Literary Fiction Reviews

Blog Tour: Folk by Zoe Gilbert (Longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize).

Blog Tour: Folk by Zoe Gilbert (Longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize).

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Extract:

This is not at all what he thought Gertie Quick would turn out to be either, who never makes a squeak on the school bench, and what’s more, she has just called him stupid, twice. 

(Folk by Zoe Gilbert. P37.) 

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Synopsis:

Every year and every generation, the same traditions are observed on the island of Neverness. Boys run through the gorse hunting for arrows fired by girls to determine their future partner. A boy dressed in ox-skin waits behind the waterfall to answer questions girls have on love and marriage. Every winter the tale of Jack Frost is told. Lives are lived in accordance with nature and folklore.

Characters recur and age, their relationships with each other woven together in a web of history and love. 

A collection of short stories which come together to show how myths and stories represent a deeper truth inside ourselves. 

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Review:

A small island ruled by tradition and steeped in its own history. This collection of short stories, which are as dark and quietly gory as the best of fairytales, shows us a place which is both unfamiliar and yet startlingly like our own country. Inhospitable, inward-facing and dictated by the outcome of its own ancient rituals.

The stories are separate and yet tied together by a cast of characters and a set of locations and rituals which recur across the collection. It is neither novel nor a traditional book of stories, but something which plays with form to great effect. By introducing us to the customs of Neverness, Zoe Gilbert paints a picture of one generation and how it fares across time. 

As a real folkie, I was keen to read this and I fell in love with the language. This is a land of gorse tunnels and ox-hide, fish scale and hare skin and wattle and daub. It is like getting to know England not by its pop culture or city life but by taking a walk along the hedgerows. 

My favourite story was The Neverness Ox-Man where young Harkley Oxley takes his turn at the family tradition of dressing in an ox hide and hiding behind the waterfall to answer questions about love. It is his role hide his true nature from the girls, but he too is unaware of exactly what the girls on the other side of the waterfall are like. 

The stories may be whimsical, even fantastical, but they stop short of being straight fantasy. They paint a portrait of past lives and past ways of life, and much of their commentary on the way women have struggled as a result of social structure is astute. Fishskin, Hareskin, for example, shows a woman in the depths of postpartum depression caught between being scolded by her husband and by her father. She wraps her baby in a hareskin, the only remains of the wild and wonderful animals she had felt an affinity with as a girl. Her action shows both her desperation for the baby to lead a different life and the futility of it when the hare has already been skinned by a man. 

A striking and unusual collection which lingers in the mind like the best of stories – a word here, an image there, until it demands to be reread and looked at in a different light. If you love old stories, wild spaces or beautiful language look no further. It’ll inspire you if nothing else to ramble through some outdoor spaces. 

 

Read the International Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and follow the blog tour:

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Thanks to Midas PR for gifting my copy of Folk as part of a promotional blog tour.

 

 

Literary Fiction Reviews · Uncategorized

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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Extract:

I was handed over to Odysseus like a package of meat, A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood-pudding. But perhaps that is too crude a similie for you. Let me add that meat was highly valued among us – the aristocracy at lots of it … 

(The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. P39.) birdSynopsis:

Everyone knows the story of Odysseus the hero. Odysseus the bold adventurer who sailed the seas. His wife is remembered for her devotion. Although Odysseus disappeared for many years, Penelope refused to marry one of the suitors who begged for her hand. She wove a shroud, refusing to marry until it was done, and unpicked her work every night to keep the suitors at bay. This is her role in the Odyssey.

Now Penelope wanders the underworld she is free to tell her own story. Her version of events is quite different. It begins with the father who tried to drown her at birth, moves to the husband who disappeared for twenty years and then to the son who grew to assert his dominance over his mother.

 birdReview:

Penelope. Immortalised as the devoted wife of Odysseus, Penelope is best remembered for weaving and unpicking and reweaving a shroud as she awaited her husband’s return. Margaret Atwood gives Penelope her own voice. As Penelope wanders the underworld she tells her own story, freed for the first time from the shadow of men.

Good retellings should bring something new to existing stories. Make us see something in a new light. The Penelopiad is fearless and feminist. It shows us what life was like for Penelope and how little value a woman’s life had in Ancient Greece.

Poetic and lyrical, Penelope’s story is woven around regular songs from the hanged maids. While Odysseus was away – looting and pillaging and having affairs – Penelope’s home was overrun by men seeking her hand in marriage. The twelve maids were hanged for their affairs with these suitors. The way in which the songs interrupt the narrative is haunting, precisely what Atwood seems to have been aiming for, as the voices are meant to haunt the men who think they can get away with rape and murder. Odysseus, who killed the girls for the shame of their crimes, was free enough in his affairs with other women.

Penelope recounts her life in relation to men – the father who tried to drown her before he realises the material worth of marrying a daughter, the husband who left her for years to conduct affairs with other women and the son who grew up to believe his voice was the most important in the household. The maids’ songs remind us that Penelope was lucky – a noblewoman was safer because her life had material worth.

These themes are not all retrospective. The trial at the end of the novel reminds us that the same issues are still present in the world today. This is an extraordinary work because it not only brings a female voice to the myth but a female agenda. Poetic and bold and one of my favourite retellings.  

 

Thank you to Canongate Books for my copy of The Penelopiad. Opinions my own. The Canongate Myths – new takes on old myths by leading authors – are available now.

Literary Fiction Reviews

Review: The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton

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Extract:

‘…Had Irene in all her strength risen, we would have driven the occupiers back into the sea. It was not faith or the lack of it that did for us. It was the cowardice of your elders. A shame they mean to ram down your throats. And will you kneel like supplicants while this happens?’

(The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton. P86.) 

 

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Synopsis:

In Ancient Britain, a young boy discovers a terrorist plot against the Roman Invaders. His brother is implicated, and he thinks he can find a way to spare his family from retribution. In the 21st Century, a man shattered by divorce tries to assert his hold on family land and finds himself up against enraged locals who have always used the land. One of these is Aitch, who is traumatised after fighting in Afghanistan. In a future ravaged by climate change, a band of children try to reach safety. The world is ravaged by war, and the children are in danger from slavers and starvation. They fight among themselves about the extent to which they should trust outsiders.

Our relationship with the land is examined and questions are raised which have never been more pertinent. The cycle of time challenges our assumptions as we see the destructive nature of civilisation repeating itself.

birdReview:

One setting, three time-periods and a cycle which repeats over the centuries. The Devil’s Highway is an extraordinary work which challenges our ideas about civilisation, and explores our relationship with place and time. Themes and motifs recur and build as we cycle between three stories set along a Roman road known in folklore as The Devil’s Highway.

This is the sort of novel which demands a second reading. It is intelligent and thought-provoking, and I am certain I would make more connections on a second reading, as well as marveling at the detail I missed first time around. It shows different people coming into one place, so bent on progressing their own cause they are willing to cause destruction. It depicts the people caught in the wake of such times: a group of children, a band of disenfranchised young men and a man with PTSD. I was stuck by these depictions of the young caught up in the acts of their elders.

The future depicted is dystopian. The words which tell the story are like our own language, except instead of developing with time it has been ravaged. Languages fall apart as communities are broken up, and the children live in a world of tight tribes and poor connections. Reading the narrative this way was like experiencing that break-up. At one point a character points out that we should fear the damage of climate change far more than the damage of war. Climate change is equally the result of society bent on its own agenda, and the cycle of life will continue if we can reduce the impact of climate change.

The narrative set in the present is interesting within the context of the others. The disagreement we see is between landowner and local council tenants, but there is another war discussed. One which is happening far away in Afghanistan. This is the story of our time – of Brexit and dissatisfaction. Of the Middle East which has been invaded too many times by the West, and of the young men who have grown amid these wars and want revenge. We see a middle-class man hound the men from the council estate off ‘his’ land. It is the same cycle of behaviour we have seen before, played out on local scale. Perhaps everything begins on local scale, with attachment to land pitted against legal ownership or political control.

This is a compelling narrative which tells the story of our times without referring to Brexit or Syria or Trump. This is the story of our times, and it is the story of all times.

 

Thanks to 4th Estate Books for sending a copy to review. Opinions are my own.