparently simple boy, a money-making opportunity. Noel may indeed limp and his ears may stick out, but he is far from simple, as Vee soon discovers. The grieving, precocious Noel eventually helps Vee to fill the household’s coffers, but not in the way she had imagined.

Crooked Heart is witty and poignant and yet it never descends into sickly sentimentality. This is due, in no small part, to the characters, many of whom are damaged, suffering, all of whom are far from perfect  – we take Noel and Vee to our hearts despite their flaws, maybe even because of them. Donald is one of the more despicable characters in the novel and his comeuppance at the end is fist-punchingly gratifying.

Too often the war years are portrayed as times of pluck and pulling together, but there was also a darker side which is explored here. Evans includes some fascinating period details but they are never intrusive or overdone.

It is at this point in the proceedings that I tend to say However. Yet for me there are no Howevers.  The plot rattles along, the characters are a joy and the superb dialogue brings them fully to life. If I were being picky I might say I would have liked a more satisfying conclusion to one of the plot strands, but it would be a minor quibble.

Being part of the Bailey’s shadow panel has been tough at times, and occasionally I wondered why I was putting myself through the ordeal. Crooked Heart reminded me why: to discover wonderful novels which, in all probability, I would not otherwise have read. If, like me, you shy away from books described as moving, heart-warming and delightful, then I urge you to think again; I know I will.

Personal and Shadow Bailey’s Panel Shortlists

As many of you know, I was travelling in Central America when news of the Bailey’s Prize longlist was made public. This was not something I had anticipated when I agreed to become a member of the shadow panel, but I wasn’t unduly concerned: after all, I get through a reasonable number of books a month, and chances were that I would have read a fair portion of the longlist by the time the announcement was made.

After a sweltering afternoon climbing yet another gas spewing volcano, my husband and I were in the middle of our daily fight over the hotel air conditioning when I remembered what day it was. I checked my watch, made the required calculation and realised the announcement was due any second. Cold air blasted into the room while I located the slip of paper I had picked up at reception minutes earlier and typed the Wi-Fi code into my phone. And there it was. The Bailey’s Prize longlist. Twenty books. I stared at the list in silence, while the air conditioning continued to roar. I hadn’t read a single bloody one.

Hindsight came up with two reasons for my dismal failure: first, I like to buy books, a lot of books, so usually I wait until new titles are available in paperback; second, I like to buy books, a lot of books, and it was this addiction that led to my participation in #tbr20, a kind of AA for book hoarders, whereby the addict promises not to purchase a single tome until they have read 20 already in their possession. I had started this unnatural regime on 1st January and was doing remarkably well.

A fortnight later I returned home to freezing temperatures, an empty fridge and three weeks in which to read an entire longlist. I worked out that if I followed a strict routine I could manage 15 books, but 20 would be impossible.

Three weeks have now passed. My house is a health hazard, my garden a wilderness and my family are on the brink of starvation. But I have read 15 books. I had meant to review each one as I went along, but I soon realised there was barely time to shower let alone write reviews. The books I haven’t read are The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, Aren’t We Sisters, A God in Every Stone, After Before, and The Country of Ice Cream Star. It is for this reason that my shortlist is made up of 5 books instead of the requisite 6.

My Bailey’s Prize Shortlist

Outline – Rachel Cusk

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

How to be Both – Ali Smith

The Shore – Sara Taylor

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

But of course I was not alone. I shared the Bailey’s longlist reading with five ardent bloggers and general book enthusiasts – Naomi, Helen, Eric, Antonia, Dan. It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to participate in the discussions, which have seen differences of opinion, naturally, but a surprising level of agreement. We each came up with our own shortlists and the results were then collated to produce the ultimate all-singing all-dancing shadow panel shortlist you see here.

Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel Shortlist

How to be both – Ali Smith

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

The Shore – Sara Taylor

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey

I think many of us were surprised to find that, after the heated discussions of the preceding weeks, the shortlist very much fell into place with only one minor uncertainty, speedily sorted. I may be biased, but I think it is a damn fine shortlist (shame about Outline, but you can’t win them all) and hope the ‘real’ judges agree. Roll on 7.15.

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong

The Life of a Banana follows the fortunes of twelve year old Xing Li, a British born girl of Singaporean parents. The novel opens with the sudden death of her mother, as a consequence of which Xing Li and her elder brother, Lai Ker, are forced to go and live with their estranged, exceedingly wealthy grandmother. Also resident in the household are mentally ill Uncle Ho and Auntie Lei, an actress. Grandma insists on sending Xing Li to an exclusive private school, where she makes friends with Jay, a Jamaican-Chinese classical music fan, and is bullied mercilessly by Shirley (Shils) and her gang. Grandma is of another generation and imposes a strict Asian upbringing on her grandchildren, where blind obedience is a necessity and a transgression is punished with a beating. In Grandma’s eyes Xing Li is a ‘banana’ – a person who appears Asian and yet holds Western views and values – but outside the home she is deemed a foreigner.

And so begins a year in Xing Li’s life that includes a giant tortoise, a trip to Singapore, a meeting with a ‘dead’ relative, illicit trading, a disappearance, euthanasia, exam cheating, an extreme act of violence, a deal, an expulsion and several hospitalizations.

Xing Li is the first person narrator of the story, and while it is true she is only twelve years old, I often found her voice too immature and had to keep reminding myself of her true age. On one occasion Xing Li is having tea at her friend’s house:

     Jay’s mum takes out her violin, it’s got shiny strings but the body looks like it’s hundred of years old. His dad opens a pretty, wooden piano, it’s so polished and clean like Grandma’s kitchen. They smile at me and then they screw their eyes tightly shut and smile the secret kind of smile when you are just smiling to yourself and no one else.

Xing Li regularly mispronounces words, and while it is amusing the first time she mangles a composer’s name, the ‘joke’ is repeated many times and soon becomes irritating.

      …Jay has really got me into the German composer Wagger. His songs make me smile every time I hear them. Also Handle’s violin sad songs are really good too. I like it when the violins get extra sad and really high-pitched ‘cos they make the hairs on my skin stand up and salute.

Two main themes of the novel are racism and bullying, and while the bullying aspect is well written and convincing, I didn’t feel that race was a major cause. It is true that Shils bullies Xing Li because she is ‘a Chink bitch’ but the reasoning is superficial and any other criteria would have worked as well in the context of the narrative – weight, hair colour, buck teeth, protruding ears.

The Life of a Banana is a quick and easy read and rattled along at breakneck speed. However, despite the injustices and traumas Xing Li suffers, I failed to engage with her and could not shake off the feeling that I was reading YA. Xing Li’s immature voice was undoubtedly a factor, as was the piling on of events, which soon started to lack credibility. But it was the ending, the tooth-achingly saccharine tying up of loose ends that finally left me wondering who exactly this novel was aimed at.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Before I start this review, there is something you need to know about me: complete strangers, without prompting and with alarming regularity, tell me their life stories. One time, while I was sitting in a cold empty classroom waiting for my son to finish a music exam, a man entered and started speaking to me. I learned that he was a music teacher and that he had brought one of his pupils to the exam as the boy’s mother didn’t drive. He went on to tell me how his life had been destroyed by an allegation of sexual abuse, and while he was eventually exonerated, it caused his marriage to collapse and he lost contact with his beloved stepchildren. On another occasion I was in a café with my family, when an elderly man on the table next to ours told me how lonely he had been since his wife died and recounted the story of his courtship and marriage.

And so I picked up Outline, and found myself sitting on a plane next to a small fat man who proceeded to tell me about his wives, his children, his money and his yacht. Already I was hooked.

Outline follows the narrator over the course of a week, which she spends in Athens, teaching on a creative writing course. We find out that she is divorced with two children and has recently left the family home and moved to London. We learn little else about her, including her name, which is only revealed in the final pages. Instead, we listen to the people the narrator meets during her time in Athens, as they tell her their stories. There is Ryan, a fellow tutor, Angeliki, a novelist, and Anne, her replacement on the writing course. It is while speaking to Angeliki that the narrator recounts an episode from her own childhood.

     My mother once admitted that she used to be desperate for us to leave the house for school, but that once we’d gone she had no idea what to do with herself and wished that we would come back.

The narrator continues with her story and when she has finished Angeliki says,

     ‘Please excuse me I just need to write that down.’ She sat writing for a moment and then glanced up and said. ‘Could you just repeat the second part?’

This sense of ‘writer as observer’ is reinforced when the narrator is in the classroom and asks her students to describe something they noticed during their journeys that morning. One student takes umbrage at this:

     She had obviously been mistaken, she said: she had been told this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination.

We slowly start to understand that the narrator’s identity has, for many years, been defined by her role as wife and mother, and when that is taken from her she flounders, uncertain who she is, who she is to become. Other characters may speak the following words, but it is the narrator we are hearing.

    –  One’s existence as a wife and a mother is something often walked into without question, as though we are propelled by something outside ourselves; while a woman’s creativity, the thing she doubts and is always sacrificing for the sake of these other things – when she wouldn’t dream, for instance, of sacrificing the interests of her husband or her son – has been her own idea, her own inner compulsion.

      – …while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank… But sitting next to her neighbour she’d felt a sudden urge to know herself again, to know what she was like.

I liked Outline very much, but I do have some criticisms. The text is littered with similes, many of which I found jarring and unnecessary –

     We were strapped into our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read.

– and Cusk does seem overly fond of eyebrows: on one occasion she describes them as growing ‘unexpectedly coarsely and wildly from his forehead, like grasses in a rocky place.’ Every character speaks in the same voice, which is acceptable when their words are being related, but becomes problematic in direct speech. And the narrator does occasionally come across as pompous, most markedly when she is perusing her new appartment and attempts to justify her landlady’s collection of symphonies.

But these are minor criticisms. Outline is littered with acute observations, rendered with refreshing frankness, as you would expect from Cusk. It is true there is little plot to speak of, and the characters are transitory, the reader meeting them but for a brief moment, hearing only what they are willing to tell, only their versions of the truth. But these stories are not random or unimportant, as it is through them that the narrator both speaks and starts to understand and redefine herself.

I devoured Outline in two sittings. It was a book I wanted to savour but I could not put it down. I will read it again, this time slowly.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

My trusty notebook informs me that the last Anne Tyler novel I read was An Amateur Marriage in 2005. For many years I had been an ardent fan, reading everything she wrote, as she wrote it. Then I stopped. It wasn’t a conscious decision: I had liked An Amateur Marriage well enough.

Tyler writes about family life and relationships, about the seemingly mundane, about you and me, about our neighbours and friends –

There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks they were no more than average. ..But like most families they imagined they were special.

– and she does it better than anyone I have read. So why the ten year gap? Because I felt I had ‘done’ Tyler. You can’t win, can you?

A Spool of Blue Thread opens with a middle-aged couple on the phone to their son, who informs them he is gay. My heart sank: same-old same-old, I thought, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the novel has both nothing and everything to do with that initial phone call.

This is a family saga in the grand tradition, spanning several generations. Abby and Red are the parents in the opening scene, speaking to their black-sheep son Denny. As the book progresses we meet their other children, Amanda, Jeannie, and Stem, who I felt were more sketchy and I didn’t engage with them as I did with Denny, but then maybe that was the point.

A second strand of the narrative focuses on Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae. It was Junior who built the family house, which is as much a character as the generations of Whitshanks who inhabit it. In hindsight, the burgeoning relationship between Junior and Linnie Mae was one of my favourite sections, but at the time of reading I didn’t appreciate it. Tyler uses a non-linear narrative to tell the Whitshank story, which is not a problem per se, but I found that the plot shifts came without warning and at unwelcome moments. This is especially true two-thirds of the way through when, following a traumatic present day event, Linnie Mae and Junior are foisted upon us. I felt aggrieved at the rude intrusion and as a consequence it took me a long time to immerse myself in their story. Having said that, I did read the book in one day and I may have been more forgiving if I had been able to put it down between the major scene changes.

However, nothing can detract from the fact that Tyler is a superb observer of the human condition and her prose is wonderfully descriptive yet succinct.

This was an attractive room, spacious and well designed, but it had the comfortable shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long ago stopped seeing it.

The passing of time is keenly felt but the novel is not unnecessarily maudlin. There are some surprises along the way, and several instances when Tyler wrong-foots the reader – or at least she managed to wrong-foot me.

In A Spool of Blue Thread, as in her other novels, Tyler makes the seemingly simple complex, the ordinary extraordinary. I was bereft when I had to leave the Whitshanks: for a brief period I had been one of them, living in the large wooden house surrounded by tall trees, secretly admiring wayward Denny, shocked and impressed by mousy Linnie Mae, while all the time seeing far too much of myself in Abby.

It has been ten years since I last picked up an Anne Tyler. I have some catching up to do.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Maud is eighty-two years old and probably suffering from dementia, although her condition is never named. She is convinced that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing and is determined to find her. But the past also holds secrets, and Elizabeth’s unexplained absence stirs up memories of another disappearance, many years ago.

Elizabeth is Missing is the first novel I have read which is written from the point of view of someone suffering from dementia. This has been an active choice on my part, not because ageing and mental deterioration are subjects I wanted to avoid, but because I imagined the voice would be unconvincing. I need not have worried. Having observed two close relatives with vascular dementia, I find Maud entirely credible and expertly drawn.

At the opening of the novel, Maud is living alone, visited regularly by carers and her daughter, Helen. Even though Maud finds it hard to remember what happened a few minutes ago, it is through her observations and snippets of conversation that we learn about her life and those around her. Over time, we come to to realise that Helen is a considerate, loving daughter, although she is, on occasion, exasperated by her mother. Katie, Helen’s teenage daughter is a delight, as is Carla, one of Maud’s carers, who is obsessed with bleak news stories and relates them to Maud with obvious relish.

Maud continues to investigate her friend’s disappearance, but memories of an older mystery start to surface, initiated by the finding of a compact buried in Elizabeth’s garden. I have come across several reviews of this novel which are critical of the Elizabeth plot resolution. Without wanting to give too much away, it seems I read the Elizabeth situation very differently to these reviewers and therefore did not suffer the same disappointment. At one point I was becoming increasingly infuriated with Helen for keeping information from Maud, but this is subsequently explained. I did sometimes find the segues into the past contrived, and my attention waned in the middle, but as the narrative progressed I became engrossed once more. When the solution to the final mystery is revealed, it becomes clear how well plotted the novel is.

Elizabeth is Missing could have been a depressing read, but it isn’t. It is funny and poignant and yes it is sad at times, but at the root of it all is a deep love which is occasionally tested but never broken. It is a novel that gives voice to the unheard, and maybe, when we are exasperated by a forgetful elderly relative, we will remember Maud, and we will pause and be a little more patient, a little kinder.

The Bees by Laline Paull

The Bees, Laline Paull’s debut novel, is set in a hive and follows the fortunes of Flora 717, a lowly worker born into the ‘sanitation’ caste.

I have always been fascinated by bees and, as a frustrated beekeeper (my husband has so far managed to keep my honey-producing urges in check) I was looking forward to this novel. The factual information contained in The Bees was not new to me, but I was initially engrossed, prepared to suspend disbelief while Flora is continually promoted, moving from one job to another  – a device which provides the reader with an overview of the hive and its inhabitants. At times this felt contrived and I wondered if different viewpoints would have been more effective in describing the workings of the hive.

In the opening chapters, the characters are presented as predominantly apian, but as the story progresses, the anthropomorphism increases. The descriptions of the hive are largely accurate and well executed, and important environmental concerns are addressed, but the increased humanisation of Flora and her fellow bees feels unnecessary and detracts from the apian themes. I especially dislike the ‘library’ and the bees’ versions of The Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, and while the drones are brilliantly drawn, I’m not a fan of their archaic, bawdy language.

I predicted the ending early on, even though at first I was confused, as I thought it biologically impossible  – apologies if this is a bit cryptic, but I don’t want to elaborate as it’s a spoiler (thelytoky is the key).

Laline Paull obviously knows and loves bees and this comes through in her novel. There is much to like, despite my criticisms, although for me it could have been shorter. I was particularly struck by one dramatic scene towards the end of the book, and will forever feel guilty when opening a jar of honey.

If this has whetted your appetite for all things apian, I highly recommend the documentary film More than Honey.