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“Susanna Starling sings her own original material plus unique interpretations of English folk and vintage jazz/cabaret, accompanied by nothing but her upright double bass.”

With this description from Susanna Starling’s new website in mind, I arrived at her gig at Warneford Chapel (in association with OCM) with a touch of scepticism, mixed with a curiosity to hear just what this would be like. In short, Susanna Starling does not disappoint: in the small setting of the nineteenth-century Warneford Chapel with its low light, intimate space, and oak panelling, the combination of voice and double bass was beautiful. The understandable nerves produced by such an intensely small performance space evaporated soon enough, and Starling’s candid patter between songs gave a real sense of invitation for the audience to engage, not just watch.

Susanna Starling

Susanna Starling

Her voice, although occasionally on the losing side of the battle between it, her instrument, and the acoustic, has a refreshingly controlled sound, resisting the urge to simply belt out the songs, but rather going for something distinctly more understated and ‘folky’. That said, there is an unmistakable power behind the sound, which was brilliantly unleashed in her rendition of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’, where her flair as a dramatic performer really shone through, with the added bonus of a virtually flawless transition from singing in English to German. Another particular highlight of the first half was a set comprised of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s ‘Feeling Good’ – her upper range was a real joy, again showing consummate control of her voice, and presenting the two songs side by side in a totally different, but fabulous, style to most other versions. Of her own material, the setting of W.B. Yeates’s poem ‘Wandering Angus’ was a gorgeously lilting piece, never allowing the melody to upstage the words, and shows a glimpse of her talent as a songwriter as well as a performer.

The second half, where the Delly Welly Boot Band, resident of White Horse Live folk club in Stonesfield, joined Starling on the stage promised to be a continuation of the standard of the first. One of the few media clips I could find online was of Starling singing ‘The Bonnie Wee Lassie’ with them (below), and we were indeed treated to this particular number, a bluesy rendition of a traditional song that worked fantastically well, with sensitive accompaniment from the Band and the now expected brilliance of Starling herself. However, bearing in mind that the gig was advertised as Susanna Starling with the support of the Band, I wasn’t sure about the end result of the half. While the Band are obviously great instrumentalists, in particular their fiddler Judith Henderson, it stopped feeling like Starling’s gig, and the mix of music from traditional songs and a couple of instrumental numbers, to Led Zeppelin and Leonard Cohen felt overly broad.

The two instrumental sets, the first a pretty Cornish hornpipe called Duw Genes (Cornish for ‘goodbye’) and the second an unnamed tune, were expertly led by Henderson, and branched out from the usual Irish and Scottish folk genres favoured by many fiddlers, showing her interest in Eastern European and Middle Eastern traditions. Other than that, the second half seemed very much weighted towards the more popular genres and away from the folk/jazz fusion of the first. As ambitious as it was to attempt such a wide range of genres, it felt like the vocal abilities of the Band fell a little short of the demands of such a spread, and may have benefited from reigning in the variety, or allowing Starling to lead the vocals more often. She seemed to be pushed a little more into the background, and I was disappointed that she only really got two songs in which to shine in the second half of a gig that was ostensibly hers. There is no doubt as to the talent in the room from all the players, but I did leave feeling like I could have heard more from Starling herself.

For all that, the gig was a real joy to attend, and Susanna Starling proved my scepticism about the potential of the voice and bass combination completely wrong. I could have happily listened to her for the full hour, and I can’t wait to see what she does next with the combination of genres and her own material. The balance between her and the Band may not have been quite ideal, but nonetheless, it was an hour of great music by fantastically talented players, with Starling’s talent shining through, and definitely setting her up as one to watch out for in the future.

C. E. Queripel

For more information about Susanna Starling, please visit her website; Oxford Contemporary Music’s upcoming events can be viewed on their website.

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Review: ‘J’

Everything about the presentation of Jacobson’s new novel, J, screams that it is a book to be ‘taken seriously’. From the stark black and red minimalist jacket cover (not the colours of Fascism by coincidence), to the blurb declaring it to ‘be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World’ and the quoted critical acclaim that announces Jacobson as ‘A great, great writer’, the design places J outside of Jacobson’s previous comic oeuvre.

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Set in a dystopian future after a catastrophic event known only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the narrative follows Kevern and Ailinn, two misfits who find love against the odds in a world filled with violence, hate, and secrets in a case of mass social trauma. WHAT HAPPENED, we later find out, was the systematic annihilation of the world’s Jews. This revelation immediately alters one’s perception of the entire novel; consequently, the final eighty pages of J are easily its finest, as Jacobson’s writing begins to live up to the promises of the book’s design. Particularly disturbing is the final position he finds for Judaism in society, that it must flourish in order to restore the ‘hate balance’, allowing people their scapegoat so that they stop taking out their unresolved hatred and anger upon each other.

The climax of J tackles some particularly uncomfortable ideas with alarming accuracy; J is effective for the same reason that Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 study of the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, caused such uproar. Both expose with devastating effect the idea that the apathy of ‘good people’ is the easiest way for evil to prevail, and that prejudice, shame, and fear can lead people to do unexpected and terrifying things. This has resonances across the political field today, particularly after the election of various far-right parties in the European elections and in light of recent campaigns for widespread participation in combating gender equality, climate change, and sexual prejudice to name but a few, making J an extremely timely psychological study. Presenting the possibility that any one of us could be someone who metes out destruction in J, whether by standing by while others play active roles (like Rhoda’s schoolteacher), or by raising a hand to strike the first blow ourselves (like Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky), makes you ask the question, ‘What would I do?’ And very often, this is the most terrifying question of all.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

However, the impact of presenting questions like this within novels lies in their execution, and unfortunately the desire to be taken seriously was the overriding impression left on me by the first 240 pages of J. Chapter titles such as ‘Call me Ishmael’ in self-indulgent references to Moby Dick lie alongside unsurprising, ubiquitous mentions of Wagner (for where would a novel about anti-Semitism be without a mention of opera’s most famous anti-Semite?), and jarring sentences such as jazz being ‘Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.’ Perhaps the greatest problem lay in the discrepancy between the seriousness of Jacobson’s subject matter and the intrusion of his more comic tendencies, as in the following passage:

A compliant society meant that every section of it consented with gratitude – the gratitude of the providentially spared – to the principle of group aptitude. People of Afro-Caribbean origin were suited by temperament and physique to entertainment and athletics, and so they sang and sprinted. People originally from the Indian subcontinent, electronically gifted as though by nature, undertook to ensure no family was without a functioning utility phone. What was left of the Polish community plumbed, what was left of the Greek smashed plates.

While this is a novel entirely about racial stereotyping and prejudice, jokes such as these that creep in under the skin of the narrative seem somewhat misplaced. Thankfully, the majority of the most grating writing is contained in the diary entries of the deliberately dislikable art teacher Zermansky, but for me the first two thirds of J undermined the brilliance of its final pages.

That J will stand alongside Orwell and Huxley is, perhaps, a somewhat optimistic publisher’s claim (I’m surprised more parallels haven’t also been drawn with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic We). It initially tries to be too many things; a love story, a morality tale, a thriller, a political satire, a culture lesson, a dystopian vision, a character study, and an ethical treatise, to the point that it starts to fall short of being any. Of course, life is tangled and difficult and full of these contradictions, but J is at its best once it finds its true target and hones in on it. If you can make it through to the chapter entitled ‘Götterdämmerung’ (yes, another Wagner reference), then I urge everyone to read J as there can be no more important message than that of the psychological study that it eventually turns out to be.

L. C. Broad

‘J’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £18.99.

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Burial Rites, by the Australian author Hannah Kent, was released last year to great critical acclaim, shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and winning multiple other awards. The novel is based quite closely on a true story: that of the last executions to take place in Iceland, in the January of 1830. As you have probably guessed, it is not a cheery tale.

The novel’s style is varied. While much of it is a straightforward narrative, letters and other documents are used with subtlety to provide exposition and give insights into characters’ mentality. Agnes’ streams of consciousness provide the most emotionally charged sections of the novel, appearing with increasing frequency towards the climax of the novel to reveal her history with murder-victim Natan. Her physical descriptions of the world are vivid and effective. The crumbling turf walls of the buildings, the blood of slaughtered sheep, the phlegm, the dung, the cold, all of the intricate descriptions of the characters’ commonplace world are spread thickly through the novel to bring forth the daily horrors of peasant life to modern eyes.

Through these, Kent is able to conjure the Iceland of two centuries ago as a cruel, hard land, breeding cruel, hard men, and to explore unflinchingly women’s place in such a landscape. It is easy to forget that Iceland – now known for its geothermal energy and tremendous natural beauty – was until recently still a society of subsistence farmers scratching a poor living from marginal land. Indeed, the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783, followed by a famine which killed perhaps one in four Icelanders, would have been within living memory for some of the characters (although this event was not specifically mentioned in Burial Rites).

burial rites 7 PB

Male sexual power over women is a theme running throughout the novel, ranging from Natan’s manipulation of Agnes to an awareness of the general position of young women in a brutally patriarchal society. The vulnerability of servant women to predation by wealthy farmers, and the double standards applied to male and female promiscuity are important themes in Agnes’ character history.   

The position of Iceland as part of the Danish Empire is also used with subtle skill. Throughout Burial Rites, Denmark is almost exclusively mentioned in relation to punitive and arbitrary colonial power. Various accessories to the murder are transported to and imprisoned in Denmark, while the axe used to execute Agnes and Fridrik is sent from Copenhagen. Although this is not hugely crucial to the plot, it does serve to underline the isolation of Iceland as a nation, and, by extension, the characters. The characters are mostly very well-drawn and believable; Agnes is a grimly plausible victim of circumstance and society, fallen into depression after the implosion of her only chance of happiness, and the degradation of her trial and imprisonment. The other female protagonist, Margrét, is the wife of the farmer assigned to house Agnes until her execution. She is also eminently realistic as an emotionally conflicted wife and mother, afraid for her children with ‘the murderess’ on her premises, frankly annoyed by the extra mouth foisted upon her poor farmstead, but also with deeply humane impulses toward Agnes. The narrative of her being gradually won-round to affection for Agnes may seem a little clichéd, but is convincing and powerful.

The family’s two daughters, Steina and Lauga, however, are drawn less imaginatively, one is astute, beautiful and one-dimensionally unsympathetic to Agnes, the other unattractive, inelegant, klutzy but with a more developed moral centre. They are at times too close to a cartoon angel and devil sitting on Margrét’s shoulder. However, it is difficult to see what else Kent could have done with them: they are historical characters known to be living in the farm at the time, so they required some presence in the narrative.

Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent

Kent also makes effective use of the Old Icelandic Sagas, and their cultural resonance in later Iceland. This is not overdone, but there is a sense that the characters see Iceland of the 19th century as being extremely drab compared to the noble and exciting ‘Saga Age’ – Anges’ love-struck description of Natan as a ‘saga-man’, for instance. There is a deliberate irony in this; whilst the Icelandic Family Sagas might work on a grander scale, dealing with the blood-feuds of wealthy and powerful magnates, they still concern the same jealousy, pride and moral ambiguity experienced by the characters of Burial Rites. Although the literary technique of the novel is very different to that of the sagas, the imagery woven through is very similar: the mountains and moorland, the proud farmers and cramped farmhouses and, eventually, bloody murder and a burning farmstead.

Both this novel and the best of the Icelandic Sagas are also profoundly human, and humane, stories, dealing with ordinary people in extreme situations and the morally ambiguous choices they must take. Specifically, Kent draws frequent parallels between Agnes and Gudrun Osvifsdottir, and the murder of her lover Kjartan Olafson in Laxdaela Saga. In general, there are some similarities between the two characters: both are determined and morally ambiguous women involved in fatal love affairs. But the exact similarities implied by Burial Rites seem a little forced: Gudrun has far more agency than Agnes ever does, and the structure and outcome of Kjartan’s killing is noticeably different to that of Natan. 

Burial Rites is an excellently-written and meticulously researched novel, and a very confident debut work. I look forward to seeing where she goes next.

K. Finn

For more information about ‘Burial Rites’, please visit the author’s website.

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“The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate–where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.”

Paul O’Rourke is a successful, middle-aged dentist, a technophobe addicted to technology and an avowed atheist yearning for religious community. He has few passions; he was an avid fan of baseball, specifically the Boston Red Sox, but became disillusioned with the team when they won the 2004 World Series and lost their underdog status. His hobbies – golf, the gym, indoor lacrosse – are short-lived, principally because he can’t bear the thought of spending the rest of his life’s spare time on any one activity.

Then a website is set up for Paul’s dental practice that describes Paul as the follower of an ancient religion, Ulmism. Then comes a Facebook account, then a Twitter feed. ‘And what began as an outrageous violation of privacy,’ the book’s blurb reads, ‘soon became something far more soul-frightening: the possibility that the virtual ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the man in the flesh.’ The marketing tactic is evident: appeal to the heightened modern anxiety surrounding Internet identity theft; exploit the increasing tendency to define self-worth through obsessive comparison with others’ calculated online profiles. It prompts the potential reader to imagine that a false, virtual ‘you’ becomes more successful than the real you, and to recoil in horror: think Dostoevsky’s The Double for the Digital Age.

Untitled1

But the blurb’s summary of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is intentionally misleading, or at least incomplete. The online ‘Paul’ is not a ‘better’ man, but rather a more devoutly religious one; the novel proves to be more about faith than technology, a fact that the UK cover (above) curiously seems to distance itself from (US cover below). Much of the novel consists of Paul reminiscing about two former loves: Sam Santacroce, a Catholic, and Connie Plotz (also Paul’s current office manager), a Jew. In each case, he fell for the family as much as the woman herself, wishing to surround himself with her relatives despite any religious differences. The only thing holding him back from conversion seems to be his inability to believe in a benign God.

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Ulmism might be a suitable fit for Paul, then: it is a (fictional) religion, consisting of proven descendants of the Amalekites, for whom a central teaching is that they must doubt God’s existence. Ulmism has the potential to be used as a paradoxical, Vonnegutian tool with which faith can be wittily and revealingly examined – some might argue that Ferris does achieve this – but at its midpoint the novel takes a strange turn that undermines its success, not so much plot twist as register shift.

The novel plays out like a visit to the dentist’s: Ferris eases the reader in with a few jokes (however darkly comic) before getting down to serious business. And when the seriousness does come, so does an increasing number of tedious, faux-biblical passages from Ulm scripture and a plotline that never really finds its feet. To Rise Again originated as a detective story called The Third Bishop, started in 2004, but when Ferris returned to it in 2010, the novel retreated towards his more familiar territory of satirising modern society. As a result, it reads as if it were caught awkwardly somewhere between the two.

However much interest might wane for some readers during To Rise Again’s latter half, though, the vivacity of the novel’s first half certainly often impresses. And besides, the main draw of To Rise Again is not its plot but its protagonist: Paul is not a sympathetic character, but an entertaining and well-written one. A classic victim of male, middle-aged malaise, Paul’s morbid, contradictory mind is laid out highly effectively in the novel’s opening pages, which contains many of its best quotations. Alongside the opening paragraph at the head of this article, Ferris’s descriptions of open cavities as the ‘eyes stones of skulls’ and lone molars that ‘stand erect as tombstones’ are typically effective at tuning readers into Paul’s way of thinking.

Paul’s dialogue with older generations can be tellingly one-sided; during conversations with his fellow dentist-worker Betsy his speech is often strikingly absent from the narrative, leaving us only with Betsy’s insistent questions and the repeated phrase, ‘I told her, she said …’ The self-centered virtual communication of the Internet and phone, which Paul calls the ‘me machine’, is here mapped onto reality; the technology so often touted as aiding communication in fact leads to its disintegration.

It is perhaps not surprising that To Rise Again is being treated as the underdog for this year’s Man Booker Prize; Ferris’s novel made the shortlist ahead of stronger candidates including David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and Richard Powers’ Orfeo. That said, this year’s judges have already provided a few surprises, and, despite its top-heavy nature, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour remains an amusing and sporadically brilliant novel.

J. Wadsworth

‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ is available from most bookstores, RRP £16.99. An excerpt is available from Joshua Ferris’s website.

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Charlie Henry is a multi-instrumentalist and singer, of Welsh roots but based in Oxford, who performed this week with cellist Barney Moss-Brown as part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series. Her charming and engaging stage-presence was immediately apparent, and was very effective in the intimate location and generating a great rapport with the audience. Warneford Chapel itself is a tiny venue (incidentally, the chapel of Warneford hospital), which automatically generated a ‘chamber music’ atmosphere for the concert. Henry’s soft, warm and mellow voice and the complicated but gentle arrangements of her music complemented the place superbly.

The gig presented a varied set, starting with a trio of songs, simply arranged, on quite maudlin themes, making great use of voice – cello – baritone ukulele as a combination and making an evocative and effective opening to the evening. The first two, ‘Failures’ and ‘Lost and Found’, were written by the artist herself on the themes of love, survival, loneliness and self-doubt, with very moving and thought-provoking lyrics (‘You’re a long way … from feeling at home in your own bones’). The third song was introduced as a traditional song, entitled ‘The Yellow Rose’, concerning death and loss in wartime as seen by a dying soldier, with the refrain ‘Sent my mother a lock of my hair, send to my father the watch that he gave me, tell my brother to follow me if he dares, and send my love a sweet yellow rose’. This haunting piece struck a chord both with the situation in the Middle East and the Ukraine, but also with the current centennial of the Great War.

Charlie Henry

Charlie Henry

Musically, as the gig progressed, it became more experimental and complex, with Henry using a loop pedal to great effect to introduce intercutting refrains into a number of her songs. The wide variety of instruments and sounds used in the building of these refrains allowed a great range of moods to be developed, ranging from from a musical saw (the inherent comedy of which was duly nodded to) providing its eerie, piercing sound, through jangling keys and tent-pegs, to vocal imitations of a Sedge Warbler, which, as the saying goes ‘makes sense in context’. Many of these carefully-built background refrains were built to support raps and monologues as well as songs, from an eerie piece about watching a lighthouse on a dark night, to a funny, cheeky song about a songbird which had set up its nest near Henry’s houseboat that summer. This last, as well as another based on Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, originally written for a shadow-puppet show, allowed Henry’s engaging enthusiasm and warm persona to come to the fore.

Whilst the last song You are my Sunshine was a charming conclusion for the evening, for me the highlight of the final songs (on a more traditional footing) was a self-penned folk-song about Welsh slate mining inspired by the National Slate Mining Museum in North Wales. With vocals backed by cello and accordion, the song fits into an eminently respectable ‘folk trope’ of grim, dangerous and dreary nineteenth-century industry, even if you mostly hear such songs being sung about the collieries. Henry provided a fantastic evening of entertainment, and with proceeds from the concert series going to the charity Artscape, I can only recommend the rest of the Warneford Chapel series.

K. Finn

The next concert in OCM’s series is on Thursday 18th September, featuring Folk-Jazz singer and double-bassist Susanna Starling. For more information about Charlie Henry, please visit her website.

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This is the first novel by Ali Smith that I have read, and before going in I was aware of her reputation as a writer whose work is a bit ‘modern’ and a bit ‘difficult’ to read. This is no bad thing and, having loved studying Modernism in my student days, I was intrigued. This book is also her third to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, which only recommends it more.

Of course, How To Be Both is all about contrasts and juxtapositions, and the many dualities that run through life – both remarkable and unremarkable. The book is divided into two sections, both entitled ‘One’. You can buy editions of the book with the sections either way round, something that I was not aware of until I had chosen my particular copy at random from the shelf at Blackwell’s. The two sections are set 600 years apart – in Renaissance Italy, and in modern day London – my copy has the Renaissance story first. The Renaissance section is narrated by the artist Francesco del Cossa and begins as a sort of freestyle poetry, an abstract stream of consciousness that slowly connects itself into sentences and paragraphs as Francesco remembers and tells us – well, not necessarily stories, but bits of stories, snippets from his mind.

Ali Smith image credit thequietus.com

Ali Smith image credit thequietus.com

The modern section works in much the same way, with one coherent story running through the middle but with other, smaller stories recounted along the way. The present day narrator, George, is mourning the loss of her mother and trying to negotiate teenage life. Initially the style is the only thing that seems to connect the two sections, before the themes raised by the novel’s title start to appear. After her mother’s death George goes to see the school counsellor, Mrs Rock:

How are you feeling? Mrs Rock said.
I’m okay, George said. I think it’s because I don’t think I am.
You’re okay because you don’t think you’re okay? Mrs Rock said.
Feeling, George said. I think I’m okay because I don’t think I’m feeling.
You don’t think you’re feeling? Mrs Rock said.
Well, if I am, it’s like it’s at a distance, George said.
If you’re feeling, it’s at a distance? Mrs Rock said.
Like always having the sound of someone drilling a hole in a wall, not your wall, but a wall like very close to you, George said. Like, say you wake up one morning to the noise of someone along the road having work done on his or her house and you don’t just hear the drilling happening, you feel it in your own house, though it’s actually happening several houses away. [...] It’s at a distance and it’s like the drilling thing.

For George personally there is also the uncomfortable duality of life continuing and her mother not being part of it. Similarly Francesco also has to live without his mother, and I’m sure this duality is felt, although it isn’t expressed as clearly as it is in George’s section. I say ‘his’ – but in fact the Francesco in How To Be Both is actually a girl masquerading as a boy, a trick recommended by her father in order to get work as an artist. This gives rise to the obvious duality in her life; deceit and secret-keeping, pretending to be something else.

Cause nobody knows us : except our mothers, and they hardly do (and also tend disappointingly to die before they ought). [...] 
Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves. 
- except, that is, in the glimmer of a moment of fair business between strangers, or the nod of knowing and agreement between friends.

Here there are suggestions, snippets, of a deeper debate about the nature of the self, and of knowing one’s self and what that is. Francesco is a girl but seems to live quite happily as a boy, as an artist. She is at once a girl and an artist, at a time when this was still quite a new profession for a woman. At least, Francesco seems to encounter only male artists. But perhaps the point is that they all could be both, they could all be like Francesco – not necessarily physically, but in some psychological sense. It often said that all people contain elements of both genders, that men can be feminine and women can be masculine. Sexuality doesn’t seem to come into it here, so I think it is more to do with perception from different points of view. This, for me, is where Francesco and George’s stories connect – there is an outer and an inner self, two versions of the same person, living the same life, but not having quite the same experience.

The intelligence of How To Be Both impressed me, as did Smith’s ingenuity and bravery with her writing style. However, I found 83.Ali Smith-How to be both jacketthe style a little too affected. It created a distance between the characters and me, so it took me a while to connect with them and their stories. At times it was more like reading prose poetry than a novel. There is also the question of the two different sections – they are connected by their overarching themes, and the loss of a mother, but they have very different subject matter. The jump from one section to the other feels a little strange at first, but once I’d finished the book I thought they worked well together in the same way that short stories work well together when they share a theme; in this respect How To Be Both feels a bit like a miniature book of short stories.

I can see why Ali Smith is so widely praised, and why she has been shortlisted for the Man Booker. She is brave and creative, dynamic and modern, and yet her stories, like the ones in How To Be Both, seem to transcend time. How To Be Both is not an easy read, and at times I wasn’t sure I got it, but I kept reading and was glad of it. For me at least it was a book that worked for me the more and more I thought about it and actually worked to understand it. If you’re willing to put in the work, How To Be Both is definitely worth it.

L. Thomasson

How To Be Both is available from most bookstores, ISBN 9780241145210, RRP £16.99. More of Lizzi’s reviews are available on her website.

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Ian McEwan is not an author to shy away from tackling contentious subjects, as shown in Saturday and Solar. His latest novel, The Children Act, turns to High Court cases where a family’s religious beliefs are pitted against the secular court and its representatives. The narrative follows a High Court judge, Fiona, interweaving her court cases with her ailing marriage. As she comes to a decision regarding the fate of a teenager refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds, her husband Jack demands the opportunity for one final chance at passion with a stranger before old age.

At the centre of the novel is a teenage leukaemia sufferer and Jehovah’s Witness, Adam, who refuses to accept the treatment that could save his life. Choosing such an obviously controversial target could easily descend into tastelessness, but McEwan is a better writer than most who would try to tackle this topic, and handles the interaction between religion and secularism masterfully. Anyone familiar with McEwan’s writing and standpoint upon religious belief will be unsurprised by the way in which events unfold, but the novel’s end remains pleasingly inconclusive. Fiona’s decisions, both in and outside the court, ultimately fail to safeguard Adam’s well being which the High Court ruling is bound to protect. Occasionally McEwan’s voice breaks through a little too forcefully (as when Adam states that ‘My parents’ religion was like a poison and you were the antidote… It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids’, and in the reactions of Adam’s parents to the ruling), but the courtroom scene where Adam’s parents are cross-examined at least allows for the opposing side of the debate to have a fair hearing.

71BL6-VNgqL._SL1500_What I found less convincing about this novel was the way in which research and imagination were balanced. The Children Act is clearly the fruit of meticulous research and consultation with professionals within the field (as the acknowledgments page will testify). While this means that Fiona’s perspective and voice are entirely believable when discussing her cases, it occasionally runs the risk (although to a lesser extent than Saturday) of reading like a research journal. Where research ends and McEwan enters into the fantasy of Fiona handling her marriage, I was disappointed by his characterisation of the female voice, running a little close to a caricature of the childless-female-professional. His descriptions of Fiona’s engagement with music also seem somewhat stilted; casting her as an amateur pianist allows for plenty of references to Bach and his logical fugues. Fiona, in her secular rationality, finds the construction of the pieces therapeutic as they chime with her desire for methodological rigour, which is nothing if not a well-worn parallel (and mildly ironic, given Bach’s profoundly held religious beliefs).

As a case study of the inner workings of Britain’s legal system, this short novel is exceptionally crafted, the prose style emulating the debate format of a courtroom. Unless you are hoping for McEwan to mount an unexpected and impassioned defence of religious belief, his treatment of the court case in question is captivating in its eloquence and sensitivity. The only element that seemed slightly unsatisfying was the parallel storyline of Fiona’s marriage. Fiona is characterised as such that she continually chooses not to address the problem of her marital strife, meaning that it is marginalised in favour of her work, but this is somewhat frustrating when her disagreement with Jack is so beautifully laid out as an important premise at the start of the novel. While The Children Act doesn’t reach the heady heights of Amsterdam and some of McEwan’s earlier offerings, it surpasses his more recent books in terms of both conception and execution. He raises questions about salvation and how we find meaning in life, and whether or not you agree with his answers, his explorations remain among the most thought-provoking in contemporary literature.

L. C. Broad

The Children Act is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £16.99 ISBN 9780224101998.

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