Into the Trees by Robert Williams

Into The Trees by Robert Williams

When their apparently healthy baby won’t stop crying and they have exhausted all the usual solutions, sleep deprived parents Thomas and Ann become desperate. By chance, Thomas discovers that if he takes Harriet into Bleasdale forest she calms. Raymond, a giant of a man who works as a farm hand, walks the forest at night, glad to escape his damp smothered home in Etherton. Keith goes to the forest for entirely different reasons. From each of their perspectives Williams shows how their lives become entangled.

I worried at the start that there’d be some mystical forces at play, but thankfully no, this is a very real story, shot through with William’s customary insight into the human condition. Unexpected strands are brought in and woven seamlessly into the narrative. Williams does a grand job describing Ann’s first love and the passion that’s missing from her marriage. It was Raymond and his awkwardness who captured my heart though. I know a Raymond or two, and the author’s understanding of what it is to be an outsider, what it’s like to feel so alien in the world, is quite special.

It’s a terrific exploration of fear in many of its guises. There’s no fussy writing here, just clean, clear prose. Williams’s best novel yet.














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!












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.

Stoner by John Williams


Several weeks ago people began to come into the bookshop and ask for Stoner. We got so many requests we kept it by the counter within easy reach. Initially I figured the title referred to some marijuana puffing dude, a paean to slackerdom, but I was entirely wrong. Stoner is a novel originally published in 1965, recently reissued by Vintage Classics. William Stoner is the name of the main character, a character not too dissimilar to the author, John Williams, apparently. It went into our “buy one get one half price” offer, and yet more people have bought it. I think part of the interest is that few people have heard of Williams, the novel is touted as a “forgotten classic”, and we all like the idea that we’re rediscovering something amazing.

From the first page we know that Stoner is the story of one man’s unremarkable life.

…he did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

William Stoner is the son of poor farm folk. From an early age (six) he becomes used to hard work and is expected to take over the running of the farm one day. He has no plans to ever leave the farm, but his father surprises him by sending him to college to study agriculture and the “new ideas” for four years. At college Stoner discovers what will be a lifelong interest in literature. For me, the books most devastating moments are those between Stoner and his parents. The writing is so understated, the prose so calm and clear. It’s incredibly moving.

Stoner remains at the university. The one constant in his life is literature; he studies, teaches, writes. He marries a woman who seems only to exist to make his life a misery. My one criticism of the novel is how it is never explained quite why Edith is so unpleasant, not only to him, but also to their daughter.

Where the novel succeeds beautifully is in its depiction of sheer ordinariness. Although Stoner occasionally glimpses something more, be it in his work, or as a father, or in love, those glimpses, those moments of hope, quickly fade. Stoner is left with the disappointment of being human. The reader understands this only too well.

…she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become.

I really did care about Stoner. For all its quietness there are plenty of life events to keep the pages turning. Well deserving of its “classic” status, this is a book I’m thrilled is selling so well. How marvelous, and what a shame John Williams couldn’t know how popular this novel would become. That’s very Stoner-ish.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Tampa is a novel that is shocking and provocative. The cover and the opening line make that clear, just in case the reader was in any doubt.

“I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep.”

Twenty-six year old Celeste Price is extremely beautiful, married to a police officer called Ford who has plenty of family money to lavish on her, and is about to embark on her first teaching job. A job she has trained for simply to enable her to have access to the male students. Celeste is sexually insatiable, and her predilection is for fourteen year old boys. Fourteen because by fifteen they are already aging.

She is in a fevered state of arousal at school. She masturbates alone in her classroom. From the outside she appears to be in control of her students and ostensibly teaches them English, but all the while she is selecting an appropriate victim. He has to have disengaged parents, be quiet enough not to boast about having sex with his hot teacher, and look appropriately young. She picks Jack Patrick.

Nutting’s writing is crisp and clear. She has a good eye for detail, describing one woman as having a “caffeinated ponytail, which was perched in the top center of her skull like a plume on the hat of a Napoleonic infantryman.” but the many graphic sex scenes are written in a blankly detailed way. When Celeste is not having sex with Jack she is fantasising about him and masturbating, or maybe enduring sex with Ford. I won’t spoiler any plot developments, but we read many of these unemotional and ultimately rather dull scenes. 

The characters don’t have depth – we don’t ever learn much about Jack or Ford – we see them only through Celeste’s eyes. Celeste is a vain woman with a one track mind. Nutting does not make her in any way a sympathetic character, but she is darkly humourous. A fellow teacher, Janet, serves as her counterpoint. Where Celeste is young and attractive, Janet is jaded and unattractive. The staff don’t like her, the kids don’t like her. Celeste attracts colleagues and students alike with her beauty and is able to continue her predatory behaviour, whilst Janet repels them.

This is Nutting’s point, I think. She wants us to look at how society treats beautiful women differently to plainer ones, and female paedophiles differently to male paedophiles. The title Tampa refers us to the Debra LaFave case, where LaFave, a stunning 26 year old teacher, pleaded guilty to “Lewd or Lascivious Battery” after having sex several times with a fourteen year old student. Her lawyer argued that she was too attractive to go to prison. On seeing pictures of her, many thought the boy had been lucky. (Nutting went to the same school as LaFave.) I’ve been googling, and sadly LaFave is far from alone. Sex with a child is a terrible criminal act, no matter who commits it. Consent from a child is no consent at all. 

Society is often dazzled by shiny, pretty youth. This novel boldly shines a light on some big, messy contradictions.