by Sarah Waters

After reading and enjoying The  Paying Guests, I read an enthusiastic review of this book and ordered it from the library.

Set in Waters’ more familiar territory of the mid-nineteenth century, this story gives a vivid impression of life in a London household of petty thieves, run by a matriarch who ‘farms’ infants and a fence who operates under cover of a locksmith’s shop.  One of the story’s main characters, Susan, grows up in this environment.  Very different to Susan’s home life, Maud’s is just as tightly circumscribed (in fact, as we gradually learn, much more so).  She lives in a secluded country house near Marlow, where she helps her uncle with his literary cataloguing activity.

The lives of the two girls coincide through a plot devised by an acquaintance of the thieves.  Their story is told, first in Part One by Susan, and then in Part Two by Maud.  This is a very clever device; it throws into relief the similarities and differences between the two girls, and although the timeline and many of the events in their stories are the same, they have very different perspectives and experiences.

I became a bit bored by Part Three.  Here, the story is brought to its dramatic conclusion – but by this stage, the reader already knows all the twists in the back story.  This section goes into alarming detail in its account of the treatment of patients in a mental institution.  The reader is bound to believe that Waters is basing her story on factual accounts – and this makes the description all the more horrific.  The ending of the novel is, for me, rather too stretched-out and hard to believe.  Nevertheless, I read this book quickly and greedily.  The writing is excellent, and the characters got under my skin.


A Patchwork Planet

by Anne Tyler

This is the first Anne Tyler that I have read.  I was absolutely bowled over by it.

The main character, Barnaby, tells his own story as he tries to make his way through what is, on the face of it, a challenging life.  He has failed his family’s expectations but is still in regular contact with them, and so has to suffer repeated humiliations at the hands of his parents and brother.  His work (for ‘rent-a-back’, an agency supplying able-bodied workers to disabled and elderly clients who need occasional help) appears to satisfy him, but he is well aware that others see it as worthless and him as an under-achiever.  As the story moves along, the reader begins to gain confidence in Barnaby even as he becomes more confident in himself.  The people who are so quick to judge Barnaby, and fail to trust him, are less to be admired than those who stick by him and encourage him.

Tyler’s story development and character development are so accomplished that the reader is drawn right in.  The story is not in any way fast-moving or exciting, with no tricky plot twists (except, perhaps, at the very end), but Barnaby’s character develops and blossoms as his story unfolds.  A heart-warming story, but not in any way simplistic or over-sweet.  Perhaps I should have said: it is a very human story.

Keeper: A Book About Memory, Identity, Isolation, Wordsworth and Cake

by Andrea Gillies

I ordered this book from the library, having read about it from a comment on the FutureLearn course on dementia.  The book is told by a woman whose family decides to take in her parents-in-law and care for them, moving the entire family to a large house in a remote corner of Scotland, where they run a B and B.

The mother-in-law has dementia and the father-in-law has very limited mobility.  The idea that they might be able to build a happy family home, in such a situation, seems hopelessly naive.  In the event, of course, the project fails, and after coping with a great deal of stress, navigating their way around the professional agencies, and learning a great deal about dementia, the family moves the elderly couple into a care home.  They visit rarely, choosing to get on with their lives and leave the professionals to care for the parents.

The storytelling was heartfelt, but also not particularly well constructed, in my view.  I was hoping that the book would either tell a good story, or bring me fresh insights.  It did neither.  The language was often clunky and repetitive.  I skim-read as much of the book as I could take, and returned it to the library quickly.