An Evening With Svetlana Alexievitch

IMG_4319On Monday 2nd November Svetlana Alexievitch, Nobel Laureate, came to the Odeon Theatre, Paris. Under discussion was her latest book ,recently translated into French as La Fin de L’Homme Rouge [Second-hand Time in English] ,and her work in general.

Born in USSR in what is now Belarus , her writing spans 30 years  following the Soviet Union from the aftermath of WW2 through its decline and eventual fall.She is living in Minsk currently but her work caused her to live abroad for much of her professional life as it proved displeasing to the powers that be.

She is an unusual Nobel winner in that her work is non fiction. Described as ‘polyphonic writing’ by the Nobel Committee,  she uses interviews with ordinary people to document the events that have touched their lives….WW2, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Chernobyl and most recently the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

During the evening extracts from two of her books (Second-hand Time and War’s Unwomanly Face) were read beautifully by French actor Feodor Atkine. She was interviewed by French journalist Sylvain Bourmeau. The questions were asked in French then translated into Russian for Alexievitch by Alissa Kats, who then translated the replies into French for the audience. As I struggled to take notes in English from the French Q&A , I was filled with admiration for the translator’s skills. What follows will ,I hope ,give a flavour of the evening.


Bourmeau asked how she had found the ‘voice’ for her writing. Alexeivitch started as a journalist. She was born in a village in Belarus just after WW2 (1948). There were no men other than one or two old ones,  just women. Women who led very hard lives but who would get together and swap stories at the end of a days work. She grew up listening to these voices and came to realise that they were rarely heard in literature. She has tried to transcribe this voice .

She acknowledged her debt to the writer Ales Adamovitch who tried something similar with his book’ I’m From The Burned Village’ in which he interviewed the few survivors of a nazi reprisal. A whole village was burned in retribution for a partisan attack. In it she recognised her own voice and childhood and she loved this book.

To her own work she has added the dimension of time. She is of a different generation to Adamovitch. Who is Stalin is no longer the most important question. Today’s questions are more metaphysical.

Bourmeau wondered how she had perfected her interview technique. Alexievitch denied she had one! There is not one way of doing it , it really depends on the person and the subject.She finds that in general it is more difficult to interview men as there she is entering a different space. This is especially true when they are speaking about war……..she finds there is always a certain contempt or mistrust.

Most people are happy to speak in banalities. If you want something different you have to ask the question in a new way that makes them reflect. For example, when interviewing an Afghan veteran about his war experiences she asked him not what was it like but how did you not go mad with what you had to see and what you had to do?

Bourmeau then asked  how she managed to navigate time……..her work spans WW2 through Afghanistan, Chernobyl and now the fall of the Soviet Union. She doesn’t approach history in that way. It is always the person that interests her. Inside each individual are many people and a time but she is interested in l’homme eternel ,that is unchanged since classical times.

For example, a female tank soldier in WW2 told her the worst attacks were those that took place at dawn. She would see the sun rising, hear the birds singing and think that she may not see the end of the day. An Afghan veteran told her that when he was fighting he was only 19 . He didn’t want to die , he wanted to live, get married ,have a family. These things are unchanged over centuries. Putting it all together is what makes it literature.

Bourmeau knows as a journalist that it is very easy to put yourself into the person you are interviewing. How does she manage that? Alexievitch listens and then she has to transform the oral into the written.She has to reduce what is sometimes several hours of speaking into perhaps half a page of text as well as preserve the person she was speaking to. She has to reproduce what she heard, an époque, a person…..that is always very difficult. She is interested in what she calls the language of tears  – the ideas, the energy, the emotion.

Bourmeau asked why she decided to write this book which she has described as being one of her most difficult. To Alexievitch it did seem the logical next step to write about the aftermath of the USSR. This, together with her book about Chernobyl ( Voices From Chernobyl) have proved the most difficult. They were both completely new subjects. With WW2 there are whole libraries of books you can consult. Chernobyl was a mystery … there people were describing a fear of the earth, the air, the food.

After the fall of the empire, the Soviet Union divided into 15 different countries. Everything had been destroyed so that something could be reborn. The red man was still there but he was living in a different way.It was difficult to write about that.

Bourmeau wondered whether finding a title helped her to organise the material. Does it take a lot of time to put it together?

It is difficult to put together but there are usually 10 -15 accounts that stand out. Her aim is to put them together almost like a Greek chorus . They sing a history but there is always a vision beyond that. It is hard to describe how you do it…….you can’t ask Shostakovich how he put together his symphonies! At times it feels like she is fighting against chaos. Is there a limit to the horrors a person can take? How does man preserve his humanity ? These are the questions she is constantly exploring.

Alexievitch has described that the writing of her current work focussing on love and getting old is proving difficult to interview people about. Former soviet people find it hard to talk about individual emotions. Is there anything of the soviet still in her, Bourmeau wondered.

When she reviews the diaries that she has kept from a young age, Alexievitch thinks she has been a dissident from the cradle. The war in Afghanistan completely freed her from  sovietism.

When she travels and sees people begging on the streets she finds that very hard. She always wants to give money. That is the soviet in her, she thinks. Every person deserves the wherewithal to live…..that was part of the revolution. In the gulags there were many idealists.

Bourmeau pointed out that in her art, Alexievitch has opted for a documentary style and now she had received the Nobel prize rarely given for non fiction. Does she think this means a new form of writing has been recognised.

In painting new forms are welcomed and accepted all the time, in music too.In literature we seem more conservative. She is pleased if a new form has been recognised but she doesn’t think about it much. She feels very lucky to be doing what interests her , her work remains important to her and she enjoys it.

Bourmeau wondered whether the international recognition that the Prize has given her would help her to raise the concerns she has in her own country.

That is a difficult question to answer when you live in an authoritarian regime. A dictator doesn’t much care about the Nobel Prize for Literature. At times she feels helpless but she has always thought it is important to resist power.

A wonderful evening in a beautiful venue.


Guest Post : Book Review :Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng


It seems that Jack has got the blogging bug……..or possibly he is looking for distractions from writing his dissertation. Here is another blog post from him :-

When my mum suggested that I read Everything I Never Told You in order to review it, I was a bit apprehensive. After reading the blurb and the first few chapters, I thought that this was going to be a whodunit-esque murder mystery and therefore I told myself that I would’t enjoy this book. I trudged along though and the more I read , the more I enjoyed the book.

The story focuses on the Lees, an Asian-American family, living in a small town in Ohio during the 1970’s. The family is made up of Marilyn, the mother, who has become the very thing she despises the most; James, the father, whose greatest wish is to just fit in ;Nath, their eldest child, who can’t wait to leave; Hannah, their youngest and the most observant of them all, and Lydia, the favourite child. We join the Lees on the morning of May 3rd 1977, the day that Lydia dies.

Although this book starts with a death, it is primarily about those that were left behind. We see the mystery of Lydia’s death unravel through the eyes of each of the family members and as we do, we learn more about each of them and more about Lydia as well. Having so many narrators can often be confusing, but Ng is able to move the story between each of the characters without interrupting the flow of the story, which, in my opinion, is an impressive feat.

The story also flits effortlessly between time frames. We learn about James’ and Marilyn’s childhoods, how they met and what happened that one summer before Lydia died, the thing that that no one can talk about. We learn about Lydia’s childhood too.

Ng highlights the natural frictions that exist within a family unit. All this tension kept me on the edge of my seat and made me want to find out how the family is going to cope, once all their secrets finally come out.

Ng also deals with what it is like to grow up under the ever constant shadow of parental expectation. She captures beautifully the struggle between making your family proud and being your own person.

Ng also explores  issues of race.  She uses the character of James,  the son of Chinese immigrants,  to investigate  this topic the most. James just wants to fit in and becomes a professor of American History, specifically studying cowboys. He is constantly searching for ways to blend in and disappear from the spotlight that he feels has been on him since he was a child. Marylin, however,  sees him differently. She loves James because of his ‘uniqueness’ not in spite of it. She also sees herself as being different and has
aspirations that extend beyond the kitchen, aspirations that she forces upon Lydia.

Ng tells an exciting story with refreshing characters. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read from an up-and-coming author and I am excited to see what else she has to offer.

Jack Chorley

Book Review: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano / The Search Warrant trans Joanna Kilmartin

Patrick Modiano was not particularly well known in what the French call ‘ Anglo-Saxon’ literary circles until he won the 2014 Nobel Prize for LIterature. In fact much of the coverage in the British press made me chuckle as the suggestion seemed to be that as very few of his works have been translated into English, he was a less than worthy winner.

Following his win , almost every bookshop in France has a table displaying his works and during a recent visit I picked up and read Dora Bruder, one of the few already translated into English, although re titled The Search Warrant for reasons I don’t really understand.

Modiano’s own father was Jewish and led a precarious existence during the Occupation, living clandestinely ( refusing to wear the star) and trading on the Black Market. Modiano’s early work La Place de l’Etoile told the story of a Jewish collaborator and led to a final rupture between the pair.

Dora Bruder covers much of Modiano’s familiar territory – the Occupation and the moral dilemmas it posed; memory and forgetting ; what is lost and what is saved. The Nobel Prize committee announced that Modiano had won the prize  for

.. the art of memory with which he has evoked the most unspeakable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.

His starting point for the book was  a missing persons advert he came across in a 1941 copy of Paris Soir seeking the whereabouts of a 15 year old girl, Dora Bruder, who had run away from home. He seeks to fill in Dora’s story and whilst doing so he recounts much of the sad story of the Jews of Paris and their struggle to survive. He revisits his own relationship with his father and walks the streets of the city looking for traces of the life Dora lived.

,Dora comes to life again during this short novella. His prose is simple and understated yet beautiful, especially in French.He recalls a quote from Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose  which evoke’s Dora’s speaking voice for him.

“What the child taught me was that the true roots of Parisian slang lie in its sad tenderness”. This phrase evokes Dora Bruder so well for me that I feel I knew her. The children with Polish or Russian or Romanian names who were forced to wear the yellow star were so Parisian that they merged effortlessly into the façades, the apartment blocks, the pavements, the infinite shades of grey which belong to Paris alone. Like Dora Bruder, they all spoke with the Parisian accent, using a slang whose sad tenderness Jean Genet had recognised.

In the course of his research it becomes clear that Dora ran away from home several times. She did return to her mother’s care following the advert but by then her father was already detained in Drancy, a holding camp on the outskirts of Paris, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz.

Dora ran away one final time before being re-arrested and taken to Drancy where she left on the same transport for Auschwitz as her father. Modiano is unable to discover what impelled her to run away and what she did in her months of hiding.

I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for a second time. Thi is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dêpôt, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you- have been able to take away from her.

After reading the book, I visited the Mémorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust museum in the Marais district of Paris.. As you leave the museum there is a Wall of Remembrance on which there is engraved for each year of the Occupation the name of every Jew deported from France. A moving visit was made even more emotional by seeing Dora’s name carved next to that of her father Ernest for 1942.


Book Review : Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

Anna Benz is a bored housewife .An American, she is married to Bruno, a Swiss, and finds herself stranded as an ex-pat in Zurich. Following a crisis , she is undergoing Jungian analysis ( well this is Switzerland) with Dr Messerli and is finally resigned to trying to learn German. As a distraction, she has started an affair with a fellow student in her German class. So begins Essbaum’s impressive debut novel.

Gradually we learn more about Anna’s past whilst her present slowly begins to unravel.

Anna’s marriage to Bruno is loveless and held together by convention just like her namesake’s with Karenin. Bruno’s mother, Ursula, watches over her like a hawk, judging and waiting to trip her up – there are obvious echoes of Countess Ivanova in Tolstoy’s novel.

The narration is broken up by excerpts from Anna’s therapy sessions with Dr Messerli, providing a sort of moral conscience. I thought these were the least successful sections of the novel and they felt a little heavy handed at times. More interesting were Anna’s musings on German grammar rules and the way they seemed to mirror her life .

“This is basic, class. Present tense. That which happens now. Future tense. What will occur. Simple past : what was done. Present perfect? What has been done.”

But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect? Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn’t trust.’

Just like her namesake, Anna’s life begins to run away from her and she finds herself unable to control events. 

This is described on the backcover as a literary page turner and it is exactly that. Whilst Anna’s story has obvious comparisons with those of Anna Karenina and, to some extent, Emma Bovary, this is a strong work in its own right. An immensely enjoyable read.

Hausfrau was published on 26th March by Mantle and my thanks to Sam Eades for the review copy.

Guest Post : The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun trans. Deborah Smith


I am pretty tied up at the moment trying to read my way through the Bailey’s Prize Long-list.I am still being sent some lovely books to read and review and feeling pretty stressed out by it !

When I received The Salmon , by best-selling Korean Poet Ahn Do-hyun ,I knew immediately who would most want to read and enjoy this book : my son Jack Chorley. He’s a real East Asian literature fan and is at home on holiday from Uni at the moment. He only has a dissertation to write so has far more time than me to review books for a blog. So without further ado , over to you Jack.

First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone, even if they don’t share my love of East Asian literature . It would make an excellent “first book” when dipping your toes into the often confusing waters of Asian literature. This book is set out almost like a fairytale (it even has pictures in it!!) and follows the story of Silver Salmon as he makes his journey back to the mighty Green River to spawn. Unlike the rest of the salmon in his shoal, however, Silver Salmon is different . He is covered in silver scales, unlike the blue and white ones of his fellow Salmon, and he is also inquisitive about the world around him.

At first, as with a lot of the Asian literature I have read in the past, I thought this book would be about finding identity in the face of normality, even the title of the book seemed to hint at this. I believed this book would be about finding adventure when faced with a strict regime but although the story does deal with this at the beginning, by the end it’s about something else entirely. It has more to do with realizing that there is something bigger than the individual. Silver Salmon struggles with finding meaning in his life and doesn’t understand why he must travel up the Green River to spawn, a fate that means certain death for the salmon. Through his eyes we see the importance of finding your place in nature. Silver Salmon learns these truths through conversing with other aspects of nature such as the leaves, a stepping-stone and the Green River itself.

This is also a love story. Silver Salmon meets Clear-Eyed Salmon, a female in his shoal, and even though biology dictates that they must mate, they decide to do so out of love. Clear-Eyed Salmon teaches Silver Salmon how the see through the “eyes of the heart”, which, for much of the book, means looking through the eyes of nature itself. This enables Silver Salmon to see beauty where he couldn’t before. This, along with some overt messages about the human relationship with nature, gives this book a certain conservational slant.

As a zoologist, I thought the language used by Ahn Do-hyun, and translated by Deborah Smith, and the message it sends is a beautiful and important one. Ahn Do-hyun highlights the human tendency to look at things as “other”, or below us, just like the salmon hawk looks down upon the Salmon. Throughout the story you realize that it is only by looking at nature as a whole and coming to peace with it that we will save it. We must put ourselves in the salmon’s shoes, as it were.

Finally this book is about passing on to future generations the message that the easy way is not always the right way. We must make our own decisions in our lives, even if they do not fit into our idealized view of the world. A salmon should take the salmon’s way, just as we must take the path that is set out for us and not for anyone else. The messages set out in this book are hard-hitting and speak  about a lot of aspects of humans relationship to nature. It may be written simply, but this means the messages are clear and free of pretension or ego. The message is the message, just like a salmon is a salmon.

Thank you to Jack for that wonderful review….not bad for a first attempt. A big thank you to Deborah Smith and Pan Macmillan for the review copy. The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher  is published on 9th April.

Shadowing The Bailey’s : Keep Calm And Carry On


The Bailey’s Prize long list has been revealed. Now all I have to do is read them all ahead of the announcement of the shortlist on April 13th . No biggie then !

Prior to the announcement, I had confidently and, as it turns out, arrogantly assumed that I would have already read at least half of all the books chosen.The judges, of course, had other ideas and have selected a varied and interesting collection of books.

Obviously there are the usual unexpected omissions  – Jane Smiley and Marylinne Robinson to name but two Pulitzer prize winners; as well as All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews ,currently causing quite a stir and shortlisted for both the Folio and the Wellcome prizes. I could go on.

As it turns out, I have read only six of the long-listers already and only reviewed three on the blog : Elizabeth Is Missing; Crooked Heart and The Paying Guests. I suppose this is a good thing in some ways as it gives me  time to write a few reviews while I get on with the easy task of reading 14 books in just under six weeks, still trying to work full time and have a social life.

I have decided to post only short reviews of the long listed books I read , possibly even two at a time. I will maybe post longer reviews once books are shortlisted – but I reserve the right to change my mind and do things completely differently . Your statutory rights are unaffected.

Secretly, I am very much looking forward to discussing , shouting about and flouncing out over the books with my fellow ‘Shadows’ – Naomi from ( @Frizbot) ; Antonia from ( @antonia_writes) ; Eric from lonesome ( @lonesomereader); Dan from (@utterbiblio) and Paola ( @paola_ruocco).

I had grown a little weary of blogging recently. Endless book reviews can become tedious to write as well as to read. This project has given me a fresh impetus. Thank you to Naomi for organising it ……………….and Ssssshhhhh!!!! I’m reading !



The Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel 2015

I am very excited to be part it this ….looking forward to reading the books …..and debating with my fellow shadows.

The Writes of Womxn

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that this year I won’t be shadowing the Bailey’s Prize alone. Oh, no. I’m joined by five fantastic bloggers/writers/bookish people who all will be posting, tweeting and discussing the books longlisted for the prize on Tuesday. Here’s a short guide to each of us:

Naomi Frisby blogs about female writers at The Writes of Woman. She is currently writing a novel and working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Twitter: @Frizbot

Eric Karl Anderson is an American-born writer who has lived in London for over a decade and runs the book blog He’s author of the novel ENOUGH which won the Pearl Street Publishing First Book Prize. He’s also keen on baking and watching disaster movies. Find him on Twitter @LonesomeReader

Antonia Honeywell is a teacher, a writer and an avid and promiscuous reader. Her debut novel, The…

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An Evening with Karl Ove


Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of the books Zadie Smith described as being ‘like crack’ – the My Struggle series by Nordic publishing sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard. On 2nd March Karl Ove was interviewed by Claire Armistead at Foyles flagship store on the eve of the publication in English of volume 4 Dancing In The Dark ( trans Don Bartlett).

This volume covers the years Knausgaard spent in the far north of Norway as a secondary school teacher when aged only 18 himself. He explained that this was a challenging time in his life. The community in which he lived was very different from the one in which he had grown up. It was small, isolated and inward looking with a rough macho culture.

At that point in his life he was holding on to two realities : arrogance and shyness. You think you know everything about yourself at that age but, of course, you don’t.


Claire Armistead asked how much of that time he actually remembered as in the book he recounts many episodes of blacking out following heavy drinking.

He conceded that there are a lot of things about that time he doesn’t remember. He was drinking a lot. When writing this volume it had been interesting for him to reflect that his first published novel, Out Of This World, concerned a young man who goes up North to teach. Essentially it was this story but it was fiction. In Dancing In The Dark he tries to say what really happened . He has found it is difficult to write the truth – perhaps by volume 6 he has managed to get it right. It is difficult to negotiate the ground between fiction and memory.

His  inner life at this time  was chaotic and he was drinking too much. He was drinking and partying with students. It was very difficult to write about this. He had feelings he was not supposed to have. He kissed a student – nothing more happened but it was very uncomfortable to write about it as a grown man. It was the chaos of being 18 years old, full of desires but with no idea of who you are.

Claire Armistead remarked that it seemed that in this volume he was obsessed with sex. Karl Ove raised an eyebrow ironically , he was 18 and he was obsessed with sex but he hadn’t had it yet! He was living in a small community of 200 people where everyone knew him and they knew exactly what he was doing, even the pupils in his class.

Did this circumscribe his ability to write about these events ? Writing a book is a zone of freedom for Knausgaard. What he means is that as he is writing he feels completely free in his thinking. This volume is a lot about shame. There is no shame in literature and he does not feel shame as he is writing. The shame comes when he has finished writing  and the work is complete.

He was careful to censor a lot of things that happened to other people. The project was very sensitive and  in fact there were lawyers reading over the drafts and forcing edits.

The person in the book is him and not a character. He tried to recreate himself at 18 but of course at 40 you know so much more.He doesn’t allow the ‘character’ to have any reflection in a mature sense. He joked that he has a sense of what it is to be 17 or 18 still but he tries to have more dignity in his life now.

He didn’t feel that he was betraying his 18 year old self in writing about him in this way. He had wanted to write a novel about his experiences at that time and was writing everyday. He just couldn’t do it. As it turned out he had to wait 25 years before he was able to write a novel about that time.

His view is that this is a very funny book. Having said that, when he was writing volume 2 he thought he was writing a tragedy – it was only after it was finished and he read it back he realised it was a comedy.

Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of My Struggle are not chronological. Volumes 3 to 6 are and the complete work is circular.

The project started because he wanted to write about his father’s death. He gave his publishers 1200 pages. From that it was decided there would be 6 volumes and it was then he constructed the arc that leads volume 6 back to volume 1. He then had to write 4 books very quickly.

Armistead asked him about the 240pp digression which appears in the book going back to his father. Knausgaard doesn’t make decisions when writing. He just follow what comes. He wanted to see all the people in his life from different angles and insights.

His father had changed profoundly at age 40. He went from being a very straight-laced , proper school teacher to becoming a kind of a hippie. He started to drink and then he became an alcoholic. It was so hard to relate to him.

After his death, he discovered that his father had left notebooks recording his feelings.The lawyers told Knausgaard he couldn’t quote directly from them. In these diaries his father recorded his struggle with drinking, he wanted to stop and couldn’t. Knausgaard had wanted to explore how and why this had happened to is Dad. He really didn’t think his father had an inner life until he read these diaries.

Armistead asked him what he thought of the English translation of My Struggle  done by Don Bartlett. He hasn’t read the translation in its entirety. He trusts Don Bartlett completely. He has read from the various volumes at literary events and his voice is completely recognisable and the atmosphere of each volume has been faithfully captured.

Had writing about his past changed him, he was asked? This project was always about writing novels. It doesn’t help you to know your faults. When you write about memory you inevitably change it. Memory isn’t fixed, it floats and evolves.

Armistead asked him about the importance he puts on looking at art. When he is writing he doesn’t read at all, he does however look at art a lot. Art is enigmatic and has no language. He discuss the importance of art to  him in volume 6.

A member of the audience asked about the storm his books had created in Norway where reportedly 10% of the population has read My Struugle. He confirmed it was a sensation  and his books had been on the front pages of the newspapers for weeks. Not since Henrik Ibsen had there been so much publicity about writing in Norway. He can only think this is because Norway is a small society and,  as members of his family had objected to their portrayal in the novels, this was regarded as a scandal.

He had thought that this kind of fuss about appearing in print was a peculiarly Scandinavian phenomenon however he recently wrote a travel piece for the New York Times.  This followed a journey he made across the States and the people who appeared in that piece made just as much fuss about their portrayal. He has discovered that people want profound things said about them not realism.




The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins


There’s been a problem on the line. The 17.56 fast train to Stoke has been cancelled, so its passengers have invaded my train and it’s standing room only in the carriage. I, fortunately, have a seat, but by the aisle, not next to the window, and there are bodies pressed against my shoulder, my knee, invading my space. I have an urge to push back, to get up and shove. The heat has been building all day, closing in on me, and I feel as though I am breathing through a mask. Every single window has been opened and yet, even while we’re moving, the carriage feels airless, a locked metal box. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel sick.

This passage from Paula Hawkins’ new thriller will chime with anyone who commutes regularly. I am not a big fan of the thrillers and I don’t read very many. It remains a genre that produces big sales and the publishing industry is now on a quest to find the new Gone Girl, whose ( to me inexplicable) success recently led to a Hollywood film. There are several highly publicised thrillers coming out this year which like  Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train are by women and feature female protagonists.

Hawkins’ staring point is the monotony of a daily train commute – you see the same faces, stop at the same stations and pass through the same landscapes day in day out. One way out of the boredom is to invent fictional lives and names for the people whose lives cross ours everyday , albeit briefly.

This is how we first meet Rachel, one of the three female narrators of the book. She is a commuter but with a difference. In the wake of a failed marriage, her drink problem has caught up with her and she is now taking the same train every day to hide from her flatmate, and maybe from herself too, that she has lost her job and her life is approaching meltdown.

On the train she relives the moment that she discovered Tom was cheating on her with his now wife, Anna :

I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days : an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message ; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar.

Rachel is obsessed with Tom and is accused of stalking him. Her alcoholism means that she can’t always remember exactly what happened the night before. She is the classic unreliable narrator….or is she ? We also hear from two other female characters Anna, Toms new wife, and Megan, a young woman Rachel glimpses from the train every day, who each add a different perspective to the story. It is not really possible to say much more without running the risk of giving a spoiler.

I enjoyed The Girl On The Train very much. None of the characters are particularly likeable but the book is tightly plotted and kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.As with any thriller, there are a few red herrings that kept me guessing and the plight of Rachel ,who descends from social drinking to full-blown alcoholism, is sympathetically told.

An ideal book for a long winter’s evening…..or, indeed, a long train journey.

The Girl On The Train was published on 15th January. My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld for the review copy.


2014….My Reading Best Bits !

Rather than compile a list of my ‘best’ books of 2014 , I thought I would write a short piece about two ‘box sets’ I have read this year and which have had a massive impact on me.

Both of them are translated fiction which is interesting as I don’t tend to read much fiction in translation. I do read a lot of Francophone fiction, which of course includes Canadian and African fiction, but I read that in the original.

One of my choices is by an enigmatic woman and the other by a man now famous for letting it all hang out so that is quite a nice balance , as it happens!

The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante :trans Anne Goldstein


These tell the story of Lena and Lila born into the Neopolitan slums just after the second world war. Three volumes are currently available in English, a fourth volume is to be published in Italian in early 2015 with , hopefully, the English translation following towards the end of the year.

Why are they so compelling ? Ferrante creates a ghetto that you can almost smell and taste, the characters fizz with life. Lila and Lila are the two central figures but many of the other characters reappear throughout the narrative , all caught in the web which pulls both women back to the neighbourhood they try to escape.

Ferrante explores the tensions and the joys of a female friendship. She also looks at the political history of Italy in the late 20th Century, still reeling from WW2, and the impact of feminist thinking on the lives of women during that time.

Ferrante herself refuses all interviews and very little is known of her personal circumstances. There has even been speculation in the Italian press that “she” is in fact a male writer. Ferrante herself remains impassive :

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard : trans Don Bartlett


In terms of self publicity, Knausgaard is about as far away from Ferrante as you can get.His six volume opus, ironically titled Min Kamp in Norwegian, has been a publishing sensation in his native country, although the writer now lives in Sweden, and throughout the world.

So far only three volumes are available in English with the fourth expected in Spring 2015.

I am going to see Knausgaard at Foyles in January 2015 and I expect I will have more to say after that ; I did, however, listen to a recording of an interview with him over the summer. In it he described how he decided that instead of taking things out when writing fiction, he wanted to see what would happen if you left it all in.The novels are all finely crafted but the minutiae of life is recorded. As well as bringing him unexpected fame, the novels have also brought Knausgaard into conflict with his family as he describes his father’s descent into alcoholism, violence, his own marital problems as well as his wife’s mental illness with an almost brutal honesty. What results is a modern day Scandi Proust.

Books 1 and 3 are very bleak, but I hadn’t expected the humour in Book 2. I defy anyone who has had small children to care for not to recognise something of themselves in those pages. Karl Ove adores his kids but describes his battle to cope with the every day grind and drudgery of life at home with small children when he is a stay-at-home parent. Eventually he conquers his own resistance and surrenders to domesticity.

What had once irked me, walking through town with a buggy, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby buggy with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminised nature of what I did; now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or refusals to go any further or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon.Once a crowd of Japanese tourist stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look ,and tell your grandchildren what you saw!

There goes a Scandinavian man has become a catchphrase in our family !

Whilst Ferrante and Knausgaard have been the outstanding reads for me during 2014, I feel I must give an honourable mention to the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard who died in January 2014.


The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family from just after WW1 through to 1958. Martin Amis has credited Howard,his step-mother, with encouraging him to read more seriously and become a writer.

I came to EJH late , only starting the series after reading her obituaries. Whilst I think it is fair to say that some volumes are stronger than others, I was swept up in the lives of the family, their hopes, love affairs and treacheries. Much social change is recorded too and I wished I had discovered the books earlier as they were a window into the world in which my parents grew up and gave me a greater understanding of some of their anxieties. I dreaded starting All Change as I knew that would finally be the end of a fantastic journey.

Happy New Year and happy reading in 2015 !