Book Review: The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

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cv_the_doll_factoryIris and her twin sister Rose Whittle work for Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium. They make the costumes for china dolls. Often the dolls are ordered by clients to celebrate the death of an infant or some significant event in their lives. Iris was born with a twisted shoulder as a result of her shoulder being stuck in the birth canal when she was born and her sister Rose was disfigured as a result of  smallpox. The girls paint the features on the dolls, but Iris dreams of becoming a painter. A fantasy that can never be achieved through lack of money for lessons, paints and canvases.

Iris catches the eye of a pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost who wants her to be his full-time model. Iris, after some persuasion, agrees, but only on the condition Louis gives her art lessons. Rose and their parents think she is nothing more than a whore and they cut off any further contact. Louis also finds accommodation for Iris which also is a matter of contention with her family, further fuelling the fire of her being a “kept woman”.

Iris also has another admirer, the rather odd and creepy character Silas Reed. Silas catches vermin then with the art of taxidermy presents them on stands, dressing them in clothes. People have a morbid fascination with them, with many displayed in drawing rooms. Silas is also a butt of jokes as he is an odd- looking character often found in public houses muttering into his tankard. Silas, over time, becomes more and more obsessed with Iris, imagining her returning his infatuation.

The author has put together some fascinating characters together in this engrossing book, and it is a rather intriguing and at times spin- chilling read. I had to put it down at times and catch my breath before continuing. A great novel.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
Published by Picador
9781529002416

Book Review: Ponti, by Sharlene Teo

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Sharlene Teo is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend, interviewed by Acorn Foundation winner Pip Adam. 

cv_pontiUK-based Singapore novelist Sharlene Teo’s absorbing debut examines the complexities of teenage friendship, the realities of mother-daughter relationships and the affecting power of memory.

Spanning from the late 1960s up until the not-so-distant future of 2020, Ponti is narrated by three Singaporean women. Szu Min (2003), a solitary sixteen-year-old who is haunted by her mother’s early stardom and her own comparatively lacklustre life; Amisa (1960s–2000s), a one-time starlet of a trilogy of seventies horror cult films; and Circe (2020), Szu’s privileged friend who is now a disenchanted thirty-two-year-old social media consultant. Having lost contact with Szu over a decade ago, in 2020 Circe is tasked with promoting a remake of the Ponti! film trilogy in which Amisa starred – a task that brings back haunting memories of her teenage years. Switching chapter-by-chapter between the central protagonists, Teo effortlessly interlaces past, present and future into a deceptively simple but subversively complex narrative.

Teo’s visceral and vibrant writing is captivating in its originality. Drawing beauty from gritty reality and never shying away from the blunt realities of life and death, Teo writes with an accessible and emotionally evocative prose. The metaphysical become physical: time is a ‘pit’ nested in a chest, pain is a heaviness to be dragged around, and sadness ‘drips’ over furniture and sucks ‘the light out of the room’. The protagonists’ mental health struggles are frankly portrayed, from Szu’s eating disorder and devastating loneliness, to the ‘exquisitely etched stencil’ of Amisa and her ‘bloated and foggy’ postpartum depression.

As a ‘teen’ story, Ponti is unique: it centres on the experience of two ‘citizens of nowhere’ teenage girls who are proudly and unapologetically themselves. While Szu and Circe ‘never felt a belonging’, they revel in their outcast status and feel ‘secretly enlivened by our discontentment’. Their complicated relationship is described as a ‘tenuous, milk-toothed kind of love’ that evolves into ‘the toil and torpor of a difficult marriage’. Teo expertly captures the fraught nature of teenage life and the difficulties of learning how to express thoughts and emotions in a world that so often doesn’t want to listen. A novel awash with pop culture references, readers are sure to find the familiar mingled with the unfamiliar, creating a reading sensation that is simultaneously nostalgic and enlightening.

Ultimately, Ponti is a tale of a city. Singapore is depicted in unabashed reality: not as a stereotyped exotic paradise, but as a bustling metropolis bursting at its seams; a poverty ridden city-state, humid and polluted, liberal and advanced. Through the protagonists’ personal narratives, Teo records the rapidly changing nature of south-east Asia over the last three decades, where new ideals and technologies are juxtaposed against entrenched social mores. Flavours of Singapore life pervade the pages, not only through vivid descriptions of food (‘candied orange peel, fried cuttlefish, chilli kangdong’), but also through colours (‘lines emerge like litmus blooming through filter paper: neon pink, acid green, boudoir red’; ‘the aquarium light shifted from purple into teal . . . turned the green of cartoon slime, nuclear waste’). The sticky heat and haze of pollution oppresses Singapore as much as the past oppresses the protagonists.

Based around the Malayan myth of the pontianak – a cannibalistic female ghoul who hunts and kills men – supernatural influences insidiously seep through the social realism of the novel. Like its mythological phantom namesake, Ponti will quickly ensnare readers with its muscular prose and radiant beauty, but its haunting emotional resonance will leave some gasping for air. It is a visceral, lush debut.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Ponti
by Sharlene Teo
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509855322

 

Book Review: City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

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cv_city_of_crows.jpgI couldn’t find out if Paris was ever known as the ‘city of crows’, but crows, rats, disease, decay, plague, superstition, religious zealotry, witchcraft, burnings at the stake, evil, the devil, potions and spells all feature in this Paris of the 1670s. It is impossible for us in our sanitised, almost sterile and secular existences to even begin to imagine how hideous life was 350 years ago. The imagination required to create this story, and the skill to craft it is immense.

The mental pictures and images conjured up by the writer are so incredibly vivid. The physical descriptions of Paris, its poverty and depravity; the rural country side and forests in their untamed beauty and simplicity of living; life as a prisoner sentenced to years working as a galley slave; what people wore, what they ate, how they behaved towards each other (with mostly cruelty and ruthlessness).

But it is magic, black magic mostly, that is at the core of this novel. As a species, our whole society rests on how we explain the unexplained. Myths, legends, fairy tales, religions all present explanations for where we come from, what makes the sun rise every day, where storms come from… we worshipped gods of harvest to ensure food for the next year. These are just a few of the thousands of ideas we have come up with to explain the inexplicable – the ultimate tribute being a sacrifice of animals or humans to ensure the favour of the gods. So in 17th century Europe, with plague and pestilence or simply unexplained illness running rampart with no end in sight, and with praying getting no one anywhere, it is hardly surprising that people resorted to magic as yet another tool in the battle to stay alive and  get ahead.

Charlotte Picot is a young peasant woman who has lost her husband to plague, and three other children in years past. She has decided to leave her sick village in search of a better life, and with her young son Nicolas, takes to the road. Nicolas is kidnapped by child slave traders, Charlotte left for dead. She is rescued by an old woman, well known and feared by locals as a witch. The witch passes to Charlotte her spells book, shows her what she can do to get her son back, and sends her on her way.

At the same time, an unusual man who goes by the name of Lesarge is also on the road, making his own way to Paris. He is probably what we would nowadays calls a trickster, a magician, a con man. He has been released from a ten year sentence on the galleys, and is on his way to recover a fortune he knows exists in Paris. Somehow, magic brings he and Charlotte together, and they forge an unlikely alliance. After a number of adventures and encounters, they make their way to Paris.

It is definitely a strange book, and it walks a very fine line between the real world and the magical world. Both of the main characters are extraordinary, and I veered from liking to disliking to liking to being horrified by what they will do together and individually to survive. There is always that little bit of tension too in the writing – will they see a way around their differences and fall for each other, or will they always remain distrustful and scared of each other.

Unfortunately, for me, the magic got to be a bit much. The ending was most unexpected, rather horrifying, and ultimately plain silly. However, as another review I read pointed out, we have no way of knowing what state of mind Charlotte may have been in, deeply grieving, losing her last surviving child, always on the brink of finding him, but never doing so. Is it this state of mind that tips her over the edge? Or are there really darker forces at work? And Lesarge’s moral compass is somewhat disturbed as well, and he struggles to break away from his past life in the shady world of magic, potions and poisons.

There is a fantastic imagination at work here, and the writing is terrific. But there is also a lot of magic and weirdness, and if the fantasy genre is not your thing, this will only be a 3 star. If fantasy is your thing, then this could well be a great read for you.

City of Crows
by Chris Womersley
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781760551100

 

Book Review: The Good People, by Hannah Kent

 

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cv_the_good_peopleHow do we know that our lives are ours to lead? What if bad luck arose from a past wrong? These are the questions at the heart of Hannah Kent’s new novel, The Good People.

Nora has lost her daughter and is raising her grandson. The boy, Micheal, was once a thriving toddler, but at four he is paralysed, twisted and incoherent. Then her husband also dies and she is left alone to struggle against the growing rumours of evil, faeries and unseen spirits.

Here is an old tale, but told in poetic language which evokes the mists and lanes of Ireland. It is a bleak existence where the community in the valley live close and watch carefully. The Priest, a man of Christian virtue and upright morals, has no time for discussions about the Good People. He offers little support to Nora, condemning her from the pulpit each week, but not prepared to support her. So Nora turns to the wise woman. It is Nance Roche who births the children and heals the ills of the valley folk. So it is Nance who offers what support she can – and it is Nance who pays the price.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, was well received in her native Australia. This, her second book, will not disappoint her readers. Evocative language beautifully captures the landscape: “Samhain Eve came upon the valley, announced by a wind that smelt of rotting oak leaves and the vinegar tang of rotting apples”. So we see decay is here to stay.

Likewise, Kent captures the language of the people with the twists of phrase and the lilt of the Irish. “But the people here do be having a spiritual temper, Father. Sure we all have faith in the things of the invisible world. We’re a most religious people.” So says the wise Nance to the Priest.

While at times the story moved slowly, I think this accurately communicated the twists and turns of life in the valley. It is a sad tale and things move with the seasons, in their own time. This is a beautiful read from an author who knows the landscape, the people and the history of Ireland in the 1820’s.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Good People
by Hannah Kent
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781743534908

 

Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

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cv_the_museThere’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.

The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.

The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.

The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.

Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:

“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

Book Review: This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

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cv_this_census_takerChina Mieville is best known for his phantasmagoric world-building. Many of his books have given me nightmares, but I still go back there for more. This Census-Taker, which is a novella, isn’t quite in the same vein of most of his books, but it is a beautifully drawn book that carries a message about familial loyalty, and the intersection of law and decency.

The moment the book begins, you are running with the boy into the village. Mieville makes sure of it, using mixed third and first person point of view, taking the place of both runner and witness. His mother has killed his father. No, perhaps it was his father that killed his mother. Certainly, somebody killed another body, and he witnessed it. A team of men dispatch from the town, with guns and weapons, to ascertain the truth of the matter.

The setting feels like a reckless land. A far-flung village, sparsely occupied, with very little vegetation: brown soil, brown grass, brown seeds. People are living hand-to-mouth, with ragged orphans roaming around the streets, our protagonist becoming one of them for a period during the book. The thing this setting has in common with his other, urban settings, is an overall feel of despair. People are killed and disposed of without compunction, sacrificed to a spirit in a cave.

The boy’s father is a key-maker. Not of keys for doors, but of keys that solve problems. People come up the hill to see him and ask for a key, and the boy has noticed that none of them ever seem to return. They live high on the hill, among the ascetics and hermits, and magic-doers. It doesn’t occur to the boy that perhaps they are also magic-doers. The boy’s father is foreign, that much the boy knows, from finding scraps of paper with words in a foreign language lying around. The boy’s mother is from not far away. They may, or may not, be hiding from someone – possibly related to the Census.

There are fragments of the book that are written in the past tense, as the boy writes down his history in the census-taker’s book. We don’t completely understand this section, but neither does the boy. He isn’t sure what he is reading there, what it means yet, but perhaps that will come. I wonder whether it is his mother’s writing we are reading. We meet his line manager/ colleague in his first-person narration of his past, soon after the third time he runs away from his father thanks to witnessing some heinous depletion of humanity.

I don’t frequently read novellas, so I’m not sure if the sense of completion that I felt I was missing was a normal thing for a novella. While there is a narrative arc, the ending was the beginning of a new story, perhaps one for a novel set in the same world. I’m dying to know what the keys the father made did, and what it is that is so poisonous about the census-taker, besides the fact he works for the government. Definitely recommended, and worth a second read.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

This Census-Taker
by China Mieville
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509812141

Book Review: An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire

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cv_an_isolated_incidentSet in small-town New South Wales, this is a gripping tale of unexplained murder, love, jealousy and the doggedness of some to find answers.

Chris finds herself at the centre of a murder investigation: that of her beautiful younger sister, Bella. Bella appeared to be universally loved, especially in the care home where she worked. Chris is the easy-going older sister – too easy-going, according to some. Chris has learned the hard way to be persistent and independent, trusting few in her search for answers about her sister’s brutal death.

Also drawn in to the story is  young reporter May Norman, trying to use this high-profile, public attention murder to make her name. May finds herself unable to leave without a satisfactory conclusion.

An Isolated Incident shows the attention to detail that has earned Emily Maguire awards for her earlier novels. She captures the details of small town life in Australia through speech, mannerisms and the casual friendliness which are features of Aussie culture, but may also hide a monster.

This is a psychological thriller which will keep you reading to the very final paragraph. I look forward to more quality reading from Emily Maguire.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

An Isolated Incident
by Emily Maguire
Published by Picador
ISBN  9781743538579