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THE SHOCK OF THE FALL by Nathan Filer

‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

This is the gripping opening of Nathan Filer’s debut novel. The book was chosen as the Costa book of the year 2013, and has gained positive reviews across the board:

‘Exceptionally moving without being sentimental – we’re very much hoping there will be more from this writer… astonishingly sure-footed…’ Rose Tremain
‘A gripping, exhilarating read… passages that have a sort of simple poetry’ GUARDIAN
‘Authentic, funny and hauntingly sad’ SUNDAY TIMES

So, what did Berwick Book Group members think of it?

Martin is hard to please, but he writes: ‘This sounds like damning with faint praise but I quite liked The Shock of the Fall. Not a lot to say about it, except that it highlights our abandonment of the sick, criminal, elderly, unemployed, unemployable, anyone who doesn’t fit a narrow social spectrum of fortunate human beings. The focus was upon those deemed “mentally ill”, a diagnosis of itself open to endless debate. With treatments at about the level of blood-letting and leeches for physical medicine it painted a picture of containment and the chemical cosh. And even this only available while we can be bothered to pay for it. As always it is a time of economic difficulty so “difficult decisions” have to be made. Difficult for those who have to suffer the consequences so that those with the resources and means can continue in their feather bedded luxury. I don’t think they want me as a tory candidate.’

The reaction from other members was also generally positive. Although the majority opinion was that The Shock of the Fall was not a great novel, everyone thought that it was a good read, particularly moving in its depiction of grief and how grief affects a whole family. Everyone liked the characters, particularly Nanny Noo and Matthew’s father. The relationship between Matthew and his mother after Simon’s death was the subject of some interesting discussion, particularly about the mother’s desire to keep Matthew dependent. Some were less convinced by Matthew as a narrator, feeling that he was too child-like in his outlook. Others liked the transaparent simplicity of the prose.

The book’s exploration of mental illness was met with a more mixed reception. Some members particularly liked the way that schizophrenia is portrayed through the eyes of the sufferer – they felt that Matthew was not defined by his illness. He was a funny and intelligent narrator. For instance, when he has to stop writing because ‘Jenny from Art Group is doing a nervous bird impression, fluttering around at the top of the corridor, trying to catch my attention’, he finishes with ‘That paper-mache won’t make itself’. However, other members felt that they knew no more about the illness having read the book, and they saw this as a failing.

We also discussed plotting – did the book have suspense and tension or not? Some felt that, because we knew from the start that Simon had died, the suspense was not there. Others were keen to find out the circumstances around Simon’s death, and also found suspense in Matthew’s journey – literally – to the cliff edge.

Everyone found the ‘celebration of Simon’s life’ scene affecting, although some of us felt that it teetered on the edge of sentimentality and created too ‘neat’ an ending.
I found this novel very affecting. I read it on my Kindle and I wish that I had bought a hard copy – the use of different fonts would have been much more effective, I think. I enjoyed the thematic symbolism – ants, atoms, ‘I’m lost’, dolls – and the way they were used to make connections. It was particularly moving when Annabelle at the end said, ‘shh shh it’s going to be okay’, repeating what Simon said to Matthew after the shock of the fall. I also found it very sad that a moment of completely understandable childish cruelty should have shaped Matthew’s whole life and outlook. There’s a terrible dilemma at the heart of Matthew’s illness – he can reconnect with his brother but only during a psychotic episode. To be well he must say good bye to Simon. I also enjoyed Matthew’s mockery of the language of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses. This ‘documentese’ is also used to shocking effect when, in Matthew’s first psychotic episode, he reads the old man’s personal notes and Simon is there, claiming to be in the body of the old man.Matthew’s typical day in the psychiatric ward is a powerful depiction of the state of mental health services in the NHS.

Recommended reads from group members this month:

A book of Death and Fish by Ian Stephen
We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K le Guin

Ann Coburn

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Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Martin is kindly keeping the Book Group Blog up-to-date in my absence. Here is his account of the March meeting:

For once we were unanimous in agreeing that Tan was a very good writer, “How nice to have a book I could enjoy” ; “I enjoyed it so much I am re-reading it immediately.” All five agreed that he had shed light on a period and place in history we knew little about. The story about a Chinese Malay who experienced horrendous treatment during the Japanese occupation, rose to be a judge in the ensuing war crimes trials and later in general Malayan life. It explores her surprising relationship with two Japanese in later life and her learning the arts of Japanese gardening, archery and tattooing. This precis does not do justice to the scope of the novel whose many byways are often as interesting as the main plot. The descriptive writing was so vivid that it brought back the very scent of the jungle to a reader who had visited Malaya.
As so often I had phillistinic reservations about anything smacking of art and mythology. I have visited many Japanese gardens and remained wholly uninspired and I consider all tattooing a disfigurement. As for being so good at archery you can now do it without using an arrow …. Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb. So I admired this book but I found it a difficult read because I disagreed with much of the concept.Everyone else loved it unreservedly.

Martin LeFevre

The Hive by Gill Hornby

Martin Lefevre is writing the book group blog for the next few months in my absence. Here’s his first post.

Six readers braved the freezing weather to pronounce unanimously that this was a dreadful book. It was even suggested that the only reason it was published was to placate family members with superior writing talents and that the author actually disliked women, so poor was her characterisation. The whole concept of such sycophantic people was repugnant and the whole Hive allegory dealt with very heavy-handedly. The only favourable comment was that at least the dreadful Bea got her cum-uppance, but Mellissa as a universal saviour was wholly unbelievable. “It was the worst book I have ever read in the genre” It was insulting to women who were drawn as caricatures rather than real people. The idea of Lesbian Tea, nauseating.
Fortunately we had some better books to read, amongst them:-
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
Stoner, John Williams
Miss Carter’s War, Sheila Hancock
The Beginner’s Goodbye, Anne Tyler
The Tudor Conspiracy, Christopher Gortner
Testament of Youth, Vera Britten
Music and Silence, Rose Tremaine

Our next meting at the Barrels is Tuesday March 3rd at 6.30 where we will review The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng

Martin Lefevre

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin

According to the cover blurb, The Skull and the Nightingale, set in England in the early 1760s, is:
‘A chilling and deliciously dark tale of manipulation, sex, and seduction.
When Richard Fenwick, a young man without family or means, returns to London from the Grand Tour, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a fastidious life in Worcestershire, but now in his advancing years, he feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling—love and passion, adultery and deceit—along with something much more sinister. He has selected Fenwick to be his proxy, and his ward has no option but to accept.
But Gilbert’s elaborate and manipulative “experiments” into the workings of human behaviour drag Fenwick into a vortex of betrayal and danger where lives are ruined and tragedy is always one small step away. And when Fenwick falls in love with one of Gilbert’s pawns and the stakes rise even higher – is it too late for him to escape the Faustian pact?’
Well the novel certainly created ‘extremes of human feeling’ in the nine hardy souls who congregated in The Barrels on a freezing January night. Reactions ranged from ‘I absolutely loved this book,’ to ‘I loathed it’. Nothing new there, then!
Martin gave the book the alternative title of ‘A Rake’s Progress without artistry’. He writes:
There are enough descriptions both factual and fictional of the hypocrisy and misogyny displayed by Victorians without inventing yet another episode with a mild titillation for the emotionally challenged. I am most of the way through and have got to the murder of Mr Ogden and I’m wondering if it will be covered over or finally be his come-uppance and if I care either way. There must have been Victorian men who actually earned a living by working without inheritances and benefactors, who’s presence seem to be a sure fire recipe for moral decline. I expect there were some tender and loving relationships since the large families and absence of television seems to imply that procreation had some fans, possibly enthusiastic ones. The godfather getting vicarious thrills is barely credible but boring. The portrayal of Mrs Ogden as a prim matron suddenly launching into a languid description of her husband undressing then raping her can only be to appeal to the lower orders of Sun readers. Jane Austen’s characters were just as hypocritical but at least they were authentic.
Not worth the expenditure of paper and time.
In contrast, another member loved the way this ‘novel of ideas’ made them consider philosophical questions about the divide between ‘the Skull’ – the body and all things physical and sexual, and ‘the nightingale’ – the mind, spirituality and emotions. It captured the questioning ethos of the Age of Enlightenment and depicted it through the complex and interesting characters of Richard Fenwick and his godfather James Gilbert. She particularly liked the complex and self-aware Richard Fenwick, even though he was not always likeable.
Gwyneth was less convinced about the two main male characters; she disliked both and found Richard shallow and ‘too clever for his own good’. She did, however, think the book was erudite but with perhaps too many literary references at times.
Paula enjoyed the authentic evocation of the 18th Century, particularly the observations of the Age of Rationality, such as the research into Optics. However, she found the misogyny hard to take, even within the context of the story. We discussed the portrayal of the female characters. The ‘second tier’ characters such as Kitty Brindley and Mrs Hurlock were thought to be well-drawn, but Sarah Kinsey, the woman Richard loves, is not given much space by the author and so does not offer a compelling alternative to Richard when he makes his final choice to continue to work for James Gilbert. Paula pointed out that Richard is also repelled by the idea of the child Sarah will give birth to – the son or daughter of the man he murdered.
I thought 18th Century England, particularly London, was well-portrayed. The descriptions of the pubs, the masques, the drawing rooms were vibrant and entertaining. I also liked the Dickensian opening, which reminded me of Great Expectations, but this narrative quickly becomes much darker. I liked the way that Richard’s character has been shaped by his need to please (in order to survive). He’s always watching himself and judging how others might see him. However there is also a hardness and cruelty in him from the start. Most of the male characters are misogynistic, with women, in the main, the more sympathetic characters. I found the tragic story of Mr Quentin the poet/suicide and his wife Mrs Quentin, with the bad teeth, particularly affecting. The ending reminded me of a very different story, the film The Hurt Locker, where an American bomb disposal expert becomes so traumatised by his work that he cannot settle back into civilian life but signs up for another tour; he has come to need the danger and the adrenalin. I liked the idea that Richard determines to take on his evil godfather and maybe give him a taste of his own medicine, but I don’t think his intentions were all noble. A part of him enjoys the corruption. A cleverly written portrayal of the corruption of a young man that leaves the reader with no false hope and a somewhat jaundiced view of humanity.

Finally, we discussed our Christmas reading. Recommendations from the group included:

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow
Beyond the Wind in the Willows by William Horwood
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Stoner by John Williams

Ann Coburn

THE QUICK by Lauren Owen

The cover blurb for this book reads:

‘You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –

But first, reader, you must travel to Victorian England, and there, in the wilds of Yorkshire, meet a brother and sister alone in the world, a pair bound by tragedy. You will, in time, enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of the richest, most powerful men in England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide.

It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, a world of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.’

The Berwick Book Group had an overall lukewarm response to ‘The Quick’. Although we liked some of the writing, the majority thought that it was an opportunity missed by the author.

WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD!

One member writes, ‘I gave up after 150 pages, through boredom, though I thought it started well – basically before the vampires set in. Loads of potential in the homosexual relationship; it seemed a waste not to see it through.  I thought it was a shame that such a potentially good novelist had chosen a silly subject. I’d been willing to give it a go, but didn’t even feel tense, let alone frightened. And couldn’t have cared less what was going happen. Vampires are in fashion, but

I need more convincing to bother with them. However I thought she was sometimes very good at characterisation. For instance ‘his face was like an empty plate.’ Brilliant!’

As for me, I was looking forward to reading this Victorian Gothic novel.  I like a bit of Gothic horror/ghostliness at this time of year; when the nights close in, a book, an armchair and a glass of wine is a very tempting option. The Quick, at over 500 pages, is nearing doorstopper status but I was prepared to commit to it on the strength of glowing reviews from two of my favourite writers.  Hilary Mantel describes it as, “A sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre . . . a skilled, assured performance. . . it’s hard to believe it is a first novel”, and Kate Atkinson goes even further with, ‘a feast of gothic storytelling that is impossible to resist’. Unfortunately, I found The Quick fairly easy to resist – and I probably would have done just that if it had not been a Book Group read.  It’s difficult to work out what is missing with this novel.  All the ingredients for ‘a feast of Gothic storytelling’ are there – the well executed faux-Victorian style of the writing, the authentic period detail, the well-drawn and likeable protagonists, and the ‘monsters among us’ story-line  – so why did The Quick feel like a bland and under-seasoned dish?

Perhaps because, although Shadwell and Adeline, James and Christopher, and Charlotte and Howland were all excellent pairings in theory, the spark does not ignite in the execution, even though there are some really interesting dynamics there.  I think the buttoned-up, faux-Victorian writing style might be to blame; the characters are all a little too reined in and veiled.  Maybe, with a little more balance between the social mores of the time and the real hearts beating beneath, they might have ignited.  This may be why the character of Liza, the child vampire, springs to ‘life’ more vividly and readily; she does not have to abide by the decorous standards of the middle-class adults.  On a side note, I did enjoy the nod to Fagin with Mrs Price and her vampire street urchins.

The vampires themselves are chilling – particularly the way they can invade our minds – and the Class/Gender war between the gentlemen vampires at the Club and the working class Mrs Price and her right-hand girl Lisa is entertaining.  However, the final confrontation is very tame – especially considering that there has been very little previous face-to-face interaction between the vampires and the quick (although the scene with little Liza and her child victim is truly horrible and chilling).

Pace is an issue – The Quick is actually far too slow, particularly in the third quarter. Perhaps, also, there is too much suspense and not enough denouements.  Suspense and suggestion are wonderful writing tools, but Lauren Owen seems to have bought into the whole ‘monsters are most frightening when left to our imagination’ school of thought a little too much.  Yes, glimpses are fine to whet the curiosity, but she almost perversely continues to guide us away from the meaty action, rather like a Victorian governess with her charges.  And sometimes the hints, annoyingly, come to nothing.  For example the line at the start of chapter 27 – ‘There was something stirring inside the room at the end of the passage.  A curtain, most likely, stirring in the breeze’ – which suggested to me that Adeline’s fiancé/Shadwell’s son might still be in there.  Maybe I missed something, but I don’t think that hint was ever followed through.

Finally, I did find this a dispiriting read, but not because of the dark themes; rather, there were too few extremes of emotion, particularly on the positive side.  Okay, it’s a Gothic novel, but that doesn’t rule out passion or joy or exaltation or victorious feelings; even negative emotions such as anger and hatred would have livened things up if they had been portrayed with more intensity.  As it was, these protagonists seemed defeated before they had even started.

I would not rule out reading another book by this author, but The Quick did not shine for me.

Ann Coburn

I CAN’T BEGIN TO TELL YOU by Elizabeth Buchan

‘Denmark, 1940. War has come and everyone must choose a side.

For British-born Kay Eberstern, living on her husband Bror’s country estate, the Nazi invasion and occupation of her adopted country is a time of terrible uncertainty and inner conflict.

With Bror desperate to preserve the legacy of his family home, even if it means co-existing with the enemy, Kay knows she cannot do the same. Lured by British Intelligence into a covert world of resistance and sabotage, her betrayal of Bror is complete as she puts her family in danger.

Tasked with protecting an enigmatic SOE agent, a man who cannot even tell her his name, Kay learns the art of subterfuge. From this moment on, she must risk everything for the sake of this stranger – a stranger who becomes entangled in her world in ways she never expected.

Caught on opposing sides of a war that has ripped apart a continent, will Kay and Bror ever find their way back to one another?

Elizabeth Buchan’s stunning new novel, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, is a story of bravery, broken loyalties, lies and how the power of love can bring redemption even to the darkest of places.’

It was a qualified thumbs-up from the majority of the Berwick Book Group for this novel set in Denmark in WW2.  A number of members, including Jill, particularly enjoyed the amount of research and the attention to detail – evident in the descriptions of the intricacies of morse code, or the amount of dust produced by the bombings: ‘The dust… the dust had nearly choked her. The bombing had released so much of it. It was everywhere – on surfaces, between the sheets, on window frames, sifting into everyone’s clothes, hair, nose and ears. When would they ever be properly clean again? When they came to write a history of wartime, historians must write about the dust, she thought. London was buried in the stuff and it hung in the air – minute particles of brick, stone, wood… and other more terrible things she wasn’t going to think about.’

However, the attention to detail was a real turn-off for one member:

‘For me, this is a story with potential that failed to live up to its promise. Admittedly I gave up half way through, but to read over 200 pages only to find that nothing of any significance has happened is disappointing at best. I was bored. My impression was that the novelist was more concerned to demonstrate the research she’d done than tell a good tale. I might have been interested, for instance, in the technical detail of morse code but not several pages of description, and, in a similar vein, a whole page quoted, from an ostensibly real life secret manual, was simply unnecessary. The characters were neatly paired up according to sexual attraction on both sides of the North Sea: it was all very predictable and unconvincing. And, while allowing that I was reading an advance copy (typos I accept), some of the writing struck me as sloppy and careless. I also found the dialogue unconvincing especially that between the spies: the novelist seemed more concerned to relay info to the reader about this or that aspect of the situation than to depict people actually talking. Since the story is essentially about secret goings-on and espionage, there was a very disappointing lack of tension. At no point did I feel anxious or even concerned. Is this bog standard romantic fiction? Perhaps so: ‘Bror undressed her and she trembled with the daring of what she was about to do. With each garment he despatched to the floor, he paused to look. ‘You’re beautiful, Kay.’ So was he.’ Overall, I thought it was a good idea gone badly wrong unless, of course, you’re looking for a totally undemanding read. But, for me, there are better novels about WW2 even in the romantic mode.’

In contrast, Martin loved the book: ‘It kept me up until 4.00am to finish. It beautifully illustrates the dilemma for individuals and families facing war and oppression. Do you grit your teeth and lay low until it all passes over? Or do you fight knowing that you not only endanger your own life but those of friends, neighbours and family? When these fault lines go through a family then each decision affects not only the problem (the enemy) but also your relationships with other family members with often severe consequences. The fractured nature of the British intelligence services was very well drawn and I noticed she cited “Between Silk and Cyanide” as one of her sources; this is another remarkable and highly recommended book with the one annoying caveat that it is written by a man who was always right, in his own judgement anyway. The fossilisation of senior people in any sphere is well known but had devastating consequences in military areas when officers trained in sabres and horses sent their troops against tanks and machine guns.’

I couldn’t attend our November meeting and my thanks go to Jill for stepping in.  I missed my monthly dose of good beer and erudite discussion, and I’m looking forward to the next one when the focus is on a suitably gothic tale for a dark, December evening:  ‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen.

Ann Coburn

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT by Alyson Foster

‘The day of the accident, Jess is in the backyard with a chainsaw, clearing space to build the greenhouse she’s always wanted. And, as always, she is thinking of Arthur. Arthur, her colleague in the botany department, who never believed she’d actually start the project. Arthur, who has cut off contact, escaping to the subarctic to study the pines. But now there has been a disaster, connected to Jess’s husband’s space tourism business: the explosion of a shuttle filled with commercial passengers, igniting a media frenzy on her family’s doorstep. Jess’s engineer husband is implicated, and she knows there is information he’s withholding from her, even as the cameras turn to her for answers. Struggling, Jess writes to the only person she can be candid with. She writes to Arthur. And in her emails, freighted with longing, regret, and the old habits of seduction, she tries to untangle how her life has changed in one instant, but also slowly, and how it might change still. Unfolding through Jess’s emails to Arthur, written in glimmering prose, this extraordinary debut is a dazzling modern-day love story.’

This book split the Berwick Book Group down the middle. Some members absolutely hated it. Nichola writes: ‘In all honesty, I hated this book. I struggled with it from page one but seeing as it wasn’t very big I persevered. I finally gave up about half way through after deciding that it was overwritten and downright boring. Upon giving up, I skipped to the last few pages and can honestly say I didn’t feel like I’d missed a thing! I found Jessica uninteresting and didn’t connect with her at all’

Martin was another unimpressed reader: ‘This book is the reading equivalent of being trapped in a railway carriage while the person next to you carries on a very loud mobile phone conversation. At least in this case I could shut the book. About 1/4 of the book is taken up with pointless and repetitive Headers, which I dutifully scanned to try and glean some relevance. There was none.  About half way through I decided it wasn’t going anywhere and I wouldn’t care if it did. Horrible.’

Jill was still reading the book and was in two minds, but Bronwen and I managed to convince her to carry on reading because we had both really enjoyed it. Bronwen found the book original and richer than she was initially thinking in the opening chapters  – she thinks that the complexity takes a while to build.  She particularly loved the evocative descriptions of space. For her, Jessica – and her agonising about relationships – was a pain, but an engaging character nonetheless.  Bronwen also enjoyed the other characters which were all well-drawn, particularly Jessica’s sister who, despite her job as a psycho-analyst, was down-to-earth and practical, telling Jessica that sometimes all one can do is put one foot in front of the other.

I, too, enjoyed being in Jessica’s company.  She was brittle and flawed, but fascinating and full of feeling. I liked the one-sided email communications and I thought it was clever that we got to know Arthur only through Jessica’s responses to his unseen emails.  All the other characters, Jessica’s husband Liam, her children Corrine and Jack, and the documentary maker, Lecroix, are brought to the reader only via Jessica’s emails, so her voice and her story telling skills are crucial.  What she leaves out and what she chooses to emphasise all add to the narrative.  Alyson Foster absolutely nailed this for me. I decided that the title God is an Astronaut comes from Jessica’s realisation that stepping away from Earth/earth brings emotional distance and clarity.  Each time she goes onto the roof of her house, or climbs a tree, an important revelation occurs.  In the final space flight sequence, she realises that she must leave her broken marriage and start again. The flight is a wonderful way of distilling the essential conflict, placing her and Liam in an extreme situation which magnifies the cracks in their relationship. On one level this would seem to be a depressing plot – Jessica loses her husband, her lover, and she never completes the greenhouse she is building. However, this story is about Jessica reaching that moment of absolute revelation and understanding about what she must do and, in that sense, it is uplifting.  The symbolism of the red roses at the end confirms that.  The roses, the only survivors in her garden, are Jessica.

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE GROUP

Three from Martin:

  1. The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. This is a Harold Fry of a book. Quirky, lots of ups and downs with a real feel-good ending.
  2. Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Imagine the characters from the play Abigail’s Party. All caricatures which somehow work together in a humerous if slightly “cringeworthy” way. The parade of prejudices and inadequacies on display surrounding a local bye-election are legion. There are no happy endings and no characters save the unbelievably awful but it exercises a strange compulsion to make sure I reached then end. This is not damning with faint praise I shall look forward to another.
  3. Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. She never disappoints. This Vera Novel has already been televised but this in no way interfered with the superior written tale.

Nichola suggested ‘Where Rainbows End’ by Cecilia Ahern (which was also released as ‘Dear Rosie). ‘It’s one of my all time favourite books and, like out October book, is made up of various written correspondences. That said, it’s much better done and is something I’ve read time and again without getting bored.

Jill recommends ‘Sing Jess Sing’ by Tricia Coxon.

Ann Coburn


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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