Book No 3 (2016) : The Visitors

The VisitorsWhen I was a child, I was fascinated by the life of Helen Keller, an American deafblind woman whose world was transformed by the patience and techniques of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan literally unlocked Helen’s world, enabling her pupil to flourish: Keller was the first deafblind person to achieve a BA and she went on to become a renowned author. It is an amazing story.

Rebecca Mascull’s ‘The Visitors‘ deals with a similar theme, as Adeliza (Liza) Golding is trapped in a world of blackness and silence. She can see something, but the vague apparitions seem somehow unrelated to Liza’s daily struggles. Her life changes when her father engages Lottie, a hop-picker, to help draw his daughter out of her lonely world. Using simple sign language initially, Lottie gives Liza the tools to communicate.

What is particularly clever about Mascull’s writing is the way in which the construct and complexity of the narrative develop in line with Liza’s gradual acquisition of  language. The reader goes with her on a journey into an ever-expanding world, leading Liza eventually to the Boer War. Her evolution from a frustrated, lonely young child into a self-assured but, more importantly, equal young woman, is an inspiring read.

Song of the Sea Maid‘ by the same author was one of my favourite books of last year. I was impressed by the strong female characters, the historical detail and unusual plot and it was the same with ‘The Visitors‘. This novel actually has some roots in Mascull’s own family background. I don’t think Becca Mascull gets the exposure she deserves – I rate her alongside Tracy Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. Certainly worth a try if you like your historical fiction with a twist!

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Book No 2 (2016) : Our Endless Numbered Days

endless numbered daysBy coincidence, the first two books I have read this year have centred upon people living in little huts. But whereas Guy Grieve’s Alaskan abode was real, Clare Fuller’s ‘die Hütte’ is imaginary. And very creepy.

Peggy’s father is a survivalist. He and his fellow North London Retreaters plan to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. In preparation for this existence, James trains his daughter in essential techniques: they camp out in the garden, eating squirrels, foraging for food and sleeping in a shelter. Peggy’s mother, Ute, is often away from home due to her career as a concert pianist, but James is not too lonely because he has a friend, Oliver. Although unusual, Peggy’s existence is tolerable. But that all changes when her father says he is taking her away to ‘die Hütte’. Deep in the forest, the hut is totally isolated. Then, not long after they arrive, James’ prophesies come true and the rest of the world is destroyed. James and Peggy are the only people left and they have to survive in die Hütte.

Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ examines what happens when the extreme behaviour of an unstable parent goes unchecked and a child’s unquestioning trust in a father is betrayed. This novel is deeply unsettling.

I am always honest in my reviews, even when I am swimming against the tide of popular opinion and, in this case, the judges of the Desmond Elliott Prize (the novel won this prestigious prize for new fiction last year). For me, the balance between ambiguity about James’ motives and behaviour as Peggy matures into a young woman, and exploration of his actual actions, was not quite right. I like to have something to think about when a novel ends, but this just left me feeling frustrated! However, this aspect of the writing means that ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ would be a great choice for a book club, there is so much to talk about.

Book No 1 (2016) : Call of the Wild

Call of the WildTo celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I stayed in The Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh. It used to be the head office of the eponymous Scottish daily newspaper. And the connection with Guy Grieve’s autobiographical book ‘Call of the Wild‘ is….? Well, Grieve was working as the Head of Strategic Marketing at the paper, but becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the daily grind. Although happily married with a young son, he yearned for freedom, open spaces. Having formulated a plan to travel to Alaska where he would build a cabin, then live in it for the winter, Guy approached his boss. Grieve told Iain Martin he was quitting his job, and wondered whether the Editor would be willing to commission a regular column from him. Despite thinking the plan a little more than foolhardy, the hack agreed. And the rest, as they say, is history. Soon, the adventurer had landed at Galena, a tiny village on the Yukon.

After some difficulties with locating a suitable plot, but with the help of some local contacts, Grieve finally started work on constructing his cabin. Now my DIY skills are to all intents and purposes, non-existent: I famously axed my hand whilst taking my Girl Guide Camping Permit and a bow saw is about as much use to me as bicycle is to a fish. So I was surprised to discover myself enthralled by the author’s descriptions of the actual building of his winter home. Felling and moving trees, cutting logs and piecing them together like a massive 3D jigsaw, I could visualise the whole process. What Grieve had to accomplish in order to survive, his encounters with wildlife, descriptions of the Yukon and mastering a husky team, are  all fascinating

Grieve writes with a clarity and self-deprecating humour which I found enchanting. He says himself that he survived his time in Alaska largely due to humility, and this comes across so clearly. Although determined and focused, Guy acknowledges his limitations, accepts help gratefully and is unself-conscious about his feelings of despair and loneliness, as well as the more uplifting times. This insight, combined with the unlikely subject matter, makes this an absorbing read.

Actually, this book has acquired something of a mythical status in our house. It is the only book, other than Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Shadow‘, that my now 14-year old son has ever read voluntarily. As the parents of reluctant teenage readers will attest, ‘Call of the Wild‘ needs no other endorsement.