Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.’ He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. ‘Our days will be endless’

Our Endless Numbered Days was something a little different for my reading list and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I ended up reading it mostly in two sittings, completely immersed in Claire Fuller’s vivid prose and the way the narrative alternates between time-frames (the time spent in the forest, and the time after the return to civilisation).

Fuller weaves elements of the post-apocalyptic, the pastoral (hence the comparisons with Walden and Donoghue’s Room) and even suspenseful/psychological horror into her literary fiction, which she based on the ‘true’ life story of Robin van Helsum (a Dutch boy who claimed to have survived in a German forest with his father for 5 years). It’s a fascinating and mysterious premise which Fuller builds upon in an intriguing way, laying clues and lulling the reader into a false sense of security of ‘knowing’ what’s going to happen, or feeling as if they have predicted it (I felt the twists coming but their effect was in no way diminished). Instead, she has you, the reader, firmly where she wants you – right to the end.

It is Peggy’s father, James, who whisks her away to a hut (die Hütte) in the middle of a forest to begin a new life, away from civilisation. Initially he tells her that her mother, Ute, has died in a car crash while on tour; and then that civilisation itself has ended, and they are the only people left alive. The book's timeline begins in the 70s, depicting the ill-suited marriage of her mother and father and his involvement with a group of Survivalists who discuss methods for surviving the end of the world (amidst the historical context of the Cold War and the potential of nuclear catastrophe).  

‘They were members of the North London Retreaters. Every month they met at our house, arguing and discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world’

We know it takes Peggy nine years to return to her family – her mother, very much alive, and a brother she never knew she had - but we do not know just how much she has been changed or quite exactly what really happened in those woods until the end. She is by no means a reliable narrator, spending the formative years of her life alone in the woods with her increasingly unstable father. We become immersed in the experience of life in die Hütte, as young Peggy narrates it, delighting in the practical and the gritty aspects of survival – the skinning of squirrels, the hardships of winter, the descent of her father into madness and the possibility that they are not alone in those woods.

‘My father dropped a pile of foreign coins in her leathery palm and we hurried away. I had no idea this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years. Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and tucked my knees around one of her stout legs. Stuck fast, like a limpet or a Siamese twin, I would have been carried with her when she rose in the morning to milk the cow, or into her kitchen to stir the porridge. If I had known, I might never have let her go'

In die Hütte, Peggy and her father construct a makeshift/imitation piano and music becomes both a way to stay sane and a measure of the descent into insanity.

‘If there was anyone else out there in all that blackness, a solitary note might flit through infinity and land on a shoulder to find its way inside that person’s head.’

Physically, Peggy becomes a young woman over those years and yet she is stuck in a state of timelessness, a feral unreality with a father who is so consumed by grief that he even sometimes confuses her identity.

The majority of the book is spent in the forest with Peggy and her father, and it is those sections you’ll want to re-read carefully come the end of the book. As a reader, you also enter a sense of timelessness as you read those years, so the change of pace and canter towards the ending is all the more startling and abrupt, leaving you with plenty to think about. A period of 8-9 years of daily, ritual survival in such a claustrophobic setting and without a concept of time or end-goal, could have been a challenge to read. But the sections in the forest do not lag because of the rich and vivid language and the interesting dynamic the two characters have with each other, themselves, and the world around them.

I found one moment particularly poignant and illuminative – where Peggy’s father tells her a bedtime story with her as the protagonist:

‘She heard the people of the world fighting with each other … they couldn’t live together happily. They lied to each other and when people do that, in the end, the world they have built will always come tumbling down. Punzel hated hearing the people of the world lie and argue. But one day she woke to find that the angry planet was silent; all she could hear was the sound of her father chopping wood for the stove and the animals asking her to come out to play. And Punzel was the happiest girl in the world.

Although he makes his daughter the protagonist, this says so much about James and whether he can be truly empathised or sympathised with. For him, there was a kind of apocalypse, one that destroyed everything he believed and made him renounce his faith in the world and the company of others. The book is also his tragedy, and the tragedy of a relationship/relationships gone wrong.

In a way, I would have been curious to continue to see what happened next – how Peggy recovers and assimilates back into everyday existence – whether she can get her grip back on reality or if the effects and beliefs of those years have left her with psychological scars that run too deep. Fuller’s chosen ending nevertheless allows your imagination to run wild, encouraging you to think more deeply about what has gone on, and it certainly packs an emotional and psychological punch. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: 'Reasons To Stay Alive' by Matt Haig

First - I very almost cried in public when I heard the news about Terry Pratchett's death. He was one of my favourite authors in my childhood. He was remarkable - from his open discussions about death and Alzheimer's and Assisted Dying, to his witty, imaginative and profound fantasy fiction with the Discworld series. He was a brilliant mind and human being who brought joy to so many. My thoughts are with all those who knew him and others suffering from Alzheimer's. 

One of the greatest fantasy authors of all time

- “‘I meant,’ said Ipslore bitterly, ‘What is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?” Death thought about it. Cats, he said eventually. Cats are nice.” 

- 'Goodness is about what you do. Not what you pray to.'

The Death of Rats looked up from the feast of potato.
SQUEAK, he said.
Death waved a hand dismissively. WELL, YES, OBVIOUSLY ME, he said. I JUST WONDERED IF THERE WAS ANYONE ELSE' 

Secondly -

Following on from a post I did a month or two ago about The Humans, this is a post to honour Matt Haig and his brave and touching new book - part memoir, part self-help, part a-few-hours-in-the-mind-of-Haig. 

It chronicles the period in his twenties when, living in Ibiza, he came closest to attempting suicide, and reflects on his life before and after. Haig writes brilliantly - he has become one of my favourite contemporary authors, so this book is immensely readable - it is not a slog in any way (each section is only a couple of pages) and is full of light and hope and is tinged with his own brand of perceptive humour (always reminds me of Douglas Adams). I think this book is essential reading for ANYONE - for modern LIFE. It's very well balanced (Haig's use of listing is in itself a kind of literary trope) and it became a bestseller almost immediately. That a well-written book about mental health became a bestseller in its first week is testament to Haig's ability to capture an audience and to engage resonate with individuals of all ages - which he does brilliantly on Twitter too. 

I've included some extracts of my favourite parts - I have read widely on this subject, it features in some of my favourite novels and I know many who suffer. Hopefully this book will help people open up about their experiences and things they feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about and will help others understand how to help and how to just be there for someone with depression - and not to quit when it gets hard.

Depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.
The thing to take from this first page is that, if you can, challenge every automatic thought you have - patterns and habits that you believe are the truth. Haig later writes: 'The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept the thoughts, but don't become them.'

'If someone loves you, let them'. That is a lot harder than it sounds for many. It can be so difficult to love someone who does not love themselves but if you help each other through then it can be so rewarding and create a much stronger and more intimate bond. There will be lows, and moments when you may feel like there's nothing you can do or that the person is attacking you for no reason, but understand that their vision may be impaired in that moment and they just need you to stay. It will be worth it (if they become abusive, that's another story. Obviously a situational approach is important). 

'Trees are great'. Obviously this resonated with me. Trees are awesome. Live among the trees. Also, cats. 

Anyone who quotes Camus is guaranteed a place in my heart. But seriously, both options can be equally terrifying - and that is when stasis and paralysis take hold. 

The existential horrors can make you feel alienated - like you're the only one able to see clearly and you want to wake everyone else up - stop them on their way into work, talk through the meaning of everything etc. But Haig also reminds us of the improbability of life - the minuscule chance that any one of us had of being the sperm that made it, the way our genes aligned precisely in order to make us as we are and it's big and scary and random and comforting all at the same time. 

'A physical body is a universe in itself'. We simplify far too much and are only beginning to scrape the surface of everything that a human is, particularly in relation to neuroscience.

Haig's symptoms.

Being hyper-sensitive can feel like a curse but it is also a gift and if you channel it positively - it can fuel creativity and innovation. You can access emotions and thoughts that others may not be open to. You can raise awareness and make brilliant art and see the world in different ways.

'Maybe love is just about finding the person you can be your weird self with'

Haig caters for all affected - which is also part of what makes this book great. One, Four and Six are absolutely crucial to remember, especially if you are in a relationship where it's just the two of you. 

Books are a chance to communicate on your own wavelength and it can be the greatest relief. Read, read widely, listen to music, seek out the things that make you feel heard and valued and safe. Challenge yourself when you can but never punish yourself. Books and art are the only real way we have of truly communicating with our minds - to truly reach the inner life of another human being. 

This is an important text to have on your bookshelf - you never know when you may need it - the chances are you or someone you know will experience depression or something similar during your lives and even if you don't, knowing about it and the way our mind works is still important, especially in a rapidly changing/evolving world (see Haig has done something very important and I am looking forward to reading more from him in the future. I definitely recommend his novels as well! Let me know what you think and maybe some of your favourite reads on the same subject. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why You Should Read 'The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender' (aka You Should Read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender)

People of earth. Human folk. Read this book. 

You will thank me forever. It will make you feel wonder and sorrow and joy and you will get that quiet/screaming/aching feeling that only the best writers can induce. 

1. This is not a children’s book. I can only just about understand its classification as YA - it's just too reductive to make it into a high-school metaphor for 'fitting in'. I think anyone who doesn’t come across or read this because of those genre classifications is missing out.

2. For me, quality-wise, this holds its own with the literary summits of Magical Realism (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight's Children etc.) Obviously it is different in many ways, but it would comfortably sit alongside these on a bookshelf.

3. This book surprised and surprised me again - it was so unexpected and so very welcome. Ava Lavender is narrator and protagonist, in theory, but she does not take centre stage till the end. She is born with the wings of a bird, wings she seeks to hide under a cloak - afraid of being judged. In every other way she is just a girl, a girl with a very interesting and unconventional family.

4. I was equally engaged with the stories of each and every family member - the generations before her. Emilienne and Viviane particularly spoke to me (esp. the latter) - I felt so much for them and became so invested in their lives. It's not often in these 'generational sagas' that I can recall each generation or remain invested in them.

5. Leslye Walton unfolds it all so carefully and poetically that it tugs at your heart the whole way through - and not in any sappy, overbearing or sentimental way. You're explicitly being told a story, and yet nothing feels forced. It's like it's unravelling itself organically. The emotion is subtle and wrapped in the beautiful language and expressions. 

6. One reviewer perfectly expressed it – this story isn’t ‘sanitised’ for a 'fragile' audience (not a children's book). It was shocking, tragic, dark and traumatic in parts, but full of love of all kinds, in all its broken forms and all its best. It’s a fable and fairytale that rings with eternal truths. 

7. It’s full of broken, scarred people – love's victims. People who had to overcome great odds. People who lost in love but continued and found meaning. Some of the best people.

8. I want to write so much - about Viviane Lavender and Jack Griffith and Gabe and Emilienne and Rowe and Henry and the bakery... about broken promises and regrets and friendship and family... but I just can’t divulge too much because you need to experience it as I did. I don’t even want to say what themes there are because I want you to be as stunned and grateful as I was. I don’t want to rob you of any measure of the experience. 

Instead, I will leave you just with some snippets of Leslye Walton’s magic.

- The bird-watcher never noticed Pierette’s drastic attempt at gaining his affection and instead moved to Louisiana, drawn by its large population of Pelecanus occidentalis. Which only goes to show, some sacrifices aren’t worth the cost. Even, or perhaps most especially, those made out love. 14

- If the past had taught her anything, it was that as long as she didn’t love someone, he wasn’t as likely to die or disappear 29

- By this point Viviane Lavender had loved Jack Griffith for twelve years, which was far more than half of her life. If she thought of her love as a commodity, and were, say, to eat it, it would fill 4,745 cherry pies. If she were to preserve it, she would need 23,725 glass jars and labels and a basement spanning the length of Pinnacle Lane. If she were to drink it, she’d drown. 107

- I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would. 173

- And that might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.” 177

 - But while the thought of being dead seemed appealing, the actual act of dying did not. Dying required too much action. And if recent events proved anything, my body wasn’t going to give over to death without a fierce fight; so if I were to kill myself, I’d have to make sure I could do it. That I’d be good and dead once it was all over and not mutilated or half deranged but still dreadfully alive. 287