Elmet by Fiona Mozley: Book Review

Title: Elmet

Author: Fiona Mozley

Genre: Fiction, Gothic Noir

Elmet, the debut novel of 29-year old Ph.D scholar Fiona Mozley, is a world in itself. It sweeps across a haunting and beautiful landscape and tells the story of an unlikely family and their strong bonding.

I chose to read Elmet because it seemed the lightest in the pile of books that had been shortlisted for the 2017 Booker. Considered a surprise inclusion for the Booker longlist, it managed to make it to the final 6. The book may be light, but it packs quite a punch in the way of language and world building.

Elmet starts with an epigraph from Ted Hughes photography and poetry book, ‘Remains of Elmet’. It introduces Elmet as a Celtic Kingdom and mentions that even as late as the seventeenth century, it was considered ‘badlands’, geographically secluded and sheltering fugitives.
Elmet covered an area in what is now northern England, referenced as far back as the early middle ages.

The author, Fiona Mozley is pursuing a doctorate level research in early mediaeval history so it is only expected that her debut work would incorporate her area of study along with her own experiences that show up as themes of possession and ownership in the book.

Historically, Elmet finds a mention in early Welsh poetry and the landscape in the book reminded me of the wonderful classic, ‘How green was my valley’ by Richard Llewellyn, that I had read years ago.

Review

Elmet starts with a run and a search across the country. It then backtracks into telling us the story of John, the fighter, usually on the other side of the law and his children, Cathy and her brother, Daniel, who is the narrator in the book.

John, the larger-than-life fighter, with a fearsome reputation brings his two children to the woods and builds a house for them all. They live on the fringes of the society, though the reason for that is never convincing. They are away from towns and away from people, fending for themselves. The children learn the skills that their father imparts. But, they run into trouble over the land that they occupy. A landlord intrudes upon their world and thus begins the fight to reclaim their home.

The family stays close through the tribulations and they fight for each other till the very end, even when all seems lost.

Elmet is more about the countryside and its beauty. It starts slow, casting a loving eye on the landscape. It is only after many many pages that the characters come into focus and we get a feel of their emotions and their perceptions. The pace stays languid and the conflict builds slow. Unexpectedly, in the last quarter, the book finds steam and chugs ahead.

What works well

Elmet is an unfamiliar setting of wild Yorkshire landscape, but the stranger it was, the more I sank into it, absorbing it all. I built their world in my head, seeing it clearly through narration.

The house that John builds with his own hands is described so lovingly.

“Waiting is what a true house is about. Making it ours, making it settle, pinning it and us to the seasons, to the months and to the years.”

I knew each crack in the walls of the house and the trees in the copse, even the one mutilated by the lamps at Christmas. They live near railway tracks, which are what Daniel follows as he goes for a search, through the book.

“We heard them often enough: the hum and ring of the passenger trains, the choke and gulp of the freight, passing by with their cargo tucked behind in painted metal tanks. They had timetables and intervals of their own, drawing growth rings around our house with each journey, ringing past us like prayer chimes.”

The central character, John is delineated very well and so is his daughter Cathy, who is his spitting image, in body and spirit. The child, Daniel, with his proclivity to Viviene and to learning and a warm home is drawn well. His longing for a motherly figure is touching. The scene where he spies on Viviene, her clothes and toilette, shows the guileless love and instinctive attraction to feminine things.

The physicality of the characters plays a strong role in marking them out. There is John, a veritable giant with calcified fingers and knuckles. Viviene has wide hips that Cathy hates, perhaps because it is an indication of what Cathy herself would become one day. As she enters her sixteenth year, Cathy becomes ungainly. She is not graceful any longer and the change in her physical appearance points to her volatile emotions. Daniel, living away from society and not having to conform to any rules for appearance and dress, has long hair, long nails, wearing midriff short tshirts, like a girl. It underlines his homely nature; he likes to keep a house comfortable.

The description of Elmet at the beginning, brought to my mind a place dark and forbidding. But the cover art is cheerful and uplifting.

What does not work so well

Elmet starts with a languid description and the setting is perfectly built. However the characters are brought on slowly and it is only after a while that we understand them and their emotions. The children are mere shadows in the beginning pages. It is when their grandmother dies and they keep a vigil, trusting no one but breaking down when their father arrives, is the place where the children acquire emotions and show vulnerability.

Many characters in the book are not explained at all. We never knew what troubles John so much or what is it that he should have told his children honestly. The children’s mother and her comings and goings, remains a mystery. At one point, Price is on the verge of talking more of her but Daniel changes his mind about asking about his mother and she stays relegated to the unknown. Viviene is another inexplicable character. A woman of the world, well traveled, with a wide knowledge of the sciences and the arts, she lives alone in the middle of nowhere. I could not make up my mind about her at all nor could I understand her disinterest and her motivations.

Many situations in the book are not seen through. The uprising of the serfs against their master had a promise that was never fulfilled. The theme of exploitation and class conflict stays underdeveloped.

The child Daniel, the narrator, grows up suddenly after his father’s desertion. This transition is a little abrupt. The 14 year old has a language that is beyond his years and his knowledge.

There is very little dialogue in the book. Elmet plods through a lot of description. And yet, inspite of everything, the few places when the characters do bare their souls, they bring forth truth which is incredibly beautiful.

Cathy says of her decisions and her actions,

“We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.”

The action is gripping only towards the end. Till then, it looks like a meditation on the place and a little about the characters’ daily lives.

There are so many ways in which I felt shortchanged and yet Elmet is like life and like people; flawed but beautiful in its imperfection.

Verdict

This debut novel about an inaccessible world, familial loyalty and the impact of unfettered violence on lives is beautifully written.
Read it for the brilliant language and for the joy of experiencing another world.

I am doing the 2017 Man Booker shortlisted book reviews in collaboration with Bloggeray from Musingsite. Read his excellent review here.

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Atonement: An Exquisite Panorama

The title ‘Atonement‘ and the back cover of the 2001 Ian McEwan book suggests an emotional journey, a wrenching coming-of-age tale, that starts from an incident and extends well beyond it in real life ramifications and in memory.

Widely regarded as one of Ian McEwan’s best works, it was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. In 2007, the book was adapted into a BAFTA and Academy Award-winning film of the same title.

A few pages into the book and I knew this was not going to be an ordinary, swift read. The language is lyrical so that to roll over the words quickly was to let go of mini impressions that make up the larger picture. There are tiny flickers of emotions that fit the pieces of the puzzle of how our minds perceive things.

Ian McEwan’s exquisite book starts in pre war England, when war is still far from public imagination. In an idyllic country house, the lives of the people living therein and visiting are about to change irrevocably through a short, nearly invisible incident; invisible and unnoticed by everyone except the budding 13 year old writer whose verdurous imagination leads her to think of things beyond her understanding.

Briony, the youngest in the household or nearly so, if we discount her cousins, the twins, and yet the pivotal figure whose (mis) understanding of the events that unfold before her lead her to act in ways that has a lasting impact on the people she loves. Years later, she comes to a complete realisation of her actions and her suppositions and sets out to put things right.

In Briony’s atonement, fate plays a part and the journey that begins in a country house pans across the second world war, bringing the horrors of the war to the reader, in stark contrast with the placid gardens of her house.

The story begins in England, in 1935. The events of one day in summer are set out. The cast comprises of Briony, the precocious 13 year old, who is on the threshold of adulthood and literary revelation, or so she feels. Her elder sister, Cecilia is home after graduation, soaking in the glorious summer heat and wondering what to do with her life. On the same estate is Robbie, recently graduated, like Cecilia and on the cusp of an exciting life ahead that is full of possibilities. Leon, the eldest son of the household is awaited eagerly by all that evening. He is to be accompanied by the business tycoon, Paul Marshall. To the household are added the unfortunate and confused nine year old twins and their scheming, attention-seeking older sister, Lola; escaping a broken home and sent to the country to find love and care. The father, Leon’s, Cecilia’s and Briony’s, is large in his absence and we come to know of him through his wife, Emily, who nurses her migraine and her thoughts in private; in darkened rooms, with a heightened sense of understanding and prescience.

The country house sees talent, love, passion, intrigue, resignation in equal measures in the span of a day. The day unfolds through different eyes. Every character is wrapped in his/her world, musing, wondering and the stream of consciousness narrative reminds me of ‘The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf. Briony, who till now has been penning down tales of love reunited, of valour and of an ideal world, stumbles upon the Stream of Consciousness way of narrative through her partial witnessing of the pivotal incidents of the day. The writer in her muses on this with a new set of eyes.

There is an undercurrent of joy in writing that Briony is aware of; she knows what stories do to her.

” ...writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization. A world could be made in five pages and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiler prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word-a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained.”

Briony is intense, with a depth of feeling that clarifies itself in her writings. She wonders,

Was everyone really as alive as she was?… everyones’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim in life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance.

This thought process then is in some measure a portent of what is to come. Everyone is at the center of his/her universe, and yet on the whole they are like anyone else, everyone else and their lives, the entire arc of their struggle and redemption pale into insignificance or irrelevance in the bigger picture; when a measure of a life well lived is taken; when Briony in her old age is surrounded by family and the entire lifetimes are rattled off in a matter of sentences.

Part of the reason for Briony’s confusion on the fateful day is the inability to reconcile her feelings. She struggles with a ‘chaotic swarm of impressions’, the complexity of which convinces her that she is entering an ‘arena of adult emotion.’ Briony is a writer, first and foremost and she longs to set down the emotions on paper.

What she wanted was to be lost to the unfolding of an irresistible idea, to see the black thread spooling out from the end of her scratchy silver nib and coiling into words.”

We understand, then, as to what prompted Briony to act the way she did. Emily, Briony’s mother, has a depth of understanding in the workings of the human mind. Her stoicism and acceptance of her husband’s absence, literally and figuratively and her knowledge of old age, when he would return to her for a companionable life is striking. All the more striking is her very real weakness when it comes to Lola and her vulnerability. Emily is shrewd enough to see her sister Hermione in Lola and that prevents her from complete love and attention towards her sister’s children. Emily as a mother, for that is what she is now, is wondrous. She thinks of Leon’s ‘diminishing prospects’ with a sense of clarity. Of Cecilia, Emily is dismayed that she is disappointed with her academic performance. Emily muses that Cecilia

had no job or skill and still had a husband to find and motherhood to confront.”

Thinking about Briony, Emily regrets the

passing of an age of eloquence.

Already, Emily knows that her youngest is at the threshold of adulthood, struggling out of the mould of innocent, garrulous childhood. And yet, for all her understanding, Emily bows down to her prejudices when she is at the helm of decisions regarding the indictment of someone she has known for long years.

The fateful day full of unexpected events is spent, and for everyone involved, their lives change forever. The lull, the idyllic gives way to the ugly and the unexpected and soon the story moves to the battlefields of the second world war and to the weary trudge of the retreating British army through the French countryside. The horrors of the war as seen from a soldier’s eyes are presented; the disillusionment and the weariness that hides the vestiges of strength and courage. Death and terror, through Stuka attacks are so minutely described that I can visualise them to the last detail and feel the terror.

Superimposed on the war is love. War seems all encompassing; with wide swathes it takes in everything, destroying all in its wake. Love, private, ‘a lonely preoccupation’, flickers tentatively, feeding on memories and little stolen encounters, on words and on simple phrases that were uttered, on the dreams of a future and the urgency of love to uphold itself, high above the mundane. There is a tender pain of reunions, of things that might be and the wonder if the ideals of love would supercede the bleak realism of war and of life itself.

In the next part of the book, we come back to Briony’s viewpoint and her life choices. She has enrolled to be a nurse, to contribute to the war effort and to atone for her actions that fateful day when everything changed as per her thoughts and understanding. Her experiences with the sick and the dying are visceral and it shows another side of the war.

The book ends in present day England. The past is seen through Briony’s eyes, her relatives making up the carousel; the here-and-now described in delicate detail-the ordinary detail that makes up our lives; the near future, the projected and the expected turn of events described with a sense of resignation and stoicism to the wheel of existence. What captures us here are the stories within the story, the long awaited screening of Arabella, an allusion to other works of Briony and her masterpiece that has been written but that needs an opportune time for publication.

Atonement is a brilliant narrative of love, war, life. It is characterized by different hues and imagery that is both abstract and stark.

8 things that happen when you like to read a lot

Reading a lot of books is fun for me. I don’t belong to any book club, nor is there a reading group that meets and discusses books. I talk about the books I read, on my blog but not to show off, as in a social gathering. I don’t have book reading goals for the year or for the month. I read because I want to, because I love the activity. I don’t read to imbibe knowledge, though that is a side effect. I read because it is like breathing.

So, this listicle is dedicated to all my ‘breathing as in reading’ friends who know exactly what I am talking about when I talk of books.

A few things that I found out are:

1. It is possible to finish a thickish book in a few hours. The only thing is to do nothing else, stick to the book even through the daily chores. I personally don’t even look into my plate while eating, all my attention reserved only for my book.

2. Which reminds me of snacks that are a must for munching on for reading requires sustenance. Use only non oily, non dripy snacks that don’t spoil the pages of the books that you are reading. Oh yes, I still read the physical books as you all do.

3. Use the Pomodoro technique to up your productivity. It basically means to read for 25 minutes and look around the room/garden for 5 minutes to rest your eyes.

4. Reading borrowed books can be distracting especially when the owner has underlined a lot and put many notes in the margins. I remember reading a gem of a book but I could barely follow the story for I kept reading the notes and the various cryptic symbols that the book owner had put.

5. If there is a book you have not been able to read or feel reluctant to pick up, offer to lend it to your friend. It would be better if your friend takes up the offer for that would be the time that you would yearn to read that previously neglected book.

6. Dogeared pages and broken spines look attractive because it shows how much you love your books.

7. Bookshelves should have a magical quality of self expansion for the book piles grow exponentially with time.

8. No matter how many books you own and how much you regularly spend money on them; a bargain in a second hand book shop feels exhilarating.

Do share your books related snippets!

Deceived : A Book Review 



Title : Deceived 

Author : Heena Rathore P. 

Genre : Crime Thriller, Psychological Thriller 

Publisher : Citrus Publishers 
Disclaimer : I got an ARC of the book from the publishers. 

Summary 

Allison Stone, a young writer, wants to carve out an independent life for herself that has a semblance of normalcy. She is trying to recover from the trauma of a murdered mother and brother in her teen years. With her loyal German Shepherd by her side and a doting boyfriend she is moving in with, Allison wants to start over again and put the past behind her. 

Danny, the ambitious journalist, moves to the town of Dewar to investigate the killings of Allison’s family members and many other murders spanning over decades, that disturbingly seem to be falling into a pattern of serial killings. 

And all the while, Allison is trying to settle into a normal life, a psychopath has Allison in his sight, stalking her for a fate more horrendous than she has gone through. 

Review 

This suspenseful thriller explores the darkest of human emotions, the unpredictability of people and the depths that they can stoop to, propelled by their dark motivations. It underlines the fact that sometimes we don’t completely know the people we are close to. 

The characters in the book are diverse. There is a girl struggling to cope with the murders of her mother and her young brother. There is a journalist trying to chase a potential serial killer. These people have strong unforeseeable ties with a 13 year old girl who slaughtered her parents and a psychopath out to take revenge. The details of the lives of the protagonists and the the supporting characters adds flavour to the broth that is being stewed. 

I read this excellent crime thriller on a long train journey. As the landscape flew past, so did I turn the pages; so thrilling is the book. I had a wonderful time reading this debut novel even though at no point did it read like a first book. Heena is a master storyteller, narrating an arresting story spanning decades and families. 

She uses the contrasting PoVs to move the action forward. It is not a chronological telling of the horror that unfolds ; rather the story jumps back and forth and the pieces fall into place, as the action builds up. 

The book talks of the deviants of the society, the sociopaths and the psychopaths, here in the book, living in the woods or on the edge of the town. 

The killer is profiled rather well and his motivations are well researched and credible. 

The book is open ended and a few things are left unanswered although most of the threads are tied up neatly. 

What’s Good 

This is one book which is complete in the horror it induces and yet it has all the makings of a series. 

I do wish that the author decides to pick up the few threads that have been left dangling tantalizingly and write the next part. 

The book starts with a talk about psychopaths and sociopaths. This introduces the reader to what is to come. Michael’s journal entries take these forward by quoting notorious psychopaths and sociopaths. It adds an interesting angle to the story. 

The story unfolds through the Points of View of the characters and through a bunch of journal entries of the mysterious Michael. The quotes of various psychopaths lends a sinister feeling to the initial, normal, happy-in-love scenario. The characters seem to be having ordinary lives, but the horror is just beneath the surface, waiting to erupt. 

Most characters are well developed, a few with much clarity. Allison and Elizabeth are way different from the watch man at the law firm and yet they are all divested with an equal amount of detail. 

Heena’s writing style is very good. It has a great flow. The dialogues are pithy and move the story forward very well. The pacing of the story is excellent and the action builds up to the crescendo of the climax very well. 

The thrill factor of the book is good. Apart from the gruesome murders, there is an element of stalking and mysterious incidents around the protagonist, Allison that build up the suspense and the horror to a well thought out climax. 

What’s Not 

The book is well researched and the story is told extremely well but some characters and situations are a little fuzzy, like the mysterious voodoo practitioner or even Allison’s father, who otherwise is a pivotal character in the story. 

There is Phil, who is mentioned briefly but whom no one seems to want to trace after the double murders, in spite of the fact that he could hold the key to the mystery. 

There is a philandering wife and mother who seems to be having an affair just so that her murder can be explained away till the real murderer is unmasked and that too literally. 

In an attempt to leave a trail of false clues for the reader, a few situations and incidents are hatched that are not explained clearly through. 

Again, I feel these situations and characters can be well developed if there is a sequel. 

The setting of the book is the quiet town of Dewar, an unassuming place with an inefficient police force that has been unable to resolve or even follow the leads in the murders that happen with surprising regularity. This seems a little incredulous. 

Also, the introduction of Steve coming from outside to investigate the murders sounds a little far fetched. His attempts at investigative journalism look a little juvenile. He reaches conclusions without much reasoning and he naively assumes that confronting people who could be prime suspects would help him solve the murders. 

The book has a very contemporary feel. The characters are smart, going through the motions of their routines. There is just too much detail on who eats what and what meetings are lined up for the day. All this does not give a feel of the place, only of the lives of the characters. Though, to be fair, the woods at the edge of the town and the placid lake behind the mansion are excellent settings in their own right. 

There is something about the names of the characters that make the story slightly confusing. Although the characters are fleshed out well, there are pairs of names that are very similar sounding. There are Steve and Stephen, Ellie and Allie for Elizabeth and Allison, Danny and Donny, because of whom I sometimes stumbled a little in the story. 

Verdict 

A perfect psychological thriller, a compulsive page turner, a goose bump inducing racy read, Deceived is deservingly bone chilling. 

I rate this book four stars 🌠🌠🌠🌠 

Journey is My Path – A Book Review

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“The Universe is made of stories….”
Muriel Rukeyser

A book is as much a tapestry of words, as it is a narrative. And when a narrative takes the reader on a journey in search of answers that he can relate to, it becomes a hard-to-put-down story. ‘Journey is my Path’ is that story at the very least and at its best, it waxes eloquent as a tale of the modern times, the struggle of an individual trying to seek meaning in life.

The story talks only of ‘he’, the unnamed protagonist. He is born in a typical Indian middle class family, and from here the story of a person, trapped in the societal norms and expectations begins. The child turns to boy and thus he finds career and life choices waiting to be made. Things get complex as his life progresses and the reader moves with him from confusion to decision, apprehension to confidence. Along the way, he starts exploring his passion and finds himself through pushing his boundaries.

The telling of the tale is lyrical in its simplicity but at times I almost wished it to be a memoir; for a hide and seek of events and characters. The places the protagonist travels to are very interesting, yet I wanted it not to be in a chronological order so that as a reader, I could move from place to place without really knowing which gem he would stumble on.

I also wished that the book was peopled with diverse characters. There are many who cross his path and one almost longs to have a conversation with those who influenced his life.

The chronicle of the journey, literal and symbolic, is inspired by the writer’s own travel experiences and is heartbreakingly candid at places. Without breaking pace, it moves to a revelation that echoes the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell in saying that it is the person who brings meaning to life.
“Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” Joseph Campbell.

A very good read and a riveting tale.

Trablogger is an indie author and the book is available on amazon as an ebook. For paperback lovers, the book can be ordered through the author’s website.

Possessions

Five Photos, Five Stories- Day Two

I would like to thank Umber for inviting me to share my photos and my stories.

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Possessions? Clutter?

My books are my most cherished possession. All through my childhood, they were the first to be plucked off the shelves and packed, whenever we were to move. I painstakingly put them in piles as per their size, wrapped them in multiple newspaper sheets and bound the piles with twine. Then, they were left around for others to take inspiration to pack, and as a constant reminder of the inevitable move.

Today, I have much more that I would like to pack first, as many things vie for the coveted possessions tag in my mind. I would like to pack the photographs first of all, all the framed memories scattered around the house. I am aware that in my mind, I have come to cherish moments and memories just as much.

But, over the years as I amass more ‘stuff’, I am increasingly forced to confront whether I own my things or do they own me? Are my cherished things contributing to clutter? I am not a hoarder, yet there is so much in my house that I cannot part with. Things that signify pieces of me at various stages of my life. What must it be to be free of our physical possessions, using them as we need, rather than having them as a crutch to validate our purpose and existence?

The Five Photos, Five Stories Challenge rules require you to post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or nonfiction, a poem or simply a short paragraph-it is entirely up to you.

Then each day, invite another blogger to carry on the challenge.

Today, I throw this challenge open to all my blogger friends. Try it, it is great fun!

Friday Listicles: Top 5 Literary Fixes

Being a voracious reader, I like to read book after book, with scarce a pause in between. I can be reading up to three different books at a time. When I am full of one, or overwhelmed with the thought thread in another, I only have to turn to yet another. Good books nourish the soul.  But there are times when I need some mindless reading, or something that is not too much effort but is good reading. I call such reads my literary fixes as they fill the gap in my reading and they are light and pleasant.

The Top 5 Literary Fixes

Re reading Classics
Classics are considered ‘heavy stuff’, with archaic language and difficult to follow plot line. Yet, there is nothing more comforting for me to turn to the familiar characters I have grown up with (I started reading classics at a very young age and had read many of them by the time I finished school) and relive their lives, struggles and emotions. I go down the familiar lanes, see the landscapes once again and wander the mansions. It is something I cannot do in real life, for people and places change every time I blink.

Western Novels
The wild, wild west attracts me like nothing else and because the uncertain, danger ridden, pistol toting, knife wielding characters always live on the edge, it is a perfect antidote to my staid lifestyle. Any time, I pick up a Louis L’Amour book and follow the protagonist across the deserts or on mountain trails, I come back rejuvenated.

Travel Literature
The Lonely Planet magazines are my best friend. They are always perched on my shelf just within reach. I pore over the articles and the magnificent photographs and sigh and dream. Well, some day….

Romance
The girl is lovely, simple, sincere and the guy is rich, arrogant and seemingly too good for her. Yet, ‘feelings’ develop and they inch towards a commitment. The key words are ‘simple’, ‘feelings’ and ‘inch’. These are the features of the romance novels I like. Yes, Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer…. They are old world and so am I. But, sometimes, books like Twilight seem too interesting and… delicious!

Good Housekeeping
This is the last but definitely not the least. Any time, I am fed up of the chores, the endless running about, the loooong list of things to be accomplished, I plonk down in a comfortable chair and check out the online version of Good Housekeeping magazine. The pristine houses and beauty of living spaces makes me forget my own shabby surroundings, badly in need of dusting. In my mind, I an repainting the kitchen cabinets a gorgeous red and getting the perfect floral centerpiece.

I would love to hear from you, my readers, about your literary fixes.