CategoryGlaister Lesley

Fiction Uncovered reviews: Paul Wilson and Lesley Glaister

Rounding up my latest two reviews for Fiction Uncovered, which include one of this year’s winners…

Paul Wilson, Mouse and the Cossacks (2013)

MouseEleven-year-old Mouse de Bruin (she doesn’t like her given name) has lost the ability to talk. Not that this prevents her from communicating, as shown by her penchant for writing indignant letters while posing as her mother, or sending text messages to random numbers. At the start of Paul Wilson’s seventh novel, Mouse and her mother move into a farmhouse near Manchester; we soon learn that there’s a background of tragedy and break-up, but Mouse also has a story to piece together herself. She discovers a cache of letters belonging to William Crosby, the previous tenant, and becomes fascinated by his life. While serving as a captain in Italy during the Second World War, he had to deal with a group of Cossack refugees – and he fell in love with their interpreter.

As a narrator, Mouse is fascinating: sometimes likeably precocious, sometimes unpleasantly manipulative. She refuses to tell her old friend Lucas where she now lives, constructing an elaborate fantasy of moving between different hotels in London, rather than admitting that she’s actually in the same city as he. There’s a sense that this is fundamentally about control: Mouse has seen so much upheaval that she wants some form of stability in her world; insisting that people communicate with her on her own terms gives her that.

Then, into her life comes William Crosby, revealed to be as multi-faceted a personality as Mouse is herself. Wilson establishes some interesting parallels and contrasts between the two characters: both of their speaking voices have been silenced, hers by selective mutism, his by the passage of time. Both have made efforts to communicate with others in writing, but their true selves remain hidden – Mouse seems not to want to admit her true feelings, and William never sent the letters that would reveal his.

In Mouse and the Cossacks, Paul Wilson has created an engaging study of two characters whose complexities can only be glimpsed by the people around them, a study that reflects on how communication can change a life.

Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (2014)

EgyptLesley Glaister’s fourteenth novel is a gothic tale of secrets and damaged families. In the 1920s, twins Isis and Osiris live in Little Egypt, the country house of their Egyptologist parents, Evelyn and Arthur. It’s just the siblings, the staff, the cats, and the occasional visit from Uncle Victor – until Evelyn and Arthur send word from Egypt that they’re getting close to a major discovery, and they want the twins to see. None of the characters will come through the ensuing events unscathed.

In the present day, both siblings still live in Little Egypt, although they haven’t seen each other for years. Itself now a relic of a bygone age, the house sits on a little island created by railways and roads; a developer wants to buy the land for a shopping mall, but Isis has held out so far. Over the course of the book, she becomes friends with Spike, a young American anarchist, and invites him to visit Little Egypt – but change may be coming along with him.

Much of the pleasure of reading Little Egypt comes from the gradual revelation of secrets, which Glaister handles very well indeed. Both Isis and Osiris have things to hide, secrets that come to light at different points throughout the novel, which means you can never be quite sure where it will turn next; the present-day storyline doesn’t give away where the historical one is heading, either.

Glaister also establishes some powerful parallels between the novel’s two timeframes. We see how Arthur’s and Evelyn’s obsession with Egypt ultimately created a prison for them, but also how it came to have chilling consequences for the young Isis and Osiris. In the fullness of time, the history of Little Egypt exerted its own force… But I won’t continue with that train of thought. Suffice it to say that Little Egypt is a dark, poignant novel with a pitch-perfect ending.

Fiction Uncovered 2014

This year’s list for Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize has been announced. The judges – writer Matt Haig; journalist Arifa Akbar; Greg Eden of Waterstones; Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press; and Julia Wharton of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation – selected eight novels by established British writers. I had a preview of the winning titles, and have read most of them; so let me give you a run-down…

Ben Brooks, Lolito (Canongate)

Lolito

We start with one of the two books I haven’t read. Ben Brooks is the youngest author on the list, at age 22. Lolito is the story of a teenage boy who goes to meet in reali life an older woman whom he first encountered online.

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin)

Mr Loverman

The tale of septuagenarian Barrington Walker, who’s in a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. I reviewed Mr Loverman on the blog last year.

Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (Salt)

Little Egypt

I reviewed an earlier book of Lesley Glaister‘s, Nina Todd Has Gone, for Laura Hird’s website back in 2009 (you can read the review here via the Wayback Machine). Little Egypt concerns the secrets of two Egyptologists and their children; I’ve reviewed it for the Fiction Uncovered website.

Cynan Jones, The Dig (Granta)

The Dig

I’ve previously reviewed Cynan Jones’s novel Everything I Found on the Beach; like that book, The Dig is a short, stark character study. It focuses principally on two characters: Daniel, a sheep farmer somewhere in Wales, who’s trying to cope with the loss of his partner; and “the big man”, who clears farms of rats and tops up his income with badger-baiting.

The Dig is an intensely physical and visceral book. Daniel is preoccupied with the processes of his farm; there’s a sense throughout that this is a kind of ritualistic displacement activity. The big man carries on his badger digging in the knowledge that he’s only a step or two ahead of the police. Jones describes the activities of both men in vivid detail, because that is what’s important to his characters. The resulting novel is unflinching and powerful.

Gareth R. Roberts, Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? (The Friday Project)

Billy Parks

Appropriately enough for the season, Gareth Roberts’s second novel is about football. Billy Parks was a star player left on the bench when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1973. Forty years on, he’s an alcoholic (though he won’t admit that to himself), estranged from his daughter, and getting by on tales of his glory days. But now Billy finds out that “the Service” has given Alf Ramsey and his colleagues on the Council of Football Immortals the chance to relive ten minutes of that fateful match. Sir Alf will be able to choose someone else to go on the pitch; that could be Billy, if he can pull himself together long enough to prove his worth.

I have to say: I’m not a great fan of football, but I really enjoyed this book all the same. I don’t need to like football to engage with a novel about it; I just need the novel to make me understand what it means to the characters, and Roberts absolutely does that. For the young Billy Parks, playing football is the thing that comes naturally to him, the thing that can help him transcend his circumstances; time and again in the novel, we feel how vital this is.

I was expecting Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? to be mostly a romp, and it does have its fair share of amusing moments. But it’s also bittersweet, with a real gravitas: Billy never really appreciates how deeply his father was scarred by his experiences building railways in Burma, nor how much his mother depended on him. It’s the cutting reality of Billy’s personal life, set against the headiness of his success on the pitch, that gives Roberts’s novel its power.

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (Picador)

Mrs Hemingway

I’ve already reviewed Naomi Wood‘s novel about Hemingway’s wives, here. It’s still one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (Picador)

Vanishing

This is another one I haven’t read, but I gather that its protagonist is an artist and camouflage officer in World War Two – and an unreliable narrator.

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape)

Finally, one of my favourite books from last year, the tale of a woman who;s run away from the past only to find that the present may be under threat.

BOOK REVIEW: The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson (2007) & Nina Todd Has Gone by Lesley Glaister (2007)

Laura Hird has launched the latest issue of her New Review site, and it includes a double-header review from me. It was my idea to put the two together, as I thought they made an interesting comparison: both have a pair of protagonists whose inner  identities are not what they present to the outside world.

Andrew Wilson’s The Lying Tongue sees an art history graduate travel to Venice to become housekeeper for a reclusive novelist, who turns out to have  a dark secret in his past — but so does the graduate. This is Wilson’s first novel, and it’s good, but not quite there yet.

More accomplished is Nina Todd Has Gone, Lesley Glaister’s eleventh novel, in which a woman convicted of murder — and now rehabilitated into the community with a new identity — is pursued unknowingly by the brother of the girl she killed. It’s a better book than Wilson’s, because the emtions are more complex — but you’ll see what I mean when you read the review.

Read the review in full

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