Book Reviews for September 2020
Book Reviews for September 2020
Lots of literary reading for me this month so my book reviews for September 2020 are a literary novel and two literary thrillers.
If someone had told this city-dwelling vegetarian a year ago she would read and enjoy a literary novel about Irish cattle farmers and the BSE crisis of the mid-1990s, she would not have believed them. But this is 2020 and there are one or two other things I wouldn’t have believed either…
The Butchers are eight men who visit farms throughout Ireland to slaughter cattle. Their methods date back to ancient times and are entwined with folklore. But by 1996, those wanting their services are dwindling. Many people despise them and their archaic ways. Instead they welcome wide-boy and cattle supremo Eoin “The Bull” Goldsmith. With English beef off the menu due to the BSE scandal, The Bull promises to turn England’s loss into lasting prosperity for Ireland’s farming communities. In their eagerness to buy this Irish dream, no one looks too closely at the fodder being offered to their herds or at the influx of beasts who have apparently ‘wandered’ over the border from Northern Ireland.
The story is told from five viewpoints:
Úna, a girl on the edge of adolescence, struggles to find her place in a family where her father’s absence for 11 months of the year on Butcher business leads her mother to loneliness and depression. The prejudice and bullying Úna suffers at school make her more determined to uphold the beliefs and traditions of the Butchers.
Grá, Úna’s mother, chose the life of a Butcher’s wife after growing up a Butcher’s daughter but wonders more with each passing year whether she could have chosen different path.
Fionn is a small-scale cattle farmer who will take any shady job for cash. But, after a moment of alcohol-induced and violent madness, he will need more than money to win back the love of his wife and son.
Davey, Fionn’s son, counts down the days to his Leaving Certificate exams after which he will quit his oppressive rural life for a Classics degree in Dublin.
Fast-forward to 2018 and photographer Ronan is preparing an exhibition in New York. He looks back on his time travelling through Ireland to build his portfolio. His single-minded search for the money shot had a profound effect on the Butchers’ families when that shot turned out to be an image of a dead Butcher strung up by the feet on a meat hook in a slaughterhouse. How the man came to suffer this outrage is the overarching mystery and main catalyst in this book.
According to the old adage, literary works are supposed to be heavy on character and light on plot. Not so this novel. Against a backdrop of murky goings-on in the cattle business of the 1990s, these well-drawn characters star in a fully realised and intriguing story.
Having enjoyed Lie With Me, I was keen to try another book by this author and I’m pleased I did.
Verity is a single, middle-aged woman who still lives in her childhood home, having inherited it from her late mother. When yummy mummy Ailsa moves in next door, the two women form an odd friendship – exploitative and supportive; honest and mendacious; genuine and fake. In the course of the novel, the balance of power shifts between them. There is some wonderfully elliptical dialogue between the two women, especially at moments of revelation, and also when socially gauche Verity observes Ailsa with her husband and friends.
It put me in mind of Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller), The Woman Next Door (Cass Green) and Flesh and Blood (Sarah Williams, ITV). However, I’m not giving away spoliers with any of these comparisons. Although they all feature lonely, middle-aged women who observe the goings-on of a glamourous younger woman, the plot of Finders, Keepers takes its own deliciously slow-burning path.
This novel was a big hit with readers when it was published earlier this year. I’m always slow on the uptake but I’ve got there in the end and am pleased to include it in my book reviews for September 2020.
A nanny is questioned by police about the disappearance of the child in her care. As police officers pose their questions, she recounts the events of the previous seven months, revealing more to the reader than to the detectives but still withholding a great deal.
Set against a backdrop of the academic snobbishness of Oxford University, we meet a string of dubious characters:
Dee – the caring Scottish nanny with a passion for mathematical theorems and a guilty past;
Felicity – the missing eight-year-old, selectively mute and disturbed by dreams of her late mother and other spirits;
Nick – the conceited new master of an Oxford college and Felicity’s father, who spends more time wooing potential college benefactors than he does with his damaged child;
Mariah – his self-absorbed wife who lacks the emotional integrity to bond with her step-child;
Linklater – an eccentric academic with a passion for Oxford graveyards and stories of ghosts and murder victims, who is employed by Mariah to research the history of their ancient college house.
And what a house it is: creaking floorboards; poisonous wallpaper; a chequered history of former occupants and a bee-infested priest hole in Felicity’s bedroom. (Why did no one, not even Dee the caring nanny, think to move Felicity to a more suitable bedroom in the vast Master’s house?)
This is a modern spin on traditional storytelling and very well done indeed. I will seek out other books by this talented author.
The Roommates, my psychological thriller set in a British university during freshers’ week, has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as students return to university. Although I wouldn’t wish the sinister happenings endured by my characters on any real students, I do feel sad that this year’s cohort will not have the full freshers’ experience. I hope these crazy times soon pass and one day they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren about going to uni in lockdown. I wish them – and their anxious parents – all the very best.