TagCatherine Hall

Book notes: Jackson, Hall, Lelord

Mick Jackson, Ten Sorry Tales (2005)

I liked this book from the very first sentence: ‘Lol and Edna Pierce liked to keep their own company, which was just as well as their nearest neighbour lived nine miles away.’ That sentence establishes the wry, playful quality of Jackson’s writing; and the rest of the story, ‘The Pearce sisters’ – in which Lol and Edna finally gain some companions, albeit by taking some rather extreme measures – sets the cautionary, macabre tone of the collection as a whole (I was reminded of Roald Dahl and Dan Rhodes when reading these stories).

Other characters to be met within the pages of Ten Sorry Tales include a boy who finds an antique kit for revivifying butterflies, and tries it out; a rich couple who employ their own hermit, and pay the price for neglecting his welfare; and a man who spends his retirement building a row-boat, then devises an ingenious way to get it out of the house. Jackson tells all their stories with the same sense of dark glee; it’s a delight to read.

Links
Mick Jackson’s website
Other reviews: Annalisa Crawford; Bookmunch;

Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (2011)

In 1976, a Cambridge mathematician named Spencer Little travels to the Lake District for the summer, intending to work on the proof that will secure him a fellowship. He takes a job on the farm of Hartley and Mary Dodds, and finds a friend in their ten-year-old daughter Alice. It takes a while for the locals to warm to Spencer, but they do when he rescues Alice from a fire. Even then, however, life doesn’t begin to run smoothly, because Spencer gets caught up in the tensions between Alice and her father; the secret he left behind in Cambridge still haunts him; and he gains a new secret to keep when he falls in love in Cumbria.

Catherine Hall does two things particularly well in The Proof of Love, which combine to create the spine of the novel. The first of these is to evoke the rawness of life in her setting (with effectively precise description) and the way it has literally left its mark on the inhabitants (including Spencer, who starts off far more used to focusing on his mind than his body, and is made physically capable and stronger by the farm work). The second is to dramatise the conflict between different ways of life, as represented by the characters. This is not a straightforward case of intellectualism versus physicality; it’s more about showing how the farming lifestyle has taken over the Dodds family. Hartley reveals that he had the intelligence to go to university, but that path was closed off from him because he was required to inherit the farm; in his turn, he refuses to allow Alice to do anything that might open up new possibilities for her life—and the friction this causes is only exacerbated by the arrival of Spencer, who is emblematic of precisely such a different kind of life. (Spencer, of course, finds his own kind of freedom in the very life from which Alice dreams of escaping, thus highlighting the complexity of the situation.)

As the final page approaches, the sense increases that things are going to end badly. Hall deftly builds tension of the kind that comes from seeing the pieces of the story falling, but not knowing where they will land—and where they do land has both an inevitability and a final twist. The Proof of Love is tough on its characters, but rewarding for its readers.

This review first appeared on Fiction Uncovered.

Links
Fiction Uncoverd interview and reading.
Other reviews: Stevie Davies for the Guardian; Cornflower Books.

François Lelord, Hector and the Secrets of Love (2005/11)

I’ve not read the first of Lelord’s ‘Hector’ books (Hector and the Search for Happiness), but I’d suggest on the basis of this second one that they’re an acquired taste. Lelord’s professional background is in psychiatry, which is also the career of his protagonist. Hector is pondering the nature of love when he attends a pharmaceutical conference with his girlfriend Clara, where he is sent on a mission to track down an old acquaintance, Professor Cormorant, who had been working on a love drug. On his travels, Hector – whose relationship with Clara is already under strain – meets a beautiful waitress named Vayla, and falls in love with her; but how much of that is real, and how much down to the drug that Cormorant persuaded them to test – and what difference does it actually make either way?

I suspect that a reader’s reaction to this book will depend on how he or she takes to the prose (the translation is by Lorenza Garcia). It has a faux-naif, ‘storybook’ tone, which allows for some wry humour (“because countries like [Hector’s] had invented psychiatry, they were the ones who decided what was normal and what wasn’t,” p. 191), but which can also be quite irritating. I appreciate the complex picture of love that unfolds as Hector’s journey progresses; but, at the same time, the observations Hector makes don’t feel particularly fresh or striking to me. So, I’m ambivalent about Hector and the Secrets of Love – it’s good in parts, but not enough to overcome my misgivings.

Links
The publisher, Gallic Books.
Other reviews: Lizzy Siddall; Katie Byrne for Running in Heels.

Fiction Uncovered: the list

The Fiction Uncovered list has been announced. The idea behind this initiative was to highlight books from the past year by eight established UK writers whose work may not have had all the exposure it deserves. You’ll be seeing displays of these titles in bookshops; let’s look at what the judges have chosen…

Lindsay Clarke, The Water Theatre (Alma Books)

Clarke is the only author of the eight whose name was completely unknown to me, though I understand now that he has written seven novels. I’m not sure that the synopsis of The Water Theatre (a war-reporter searches for two old friends, without knowing that they harbour a secret) instinctively appeals to me, but I am pleased to have been alerted to an unfamiliar writer.

Robert Edric, The London Satyr (Doubleday)

Edric is one of two writers on the list whom I’ve already read, albeit a different book in this case. I had mixed feelings about Salvage, but would certainly read the author again. The London Satyr sounds rather different in setting and subject matter, as it examines the dark underbelly of Victorian society in the 1890s.

Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (Portobello)

A mathematician spends a summer working as a farmhand in the Lake District, and gets tangled up in the lives of the locals. I have The Proof of Love to review next for the Fiction Uncovered site; now I know that it’s on the list, my anticipation has only increased.

Sarah Moss, Night Waking (Granta)

I’ve heard interesting things about Moss’s previous novel, Cold Earth. This new novel, which interweaves the stories of a mother and her young family on a Hebridean island in the present day, and a midwife attempting to address infant mortality on the island in the 19th century, alaso sounds intriguing.

Chris Paling, Nimrod’s Shadow (Portobello)

I experienced an ‘Aha!’ moment when Paling’s name was read out, when I realised I’d seen his work being recommended before, but had forgotten about it. At the time, I was convinced it was Scott Pack I’d read enthusing about Paling’s books, but actually I was thinking of this piece by Stuart Evers. Anyway, Nimrod’s Shadow — the tale of an Edwardian murder and its investigation in the present day by an office assistant who finds clues in paintings from the time — has gone staright on my to-read list.

Tim Pears, Disputed Land (Heinemann)

Pears is one of those writers of whose name I’ve been aware without really knowing anything about his work. Again, Disputed Land is not a novel that grabs me just from its synopsis (a man looks back on the childhood Christmas when his grandparents summoned their family to discuss their inheritance), but I’ll look into Pears’ bibliography.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (Heinemann)

The only book on the Fiction Uncovered list that I’ve already read; one of my very favourite reads of last year; and a novel that absolutely deserves its place here. Emma Donoghue’s Room has received plenty of attention, and Forgetting Zoë (which likewise deals with the long-term captivity of a child, though otherwise the two books are quite different) rather less so; but I think Robinson’s novel is the better of the two, and I hope more people will now take the time to discover it.

Jake Wallis Simons, The English German Girl (Polygon/Birlinn)

In the 1930s, a girl is sent from Berlin to England on the Kindertransport, but loses touch with her family when war comes. I’d already heard of this novel, but was undecided about reading it; its appearance on this list might just spur me on to do so.

***

Overall impressions of the list? I’ve no reason to doubt the quality of the books (and if Forgetting Zoë is the standard, then that’s great); but, structurally, it feels something of a missed opportunity. For one thing, Fiction Uncovered was open to prose novels, story collections, and graphic novels; but there are no books from the latter two categories on the final list {*}. 75% of the authors are male, all are white, and all (as far I’m aware) English. There are no books published as genre fiction on the list. Half the titles do come from independent publishers, though, which is good to see.

Whatever the shape of the list, though, I do wish the best to all the authors featured, and hope they gain more attention as a result of Fiction Uncovered.

[*Since posting this originally, I have heard from Fiction Uncovered that relatively few story collections were submitted by publishers, and no graphic novels at all.]

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