Book No 1 (2018) : God’s Own Country

God's own Country4th day of the year and I’ve got one book under my belt already. I feel this is a good omen given my shocking performance in 2017, when I read a fair amount but failed miserably when it came to writing up reviews. In 2018 I resolve to do better and repeat the success of 2015 when I did manage to read 50 books in 52 weeks.

Here goes with Ross Raisin’s shortlisted-for-nine-awards novel. One of the things I liked especially about this book is the serendipitous match between the mustard and black image on the cover and the outfit I wore on the plane when I started reading. But, I digress…

The narrator and protagonist of ‘God’s Own Country’ is Sam Marsdyke, nick-named Lankenstein by the classmates who bullied him. He gets bullied at the end of the book as well, when he has been imprisoned for a crime which the reader sees him commit. Sam spends his days working his parents’ farm in the Yorkshire Dales, and he seems to have acquired a fair amount of expertise in working with sheep, driving the tractor, looking after a litter of sheepdog puppies. He’s a loner though, often found wandering the countryside, mocking the ‘towns’ who spend their weekends rambling and hill-walking.

When a family of Londoners moves into the farm just below the Marsdyke’s, Sam is immediately taken with their 15-year old daughter. The pair strike up an awkward friendship when the girl (Sam never calls her by her name) starts playing truant from school.  When truanting escalates to a plan to run away from home, Josephine (we find out her name much later) enlists Sam’s help.

The book has an air of menace and suspense throughout, as the reader has a strong sense that Sam Marsdyke is dangerous and unpredictable. He was accused of a sexual assault on a young woman, and he sneaks about. Clearly incapable of interacting meaningfully with others, he seems to vibrate with barely suppressed fury. When the two runaway’s escapade begins to turn sour and Sam is unable to communicate with his young ally, there is a frightening downturn of events.

Although not billed as a thriller, this is nevertheless a thrilling book, with a character who has loitered around in my mind ever since I finished reading. With its clever characterisation, eye-poppingly descriptive local language and strong sense of place, I think it would make a great A-level set text. Although I’m aware that is hardly a recommendation!

A good start to the year.

 

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.