Chilled to the bone – a book review of The Bones of You by Debbie Howells

5 Aug
IMG_1998Debbie Howells’ The Bones of You grabbed me from the very start. Howells tells the story of an apparently normal, borderline idyllic, English village where residents are wealthy commuters or work in agricultural or traditional ‘country’ pursuits, which is devastated by the murder of eighteen year old Rosie.
Most of the book is told from gardener, horse lover and mother of one of Rosie’s friends, Kate’s perspective, as she finds herself pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery of what happened to Rosie.
Through Kate we feel grief for Rosie’s death, as she attempts to comfort her own eighteen year old, Grace, and navigate her through the terrible task of coming to terms with what has befallen her friend; we feel empathy for Jo and Neale, Rosie’s parents, as through Kate’s eyes Howells draws a picture of devastation and disbelief; and we become intrigued as Kate is, almost against her and our own will, as she finds she cannot leave the crime alone.
Kate is a well-drawn picture of a woman who suddenly finds herself without a key focus of her life, as her daughter Grace leaves for university. It feels like her at times almost obsessive fascination with the Rosie case and Rosie’s family, particularly her mother, Jo, happens because she is trying to find a niche, to be needed as her daughter needed her before she struck out for her independence at University. This clever positioning makes Kate far more than a channel for the storytelling, and gives her character some real complexity and a very human face.
On one level The Bones of You is a straightforward whodunnit; but it has other levels much more complex than that, which is what made it such a compelling read. Of course I wanted to find out who murdered Rosie, but through clever use of flashbacks told in the dying Rosie’s voice, as she watches her life play back before her eyes, I ended up wanting to find out because I liked her as a character, and felt deep sadness for this young girl, forced to become mature way beyond her age, who had apparently seen her own tragic fate. Through the use of Rosie’s narrative voice, filling in gaps in our understanding and her back story, the novel also became a well-written exploration of abuse, its perpetuation and ongoing impact, and the different forms abuse can take. All told as a narrative, without authorial explanation, a clever technique for filling in the background and, since we uncover information as our lead characters Kate and Rosie do, providing various characters with motivation for murder, so names on the list of suspects ebb and flow, keeping me guessing almost to the end.
While I did guess ‘whodunnit’, I’m left with a sneaky suspicion this was through luck not detective insight!
With summer holidays upon us, this would be the perfect book to sling in your luggage – but don’t make it the only one you take. If it fascinates you anywhere near as much as it fascinated me, you’ll have read it in 48 hours!

Things I have learnt from my daughter

19 Jul

This week coming is L1’s final week at primary school. I know, she only started a week last Wednesday so I don’t quite know how we have come to this, but there we go.

In the last week she has embraced two nights of her Year 6 production, given it large at her leaver’s party and received her SATS results. This week of heightened and contradictory emotions comes on top of a year where she has had to process and recover from her first ‘proper’ disappointments. And she has approached each of these events with calm equanimity, unlike me, looming on the sidelines ready to pick up after a crisis that so far has not yet come, as she takes these milestone events in her stride.

She is able to process and explain her emotions, and she does cry and get angry, but she explains why. She is not afraid to say she doesn’t want to leave, and that she will miss her wonderful classmates terribly. But she is also able to accept that sitting alongside that is anticipation for the next step of her education and her life; she has no hang ups about the passing of time. She really does embrace the way things are, even if they are not as she expected, and as a result, she enjoys it. 

Life is positive for her despite it holding trepidation, uncertainty and a bed of roses where she has occasionally discovered thorns. 
Whatever Kool Aid she is drinking, I think I would like some of it please. Lots that I can learn from here.

A book review: Villa America – well worth coming to stay

25 May

Villa America front cover

Mumsnet gave me the chance to review Villa America by Liza Klaussmann. I will never turn down a book, ever; but having never read any Liza Klaussmann before (what a mistake!) I didn’t know what I would get from Villa America. What I got was a wonderful surprise. The story of Sara and Gerald Murphy, glamorous 1920 society lynchpins and, as such, hosts to some of the most recognisable names of that era, brought me straight into their world and pinned me there, rapt, unable to put the novel down.

All main characters bar one (pilot Owen Chambers) in the novel are real people. In the case of people like F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, they are people who I have studied before in the context of the work they produced. It is fascinating therefore to read what might have fleshed out those factual bones; Klaussmann has clearly done a huge amount of research, and therefore the way she writes to fill in the gaps feels perfectly believable, no character’s personification jarring with what we know about them from history, and the dialogue, thoughts and motivations as written by Klaussmann, perfectly believable.

Villa America is a multi-faceted, tremendously colourful tale. We learn about the central characters, Sara and Gerald Murphy, from their earliest lives. Both have characters shaped by unhappy and dysfunctional childhoods; they are childhood friends, not sweethearts, who are reunited after several years and recognise within each other kindred spirits, a shock of realisation that turns into love. They are united in their determination to give each other, and their children, the upbringing that neither of them had. The letters between the two when they first realise that they are destined to be together, and those talking about their first child, Honoria, are realistic and touching.

Their relationship throughout the book and their individual personalities, thoughts and feelings are written sensitively and with great care; as a result, I was able to believe that Gerald could fall passionately in love with someone else while remaining absolutely committed to his marriage and the idyll that he and Sara had created as a result of it. A writer less skilled than Klaussmann would not be able to carry this off, and the careful writing of Sara and Gerald’s relationship is one of the continuously strong and enjoyable threads within the novel.

The reader knows from the very start that the paradise described throughout most of the novel is only temporary. This skillful techique colours reading of the apparently carefree and hedonistic lifestyle at Villa America – as the reader, you know that it is not going to last, unlike the main characters, who for a significant proportion of the novel believe that it will, and viewing it from this position of knowledge gives the story right from the beginning a poignancy that it would not otherwise have. It prevents the characters’ most hedonistic and selfish actions rendering them dislikable, as the reader knows that ‘paradise will be lost’ right from the start. Read from this position of full knowledge, scenes featuring the children and Gerald and Sara’s careful construction of the perfect world for them – even down to Sara’s absolute terror of germs, and the precautions she takes to combat them, which are naive and, ultimately, tragic – are particularly moving. The inexorable movement towards the collapse of the status quo which they have all, to a greater or lesser extent, taken for granted, which we know cannot last, since history tells us so, is also foreshadowed by the excellent writing of Owen Chambers’ experience as a pilot in the First World War, and the vivid description of a fellow aviator’s fiery death. Klaussmann doesn’t shy away from the truth of the 1920s and the horrific events of the war which ushered it in; she writes Chambers’ war experience as believably as the rest of it, and we share in and believe Owen Chambers’ defining life experiences just as we share in and believe the quieter, more personal traumas that have defined the Murphys.

I wasn’t certain how a novel featuring through it a progression of people as well-known as Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway would work without sounding at least unbelievable and at worst unbelievable and pretentious. We know the Murphys were ‘in real life’ hosts to these people; their relationships are written aside from the work for which they are renowned, and as a result, we believe in the day-to-day lives that Klaussmann writes for them. Zelda Fitzgerald’s depression, her reckless acts as a result of it, and the catastrophic effect of alcohol on her relationship with her husband Scott, but their inability to leave their hedonistic and damaging lifestyle behind were particularly memorable for me.

Villa America pulls the reader into the 1920s and the Murphys’ lives, and doesn’t let you go. When I put the book down, I continued to think about it; finishing it feels like a loss somehow. I would thoroughly recommend it. A proper must-read.

I don’t want to go swimming

2 May

  L2 has moved into the Big Pool at long last. He is a child whose perception of his swimming ability leapfrogs his actual swimming ability, so this has been a long time coming.

His new lesson necessitates a mad dash to the pool after school, which is hectic but overall makes the evening more civilised. When we first got to the pool at the new time, it was almost completely empty. Sitting safely in the bleachers comfy and non-wet, the sun streaming in and a virtually unsullied water surface beneath me, I felt a romantic surge of desire to be in that water. Turning to L1 I said “We should definitely swim next week.”

Oh, how foolish, how short-sighted of me. This statement constituted a promise, and forces me to uncover one of my darkest parental secrets: I don’t like going swimming.

Actually, this is not strictly true. Swimming in certain circumstances – abroad in the near-Tropics, for instance; in a spa; on a hotel rooftop; in the sea (with or without waves), that sort of thing – these are all more than fine. My dislike of swimming in leisure centres in the UK started with general distaste for the changing rooms – squelchy mush from what on earth between the toes; discarded hairbands and discarded actual hair; plasters with something yellow on them entrapping you at every turn; the faint but omni-present tang of urine – and moved on to the whole general experience – the fact that it is always much colder than you expect; the difference in temperature between the very top surface and anywhere beneath; those drains in the side of the pool and even worse those drains at the bottom; the fact you don’t know what is in the trough beneath the poolside and you have to put a foot in there to get out – honestly the list goes on and on and on.

Yet I don’t feel it would be wise to share this distaste with my offspring. Already prone to squeamishness around items and events that I dismiss as over-pampered, I can hardly share this one with them, especially as I believe swimming is a crucial skill to master and most importantly because they love it. 

The odd involuntary exclamation of horror has escaped my lips in a swimming pool while in their presence – when I saw the cockroach, for instance, and his semi-decapitated friend; and when the smell of wee was identified as actual wee in our cubicle –  and I do urge speed in the changing rooms at all cost (but I disguise that effectively beneath a veneer of concern regarding over-zealous traffic wardens). But mostly I have to grit my teeth, get a grip and use the medium of this blog as therapy. 

Eat everything*

10 Apr

 

 On Tuesday I made a meal so disgusting that it could only be defined as left-overs from the start. It never attained the dizzy heights of being referred to as an actual current meal. At the first bite it was designated ‘something Daddy might like to try’; then swiftly downgraded to ‘the flavours might improve after a night in the fridge’; before plummeting unceremoniously to ‘let’s just put this in the bin’. I hate wasting food, so this is a dramatic and unprecedented decision which can only demonstrate how unpalatable the recipe in question – or at least, my interpretation thereof – was.

Although I can’t believe that substituting dried basil for fresh would have made such a sweeping 360-degree change as to make it something that normal people could actually eat. 

It got me thinking though about some of the unpleasant things I have made and / or sampled in the name of ‘why on earth not’. Even after having children I have never felt especially constrained by what ought in the name of all that’s holy go together in a culinary venture vs what should never be even loosely coupled. The kids stoically tolerate my cooking – L2, infamously and with my ongoing apologies to his first childminder – was initially post-weaning fed almost exclusively on quinoa (quinoa-with-x, ‘x’ being whatever seemed a nutritious ideal rather than a natural quinoa partner) which I can’t pronounce but was so fascinated that he actually ate that I was continually using to check he still did. 

It goes further back, too. There was the incident of the now infamous ‘water chestnut surprise’ – the ‘surprise’ of the title being that water chestnuts could ever be considered within a bolognaise sauce. And even more dim and distant, the dinner party I hosted just before my gap year travels began, when I flung entire sweetcorn (baby, ok, not full-size, my optimism has some boundaries) straight into a frying pan for a stir fry and wondered how on earth they were still one step less than al dente basically, ever.

Hope here is two-fold. Firstly M loves to cook – otherwise no-one could ever come round here to eat, ever. And secondly I am developing reserves of patience – or at least, now bothering to mine them – and will accept that a recipe is there for a reason. Just not that particular Koh Samui Thai salad recipe…

*almost

How to fall over

26 Feb

After Madonna’s Brits tumble last night, falling over has shot to the top of the news agenda. It has never been more important to fall over well. As a perennial faller-over-er (less so since my back was fixed, but still an issue thanks to my numb lower leg), I have some tips for anyone finding themselves in that position (flat).

1) Be indiscriminate. I am just as capable of falling over and doing hospital-requiring damage on a flat surface (Tarmac) as I am on a sloping surface (stairs). I can look at this in one of two ways: I am fair in my falling; or every location presents equal danger. The view I take depends on how recently I have fallen.

2) Distract from the fall by returning to the previous upright state with alacrity. Madonna modelled this perfectly last night, springing up with a nonchalant ‘nothing to see here’ approach which exemplified this rule. Even after years of falling as an adult, I can still admire such an approach and salute it. An example to all of us for whom vertical is difficult.

3) During the fall, plan a trick so eye-catching that the fall becomes secondary to what is achieved as a result. Difficult, but master-able. In an era now past, I could fall down a flight of stairs and not spill a drop from my wine glass. That used to elicit gasps of astonishment and effectively distract from the fact that stairway top to bottom was undertaken in the blink of an eye not the usual progress of seconds.

4) Try not to become addicted to exercise that requires a lot of staying-upright. I have failed resoundingly on this one with my year-old walking fetish but there is no denying that since starting walking regularly I have found more kerbs with my trailing right foot than ever before. While this is simply because I encounter more of the pesky pavement-breakers than I did previously – and have no intention of quitting walking for macrame – it has increased the instance of a slight or significant stumble exponentially (especially with my dodgy knee).

5) Consider your clothing. I won’t even go there with heels, other than to say I love them, I wear them, I’m an adult, I accept the risks. Here I mean actual clothing. Trailing pieces are right out (in retrospect I shudder at the potential for calamity presented by my wedding dress, but hey ho, it, I, and our guests are all still here). But – as poor Madonna found last night – apparently straightforward elements of a garment all have a part to play. I particularly watch my sleeves; these catch on door frames throughout the house, jerking me violently backwards (my mantra – why walk unless it’s purposeful? – applies even in the home) and sending me floor-wards in one seamless movement.

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Life begins…

25 Feb

This is a post that I have been putting off for ages, because it is regarding a subject that I am not dealing with well. My lack of desire to confront this particular pachyderm in the property means that it was (until inspired by Madonna’s fall!) many weeks since last I put thumb to touchscreen, suffering in silence from a refusal to man up (awful phrase – but addressing why it is an awful phrase is not a subject for now) to this one.

In a handful of days time I will be celebrating my 21st birthday.

Again.

The eagle eyed will note that I am still failing to confront actual reality, but this is as far as it goes.

I can’t put a touchscreen-avoiding finger on why it matters. After all, it is inevitable. There is a grace about growing older without complaint which I would like to model and indeed growing older is a gift. Many many people I know well – my own husband for starters – have effectively navigated the rocky shores of this particular decade’s demise (or should
I say, a new decade’s dawning – the glass half full interpretation) with nothing like this amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth (yup, these teeth are mainly still all my own, I am proud to announce).

And my last milestone birthday (18, of course, from my current unrealistic age acknowledging) passed in a blur of new-ish baby-ness and massive work-ness, so it will be nice to tackle this one with an active awareness and deliberate enjoyment.

I need to draw upon my reserves of optimism and ‘get over yourself’-ness and confront it head on. There is no conclusion nor solution to this, which makes acceptance necessary. So here goes.

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