Monthly Archives: October 2016

‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan

nutshellstarstarstarstarBrilliant! This is McEwan at his best. The whole novel is a monologue by an intelligent, philosophical, articulate fetus who is witness to a murder plot. The storyline is loosely from Hamlet, (I’ll leave you to make those parallels) although it’s not meant to be an exact retelling. It’s a classic tale of murder and deceit, with commentary on life as we know it, thrown in for good measure. The fetus speaks quite casually yet very eloquently, about many aspects of our era, about the world he is about to join. Slow down and savour these parts, even as you are compelled to keep reading to see what happens next in this compact and captivating novel.

Trudy has betrayed her husband John. She’s still in his home, a filthy dilapidated, priceless London townhouse, living with John’s brother Claude. This arrangement is incomprehensible, even to the unborn child, because Claude is banal and vile.  Nevertheless the two have a plan, totally unaware that there is a witness to their plot–an inquisitive and thoughtful nine month old resident of Trudy’s womb.

To give you a flavour of the writing, here is the first paragraph:

“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

 

‘Grunt’ by Mary Roach

gruntstarstarstar“Heroism doesn’t always happen in a burst of glory. Sometimes small triumphs and large hearts change the course of history. Sometimes a chicken can save a man’s life.”

Mary Roach writes the most interesting and entertaining non-fiction. She’s my favourite science gal geek. When our son was in medical school, I gave him her book called Stiff, subtitled “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” She has other fascinating, funny, and informative titles like: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Couple of Science and Sex, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (that’s the digestive system, I had to look it up). Her books are well researched, never boring, short and to the point, and will have you chuckling no matter how grim or grimy or gruesome the content.

Grunt is about the battles that soldiers face, but not the usual kind of battles you may immediately imagine. There is nothing about military strategy, history of war, or weaponry in this book. Instead Roach deals with the least considered but equally critical adversaries such as heat exhaustion, cataclysmic noise, panic, bacteria, shock, clothing construction, tank and submarine design, and ill-timed gastrointestinal urgency. After reading this book I will look upon the entire military venture with fresh eyes. I have gained an appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into keeping soldiers safe, comfortable and alive. There is a lot of science that goes into this topic and it covers much more than a well proportioned flak jacket! Like hearing loss, the less visible injuries of war can be the hardest kind to have and Roach does an important job of communicating the everyday sorts of challenges that the military faces.

‘The Midwife of Hope River’ by Patricia Harman (Hope River Series # 1)

the-midwife-of-hope-riverstarstarstarPatience Murphy has not had an easy life; it has been marked by tragedy and she has had to persevere through hard times. Her only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges and joys of childbirth, often for free or with only a chicken or a cup of flour for payment.

Not completely qualified yet, Patience is building up her experience as a midwife during a time and in a place where hospital care was either too far away or too expensive for most women.  She has to learn fast and slowly builds trust in the community. Some births are complicated and some quite straightforward.  The book is not just about childbirth though. The story is set in the Appalachians during the Great Depression, a time of poverty and racial divides. The book is a bit of a cross between Amy McKay’s The Birth House and Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife. The author is herself a midwife which lends authenticity to the novel.

This was a delightful and very readable debut in a series that I will definitely continue with; the next instalment is already out and is called The Reluctant Midwife. We all need to curl up with a series sometimes don’t we?

‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue

the-wonderstarstarstarstarOn the Giller Prize 2016 shortlist, this latest book by Irish/Canadian author Emma Donoghue (author of Room), features Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a dedicated and talented former “Florence Nightingale nurse.” Being summoned from England for a special job, Lib finds herself in the midst of a difficult case in rural Ireland, post potato famine. It’s actually interesting to note that this novel is set primarily in one small room as well, with a woman and child at the centre.

Eleven year old Anna O’Donnell has refused food for 4 months and yet appears to be in miraculously good health.  In The Wonder, Donoghue explores through historical fiction, the phenomenon of the “fasting girls.” Fasting Girls were adolescent girls in the 1700-1800s who were hailed as marvels for surviving without food, giving them special religious or magical powers. Lib’s job is to observe the girl to help a committee decide if she is a celebrity wonder or if there is something fraudulent or sinister at work. At first it seems a straightforward enough task, but as she becomes more involved she fears for Anna’s life. Is Anna the victim of slow motion murder?

This is a hugely atmospheric novel, short and easy to read, and compelling because of the setting, complete with murky Irish bogs, family secrets, gossip, creepy religious men, and a little romance for good measure. There’s a lot more to this novel than the simple solid story: English snobbery vs. Irish tradition, Catholic vs. Protestant, science vs. faith, and women vs. men. The author really made me care about the characters and it was a page turner in that sense, although not much happens outside of the central mystery: what is going on with Anna and why does she so stalwartly continue to refuse food? The pacing does pick up in the last half and I must say I still can’t decide if I found the ending brilliant or deeply clichéd. I think it might be the latter, but I’d love to know what you think.