childhood

How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

Quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, so full of love and sadness I felt like I might burst, so painful in places I had to look away.

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck lives by the sea with her fisherman dad, who takes her to school every morning on the front of his bike. It’s not a Raleigh or a BMX, just a bike, and therein lies one of the truths at the heart of the book: Ellie Fleck’s family is not like everyone else’s, and all the kids in her class can tell. Most of them, as is the way with kids, punish her for it.

Set in the 1980s at the edge of the North Sea the story teeters between worlds: land and water, innocence and experience, all mod cons and an older way of life, boring everyday facts and the deeper truth of stories. Ellie has been filled with and shaped by stories, whether sea stories from her dad, ancestral stories from her Irish mum before her breakdown, or saints’ stories from church, so it seems natural that in this motherless world (“She’ll be better by Christmas”) Ellie surrounds herself with stories to get her through. But just because a wolf’s in a story, doesn’t mean it can’t bite.

Carmen Marcus had already acquired a reputation as a poet prior to writing this, her debut novel. This background is apparent in her use of language; I loved the repetition of words like thudtickticktick that (in context) conveyed so much and helped to describe Ellie’s world so vividly. Some of the imagery will stay with me for a long time, too – there’s a wonderful blend of fairytale and the natural world, sprinkled with small, child’s-eye details like the behaviour of a dunked biscuit, and just enough (hedgehog haircuts and ski jackets) to set it in its time and place.

Ellie’s a complicated character in a complicated situation and there’s no black and white of who should have behaved how, but the way the circumstances are explored (and the way several points of view are used within the book), the reader is fully caught up in the story of Ellie and the story she’s creating. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, Ellie’s mum in particular is not in a good place, but it’s a powerful one and it delivers moments of magic to soothe the gut-punches.

Because of the central elements of fairytale and sea, I can see How Saints Die particularly appealing to fans of Kirsty Logan, but I’d recommend it to anyone who can take a bit of magic in their fiction and thinks they could find some fellow-feeling for a confused child.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s own introduction to the novel from her Read Regional appearances earlier this year: http://newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional/carmen-marcus-how-saints-die/

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Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Paperback of Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Mandy Sutter is very good at those little moments of awkwardness that say so much about a character. The small but crucial details of a life, usually presented with dry and distinctly British humour. I was intrigued, therefore, to see what a collection of stories based on a couple of years spent with her (white, English) parents in Nigeria as a child would be like.

Only nine of the twenty stories are actually set in 1960s Nigeria, with others set in England just before or after this period, or later in the life of Sarah, the little girl whose father’s oil-company job takes the family to this strange, hot place, so far away from Nana. Nine stories also happen to be written from Sarah’s point of view, with another four from the perspective of one of her parents, and the rest from an assortment of acquaintances and teachers. Thus, in snapshots from different angles and at different times, we get glimpses of Sarah’s life, and the context of the family’s time abroad.

Seeing Nigeria through Sarah’s eyes as a child, we get a more matter-of-fact view than an adult might give, it’s just one more new thing at an age where many situations and long words are also new. There are still boring lessons, playground games, going to a friend’s house for tea, even if the surroundings have changed, and the etiquette with it. A mild object of interest in Nigeria, Sarah stands out just as much on her return home, where she is referred to at school as Miss Nigeria, after the teacher “had been the first to call Sarah by that name and now everyone did.” At first glance, Sarah seems to blend her English and Nigerian experiences more successfully than the adults, as with her borrowed rituals following a family bereavement, in Seed. Three for the Price of Five, and Mobylette Dreams could be tales of any awkward, unhappy teenager, unsure of her place and using either comfort eating or belligerence as a shield.

For Sarah’s mother the colonial feel of their existence in Nigeria is bothersome: the servants, the behaviour expected of the company wives, the empty days. She seems happier on her return to the English suburbs in Iroko-man, with tamed rubber plants in pots, back to normality (“What made us buy all those coffee tables?”). Sarah’s father, on the other hand, seems to leave part of himself behind on his return to England, never quite settling, with whisky gradually filling the void until eventually God takes its place. Throughout all the stories, Mandy’s eye for detail takes us right there. She conjures up the heat, the vegetation, the out of date kitchen in Nigeria, the unpreparedness of Sarah’s mum and the contrast between staid 1960s England and the slightly chaotic life they have in Nigeria.

I keep referring to this book as a short story collection because I remember Mandy talking about it in those terms a couple of years ago, and three of the chapters have appeared as stand-alone pieces elsewhere. As such I approached it as a collection even though it seems to be being marketed as a novel, and it worked well as linked stories, with the links between some more obvious than others. Someone else who’d also read it expecting a collection of stories said to me, “I’d be disappointed if I was expecting a novel”. I’d at least be confused. Perhaps neither of us reads as many experimental novels as New Welsh Rarebyte have assumed.

As a collection of short stories, however, this is a delight. Although there’s an obvious hook for anyone who’s interested in Nigeria or has been through a similar relocation, like all good writing Bush Meat is universal. It’s about childhood, and what shapes you, the long reach of events in the past, and how the same set of circumstances are experienced and remembered differently by members of the same family. Bush Meat is available now in paperback and ebook, via the publisher New Welsh Rarebyte.

Signs of age: when even adults are too young to share your past

A few weeks ago I heard a bang outside and thought ‘car back-firing’, then I wondered if that still happens, and if it doesn’t then what do young people attribute unexplained sudden noises in the street to? The more I thought about it, the more I realised how many familiar everyday things from my childhood (though I grant that some of them were already old-fashioned) are completely unknown not only to children but many adults today and would require explanation in a story. Among them are:

  • the long, frustrating search for a working payphone
  • hoarding coins of a particular denomination (10p for the phone, 50p for the electricity meter)
  • crossed wires on the phone
  • older relatives answering the phone using the old 3 or 4 digit version of their phone number
  • people answering the phone by reciting their phone number
  • yellow headlamps on cars that had been to Europe
  • foolscap paper
  • cheap cameras with no focus control, and separate flash cubes
  • having to limit yourself to taking 24 photos on an entire holiday
  • Betamax vs VHS
  • floppy disk drives (particularly five and a quarter inch)
  • only having 4 TV channels to choose from (and they shut down overnight)
  • piling as many kids as possible in the back of an estate car for a day out, sometimes with a couple of dogs too
  • wondering what to do with the (entirely detachable) ring-pull from a can of pop, maybe getting a moment’s entertainment by wearing it as a ring
  • hoping to hear a song on the radio, or searching charity shops, car boot sales and second-hand record shops for years to find it, instead of being able to reach for spotify or YouTube

This undoubtedly happens to everyone as technology and fashions change, but it does give you a realisation of the passing years. Anybody got any more examples to share from their perspective?