I’m doing well with my 20 Books of Summer 22, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, reaching 17/20 so I have every hope of completing my 20 Books I acquired before 2022 from my TBR. Two slightly shorter reviews for you today – a small town America psychological drama and that the book set in small-town Ireland that could win the Booker, just sayin’…
Tall Bones by Anna Bailey
Published last spring, I saw plaudits for this debut novel everywhere and combined with its striking cover and small-town American setting, I added it to add to my TBR. I was particularly intrigued by the upside-down church on the cover – was this implying Satanism, or a nod to Stranger Things upside-down world? The answer is more mundane but very pertinent in a god-fearing community like Whistling Ridge, Colorado – the abuse of power by the pastor for personal profit.
It begins with teenagers at a party in the woods – drink and drugs up by the ‘Tall Bones’ standing stones. We meet seventeen-year-old Emma Alvarez, whose last sight of her best friend Abigail is seeing her go off into the woods towards a man Emma can’t quite see clearly to identify. Abi had refused a lift home and Emma reluctantly leaves her to her fate. It’s the last time anyone sees her.
Abi’s disappearance breaks the town, and all the old grudges and plenty of new ones begin to surface. At the centre is her family – the Blakes: the scarred Vietnam vet father Samuel, who only sometimes can hold it together by his ardent churchgoing and bible-bashing; Dolly, her long-suffering mother; her older brother Noah whom Abi had betrayed; and younger one Jude who sees everything but doesn’t yet understand what he should do.
The town’s workforce is dominated by the mill, owned by Jerry Maddox, rich and corrupt. Everyone assumes that his son Hunter is like his father, but they would be mistaken. The town’s spiritual life is dominated by Pastor Lewis, who spouts fire and brimstone from his pulpit, controlling his flock. No-one is sure whose side the Sheriff is on either. The last main character is the guitar-playing Rat, a young Hungarian refugee who lives in the trailer park.
Emma’s Mexican father had been driven out from the town years ago, she’s never got to the bottom of why, her mother won’t say. But you can guess that the townsfolk of Whistling Ridge have little tolerance for outsiders. Emma and Rat both suffer from this, yet it seems they’re the only ones concerned enough to find out what happened to Abi.
This novel took its time to get going, but once the pace picked up and things started to happen, the claustrophobic atmosphere and xenophobia and vitriol coming from the judgemental town’s worthies became more intense and it became a compelling read. Tall Bones‘ young British author, spent a few years living in the USA living in small towns in Colorado and Texas, so you get the sense she’s seen some of these behaviours. My favourite character by far was Rat, who had more depth than some of the others. The confrontation between Noah and Pastor Lewis is terrifying – but I shall say no more about that! Most of the (white, male) adults are, perhaps, stereotypically bad, each in their own way, but they do help fuel the fire, so to speak. Although the plot meanders a little and, as often happens in first novels, she makes a rod for her own back by shoehorning in so many strands, it was a good, well-written thriller which I enjoyed.
Source: Own copy. Doubleday hardback, 339 pages. Now in Penguin paperback, BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
This is the second book and second novella I’ve read from the Booker longlist. It is also the second I’d be very happy to see win, the first being the multi-layered fable of Treacle Walker by Alan Garner who, at 88 would be the oldest winner and as a fan of his, I’d like that a lot.
However, having read Small Things Like These, he has a real rival; this novella is perfectly realised and totally deserves all the plaudits it has received. It is also very thought-provoking. It is shocking to think that the Magdalen laundries portrayed within, which were effectively Catholic workhouses for unmarried mothers whose babies were removed for adoption weren’t totally dismantled until 1996.
Keegan’s story is set in 1985 and follows Bill Furlong as he goes about his business as a coal and timber merchant in the run-up to Christmas in the small Irish town outside Waterford. Bill was lucky when he was born, his unwed mother worked for the lone well-off Protestant family and Mrs Wilson took him in, sparing his mother the nuns. Although he is Catholic, he has a more tolerant outlook than most of the folk around him, who are ruled by the church, including his wife Eileen. They have five daughters and have to work hard to make the money to send them to the good school, St Margarets, run by the convent.
Bill looks after his men and always mucks in, doing many of the pre-Christmas deliveries himself, including one to the convent, where he finds a young woman locked in the freezing coal shed who asks him to find out what happened to her baby. Shocked by this, he allows himself to be persuaded by the Mother Superior with tea, cake and a large Christmas Box, that it was an accident the girl was there, she is paraded, warmed and fed to put on a show for him. Bill realises on his way home, that by not questioning further that he was being a hypocrite, and resolves to do something, to take matters into his own hands.
Bill is a good and kind man, and you can feel his agony as he realises what he saw, at what the Church was hiding from not just him, but the whole wider community. Keegan’s careful prose captures this perfectly and in just over 100 small pages. Life in Ireland’s small rural towns seems to be lost in time, this could be any time post-war, houses still had ranges which needed to be fed coal and logs. In this small-town Ireland, time has stood still, which naturally benefitted the Church most of all. That the novella ends with a triumph of hope, made it a totally moving read that engaged on so many levels from the first page to the last. Loved it.
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Faber hardback, 116 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)