The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

 

My dad died on February 15th and my world transformed. I am grief-stricken. It’s no surprise that I have turned to books seeking solace, or at least some kind of understanding. The first book I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” which in retrospect I found unsatisfactory and unhelpful. “The Way We Die Now” though has been a strangely compelling read despite its rather stark message. Right from the introduction O’Mahony warns us, “This is not a book of consolation; death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.”

He argues persuasively and passionately against the over medicalisation of death. As a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital Dr O’Mahony has seen many people die and he uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, patient anecdotes, and high profile celebrity deaths, to highlight how our society places faith in medicine and expects to live despite disease. He explains how many patients receive what he believes to be useless treatments; procedures that take place for the sake of the hospital being seen to do something, often at the expense of a patient’s comfort. CPR that takes place after death is common apparently (and he is clear that CPR is rarely successful as it is in medical dramas. It’s a brutal technique that can leave people permanently damaged if they do survive.) Speaking about the overuse of PEG feeding he says “The procedure became for me a symbol of the medicalisation of death, and of the failure of modern medicine to care humanely for those most in need of its help.”

He is wonderfully dismissive of Kugler-Ross’s famous five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed by workshops, by trite formulae.” The myth of a “good death” is exploded. It is likely we will die whilst sedated and pain-free thanks to a syringe driver. We won’t make profound death bed statements, we won’t even speak. We will be removed from our own death, but that saves us from dying in terror and pain. There is rarely a peaceful, stoic acceptance. That word terror catches me and makes me realise I had some fairy story death narrative in my head where gradually people slip away. Here’s my comfort, such as it is, my dad died unexpectedly. His heart stopped. He did not know he was dying. We did not have the agonies of having to decide for him what interventions he should endure so that we could keep him with us. I fear I would have insisted on all of them, though I hope I would not have.

O’Mahony writes he was “…deeply impressed by how Catholic ritual – after the deaths of my great-uncle and father in-law – guided the bereaved during the days immediately following their deaths.” The issue in a secular society where “Evangelical atheism has accelerated the flight from religion” is how to find this kind of comfort, and he suggests we worry less about believing and be content with simply belonging. This really chimed with me. Dad had a full Catholic funeral; his body was received into church the night before and his priest led us gently through the rituals and beliefs. During the funeral he took the same care to explain. It felt unimportant I don’t share those beliefs. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement of loss and grief, this solemnity, this tribute to my dad.

The book explores “deluded optimism” where patients, doctors, and family and friends collude in a pretence there is hope where there is none. What bloody fools we are that we think we can tame death. There is so much that is interesting here; the fact that patients who have combined oncology/palliative care live on average 25% longer than those who forge on with treatment (seeing hospices as an admission of failure), and that doctors apparently often choose not to undergo extensive treatment themselves. The idea that doctors offer treatment because they don’t know what else to do and need to be seen as doing something is troubling, yet the instinct is to want them to do every possible thing to save the lives of those we love.

How afraid we are, of course, and we are right to be. There’s no magic here, but this is a cool, intelligent look at death, right in its ghastly, deathy face.

Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers

  
In this collection, Evers deftly explores fatherhood. He’s an unfussy writer whose clear prose allows the stories to unfold smoothly (before sometimes tripping us up and challenging our assumptions) using small details to great effect;

“A silent cabbie aside from his metronomic sniffing.”

and

“Rosemary moved to be with her parents upsatate. Like Russian dolls, a mother retreating to her girlhood bedroom.”

“These Are The Days” is ostensibly about a relationship between a Grandfather and his Granddaughter. Twenty-one year old Anna unexpectedly turns up at her Grandfather’s home. He appears to be a doting, gentle man, but is unmasked as a negligent father and husband before once again becoming a sympathetic character as his son is revealed as a bully. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Evers makes character switches flow naturally and these grey areas are gorgeously insightful.

A man sits in a pub, waiting for his bereaved friend to arrive, rehearsing small talk in “Something Else To Say.”  Repetition is used to convey the sheer lack of anything useful one can say when someone’s child has died. All the vital stuff remains unspoken and yet is beautifully conveyed in this touching tale.

I think the title story; “Your Father Sends His Love” is astonishing. It’s definitely the best story I’ve read this year and is an incredibly powerful piece that I don’t want to ruin for anyone else by attempting to describe. I could not stop thinking about it for days after; I was haunted by it and it’s well worth the price of the book alone. As it’s positioned half way through the collection, the stories after perhaps suffer a little in comparison. “Charter year, 1972” seemed strangely clunky; a set up and a punch line.

The last story “Live From the Palladium” has a similar source to “Your Father Sends His Love” and I’m fascinated by how Evers takes this material and shapes it into such achy and perceptive fiction.

If you’re a fan of quietly powerful stories (and who isn’t?) then do give this a read.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

I was given Adult Onset by my boss. (I think she is my reading twin and it’s very cool to have met someone whose reading tastes seems to chime so exactly with my own.) I’d never heard of Ann-Marie MacDonald before, but wow, Adult Onset is a stunning novel and MacDonald is an exceptional writer.

The novel is about motherhood and family and how the past informs the present. I won’t be able to do it justice here. Please trust me when I say it’s rare to read someone who writes with such insight and has the ability to portray the workings of a mind reaching for distant truths with such clarity.

Mary Rose is marred to Hilary. They have adopted one child and Hilary has given birth to another. Mary Rose has chosen to stay home and be “Mumma” and during the week in which the novel takes place Hilary is working away. Beginning on Monday and finishing on Sunday we journey alongside Mary Rose as she negotiates her way through the days of toddler tantrums, domestic crises, parent’s, siblings, and her aching arm; the result of childhood bone cysts, which niggles and nags and flares, beginning the examination of her past.

This book is so damn quotable. Paragraph after paragraph of amazing writing.

“How do you tell yourself what you already know? If you have successfully avoided something, how do you know you have avoided it?”

And

“Mary Rose felt guilty for not feeling warm and happy. Instead of melting into a smile, she felt her face go positively Soviet in a pre-glasnost kind of way. She knew she looked like Brezhnev and there was nothing she could do about it. If she rummaged in her basement, she could probably find the box marked WARM AND HAPPY. But who knew what else might be down there, she didn’t have time to go through it all.”

And

“Mary Rose has thought Rochelle socially awkward, but it dawns on her now that Rochelle may be that rare personality type, the Fearless Pauser.”

So excellent. I will now hunt down everything she has written.

Incidentally, I knew nothing about the author until after I finished reading. I thought this the finest novel I’ve read since Miriam Toews’ superb “All My Puny Sorrows” and it’s interesting to discover that not only are both Canadian, but that this novel is also apparently somewhat autobiographical. I think there’s something incredibly powerful about the truth that comes from fiction and wonder if what makes these novels so strong is the honesty that resonates with the reader.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

One of my favourite bookseller tasks is recommending books. It’s so cool to enthusiastically share thoughts on ace reads. Of course often people aren’t looking for something that chimes with my tastes, but that’s ok too. I pride myself on being able to match folk with the right books. The thing I find the hardest is when someone asks for a funny read. Humour is subjective and I am often unamused by things people appear to find hilarious. Most of the novels I read are not exactly happy and a request for a light, enjoyable read can stump me when it comes to thinking of something I have genuinely enjoyed. My oft favoured approach is, “This is very popular and is meant to be funny.”

“Dear Committee Members” actually had me laughing out loud, although, somewhat typically of things I admire, there is a darkness too. It’s an epistolary novel (which I’m not that fond of usually) composed entirely of letters of recommendation written by Jason Fitger, a jaded professor of creative writing at a small college in midwest America. His own novels have not brought him the success he once seemed likely to have, his marriage has failed, and he is languishing at the bottom of the college hierarchy. Nonetheless, colleagues and students endlessly request letters of recommendation from him and he turns these into a truly hilarious and bitter art-form.

“My colleague Franklin Kentrell has asked me to recommend him for a Galloway Foundation research and Travel Award. I would have quickly refused with a clear conscience except that Kentrell penned a Galloway recommendation for me a dozen years ago (I did not receive the award), and in his oily, sidewinding way, he trapped me in the corridor this morning, clutched the lapel of my jacket with his untrimmed nails, and suggested that “tit for tat was only fair.”

Kentrell will never survive round #1 in your deliberations; therefore, secure in the knowledge that this letter will soon join thousands of its brethren in a  rolling bin destined for recycling— presumably before it is read—I am comfortable endorsing this application.”

His attempts to help his favourite student, a troubled and broke young man, and repair relations with his exes, add poignancy to the fun, and what at first seems a light read becomes something rather more.

(Thanks to Scott Pack for sending me a copy of this.)

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

“All My Puny Sorrows” (what an excellent title!) by Miriam Toews is an extraordinary book about two sisters (Elfrieda and Yoli) and their Mennonite family. It’s Yoli’s first person account of how Elf attempts suicide and begs for Yoli’s help to die. What makes it so special is how Toews takes this devastating material and manages to make it consistently witty, genuinely funny, and real. Her own sister committed suicide, as did their father. It’s as if Toews is reporting directly from the frontline of grief. She’s such a talented writer that she’s somehow managed to form this tragic raw material into an incredible novel.

It is full of so many great lines that I highlighted huge chunks of the book. From incidental throwaways such as this:

“I hope she doesn’t have an eating disorder. I’ve read that eating disorders are often the fault of overbearing mothers, but I’m so underbearing it’s not even funny. Maybe she’s imagined an overbearing mother to compensate for my lack of bearing and it’s this imaginary pushy mother that’s caused her to have an eating disorder. She doesn’t have an eating disorder, not really. I shouldn’t try to blame something that doesn’t even exist on an imagined imaginary mother.”

To criticisms of the medical staff on the psychiatric ward for their lack of attention to Elf as she refused to obey their directions:

“Nurses in cardio are far more playful and friendly than they are in psych.
If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.”

Yoli always feels spot on. I imagine she’d be the best wise-cracking stoic friend a gal could have. How she and her mother endure is wonderfully life-affirming. 


This is my book of the year. Yeah, already. I honestly doubt anything else can make me feel this way. From the perfect title, the perfect cover, to the perfect prose it’s all astonishingly good.

Read it! Read it! Read it!

 

 

That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

Vowler has a keen eye for nature and roots us in a landscape whose bleakness matches the dark heart of the story. Stephen narrates the opening and closing of this novel, the middle two parts voiced by his mother and father, and through them we explore a devastating crime. Stephen has returned “home” twenty years on to visit with his ill mother. Driving through the village, drinking in the local pub, walking by the river, he is surrounded by people and memories from the past. His stay forces him to confront what happened and the impact it has had on not only his life, but the lives of all who were there. The dreadful crime at the heart of the story is kept from the reader until the end, unfolding gradually in the telling. I found the mother’s voice the most interesting and wished she could have been allowed more light in a life which seemed impossibly harsh.
This exploration of post traumatic stress woven into a compelling story is a real tragedy.

 

vowler

 

Stay tuned for Tom Vowler’s Smash Lits.

 

 

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

 

The Bradley family are devout Mormons. Ian is the Bishop, his wife, Claire, converted to the faith before marrying him and together they are bringing up their four children – Alma, Zippy, Jacob and Issy, following stringent Mormon rules. The author was herself, until relatively recently, a practising Mormon, so it’s fair to assume the book is an accurate representation of family life within the faith, with all the accompanying homilies and entreaties.

Bishop Bradley is big on sacrifice and duty, believing his path to heaven is assured just so long as he devotes himself to serving his church and spreading the word. He prioritises church duties over family duties, which is why it’s left to an overstretched Claire to shop for Jacob’s birthday party and organise the food. Her youngest, Issy, is unwell and tucked up in bed, Claire too busy to pay her much attention until it’s too late and tragically she dies.

It’s Bray’s ability to be quietly devastating that makes the story so affecting. Never mawkish or sentimental, she uses humour and a warm understanding of the human psyche to explore each family member’s thoughts and feelings in turn. They struggle to cope with their grief in very different ways. Jacob believes Issy can be brought back to life with his faith. Zippy focuses her attentions on a classmate she fancies, the only other Mormon at her school, one who she hopes will marry her. Alma lives for football and is the most cynical, yet finds unexpected comfort from one of the Brothers at church. Ian throws himself into his ministry and tries to keep home life going when Claire takes to Issy’s bed and refuses to speak or get up. Claire, overwhelmed with a deep depression that goes unrecognised because it wouldn’t be the done thing, questions her faith and waits for a sign from God. (I won’t plot spoiler, but there was a Claire scene that broke my heart and cemented my absolute dislike of Ian.)

Writing about the beach Bray describes, “The track is sandier now, damp and sticky; gritty, like cake mix.” It’s this descriptive power, employing the everyday and and mixing it with insight, which really elevates this novel. The children’s voices all feel accurate – Jacob aged 7: “There are so many kinds of never. There’s the never Mum uses when she says, “Never talk to strangers; it’s dangerous,” and there’s the never Dad uses when he says, “Never play with your food; it’s bad manners.” But Mum talks to plenty of people she doesn’t know, and Jacob has seen Dad break Oreos in half to lick the creamy bit.” These simple contradictions are followed by larger ones. At the centre of it all, the question why Heavenly Father would take Issy.

A wonderful debut, full of heart.

 

 

Vault by David Rose

Vault is a compact novel comprising brief chapters marked A or B. The A chapters pertain to a fictionalised version of the narrator of the B chapters. The B chapters are “factual” rebuttals of the novel. No wonder Vault’s subtitle is “An anti-novel”. It sounds complex, but the divisions are smartly done. B is written mainly in clear, clipped prose, whereas A employs (slightly) more flourishes of language.

A cyclist becomes a wartime sniper and afterwards something of a vigilante, and then an unofficial spy. He also falls in love and cycles competitively. That’s a pretty huge range to cover, but there is no padding, no filler in Rose’s writing and the novel is 158 pages.

His character is a loner whose aloofness serves to distance him from those around him, and his readers. Even when describing the love of his life he blankly states: “But this was all a long time ago and, later, she left me.” Nonetheless, the impact of some scenes, I’m thinking of the sniper waiting patiently to kill, and later, after the war, protecting a woman who has received food from an aid station, is heightened by the tightly controlled descriptions.

The cycling sections are beautifully exhilarating and offer welcome relief.

And how wonderful is that cover!

Vault

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rose is clearly a fine writer and I’m looking forward to reading his short story collection – Posthumous Stories, which I’ve just treated myself to.
 

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Of course we should never judge a book by its cover, and yet this cover is so bright and attractive I was drawn to it in a way I wouldn’t have been if it had been one of those beige books. I’m glad to say the novel inside is as vibrant and fresh as the cover suggests.

This is the story of Darling, ten years old and living in Paradise, a place which is anything but. She has friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stino. They play together, hunt for guavas in the richer area of Budapest, and talk about escaping their shanty town. Always hungry, no longer at school, with the adults around them struggling under a regime that has robbed them of  money, jobs and homes, Darling and her friends nonetheless fizz with energy and fun. People have to leave Paradise to earn money, Darling’s dad included, although he sends nothing back. Then one day he returns home to die. Chipo is pregnant at 11, the result of rape. All the while the sun burns down and the hunger gnaws. Bulawayo is brilliant at describing this and the necessary bravado these children employ.

“I used to be very afraid of graveyards and death and such things, but not anymore. There is just no sense being afraid when you live so near the graves; it would be like the tongue fearing the teeth.”

Darling tells her friends her Aunt will be taking her to America, but when Aunt Fostalina actually does, everything reverses. Sometimes it feels a little obvious – Darling is surrounded by food, but the abundance of food means that people obsess about what to eat and over exercise or starve themselves to be thin enough. Snow falls and Darling is colder than she ever imagined possible and longs for the warmth of Paradise. Darling can never return to Zimbabwe because she has no official papers and becomes consumed by a yearning for home and an insurmountable sense of displacement. She belongs nowhere.

“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped.”

Bulawayo highlights how (some) Americans presume Africa is one country and that all parts are the same;

“Oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

Her portrayal of (some) Americans as being obese, porn watching and ignorant is possibly equally unsubtle. What makes all this work so well is the verve of Bulawayo’s language, and the humour that lightens the terrible darkness. The beginning of the novel was originally a short story – “Hitting Budapest” and it propels the reader into another world with wit and speed.

In the last chapter “Writing On The Wall” some of Darling’s original energy reappears, but when she talks to Chipo via Skype, and Chipo lectures her on leaving, it sounded as if perhaps this is the author’s voice, lecturing herself. Darling is an interesting character, I’d love to know what happens to her next, and I’d dare to wish her an almost happy ending, though I’m not sure Bulawayo would think one possible.

Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin is published on the 27th of this month (by Headline) and it’s a stonkingly good read. I don’t usually read crime fiction, but I do enjoy watching TV detective shows, as does Sarah. (I know this because we have tweeted each other about our love of “Cho time” in The Mentalist, and our admiration for Luther.) Reading S.E.S I was immediately struck by how much like a television drama the novel seemed. I could “see” the story unfold. It has to be made into a TV show, surely?

Marnie Rome and her partner, DS Noah Jake, visit a women’s refuge in the hope of getting one of the women to testify against her brothers. Whilst there, a man is stabbed by his wife in front of several of the residents. As the officers investigate the stabbing, three of the women go missing.

At the same time, Marnie Rome’s backstory is woven in – her parent’s were murdered five years ago, and Rome regularly visits their murderer.

What follows is an intriguing tale where Hilary continually confounds expectations. Rome is allowed weakness, she makes mistakes, gets angry, and has complex emotions. Her relationships with Noah, and victim support worker, Ed Belloc, are well drawn. It’s a novel where nothing is quite as it seems. Hilary is unafraid of exploring darkness and some big issues, but never at the expense of story. It’s all very page-turny, even if I did find some of the violence unpalatable. It’s a well written, pacey, engaging novel, and I really want to know more about Marnie et al and am looking forward to book two. In the meantime, I had a few questions for Sarah which she agreed to answer for me:

Q. You’re an excellent short story writer, how difficult was it to expand into writing novels? Any words of advice for writers hoping to transition from short story writing to novel writing?

A. Thank you, that’s very kind. I enjoy writing short stories but boy, do I find them hard to get right. I think I’m better suited to writing novels; my stories seem to bend towards the shape of a novel more easily. So, in terms of advice, I’d say go with the shape of the story and see where it takes you.

Q. Where did you write? Any routine/ritual etc?

A. I’m very guilty about the fact that I bought a lovely writing desk when I moved house, and haven’t sat there once. I write in cafes. I like the white noise, and the coffee. I make sure I write for at least two hours before I allow myself a break. It’s the only way I can be sure to get it done.

Q. When you started writing did you know you were creating a series?

A. Always. It’s such a gift to be able to spend time with the same characters.

Q. How far ahead have you plotted in terms of story arc?

A. I try to have ideas for the next book along, whenever I’m writing something new. Not plotting, as such, but nuggets.

Q. Have you written book 2 yet?

A. First draft, yes. I’m about to embark on the second draft so wish me luck.

Q. Would you like to see it made into a TV series? And if so, any idea on who would make a good Marnie Rome?

A. That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? A friend suggested Karen Gillan for Marnie, but I’m not sure. I do know that I’d love Ashley Walters to play Noah Jake.

Q. What is your fave tv detective series?

A. Currently? The Bridge. I love Saga and Martin so much it hurts.

Q. Who is your fave tv detective?

A. Saga Norén.

Q. What about crime novels – any favourites?

A. Everything ever written by Fred Vargas. Also, The Collector by John Fowles, and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

Q. You write about domestic violence & female genital mutilation – was it always your intention to try to highlight these issues?

A. No. I started out to write a book about secrets, and deceit. The characters I created each had different secrets, and some of those secrets were very dark. But I do want to talk about issues which have been side-lined by society, especially the ones that make us uncomfortable. There’s too much silence born of discomfort, I think. I’d like to make a bit of noise around those issues, because they matter so much.

Q. Did you do much research?

A. Enough to be sure of my facts, but not so much that it strays into non-fiction or gets in the way of the storytelling.

Q. The book is pretty harrowing with some deeply unpleasant violence. How easy was it to switch off and go and cook tea etc?

A. I don’t cook, which helps..! Writing Someone Else’s Skin did stir up a lot of unsettling emotions in me, but I think that’s part of being a writer, isn’t it? Keeping faith with the dark and the light… The chip of ice in our souls, as Graham Greene called it. I’m not very good at switching off; the next story is always percolating in my head. Probably very unhealthy although my editor would approve.

Thank you Sarah. I wish you and Marnie much success.

If you can’t wait to get your hands on Someone Else’s Skin you can preorder here. I’m sure all fans of crime fiction will be delighted to discover such an intriguing new detective.

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