Paperback reviews: The Fields, A Commonplace Killing, Impulse, Running Like A Girl, The Hour Of The Star
Sunday 02 February 2014
The Fields by Kevin Maher (Abacus £7.99)
Jim Finnegan is up there with the great teenage narrators of literature, like Holden Caulfield, Adrian Mole, or David Mitchell’s Jason Taylor. Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s, Jim has to contend with a houseful of sisters, bad bastards at school, a father who’s dying of cancer, unrequited love, and being forced to be an altar boy to a priest who chose him for all the wrong reasons. Through it all he maintains the same brilliantly comic, authentically adolescent voice: knowing, cynical, sarcastic, lugubrious, yet also warm, generous and sympathetic. Jim has a way with words: comparing how his mother must feel remembering her first love to how she must feel being married to “a human dressing gown that’s inches away from dying” must be, he says, “like comparing the world’s sweetest and lightest and creamiest pavlova to a plate of shite”.
The novel is a Bildungsroman: we see Jim grow from a nerdy 13-year-old to a self-possessed and adventurous 14-year-old who discovers alcohol, sex, the wide world outside Ireland, and transcendental wisdom. Perhaps this transformation is a bit sudden and a bit unlikely, and perhaps the plot, which gets wilder and wilder as the story progresses, is a bit implausible – but one doesn’t think that while reading it, caught up in that immediate, button-holing narrative voice. Indeed for large stretches one forgets there’s even such as a person as Kevin Maher.
The Eighties are here in detail, with Bronski Beat providing the soundtrack while references to Spandau Ballet, Madonna, Alien, Minder, Return of the Jedi and Frankie Goes to Hollywood abound. The story explores an impressive range of themes: Irishness, religion, love, death, punishment, forgiveness, hypocrisy, abortion, the family. It’s a novel to make you laugh, gasp, wince and think.
A Commonplace Killing by Sian Busby (Short Books £7.99)
It’s London, 1946 – a city still in ruins, full of crooks and spivs, where women queue up to buy stale bread, people rush to a pub because for once they’ve got some gin in, and the only things there seem to be no shortage of are tea, cigarettes, and disillusion. A woman’s body is found on a bomb site near the Holloway Road. Strangled, but it doesn’t seem to have been a sex-crime. Detective Inspector Jim Cooper – pipe-smoking, music-loving, broken-hearted, veteran of the First but not the Second World War – is soon on the case, assisted by Policewoman Tring, to whom he’s attracted but dare not speak his love. The novel intercuts between Cooper’s investigations, and flashbacks to the murdered woman’s life in the days leading up to her death. The novel is bleak, melancholy, and filled with despair, and yet, somehow, also beautiful and humane: as good an evocation of the seamy side of London as anything by Patrick Hamilton. This was Sian Busby’s last, posthumously published, book. It’s a fine memorial.
Impulse by Dr David Lewis (Random House £8.99)
This is subtitled: “Why we do what we do without knowing why we do it”, and that breezy, magazine-y way of putting it, is characteristic of the book. Lewis’s case is that “most of our thinking goes on backstage” – we’ve already made up our minds, at an unconscious level, before that sudden spur-of-the-moment decision. The first part of the book explains how a “zombie” brain underlies the reflective, thinking part of our brain, and the second part explores impulses in the areas of love, over-eating, impulse-buying, and destructive drives. It’s all interesting and readable, but there are too many exclamation marks, and the anecdotes which Lewis sprinkles over the science don’t always seem relevant.
Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley (Windmill £8.99)
“Running is awful,” says Alexandra Heminsley. “Unnatural, unnecessary and painful”, and she means it, and she’s right. But it’s also a pleasure, “an honour, a privilege and a gift”. And she’s right about that too. She describes her first shy forays into running, writes about the difficulty of getting the right kit, the exhaustion and the leaden legs, and then the gradual gains in confidence and fitness, and the realisation that to be a runner all you have to do is run. Running defines her, connects her to her family and friends, and to the world. If you already run you’ll nod in recognition; and if you don’t, perhaps this will convert you to the stern pleasures that this uniquely accessible sport has to offer.
The Hour Of The Star by Claris Lispector (Translated By Benjamin Moser) (Penguin £7.99)
A reprint of Lispector’s 1977 novella, this is the story of Macabea, a young typist in Rio, an ugly, undernourished girl, whose body is “drier than a half-empty sack of crumbled toast”, and whose ovaries are “shriveled as a cooked mushroom”. Macabea has a boyfriend who doesn’t like her, her favourite pleasure is looking at an ad for face cream (if she could afford the cream, she’d eat it, she thinks), and when she sees a rhino in the zoo she is so scared she wets herself. The narrator, Rodrigo S M, keeps interrupting himself to complain about the impossibility of his task: “I myself have no idea how this thing will turn out” ... “This book is a silence. This book is a question.” It’s odd, and it’s brilliant. But I was glad it was short.
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