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I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.

This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.

A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London.  Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.

The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?

The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.

One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.

This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).

Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.

When I first heard there was a book deal on offer, I was pretty reluctant about it. I’ve learnt a lot about the value of privacy. But some arse was putting adverts in the local Swindon paper asking for stories about me and my family. He was writing a book about a person he’d never met. It pissed me off. Even though it’s my story to tell, my thoughts, my feelings, I felt quite odd about doing it. But actually it’s been an amazing experience.

Billie Piper’s life since becoming an English pop star at the age of fifteen has been lived in tabloid headlines. In the minds of the British public, there is a very defined idea of who she is. As the quote above shows, Piper is well able to speak for herself and took the opportunity to set the record straight. She’s been a heavily marketed teeny bopper; a makeshift rival to the chart dominance of Britney Spears; a hate figure for her relationship with a male pop star; a teenage wife and the onscreen companion to a time-travelling alien. Plenty of material for a biography, despite the subject at the time of writing not having left her twenties yet.

The structure of Piper’s biography is broken up by a odd timeline, opening with her swift rise in the pop charts and then telling the story of her life with her family before fame came calling. A devoted fan of Madonna from a young age, Billie hoped to imitate the American icon. Instead she found herself facing mounting debt at a young age, still at fifteen years lacking a proper parent in her life, with her management team a poor substitute. It is a bizarre world of extremes. On the one hand she is meeting with celebrities and getting sex tips from her backing dancers when living the pop star life. Then she returns to Swindon to cook fish fingers for her younger siblings and getting hits off a bucket bong with mates on the weekend. Her growing romance with Ritchie Neville from 5ive transforms the pop princess into a hate figure for the teen fan base of her celebrity boyfriend. Eventually she found herself growing further and further apart from her family and finding no stable emotional ties to anyone else in her new life. As a result she finds herself slipping more and more into anorexic behavior, euphemistically referred to by people in the entertainment industry as ‘old faithful’. With failing record sales, a well-documented reliance on laxatives and a suicide attempt while promoting her music in America, the teen star was swiftly approaching a breakdown.

Billie credits her meeting with Chris Evans for her recovery. A hugely successful British television and radio personality, the two soon married shortly after meeting. Evans caught her eye by delivering a Ferrari race-car to her doorstep. The romance that followed was not so much a whirlwind, but a retreat from the entertainment industry and glitz of London. The couple relocate their life to a cottage in the English countryside and try to find themselves. The media responds by painting Evans as a cradle-snatching pervert and bemoan the end of Billie’s music career. Ironically for her, this is the happiest period of her life to date and in leaving her pop star past behind, she reinvents herself as an actress. A return to a more controlled fame and the role of the Doctor’s companion is just on the horizon.

While this is a very honest piece of writing, the telling of it feels telegraphed throughout. In a break with tradition, Billie thanks her ghost on the acknowledgements page at the end of the book. As such there are occasional slips during the book. There is a regrettable reference to a quote from the Sopranos – with neither Billie nor her ghost writer seemingly aware the line is a parody of Al Pacino’s famous outburst in The Godfather Part III. There is little naming and shaming in the book and music promoters, studio crew and production assistants on Who are fulsomely praised. Throughout Billie pitches herself as an ordinary woman who just happens to be living an extraordinary life.

I was never a fan of Misery Lit and so found her descriptions of lonely hotel rooms and anorexia quite depressing. Nevertheless this is an intimate and winning account of a life trapped by fame.

I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough. My legs seemed to move slower and slower as I fought my way through the callous crowd, but the hands on the huge clock tower didn’t slow. With relentless, uncaring force, they turned inexorably toward the end–the end of everything.

Lady, I hear ya.

It’s almost been a year since the events of the first book and Bella Swan’s birthday has come round. Turning eighteen only serves to remind her that she is growing older, while her vampire boyfriend Edward remains seventeen. And a high school senior! So things are already not proceeding that smoothly for the ‘teenage’ couple when they decide to celebrate Bella’s birthday at the Cullen family household. Then Edward’s adopted brother Jasper is sent into a frenzy at the sight of Bella’s blood caused by a small papercut. As this confirms the worst fears of Bella’s vampire swain, he decides to leave her and the town of Forks, taking his family with him to some unknown destination.

Abandoned by Edward, Bella falls into a deep depression, only surfacing when she reacquaints herself with Jacob Black, who still nurses a crush on her. She enjoys his company and so tries to insist that their relationship is simply a friendship. Jacob proves to be extremely persistent, taking her gentle refusals with good humour and puppy-dog eyes. Still she cannot forget her passionate obsession for Edward Cullen and even begins to experience hallucinations of his presence when her life is in danger. Eventually Jacob’s warmth and affection slowly wears away her resolve and she starts to think of a life without Edward. Until one day he simply cuts off all contact. Feeling lost and bewildered she wanders into the forests surrounding Forks, only to meet Laurent, a member of the vampire pack that had hunted her the previous year. He brings her a message from Victoria. They’re going to kill her and with the Cullens gone, there is no one to protect her. Bella’s fate seems sealed, but then a pack of werewolves arrive to defend her. One of them even looks familiar to her. Are there any boys in Forks that are not mythical monsters!

Are we sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin. Perhaps my description of the plot implies that this is an exciting tale of danger. Well, it’s not. Not be a long shot. There are upswings of excitement in the narrative, but they come few and far between. I hate all the male characters. I am sick of the endless descriptions of Edward’s perfection and in this book Jacob’s muscular frame also heaves into view. The only other things Meyer seems interested in are cars! There’s a major disjunct in the story after the Cullens leave, with the plot of the first book seeming to repeat itself when Bella discovers yet another clan of fantasy creatures living nearby. As for the main character, I dislike how what little description of Bella we get show her to be a clumsy clod, a ‘magnet for danger’ and completely unable to cope without a man in her life. The religious subtext of the books also bothers me. Worst of all, Bella’s rejection by Edward leaves her an automaton, focused on being a ‘good girl’ for her dad, cooking, cleaning and keeping her grades up. She never feels any anger towards the vampire, which usually helps when you’ve had your heart broken.

On the other hand… I don’t like these books, but lots of folks do, so who am I to throw the first stone? After all I just reviewed Brandon Sanderson purely to get a bead on how he would finish up the Wheel of Time series and they are terrible books. Maybe the kids reading Twilight will grow out of them and find Jodi Piccoult. Or if they’re fans of the beefcake, maybe they’ll discover Anais Nin? Also if the Volturi are a dig at the Church of Rome, well I’m not too bothered by that. Hell it reminded me of a Bill Hicks quote. So I guess live and let live is my conclusion. I’m tired of all the obnoxious complaining about Twifans, as it only led to this.

Furthermore…Team Alice? Oh Meyer, you cad!

I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.

This novel about intelligence hiding behind an ordinary mask in a Paris apartment building, the necessity of having to disguise one’s interests for fear of being exposed as someone with ambitions beyond the norm, posed an interesting problem for me. Francophiles the world over know the average French person is just moments from a marvelous quip, or a stunning observation. They all have impeccable taste, wearing gorgeous fashions all year round and eat without gaining an ounce! They live and breathe beauty, do they not? So what makes Madame Michel and the precocious child Paloma Josse so special? It would appear our French teachers and those insipid travelogues on television have been lying to us friends. The French are just like us. Lonely, tired of having to pretend to fit in all the time, depressed at the thought of what life is all about.

Oh did I mention this is a delightful book? Sorry, perhaps I’m leading you astray.

Madame Michel is the concierge for number 7, Rue de Grenelle. She is a widow and has few friends in this world, besides a Portuguese cleaning lady who meets her for tea after cleaning the soiled underwear of the building’s tenants. The residents of number 7 are very wealthy, very cultured members of the upper class. To them Renée Michel and her friend Manuela Lopes are invisible, members of the lower classes whose sole purpose is to open their doors, check their mail and clean up their mess. Our story begins with Renée accidentally admitting to knowledge of Marx to one of the residents of the building, a pretentious student who has just declared himself enlightened after a brush with Communist theory. Before she can stop herself, Renée mentions that The German Ideology is an essential text for students of Marxism. Cursing herself, she quickly retreats into her concierge’s lodge. The role of the concierge is not to be seen, or acknowledged by her betters. She is not meant to admit to her love of literature, her dismissive assessment of modern philosophy and appreciation of Japanese cinema. If Renée were to mention Edmund Husserl, or Ozu to her employers, they would assume she was babbling nonsense. So she hides herself in her duties and lives a secret life of quiet contemplation.

Paloma is an equally intelligent and fiercely proud individual who simply wants to hide away. Her father is a government minister who likes to pretend to be an ordinary bourgeois at home, with a bottle of beer in hand as he watches the football. Her mother has been in therapy for ten years, although in actuality this translates as having been medicated for ten years. She embarrasses Paloma with her insipid observations and interfering manner. Colombe, the eldest Josse child, is a student at the École normale supérieure and enjoys looking down on anyone she deems inferior. She’s a philistine in philosophy drag. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life hiding from the world like Renée has, Paloma decides that on her thirteenth birthday she will kill herself. Until then she keeps a journal of thoughts, on the offchance that something she observes will convince her to continue living.

This is a wonderful book.  Each of the two main characters narrate their respective chapters to the reader. Renée speaks of her past, her love of literature and Ridley Scott films. Paloma writes haikus at the start of each journal entry and professes her love for Manga, in between suicidal digressions. Their shared appreciation of Japanese culture leads to a fateful encounter with a new tenant at number 7, who changes their lives.

Read the book, watch the film and fall in love with the delicate story of two lost souls finding something worth living for.

Above all she seemed to fear his sudden death (heart attack, car accident), his “disappearing” – “vanishing.”

Like the first husband Dirk supposed.

Except, strangely, Ariah no longer seemed to recall that she’d had a first husband, before Dirk Burnaby.

Joyce Carol OatesThe Falls begins with a tragedy that leads to an unexpected romance and union between two lonely people. For most stories, that might be scope enough for a novel. Oates goes further though, spinning her tale to take in desire, betrayal, corruption, murder and finally, decades after the events that set this story in motion, a kind of redemption.

When Gilbert Erskine jumps from the railings of the Niagara Falls in June 1950, he leaves behind his bride married only hours before. A tortured young man who expected to find in his older wife a replacement mother figure, he instead found himself repulsed by the act of sex itself, compounding all the contradictions in his character, such as being a Presbyterian minister who rigidly believes in the Biblical age of the Earth, yet also feels fascinated by fossils. His bride Ariah Erskine, nee Littrell, is left feeling abandoned, damned, blaming herself for her husband of less than 24 hours’ death. While emergency services search for the body, she takes up a silent vigil of the Falls, which is reported widely in the media, her story fodder for local headlines and gossip. For seven days she waits, refusing to speak to her parents, or Gilbert’s, lying to the investigators who ask if there was a suicide note so that the reputation of a man of god can be protected. When the bloated corpse is finally retrieved, she collapses after recognizing the ring on his finger.

For years the story of the ‘Widow-Bride of the Falls’, is retold, becoming a timeless urban legend, a ghostly figure who is said to still be seen at her vigil. But Ariah’s life continues. During the seven days a young lawyer named Dirk Burnaby offered his services, interceding on her behalf with the emergency crews, the Erskines and Littrells, trying to keep her picture out of the paper. Dirk is a handsome, charismatic local celebrity, blessed with good luck and a powerful family that protects him from his gambling losses and romantic indiscretions. This golden boy and competitive legal eagle is surprised to find himself falling for the brittle and thin-lipped Ariah and proposes to her. They marry in a civil wedding, ignoring the cries of shame from their respective families.

Ariah takes the name of Burnaby, her third surname, and settles into a contented life of affection and mutual devotion. Still she can never feel truly secure, fearing this second husband will also leave, as the man she refers to only as the other did. When she discovers she is pregnant she is terrified by the thought that this is the product of her abrupt one night of married life with Erskine. In all the husband and wife Burnaby have three children, Chandler, Royall and daughter Juliet. Ariah’s fears of being damned, cursed by causing her first husband’s suicide, never dissipate and soon the family is touched once again by tragedy, with the Falls claiming another life.

Oates’ fluid and lyrical style of writing is matched to a plot that surges like the waters of the Falls themselves. Ariah at first believes in a strict moral universe ruled over by a judgemental God, but slowly sees nothing but random chance at work in her world. Dirk never questions the advantages he enjoys as a member of the jetset upper class. When finally he is confronted with a conspiracy that betrays everything he has taken for granted in his privileged life, he is unable to perceive the nature of evil even as it stares him in the face. In the town around the Falls the tourist industry is booming, but secrets have been buried in the ground, secrets attached to the name of Burnaby. Oates takes this story of two people who have found one another, found love in the midst of tragedy and challenges that love, dashing their happiness against the rocks. It’s a story that is passed along three generations, finally ending in the autumn of 1978. A story of voices luring suicides to their end in the Falls, oedipal mothers availing of face-lifts, the mysterious woman in black and a strange shaven-headed boy who holds the answers to the tragedy that haunts the Burnabys.

A truly amazing book.

She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to life even one day.

Anthony Lane’s collection of criticism Nobody’s Perfect includes his review of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Throughout he spends more time discussing the book that lies at the heart of the film, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, than he does talking about the picture itself.

Now I understand why. This is a delightful book, one that I had the pleasure of reading, well under my day limit, in a single sitting. The language flows like poetry and infuses the experimental, modernist style of Woolf’s writing with a carefully controlled fluency of expression.

In short, this is a more refined, upper-class and terribly English version of Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes, even down to a fettered stream of consciousness that skips backwards in time during a single day in London.

Clarissa Dalloway herself is a study in late-life smouldering passion. The opening sequence has her wander through a London described with a degree of vibrancy and detail usually reserved for countryside scenes. The modernist ideal is quickly sketched of man-made cities possessing just as much beauty as the natural world.

As she walks the streets we meet the other voices contained with this book. The tragic World War I veteran Septimus, traumatized by the deaths he has witnessed. His Italian wife Rezia, who cannot understand why her much decorated husband is suddenly given over to suicidal mutterings and what she perceives as cowardice. Clarissa’s former suitor Peter Walsh, returned from India and an unhappy marriage, with rumours dogging him of an affair with the wife of a British officer. Woolf also has passing strangers, servants, relations and partners speak to the reader, offering ever more rounded perspectives on each of the characters. Individual paragraphs can contain multiple takes on the one event and a day in London continues to stretch to contain this multiplicity of lives.

‘We all have our moments of depression,’

Woolf twins Septimus and Clarissa in their increasing sense of being trapped. The former has endured the horrors of war and emerged haunted by the memory of his comrade-in-arms Evans, whose death he was unable to mourn. He retreats further and further into his mind, becoming obsessed with symbols and abstract ideas, resenting his wife’s attempts to draw him back into the world. Clarissa made the sensible choice in marrying Richard Dalloway and becoming a mother. Through her reminiscence we learn how a conventional life was the furthest thing from her mind as a younger woman, tempted by the thought of a relationship with the passionate yet unfocused Peter, or her close friendship with Sally Seton, the subject of much fevered speculation as to a lesbian subtext to the novel. In fact the library book I read had long passages underlined in red pen, with a note on the page’s margin LESBIANISM.

Well, everyone has different priorities I guess.

While Septimus speaks openly of suicide and a life already over, Clarissa reflects on what might have been, what may have been lost. Her thoughts on Peter and Sally focus constantly on how important they were to her. It is interesting that the novel is closing moments are given to her husband and daughter, their regard for her a product of a real relationship, based in the here and now.

Once again I have stumbled onto a book I would rather have enjoyed to read over a couple of days. I will certainly be returning to it at a later date. Delicate and filled with a quietly observed sense of despair, an unreserved treat.

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