The Stone Circle. Dr Ruth Galloway Series: Elly Griffiths

The Stone Circle is number 11 in the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths and was the first book I managed to read when I was recently recovering from flu. Not being able to focus on words and concentrate enough to read is horrible enough but when you’re desperate to get stuck into the latest book of a favourite series upon release it is beyond frustrating! Still, being at the stay-in-bed stage was perfect when I did feel up to reading – no one to interrupt me as I just sat and read for hours (with nurse Poppy Cat making sure I was alright😉).

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Synopsis: Forensic archaeologist Ruth becomes involved in the archaeological discovery of a second stone circle on the North Norfolk Coast (the first circle being a central theme in the first book). The unearthing of a young Iron Age girl’s body sets off a chain of events to reveal a second body buried only thirty years previously. Mysterious, sinister letters are delivered to DCI Nelson and the appearance of a familiar looking face brings past events firmly into the present. Family secrets are revealed and not only for those, who are part of the murder narrative. A spark amongst tangled feelings remains, ready to catch fire.

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What I thought…

Old friends: I am so invested in these characters that it really does feel like spending time with old friends and catching up with their news. A lot of reviewers, who love the series, write along similar lines – I love it when books give you that sense of belonging, when stories and characters become a part of  life.

Ruth: Ruth Galloway continues to be one of my absolute favourite female leads for so many reasons. She is incredibly strong, fiercely intelligent plus she has such a perceptive sense of humour. She struggles to fit into the world around her and I relate to this being on the outside of things in a major way. She makes sure her daughter Kate gets to listen Harry Potter audio books at night and reads her His Dark Materials. She loves the beauty and solitude of the Saltmarsh where her cottage lies. She has a very forthright cat called Flint, who makes wonderful cameos in the story and always steals the show. She feels very real, very human  and I especially like how Griffiths has chosen a character facing middle age, who has so much to offer the world.

Engaging writing: As a rule, I don’t really do contemporary crime fiction but there is something so engaging about Griffith’s writing, the mixture of science and ‘the other’ (superstitions, myths, the unexplained) works incredibly well and although there is a murder to be solved in each book, it is the character development which drives the narrative.

A stunning sense of place: The stark contrast of the Norfolk marshland is so well written –  you really get that sense of vast, exceptional beauty as well as an underlying potential of darkness and danger. For those who know me, it comes as no surprise to  say I’d rather like a cottage like Ruth’s please.

Continuing chemistry: Oh, Ruth and Nelson (she types, sighing)! It is such a delicious mess of a relationship; the intensity, the stubborn sparks, the multitude of repressed feelings and insecurities.

Moments of humour: There are some really subtle, wry moments of humour amongst the darker moments. Griffiths has a knack of maintaining a well-crafted balance that enables the good to prevail in the bleakest of times and I love her for it.

The Stone Circle stormed into the HB Fiction Top Ten as no.7 after only three days on sale and this makes me beyond happy as I feel Elly is finally getting more of the recognition she deserves. Apart from her books being such great reads, she as an author who goes above and beyond to connect with her readers. On the 2nd of May she is releasing her first children’s book, A Girl Called Justice, and I CANNOT WAIT! Here is the blurb from the Hachette Children’s Group website:

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“Missing maids, suspicious teachers and a snow storm to die for… For a fearless girl called Justice Jones, super-smart super-sleuth, it’s just the start of a spine-tingling first term at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. For fans of Robin Stevens, Katherine Woodfine and Enid Blyton.”

…just my bookish cup of tea 😊

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I honestly don’t know how I feel about Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; I’m finding it difficult to organise my thoughts and feelings but try I shall! This is the first book I have read by Sarah Moss, I’ve heard so many people talk about how much they love her work and thought it was high time that I formed my own opinion.

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Synopsis: Set during an unusually hot week in summer in rural Northumberland, this is the story of 17-year-old Silvie, whose father has decided his family will take part in a university research project to recreate and experience Ancient Briton life – an exploration of rituals, foraging and very stripped back living conditions. Silvie’s working-class father, an amateur historian when not driving buses, has approached this experiment in all seriousness, passionate about the past and intent on making it an authentic experience at all costs. His intensity causes increasing friction between the participants and a dark sense of unease develops – his opinions and actions have far reaching consequences. It is also the story of a nameless Iron Age girl, who is sacrificed as a part of an ancient ritual in the opening scenes and how her death weaves into the characters’ contemporary narrative.

What I loved/ found intriguing…

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The portrayal of the natural world: Moss creates an in-depth sense of place so that I felt I was walking the paths of the present-day characters as well as their ancestors over two thousand years ago. Nature is that close, that powerful, that rich and that crucial to survival. I also really liked that Moss sets this story just before the explosion in technology that took over towards the end of the 90s. Mobiles, laptops and tablets are missing and this is such a clever way of allowing the plot to feel contemporary in so many other ways whilst also creating a sense of intense nature-focused isolation.

The complex, deep and often twisted daughter father relationship: This was so interesting to explore and figure out. There is pride and connection and even fondness as well as manipulation, coercion and violence. It makes for uncomfortable reading and challenges readers to examine our own perceptions.

Silvie as a character: I loved Silvie as she comes of age, how her strong passion for nature and curiosity about the world beyond her experiences develops and how she finds her sexual identity too. I think Moss portrays Silvie’s position so well as a young woman still dependent on her parents in terms of everyday life and still with a need for approval yet also longing for independence and the opportunities to challenge others and express the person she is becoming.

The northerness of Silvie’s family: I could literally hear the voice of Silvie and her father as they spoke and really connected with the snippets of their life back home. In connection with their background, I also really liked the questions Moss explores regarding class and education- gritty, relevant stuff indeed.

The intertwining of past and present until they merge: This was so well written; the haunting, eerie connection between Silvie and the Iron Age girl gives me the shivers just thinking about it and it is so subtly crafted that it never tips into a fictional time travel type plot device. The exploration of what being British actually means in terms of the present interpreting the past is also so poignant when viewed from our  Brexit-filled days. Silvie’s father is intent on finding his ideal “Britishness” away from any outside influences – he is desperate for a sense of place and power and channels all of this into a project, which ironically cannot be as pure as he desperately wants it to be because of the very present-day rooted students involved and the fact that the Britons were made up anyone present at that point in time – mostly immigrants in fact.

The suspense: I really enjoyed the way Moss makes us constantly question what is in fact going on, only giving a tiny bit away at a time and leaving so much to our interpretation. The dynamics between the characters in general also adds brilliantly to this suspense, the friction and intensity becomes increasingly tangible as the story progresses.

The elements I personally struggled with…

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The mother: The portrayal of Silvie’s mother left me angry and so frustrated as she felt stereotypical and I couldn’t get near her as a character because of this. This was such an opportunity to go deeper than the trope of the abused wife, who stands by as her child is abused, who often tries to lessen the impact yet so frequently makes excuses for her husband’s behaviour.

The violence and coercion displayed by the father: This is very much a personal perspective as I try to stay away from this kind of violence in my reading due to my own experiences. And because of this, Ghost Wall often felt too personal and hard to digest. From an objective perspective,  I know there is a point to the violence being there, it certainly adds to the narrative’s power and produces a very visceral reading response.

It. Was. Too. Short: Yes, I know it is a novella and a tight narrative structure has been crafted on purpose– it grips and takes you along on a tense ride, leaving you feeling almost breathless at the end. I read it in an afternoon.  but there was so much more I was desperate to find out more about. Whilst some themes and events are wonderfully rich and detailed like the landscape, others are only briefly mentioned, meaning that sometimes I was absolutely gripped and other times I was left feeling detached from the narrative.

The dialogue doesn’t have speech punctuation: Although this is a minor stylistic point, it never the less affected my experience as I was unsure who was speaking at times and, as a result, had to reread certain sections, losing the flow of the text in the process.

So, what do I think about Ghost Wall overall?  It was haunting, deeply disturbing, mesmerizing and thought provoking. But at the same time there just wasn’t enough depth for me, I wanted so much more, and the abuse was hard to read on a personal level. One thing I can say with certainty is that Ghost Wall has stayed with me since I finished reading it; I’m still thinking about it, digesting, questioning – and that in my opinion is a sign of a strong piece of writing! I first marked it as a 3-star read on Goodreads but have since changed it to a 4 for this reason and  I will definitely pick up another Sarah Moss book to see where it takes me.

P.S. I read a really interesting interview with Sarah Moss about her motivation behind Ghost Wall over on the Waterstones blog. Here is the link, it is well worth a read.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

The first time I came across Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, was as a teenager in the early 90s. I stumbled upon the channel 4 tv adaptation, which Winterson also wrote the screen play for. It was totally out of my comfort zone, totally beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.

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It was also certainly the first time I had come across a tv series with a lesbian relationship – this was back when same sex relationships were just beginning to enter mainstream entertainment. Fast forward a good 26 years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book itself, thanks to it being the July/August read for the Feminist Orchestra book club that I am part of on Goodreads (I can’t believe how long it has actually taken me to write a review and I’m really not sure how we’ve got to October already!)

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Winterson used her own life as a base for this novel, later returning to this time in her life to write her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In the introduction of my copy (the one pictured) Winterson writes,

“The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own.”

The story is of Jeanette, as a child and then as a young woman, who is adopted by a zealous Pentacostal, deeply complex mother and a father, who pretty much fades into the background and is most noticeable for his absence. Against a Northern, working class setting, a bright and incredibly resilient Jeanette finds her way through her childhood and is relatively happy to settle into the role her controlling mother has shaped for her with the end goal of becoming a missionary. Then everything changes as she falls in love with a girl and in doing so she fundamentally challenges her relationship with her mother and the church.

I absolutely LOVED this book in so many ways…

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The northern setting and memories of my own childhood: I grew up in The Midlands of the 80s and so Jeanette’s world felt like home to me; be it a description of her street or a reference to this larger than life period of time. Having grown up in what was a very poor part of Nottingham,  I also really appreciated Winterson’s very genuine, honest and identifiable portrayal of the working class.clipart47719038

Jeanette’s observations of the world around her: Winterson’s writing style is an absorbing combination of humour, a really dry matter of factness  and really dark moments, all intertwined with such skill. It felt like Jeanette of the book was talking to me, that the book was a conversation taking place and I really like this informal connection with the reader.clipart47719038

The incredibly complex character of her adopted mother and the often very difficult relationship she has with Jeanette. Love is probably not the right term to use for this but I certainly thought it was extremely well portrayed. Though some of the mother’s actions are described in a very matter of fact way, there is no doubt to the sadness and sheer neglect going on. Not only does her mother have no idea how to raise a child or how to connect with Jeannette, her own needs are always put first. This was difficult to read and also made me really appreciate Winterson’s honesty. Towards the end she describes her mother as enlightened and reactionary at the same time and this is it in a nutshell. On the one hand, she is very much in charge of her own life, following what she believes in, making the things she wants to happen a reality. On the other hand, she is incredibly prejudiced, sticks to the rules of the church without question and has an intense adverse reaction to Jeanette’s  same sex relationship. There is so much more I could write about this relationship – I would love to have had this as a set text for A-Level English literature!clipart47719038

I love how little Jeanette is so fierce in what she believes and what she feels. She only goes to school once the education department forces her mother to send her, by which time she has experienced a very alternative, certainly not age appropriate version of homeschooling and is consequently incredibly isolated in the school environment, which is such a stark contrast.  She seems alien to the children and the teachers don’t know how to handle this unique girl. Yet she put her point of view regardless: when she submits her needlework for a prize and is frowned upon by her teacher, Jeannette fiercely says, “Just because you can’t tell what it is , doesn’t mean it’s not what it is.”  Her imagination is equally awesome; her re-imagination of  Noah and the Whale at Sunday School is hilarious.clipart47719038

The running theme of what makes a relationship and what is expected of a girl in society. There is much talk of settling and making do. Whilst there are certain opportunities as a woman in the community, as I will mention later, everything is strictly confined, anything out of the “normal” faces a harsh backlash. There is also very little genuine love of any kind in the world Jeanette grows up in. When Jeannette fall in love with Melanie, the treatment of this relationship is horrendous and utterly heart-breaking. Having confided in her mother, she is physically locked up in the house so that the pastor can drive the demon out and her unnoticed glandular fever means much of that time is spent hallucinating.  Her mother also arranges for Jeannette to be ‘held to account’ (read publicly shamed) for her sexual orientation at their church, where she is forced to stand up and repent or face being ostracised. A further attempt to destroy Jeanette’s identity is when her mother  burns all her letters, cards and jottings, taking away any form of expression.clipart47719038

This is a book of fierce, resilient females. They are not always likeable, a lot of what they do is hard to get behind, but it is a book of women, who run their local church, run their families, their shops, their social circles. Men are few and far between, either absent in character or portrayed almost comically even when they try and assert their dominance (though often, their actions are not in themselves comical). There is such strength there to create a world they can navigate in challenging economic and political circumstances. Life was hard, their resilience strong.clipart47719038

Stories to make sense of the world: Jeanette tells fictional tales within the main narrative and these stories are a way to make sense of her world; it is a way for her to find her voice and the only way for her to break free of the many constraints she faces.  These stories take a lot of thinking about and I still need to return and analyse a bit deeper – that is how rich they are. Some readers have questioned the need for these stories in the narrative, I think they add a whole other layer.clipart47719038

In one of the last stories, the protagonist Winnet  knows she must find a boat to navigate a river, much like Jeanette needs to find her way out in the world regardless of the many challenges she faces. Winterson writes,

“No guarantee of a shore. Only a conviction that what she wanted could exist, if she dared to find it.”

I think this is what I will take away from Oranges more than anything else; that energy and need to write your own story, even if you are frightened and alone, even when the path is not linear and there is still darkness ahead, even if you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

 

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias; dystopian fiction or a very possible future?

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias is set in a future Britain where Brexit has indeed happened; the country is governed by The Party, a deeply conservative, right wing, authoritarian government. The Party’s prime focus is on the creation and implementation of the Immigration and Residency Act: anyone not born in the UK, who has been resident for fewer than twenty-five years, does not have an automatic right to remain. There is a points assessment system as well as forced deportation and it is law to report anyone you believe not to be BB (British Born). As you may gather, this book packs quite a punch and takes its YA target audience incredibly seriously. It is equally a wonderfully written love story between two teenagers, Ash and Zara, who are forced to navigate their lives together within this extreme, political context.1413431402

The main reason I picked up Night of the Party is the political element, which is actually so frighteningly close to the present reality that it feels more real than futuristic. I am an immigrant and all the fears I have for my future, should a hard Brexit go ahead, are all explored in this story. Sometimes it even got to the point where I had to stop reading for a little while as the storyline felt so very immediate, so very personal. Powerful stuff indeed.

flag peopleThe concept of nationalism and how this is used by politicians to manipulate thinking is brilliantly interwoven throughout the book. There are so many echoes of fascist governments of the past as well as the prevailing idea present today that all was better in the “good old days of Britain”. World War 2 films are produced en masse and are highly popular, the National Anthem is played at the end of each film. Churchill is once again an icon and his image displayed in cafes and restaurants. A strong emphasis is placed on all things traditional and the word itself crops up over and over again – how subtle the manipulation of language can be and how effective when it is part of everyday life! Pubs have signs that say that non-British Born are not welcome; the segregation is blatant and ordinary practice. There is talk of “duty” to report “Illegals”. There are also Neighbourhood Watch volunteers patrolling the streets and the presence of The Agency, which runs surveillance- everyone is watching or being watched. And all of this is wrapped up as a “necessary defence of national resources, security and culture” by the prime minister. Frightening.

flag peopleWithin this context, I loved the exploration of what “home” means as part of nationalism and the persecution of immigrants. Zara has lived in the UK for most of her life, for her, Romania can never be home even though she was born there. She wants to study English Literature at university; everything she knows and loves is here. Her roots are here. Home is about so much more than where you are born.

flag peopleI also think Mathias’ writing is exceptional in the way she threads current political viewpoints clearly throughout the story in a very genuine, accessible way, inviting readers to challenge their own perceptions.  An example of this is a very well written conservation that takes place between two of Ash’s friends, each on the opposite side of the political divide; whilst The Party supporter Lewis talks about the UK being a small island with limited space and resources and how non-BB are placing too much demand on the NHS, on housing etc, Chris talks of the deportation being an infringement of basic human rights.

flag peopleIn connection with this, one of the most powerful sections of the book focus on the scenes in a detention centre, where non-BBs are awaiting deportation. I don’t want to give the plot away but do want to mention how perceptively and sensitively written these scenes are. Dignity is stripped away, basic needs are not met, human rights are abused and for all intents and purposes it is a prison for those that have not committed a crime other than not being born in the UK. However, within this dark, soulless world there are kind individuals, other detainees who provide hope and solidarity; Mathias shows how things can happen for the good when women unite – this highlights a defying, resilient humanity, which can prevail regardless of the odds and that hope is so very important for our future.

flag peopleIt is of course much more than a political comment, at the heart there is an intense, genuine and beautifully written love story. Ash has experienced a terrible loss in his recent past and then he meets Zara. Though the two have not met before, their history is interlinked. Ash is BB, Zara is Romanian. I realise this sounds very vague, but it is hard to say more without giving away the mystery that unravels throughout the book! The story is told by both Ash and Zara’s perspectives in alternating chapters – this works brilliantly because we not only get to see into the hearts and minds of both characters – and I was emotionally engaged with both characters as if I personally knew them, but we also see in great detail how different their experiences of living in the UK are and how different their futures look. Ash and Zara’s belief in each other, the depth and sheer resilience of their relationship was so very lovely and also reminded me what teenagers are indeed capable of even though they are often portrayed otherwise.

flag peopleAsh and Zara are forced to deal with fundamental life questions as part of their relationship, questions that everyone needs to ask themselves in the world we live in. For instance, Ash’s dad tells him it is best to avoid friends who aren’t BB as soon as the law takes affect and his mum adds, “You don’t want to have to choose between reporting someone or breaking the law.” What would you do if it came to the crunch – do what you know to be right and follow your heart or adhere to the rules? And it is this humanity that absolutely shines through in the book, the message that each life matters because each one of us is a human being with emotions, needs and dreams.

This book needs to be read. It needs to be shouted about from the rooftops. It needs to be promoted in schools. It needs to be read by those adults in our world who are either unaware by choice or circumstance of our current political situation.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; how small acts of kindness can be life – changing

Every now and again a book comes into your life that has such a profound effect, that reaches deep into your soul and changes you for the better. Eleanor Oliphant is such a book. I’m actually finding it difficult to find adequate words for my thoughts and emotions about this debut novel, so bear with me.

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Eleanor is a woman in her thirties, she has crafted a carefully ordered life for herself without genuine human connection. She is a survivor of severe childhood trauma, which we learn more about as the story develops; this trauma has locked so many doors in Eleanor’s emotional and mental development. She is an outsider and doesn’t understand society’s rules; she is one of the loneliest characters I have ever come across. This all sounds very bleak and parts of the story are so very sad but, at the same time, this is the story of how Eleanor learns to open herself up to the world, to find meaning in her life and to allow love in. It is a story of so much courage as she tries to navigate a world, which feels alien to her and tries to come to terms with the dark experiences of her past.

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I’ve seen Eleanor Oliphant marketed as a ‘funny book full of humour’. I agree that there are many such brilliant moments as Eleanor’s perspective is so honest, her observations delightfully plain speaking and often childlike in honesty. There is a wonderful section where she is on a quest to look more socially acceptable, to look like the other women she sees as being normal. Her bewildered observations when she has her nails done and when she wants to buy trendy clothes in a department store, really did make me laugh, largely because I can totally identify with the bewilderment! When having makeup applied, the beautician asks her whether she likes a smoky eye look, Eleanor replies that she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. When asked whether she likes the finished effect, she say in all seriousness,

“I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon. It’s charming!”heart hands

However, selling it primarily as a comedy doesn’t sit right with me. I went into reading this book not knowing a lot about it but having the expectation of a Bridget Jones style narrative – this doesn’t begin to do Honeyman’s writing justice. Eleanor drinks two bottles of vodka at the weekend to make time pass quickly as there is nothing and nobody to fill the days when she is not working. Her mind becomes so dark at one point that she doesn’t know if life is worth living. This darkness is so well written, her mental health incredibly sensitively explored. I cried. Lots.

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Another thing I absolutely loved, is how Eleanor has moments of deep understanding, precisely because she doesn’t conform to what society expects; she doesn’t play by the social rules. For example, there is a scene in a café, where she is waiting for the rather wonderful Raymond, her first real friend. She attempts general conversation with a member of café staff and finds out he is leaving his job as his wife is terminally ill. Instead of shying away, finding a polite response, she tells him that she understands he would rather spend the short time left with his dying wife rather than serving random strangers.

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The friendships Eleanor develops are just so very lovely in their honesty and acceptance. This book shouts from the rooftops that there are good people out there and I love it for that. I shan’t say much more as they are for you to discover (but I hope you love Raymond as much as I do!) I will mention the cat that comes into her life though – because, you know, me and cats! Eleanor takes in this traumatised, scrappy little cat and allows her to become the centre of her long empty life. There is a special, tender moment when they first meet, remarkably, Eleanor has so much love to give:

‘I held her like a baby, close against my chest, and felt, rather than heard, her deep, sonorous purring. Oh, the warm weight of her! I buried my faced in what remained of her fur and felt her gently turn her head towards me as she gently sniffed my hairline.’heart hands

I read Eleanor Oliphant just before reading Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie (see my review here) and these two books together have played a huge part in restoring my hope in humanity. They have both reminded me how those small acts of everyday kindness can change someone’s world and that we humans are capable of so much compassion, care and indeed love, if we only put our minds to it.

 

 

Three Things About Elsie: how each one of us makes a difference

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Every now and again a book comes along that really makes a difference to your life, that opens your eyes and your heart; Three Things About Elsie is such a book. Printed on the inside of the Three Things About Elsie cover is the phrase,

Even the smallest life can leave the loudest echo.

This is the core message I took away from Joanna Cannon’s second novel and I feel so much richer for having read it.

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In contrast with her first novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (read my review here),which has two young girls as leading characters, Three Things focuses on the elderly Florence and her friend Elsie. Florence lives in a care home and we meet her lying on the floor after a fall, waiting for someone to find her.

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To keep herself busy, she reflects on her past and present life, believing that she has never made a difference, even though it turns out that is far from the truth. This perspective spoke to my heart in a very fundamental way. I have lost both of my much-loved grandparents over the last couple of years. They were such a fundamental part of my life and I loved, respected and was in awe of them. For me, their old age was something to admire, they had so many stories to tell, so many experiences to share.

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{Table decoration at my grandparents’ 65th wedding anniversary}

My grandparents were married for 68 years, imagine that. They fled from East to West Germany before the wall was built. My Omi had a children’s short story published in a newspaper at Christmas time. My Opi was an awesome photographer and had his work displayed in the care complex where they lived. I could go on and on. When their bodies started to slow down in their mid 80s, their minds were still incredibly active, and they struggled to come to terms with this change in pace and change in physical freedom.

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{My lovely Omi}

Shortly before their deaths, both faced rapid mental decline and they felt so frustrated in moments of clarity. They were lucky as they lived in an outstanding home, with staff who treated them with such care and respect. They lived in an  environment where there were countless activities and events to promote inclusion in society and to keep their minds stimulated.

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{My equally lovely Opi}

I write all this because my grandparents have made me think so much of what it means to be old, they have made me look at how we as a society treat older generations, they have made me think about what my own future could look like. What happens if I am forgotten, what if I forget who I am myself? Three Things gave me the opportunity to explore some of these thoughts, emotions and fears.

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Florence has the onset of dementia, she spends a lot of time without human interaction and at the beginning, the few people in her life don’t see beyond her old age and dementia. Her confusion and disorientation is so heart wrenchingly described. Florence says,

‘I never used to be like this, and if you’re not in charge of the inside of your own head, what are you in charge of?”

A man arrives at the home and she recognises him from a dark moment in her past, yet he is there with a different name and Florence finds it very hard to be taken seriously. And so the wonderful mystery element begins! This treatment of Florence seems rather bleak and in some ways it is; I found Cannon’s observations very true to life; she writes with honesty, integrity and understanding. The elderly are often treated in a child-like way and without the respect they deserve. Their rich lives are often forgotten and their present lives are often dismissed. Loneliness is certainly a massive issue here in the UK (and it is my biggest fear to be old and alone).

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However, this book is also one of the most life affirming books I’ve come across. Warm, strong friendships are formed; the characters are interconnected in all sorts of ways that remind us of what it means to be human; Florence becomes empowered and becomes an amateur detective of sorts; several of the care home staff open up their hearts and minds. There is also much humour, even in the darker times, Flo’s feisty spirit shines through. The conversation she has at a dementia assessment clinic really made me smile:

It (the piece of paper) said, Close Your Eyes on it.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked.

“Because I’m asking you to.” Doctor Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

“Is it a surprise?” I said.

I heard Doctor Andrews sigh. “Do you not usually do as someone asks?”

I frowned. “Not if I can help it.”

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And then there is the care home outing to Whitby. Whitby makes my heart sing, it is one of the most special places on earth for me. Joanna Cannon clearly loves Whitby too; the descriptions are wonderful.

‘We’d only been there a matter of minutes, but already the sea air had pulled away some of the worrying. The colours seemed brighter and other people’s laughter was more obvious, and my face fell into a smile so much more easily.”

“The yards and the snickets, and the alleyways, hold on to the footsteps of our ancestors, and somewhere at the point where the cliffs reach out to the North Sea, the past is valued rather than abandoned…”

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I also love how Three Things is full of small, thought provoking moments to make you think about how the treatment of dementia could be changed for the better. For example, Florence talks about how her senses play such an important part in remembering;

‘Sometimes you feel a memory before you see it. Even if your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.’

So why aren’t we doing more to actively engage minds and stimulate senses, why aren’t we celebrating all that experience and all those memories? Instead, there are far too many communal day rooms with televisions as focal points. I read a really interesting article recently about an East German care home, which has created a room full of artefacts from the old GDR so that inhabitants with dementia can physically access this time period; a time that feels clear and safe to them (and I know the GDR was by no means safe but you get the picture).

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Having finished Three Things, I had this strong need to act on what I had just read. It is easy to be inspired, to have good intentions and then life gets in the way and thoughts of making a positive contribution are pushed to the side. So, I researched – and there are so many opportunities out there to make a difference to the lives of older people. I want to play my part in combatting loneliness, I want to learn the stories behind the faces, I want to talk and listen. And though I am looking at more formal volunteering opportunities, I will be putting my intentions into everyday practice; it doesn’t take much to reach out to someone on a bus or at the shops, or to stop and chat to a neighbour on your way home.

What an incredible read this was.