Posts Tagged ‘Literary Fiction’

A Kind Man – Susan Hill

Posted in Literary Fiction on February 23rd, 2011 by admin – 7 Comments


Chatto & Windus


Hardback – 192 pages

Yes, I am most definitely a Susan Hill fan and I apologise in advance if this ends up being a gushing post verging on the let’s skip beatification and just make her a saint of storytellers right here, right now.  You’ve probably gathered by now that she’s done it again – she’s created a wonderful gem of a story whose simplicity belies a rainbow of human emotions and feelings.

Unlike my other encounters with Susan Hill’s writing, this is not a ghost story as such although there is a definite element of something supernatural at work.  Tommy Carr is the “kind man”, the man who has not so much swept Eve off her feet as gently brushed her towards him…

He had no spark.  He was steady, quiet, calm, reliable, loyal, thoughtful, gentle.  A kind man then.  But for a long time she resisted those things in favour of something he lacked and which she felt there must surely be.

Eventually Eve realises her good fortune especially when she compares and contrasts her married life with that of her sister.  However, their happiness is shortlived and tragedy strikes Eve and Tommy, leaving both of them shell shocked yet not embittered by the experience.  Then,  as stress and sadness take their physical toll, Tommy becomes seriously ill and you wonder how much more this family can take.

Susan Hill manages to fit so much into this novella, her economy of phrase and subtle touch immediately draw you into Eve and Tommy’s world.  Whilst the setting and time of the story are not evident, one would guess at somewhere industrial and bleak  in the North of England, given the lack of light and generally grim ambiance, which contributes to Tommy and Eve’s moving to the countryside where Eve blossoms and is finally happy.  It is also pre-National Health Service as the poor depend on a philanthrophic local doctor.   The prose is so simple and elegant, it really is a pleasure to read, nothing jars not even when the story becomes parable-like and mystical.   One could read much into the deeper underlying meaning, the precarious balance between good and evil, kindness and cruelty and the higher power which oversees all of humanity but one  thing is sure, Susan Hill’s hand remains firmly at the helm, wielding the literary chisel which has created this finely honed sculpture.

If you haven’t already read any of Susan Hill’s novellas, I highly recommend that you do so, especially the ghostly ones, The Woman in Black, The Small Hand, The Mist in the Mirror, The Man in the Picture.  As for me, I’m off to find a copy of The Beacon, another of her literary novellas which somehow escaped my radar until now!

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The Empty Family – Colm Toibin

Posted in Literary Fiction on October 20th, 2010 by admin – Be the first to comment

I’m not an avid reader of short stories, they usually leave me unsatisfied, but I loved Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s award winning recent novel so I decided to try again.  The Empty Family is a collection of nine short stories which are linked by the themes of exile, loneliness and family.  Most of the protagonists find themselves in limbo-like situations, caught in a pivotal moment where the past and present collide, where home and belonging seem vague and elusive concepts.

All of the stories (whether first or third person narratives) share Toibin’s sparse, restrained style which never spills over into mawkishness no matter how tragic the circumstances.  Of the nine, my personal favourites are Silence and The Colour of Shadows.  Silence features Lady Gregory, now a widow, reminscing about a previous affair with a young poet.  Her married life was devoid of romance yet she hangs onto the memory of this sweet but brief affair.  The Colour of Shadows also impressed me with its candid look at family relationships, both those filled with love and those lacking in love.

Despite the sadness underlying many of the stories, the characters never lapse into self-pity, on the contrary, they find their lives much more fulfilling than those “acted” out by more conventional types.  I found I had to slow down my reading in order to fully appreciate the intensity of the narratives, indeed it was more like reading a volume of poetry rather than prose.  The only downside to this collection for me was the inclusion of graphic sex scenes in some of the stories – this seemed to deviate from the overall tone of  “less is more” which permeates most of the anthology.  All in all, a very impressive read although I still prefer Toibin’s novels.

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Review – Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni

Posted in Literary Fiction on October 2nd, 2010 by admin – 9 Comments

In this, the author’s debut novel, mermaids, myths and mystery are the order of the day.  It is set in 1930s England, in the small town of Cradle Cross in the heart of the Black Country in the Midlands.  Surrounded by canals, brimming over with superstition, Cradle Cross is like a prison for our narrator, 12 year old Ruby Abel Taylor.  Ruby dreams of new horizons but her crabbed grandmother Annie has forbidden her to go near water after losing her husband and child to the sea so she’s fated to lead a stifled, claustraphobic existence until one day Isa Fly comes to town.  Isa, half-blind with a mane of white hair, becomes a scapegoat when things start to go wrong in the community – the workers at the local button factory are laid off and valued items start to go missing.  Soon rumours of witchcraft are rife.

The author certainly knows this area like the back of her hand and the inclusion of Black Country dialect enhances the otherworldliness and the seclusion of this community which has lost so many of its menfolk during the war.  Indeed the principal characters are all female and all strong-willed and determined, including the idealistic Ruby, the grief-stricken widows of the Ruth and Naomi Society, the worldly-wise Oxbridge graduate Truda Blick, the sinister black clad woman known as Blackbird who harbours a grudge against the charismatic Isa Fly.

On the one hand there is a lot going on in this novel and it took me until about a third in before I settled into it.    There is no doubt that this is a well written, atmospheric novel with fairytale elements but I can’t help thinking that a bit of judicious pruning and restraint would have created a sharper, homogeneous read.  This debut shows a lot of promise and I look forward to reading more from Anna Lawrence Pietroni.

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Review – Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

Posted in Literary Fiction on March 6th, 2010 by admin – 4 Comments


Format: Paperback 256 pages


Penguin Books Ltd


My Rating =A


Brooklyn is Colm Toibin’s sixth novel but my first experience of his work – in hindsight, I am grateful that I wasn’t distracted by niggling comparisons to his other novels and was able to focus on this delightful tale.

Our story begins in Enniscorthy in the South East of Ireland in the 1950s and we are immediately faced with Eilis Lacey, our protagonist, who is at a crossroads in her life, about to complete her bookkeeping classes yet facing an uncertain future as jobs are scarce in the locality. She lives at home with her widowed mother and sister, Rose and although, on paper, a happy family, they certainly don’t communicate very well with each other – a detail which is reinforced when Eilis seems unable to communicate her fears about emigration to the USA as her family seem to be very cheery about her departure.

Next we are treated to scenes of Eilis’ new life in Brooklyn, her adjusting to new accommodation at Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house, her new job in Bartocci’s department store and dances at the parish hall where she meets Tony, an Italian.American with whom she embarks on a romance.

But will it all end in tears? Eilis didn’t even want to come to America but she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere now, spoiled by circumstances and in a sense displaced. Things happen to Eilis as opposed to her really engaging with life, whether it be Enniscorthy or Brooklyn – she’s like a sponge absorbing and melting into the background. Despite all of this I did feel sympathy for her and she seems all the more realistic for her flawed character.

There are a vast array of other vibrant, appealing characters including the wonderful Georgina who only appears for the sea crossing but she certainly makes an impression. Mrs Kehoe, the landlady is equally well drawn. Toibin manages not to turn her into a caricature although she is typical of those nosy, interfering Irish landladies who feel it their duty to safeguard the morals of their female tenants. Indeed as a newcomer to Toibin’s writing, I was very impressed by his representation of female characters, all of whom seem much more animated and interesting than the male figures.

Toibin’s writing style here is very lucid, extremely readable, in a few sentences he manages to convey so much and this deceptively simple style hides great emotional depth. Some will probably find it too easy for a Booker contender and yes, that thought did cross my mind but I can appreciate good writing when I see it and I think that it’s much harder to create powerful understated writing than all singing all dancing action. I really admire the way he has created a work which can be read on so many different levels – it’s as accessible as Maeve Binchy at her best, as poignant as William Trevor – nothing stiff and contrived here. The only negative thing I would foresee would be that some might consider the characters not developed enough but I think I prefer to be left to speculate as to Eilis’ motivation for some of her choices and not to be told the whole picture. It’s a tight little novel and part of its appeal for me was its straightforward nature. I think Brooklyn would appeal to a vast array of readers as long as you’re not in need of action scenes on every page. I’m so pleased that my first visit was a pleasant one and am looking forward to The Master which is on my ever increasing TBR pile.

PS Eilis is pronounced Ay Lish – I realise that Irish names can cause confusion at times!

PPS I much prefer the cover of the hardback edition.

My Rating – A

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