• Books and reading

    Luminous: ‘Day’ by Michael Cunningham

    Recently my book group read and discussed Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea as a good example of what we might call a ‘Covid novel’ – set during the worst of the 2020 pandemic and examining its effects. Michael Cunningham’s Day is another.

    Well, it is and it isn’t. Yes, it opens on April 5, 2019, and the two subsequent sections describe the same day in 2020 and 2021. So of course, Covid features: the effect of lockdown on a family in Brooklyn, a reminder of the near-paranoia of beliefs and worries because of the virus, the way the pandemic prompted existential musings from unlikely sources.

    But this novel is much more than that.

    It’s a beautiful, sometimes funny, always tender examination of a small group of people who make up one family. In the longest section, set in 2019, we meet Dan and Isabel who, with their two children (ten-year-old Nathan and Violet, five) live in a house which is quickly moving from ‘cosy’ to ‘crowded’.

    Violet’s younger brother Robbie occupies the attic, recovering from a recent breakup with his boyfriend. Violet and Dan have their own preoccupations and the walls of their marriage are starting to crumble. Nathan has the challenges of impending puberty to deal with and Violet escapes into her own world of imagination.

    All is not well for all this family’s members all of the time.

    Then 2020 arrives and they are in lockdown together – except for Robbie, who went to Iceland for a short holiday and is now stranded there in an isolated cabin, writing letters to his family which he cannot post because there is no post office nearby. Despite his absence, he remains a central figure in the family and the novel.

    In 2021 lockdown has lifted and the family has emerged from their cocoon to discover that everything has changed.

    It’s a gentle story with wry reflections on family life, on children, teens, and middle age. I especially enjoyed the dialogue, during which the characters come to vivid life, especially between Robbie and his sister Violet, and also between Robbie and Dan. We hear the inner thoughts of different characters in turn, understanding that the world can appear in many various ways to different people.

    How has Isabel learned to be this person, even if it’s only for the sake of the kids? How did Dan master that voice? They’ve always been improvising, all three of the adults, and as Nathan and Violet have grown older they seem to have willingly accepted the fact that they are neither more nor less than the youngest members of a haphazardly formed crew that goes by the name “family” for obscure legal reasons.

    Day p49

    The pandemic plays a big role but is always referred to obliquely, which is as it should be. This novel is about so much more. If you enjoy character-focused fiction and beautiful prose you will love Day.

    Day is published by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Tragedy and mystery: ‘The Good Son’ by Jacquelyn Mitchard

    In her author’s note, Jacquelyn Mitchard describes the moment of inspiration for this novel: standing in a coffee line at a hotel, she met a woman who explained that she came there every week, to visit her son at a nearby prison where he was serving a long sentence. While affected by drugs, he had killed his girlfriend.

    And I wondered, could you still love the one you loved most in the world after he had done the worst thing? Then I realized, you would be the only one who could.

    The Good Son, Author’s Note

    That’s the nub of this story. Thea and Jep are loving parents of their only child, Stefan, who has served a prison sentence after being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend Belinda while in a drug induced state. The story begins on the day Stefan walks out of prison, a free man. Thea has not yet realised it, but the family’s struggles have only just begun.

    There are so many squirm-inducing insights into the reactions and feelings a parent might experience in this situation. I found myself asking the question: What would I feel? How would I behave? How would I deal with the shame, the guilt, the pity for the victim’s grieving family and friends?

    The novel also offers insights into why some people commit crime. Stefan, after observing fellow prisoners in the jail, comments:

    Most {habitual criminals} didn’t have the patience for going through a process, trying and failing and trying again…their brain isn’t usually used to that…Trying and failing and trying again is not exciting. Doing a crime is really exciting…a robbery or burglary, it had to feel really exciting…living on a knife’s edge, anything could go wrong, it’s like a race against time, the Olympics of being bad.

    The Good Son p71

    I resonated strongly with the idea of parent-child relationships being ‘a delicate dance of the years, or approach and retreat, offer and hold back.’ (p267) As our children grow into teens and young adults, that dance becomes more delicate and fraught. How must it feel, then, to be stepping through the eggshells that a criminal conviction and prison time create?

    There is a mystery and plenty of tension in this novel, which is resolved by the end of the book. For me, the strength of the story lies in that exploration of the devastating concentric circles that result from a crime, especially a violent one. The characters are well drawn and believable and Thea someone I could very much relate to.

    The Good Son is published by HQ Fiction in January 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Dust bowl and Depression: ‘The Four Winds’ by Kristin Hannah

    I was in my twenties when I read John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the experiences of ‘Okies’, the derogatory name given to migrants from the US Great Plains states who, in their thousands, went west to California during the 1930’s. They did so in an attempt to escape the shocking dust storms, drought and poverty that ruined so many farms and livelihoods, hoping to find work picking Californian cotton and fruit. After reading The Four Winds, I am moved to want to re-read Steinbeck’s book, because there is so much human drama, endurance and tragedy in these stories.

    The Four Winds begins in the Texas Panhandle, where Elsa Martinelli is an unloved and isolated young woman in a well-to-do business family. Her longing for love leads her to an encounter with Rafe Martinelli, son of Italian immigrants who have made Texas their home. Pregnancy follows, resulting in expulsion from her family, and Elsa marries Rafe and goes to live with the Martinelli family on their farm. She earns a place in the family and fully adopts the life of a farmer, wife and mother; she has finally found a home.

    Then come the effects of years of drought: dead crops, heat and shocking dust storms that blight the land. Combined with the Depression, the result is that thousands of farmers and local businesses lose their ability to make a living and feed their families. After Rafe deserts them, and her son becomes seriously ill, Elsa makes the hard decision to join the throngs of desperate people travelling to California, lured by the promise of work in a ‘milk and honey’ land.

    Of course, the reality is very different and if anything, the hardships and injustices faced by Elsa and her two young children are even worse than those they left behind.

    The story takes in the efforts of unions and Communist party members fighting for workers’ rights, especially for the ‘Okies’ who face discrimination and abuse by big farming concerns. Elsa is a woman with little agency over her own life, but for the sake of her children’s future, she puts herself in the path of danger, great risk and tragedy.

    The descriptions of the dust storms are truly terrifying, and the despair felt by those affected leaps from the pages. So does the independence and self-reliance of the American farmer at that time: proud to work the land and reluctant to accept government help of any kind. There is irony, too: the methods used by those farmers led to the degradation of the land which, when combined with drought, resulted in an ecological disaster that even then was seen as such by the federal government.

    Elsa now knew how Tony had felt when his land had died. There was a deep and abiding shame that came with asking for handouts.
    Poverty was a soul-crushing thing. A cave that tightened around you, its pinprick of light closing a little more at the end of each desperate, unchanged day.

    The Four Winds p280

    The romance in the latter part of the novel did not work so well for me; overall though, The Four Winds brings to life a tragic period in American history and highlights the resilience and courage of the many people affected by the environmental and economic tragedies that played out in the 1930’s.

    The Four Winds was published by MacMillan in 2021.