Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell must have the most curious narrator I’ve come across in many years: a nine-month old foetus, pompous and opinionated, yet strangely beguiling. And surely a unique opening sentence:

So here I am, lying upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

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Told from his point of view in the first person, the story line pivots around the foetus being privy to a forbidden relationship and a dastardly plan the couple has devised.

I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, I make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

A few pages into the book, I wondered how McEwan was going to get away with writing about a foetus who is so knowledgeable about the world and its affairs, but he rather glibly pulls it off by having the unborn baby listen when his mother tunes into the radio, or when she listens to podcasts and audio books, or plays classical music. He learns about good wine when his mother drinks (which she does fairly often) and pontificates in a snobby way about the merits of a good burgundy or Sancerre. He knows contemporary politics, and surmises things he has not seen, such as colours and lightning.

Thus the foetus talks to us in an adult voice, as a reluctant observer to the plot that is unfolding within earshot and about which he can do nothing to prevent.

The plot is a familiar one to those who know Hamlet, and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet that gives the novel its title. The mother, Trudy, has kicked her husband, John, a gormless poet, out of the house (John’s family home), even though she is pregnant with his child. She is now  in a relationship with Claude, John’s banal brother, described by the narrator as thus:

This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. 

The narrator listens to Trudy and Claude plot against his father, for whom he has developed a tenderness, and whom he is unable to warn. John still visits Trudy at his house, trying to woo her back in a meek manner, oblivious to the plan being devised against him. The narrator, in his distress, mentally pens a letter to his father, finishing it with:

Don’t come down the stairs. Call a carefree goodbye and go. Or if you must come down, decline the fruit drink, stay only long enough to say your farewells. I’ll explain later. Until then, I remain your obedient son … 

The book ends with the narrator being born at home, Trudy crying, Claude panicking in disgust, too late to call an ambulance. The birth is described fantastically,  the narrator describing his agonising journey into the world:

I travel a section where I know a portion of my uncle has passed too often the other way. I’m not troubled. What was in his day a vagina, is now proudly a birth canal, my Panama … not casual cock can compete. For a stretch, I’m deaf, dumb and blind, it hurts everywhere. But it pains my screaming mother more as she renders the sacrifice all mothers make for their big-headed, loud-mouthed infants.

What I enjoy about McEwan is that no book he writes is like another; the story lines differ and so each new book of his is a new adventure. I had a sense throughout this book that McEwan had fun writing it and enjoyed creating this unusual, sometimes irritating, often endearing, narrator. His prose is as smooth as ever and he has retold a classic tale in the most masterful, imaginative manner.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls shimmers with a dream-like tautness in both its writing and its plot, and I found myself pulled through the book by both, almost unable to stop reading. Cline is young, and this is her first book, but she writes with the aplomb of an experienced writer; her sentences are imbued with a sense of sweet and sour, of pushing you up and pulling you down, of freshness and of dread.

the-girls

The beauty of the prose aside, Cline writes about teenage girls so well that I was submerged within the story, within my memories of being a teenager, desperate to impress and to fit in. I might have been appalled by some of Evie’s behaviour (the main character), but I always understood why she was driven to do what she did.

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Emma Cline

Written in the light of the Charles Manson murders, the story centres around Evie Boyd, a fifteen-year-old girl living in California in 1969. Her parents are recently divorced and self-focused. Evie’s life is small and limited; she spends every afternoon hanging out with her best friend, Connie, filling her life with those particular inanities that come with being a teenager:

Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoon. Waste hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s sugggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle…We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm.

It is with these sort of details that Cline so evokes the agonies of being a teenager, when she describes how Evie tries to be noticed in the way she dresses, how she drinks and smokes to fit in older kids, how she creeps into Connie’s brother’s bed at night; but how she also tries for parts of her not to be noticed, such as covering her pimples with thick base and standing with her stomach pulled in.

With these deep feelings of insecurity and boredom filling her life, when Evie one day spots ‘the girls’, she is instantly drawn to them, for being so totally different from anything in her little world, especially the prettiest one, the black-haired girl: There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass … They (the girls) were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.

After longing to enter into the girls’ world and obsessing over Suzanne with the black hair, Evie finally gets herself invited to the ranch,  down a long dirt track and deep into the hills outside town. Here a group – mainly women and a few feral children – lives under the thrall of Russell, whose name Evie hears mentioned with reverence before she meets him, and whose focus dissolves her loneliness by making her feel special at last, giving her the attention she’s needed all her teenage years.

Even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was impossible, that first night, to see beyond the immediate. Russell’s buckskin shirt, smelling of flesh and rot and soft as velvet. Suzanne’s smile blooming in me like a firework, losing its colored smoke, its pretty, drifting cinders.

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Charles Manson

Suzanne and Russell’s attention, and the inclusiveness of the group on the ranch,  fills that emotional vacuum within Evie, while also giving her an opportunity to exact revenge her mother’s neglect and ignorance of the life Evie is now living.

Cline’s story is shocking within itself, (yet totally believable looking back at the Manson  cult), but because Cline describes with such deep understanding Evie’s teenage years, I could believe – with horror – the sacrifices Evie was willing to take. On finishing the novel, I was filled with admiration for the skill with which Cline has written this book. I hope there are many more to come from her.

Four books I’ve recently enjoyed

Short  reviews of  books I have recently read and really enjoyed.

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: this is a novel I wish I had written because it is so masterful despite its brevity and simple setting. I’ve enjoyed all of Elizabeth’s Strout’s novels, starting with Olive Kitteridge (because I had watched the series, which is damn fine in itself with Frances McDormand playing grumpy Olive so well), then working backwards and ending up with her latest, Lucy Barton. There is no doubt that Lucy Barton is Strout’s finest, with the quality of writing highlighting her ability to capture the essence of a fraught relationship in such a short novel.

Lucy Barton is in hospital recuperating from a mysterious disease. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years, comes to visit her and over five days stays at Lucy’s bedside virtually all the time, forcing the two of them to talk. They gossip about people in Lucy’s hometown, they reminisce about events that happened when Lucy grew up; the conversation seems light yet the shadow of their complicated relationship hovers in the background. They avoid subjects that might hurt them and that aren’t talked about in their family; they don’t talk about Lucy’s loneliness, or her unhappy childhood; they don’t mention the poverty and the bullying.

What lies beneath every conversation and every scene in the book, however, is love: the complicated, fierce love Lucy has for her mother  despite what has happened in her past, and the primal love for a child that her mother can’t deny.

“It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter … I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”

This is a beautiful novel, with finely-tuned, sparse prose that never turns over-emotional or florid, an exquisite book from an author at the top of her game.

 

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This Must be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell: I believe this is Maggie O’ Farrell’s best novel yet. I have always enjoyed her books, but she has notched up a level in this book, portraying a complicated marriage from different viewpoints and with different techniques.

It is, at the bottom of it, the story of an American linguistic, Daniel Hoffman, who is married to a reclusive ex-film star, Claudette, and living in a remote part of rural Ireland. When Daniel hears of the death of a previous girlfriend, he is compelled to go back to America to find out the truth of this old relationship, and by doing so, disrupts every part of his life. The novel travels over continents and time, portraying a vast array of characters, but because of the deftness of O’ Farrell’s prose, never once was I confused or exasperated.

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: While I don’t think this novel is nearly as masterful as the ones above, it is a fantastic read and I would recommend it to anyone looking for good love  story set in WWII. It is essentially about the relationship between four  main characters: there’s Mary who volunteers for the war effort, partly to shock her upper class family, partly to give some depth to her socialite life. She hopes to be made a headmistress, yet is assigned to be a teacher in a school for unwanted children: either disabled or mixed race. Hilda, Mary’s equally upper-class friend, also gets involved in the war effort, and becomes horribly disfigured through it.

Mary starts a relationship with Tom, an education administrator, however she is irresistibly drawn to Tom’s best friend, Alistair, when she meets him. Alistair, an art restorer, enlists and goes off to battle, for which he is barely prepared. The war creates a whole new  world for each of these characters and how they cope (or don’t cope) creates the background for the  interplay of their relationships.

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Cleave is particularly good at depicting the social structure of Britain at the time of the war, and he uses the class system as a backdrop for highlighting the racism and snobbishness of society. He also excels at describing the war, depicting London during the blitz and battles in Malta so well that the horrors of it came alive, but at the same time manages to bring humour into some of the scenes. Despite the odd cliche and the tendency to sentimentality, he has written a wonderful contemporary love story set in historical times.

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Penguin Lessons: What I learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: sometimes you just need a book to cheer you up and restore your faith in humanity again. This is one such book; it’s a memoir written by a young Englishman who goes to teach in Argentina and on the way finds a tar-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach in Uruguay. Deciding to try and save its life, he takes it back to his rented flat and manages to clean it. When he returns it to the beach and puts it in the sea, however, it resolutely follows him and will not leave him however hard he tries to escape it, and so Tom decides to smuggle it over the border and take it with him to the private boys’ school in Argentina. The penguin, now named Juan Salvador, takes pride of place in the school and is doted upon by the boys and staff. The book is illustrated with sketches of the penguin, although justice was not done to them by my Kindle. It is an utterly delightful, funny, poignant, heart-warming story about how an animal (even a penguin) can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.

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Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ –  but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.

Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus  (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.

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Ficre Ghebreyesus

Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).

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One of Ficre’s paintings

Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:

His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.

And:

He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.

In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.

Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:

“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”

The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:

We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.

The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.

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Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons

http://www.ficre-ghebreyesus.com/about/

 

Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir,  A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.

book-of-memory

Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:

The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.

Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.

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Petina Gappah

It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book –  the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition,  with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.


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A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of  escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.

Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.

 

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Amanda Lindhout

 

In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.

Somalia

Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.

They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:

“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”  

This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This slim novel is, to me, fiction at its best: it fascinates, shocks, elicits sympathy, and well written (and expertly translated).  Written by a Korean author, Han Kang, The Vegetarian was a new reading experience for me in that didn’t remind me of any other books I have read, nor the author’s style didn’t remind me of any other author’s.

vegetarian

It is a book that can be read on different levels, but the basic story is about a South Korean woman who turns vegetarian. Yeong-he is a bored, dutiful wife to an ordinary man, an office worker with humble ambitions. Their marriage is ‘normal’, with Yeong-he playing the expected role of a subservient wife until she explodes into the rebellious act of becoming a vegetarian and throwing all meat outtheir freezer. She offers no explanation to her husband other than ‘I had a dream’, although she never gives him the details of this disturbing bloody dream. The repercussions of her decision to give up meat ripple throughout her family leading to acts of betrayal, violence and tragedy.

Food

The book is told in three parts, the first in the voice of Yeong-he’s husband who is mortified by his wife’s deviant behaviour that becomes more bizarre over time; he watches her starve herself as she eats only plants, and act inappropriately in front of his business colleagues. The second is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, an artist who becomes obsessed with her body, and with whom she has a disturbing sexually-charged relationship. Her sister tells the third part of the story, by which time she has become Yeong-he’s sole carer and watches as Yeong-he fades away into anorexia and madness.

This is Han Kang’s first book to be translated into English, and it provides an insight into a restrictive Asian culture in which women are expected to behave in a certain subservient way. It is a book about fantasy , dreaming, and madness,of suffering and grief, and ultimately of escape from one’s place in the world.

Han Kang (c) Park Jaehong
Han Kang

 

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

I’ve never really read a book like this before. It’s strange, poetic, sad, ambitious, powerful, and, as a debut novel by a young Irish author, it’s quite extraordinary.

book cover

 

It’s a love story; one about a love between a man and a dog, a story often told, yet there are no cliches in this book. Ray, a 57-year-old man, is a social misfit who alone lives in his father’s ‘salmon pink house’ in a small coastal village. His father is dead, yet Ray still wears his slippers and puts out two towels in the bathroom. Considered feeble-brained by his father, Ray never went to school and was looked after all day by ‘Aunt’ while his father worked at a factory. He knows his mother is dead and presumes she died giving birth to him.

As an antidote to his loneliness, Ray adopts a dog he sees advertised in a shop window and he says:

You find me on a Tuesday, on my Tuesday trip to town. You’re sellotaped to the inside pane of the jumble-shop window. A photograph of your mangled face …’

The book continues in this style, with Ray talking to his dog, who he names One Eye. It is an extraordinary device as it allows Baume to ‘show’ us, the readers, his as he describes it to his dog. We learn about Ray’s growing up, the village he lives in, the mysteries he questions, and the countryside which Baume describes in glorious detail.

Now follow me down the slope, through the ferns and furze, to the beach. Here at sea level, the grass turns sharp and straggly. It gives way first to an uneven row of hefty pebbles, desiccated bladderwrack, drift junk, and now sand. Have you ever seen a beach before? I don’t expect so. What do you make of it?’

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We gain insights into Ray’s questioning mind – and there so much he ponders upon – and the utter loneliness he has experienced throughout his life.

Don’t you ever wonder what exactly people do all day long, every day? ... Secure inside their magnolia dens with the Venetian blinds tilted, what do they do? I can imagine; I do imagine, but my father and Aunt are the only people I’ve ever actually been shut behind a door with, before you.’

One Eye is also a social outcast, ugly and suspicious. He’s lost an eye and had his lip torn by a  badger; his face is scarred, and he doesn’t fit it in his social circle either, attacking dogs with no provocation. He first goes for a collie when Ray takes him for a walk, and the second time he attacks a little shih tzu on the beach:

You’re braying, braying, braying a bloodthirsty bray. It seems to come through every pore of your bandy body. So this is your kill noise, I’ve heard it only in murmurs before, but now here it is in its furious zenith.’

When an inspector comes to the house to take One Eye away, Ray, in his fear of losing his only companion, packs up a few things and they drive away, not to return home for months. When Ray finally runs out of money and food, they have to return home and circumstances force Ray to act as he does at the end of the book.

Sara
Sara Baume

This novel is suffused with a sadness and an edge of loneliness, yet the friendship between the dog and human is so palpable that there is hope throughout it. Baume’s writing is poetic and descriptive and her words are used in an inventive way, so much so that at times I reread sentences, just to savour their loveliness and often unusual structure.

In the beginning, it’s possible to be reminded of Mark in’The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-time’, as Ray has hints of autism, yet that is the end of any similarity between the books. This is somewhat dark and very mature book with a truly unique style that makes it a pleasure to read.