Archive for the ‘Literary Fiction’ Category

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Sometimes, you read a short story that leaves you wanting more and makes you wish that the writer had extended it to a novel length.

With this novel, well written and crafted as it is, I wonder whether it could have been reduced to a short story. Or began life as a short story or a vignette and grew from there.

Family drama. Courtroom drama. Coming of Age. The novel explores all of these and they all intersect – bound by the constant exploration of motherhood – and it feels very carefully planned and constructed. And somehow left me wanting more rawness.

The novel opens as Lexie, Trip and Moody Richardson sit on the hood of their car in Shaker Heights, Ohio watching their mother as she watches their house burn down. Ng then tracks back other the months prior to the event in order to introduce a variety of conflicts and characters: the Richardson’s itinerant artist tenant, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl; Mirabelle McCollough – or May Ling Chow – the Chinese baby adopted by the McCollough family but tracked down and wanted by her birth mother Bebe; Lexie and Pearl growing up and discovering the joys and pleasures and responsibilities of sex. And Izzy, the wayward child of the Richardsons, struggling to find a place to fit into.

The city of Shaker Heights – if it is a city – I don’t profess to know beyond what Wikipedia can tell me, which is that “Shaker Heights is an inner-ring streetcar suburb of Cleveland, abutting the eastern edge of the city’s limits… Shaker Heights was a planned community developed by the Van Sweringen brothers, railroad moguls who envisioned the community as a suburban retreat from the industrial inner city of Cleveland” – seems to me to be the main character of the novel. The intensively planned and ordered city, designed to be harmonious and regulated to match. The home that Mia rents from the Richardsons is a clear symbol of the value of appearance in this world:

Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.

Through the novel, Eleni Richardson starts to learn that each identical home, each regulated exterior, held a myriad of narratives and sacrifices and angst and love and loss. Even the regulated exterior of her own safe and secure home.

Ng uses a very omnipotent narrator: she relates – and there is a lot of exposition through the novel – backgrounds and stories for the characters, very carefully placed through the novel, before reminding us the reader that her characters do not and cannot possibly know this. An occasionally hints at a future outside the world of the novel too. I found the technique and the narrative voice somewhat distancing as a result, somehow cool. Perhaps that was deliberate: the character Mia is a photographer and that narrative voice may be a reflection of the distance between photographer and subject because of the camera lens. It may simply be Ng’s style: I’ve not read her first book, Everything I Never Told You.

The arrival in an established setting of a new character sowing – consciously or not – discord is familiar and Mia is drawn with a subtle brush, rarely being followed by the narrative, and was a sympathetic character. One aspect of the novel that could have been explored more – which I was intrigued by – was Pearl’s adoption as another sister by the Richardson children, each for their own reasons; and Izzy – and possibly Lexie – Richardson’s adoption by Mia as a daughter… or, possibly more accurately, their adoption of her as a mother. It was hinted – more than hinted, each characters explicitly said that they felt like that – but not developed and not explored.

What was beautiful was one of the final scenes: a package of photographs left by Mia for each of the Richardsons. Taking one example, Trip – the jock of the family – was left a photograph of a

hockey chest pad, lying in the dirt, cracked through the center, peppered with holes. Mia had used a hammer and a handful of roofing nails, driving each one through the thick white plastic like arrows, then prying it out again. It’s all right to be vulnerable, she had thought as she made each hole. It’s all right to take time and see what grows. She had filled Trip’s chest pad with soil and scattered seeds on it and watered it patiently for a week until from each hole, burgeoning up through the crack, came flashes of green: thin tendrils, little curling leaves worming their way up into the light. Soft fragile life emerging from within the hard shell.

These varied photographs were gorgeous and, it seemed to me, the heart of the novel. Which is why I wondered whether the novel began with just this one germ of an image – a packet of poignant images – and had filled out from there…

Overall, I did admire the novel and I liked parts but it felt too thoughtful and too intellectual and too crafted for me. It touched on issues of race, surrogacy, adoption – and the tug-of-love between the McColloughs and Bebe Chow should have been heart-breaking – but didn’t explore or delve into them.

I like to be dragged into the world of a novel viscerally and this didn’t do that for me.

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Broken-Harbour Tana French

Recipe for a Tana French Dublin Murder Squad novel:

Take an atmospheric and intense setting, such as the last remnant of an ancient forest, a secluded mansion or a half completed housing project abutting the sea; insert a handful of characters with intense and golden relationships; raise the pressure and temperature; remove from the oven when those relationships start to rip slowly and tortuously apart; dust with a subtle hint of the supernatural.

This is the fourth of Tana French’s explorations of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, after In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. I first read The Secret Place and loved it enough to gorge on the rest of the series which I continued to love – although Faithful Place has been a struggle to get into. This entry, however, I think is the strongest in the series so far.

The setting, the characters, the language here are all pitch-perfect: heightened but utterly convincing; rooted in the economic reality of the recession in Ireland but with a poetic lyricism. The Spain family is found slaughtered in their safe and middle class home in a housing project which was abandoned as the investments ran out surrounded by shells of houses and ghosts of what could have been: their children had been smothered; the father, Pat, knifed to death; the mother, Jenny, barely alive. An experienced detective, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy – being offered a chance to reclaim past glory following some vaguely hinted at disaster – is paired with a rookie detective to investigate. As usual with French, the relationship between the detectives and the budding trust and respect between Kennedy and Richie Curran – a mentor-mentee relationship growing into a putative partnership – is a beautiful and tender as the victims’ relationships. Kennedy is not immediately likeable saying such things as

“in this job everything matters, down to the way you open your car door. Long before I say Word One to a witness, or a suspect, he needs to know that Mick Kennedy is in the house and that I’ve got this case by the balls. Some of it is luck—I’ve got height, I’ve got a full head of hair and it’s still ninety-nine percent dark brown, I’ve got decent looks if I say so myself, and all those things help—but I’ve put practice and treadmill time into the rest. I kept up my speed till the last second, braked hard, swung myself and my briefcase out of the car in one smooth move and headed for the house at a swift, efficient pace. Richie would learn to keep up.

But a softer side to him emerges, whether it be consoling Curran in the autopsy or keeping his sister, Dina, whose mental state is simultaneously vulnerable and perceptive, safe or in his own deeply tragic personal history. He is a man who presents a mask to the world and may not know himself where the real face lies beneath it.

In terms of the plot, French keeps up a cracking pace: the advantage of the detective fiction form, perhaps. Pat, the dead father, is initially suspected; a stalker is discovered quickly but the case keeps deepening.

French’s prose, in the lips of different protagonists in each novel, is, as always, beautiful, poised between the lyrical and the real. As he enters the house, Kennedy tells us

that was when I felt it: that needle-fine vibration, starting in my temples and moving down the bones into my eardrums. Some detectives feel it in the backs of their necks, some get it in the hair on their arms—I know one poor sap who gets it in the bladder, which can be inconvenient—but all the good ones feel it somewhere. It gets me in the skull bones. Call it what you want—social deviance, psychological disturbance, the animal within, evil if you believe in that: it’s the thing we spend our lives chasing. All the training in the world won’t give you that warning when it comes close.

And when he sees the harbour, where his own personal tragedy is centred, we are told of the

rounded curve of the bay, neat as the C of your hand; the low hills cupping it at each end; the soft gray sand, the marram grass bending away from the clean wind, the little birds scattered along the waterline. And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled. The weight of what was in the kitchen with us tilted the world, sent the water rocking upwards like it was going to come crashing through all that bright glass.

And, finally, when looking into the Spains’ attic, an attic guarded with a thick mesh and holding a vicious bear trap, Kennedy says that

For an instant I thought I saw something move—a shifting and coalescing of the black, a deliberate muscled ripple—but when I blinked, there was only darkness and the flood of cold air.

As well as location and atmosphere, which she manages and manipulates with an exquisite Gothic sensibility, French is very good at insanity here. No spoilers, but the Spains, behind their own affluent and successful mask – which marks them out as snobs to their few neighbours – both disappear into different rabbit holes. And they are both wholly credibly described and experienced by the reader.

This is one of the best detective novels I have ever read. Full stop. It is literary and eloquent but never loses its way as a piece of detective fiction. And its conclusion and final revelation – and the ethical dilemmas explored – are enough to warrant tears. Hauntingly, chillingly beautiful.

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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his-bloody-project

Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

It’s surprising how coincidences happen sometimes.

I mean, it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of crime and detective fiction in my reading list recently: it’s basically research! But there’s also been a lot of Shakespeare in it!

Ali Shaw’s The Trees isn’t – I don’t think – based on Shakespeare but there are resonances and echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through it. The whisperers in their enigmatic and invisible presence stir memories of Puck and Robin Goodfellow, or perhaps the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, tending on the creature on the throne as if they were an Oberon. And the trees’ own confusion of season recalled the lines

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And now, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern revisiting of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, where Prospero has become Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival usurped by his assistant following the deaths of his wife in childbirth and then his daughter Miranda.

And alongside that, I have picked up Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, thinking from the blurb that it was more of a murder mystery – until, that is, I read the prologue and kicked myself for not recognising perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most potent quotations

“I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

How could I not have recognised that?!

Here, Hamlet is indeed bounded in a nutshell: he is a (somewhat precocious) unborn foetus two weeks from birth listening to – and narrating – it requires a serious suspension of disbelief – his mother’s and uncle’s plans to murder his father. Just on a small note, what McEwan does with the names is delightful: Gertrude (a name which teenagers usually mocks) becomes quite beguiling as a Trudy; Claudius (which has classical connotation) is modernised to Claude which, phonologically, conjures up the image of a clod of earth, which fits delightfully with the scarily unimaginative and dull-witted would-be murderer.

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This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!

But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?

As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.

Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:

Then the trees came.

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.

Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.

The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.

It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.

Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.

Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?

Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.

However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.

But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.

Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.

Wow!

This book is extraordinary.

It is strange and bizarre and wild. And has the vividness and opacity of a nightmarish dreamscape. It is literary and visceral, erudite and scatological, mythic and domestic at the same time.

Death and grief are such massive topics that you expect a weighty tome to contain them. Yet this is light and airy and brief. Barely a hundred pages. Half a day’s reading. And that itself is divided between Dad, Boys and the eponymous Crow who arrives as… what exactly? A symbol? A metaphor? A nightmare? A delusion? A nanny?

The novel – is it even a novel? – revolves around the family dragged apart by a woman, mother and wife. Her husband, a somewhat nerdy literary critic, is writing a book on the crow in Ted Hughes’ poetry entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis and that is an obvious source for the crow-character who appears thus:

The bell rang again.
I climbed down the carpeted stairs into the chilly hallway and opened the front door.
There were no streetlights, bins or paving stones. No shape or light, no form at all, just a stench.
There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. The hallway was pitch black and freezing cold and I thought, ‘What kind of world is it that I would be robbed in my home tonight?’ And then I thought, ‘Frankly, what does it matter?’ I thought, ‘Please don’t wake the boys, they need their sleep. I will give you every penny I own just as long as you don’t wake the boys.’
I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.
Feathers.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.
Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.
One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle.
SHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
shhhhhhhh.
And this is what he said:
I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.
Put me down, I said.
Not until you say hello.
Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the cradle of his wing.
You’re frightened. Just say hello.
Hello.
Say it properly.

The prose swings back and forward in time, and out of time, from narrative to drama to poetry to narrative again. It is as wild and untamed as the crow itself.

It was very powerful, reading this close to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – which is itself a beautiful and lyrical book. But it is a weightier work than this; and simultaneously more lyrical and less poetical. Porter – like a poet – consciously crafts not just the words but the architecture and structure of his page; like a poet, he eschews all those little things that I’ve spent the holidays planning to teach students: conjunctions, connectives, clarity. And like a poet, having stripped away all of that superfluous and pedantic padding, his book can perhaps reach inside the reader – the a crow’s beak delving into carrion? – more acutely than other styles.

I am in no way trying to step back from the 5 stars I gave Macdonald’s – although I am just wondering what the value is in such a crude system of comparing such strikingly different books – all the more striking because of their similarities.