“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend hat it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

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“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

“A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby (2005)

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“Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block?”

Suicide still seems to be one of the most taboo subjects in the Western world. Death is rarely something any of us want to think of, and many of us are upset, perhaps outraged, by the concept of someone taking their own life. Most, if not all, religions look upon it as a grave sin, and there are organisations dedicated to preventing people from doing it. I’ve, fortunately, never been in a position where I felt that death was the only option, so I can offer no explanation for how these people feel or what drives them to the edge, sometimes literally. In my first foray into a Nick Hornby novel, he dips his toe into the world of the suicidal and tries to shed some light on it all.

Martin Sharp doesn’t think he has anything left to live for. After sleeping with an underage girl, he’s done time in prison and is now dealing with no contact with his children, no career prospects, and no hope. On New Year’s Eve he makes his way to the roof of Topper’s House, a popular suicide spot in north London. However, while contemplating the leap, he finds himself joined by three other would-be jumpers: Maureen, a single mother struggling to cope with the prospect of another year with her disabled son, Jess, who is eighteen and only wanted an explanation from her ex-boyfriend as to why he left her, and JJ, an American whose dreams have not come true and he’s not a world-famous musician.

Unable and unwilling to jump with an audience, Martin comes away from the ledge and the four eat the pizza JJ was delivering to the building and then descend through the building to a party to find Jess’s ex. The four vastly different people are soon bound by this one act, and when the press hunt them down and start asking questions, they find themselves united and lying to the country about what really happened on the roof. As time goes on and their friendships develop, they begin to see that maybe death isn’t the answer. Maybe they were just asking the wrong questions.

The most incredible character of the novel is, in my opinion, Maureen. She has a son who is trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move or communicate, and she has dedicated her life to him, sacrificing any joy from her life to take care of him. Her life is tragic in the extreme. She is incredibly isolated and generally unaware of anything that’s happened in the outside world for about twenty years. You can see fully why she would want to end it, but are heartbroken by the fact that she thinks that’s the only option. She is as trapped as her son, and her passages are the most poignant and wonderful. She was my favourite character by a long way, if only because I wanted to help rescue her.

The narration shifts around between the four characters, and Hornby does a brilliant job of making them all sound so distinct. Maureen bleeps out her swear words, Jess doesn’t use correct punctuation and her sentences run on, and JJ uses Americanisms throughout. I like the other three characters just fine too, but they are all less sympathetic than Maureen. Jess seems like a typical angst-ridden teenager but we learn more about exactly who she is and what happened to her to get her in this position. JJ has the least reason to jump, almost seeming to find himself at Topper’s House on a whim, so he at first lies about his reason for wanting to end it all. Martin is arrogant and foolish, but he’s also rather self aware and his character does undergo some development throughout the novel, showing he is capable of learning from mistakes, even if he doesn’t always follow the lesson fully.

In another novel, maybe some of the things that happen to them would seem far-fetched, but here they seem to work. People bond in difficult times in strange ways, so I took it that it had to take something extraordinary to bring these people together, but once they were, everything they did seemed normal. There’s no reason these four should ever have met otherwise, but I think life generally throws us in the path of the people we need most.

A couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but generally not as funny as billed, however that’s not really a complaint. It’s very wise and thoughtful and really rather beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.

“Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain” by Barney Norris (2016)

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five-rivers“Long before the steep trickle of the Channel widened to make an island of England, before the first settlers arrived and started claiming the land around, laying down tree trunks to make pathways through marshes from ridgeway to mountain to hill, something unusual happened in the green south of Wiltshire.”

Every so often you stumble across a book that feels particularly special. All the truths of the world are hidden in the lies of novels, and Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain has done something really rather wonderful. I’ll get my bitterness over the fact that the author, Barney Norris, is only a year older than me and wildly more successful and talented out of the way as quickly as possible and on we go with the review.

Set in the beautiful city of Salisbury and its picturesque surroundings, Five Rivers… brings together the overlapping stories of five residents. Rita is the wrong side of sixty, selling flowers in the market by day and dealing drugs by night. Sam has just turned sixteen and is dealing with the hormonal headache that comes from falling in love for the first time. George has just been widowed from his wife of fifty years and doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s meant to happen next. Alison is a desperately lonely middle-aged woman, left alone for weeks on end with a son at boarding school and a husband serving in Afghanistan. And Liam is a security guard, running  away from his problems and finding himself back where he began. A car crash brings the five together and their lives loop around one another, bringing to the surface feelings that they’ve tried hard to hide.

Despite his relatively young age, Norris slips into the roles of his five narrators like a man trying on a series of tailor-made suits on Savile Row. He inhabits the role of the nervous, awkward Sam as naturally he does the older woman Rita. His style is mesmerising, and each character leaps off the page as a complete individual, despite us few if any clues as to their physical appearances. It doesn’t matter though, because they feel plenty real enough.

Norris has tapped into something utterly remarkable here, and frequently I found myself having to stop for a while, tears threatening to expose themselves, as he reveals yet another painful truth about the world. As Sam himself notes, “It’s so strange when a song or a story can […] put your own feelings into words as if you’d hidden them there yourself”. The text is full of emotions and thoughts that have definitely occurred to me, but I’ve never been able to get them out quite right. Some writer I am, huh. Norris makes it look easy. Sam’s chapter is the one I had particular difficulty in dealing with, as I saw a lot of myself in him, right down to some painfully specific details.

While the book contains all sorts of themes on the smallness of the world, how to find happiness, and how to decide what really matters in life, there are two overwhelming themes for me. The first is the relationship between parents and their children, in particular that of mothers and sons. Most of the characters have issues in this field, and we explore them from different angles. Sam has lived in a quiet house where he and his parents have never spoken about anything “important”. Alison feels herself drifting from her teenage son and wonders if she’ll ever be able to be friends with him. Liam’s parents are moving on with their lives and starting again in their fifties, leaving him feeling lost. The strongest theme is, however, loneliness. Despite being cripplingly afraid of loneliness myself, I seem to keep finding books about it and almost without fail falling in love with them. Each of the five main characters is lonely in one way or another, either cut off from their family, or unable to open up, or feeling isolated and trapped. So many of us plod on through life, but how many of us are actually happy with what has happened to us?

A deeply beautiful book from an author who I shall be keeping an eye on, because I think this could be the start of a very promising literary career.

My novel contains much less in the way of beautiful, worldly truths, but instead fills Salisbury with bickering gods and an ancient cannibal. Get hold of The Atomic Blood-stained Bus on Amazon if you like that sort of thing.

“The Creator” by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir (2008)

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creator“Sveinn hung the last ones out to dry: the hooks pierced the back of the necks.”

I don’t know much about Iceland. In fact, I know three things about it. Firstly, naming conventions work so that parents and their children have different surnames. Secondly, they are the country with the most Nobel Prizes per capita (with 1 prize). Thirdly, every Christmas Eve it is traditional to buy people books, which I think is one of the most wonderful traditions on the planet. Had I got my skates on and finished this book on Christmas Eve, then it would have been thematically appropriate to present the world with an Icelandic novel on my blog on that day. As it is, I’ve been full of alcohol and food for the last few days, so you’re getting it on Boxing Day instead. Cheers!

In the small Icelandic town of Akranes, Sveinn lives a fairly solitary existence. Most of the time, the only company he has are the dolls he makes by hand, but these are far from children’s playthings. Sveinn makes sex dolls, and because of this, most of society seems to have shunned him, except the men grateful for his products, which are regarded as things of beauty and shockingly realistic.

One night, Lóa, a woman who is only just holding it all together, breaks down outside Sveinn’s house. He takes her in, cooks her dinner and fixes her car. Too tired and drunk to drive home, she sleeps in his living room, and when Sveinn wakes up the next morning, he finds that Lóa has gone – and she’s taken one of the dolls with her.

Like so many books that draw me in with some kind of magnetism, this one again deals with themes of loneliness and the struggle of coping without a network around you for support. Given that Iceland could be thought of as being rather a cold and empty island, the sense of being alone seems magnified, and you feel for Sveinn and Lóa in their difficult circumstances. Chapters alternate between their viewpoints, and sometimes the events overlap, giving you slightly different versions of what happened or how conversations went depending on which side you’re hearing. The novel takes place over the space of a week or so, and it is a week that will change them both profoundly.

As ever with translated books, you never really know how much of it is down to the writer and how much to the translator, but the book is full of some very beautiful and meaningful lines. At one point, Sveinn ponders, “There are some days when you are only sure of what you don’t want”, which about sums up my life, and later there’s one of my favourite analogies in fiction: “Sunday was as dreary and discordant as a church choir in a sparsely populated country parish…”

It’s a strange but rather charming book, with likeable, odd characters and a melancholic sense of whimsy. I liked it, and I think I’ll definitely be returning to this most literary of countries for more fiction in the future.

“Let’s Kill Uncle” by Rohan O’Grady (1964)

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uncle“Liar! Liar! Liar!”

There seems to be a fashion at the moment for publishing houses to be rooting around in forgotten books of the last century, dusting them off and republishing them. I don’t have any complaints with this. The British Library is focusing on crime novels, but Bloomsbury seem to have cast the net a little wider. I knew nothing of Rohan O’Grady (real name: June O’Grady Skinner) but I was intrigued by the title and blurb, so dived into this novel from the sixties.

Barnaby Gaunt has been sent to a remote island of Canada for his summer holidays, but his Uncle hasn’t arrived yet, so he’ll have to stay with Mr and Mrs Brooks in the meantime. Also spending her summer holidays on the island is young Christie McNab and, being the only two children on the island, they are forced to become friends and play together. While things start off a little rocky, the eventual harmony is shattered when Barnaby learns that his Uncle will soon be there. Everyone thinks he should be happy about this, but no one knows the truth – Barnaby is the heir to a ten million dollar fortune, and his Uncle is trying to kill him.

The island’s Mountie, Sergeant Coulter, tries to be fair to the children and forgive their misdeeds, but he doesn’t believe Barnaby for a minute when the young boy confides in him his fears. Barnaby and Christie, therefore, decide to take matters into their own hands. They must kill Uncle before it’s too late.

Despite the premise’s promise of being about two children plotting to kill a relative, this only forms half the tale. The rest is taken up by the thoughts and feelings of the Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. He is a native of the island and the only one from there who went to war and didn’t do the decent, brave thing of dying in battle. He is kind and fair, and has a complex relationship with the children, of whom he is very fond, but also can’t wait to see them leave. Despite the kindness he shows to humans, he is far less patient with the island’s lone cougar, One-Ear, and ruthlessly plots to kill the beast.

As I often find with children in novels, Barnaby and Christie are fairly irritating, but you can see that they mean well. Barnaby has many issues to deal with regarding his Uncle, and these become clearer as the book goes on. At first they seem irredeemable, but like Coulter I came to have a certain grudging like of them by the end. The oddest character of all, though, is Uncle himself. He doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the narrative, and while we know he’s out to kill Barnaby – and there’s no question that it isn’t the imaginary ramblings of a small child – he is almost cartoonishly villainous, a sociopath of the highest order. He seems to have stepped into this book from one that was somewhat lighter. Because don’t be fooled by the childishness suggestion given by the title – this is rather a dark novel.

A review on the cover says that the book is ahead of its time, and I can see that in a couple of ways. It reads a little like something Lemony Snicket would produce, with the same set-up of children in a small community of adults, none of whom believe the danger they are in. Uncle reminded me throughout of Count Olaf. It also makes an oblique reference to sexual abuse towards children, as Uncle is noted a few times to have a fondness for little girls, and there’s a mention that he’s made many of them disappear in the past. When he muses on the fact that Christie is too wise to be fooled into following him in exchange for candy, it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine. The mix of the naivety of the children and the horrors like this jar occasionally, but it’s rather a good book nonetheless.

What strikes me most about the book is the sense of loneliness and stagnation hanging over everything. With no young men or children left on the island, the place is slowly dying, and everyone is hurting and has lost someone. It’s always quite a moment when you find a line in fiction that reveals such a truth about you that you have to stop reading for a moment and contemplate things. I leave you with a quotation from the book that particularly struck me.

He couldn’t stand it and walked down to the beach, feeling as though the main stream of humanity had passed him by and that he would stand on beaches, forsaken and forgotten, for the rest of eternity.

“Eleanor Rigby” by Douglas Coupland (2004)

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All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

“I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn.”

In my retrawl through Douglas Coupland’s work, I had from the beginning been dreading Eleanor Rigby. That of course makes it sound that I don’t like it, but that’s not true. I really like it. It’s beautiful and very artfully crafted. It’s just about a topic that I find uncomfortable – and there isn’t much that makes me uncomfortable.

Loneliness is something that I’ve discussed here before, and dealt with a few times in my life. I don’t want to get too maudlin about the whole thing, but it’s unpleasant and not something I recommend. There is a distinct difference between being alone and being lonely and before I get too into this, I’d better actually discuss the book.

Eleanor Rigby is the story of Liz Dunn, self-professed loneliest woman in the world. Coming from a traditionally Couplandian dysfunctional family, she has become stuck in a small apartment in an anonymous neighbourhood in Vancouver, now in her thirties, entirely unmarried and living a life that is bland and unexciting. The most dramatic thing that ever happened to her was the discovery of a dead body on the side of the train tracks when she was a child. Her family love her, but her life is never deemed as interesting as those of her brother William and sister Leslie.

Then, one day in 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet is in the skies and Liz is coming down off painkillers from having her wisdom teeth removed, she gets a phone call from the hospital. They’ve got someone in asking to see her. His name is Jeremy, he’s twenty years old, and he’s her son.

Typically of Coupland, it’s a book full of wonderful lines and moments (“What about life after death?”; “What about death after life after death?”), although I had forgotten much of it in between the first and second read. Some parts stick out, such as Liz’s descriptions of her crippling loneliness and a scene in which Jeremy and Liz crawl along the highway in rush hour. There’s some stuff about psychology (unavoidable as some of the story takes place in Vienna, home of Freud) and modern medicine, and the nature of time passing.

There’s a beauty about it, and a certain haunting quality, made stronger by the fact that I happen to personally be in a fairly dark and lonely place myself right now. I’m not someone who craves a relationship – I’m happy being single – but there’s an unavoidable fact that sometimes you find yourself without any company. Everyone has their own lives, I’m not faulting that, but it can get you down. As I said, I knew that this book would be difficult and maybe right now it wasn’t the smartest book to read in this mood, but maybe it just helped me get better into the tale.

Liz Dunn is one of my favourite Coupland characters, and you can’t help but feel sorry for her and her empty life. She’s not depressed, but she is sad, and that’s perhaps worse. Jeremy is like a breath of fresh air to both the pages and her life, and he brings a touch of magic to the whole thing. The book is very Coupland – normal people in abnormal situations – but it’s engaging, sweet and very touching. I don’t think it’s one that gets remembered in his oeuvre (thematically fitting, I suppose) but if you’ve ever felt lonely, or are lucky enough to not know how it feels, then give it a go. You are not alone.

For a clear example of how long term loneliness can drive a person insane, you’ll find it as one of the themes in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available now on Amazon and iBooks.

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