Tag Archives: Booker Prize

#BookReview ‘Union Street’ by Pat Barker #motherhood #women

Uncompromising, unbelievably sad and harsh, Union Street by Pat Barker does not hide the uncomfortable truths of poverty in North-East industrial England. This is the story of eight women who live on Union Street from teenager Kelly Brown to Alice Bell in her eighties and though each story is told individually, like the lives of the women, the stories interweave. An honest book about women struggling to hold life, family and home together, while retaining pride and some of their own individuality. Some succeed in this, others don’t. Pat BarkerThis is not a book about idealised motherhood. It is about putting bread on the table for your children no matter how you do it; including beating your husband to get his pay packet before he spends it on booze. These women are tough because they have to be; the choices are the cake factory, charring, and prostitution. Many marry young to feckless husbands because they are pregnant. This is not a light read; it features scenes of rape and backstreet abortion that somehow make the prostitution a lighter route. The language is often strong and some of the descriptions are difficult to read; but it is an honest book, bleak and realistic.
The spine throughout the book is Iris King, she appears in each story and is the one most aware of other women’s lives and offers support and a word of kindness when needed. But Iris is the toughest woman in the street. Three weeks after marrying Ted, he knocks her around because she is ironing his shirts when he gets home from work when he was expecting his supper. “After he’d gone, she sat down and took stock… When he came back she was waiting for him behind the door with the meat chopper in her hand. The blow glanced off him, though there was enough blood around to scare the pair of them stiff. It didn’t stop him hitting her again, but it did free her from the fear. She never lost her self-respect.” It is that self-respect which separates Iris from the other women.
This is the first novel by Booker Prize winner Barker, but such is the excellence of the prose you would never know. The ending is raw and sad, it cannot fail to touch you.

For my reviews of other Pat Barker novels, click the title below:-

If you like this, try:-
‘Orphans of the Carnival’ by Carol Birch
‘In the Midst of Winter’ by Isabel Allende
‘These Dividing Walls’ by Fran Cooper

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UNION STREET by Pat Barker #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3rH via @SandraDanby






#Book review ‘Elmet’ by @FJMoz #contemporary #womens

Fiona Mozley A powerful book about the nature of family in today’s society, Elmet by Fiona Mozley is also about our relationship with the earth, nature, and existence without the trappings of modern life. Except it is impossible to escape completely.

The narrator, fourteen-year-old Daniel Oliver, is walking north in pursuit of an unnamed someone. As Daniel walks on, we see flashbacks to what happened before he set off on his journey. Danny’s life with his sister Cathy is split into two parts: living with Granny Morley beside the seaside where their father and mother are, separately, occasional visitors to the house; then later, living in a wood with Daddy, in a house hand-built, foraging off the land. At the beginning the descriptions of the rural landscape made me think this was a historical setting but Elmet is set today, making the circumstances of the family more disturbing. They live off the land and the money earned bare knuckle fighting by Daddy, John Smythe. They live on the margins; the children are home-schooled, and receive payment in kind [a carton of orange juice from the milkman, chops from the butcher] for favours done. Daniel and Cathy visit a neighbour’s house each morning for lessons, though it is not clear how Vivien knows John or what favour he has done her. It is a story of hints and implications, expecting the reader to wonder and explore possible gaps in the children’s history without knowing all the facts. Sometimes this worked, at other times I felt it made me miss some of the subtleties.

The story gathers pace as the odious Mr Price, a local landowner, appears on the scene with his two equally odious sons. His mistreatment of the Smythe family is echoed by the exploitation of farmworkers and tenants not only by Price but by other local farmers and landlords. As the downtrodden gather together at the Smythe house in the woods, a plan is devised to face up to the bullies. Watching it all are Smythe’s two teenage children, almost but not quite adults, understanding some of what is happening but not the implications or cost. Both are still discovering their own identities and there is a degree of gender confusion; while Cathy prefers the outdoors and reacts first with fists flying, Daniel is the homemaker.

While some of the characters are thinly-drawn – Price, Vivien – Mozley writes poetically about the wilderness of nature, the trees, plants and animals, the passing of the seasons. She creates a visual picture of the house in the woods, of Cathy plucking a mallard, of Daniel cooking eggs and bacon. But for me the plot stumbles rather than flows and would have been helped by a little more exposition about the children’s mother and why their father is determined to take them away from their regular lives. Though Daniel’s observations are beautiful he is an unconvincing narrator, his voice too mature and sophisticated for a home-educated teenager. The transition from his thoughts – “It was as if Daddy and I had sprouted from a clot of mud and splintered roots and they had oozed from pure minerals in crystalline sequence” – to vernacular dialogue and the use of ‘wandt’, dindt’ and ‘doendt’ jarred.

The book closes without a natural ending, simply a pause in proceedings, as life meanders its course for Daniel. An elegiac read, beautiful if flawed, it covers a lot of moral questions for today. Families living on the margins of society and their right to choose to live how they want, the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, family love and loyalty when faced with extreme threat, and what happens when you take justice into your own hands. A promising debut. Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize.

If you like this, try:-
‘Himself’ by Jess Kidd
‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor
‘The Western Wind’ by Samantha Harvey

‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley [UK: John Murray]

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Book review: Offshore

Penelope FitzgeraldThis is a slim, powerful novel about a small community of people living on houseboats on the River Thames at Battersea Reach in 1960s London. Anchored on the southern shore, next to the warehouses, brewery and rubbish disposal centre, they long to be positioned on the prosperous Chelsea shore opposite. In Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald draws you into the world of Dreadnought, Grace, Maurice, Lord Jim and Rochester – those are the boats – and their occupants.

They live in close, intimate proximity as the boats are tied to each other, only one is fastened to the wharf. Despite this, each person lives in an individual island of loneliness caused by marriage, poverty, sexuality, or just being different. Their lives are governed by tidal movement. ‘On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human. The crazy old vessels, riding high in the water without cargo, awaited their owner’s return.’

The people are inter-dependent but don’t know it until a crisis happens. The catalyst is Nenna, a young mother separated from her husband. She lives on Grace with her two children, Tilda and Martha, who run wild in the mud. One day, when they find antique painted tiles and sell them at an antiques shop on King’s Road, the two children seem more mature and capable than their mother. Nenna’s neighbours act as counsellors, offering marriage advice, boat help, and babysitting services. Richard, the de facto leader of the boat community, worries that his wife is bored and wants to retire to a house advertised in Country Life magazine. Meanwhile Willis, a struggling artist, who lives on Dreadnought, has a leak. This endangers his plan to sell the boat.

A beautifully-written thoughtful novel showing how very different people can rub along together.

Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979, a year sandwiched between Iris Murdoch in 1978 for The Sea The Sea, and Rites of Passage by William Golding in 1980. Fitzgerald had been shortlisted the previous year for The Bookshop and would be again in 1988 with The Beginning of Spring. What a golden time that was.

Penelope FitzgeraldMy paperback copy of Offshore [above] is an old Fourth Estate edition with a moody photo of the River Thames at dusk.

If you like this, try these other Booker prize winning authors:-
‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker [1995: ‘The Ghost Road’]
‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift [1996: Last Orders]
‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan [1998: Amsterdam]

‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald [UK: Fourth Estate]

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OFFSHORE by Penelope Fitzgerald #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2n2

Great opening paragraph 58… ‘Possession’ #amwriting #FirstPara

AS Byatt

“The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow. The librarian handed it to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no.5 where it usually stood between Pranks of Priapus and The Grecian Way of Love. It was ten in the morning, one day in September 1986. Roland had the small single table he liked best, behind a square pillar, with the clock over the fireplace nevertheless in full view. To his right, was a high sunny window, through which you could see the high green leaves of St James’s Square.”
‘Possession’ by AS Byatt


Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘The Philosopher’s Pupil’ by Iris Murdoch
‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ by Clare Morrall
‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

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A great 1st para: POSSESSION by AS Byatt #books http://wp.me/p5gEM4-8l via @SandraDanby