Life for Sale: Yukio Mishima

★★★

Yukio Mishima’s name has been appearing on my recommendation lists ever since I started reading Japanese fiction, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Newly published by Penguin Modern Classics, in a fresh translation by Stephen Dodd, it tells the story of Hanio Yamada, who is thoroughly disillusioned by the world around him. Having failed in a suicide attempt, feeling crippled by the sheer meaninglessness of existence, Hanio comes up with a plan. He places an ad in the paper: ‘Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a twenty-seven-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.’ He simply doesn’t care any more. Let someone else make the decisions for him! He’s prepared to relinquish his entire existence to the whims of another person. His offer leads him into a series of bizarre adventures which foreshadow Murakami’s surreal worldview, and which force Hanio to confront how he really feels about life.

Continue reading

The Stranger Diaries: Elly Griffiths

★★★½

Clare Cassidy is au fait with Gothic drama. She’s an English teacher at Holland House school, formerly the home of the reclusive Victorian author R.M. Holland, whose eerie short story The Stranger is one of Clare’s favourite pieces. But Clare prefers the Gothic to remain within the pages of her books. When her friend and colleague Ella Elphick is murdered, it initially seems to be just that: a shocking, upsetting, horrifying crime. Yet there are disturbing elements to Ella’s death. A scribbled note is found beside her body: a line from The Stranger. Her murder bears some resemblance to one of the deaths in that story. And worse is to come. For Clare, a committed diarist, suddenly discovers that someone else has been leaving notes in her journal – someone who apparently has knowledge of the crime, and has been able to get access to her most personal possessions. Griffiths’s novel is a satisfying combination of old-school Gothic and thoroughly modern thriller – even if its final denouement is a bit limp.

Continue reading

The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood

★★★

Society has collapsed. The crumbling economy has snatched away the chance for most people to have jobs, homes, security. Vicious, drug-addled gangs roam the streets, preying on the vulnerable. Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their house and are now living on the street in their car, scraping a meagre existence thanks to Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a dive-bar. They still have their pride, but it’s on the blink; and Stan is on the point of turning for help to his estranged criminal brother (the aptly-named Con) when Charmaine sees an advert that changes their lives. It offers hope. The chance to have dignity restored. A roof over their head; a purpose in life. In return, they just have to take part in a social experiment. Oh, and, once you’re in, there’s no turning back. As you’d expect from Margaret Atwood, this is a high-concept dystopian fable about the corruption of power and the subjugation of the individual for the ‘good’ of the whole. It lacks the taut urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale and veers into absurdity in the later chapters, but it’s nevertheless a sobering vision of a not-too-distant future.

Continue reading

Valencia and Valentine: Suzy Krause

★★★

Suzy Krause’s debut novel is a charming low-key tale of two women whose lives have been formed by stories. On the one hand is garrulous old-age pensioner Mrs Valentine, always ready with a twinkle in her eye and a new instalment of her colourful life-story. On the other is Valencia, crippled by neuroses and social anxiety, stuck in a dead-end job as a debt collector. Her stories are within her mind: the relentless litany of things that might go wrong if she forgets to do one tiny little things. Crushed by past guilt, Valencia has limited her life to her flat and the four walls of her work cubicle; but, as her thirty-fifth birthday approaches, she begins to long for change. And then, quite of the blue, the possibility of change appears: in the form of a new colleague and an unexpectedly friendly client. Could this be the start of a new life? Or will it be simply the same old tale of opportunities missed through fear, shame and cowardice?

Continue reading

Nine Perfect Strangers: Liane Moriarty

★★½

This is the third Liane Moriarty book I’ve read (I’m working backwards through my recent reading, so bear with me) and my least favourite so far – which feels rather ironic, given that the receipt of a bad review causes such emotional crisis for one of the characters in this book. The formula is similar to that in Moriarty’s other books: a group of apparently successful, well-adjusted people come together and begin to realise that nothing is quite as glossy and simple as it seems. In the other Moriarty novels I’ve read – Truly Madly Guilty and The Husband’s Secret – the action unfolds in the wealthy Australian suburbs among the chattering classes. The unsettling elements arise organically from the complexities of everyday life. In Nine Perfect Strangers, however, our characters are taken out of their routines and thrown into a more ‘engineered’ situation. They meet at Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort offering a ten-day cleanse that will lead to personal and spiritual transformation. All they need to do is follow the personalised schedules designed by the resort staff; but little do they know that these schedules have been designed to press them to their limits.

Continue reading

The Baghdad Clock: Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

Continue reading

The Mere Wife: Maria Dahvana Headley

★★★★

Dana Wills is dead. That’s what everyone thinks, and she’s happy to keep it that way. She was beheaded live on TV, after all, a soldier taken hostage in a desert war she never really cared about. She came back to herself dazed, stranded in the middle of the sands, six months pregnant, with no memory of what went before. Now she’s home, with her son. And, with her soldier’s ruthlessness, Dana will do anything to protect her Gren. She heads to a mountain above the place where she grew up, her home now flattened beneath the shining enclave of Herot Hall. Here wealthy women jostle for status within their shining, perfect homes. Life is a round of cocktail parties, gossip and side-eye judging, and Willa Herot is beginning to chafe at the edges of her picture-perfect existence. Wife to Robert Herot, and mother to seven-year-old Dylan, she should be at the top of the tree. But, when Dylan starts chattering about an imaginary friend called Gren, Willa begins to panic. A masterful, forceful modern retelling of Beowulf, this is a tale of dangerous women, and the two boys caught between them.

Continue reading

Vox: Christina Dalcher

★★★★

Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.

Continue reading

What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

Continue reading

Adèle: Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

Continue reading