Thursday, 23 February 2012

Blow on a Dead Man's Embers - Mari Strachan

I lived in South Wales for three years early in my marriage.... and the feel of the village in which Non, her husband Davey and her three stepchildren live is there, on the printed page.  The Welshness of the speech patterns seems just so right, and so too are the descriptions of the characters, making me think, during the early part of the book, of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. 

But whilst Milk Wood might amuse, this book has serious subjects to concentrate on.  The returning soldiers who were described as "shell-shocked" then, were actually suffering post traumatic stress -  but no-one knew how to deal with them.  Davey is one such.  He's a coffin maker and carpenter, and appears normal to everyone except Non, who sees him, early every morning, under the kitchen table reliving a certain time in the trenches.  Their marriage is physically over - he has told her that he had an affair with a nurse whilst in a hospital recovering from wounds - although as a father and provider he is still present.  But Non, with her weak heart since birth, is still only 29.  Must this be the rest of her life?  She wants Davey back - but how to do that?

The descriptions of every character, from the minor,  her youngest step-son Osian (what might be described as an idiot savant now),   her lying and jealous mother in law Catherine, and the nosey next door neighbour with constant bowel troubles, to the major - her husband Davey, her friend Lizzy German, and of course herself, Non,  make them come alive.  I couldn't put it down - and although its not a thriller it has several mysteries satisfyingly cleared up as the story progresses.  Also cleverly woven into the story are women's voting rights; the early Labour movement in Wales; the Irish uprising, and the business of how women took care of business whilst men were away at war. 

I loved her first novel "The Earth Hums in E Flat", which had a touch of magic realism about it, and the major character was a child; and I love this one too.  A Welsh writer to be proud of - and to read!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Tom's Midnight Garden - Philippa Pearce

 Tom's Midnight Garden What a lovely, lovely story.  Carnagie Medal Winner in 1958, it's year of publication, this has been in print in some form or another ever since.  I wish I had a child I could read this to - or a child who would read it and enjoy it as I have just done.  Tom's brother Peter has gone down with measles, and it is decided that Tom should be sent off to stay with his aunt and uncle.  What a disappointment for him - its the beginning of the holidays, and the brothers had so much planned.  So off he goes to a tiny flat in a big house with no garden, and no-one to play with (in any case, he is being kept away from people in case he is developing measles himself).  There is no inspiration for him now, the flat looks out onto new houses, there is only a communal yard for the dustbins, and, well, its basically very boring indeed.  Until, one night, he hears the grandfather clock in the communal hall strike 13, and a great adventure begins.
Can ghosts go back in time and visit the past?  or is the past a ghostly time?  Don't be frightened - just go along with Tom and visit the garden of the big house every night when the clock strikes 13, meet Hatty, the most wonderful little girl and playmate, and like Tom, try to imagine some way of stopping time altogether.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Unit - Ninni Holmqvist

Product Details Dystopian novels only work for me if they are believable.  In this case I am wondering where the actual unit is situated!  Set in a Sweden of the not too distant future, this is what becomes of being a democratic country whose government has voted for what's best for everyone (well, everyone outside the unit).  The Unit is the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material and they "......will be glad to assist you in becoming a more productive and valuable member of society from the beginning our your stay, through to your final donation...". 

The narrator is Dorrit Weger,  who is checked in to the unit on her fiftieth birthday - and no, there is no choice if you are single, a non-parent, a non-carer, not a brilliant writer, artist, etc or with a job in an industry that needs you.  Dorrit has given up her little house, given her beloved dog Jock away to neighbours with small children who love him, and has arrived inside the unit where she finds she has a small flat of her own, which she can do as she likes with, and decorate as she  wants.  The unit has cafes, theatres, gardens, galleries;  in fact it seems rather like a cruise ship to me - but a last cruise is the trip you are taking with Dorrit.  In the calm atmosphere of the unit, Dorrit soon makes friends, and takes a lover, knowing all the while that at some point she must make her final donation for the good of society.

The sentences are short, there are never too many words used, and the cool, Scandinavian feel of the place stays with me.  That coolness begins to leave a nasty feeling when you realise that in a world of overcrowding, and elderly people living longer and costing money, this might be the ideal solution for governments to take.  In at 50 for women, 60 for men, and there to help society......... compulsorily.  It does not take a great leap to imagine that in the not too distant future, with pension pots running out, hospitals keeping elderly  people alive at enormous expense, those without jobs costing the rest of the population a great deal; this might come up as a lightbulb moment at the desk of a senior civil servant.  It will stay in my mind for a long time, it's a brilliant but haunting novel.