Friday 12 November 2021

The Fell by Sarah Moss

It's November 2020, and England is in lockdown (again). Nobody should be out and about unless on absolutely vital business or their permitted daily walk. For Kate and her son Mark things are worse as they are stuck in fourteen day quarantine after coming into contact with Covid. It could be a quiet peaceful time. An opportunity to catch up on all those things you've intended to do - start a sourdough, knit a sweater, write a novel about the pandemic - but Kate has had enough of being cooped up indoors. Even the garden is beginning to feel too constricted. And no one will notice if she slips away up onto the moor for a while, she thinks. But Kate's quick walk goes dreadfully wrong when she slips and injures herself.
At home, Mark grows increasingly worried by his mother's absence, and calling in mountain rescue seems, if possible, to make matters worse by acknowledging the severity of the situation. And meanwhile next door, Alice is trying to accustom herself to living alone since her husband died, feeling cut off from her family (zoom is no way to have dinner together!) but enjoying the luxury of a bed to herself.

Rather oddly I spent a lot of the first lockdown watching 'pandemic' films in which scientists race against time to save humanity, or reading the sort of book in which a small band of survivors struggle bravely on in a post-apocalyptic world, but The Fell is a different sort of 'pandemic' story - one that's more realistic, which tells of something much closer to home, of the feelings of fear, frustration and loneliness that many of us felt. 

Against this familiar backdrop of second (or was it third?) lockdown, the author weaves a story of a woman too restless to stay confined for a moment longer, her son taking life and his mother's presence for granted until the unthinkable happens, their elderly neighbour, lonely and cut off from family, and a man who gives his time freely to help those in trouble. The dullness of lockdown soon changes to tense drama when Kate slips and cannot make her own way home. Will she be found? Will she be 'found out' for breaking quarantine? Are fines applicable if you're lost on a hillside? 

Maybe not everyone is ready for a reminder of the dark days of last autumn when it felt like lockdown would become an ever-present part of our lives but I felt that I could relate to so many of the feelings experienced by the characters, and it was good to hear them voiced by others.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson


Virginia, perhaps the whole of the south-eastern US, has been overwhelmed by a series of dreadful storms, made worse by blackouts. Da'Naisha Love and her grandmother are trying to weather it out as best they can, till the day armed white supremacists come driving their Charlotteville road, terrorising the neighbourhood. Along with friends and neighbours, Da'Naisha and her grandmother flee to the hills surrounding the city, specifically to the hilltop plantation house once home to Thomas Jefferson, now a tourist attraction. There, living on snacks from the gift shop, making a rough and ready home among the antiquated rooms, they settle down to hopefully wait out the violence rampaging in the city below.

But the tranquil-seeming house holds memories of a troubled past, for alongside the Jefferson family lived slaves to run the house and cultivate the plantation, and among them was Sally Hemings, mistress of Thomas Jefferson and mother to several of his children, from one of whom Da'Naisha and her grandmother are descended.

Set in a near-future of worsening climate and racial tension, the story begins as a flight by Da.Naisha and her neighbours to somewhere, anywhere, that might offer safety but becomes a determination to make a stand and claim what is rightfully theirs - both the heritage erased by white men, and their position as equals in society. It seems unthinkable to me that, firstly, white supremacists think they are the legitimate inhabitants of the US, and, secondly, any man would think it appropriate to have an affair with a woman he 'owned' and who could not refuse his advances - so it was a book that made me angry in several ways, but the taking over of Monticello, the reclaiming of its luxurious rooms echoes the feelings of many that history should reflect the stories of everyone, not just the ruling class.

A compelling read, mixing present day fears with historical insights. I'd heard before of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings but this left me wanting to know more about it and the family dynamics of the Jefferson household, and Jefferson's attitude to the wider issue of slavery.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

The Family by Naomi Krupitsky

Sofia and Antonia have been friends since childhood. Born to Italian-American families living next door to each other in Brooklyn their lives have been intertwined since birth. But there's more than proximity that binds them together. Both their fathers belong to the American Mafia, which envelops them in a wider family, while putting a distance between them and other children in the neighbourhood and at school.As a result the two girls become closer. Even so, from an early age there are marked differences between them - one happy to accept the role laid out for her, as wife, mother and home-maker; the other always wanting more, from eavesdropping the men's conversation as a child to wanting to earn her own place among them as an adult - but despite their differences, friendship holds Sofia and Antonia close, the way the Family does, even when the Family itself drives a wedge between them, after the 'disappearance' of one of their fathers.

This astounding debut is a story of friends, family and Family; a big warm novel exploring the ups and downs of female friendships against the backdrop of the totally male world of American mafia. I recently read an article on Crime Reads that 'family' with a small 'f'' was at the heart of the great Mafia stories like the Godfather and the Sopranos - that that sense of belonging and desire to protect family lifted them above other gangster movies /tv series and gave them something that everyone could relate to. The same is true here. Family lies at the heart of Sofia and Antonia's world - in fact, it's all encompassing; children are protected from knowledge of what their fathers parents actually do for a livelihood, and later boys are found a place within the business, girls expected to marry into the family. But this is a Mafia story with a difference - one told mainly from the perspective of the women who sit waiting and worrying when their husbands are later home than expected, or turn up with injuries and blood on their hands, but know that they won't receive honest answers if they ask where, why or who.

Spanning twenty or so years, from the 1920s to late '40s, it follows Sofia and Antonia from childhood as they grow into women, marry and have children of their own, and to an era when the Family's prohibition and war-time profitability is on the decline, and new money-making schemes are needed. I loved it for its characters, its scale, its writing style which drew me in and held me. I rather hope this isn't the end of the Family's story. 

Currently available in the UK on Kindle, and in hardback from January 2022