The May Queen

Buy THE MAY QUEEN by Helen Irene Young

The Cotswolds in the 1930s offer the rather innocent May an idyllic adolescence. Life is all about wild swimming, springtime fetes where the entire village comes together across class lines, and gossiping with her friends about the dreamy rich boy who lives up at the big house. The only shadow on the horizon would appear to be May’s steely nag of a mother, who is the cloud above every silver lining.

But there’s a world beyond the boundary with Oxford, and it’s a decidedly less innocent one. May’s slightly older sister Sophie disappears – apparently with a not inconsiderable stash of stolen cash – after getting pregnant, and now the wicked whispers May picks up upon are about whether the father is actually Christopher, the dreamy rich boy May has long pined for. And, of course, there is the small matter of that moustachioed chap now running Germany.

It’s years later before May discovers just how innocent a perception she really had of the world. She’s now a Wren, serving in Blitz-stricken London, when Sophie reappears with her young daughter in tow, and changes everything May thought she knew about their shared past.

This is a novel about two very different worlds – a timeless rural idyll and a turbulent, terrifying, exciting city – that actually turn out to be not that different after all because of the people who straddle the border between both. Helen Irene Young’s 1940s London perfectly reflects the turmoil of May’s home-life, forced into a state of permanent flux, changing overnight, every night, as both people and buildings come and go constantly.

Young has revisited a time gone just out of sight and brings it back into the now with edible prose, waspish humour and, most importantly, a lot of heart. She brings edge to a coming-of-age story whilst also allowing her characters to be quietly exhilarated about basically being on the frontline of the homefront. The sweetness of the younger May’s enviable existence is soured in devastating fashion over the course of the novel, but there’s still hope come the end that the older May will not end up mistaking cynicism for wisdom, as her mother clearly has.

The Cement Garden

Buy THE CEMENT GARDEN by Ian McEwan

After their father’s death, Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom’s mother takes to her bed – and never really leaves it again. When she also dies unexpectedly, none of the children are willing to let her go. Instead of surrendering her body to the real world, Jack insists upon burying her. Not in the garden, however, but in a large wooden chest in the cellar, filled with cement he mixes himself.

At first Jack, Julie and their siblings want to maintain the visage of being a normal family for the benefit of an outside world they don’t want to interfere with the world within their home. They have got a taste of the freedom all teenagers yearn for, and don’t want to lose that. But theirs was never a normal family to begin with.

Julie assumes the role of mother and Jack father, whilst Tom not only becomes the baby (being the youngest), but a baby girl. Their fluid roles slowly dissolve into a general rolelessness, and their sense of individual identity wanes. Total freedom gradually imprisons those left unprepared for it by parents who perhaps never were part of the normal, real world to begin with.

Unfortunately Jack’s cement mix was incorrect, and it never properly sets. His mother decomposes down in that cellar, and her strange, strange smell starts to seep through the house like a spectral presence.

Ian McEwan was one of those authors I first encountered via a university syllabus, which is never a good way to find any writer. So this is the first novel of his I’ve read in almost 15 years. It’s a slight tale, at times more about atmosphere than character. A whiff of decay lingers around its almost post-apocalyptic world of near-empty streets and demolished prefabs, let alone inside the walls of Jack’s house, where casual grotesqueries start to seem quite domestic.

Thirst

Buy THIRST by Benjamin Warner

After being stuck in unmoving traffic for several hours, Eddie decides to ditch the car, let someone tow it, and worry about everything later. He’s been under a searingly hot sun all day and is dying for a drink. On his long trek home, however, he starts to overhear some alarming things. The powercut that caused the jam on the freeway has affected the entire city. What’s worse, the water’s out for everyone too.

Nobody is too worried to begin with – the power has been out before, so has the water, and even when that’s been the case for a couple of days, someone shows up eventually to fix it, and then everything’s fine. In the meantime they just have to sit tight and make things last, just in case it takes as long to fix things again this time too.

As the days pass, the shops empty of anything with a liquid content, and people begin to drink vinegar instead, they start to hear new rumours. The water won’t be coming back on. The only water that hasn’t been chemically changed to become flammable is undrinkable brackish water. And the rest has dried up, or burnt up. People start dying – but not always from thirst.

For much of its length this is a detailed forensic portrait of the end of the world as told from the perspective of a single neighbourhood falling apart, together. Its pace never seems slow, despite its depiction of the gradual descent into a hell of communal dehydration. Desperation and primal panic turns friends and neighbours into opponents – competitors rather than enemies. Every drop of water must be fought over. Nobody else can be trusted – who knows what secret bottles or cartons someone might have squirrelled away if they don’t seem as thirsty as everyone else.

When it becomes devastatingly clear that nobody is coming to save them, what thin threads of society that remain are finally cut. The novel wanders off the road a bit after that, as Eddie’s extreme thirst provokes a delirium that allows the story to indulge a little too predictably in developments that might or might not be real.

Up until then, however, it’s really quite excruciatingly tense and all too plausible.

Sweet Caress

Buy SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

When Amory Clay is still at boarding school, her father shows up one day to take her for a drive – a journey that ends with him driving the car into a lake in an attempt to kill both of them. But that isn’t really the end of the journey for Amory, because this experience colours the rest of her life, particularly when it comes to her relationships with men.

Desperately searching for a more suitable father figure, she develops an infatuation with her uncle Greville. It is he who introduces her to photography, a hobby that becomes a passion that becomes a job. Through her camera lens Amory gets to see the tumult of the middle half of the twentieth century, always convinced she’s a part of it, always convinced she can actually capture a story – or, better, a truth – on film.

From the easy defeat of Mosley’s blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street (which only helps generate a sense of cosy complacency about fascism), Amory’s work takes her to burlesque Berlin during the slow, simmering rise of Nazism. Thence to a US in jazz-infused splendid isolation just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and, following the Allied invasion after D-Day, back to a Europe that has adopted a new casualness towards seeing mutilated bodies left unburied by the side of the road.

Along the way she embarks on various transient relationships with fellow photographers, but it is the relationship with a Scottish commando she meets in war-torn Europe that lasts the longest. Her oblivious search for a replacement father figure pretty much ends with her finding the closest match to her own father. He was a damaged First World War veteran. Her husband is damaged in the Second. Through him she comes partway to understanding what her father must have gone through.

Ultimately this is a novel about stories, linked loosely together by the wars that destroy them. The book is interspersed with period photographs that give the sense of this being a memoir rather than a work of fiction. Their presence emphasises that pictures aren’t really worth a thousand words – they hint at stories, but only give an unreal sense that they tell the whole thing. Amory still has to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes Amory feels a little too lascivious, following her passions into bed rather quickly with many of the male characters that cross her path. It takes quite a long time for the reasons why to start to become clearer.

Though it continues afterwards for several more chapters, the novel effectively ends in Vietnam, a war Amory’s country isn’t even involved in but which she feels drawn to nonetheless. Here she can finally leave her father behind, in another war that robs a generation of countless stories, even if those men do come home too.

Jonathan Unleashed

Buy JONATHAN UNLEASHED by Meg Rosoff

By all appearances Jonathan Trefoil is living the dream. He works in marketing in New York City and has a stunning girlfriend who everyone would tend to think is well out of his league. He knows his life isn’t all that fantastic, of course. Marketing involves getting excited about stationery and hanging around trendy, trendy hipsters with a penchant for verbing nouns. And his girlfriend Julie sees him as a bit of a curio. She knows it. He knows it.

What’s more, Jonathan’s dogs know it. They’re not even his dogs – his brother flew off somewhere too exciting for dogs, let alone Jonathan, and left Dante the bordercollie and Sissy the spaniel cooped up in Jonathan and Julie’s increasingly cramped apartment. Julie can’t stand them and thinks they’ve got it in her for. He can’t admit it to her, of course, but Jonathan’s already got his suspicions that the dogs are taking over his life – and in more than one sense of the phrase.

There’s a definite Adrian Mole vibe running through this novel. Jonathan is overly introspective and insecure, as disbelieving of his good fortune landing Julie as everyone else, and frequently spends time indulging daydreams and other fantasies. Some of them feed the grand comic book slash novel he’s working on called New York Inferno, recasting everyone he knows (and everything that annoys him) in a version of Dante’s (the poet’s, not the dog’s) Hell based on New York City.

Whether Dante and Sissy really are showing a sentient concern for Jonathan’s life and are trying to nudge him in a better direction, or whether he’s just projecting on to them his own sense of self-doubt, is a nice joke that Meg Rosoff keeps going for much of the book. The novel manages to pivot around its furry plot devices without actually being a very dog-heavy book, so even this cat person wasn’t put off.

And it’s a bit more cheerful than Rosoff’s How I Live Now too.

The Virgin Suicides

Buy THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides

The five Lisbon girls manage to be the main topic of conversation on their 1970s Midwest suburban street without even doing anything. Part of it is their unique attractiveness (not even classical beauty – more a captivating allure). But most of it is their mystery. Living almost a secret life, largely separate from their peers, they are kept deliberately anonymous by their similarly (but more wilfully) anonymous mother.

To the teenage boys who live in the same neighbourhood, the Lisbon house looks reasonably normal from the outside, and the girls seem close enough physically not to be out of reach. But when Mrs Lisbon agrees to a party – the first and last party her daughters ever have – the boys learn just how far away the girls really are. The party comes to a sudden terrible end when the first of the daughters kills herself in front of everyone. Within a year, all of her sisters have followed her.

We never learn the name of the narrator of this novel. He (if indeed there’s only one of them) is ultimately as anonymous as the Lisbon girls. He isn’t really a character – nor really much of a narrator, for that matter. He’s more of a curator, collating news, rumours and speculation about what happened to the girls (years after the fact), his narration more of a commentary linking it all together.

For all Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful writing – perfect sentences that may focus on the prosaic and the domestic (like a more literary Stephen King perhaps) but which are sometimes closer to poetry than prose – I was left utterly unaffected by his robotic storytelling. But maybe that’s the point.

The picture he paints of America is of a place where nobody really knows anybody else. And maybe, despite it coming in a novel about five suicides – five child suicides, no less – that’s the most depressing thing of all.

This is the Way the World Ends

Buy THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS by James Morrow

George Paxton is a very ordinary man, even though he loves his slightly macabre job chipping names and epitaphs into gravestones. Prudence and being sensible are very much at the core of George’s straightforward approach to life, so he leaps at the chance when offered a free hazard suit to protect his daughter from all the effects of a nuclear war. Sure, he has to sign a contract accepting responsibility for any future nuclear conflict that does occur, but George doesn’t worry about that. The free suit buys him peace of mind. His daughter will be safe if the bombs do fall.

Unfortunately George doesn’t even get back from the shop with the suit before the city disappears from his rear-view mirror in a 1-megaton thermonuclear fireball. His daughter has probably been minced by a thousand shards of broken glass travelling at almost the speed of sound. If only she had been wearing her suit, thinks George; everything would have been fine.

Meanwhile the end of the world is only the beginning of George’s trials. He’s now going to have to answer for letting it happen. After all, he’s already signed the document that lays the blame at his feet. He may come to regret being rescued from the radioactive wasteland by some black-blooded ghostly types. These ghosts, who refer to themselves as the ‘unadmitted’ are not echoes of the past, but spectres of a future that will never be – all the people who will never be born because the world has incinerated its own potential.

This blackly comic novel reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, specifically Slaughterhouse Five, and not simply in the plotline of a man being taken into a surreal world parallel to our own where he has to answer for the violent ridiculousness of his entire race. James Morrow shares Vonnegut’s somewhat despairing view of mankind’s self-destructive streak – laughing because you have to, really.

It was written at a time in US politics when key members of Reagan’s administration were trying to convince him that it was possible to win a nuclear war, and recommending he adopt the SDI missile defence system. Morrow makes it quite clear that believing we can ourselves be safe from the enemy’s nuclear weapons whilst at the same time believing the enemy will always be at risk from ours creates an illusion of safety and supremacy that only makes nuclear conflict more likely.

As it is, both the US and Russia deny firing first in this novel, though one or other of them may have launched an ‘anticipatory retaliation’… So still the other guy’s fault, then. Moments of satire, including a fiery argument over whether to use a nuclear submarine’s missile launch tube for purpose or for growing oranges, reminded me of Dr Strangelove taken to an almost surreal extreme. Morrow’s descriptions of nuclear devastation are also darkly comic and surreal, annihilation and suffering made all the more horrific by being described almost flippantly, like imagery from a Monty Python cartoon segment.

There are funny asides where the novel appears to be a vision Nostradamus is having for the future. These could have seemed incongruously daft, and also ended up Pythonesque in the wrong way, but Morrow makes it work. The scenes with the smug, conceited Nostradamus casually predicting future doom from a safe distance, where he knows it won’t affect him, help hammer the novel’s message home.

Ordinary people enable the destroyers of the earth by either supporting them or claiming there is nothing they can do anyway. But they can’t absolve themselves of guilt and try to shrug off responsibility. Just because George Paxton is the only normal person whose name is on the charge-sheet doesn’t mean he is the only normal person who should have to take the blame.

Room

Buy ROOM by Emma Donoghue

It’s Jack’s fifth birthday, which he will celebrate with his friends, Rug, Meltedy Spoon, Remote and TV. And his Ma, of course. She lets Jack watch plenty of TV today. TV always has plenty of interesting things to show Jack – things happening on planets other than Room.

Room isn’t a planet, of course, it’s just a room. A soundproofed room with an unassailable deadlock. To Jack this is indeed an entire world (the only one he has ever known), but to his mother, kidnapped and imprisoned many years before whilst still a student, she remembers there is more to life than this. But she decides to keep the truth from Jack because he might never need to know. She fears they might never escape from the man who comes to ‘creak the bed’, as Jack thinks of it, the man she despises in every way but one – that he gave her Jack.

Sometimes Ma just needs to be Gone for a while. Jack doesn’t really mind. An innately social creature, he has made friends out of everything. Brought up with an understanding of his surroundings confused and muddled by the blurred lines in cartoons on television (where a rug might indeed talk back), he might never be able to cope in the real world. But he’s going to find out.

Jack’s innocent but unintentionally bizarre observations make this a surprisingly funny novel, given its plotline. At times he comes across as a bit of a faux naïf, casting a light on the ignored oddness in the way we live our lives, but with no greater point to make.

At other times – and in one sucker-punching scene (which finally revealed something that may not have gone over this reader’s head had I been a woman, it did occur to me) in particular – his obliviousness to strange things that of course don’t seem strange to him highlights the consequences and dangers of social isolation. His concept of the world is entirely skewed through the dearth of human contact, with nobody to challenge, question or correct his assumptions, even only by observation on his part.

Some plot points stretch credulity a little far, but they are just minor, fleeting and forgivable contrivances to give Jack’s story a spine. The novel belongs to him, far more so than his mother. She may be a victim, but Jack is not. And that is entirely down to the lies she’s told him to protect him.

Nature’s End

Buy NATURE'S END by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka

Earth’s biosphere is being slowly choked. A decade from now (which probably seemed a lot further away when this book was published in 1986), the Amazon rainforest has been reclassified as a desert. Much of urban America swelters under a semi-permanent cloud of toxic smog that is unable to blow away due to climatic change and perverted wind patterns.

The planet can no longer sustain its population. A mystic pseudoscientist called Gupta Singh has a solution for that – at precisely the same time, every person in every country shall drink a vial of liquid. One third of all the vials will be lethal. Scared of the future, holding everyone else responsible, people vote politicians subscribing to the Depopulationist agenda into power across the globe. And now they’ve taken control of the US government too.

John Sinclair is a ‘convictor’, a special kind of journalist who has a knack for finding the dirt – even if there wasn’t any before he started. He brought down a former President of the United States, but Gupta Singh is even more powerful, and is protected by allies and spies everywhere. Faced with environmental apocalypse, much of humanity is no longer averse to suicide (though preferably other people’s), but if Sinclair can bring Singh down, maybe they will open their eyes to another solution. Of course, Singh’s not about to let that happen without a fight.

There’s a bit of a libertarian streak running through the book that may have been satirical – the idea that government is too easy to corrupt and would ultimately prove a negative rather than a positive influence on environmental protection or human rights, the idea that people genuinely want to protect their environment (and each other) and would automatically choose do so if given the power. If satire wasn’t the intention then it’s not particularly convincing.

This novel probably seems a lot less like science fiction than it did when Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka wrote it. We may have made some progress against wholesale deforestation and acid rain, but most international efforts to deal with climate change are still beset with politicians merely playing lip service to concerns to win votes, and targets that only get agreed after plenty of horse-trading. We could still see the balance tip in the way it does in Nature’s End‘s backstory.

Streiber and Kunetka foresaw the digital world, only nascent in the mid 1980s but fully integrated into most people’s lives by the time the novel takes place. The convenience of having a voice-activated smart device to answer questions and manage your life is weighed against the ease of turning those conveniences against you. Technology here is isolating, in the sense that it provides a buffer between its dependents and everyone else, a buffer only noticed when it disappears.

Ultimately, however, it’s not a particularly hopeful novel and I got a creeping sense that it is somewhat revelling in its prophecy of doom – the same sense I get from George Monbiot articles. Even if things do go down the toilet, there’s always going to be someone whose last moment of happiness will be the chance to say, ‘I told you so.’

A Room with a View

Buy A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E M Forster

Horrors of horrors, when travelling cousins Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett reach their Florence hotel, instead of the beauty of Italy they find their suite has a horrid view only of the courtyard. This is not how their holiday was meant to begin at all. Help is at hand, however, because the Emersons, a father and son from slightly further down the ranks of the middle classes, care little for having something pretty outside the window (unrefined as they are), so they offer to switch rooms, and let Lucy and Charlotte have a room with a view.

This is almost as equally horrifying a prospect to Charlotte as not having a nice view at all, of course, because it leaves her and Lucy indebted to the uncouth Emersons. Lucy, on the other hand, finds the young and aloof George Emerson captivating. Charlotte falls under the spell of fellow guest Eleanor Lavish, who is writing a satirical novel about British tourists abroad (though only about the Emersons’ sort, not her own, obviously), and is the source of all the best gossip in the hotel (the elder Mr Emerson is possibly a murderer and maybe even a socialist). This leaves Lucy alone to indulge her curiosity about George.

Once Charlotte learns of this she of course whisks Lucy away to Rome, away from the risk of falling in love with someone entirely unsuitable. In Rome a far more suitable gentleman falls in love with Lucy and she even agrees to marry him, but George just isn’t sophisticated enough to give up that easily. Once back in England, Lucy unexpectedly finds herself caught in a most unsophisticated love triangle.

As with A Passage to India, this novel isn’t really about the Brits abroad. The trip to Florence is simply E M Forster’s conceit to satirise how the British are (or at least were) at home too. Most of the novel actually takes place back in England – or, at least, chocolate-box England. This is the England of rolling country estates, tennis before tea and going for a dip in the pond (with the vicar, no less) when it’s just too sunny and hot.

Forster again breaks his own cardinal rules of characterisation that he prattled on about in Aspects of the Novel. Most of his characters are little more than his dreaded ‘dummies’ – slaves to the plot and what he wants them to contribute to it. It seriously stretches the bounds of believability when the Emersons randomly meet Lucy’s fiancé Cecil in the National Gallery and he immediately suggests they move nearby (as a prank on somebody else), whilst all of them remain utterly unaware of their connection to Lucy.

Surrounded by caricatures and cartoons, however, Lucy stands out. It’s not love that leads Lucy to accept Cecil’s proposal but convention. He’s a good match, socially speaking, but her reaction is basically just ‘He’ll do.’ Lucy is no Lydia Bennet, however. Her conflicted feelings for George Emerson are not due to frivolous, flighty passions, but a serious consideration of what she really wants for herself, and her expanding determination to be the mistress of her own destiny.

The view in England isn’t really any worse than the one in Florence. It’s a rather transparent metaphor: the room is where you are – the view is the potential that exists outside that box.