A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins

I’ve just read A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins. A successful journalist and documentary filmmaker, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for a tax fraud he became involved in when looking for ways to finance a project. As someone used to documenting events he kept a detailed diary about his time in Wandsworth. It’s an interesting look at what life “inside” is like. While the tabloid headlines continue to scream about “lags” living it up at the tax payer’s expense in “holiday camp” prisons, Atkins calmly pulls back the curtain and exposes the reality of how this country treats its prisoners.

Nothing I read was news to me because I work in a prison library in an open prison (which Atkins describes as being “like the Ritz in comparison”) and often prisoners tell me their stories; what they did, which prison they have been in and the things they’ve seen. Atkins worked the system as best he could, acknowledging that as a white, middle class, well-educated man he had many advantages most prisoners don’t. He quickly got himself on the “best” wing. He volunteered as a Listener – a prisoner trained by the Samaritans to provide assistance to other prisoners in crisis. He met with many desperate people, most of whom have mental health issues which make them incapable of the kind of conformity the prison regime demands. They are punished rather than treated. Men are locked up 23 hours a day. The ideal of rehabilitation via education, health and work followed by appropriate resettlement is unavailable. Teachers stand in empty classrooms because there aren’t enough officers to unlock the men. Healthcare appointments are missed for the same reason. 

I smiled at the publishing blurb which asks “Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes?” One evening at work a prisoner asked me to photocopy something for him and to my surprise offered me a tin of tuna as an incentive. It was only when I mentioned it to one of the men who worked with me in the library I discovered it’s prison currency. It’s that familiarity with the narrative that made this book perhaps slightly less engaging to me as so much of it was like conversations I regularly have, however, I think anyone curious about what it’s like to be in prison will find this book fascinating. It’s important stuff too. Atkins balances darkness and desperation with much-needed humour through anecdotes and encounters with prisoners and officers. There’s camaraderie too; that essential and often unlikely bond between people in similar situations. And also, the heartbreak of being away from his young son. Every time someone is imprisoned there are other people who suffer; family and friends – the impact on children is huge. 

Prison reform is a tough subject because the public is resistant to spending money on those who commit crime. Why make life easier for people who have done the wrong thing? It comes way down on the wish list when you consider how all of our services are so stretched and underfunded. Who would choose funding prisons over education, healthcare, adult services etc? It’s no election winner. Atkins suggests most reasonable people agree everyone should be treated with at least minimum standards of decency and care, but for the throw away the key brigade he employs unarguable statistics: “Britain has the worst reoffending rate in Europe with 48% of ex-prisoners being reconvicted within one year of release. The cost of reoffending alone is estimated at £15 billion, more than three times the entire prison budget.” Atkins ends the book with his suggestions for improvement which are pretty compelling. For more information please look at the Prison Reform Trust which does sterling work in this field.

I do want to end by saying I have come across many people who work in prisons who are absolutely motivated to support and rehabilitate people so they leave prison in a better position than they went in. Breaking the cycle of offending is what we all want, surely? 

A review of Three Women and Educated

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction recently and both Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Educated by Tara Westover are interesting. (Very different books that I’m only squishing together because I’ve been meaning to pop reviews of them up for ages.)

Three Women is a book I guzzled down. This is a non-fiction exploration of three women’s very different sex lives. Taddeo followed each of them (and others, I believe, although only these three made the final book) for 8 years and crafted their stories into a gloriously readable narrative. Lina is in a sexless marriage and still in love with her high school sweetheart. She begins an affair with him (although affair seems to suggest more than the few quick encounters they have) and the way she romanticises the relationship is heartbreaking. Maggie had sex with her school teacher and thought they were in love. Sloane is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men. Taddeo has a novelistic approach, for instance, describing Lina revealing the affair to some women friends,

“The women are pitched forward, like soup tureens in an earthquake. Their chins are on the heels of their hands, and they are eating mixed nuts nervously.
Oh my, says Cathy. That sounds like quite a man, and a real love affair.
How did it end? someone asks, because women are often better at handling the endings than the beginnings. Lina understands that some women, like her mother and her sisters, truly care for another woman only when that woman is in pain, especially in a kind of pain that they have already felt, and then overcome.”


While the writing is the book’s strength it’s also curiously distancing; it sounds like truth but I’m not sure it is. I felt very much that what I was reading were stories and as such when the end came it was somewhat unsatisfying in its true-to-life inconclusiveness. There are no neat endings here. These are three women who have all had disturbing sex lives in different ways. And I wonder, where is the woman who has a joyous sex life? The woman who has sex with a woman? The woman who is not white? Taddeo never meant for these three women to speak for all women and perhaps the main thing they have in common is they have not been heard before and Taddeo gives them a voice to speak for themselves, albeit filtered through her. It’s certainly a compelling read.

I was late to Educated, the memoir of Tara Westover which has long featured on bestseller lists. She was brought up in Idaho by her Mormon fundamentalist family. Her parents said she and her brothers were homeschooled but in truth, they received no education beyond scripture. Tara watched as her mother was persuaded into being an unlicensed midwife’s assistant, and later the midwife herself, using homemade potions and something called “muscle testing” to heal people. Her father, Gene, expected his children to work alongside him in his scrap business where there was no health and safety, it being God’s will if accidents occurred, as they repeatedly did. It’s an extraordinary story of a life lived off-grid. Gene endlessly prepped for the end of the world and his family lived in fear. Tara was bullied, oppressed, assaulted and uneducated. When she glimpsed the outside world it seemed an immoral place, nonetheless, she taught herself to read and yearned for school, eventually going to college. She is astonishingly bright and despite her lack of basic knowledge her intelligence shone through and she went on to achieve incredible academic results. The book is slightly repetitious and I did find myself thinking, oh no, don’t go back to the bloody mountain again at several points, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden world.

The Heartland – finding and losing schizophrenia by Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer’s debut novel The Shock of the Fall was hugely successful so inevitably there is a weight of expectation around The Heartland. This is a nonfiction exploration of schizophrenia, but the similarities are clear as Filer employs the same knowledge, sensitivity and engaging language that was present in his novel to open up a conversation about so-called-schizophrenia and tell the stories of some people whose lives have been impacted by it.

It’s a fascinating book: Filer is our reporter from the frontline of medical practice as he was previously a psychiatric nurse but he is also an eloquent and careful reporter of personal stories. He tells us about a soldier who thought his stay in a psychiatric ward was a secret mission, a journalist who thought she was a criminal and drank a mug of bleach to kill herself, a daughter whose mother went undiagnosed for years, and a mother who spoke about her son, which moved me to tears possibly because hers was the story which felt most relatable to me.

From the very beginning it’s clear this is a subject with no concrete answers. Should people seeking help with mental health issues be called patients or service users? To call them patients suggests they have an illness, however, if you instead believe that the behaviours and feelings are not symptomatic of illness but are instead a natural response to trauma then it is problematic to be labelled as a patient. And if there is no consensus on this, what hope is there of reaching any definitive conclusions in mental health practices?

Mental health issues are spoken about far more widely these days and yet it seems to me that whilst the public are more tolerant, maybe even supportive, of someone who has anxiety or depression than used to be the case, there is a feeling that people with schizophrenia are scary and dangerously unpredictable. This book offers beautifully clear explanations such as “… it might be best understood as a kind of psychological adaptation, a coping strategy gone awry or a form of storytelling carried out within the mind as a response to unbearably painful life events.”

There’s a lot of food for thought. For instance, anosognosia means “…having as a symptom of a disorder the belief that you do not have the disorder.” I mean, crikey! Homosexuality was only removed from the official list of diagnosable mental disorders in 1974! There’s a lot of alarming information here. We like to think that people smarter than us with their knowledge beyond our understanding are capable of healing us. To learn that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is perhaps more woolly than we would want is not great.

I highlighted so many passages in this terrific book because it’s something I will refer back to. I think everyone should read it. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a heavy academic read, instead, it feels pretty essential and Filer’s great skill is giving information to us in an interesting and accessible way. My very favourite note is this:

“It’s not always possible to find the right words but we can still be part of the conversation. We can walk with people for a bit, sit with them, hear them.”

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

“You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed.” 

It’s always a pleasurable feeling to begin a novel when the writer is as sure footed and smart as Messud – a whole story lays promisingly ahead. 

Julie and Cassie are unlikely best friends. (Unlikely because of their differing backgrounds — where Julia is from an economically and emotionally stable family, mum a journalist, dad a dentist, both encouraging and nurturing, Cassie’s father died before she knew him and her mum is an overweight, overworked hospice nurse with a religious bent.)  Messud does a wonderful job of conjuring the intensity of female adolescent friendships. The girls are inseparable, Julie somewhat in thrall to Cassie whose white blonde hair and spirit of adventure entrance her. They spend time together on the cusp of teen changes, exploring the countryside, drinking hot chocolate, painting each other’s nails and dreaming of leaving town. As is so often the way, there is a cooling of affections; Cassie befriending a new girl, Julie hurt and bitter, and although both girls pretend their relationship is just as friendly, it never recovers. Julie tells us, “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’” 

I remember it happened to me, more than once, and can still recall the crushing loss of who I was as part of that friendship. How accurate this seems, “I had other friends, but I’d lost the friend I loved best, and had loved without thinking for as long as I could remember, and it seemed absolutely essential not to appear to care.” Oh the times I appeared not to care!

Cassie dates Peter, the boy that Julie likes, and further distances herself, but it’s when her mum starts unexpectedly dating Dr Anders Shute, a man who has “… pale, pale skin and protruding cheekbones like a death’s head” — a man who moves into Cassie’s home and uses his new found religious zeal to reprimand her for everything and anything, that Cassie begins to disappear from Julie’s life.

Messud plays with reader expectations, after all we are well versed in tropes about religious stepdads and rebellious girls, about pretty teens from disadvantaged backgrounds who sneak out to drink with boys. Unlike Julie, nobody is expecting Cassie to achieve. Her story isn’t told directly but is reflected to us through Julie’s imagination, her assumption of knowledge, filling in gaps with information from Peter and snippets of gossip her dad has heard. It may feel a little unsatisfactory to not be dealing with definite’s but it certainly seems organic, in the way the neighbourhood stories we hear are. 

“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theatre or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified. On TV, in the papers, in books and movies, it isn’t ever the men being raped or kidnapped or bludgeoned or dismembered or burned with acid. But in stories and crime shows and TV series and movies, and in life too, it’s going on all around you. So you learn, in your mind, that your body needs protecting. It’s both precious and totally dispensable depending on whom you encounter. You don’t want to end up at a party not knowing how to get home. You don’t want to end up walking down a street—especially a quiet street—by yourself at night. You don’t want to open your door to a strange man at all, really, ever, if you’re alone, even if he’s wearing a uniform. Because his uniform could be a disguise. It happens. I’ve seen it on TV.

You start to grow up and you learn from all the stories around you what the world is like, and you start to lose freedoms. Not because anybody tells you that you’ve lost them, but because you know you need to take care.”

While the voice may sound more like that of an adult than the still young Julie, it’s sad and depressing and rings with truth – it feels like the heart of the book.

Messud’s novel may not have set the literary world alight, but it’s a thoughtful, quiet and typically intelligent story which I thoroughly enjoyed.

A review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Standard Deviation

 

I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. I didn’t read them with any pre-conceived ideas – in fact, both were from NetGalley and I knew very little about them – it’s possibly only a similarity of my own thinking, but they seem like a match to me.

Eleanor Oliphant is a massive success; a debut novel that started a bidding war and won The Costa First Novel prize. Widely acclaimed and apparently a prime example of feel good “Up Lit” I feel entirely at odds with popular opinion as I loathed it.

Eleanor is a lonely thirty-something who works in an office and adheres to a strict routine she feels safe with. There is unspecified trauma in her background. She’s an oddball, a figure of ridicule at work, out of step with her colleagues and apparently all of modern society. She’s a cartoon character: LOL she’s so weird cos she gets things wrong! Don’t worry though, she’s going to undergo an ugly duckling to swan transformation via a wax, a haircut, a make-over and some new clothes. The characterisation throughout is wafer thin and the plotting seemed incredibly obvious. Eleanor develops a crush on a lead singer in a band at the same time as meeting Raymond, a man seemingly not at all put off by the things that every other person in the book is. Everything is telegraphed well ahead. The voice adopted is a one-note bright, play it for laughs (never mind the trauma) voice.

The idea of this being a mood-lifting “up” style of novel only works if we can ignore rape, murder, fire, crushing loneliness and abuse. The representation of trauma and (possibly) additional needs is woeful.

Standard Deviation, another debut novel, is about Graham, whose inner voice we are privy to, his younger wife, Audra, and their son Matthew. Matthew is an 11 year old with Aspergers and is described in a wonderfully relatable way and is genuinely funny. There’s a warmth that comes through in this novel, and an authenticity that is lacking in Eleanor Oliphant.

“The terrible twos seemed to have a magical stretching ability when it came to Matthew. They went on for years. Eruptions over milk served in anything other than the Buzz Lightyear sippy cup, over music that was too “tinkly”, over carpet that was too scratchy, over people who stood too close, over the smell of sunblock, the prospect of butter on biscuits, the sight of cheetahs in an animal documentary. The littlest thing could set Matthew off, and there seemed to be no way of calling him back from the land of the tantrum – in an instant, he would be flat on the floor, back arched, legs rigid, mouth a wide open circle of angry scream. They would do anything to prevent it. Graham could remember scotch-taping the last banana in the fruit bowl back into a banana peel so Matthew could eat it monkey-style. Graham’s hands had been shaking with desperation.”

Audra is an excellent (over-loud, over-chatty, gossipy) character who is a great foil to Graham (and his ex wife who seems the opposite of her) and is the stand-out star of the book. I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected to and really am quite puzzled why it doesn’t seem to have garnered more praise. Especially considering how feted that blooming Oliphant book is.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Doyle makes storytelling appear effortless, his prose slipping down as easily as one of the pints Victor Forde sups nightly in Donnelly’s, the pub he has decided to make his regular. At fifty-four he’s newly separated and living alone in a small apartment. The area is familiar to him from his youth, but the people he knew aren’t around and he works to get in with a new group of guys in the bar, wanting to be one of the lads again. It’s very different from his life with Rachel, his ex. She built up her “Meals on Heels” business to the point she’s now one of the experts in an Irish Dragon’s Den style programme. Victor is a writer, or was. They were quite the celebrity couple. Back in the day he was an acerbic music journo and then made a name as one of those talking heads whose outspoken opinions on pretty much everything serves to bring controversy and ratings to radio stations. He was working on The Novel, but it never happened for him. Any day now he’s going to start writing again and Doyle is painfully funny on Forde the procrastinating writer. In a notebook he writes, “31/7/14 Girl – fat farmer – Czech. Or Polish. Wake. Sadness. Brother/old girlfriend?”
I’d take it from there. It would become something. A short story. I could feel it in me, written. Just waiting. I was ready for another piss, then bed. I’d text Rachel. Using the notebook – writing a short story and a novel. X. No, I wouldn’t do that. I left the phone on the table, to make sure I didn’t do something stupid. I went into the toilet. I came out, I emptied my pockets. I’d lost my phone. I remembered – it was on the table. I remembered why. I sat on the bed.”

A man, Fitzgerald, shows up in Donnelly’s and says he knows him. He’s loud, awkward, dressed in pink, and Victor can’t quite place him even when Fitzgerald tells him they were at school together, both taught by the Christian Brothers. He invokes schoolboy memories, the terror of slagging from the other boys and worse from the Brothers. Fragmented flashbacks of childhood return and Doyle is great at details which bring people alive on the page – speaking about a teacher they nicknamed Super Cool, “We could see inside his briefcase. Sandwiches in tinfoil and a flask; no books, no newspaper.
—Thinks he’s Paul McCartney but he wraps his sambos in tinfoil.
It was true, we decided. Super Cool was trying to look like Paul McCartney.”

Why can’t he place Fitzgerald though, when they have shared so many experiences? Why does he make him feel so uncomfortable?

The novel can be read through as typical Doyle fare – a middle-aged bloke reminiscing about childhood, school, his parents, his first love. There’s a bar and a lot of pints. A chorus of guys. Underneath though something is rotten. Those Christian Brothers …

And then there’s a weird twist which blindsided me. I’m still not sure what I think about it. There’s a particular quality about a Roddy Doyle novel which depends on the reader enjoying his portrayals of fictional characters as real people; we believe in them. This tricksy ending leaves us with an inability to trust what we’ve read, which would probably be very neat and satisfying if it rang true. Sadly, it doesn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be realistic, but for all its darkness I would have preferred it to go deeper.