Three great books that I have read in the past few months and enjoyed… Happy Spring Reading!

We are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s always refreshing to read a surprising book and this is one! It’s also thought-provoking and tackles a big subject: is it ethical to use animals in experimentation for either medical research or to increase our knowledge of their behaviour? Furthermore, is it ethical to use certain means to try and stop such research? Whilst most commentary on this subject focuses on the psychological effects on the animals, this story focuses on the psychological effects on the human beings involved in the experiment. Karen Joy Fowler uses a first person narrator and a ‘journal style’ conversational approach which makes the subject personal and accessible. As a child, Rosemary the narrator never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has protected herself with silence. What happened to make her this way? Naturally, the reader wants to find out. I also liked the way in which the author plays with structure and tells the reader why. She starts with the middle and works backwards and then forwards; backwards and then forwards until (somehow) the end. This sounds confusing but it isn’t. The technique ensures in fact that we see the personal relationships first, before we understand the background, underlining which is the most important for the author. Brilliant characterisation and an interesting and multi-layered read. Highly recommended.

The Accident by CL Taylor

This story has a forceful beginning which draws the reader in; indeed the author makes good use of narrative tension throughout. If you are looking for suspense along the lines of novels such as ‘Gone Girl’ then this is one for you. Various plot steps and new disclosures increase the pace and drama of the story and underlying the developing narrative lays the secret held by Charlotte, the subject of ‘The Accident’, the girl in a coma. The contemporary story hinges on this, whilst also charting the former life and relationships of Charlotte’s mother, the narrator, Sue, which have led to her current mental and emotional fragility. The author uses a dual narrative structure with a twenty year lapse between the two, using Sue’s diaries from the 1990s to parallel the reading of Charlotte’s diary in present time, to provide some insight into what has happened to her daughter. The reader travels the journey of discovery alongside Sue, whom I found slightly implausible and irritating at times. Nevertheless, the exploration of the abusive relationship she suffered is penetrating and authentic and the excellence of the pace and tension creates great suspense. The core of this story is as compelling as they come and this reader was gripped and had to read on!

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

I thought at first that this book had no connection to what I was writing (my book is set in Cuba and Bristol, this one in North Carolina) but the main theme of this novel is power and the abuse of that power, with reference to poor families – often black – working for a wealthy landowner on a tobacco plantation, to so called ‘modern marriages’ of the 1960s and last but not least to the Eugenics programme of sterilisation which was used by North Carolina’s welfare state at that time. This theme of power and abuse very much echoes one of my own current themes, so I read the book with particular interest.

Diane Chamberlain takes the viewpoint of two women who seem to be very different – certainly in the circumstances of their lives – but who in fact have life stories with many parallels. Perhaps because of this, and because of their needs and situations, they gradually form a close bond. Fifteen-year-old Ivy – an epileptic herself – cares for her aging grandmother, struggles with the mental illness of her older sister, and looks after her young nephew in a household battling to survive. Jane Forrester, an inexperienced social worker and newly married to a successful doctor, becomes emotionally involved with her clients’ lives and risks losing everything as she discovers the dark secrets that have been kept hidden on the tobacco farm.

What I loved most about the book was the close attention to detail – especially in the description of the minutiae of their lives – and the skilled way in which the author gradually reveals the background of their stories. Plus, the plot-line is intensely gripping; you simply have to know what will happen to them both. My one criticism would be the slight sentimentality of the ending – this felt less than authentic; certainly not likely – but having said that, there is a part of me that likes to have all the ends tied! However, the writing is fluid and compelling and the characterisation excellent. Highly recommended.

© Rosanna Ley
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