Bits and Bobs from the Bookshelf

~Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk Kathleen Rooney Lillian Boxfish, aged 85, walks to Grimaldi’s for her annual New Year’s Eve dinner. She stops in at a bar beforehand, having decided to walk to the restaurant in an attempt to work up an appetite after munching on one too many Oreos. After dinner she makes an impromptu decision to walk to another restaurant which she has not visited since her divorce, which inspires contemplation about the life she has lived. Lillian’s character is based upon a real person — Margaret Fishback — a celebrated and successful writer in the advertising department at Macy’s during the thirties. She was an excellent creator of jaunty slogans and published several books of poetry. As the author unfolds Lillian’s story, we learn about her fascinating, trailblazing life, her writing and struggles with issues of the time as well as her unexpected foray into being a wife and mother and the impact it had on her. In present day, Lillian’s walk brings her into contact with a variety of people: a bartender, a security guard, parents and children, even a group of thugs who try to rob her, all of whom spark conversations, memories and introspections. I must confess to enjoying the parts of the book set in the past the most — the situations and people from her walk felt a little forced and contrived. The narrative structure is clever and it’s a pleasant and enjoyable read but it lacked a certain spark which left it feeling rather flat to me.

~Behind Her Eyes Sarah Pinborough A psychological thriller with an ending that you just. will. not. guess. The books words not mine. Louisa is a divorced mother of a six-year-old son. On a night out in a bar she indulges in a boozy kiss with an attractive man. He puts a stop to things however, informing her he is married and the two go their separate ways. Until the next morning, when Louisa heads into work to discover that her new boss is none other than — yes, you guessed it, boozy kiss guy. Awkward. Days later, Louisa quite literally bumps into the new boss’ (his name is David) wife as she drops her son off at school. Louisa recognises Adele from a photo on David’s desk. From here on out things turn into a dark and twisty love triangle. She can’t tell David she’s friends with his wife and she can’t tell Adele she’s sleeping with her husband (yes, by this point things have progressed to that). The book is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of Adele and Louisa and information is contradictory. Clearly we have an unreliable narrator. But who? And the stories Louisa is getting from David and Adele don’t add up either. Adele appears scared of David, controlled by him. But this isn’t the David that Louisa knows. And it soon becomes clear that Adele has access to information that she shouldn’t have. How? Are David and Adele in on something together and going to do something to Louisa? It’s solidly written, the pacing is great, it’s intriguing and creepy…and you know there’s going to be one hell of an ending, so you’re on the look out for any tiny detail that might help you crack this little nut. Which of course, also makes you doubt all and sundry. The plot is dipping its toes into the paranormal. Excuse me? Nobody breathed a word about this. Quite frankly I find myself (perhaps somewhat irrationally) pissed and extremely irritated and so from here on out things go sideways. Everything begins to feel over the top and contrived. And the twist? It’s certainly chilling. And as I mentioned above, I was on the right track for figuring things out, just not in the way it happened, because the way it happened was, well, preposterous, quite frankly, which left me feeling cheated and rather ruined the whole book. If the paranormal floats your boat then you may very well find this book enjoyable as a well done twisty thriller. If you like things a little more grounded, stay away.

~Exit West Mohsin Hamid A love story set against the backdrop of refugees and immigrants with a fabulous opening sentence:

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.

The young man, Saeed, does rustle up the courage to speak to the young woman, Nadia, for theirs is the love story encapsulated within the book. Saeed, quiet and sensitive, works in an ad agency and lives with his parents. Nadia is the more adventurous of the two. She works for an insurance agency and lives on her own — unusual in her country — and rides a motorcycle, which some find offensive. As their relationship blossoms, the city they live in begins to crumble around them. The distant rumbling of gunfire gives way to the occupation of militants in neighbourhoods and the overhead roar of fighter bombers. Things deteriorate quickly and when Saeed’s mother is killed, his father urges him to leave with Nadia. And as it happens, rumours abound about doors — normal doors that become special doors without warning. And through these doors people can travel to far off places, escaping the plight of their own city. This is what our young lovers eventually do. But wait, let’s back up for a second. Magic doors? What is this strange occurrence in my grounded and relevant novel? Yep, rug pulled. Again. Perversely, I’m not offended. I may not be into the paranormal but I happen to be a huge fan of the magical realism. When our young lovers go through their door they find themselves in Greece where they become part of a large refugee camp. When things become difficult here they go through another door to London, living in a house with other refugees. Along the way Nadia and Saeed must deal with all the torments of being displaced: lack of food, shelter and such simple delights as a hot shower. It is this sheer scarcity of life’s basics as well as dealing with angry nationalists in various countries, which puts a serious strain on the relationship that they are trying so hard to keep together. This is a slim novel and an easy read and while some of the writing comes in long, flowy sentences, poetic and lyrical, overall it is written in a simplistic style, a touch flat and monotone. It doesn’t pull you in with warmth or emotion and as a result it can feel a little distant. I think that’s the point though. The story has a fairytale quality to it and the magical realism works well for this reason. This may be the love story of Nadia and Saeed, but this is a relationship of the universe, one that highlights a world on the move and with it a search for belonging and identity which can be so easily shattered by the displacement of war. So much grief and hardship in lives being glued together by the simple acts of kindness that serve to unite and connect all of humanity.

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