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? 

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.

The Girls by Emma Cline

I have a dislocated elbow at the moment; my arm is in a full cast and I’m unable to work so it’s the perfect time to catch up with some of my giant TBR pile. Last year there was a lot of buzz about The Girls, it was hyped to the max, and I remember hoping it wouldn’t be one of those novels that are full of potential that doesn’t quite get realised. The jury’s out on that one, but I’m happy to report that when I began reading I was totally absorbed. It’s a reimagining of the Manson cult (I initially tried using a dictation device as my right arm/hand is out of action, but it typed Manson cult as mints and coat and I gave up) told from the point of view of Evie, a 14-year-old who is bored by her long-standing friendship with Connie, upset with her separated parents, ignored by her crush, and disillusioned by school. She is the perfect blend of yearning romantic and brittle bravado for the Mansonesque Russell and his girls to manipulate and influence. Cline is dazzlingly good at the socially awkward shuffles and games adolescent girls employ hoping to be accepted and cool, and the faith we have that one day we will discover our real purpose, our real lives.

She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be received. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.

Interspersed throughout, a middle-aged Evie, damaged and lonely, spends time in the company of a couple of teens who are impressed by her past. Her life is indelibly marked by her association with the cult. Her “inevitable self” is not anything she would have hoped for.

Cline writes convincingly about how the girls, and boys too, come to find themselves part of Russel’s commune, living a bullshit free love existence. Evie is entranced by one of them, Suzanne, enough to return to the grimy commune rather than stay with either of her parents. Russell is the magnetic leader, but he remains distant to the reader as the novel moves towards the inevitable brutal murders. It’s Suzanne who is Evie’s focus, although like all the cult characters she too remains unknowable and mysterious.

On reflection, the weird problem I have with the book is that probably the least successful part is the Manson story. The teen girl insights chimed with me and were where my interest lay. I’m not sure the cult part is that interesting – maybe read Helter-Skelter if that’s your area (the bestselling true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Manson case – a book I devoured many years ago when I was a teen). I wonder if Cline’s novel was actually hindered by following that narrative. However, her perceptiveness and ability make whatever she writes next very interesting to me.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

I blooming loved Fell. Loved it. What a treat to read such an engaging and immersive story. Jenn Ashworth has always been an interesting writer, but it feels to me that she’s hit new heights of awesome with this novel.

The book begins with the awakening of Netty and Jack who have spent death in a place of nothingness and are startled into a watchful, skittering existence by the arrival of their adult daughter at the old family home. Annette has inherited the house from Candy, Jack’s second wife, and, uninhabited for years, it’s a decrepit building; rotting, damp, mouldy, invaded by nature and filthy. The huge Sycamore trees outside have encroached and pushed inside. It’s dangerous and will cost a fortune to fix up. Annette calls a tree surgeon, Eve, who refuses to agree to set to it before a structural engineer takes a look, leading Annette to take matters into her own hands.

Meanwhile, Netty and Jack seem helpless to do anything other than watch scenes from their lives play out, which they narrate with one voice. We see Netty’s struggles to look after lodgers as her terminal illness progresses. We watch as, on a rare family day out to the lido, Jack meets Tim, an enigmatic young man who moves in with them after displaying mysterious powers, bringing hope and and intrigue to the story. As Jack tends Netty, Annette is left alone to entertain herself and Tim works on his dreams of becoming a tailor.

Switching between past and present, Morecambe Bay isn’t so much a backdrop to the novel as a surrounding atmosphere and Ashworth’s descriptions of it are superb, rendering it vivid in all its beauty and ugliness.

“The woods seem to last forever. He finds his pace and continues upwards, tripping over roots and slipping, sometimes, on exposed slabs of limestone, greasy with moss. All the while he is relishing the cold muddy smell of the first fresh air he’s had in days. Netty is rotting; she stinks, and there was no way to cover it up any more. In the spring these woods will reek of bluebells, wild garlic and fox bitches in heat, but there’s nothing in the air today except the scent of musty leaves and stagnant pools of rainwater. It’s still early; a hard bluish light shines between the stripped boughs. The fell slopes steeply upwards, covered in close cropped grass and heather. The sky is low and almost white. No one would put this on a postcard…”

She’s equally magical at conjuring the bits and bobs that make up our day to day – the sweets, crockery, pencils, leaves, the ordinary things that forge our connections with the world.

Forced to bear witness to their daughter’s isolation can Netty and Jack somehow help?

All in Fell is flawed; the characters, the landscape, even the magic. What shines through is the hope, that necessary ingredient that keeps us pushing on through life come what may, and kindness, which may be the best that humans have to offer each other.

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary’s London is full of shadows, darkness, underground places where people can vanish; places full of people, estates, tower blocks, all with blind spots and corners around which people disappear. A young girl running away from something, or someone, causes a car crash. Another girl is missing. Around a table, three well behaved young girls eat dinner served by a slightly older girl, presided over by a man. His name is Harm. On an estate an elderly woman watches warily from her window, noting names and times of the kids outside running riot. What links these people?

This is the third DI Marnie Rome book and if you are a fan of the others in the series you won’t be disappointed. Hilary’s customary intelligence and storytelling verve are in full force. It’s amazing how chilling words on a page can be. There’s a smashing twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming, oh, and tantalising snippets woven in about Stephen Keele, the killer of Rome’s parents, whose story we MUST learn one day.

I can’t say more for fear of spoilers, so I’ll leave you with this:

“The kitchen reeked of wax. Fourteen candles burning but they didn’t make it brighter, just dragged in more of the darkness. Greedily, the way his pain pulled at her, at everything.”

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

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When Carys Bray writes, woah, she sure does get you in the feels. Both “The Museum of You” and Bray’s first novel, “A Song for Issy Bradley,” deal with the aftermath of death, but Bray has a wonderful way of illuminating darkness with humour and empathy so the novels remain a pleasure to read.

Clover Quinn’s mother Becky died six weeks after Clover was (unexpectedly) born. Now 12, Clover lives with her bus driver dad, Darren, whose silence on the subject of her mum only fuels her desire to know more. In the long summer holidays, inspired by a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Clover attempts to curate an exhibition of her mum, using bits and bobs of belongings that have remained in a cluttered, untouched bedroom for years. Where the novel is strongest is in the relationship between Clover and her dad and in the depiction of him adapting to a life that looks entirely different from how he’d once hoped. Darren is a wonderfully sympathetic character, flawed as all of us are, and very recognisable in his attempts to be the best parent he can.

“He could make jam or something. He remembers the things mum used to make with the raspberries: cheesecakes, trifles, tarts, fools and mousses. They could have a go, him and Clover, she’d like that. He has had these ideas before but it’s a struggle to make them materialise; by the time he gets home there will be something else to occupy his thoughts – the detached radiator, the hall walls, the worry that there may be something else she needs.”

The novel features a supporting cast of characters, the most interesting of whom is Jim, Darren’s troubled brother in law who has mental health issues and is hopeless at self-care. Describing Darren’s feelings towards him – “His kindness comes in bursts and he tires quickly. It was easier in the early days, when it seemed as if it was going to be more of a sprint than a marathon,” succinctly describing the fluctuating resolve of trying to help someone desperately needy who doesn’t seem likely to want to, or be able to, ever change.

Mrs Mackeral is the malapropism yelling next door neighbour who is maybe a little too cartoonish to feel fully realised, but provides some amusing moments. Colin is Darren’s best mate who along with his sister, and Darren’s dad, form a kind of family unit around Clover. Whilst death underpins the narrative, there is a sense of optimism that this wonky group provide.

Clover is deftly drawn and is a character to cheer for. The story is heart warming whilst not shying away from truth.

Towards the end of the book Bray writes,“Grief never goes away. And that’s no bad thing – it’s only the other side of love, after all.”
How beautiful is that?

This is an emotionally honest novel written by a writer who marries real insight with engaging writing.

My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is an exemplary storyteller and having adored Olive Kitteridge so damn much, I trust her to tell a quietly unfussy and moving story. MNiLB is narrated by Lucy Barton who looks back at a long stay she had some time in the eighties in hospital recovering from a post-op infection. Her husband and children were largely absent while she recuperated, and her mother, who she hadn’t seen for many years, flew, for the first time, from her small rural home in Amgash to New York. Remaining by her bedside for several days and nights, her mother offers up anecdotes as conversation; tidbits of other’s lives, gossip about neighbours Lucy might recall. Morality tales in the main. Fragments are revealed, as they are in our actual memories, this happened, and this, do you remember? And the pieces of the puzzle are laid out until, oh, yes, we see the picture now. Lucy’s childhood, one of emotional deprivation as well as physical, is revealed. The agonies of not being a fit remaining throughout her life no matter how she learned to blend in with the help of money, husband, kids, a writing career, a New York life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I tasted…”

Lucy finds a voice through writing, but can’t express herself to her mother. Theirs are conversations where what is not said matters more than what is. We learn obliquely about her father’s PTS and subsequent cruelty, the humiliation he heaped upon her brother, Lucy’s marital problems and her friendship with a neighbour who dies of AIDS.

“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”

The hopefulness that she can share and connect is calmly devastating.

Glowing at the centre is her relationship with author/teacher, Sarah, who instructs Lucy to write the pages we have read. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.”

This slim novel’s layers peel back to reveal the lumpy truths of a life and its relationships and lays them out for us to examine and recognise. Superb.