The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most...more[4.5] Like a Mike Leigh film in book form.
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most people don't think about unless some come to their door. Several blogs said Jenn Ashworth should have been one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, though she was on the BBC Culture Show's similar list a couple of years ago. She was also brought up as a Mormon in Lancashire. Wisely, this story about LDS in Lancs is her third novel, an accomplished piece of semi-comic fiction inspired by other sources as well as her own story - not another confessional debut.
If there's anything wrong with this book it's that it has so much happen in one day, such a lot of plot, in a soapy sort of way. Though perhaps farce would be a better comparison if you're willing to include some serious topics in farce as well. That one day involves the homecoming of golden-boy second son Gary who's been away on his missionary training in Utah for two years. Problems in the lives of the four other Leeke family members: mum, dad, older brother & younger sister, all come to a head over the course of the day. Some quite naturally because Gary's return is a watershed, others more absurdly.
I may have been generous to give this novel five rather than four stars but that's because not only did I love its working class provincial setting, but I really liked what it was saying about religion - the first time I've encountered a novel which has an atheist or at least anti-certain-types-of-organised-religion agenda. (But it doesn't have to be read that way.)
Ashworth has a wonderful phrase here about religion: you "feel it clanking like a chain around your ankles even when you did not believe in it any more." Absolutely spot on. I have a feeling that people with that experience will find more meaning in this book.
I went to a Catholic school but had confusing messages at home from a parent who professed atheism at times yet also went to church fairly regularly. I had a curious intermittently-devout phase between the ages of about 6-9, largely self-imposed as a sort of comfort and defence. Its principal instrument was obsessive re-reading of Sixty Saints for Girls, a gift from my late godmother,(which book I now consider to be a largely pernicious - and continuing - influence, though I don't blame the godmother in the least as she was a great person and it was a case of book + environment + personality, not just book). Aside from actual R.E. lessons, the school was not terribly severe in its religious proselytising - mitigated I think by a couple of teachers who'd experienced the horrors of Irish convent schools in the 50's and who later became politicised in the sixties. I never felt affected by fear of hell (an old-fashioned myth no-one really believed in any more, I was told more often than not) or rantings about sexual morality (religious people just didn't mention sex as anything which might affect me until long after I'd already got a plethora of info from Usborne books, novels and teenage magazines). And no-one really bothered me when I decided I didn't to be confirmed aged 12 - though it made me feel left-out and immature - but there are certain things that always stick. So it wasn't a terribly religious childhood, but enough to give me some affinity with those who were more affected. An ex, whom I lived with for a couple of years, grew up partly in a Jehovah's Witness commune (and became an atheist as eloquent as Hitchens and probably better informed about the other side). The tone of many of the Mormon morals & strictures in The Friday Gospels is familiar from his stories.
In The Friday Gospels the idea of whether there is any higher power is subtly left open: one could choose to see certain events as coincidental, as precipitated by people, or as part of a divine plan. However there is certainly indictment of aspects of religious teaching and of the stricter and more priggish members of the LDS community, and of the shame they try to impose on those who don't meet their standards. The best critique of all is contained in the events surrounding the daughter, Jeannie: of a culture which implicitly or explicitly encourages kids to act according to fables they hear, which rewards silence and a lack of questioning, and which tells girls to "defend" themselves against male sexuality whilst actually leaving them less able to deal with it than most of their non-religious peers. And perhaps worst of all (view spoiler)[black-and-white values like "Heavy petting counts as sex even if you’ve got your clothes on so by that point I was a lost cause anyway." (hide spoiler)]
The people in The Friday Gospels are very much people, characters rather than symbols for delivering a message. Ashworth isn't criticising human beings, rather teachings and beliefs. Her preparedness to find some good even in distinctly dodgy characters is what I'd associate with someone who's done social welfare work (she used to be a prison librarian) and confounds what it's usual to expect from a certain type of narrator. I felt that her prognosis for Pauline, the mother was potentially over-optimistic (view spoiler)[though thank goodness all I know about severe birth injury and what can be done to repair it comes from forums (hide spoiler)] but I could quite understand what Ashworth was trying to show. And I can't remember when I last read a book including more than one non-elderly character with a disability.
Perhaps more objectively this isn't quite a five-star book but I still think it's doing something unusual and important in containing what's usually the stuff of non-fiction rants into a very approachable work of literary or domestic fiction. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
[3.5] Sarah Hall is a sorceror when describing the life and land of her native Cumbria. I am there; I can feel the biting breeze whipping hair into my...more[3.5] Sarah Hall is a sorceror when describing the life and land of her native Cumbria. I am there; I can feel the biting breeze whipping hair into my eyes. Her descriptive powers are still pretty strong in other places but not so great that I didn't long for some humour and a sense of the ridiculous that, as in much cold, detached literary fiction are too obviously absent.
The two stories set in Cumbria are unquestionably my favourites. 'Butcher's Perfume' is a rollicking start, a story of a teenage female friendship between the narrator and a scion of a hard gypsy family grown nouveau-riche on horse-racing, who rule the town, gutter and courtyards both. They are exactly unusual enough to make you feel no doubt that they really exist. It was a vivid reminder of how the bit between Yorkshire and Scotland always felt to me like a different remote country, uncouth as its strange-shaped vowels; further north than The North. (These lasses like it there though; I just felt marooned.) Another female friendship in 'The Nightlong River'. Only as a reader can you work out that hundreds of miles away the Twenties were starting to roar. Aside from mention of the Great War and the escaped mink crucial to the story, these people could have been hundreds of years earlier. (And such is the way the narrator speaks of tragic Magda I wonder if their relationship would have been different had they known of Vita and Virgina and Raclyffe Hall.)
I had high hopes for the final 'Vuotjärvi', that Hall would conjure the Finnish landscape as well as the Cumbrian; sadly not. It's certainly not bad but as a tourist she is only on acquaintance terms with the genius loci. As I read The Kalevala a few weeks ago, there was a lot to live up to. Most of it was another chilly, serious relationship story like the rest of the collection.
The sort that starts in the middle and delineates emotions and moments frozen in ice, waiting for ages and pages to reveal details that if I'd heard them at the beginning would have made a more old fashioned but warmer and friendlier story that I may have liked more. Hall certainly is a very good writer and a good few notches above many exponents of litfic in her descriptive powers, but most of these stories seem to demand moments of satire, sarcasm and absurdity which are just not there. There are times when characters might even be having fun but it never feels like it.
Nonetheless I think I'm still really looking forward to her forthcoming book The Hunting School if it's the one about the reintroduction of wolves previewed in Granta.(less)
[4.5] Wow. I seriously underestimated this novel. Just because it has a comic tone that's very easy to read, and begins with the female first-person n...more[4.5] Wow. I seriously underestimated this novel. Just because it has a comic tone that's very easy to read, and begins with the female first-person narrator's husband leaving her - whereupon she abandons her perfect consumer lifestyle and drone job with absurd lack of difficulty - doesn't mean it's chicklit. There is a strapping younger man who turns up later, but as a lust-interest he's only relevant on about 5 pages out of 300. What this actually is, is a manic political satire.
The nameless narrator answers an ad to assist on a smallholding in the Lake District, and finds herself living in a tumbledown house with paranoid survivalist environmentalist widow Cassandra White. Some of those details seem to indicate that the pair are specifically a Withnail & I reference as well as more generally a "riff on the old relationship of the prophet/sage and their interpreter, or the fabulous freak and their less charismatic companion: [e.g.]On the Road by Jack Kerouac". (Wikipedia) White devises a scheme to move impoverished local residents into luxurious empty second homes. Events and ideas and big personalities snowball in a way that reminded me of some of my favourite children's books, The Bagthorpe Saga, as well as other things I can't currently remember. Capitalism, Romanticism and Greens are all mocked though it's clear that the book is more sympathetic towards the two latter. And by the end I thought that Kavenna may also have been poking fun at chicklit rather than writing an intelligent version of it.
Now that the author has been named as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists this book will surely get a little more attention as it deserves. I suppose I'm part of that really; I don't routinely keep up with new books so hadn't heard of her before reading the Granta collection.
Come to the Edge may not have the stylistic complexity favoured by some of the regular posters I know from Goodreads, but it's a book I'd recommend to some other friends on and off the site who'd enjoy an easy contemporary comic novel with a political side. It may not be faultless, but it's one of the most fun books I've read in the 18+ months since I started posting on here.(less)
A great little set of anecdotes and reflections about Yorkshire (plus a Yorkshire Post Readers' daytrip to Iceland) which make me sure I want to read...moreA great little set of anecdotes and reflections about Yorkshire (plus a Yorkshire Post Readers' daytrip to Iceland) which make me sure I want to read the full length book All Points North.
As he is on the radio, Armitage is by turns down-to-earth, witty, and moving.
This is one of the very few books outside the Choose Your Own Adventure series written in the second person. It's a curious device - on one hand it can make the narrative more vivid, but on the other it's odd, as these are the writer's particular personal experiences which can't always be made to sound universal.(less)