CategoryLeyshon Nell

Nell Leyshon, Memoirs of a Dipper (2015)

Dipper

In that minute when you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be, when your fingers are touching someone else’s stuff, when you know a key could go in the lock, a door be opened, a footstep come into the room, in that minute you feel it all over your body. You’re alive. The hairs on the inside of your nose are raised. Your ears are moving to help detect any sound. Bits of your body you didn’t know existed are switched on.

– from Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Fiction Uncovered 2013

Now in its third year, Fiction Uncovered is an initiative aimed at bringing the work of established (but not necessarily widely-known) British writers to the attention of a wider audience. A changing panel of judges curates a list of eight books published in the previous twelve months: this year’s panel  comprised the writer Louise Doughty (chair of judges); dovegreyreader herself, Lynne Hatwell; Sandy Mahal of the Reading Agency charity; and the writer Courttia Newland.

I have written for Fiction Uncovered occasionally, and this year was lucky enough to have a preview of the list (which is announced today), so I’ve been catching up on the titles I’d not previously read. Here are the judges’ selections for Fiction Uncovered 2013:

Lucy Caldwell, All the Beggars Riding (Faber & Faber)

Lara Moorhouse looks back on her childhood; how her parents met; and the legacy of her father, a plastic surgeon who had another life and family in Belfast and died during the Troubles. Caldwell’s novel strikes me very much as a book about memory, writing, and the difficulties of capturing the past. Just as her father would rebuild faces, so Lara tries to reconstruct a version of the past that rings true for her – and it’s not until the final pages that we discover just how much work Lara has had to undertake.

Anthony Cartwright, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (Tindal Street Press)

This is the story of Sean Bull, who grows up in a staunch Labour family in Dudley, and is nine years old in 1979 when he sees his grandfather thump Uncle Eric for voting Tory. We then follow Sean as he grows up through the ‘80s, witnessing the decline of the manufacturing community around him, and the effects on his family. He knows that Margaret Thatcher is involved in all this somehow, but as a child he can’t really comprehend what is happening. Cartwright paints an effective portrait of a time and place, and of a character trying to deal with circumstances far beyond his control.

Niven Govinden, Black Bread White Beer (The Friday Project)

Amal and Claud are a thirtysomething couple on their way to her parents’ house in Sussex; what nobody down there knows yet is that Claud has suffered a miscarriage. Black Bread White Beer stands out for me because of the precision with which Govinden depicts the couple’s relationship. It seems that Amal has never quite felt comfortable in the role of Claud’s husband – they come from dissimilar backgrounds (not just that his family is Indian and hers from rural England; the two families also have rather different outlooks and values), and Amal feels in some ways that Claud is simply better than him. There’s a sense that the baby was going to be what would finally cement the pair’s relationship, and now they need to rediscover what brought them together. By novel’s end, they may just be on the way to doing that.

Nikita Lalwani, The Village (Viking)

An Anglo-Indian documentary maker goes to film at an open prison in India, and finds her sense of ethics tested. Previously reviewed by me here.

Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (Fig Tree)

In 1830, a farm girl is sent to work at the local vicarage… and you’ll have to read the rest of this short, intense novel to discover what happens. Previously reviewed by me here.

James Meek, The Heart Broke In (Canongate)

A big, sprawling novel which revolves around three characters: Ritchie Shepherd, a television presenter who’s been sleeping around; his sister Bec, a successful scientist who’s just broken up with a newspaper editor; and Alex Comrie, the drummer in Ritchie’s old band, now a cancer specialist, who embarks on a relationship with Bec. Meek traces the moral issues of these characters’ personal and professional lives, as that spurned newsman threatens to reveal their secrets.

Amy Sackville, Orkney (Granta)

Sackville’s debut, The Still Point, was one of my favourite reads of 2010; this follow-up shares its sharp focus on relationships and nature. Richard, a sixty-year-old literature professor, is on honeymoon in Orkney; his (unnamed) new bride was one of his students, mysterious and beautiful, drawn to the sea even though she can’t swim. Our thoughts may lead naturally to a particular interpretation of who (or what) Richard’s wife is; but Sackville does not permit such a straightforward reading. There’s a tension over how far Richard’s descriptions of his partner are her true nature, and how far they are his projections from within his literary frame of reference; the dynamic of the couple’s relationship then shifts over the course of the novel. Add to this a fine sense of place, and you have a highly intriguing read.

Rupert Thomson, Secrecy (Granta)

In 1691, the artist Gaetano  Zummo (a genuine historical figure, notable for his realistic wax figures) arrives in Florence to undertake a commission for the Grand Duke of Tuscany – to create a life-size statue of Venus. Zummo hears whispers of what may be a plot against him; falls in love with a young woman named Faustina who is not all she seems; and uses as his model for the statue the body of another young woman found in the river, apparently murdered. Thomson presents Florence as a maze of secrets and stories, as it seems almost everyone has a tale to tell and something to hide.

Book notes: Nell Leyshon and Beryl Bainbridge

Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (2012)

You can read The Colour of Milk in one sitting, and I think doing so is the best way to experience this short, intense work. Set in 1830, it’s the account of Mary, a young farm girl who has acquired a measure of literacy and now sets out her story in her own halting prose. One summer, Mary is sent to work at the local vicarage, looking after the vicar’s sick wife; it’s clear from her tone that something bad has happened, but the full picture doesn’t emerge until the end.

Nell Leyshon paints a portrait of how circumstance can create a prison. It’s the middle of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great change; but that’s happening a long way from Mary’s world in rural Somerset. She’s quick-witted, but not educated; in another time or place, she might have flourished, but Leyshon shows how Mary’s situation conspires against that. Mary’s literacy is a form of release for her – she keeps emphasising that this is her book, her writing, her words – which lends a bittersweet note to the ending of this fine novel.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Colour of Milk: Prose and Cons Book Club; The Little Reader Library; writingaboutbooks; For Books’ Sake.

Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989)

Annabel’s hosting a Beryl Bainbridge reading week this week; since Bainbridge’s work is one of the gaps in my reading history, I thought I’d join in. But I hope I was just unlucky with the book I chose, because I didn’t get along with An Awfully Big Adventure as well as I hoped  to.

It’s Liverpool in 1950, and young Stella Bradshaw, who lives with her aunt and uncle, dreams of a life in the theatre, something that’s not typical of girls with her background (‘People like us don’t go to plays,’ says Aunt Lily, ‘[l]et alone act in them.’ ‘But she’s not one of us, is she?’ replies Uncle Vernon). Stella gets her wish, joining Meredith Potter’s repertory theatre company backstage; she develops an (unreciprocated) crush on Potter himself, and, as the months go by, gains acting work, but also the kind of attention she could do without.

In many ways, An Awfully Big Adventure is Stella’s novel – certainly its resolution hinges on revelations about her character – but, in terms of focus, the book is much more an ensemble piece, and our view of Stella is often distanced (necessarily so, but still). I wonder if these latter qualities didn’t prevent me from truly engaging with Bainbridge’s novel – I felt it was that bit too distanced, too broad, to work for me. But the ending is as powerful as I could wish, one of the strongest narrative jolts I’ve experienced in some time.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of An Awfully Big Adventure: Book Around the Corner; Harriet Devine’s Blog; The Octogon; Jo Wyndham Ward.

A dozen Penguin authors

On Thursday night, the good folks of Penguin General (the Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, and Viking imprints) hosted their second annual bloggers’ night, in the 5th View cocktail bar at Waterstones Piccadilly. This event was on a different scale from last year’s, with almost twice as many authors, and quite a few more bloggers – I don’t know if this was the largest-ever gathering of UK book bloggers, but I imagine it must have been close.

I was particularly pleased to get the chance to meet Nat Segnit, whose Pub Walks in Underhill Country was one of my favourite books from last year; he also gave one of the best readings of the night. But all twelve readings were good; so let’s go through them.

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Naomi Alderman’s new novel is so new that there aren’t any advance copies yet, so she read from her laptop. The Liars’ Gospel is a retelling of the life and death of Jesus; Alderman read from the very beginning, which describes the ritual sacrifice of a lamb – and, if the rest of the book is as well-written as that, it’s one I want to read.

I already had a copy of Jennifer McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree, on the TBR pile. It’s set in South Africa in 1880, amid rumours of a smallpox epidemic in the diamond mines. There was some really good use of detail in the domestic scene which McVeigh read, and that bodes well for the rest of the novel.

Have I still never read anything by Marina Lewycka since A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian? (Answer: no, I haven’t.) I should probably rectify that, and Lewycka’s  reading from Various Pets Alive and Dead was a good reminder of why. Her extract effectively sketched the four main characters in the novel, and included some sharp description of place.

Next up was Greg Baxter, whose first novel, The Apartment, was the second book from tonight already on my TBR pile. Baxter was a measured, precise reader, which went well with the spare style of his extract. I’m now still further intrigued to read the whole book.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson tells of a Polish family reuniting in England after the war. I’m not quite sure whether this is a book for me, but I found the particular extract Hodgkinson read to be a good character sketch.

Now on to the only non-fiction book and author of the evening. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is about the ancient paths ofBritain, the stories intertwined in them, and how people have been shaped by them. Macfarlane read an extract concerning an the encounter with Hanging figure by the sculptor Steve Dilworth; fascinating stuff, and definitely a book I’d like to read.

The second half of the evening began with Elif Shafak’s reading from her latest novel, Honour, which focuses on a Kurdish-Turkish family who move toLondon. Shafak read from the beginning of the book, where the daughter of the family prepares to meet her brother on his release from prison (he was convicted for murder). This was a strong set-up for the rest of the novel, and I look forward to reading on.

Set in 19th-centurySomerset, Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk is the account of a girl named Mary, who is sent to work for the local vicar’s wife, where she has good reason to write down what happened to her. Leyshon’s excerpt gave a hint as to what that reason might be, and her reading brought Mary’s character vividly to life.

Then it was Nat Segnit’s turn to read from Pub Walks in Underhill Country – and it was just like discovering the book all over again. Segnit was an excellent reader (an audiobook of this read by him would be wonderful), and the extract he chose hilarious. Seriously, if you have not read this novel, you should.

From a novel I already loved to one of which I’d never even heard. Tom Bullough’s Konstantin is a fictional account of the life of the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; it was tricky to judge from the reading what the book as a whole might be like, but I started reading it on the train home, and it’s shaping up to be interesting.

The next author to take the stage was Nikita Lalwani, reading from her second novel, The Village. The set-up sounded intriguing – a documentary-maker travels fromEnglandto make a film about an Indian village which is also an open prison – and Lalwani’s reading only confirmed that view.

The evening closed with a reading from a Booker-winning author – James Kelman. Mo said she was quirky is a novel chronicling a day in the life of a single mother; on the evidence of Kelman’s reading, it’s also a novel very concerned with voice – it felt like a novel to be read out loud. I look forward to reading and finding out if that impression is correct.

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And then, as Joshua Ferris put it, we came to the end. My thanks to everyone involved for such an enjoyable evening.

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