“Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney (2017)

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“Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.”

A friend of mine raved about this book for months before I got hold of it. She kept sending me passages and telling me how great it was and, intrigued, I bought it and settled down. Another friend said that the title sounded like I was revising for social situations. But no, just a piece of fiction from a new Irish writer.

Frances is a university student in Dublin, who spends her evenings performing spoken word poetry with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi. Frances is considered by some to be a little aloof, but she’s just an observant person who doesn’t always feel like she has much to say. The pair meet photographer and journalist Melissa. She loves their performances and wants to write a piece about them, with photographs to match, so the pair visit her house. She’s sixteen years older than them, and married to the effortlessly handsome Nick, a jobbing actor, and so begins a four-way friendship.

Things get complicated, however, when Frances begins sleeping with Nick and can’t work out exactly how she feels about him. She decides not to tell Bobbi about it, and hopes that Melissa doesn’t find out. They communicate mostly via e-mail, and Frances isn’t begins to doubt whether she can keep it up. Unfortunately, she and Bobbi have just been invited to Melissa and Nick’s holiday home in France, so the relationship takes on a new turn on the continent. The relationships between the four main characters drive the plot along as everyone tries to work out what they want and how to get it.

First up, the writing is beautiful. It sings. That was the overwhelming takeaway I had from the book, even early on. It’s no surprise to say that none of the characters are especially pleasant, but the Sally Rooney has something special going on. Her prose is finely balanced, startling and charged with emotion. In many ways, it’s quite poetic. Among these, I don’t think there’s actually that much plot happening. It’s mostly about a couple having an affair – a common plot point in fiction – but it’s explored with great pathos and I found that, somehow, I couldn’t entirely hate the characters. Bobbi and Melissa are more unlikable to me, and I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with either of them: Melissa is snooty and selfish, Bobbi is pretentious and thinks she’s more alternative than she is. Nick starts off simply being dull, but redeems himself with a collection of interesting traits later on. Frances is the most intriguing character, perhaps simply because she’s narrating. She is always watching people and is quick to judge, even if only inside her own head, but she’s evidently talented. She is, however, also irritating, lacking any direction or indeed any desire for direction in her life. She’s one of those people who blunders along assuming that everything will sort itself out without any input from her. It’s a trait I know well – it describes me too. In fact, like with Not Working that I read the other week, there are a few too many home truths here.

There are some pretty uncomfortable scenes, too. These range from emotionally uncomfortable incidents where Frances and Nick try to work out what the other wants, but both are equally incapable of expressing themselves properly, to the physically uncomfortable, with Frances’s occasional bouts of self-harm, and an ongoing medical problem that she can’t bring herself to admit to people.

It is a wonderful book and the writing cannot be faulted, but the emotion I’m left with at the end of it all is sadness. It’s a tragedy, with characters doing bad things to one another behind their backs, and none of them ever changing or learning from their mistakes. However, I still enjoyed it, and I feel somewhat hollow now it’s over. A blisteringly truthful book, with angst peppered over every page.

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“The True Deceiver” by Tove Jansson (1982)

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“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.”

With the weather finally beginning to show signs that it’s remembered what spring should look like, I inexplicably took it upon myself to dive into a book full of snowscapes. As a kid, I loved snow, but as I got older it just became more of an inconvenience. I remain somewhat enchanted by it however – especially if I have nowhere I need to be – and am always fascinated by how quiet it seems. Rain and wind both come with noise, and even a sunny day will ensure some noise as people cut lawns and have barbecues, but snow is entirely silent. It blankets the world in sheer nothingness and hides a multitude of sins, and when it thaws, who knows what may be revealed…

Katri Kling is an unusual young woman in many ways. She has no time for the niceties most people engage in, is short and sharp and seems only to have meaningful relationships with her brother Mats and her nameless dog. Anna Aemelin, an elderly book illustrator, however is respected around the Finnish village the two call home, even if no one much sees her. Katri has decided that she and her brother should live in Anna’s house, known around the village as the Rabbit House, and sets about putting her plan in motion to convince Anna she’s not safe alone.

Once in, the two women begin a strange and somewhat aggressive relationship. Neither completely comfortable in the others company and having very different views on the world means that soon it’s not quite clear who’s telling the truth. As the Finnish winter begins to move into spring, they realise that their lives have changed, but whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

The novel is written by Tove Jansson who is more famous for creating The Moomins, but there is little here to compare the two works save for perhaps a fondness for nature and open spaces. There are no earth-shattering events taking place in this novel, merely two women with very different aims and a small flurry of nosy villagers who all have their own opinions on what’s going on and aren’t afraid to share them. The snowscape setting is somewhat unnerving and there is a sort of eerie chill to a world like this. I find snow gives a sense of mystery and almost menace to a plot, and the book is chilling in more ways than one, despite the lack of extreme drama. As we all know, nothing is scarier than something. And there isn’t anything scary here – not that Jansson is writing anything that’s meant to be a horror story. In many ways it’s quite a sweet tale of loneliness and expectation. It is, however, about so much more. It’s about where we belong and more importantly it’s about truth, lies and how flexible the line is between the two.

An interesting novel – the sort that will suddenly come back to mind inexplicably on a quiet, snowy morning several years from now.

“Dodger” by Terry Pratchett (2012)

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He'd do anything.

He’d do anything.

“The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was a dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellow for supremecy in the air and waiting to splash down.”

Last year I wrote a somewhat scathing review of Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, bidding the Discworld canon adieu as I did so. However, not so long after this statement, this novel found its way onto my shelves and there it has sat for the best part of a year as I worked up the courage to return to Pratchett. However, this not being a Discworld novel, I hoped that maybe I would have better luck with it than previous experiences with him.

This is the story of Dodger, a tosher in Victorian London who knows everyone but manages to keep on the right side of the law by living up to his name. However, one night during a torrential storm, he comes across a young woman being beaten by two men. Dodger is not without heart and takes it upon himself to rid the girl of these men, thrashing them senseless. Later, Dodger and the girl are rescued by two other men who take them to a place of safety.

It then turns out that this girl is not just any girl. Although she refuses to give her name, it quickly becomes evident that she is of aristocratic and foreign stock. Dodger learns that their saviours are none other than Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens, the latter of whom wants Dodger to put his skills to the test and find out who it was beating up the girl (known as Simplicity) and to perhaps put a stop to them. Accompanied by his Jewish landlord Solomon and his stinky dog Onan, and with the luck of the Lady of the Sewers on his side, Dodger begins an adventure that sees his name become more and more common around the city. And when he is recorded as having done battle with cut-throat demon Sweeney Todd, it suddenly seems that everyone is after Dodger.

OK, so first things first, I enjoyed this much better than my previous visits to the Discworld. Although the tone and style is still unmistakably Pratchett (which in itself is not a bad thing), it requires far less world-building meaning that one can get stuck right into the story and spend more time with the characters and the action. It’s almost like a Who’s Who of Victorian London at the time, featuring not only the aforementioned Dickens and Mayhew, but also founder of the police force Robert Peel, up-and-coming politician Benjamin Disraeli, cartoonist John Tenniel, and millionaire philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, among others.

There is the obvious assumption, also, that Dickens eventually takes Dodger’s character and immortalises him on the pages of Oliver Twist, and while I was half expecting the titular orphan or Nancy to turn up, neither did, although Solomon Cohen is the very basic blueprint for Fagin. As mentioned, the only other fictional character present is Sweeney Todd, presented in a very different light than we are used to. The book is peppered however with references to Dickens’ work, such as people using his titles in passing. Dickens is never slow in making a note of what he sees as a good idea for a future novel.

Victorian London was a ghastly place, and the book highlights that, spending much of its time in the sewers, and many more pages in the slums of the East End. The divide between the rich and the poor is never far from the text though, as Dodger is sucked into the world of the upper-class, donning a suit and his now infamous stovepipe hat in order to pass as a gentleman. It’s a book about battling the odds and surviving no matter the cost, but also about the “fog of truth”, that is to say that everyone sees things slightly differently, and it is up to journalists, historians and other individuals to decide on what they think is the truth or not, plucking the salient points in their preferred order from the mist of ideas.

Pitched as a young adult book, I don’t necessarily feel that that’s exclusively the case, and it certainly reads for an older audience, using Pratchett’s typically verbose style. Outdated concepts and other Victoriana are discussed in footnotes and the acknowledgements, and there’s a wonderful “bonus scene” at the end if one keeps on reading, like a deleted scene on a DVD. I’ve always had rather a fondness for the Artful Dodger, and this sort-of-retelling of his life is a fascinating, funny and charming read.