My review pile runneth over and there are a couple of books that I would have reviewed for Shiny, but I don’t feel I can write a long piece on, so I will cover them here in my review round-up.
In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo
Back in 2014, the world awoke to the possibility of a killer virus that might come on the rampage. It was ebola, and this outbreak was the biggest since the virus was discovered in 1976; it killed over 11,000 in West Africa with a fatality rate exceeding 50%.
Tadjo’s slim novel, which she translated with John Cullen from the original French, tells the story of the outbreak as overseen by the aged baobab tree with testimony voiced by representatives of all those involved: the doctor who likens his hazmat suit to being an astronaut, the nurse who sees the moment a colleague caught Ebola when a child vomited on her, a dying mother who doesn’t want to leave her home, a survivor who struggles to be accepted by his village, the outreach worker who has to explain the new normal, the orphaned children, the gravedigger, and the man who discovered the virus. She also tells the story of the two boys who unwittingly brought the virus home from a bat they shot and ate. The baobab tree watches it all.
Tadjo is also a poet in her native Cote d’Ivoire, and those skills help shape the prose here, which is harrowing yet handled sensitively, and is full of compassion and empathy. The poetic and mythic combine in the baobab tree with the reportage feel to some voices to create a powerful novel.
See also Heavenali’s review here.
Source: Review copy from Small Axes/Hope Road Publishing, paperback, 135 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
I’m a big fan of Claire’s beautifully crafted novels (see here, here and here): her latest being no exception. Each is different to the others, yet there is always something liminal about them, with characters on the fringe, poised on that brink of fight or flight.
This is the case for 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are suddenly thrust into the full reality of society when their mother, Dot, dies unexpectedly. They have always lived in their crumbling old cottage, which Jeanie believes has been granted to them rent-free in perpetuity by their landlord, the neighbouring Rawsons, after their father was ‘killed’ in a farming accident. They grow as much as they can in the half-acre garden, and Julius shoots rabbits. Jeanie has never worked, having a heart condition and Julius only does odd-jobs building and decorating. They have a hand-to-mouth existence, living in their isolated poverty, but they do have their folk music which gives them much pleasure to sing and play. As the pair are forced to start interfacing with society, with Dot’s friend Bridget helping Jeanie, the secrets that Dot and the others held start to come out, their lives are going to change…
Fuller paints a claustrophobic existence, telling the story occasionally through Julius, but mainly through Jeanie, who really struggles to come to terms with becoming part of society, having been largely closeted away for most of her life. I really felt for Jeanie, and despite the hardships that she faces, it isn’t really spoiling to say that there is hope in hers and Julius’s futures – the rotting fruit and flowers of the cover don’t presage the ending. Fuller’s writing is assured, revealing the secrets skilfully as always in her novels, and giving us plenty of rural detail. Another fine novel from one of my favourite authors. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – Claire Fuller, Unsettled Ground (Fig Tree, 2021) hardback, 304 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson
Benson’s Forward Prize-winning second collection of poetry, published in 2019, sure packs a punch! It’s split in two halves of very differing style.
The first half, Vertigo, is headline grabbing, prefaced with a poem called ‘Ace of Base’ about puberty and teenage sexual awakening. “and we talked about who’d done what with whom / and how it felt, all of us quickening, / and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming, / and we were running towards it,”
Turn the pages though, and we meet Zeus and his immortal appetite for rape in many forms, and the women, nymphs and goddesses who suffer at his hands. Zeus shouts in CAPITALS, never realising what he’s done wrong, and the women respond in lower tones but full of rage. It is so powerful, and so unlike any other poetry I’ve read which relates to Greek Myth. She cleverly builds in references to #MeToo and Tr*mpian politics.
The second half, Ghost, couldn’t be more different. Benson moves her attention to motherhood and family life and all the anxieties that brings, many told through nature analogies. ‘Fly’ has a great opening line: “Spring broke out but my soul did not.” The autumnal ‘Haruspex’ (divination through entrails) does echo the first section, but it’s not all pastoral, several poems relating to the animal nature of birth are quite visceral. As the section goes on the poems about her family and daughters lengthen. ‘Hide and Seek’ starts out to be fun: “… she’s at an age where she thinks / that if she just stands still in the middle of the lawn / I will not see her, that somehow she is gone -“ but then morphs into darkness imagining mothers hiding their children from soldiers.
While Vertigo made a bravura statement against the patriarchy, Ghost for me evoked more emotions that are closer to home and made me think, some of its poems are exceptional.
Source: Review copy. Pub 2019, Jonathan Cape, flapped paperback, 93 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P).