The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton takes the traditional English setting for a whodunit—a country house thrumming with secrets, tensions and fears—and turns it into something completely unexpected. I have read a lot of crime fiction, and this is one of the most original books I’ve come across.

Take the way it begins.

“I forget everything between footsteps.
‘Anna!’ I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.
My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. …
‘How did—’ I’m cut short by the sight of my own hands. They’re bony, ugly. A stranger’s hands. I don’t recognize them at all.”

No, it’s not just a case of severe amnesia—the narrator, whose name we are told only halfway through the book because he has forgotten it—wakes up in a different body every morning (well, sometimes more often than that). Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the host, is going to kill herself that evening. But the suicide is actually a murder, and the narrator has to find the killer if he is get out of the house. His advantage is that time is on a loop, and the day keeps repeating itself. Endlessly.

The narrator (who eventually finds out that he is called Adrian) has eight hosts. He can only exist in these, never as himself. Each of these eight men is in some way involved in the murder, whether directly or indirectly. All of these are guests at the house or work there. But who are the others? The Footman, whose very mention terrifies Adrian but he doesn’t know why. Then there is the man in the mask with the beaked nose, who keeps appearing and seems to know far more than he is letting on. And finally, who is Anna? Is she a friend, a murderer or a victim whom Adrian has to save?

Each time Adrian wakes up in another body, he has to contend not just with the physical reality of his host but also his mental makeup, trying to use any skills or knowledge the man has without letting him overwhelm Adrian. And because time is on a loop, Adrian can build the day’s events from several points of view. He might even be able to save Evelyn.

It sounds a little too clever but somehow Turton keeps all the balls in the air. I honestly don’t know how he does it, but the timelines all add up. It was complicated enough to keep me hooked but not convoluted enough to make me give up. The way he describes Adrian inhabiting his hosts was brilliantly done—you are in their head but you are also observing them. It is a world of smoke and mirrors and as a reader, you find yourself trying to help Adrian solve the mystery, not just of the murder, but the way this world works.

Absolutely brilliant. Read this—I guarantee it will keep you up into the early hours of the morning.

Einstein’s Dreams: Alan Lightman

This is the first of the reviews of some of my favourite books (see Revisiting Old Favourites).

What if time flowed in a different way from the one we know and we are used to? What if it circled in on itself, so we relived our lives endlessly without ever knowing it? What if it moved in fits and starts? What if you could travel back into the past or make three different decisions, each one simultaneously in different worlds?

In this book, Alan Lightman imagines the way a young Einstein would see time. He uses as foundation Einstein’s early years, when he was a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, and where he wrote some of his most ground-breaking papers.

But the bulk of this book is about the different permutations that time can take and the worlds they create. It makes you really think about how time works. We know that it is relative: it rushes by when you are late for a train, moves like molasses when you’re waiting to meet your lover; when you were a child, five minutes was long and summers went on forever, but as you get older, the years fly past.

The worlds Lightman creates here are myriad: time travellers to the past lurk in corners, afraid to affect events in case they change the future. A man decides not see a woman again because she is too manipulative; in another world, he goes back to her; and in a third, he goes to see her but nothing comes of it. All of these events take place simultaneously. (Reminds me of an episode of Red Dwarf, where Rimmer meets another version of himself from another dimension.)

There is the world where time moves fitfully and people get occasional glimpses into the future, which guides their actions. A woman sees where her son will live and moves there. In another world, time moves slowly for those who move quickly, everyone rushes from place to place, dodging buildings that are on wheels. No one sits and reads book anymore. In yet another, time flows slower the higher you live so people build houses on the top of mountains on stilts and look down on those living in the valleys. Or the one where people only live for a day, so they never see the change of seasons and are bewildered by the change from day to night or night to day. A lifetime of 24 hours means you never get to know anyone. An old man looks back at his past. “His life is scattered in fragments of conversation, forgotten by fragments of people. His life is divided into hasty episodes, witnessed by few.”

This is a dreamlike book, and Lightman’s writing is lyrical. Take this description of day breaking in the patent office where Einstein is working:

“All that can be seen at this moment are the shadowy shapes of the desks and the hunched form of the young man. … Minute by minute, new objects gain form.Here, a brass wastebasket appears. There, a calendar on the wall. Here, a family photograph, a box of paperclips, an inkwell, a pen. There a typewriter,a jacket folded on a chair. … Outside, the tops of the Alps glow in the sun. It is late June. A boatman on the Aare unties his skiff and pushes off, letting the current take him along Aarstrasse to Gerbenstrasse, where he will deliver his apples and berries.” 

Or this passage, set in a world where time goes backwards. A man scatters dust on his friend’s grave, but he is not sad. He looks forward to his friend becoming stronger. “He waits longingly for a particular day he remembers in the future when he and his friend will have sandwiches on a low flat table, when he will describe his fear of growing old and unloved and his friend will nod gently, and the rain will slide down the glass of the window.”

Hag-Seed: Magaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood never disappoints, and this reworking of The Tempest (as part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press) is no exception.

Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival in Canada, has been working on what he believes is his masterpiece, an over-the-top production of The Tempest. The play was meant to be a tribute to Miranda, the three-year-old daughter he lost to meningitis. The day before it opens, Felix loses his post in a coup orchestrated by his assistant, Tony, with the help of Sal O’Nally, the Heritage Minister. Felix is devastated: he has not only lost his career but his social standing.

He retreats to a shack to lick his wounds, accompanied only by the ghost of Miranda, who grows as the years go by. He is aware that she is only a figment of his imagination, but he can’t let her go, and spends his time talking to her and stalking Tony and Sal on the internet.

Nine years go by and worried he is losing his mind, he decides to go back into the world. Calling himself Mr. Duke, he gets a job as a theatre director at a prison, the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, as part of an experimental programme called Literacy through Literature. Felix decides that the men will put on only Shakespeare plays, “wizardry in the slammer”, as he calls it. The job seems to bring out his innate talent as director: he earns the prisoners’ respect and encourages them to engage with the play. He is open to the prisoners’ interpretations and changes, insists that the only swear words allowed in his classes are to be taken from the play, and as a final assignment, asks them to imagine the future lives of their characters. To avoid stage fright and unforeseen situations, the final play is recorded and is played to the entire prison on TV screens. The programme is a big success.

But Felix has not forgotten the two men who deposed him. While he retreated from the world, Tony has been clambering up the greasy pole, and is now Heritage Minister. Sal is campaigning to be elected the leader of the federal party. Between them, they have decided to shut down Literacy through Literature but for form’s sake, will be at the prison to see the prisoners’ new play. So far, they’ve been out of Felix’s reach, but now they are walking into his kingdom, unaware that Mr. Duke is really Felix. It is an irresistible opportunity. “How to grasp them, how to enclose them, how to ambush them? Suddenly revenge is so close he can almost taste it. It tastes like steak, rare. Oh, to watch their two faces! Oh, to twist the wire! He wants to see pain. ‘We’re doing The Tempest,’ he says.”

The result is wickedly funny. Getting hardened criminals interested in The Tempest is a challenge, and Felix rises to it. He even manages to persuade one of them to play Ariel, who is transformed from a fairy with wings to an alien creature in a blue raincoat and shower cap. With a bit of help from a couple of his criminal disciples, Felix puts together a cunning plan to get his back on the two men, and Atwood keeps you guessing until the end whether it will work or go horribly wrong.

The book is brilliantly put together. The entire structure is based on The Tempest, with Felix as Prospero, thrown out of his kingdom by Tony and Sal (Antonio and Alonso). His island kingdom is the prison. There is another Tempest within this larger story: the re-enactment of the play, which is actually two re-enactments: one that the rest of the prison sees and the other entirely for the benefit of Sal and Tony. All these layers come together in the grand finale.

Hag-Seed is an absolute delight and one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Felix carries the story: he is manipulative, self-centred and obsessive, but utterly engaging. You don’t have to like Shakespeare to enjoy it, but if you’re interested or need to be reminded—and it does add to the enjoyment of the book—there is a helpful summary of the play at the end. I hope that the other books in the series are as good.

Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders

While the American Civil War was raging, Abraham Lincoln lost his 11-year-old son, Willie to typhoid. It is said that for a few nights after Willie’s death, Lincoln, grief-stricken, used to go to the crypt to hold his son’s body.

George Saunders takes this sliver of history and builds a multi-faceted, multi-voiced story around it. The entire book is constructed of fragments—some are extracts from existing material but the bulk of it made up of voices of the dead in the cemetery, dead who are still in Bardo, the Tibetan term for a place of transition after death. It reminded me of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, where the dead rise up to tell their stories.

Our guides for most of the book are two of the ghosts: Hans Vollman, a printer who left behind a young wife; and Roger Bevins III, a gay man who committed suicide when his lover rejected him. They are joined by the Reverend Everly Thomas, who had crossed over into the afterlife but fled to the Bardo when he realized he was being sent to hell. He never got over the horror of what was awaiting him.

Although Willie, being a child, should move on, he stays so he can be with his father. However, the children who stay end up by being attacked by vile beings who bind them down with tentacles, so the three men decide to try to persuade Lincoln to let his son go. Given the obstacles in communicating with the living, this is not an easy task.

This is an incredible work of imagination—not just the premise but the way it is written. The dead in the cemetery cannot wander too far from their bodies and don’t seem to realize they are dead. Coffins are called “sick boxes” and graves “sick mounds”. Their manifestations emphasize the way they lived their lives: a miser with several properties worries constantly about their state and has to float horizontally, pointing like a compass to whichever property he was thinking of; a young black woman brutalized and raped is voiceless; and Everly Thomas has protruding eyes and hair standing on end from the time he glimpsed the horrors of the “diamond tent”.

The style took a while to get used to but once I did, I was hooked. There are, as I mentioned earlier, two kinds of chapters: the historical ones, which are composed of extracts of a couple of lines or so from books or contemporary accounts and often contradict each other. But for me, the richness of the book lies in the other chapters, where the dead come alive, so to speak, and tell us their stories. And it brings home the fact that we all have stories to tell.

My Name is Leon: Kit de Waal

My name is LeonWhen we first meet him, Leon is 8 years old, going on 9. He is in the hospital with his mother Carol, holding his baby brother, Jake, for the first time. This first scene sets up the way things are going to be: Leon holding his new brother with care, Carol going off for a cigarette before feeding Jake, and eventually the nurse leaving Leon to look after his baby brother alone.

And so it goes. Carol is unstable, dependent on prescription drugs and barely able to look after herself, never mind her two sons. Leon steps in and takes care of Jake, feeding him and changing his nappies. Eventually Carol goes into a drug-induced coma, and the neighbour calls in an ambulance and social services.

The boys are taken in by Maureen, an older woman who has fostered more than 20 children over her career. She is obviously good with children and creates a sense of security for Leon. But the boys have different fathers and therefore different fates: Leon is mixed race with a Caribbean father, and Jake is white. Jake is adopted quite quickly but social services cannot find a family to take Leon. Maureen realizes the devastating effect that breaking up the brothers is going to have on Leon but is powerless to stop it.

When Maureen has a stroke and has to go to hospital, Leon has to move again, this time to Maureen’s sister, Sylvia. He has lost so much: his mother, whom he hardly sees now, his brother and then Maureen. He develops behavioural problems: he has no friends in school, he steals and acts out his anger. The one plus he has going for him is that although Sylvia is not the maternal figure that Maureen has been, she genuinely cares about him.

Leon’s world widens when one of the social workers gives him a bike. Riding around Sylvia’s neighbourhood, he discovers an allotment near Sylvia’s house. He becomes friendly with two men there: Tufty, a Caribbean man, who introduces him to racial politics and Mr. Devlin, an Irishman, who seems a little suspect. The two men cannot stand each other but have a lot to teach him (including how to grow beans).

As you can tell from the title, Leon is the centre of the book. It is told from his point of view and he feels so real: a child trying to be an adult, dealing with abandonment and grown-ups who are not always there for him. He feels it is up to him to bring his family back together because no one else seems to want to. It’s heart-wrenching: he is so convinced he can do it, but as the reader you are aware that the world doesn’t work that way.

I spent a lot of the book dreading what was going to happen to Leon, but Kit de Waal never lets things get too fraught. Characters are drawn with a lot of empathy—none of them are saints but nor are they horrible. They’re just people, trying to do the best they can.

De Wall has advised social services on adoption and mother was a foster mother, so she obviously knows her subject. Although social services don’t always come off well, this book is not an exposé of the things can go wrong. It is a warm, empathetic book, and it’s good to be reminded of the humanity of ordinary people, especially in the current climate.

Not So Stories, edited by David Thomas Moore

Not-so-storiesWhen I was a child, I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, tales of how animals became what they are: how the leopard got its spots, the camel its hump and the rhinoceros its skin. But it’s a book that doesn’t age well. Kipling, after all, was part of the British Empire and believed that colonization was a force for good that helped to improve the lot of the “natives”.

So if you’re looking for an alternative version, here it is. Although I’m not sure that you could read all of these to your children, it’s a book whose time has come. Nikesh Shukla begins his foreword with a quote from Junot Diaz: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

To me, this quote not only sums up the thinking behind Not So Stories, but the way it subverts conventional thinking. The collection that David Thomas Anderson has put together is diverse, both in terms of the background of the authors—which include Australian Aborigine, Malaysian, Philippines, Iranian and Indian (disclosure: Achala Upendran, one of the authors, is the daughter of a friend, Usha Raman, who writes for this blog)—but also in terms of genre: folk tales, fantasy, horror and realism.

There is a lot to enjoy here: Cassandra Khaw’s sly tale of how Spider persuaded Man to give her venom, which he did without thinking because she was such a small harmless thing (he was in for a surprise!); Joseph E. Coles’s angry account of panther who is kidnapped and made to fight in the Roman arenas; and Achala Upendran’s upending of the traditional account about First Woman and First Man: not woman as temptress but man as oppressor. There are those who lose their roots and find them again: Wayne Santos’s Yuan Ching, whose job is to keep the ghosts of the dead from entering the city but is distracted by her English boyfriend; and Georgina Kamsike’s Nina, who rediscovers her Indian identity after her grandmother dies. And the colonizer is definitely not a force for the good—quite the opposite.

That’s just a sample. I look forward to more retold tales, to diverse voices. We all need ourselves reflected.

The Sellout: Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. … I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. … But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

The narrator is Me, son of F.U. Me, a psychologist who home-schooled him, reading him academic papers instead of bedtime stories. The Mes are descended from the Kentucky Mees, one of the first black families to settle in southwest Los Angeles (his father dropped the second “e” from the name). Me is in court is because he has tried to reintroduce segregation to Dickens, the majority black-Latino agrarian ghetto he calls home. Dickens is so run-down that, to save Los Angeles embarrassment, it has been wiped off the map. Segregation is Me’s way of trying to put Dickens back on the map.

It starts with a sign posted in the local bus driven by Marpessa, the unrequited love of Me’s life. The sign says PRIORITY SEATING FOR SENIORS, DISABLED AND WHITES and is a birthday present from Me to his good friend Hominy. Finding that people start behaving better on the bus, Me follows it up with a billboard opposite the local school announcing a new academy for whites only, which results in higher test scores in the school.

This is a delightfully subversive book that turns racism in the US on its head. I found myself squirming and laughing out loud at the same time. Paul Beatty has a wicked sense of humour, and everything—and everyone—is fair game. Me describes his trip to Washington: “Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shoed Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungle, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks.” When the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a group of black intellectuals established by his father—suggest that Me take his father’s place as leader of the group, Me mocks it as “The Kim Jong-un of ghetto conceptualism”. And there is the delightful reworking of The Charge of the Light Brigade: “The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade”.

But there is so much here that I feel I have only skimmed the surface. Like the best comedy, Beatty uses the humour to make some serious points, including about the mass appeal of racial stereotypes in entertainment. Hominy was once a child actor in Little Rascals, the popular TV series about a group of kids of different ethnicities. Hominy is proud of his work, in spite of the fact that the show used racial stereotypes for humour.

The Sellout, by subverting racism, raises questions about the civil rights movement, the US Constitution and racial equality. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize—it is original and thought-provoking.

Revisiting old favourites

A few years ago, a friend challenged me to post a photograph of my 10 favourite books on this blog. The list took a while to put together, and I finally came up with 15.

I’m an inveterate list maker, so I tend to keep running lists in my head of my 10 (or 15 or 20) best books, albums and movies. But while I listen to the albums often, and go back to the movies from time to time, I realized that I hadn’t actually read the books on my list for years—just dipped into them.

So over the next year, I’m going to revisit these old friends. I came across them for the first time when I was much younger—how will I see them now? Some of them, like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnets, reflected who I was then—or thought I was (if I remember correctly, that was 1978). Forty years later, will these poems speak to me as they once did? I have grown and changed, as we all do when life happens to us. Can I still tap into the magic that these books once held for me?

There are a few on the list that I know almost by heart. One of them is Under Milk Wood, which I have reviewed on this blog. The copy my husband gave me (there’s a story there that you can find in the review) is falling apart, so I’m very careful with it. But we do have a complete recording of the play, and we can both recite whole passages of it. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Macbeth are works that I know well but haven’t read for years. My latest memories of both is watching films based on them—Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which wasn’t entirely true to the original, and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, which was. And with the publication of a new series from Hogarth Press where well-known writers rework Shakespeare plays into contemporary novels, this might be a good time to go back to the originals.

For the last several years, I have been focusing on books that I haven’t read before. There are so many new ones published that it is impossible to keep up, and I often feel I need a couple of lifetimes to get anywhere. And the reading challenge some of us set ourselves a few years ago has opened up a whole new world of writing from countries around the world.

In the effort to read widely and as much as I can, I have neglected the ones that have been part of my life for a long time. I am not going to stop reading new books but will intersperse them with these old familiars, letting them tell me their stories again. And while I’m about it, I might add a couple to that ever-growing list. I am thinking of Flicker by Theodore Roszak, which I read in the 1990s and was very taken with at the time. It’s a sort of whodunit (in the Umberto Eco mould) about film and semiotics, so right up my street. And one that is eminently dippable, my father’s copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which does not list quotes by subject, ready to be inserted into a speech, but by author and work, which makes it a delight—like having the best extracts from literature at your fingertips.

As I read these books, I will write about them on this blog. And if you want to share your own list of favourites or your thoughts on rereading them, I would love to hear from you.

Ghost Stories: E.F. Benson (selected and introduced by Mark Gatiss)

This collection comes with an introduction by Mark Gatiss, best known for playing Mycroft in the TV series, Sherlock. I discovered that Gatiss and I share a love of Victorian ghost stories: he made a documentary on the life of the greatest of them, M.R. James, a writer who was Benson’s contemporary and influenced him.

Although I still think no one beats James at creating atmosphere, I enjoyed these stories. One of my favourites is The Room in the Tower. The narrator has a recurring nightmare that he is in a country house with a particular family. The dream always ends with the dreaded words from the hostess, “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower”. What is it that lurks in the tower that so terrifies him?

Supernatural goings on lurk in seemingly normal places: in the village of Maxley, “rich in amenities and beauty”  a new resident is not really the friendly, outgoing person she seems to be; on a visit to the countryside, on “a golden day that every now and then leaks out of paradise and drips to earth”, the narrator walks through a forest that harbours something very strange and nasty; and the panels in a church in Polearn, a remote village in West Cornwall, tell of a pestilence that walks in the dark. And you will never look at caterpillars in the same way again.

But Benson also pokes fun at mediums and is sceptical of “ghost-hunting” in old creaky houses. In The Bus Conductor, two friends who spend a night in an old house, hoping to see a ghost, come away with nothing but a few scares. (The ghost appears later in a normal London street.)

Benson’s descriptions, especially of the English countryside, are beautifully written: “once out of the shadow of the wood the stream lay in flaming pools of molten crimson of the sunset, and lost itself in the haze of woodland distances”. But there is always a dark side: the forest without woodland animals or birdsong, where a thing moves with a “certain stealthy heaviness”, emitting a foul odour. And for me, the scariest image in the book: the figure haunting the room in the tower, glimpsed briefly in a flash of lightening, watching the narrator as he lay in bed.

Ghost stories tap into our fear of the unknown, and the Victorian writers gave us just enough detail to allow our imaginations to fill in the gap. That is their secret, and that is why some of the scariest, most enduring ghost stories come from that period.

To the Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm, translated by translated by Michael Hofmann

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What happens when a man walks out of his seemingly perfect life?

Thomas and Astrid live in a village in northern Switzerland. Thomas has a steady job, they have two children, a nice house and a marriage that seems to work. Until one evening, back from a holiday in Spain, they put the children to bed and sit outside with a glass of wine and the paper. Astrid goes in to check on the son, Konrad. Thomas leaves his unfinished glass of wine and walks out of the gate. And keeps walking.

Astrid, in the meantime, goes to bed, thinking Thomas will follow. She doesn’t really notice his absence until halfway through the day. She makes excuses for his absence to his secretary and the children, hoping that he would come back. But he doesn’t, and she goes to the police.

The book alternates between the two: Thomas, as he manages to survive with whatever he had in his pockets, staying out of sight, sleeping rough; and Astrid, trying to maintain an appearance of normality, especially for the children. She tracks down his whereabouts when he uses his credit card but he has already moved on.

Thomas does not have any obvious motivation for leaving: the day he walks out is like any other. But Peter Stamm, in summing up Thomas’s life so far, gives you a glimpse of what he was escaping from: “he had functioned in the way expected of him, without it being ever discussed”. The freedom Thomas craves is the freedom from expectations. Now, wandering through the countryside, he lives in the moment, surviving in whatever way he can, with nothing to prove to anyone.

Stamm’s writing is spare and deceptively simple. He describes the events dispassionately: there is emotion but for the most part it is kept just under the surface. The writing emphasises the way both Thomas and Astrid keep an emotional distance from their lives and from those around them. When their daughter Ella was a baby and cried incessantly, Astrid would sometimes leave her alone in the house and go and sit on a bench by the station. And in a strange way, she seems to understand Thomas’s need to leave.

I loved Stamm’s writing and the economical way he can capture a scene. The family goes to a barbeque with Thomas’s handball teammates. “Astrid sat at a table with three couples who seemed to be friends and were sharing village gossip, with loud shouts of laughter. … By the time Thomas finally jammed onto the bench facing her, laughing at some comment or other that someone had called out, she said she was tired and wanted to go home… she had the feeling that she couldn’t stand the noise and merriment for another minute. In spite of that, they didn’t go home until much later, after midnight, when there was a chill in the air.”

This book is about relationships and love, and also loss, the empty place at the table, the slowly fading memory of someone dear. Astrid, describing him to the police, “had the sense that Thomas was rigidifying as she described him, becoming unrecognizable, the image of a dead man”. At one point when she thinks he is dead, she imagines Thomas’s family and friends trying to keep his memory alive by telling and retelling stories about him which “over the years would come to stand in for him, and finally, ironically, cause him to disappear.”

But the core of the book is the love between Thomas and Astrid. In an odd way, their relationship strengthens away from each other. Stamm has written an unusual and rather haunting book.