Book Review: After You

Book Review: After You

The difficult second album, or in this case, the sequel to cash-in on the movie adaptation of the first. Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You was the sort of romantic novel (dare I say, “chick-lit”?) that transcended labels and made its way to the mainstream. It dealt with difficult subject matters like disabilities and euthanasia. Along the way Moyes managed to sneak the characters inside your heart so that by the end of the book it looked like your hay fever was playing up or you’d been cutting onions all day.

The tears this time start much earlier but they are ones of frustration. Apparently the author decided to pen a sequel because people kept asking what happened to Louisa Clark after the first novel. What was her life like after falling in love and having to watch the man pursue assisted suicide at Dignitas? How did she spend the wealth he’s left? Had she followed his instruction to live life to the full in his honour?

It was a complete tale. The happy ending, after such a painful story, was the hope Louisa would go on to lead a fuller life.
Or we can pause that thought and catch up with her working at an airport bar for a boss she hates, living in a paid-for but soulless flat, estranged from her family (being strict Catholics, they didn’t appreciate the suicide element).

Despite travelling, Lou hasn’t found herself by the start of After You. That journey from country to country left her feeling isolated. Just like before she met and fell for the deceased Will Traynor, she is lost and without direction. Except this time she has a bundle of guilt to carry around.

Had the book paused here and explored this loneliness, it could have built on the underlying themes that made Louisa’s character so strong and engaging first time around. You can feel her loss and how she is lost because of it.

Instead Moyes turns her disarray into a plot device which sees Louisa get drunk and walk along the edge of her rooftop balcony. When she is startled by a voice from behind her at the window, down she falls. A neighbours table and patio equipment help break the fall, her body and the novel lie in pieces below.

Cue the not-so-subtle additions to the cast list. A comforting male paramedic (we’ll need him for a love interest later), the return of her parents (near death is a good way to repopulate a dwindling cast), a support group to speed up the grieving process, and eventually, the return of that mystery female voice.

That turns out to be Lily, a precocious tearaway of a sixteen-year-old . . . and Will’s daughter.

Lily’s mother – never painted as anything more than a selfish, self-centred example of bad parenting – had chosen to refrain from telling Will about Lily. In those days he was a womaniser and it seemed he wouldn’t have cared. So Lily grew up fatherless, until her mother married, then became isolated as the unwanted step-child.

Upon discovering she has another family, she sets out to connect with them. Her research and endeavour leads her to Lou. Lily wades into her existence, a whirlwind or questions and trouble. Without chance to pause for breath, the girl is using her flat as a second home and turning her life upside down.

For the first half of the book, her interruptions leave little in the way for compassion. She’s the type of stranger any sane person would have sent packing. Seemingly thoughtless and on a self-destructive path, all she does is create havoc for Lou and fails to find the common ground with her father’s parents.

What makes these interludes harder to process is how moments that should make you gasp just bring about a sigh. And time becomes irregular. Entire passages are filled with language that makes it sound like months must have passed, to find out it’s been a little over a week. It’s the sort of forced progression that goes against the techniques used in Me Before You.

Then the first real bomb drops.

We learn why Lily has been so wayward. The reasons she has been edgy with certain reoccurring strangers and what has made her so tormented. Suddenly you feel angry for her and once again Moyes proves she can secretly plant little compassion seeds that are slowly watered as she tells a tale.

Lily and Lou are reunited after a painful period of separation and they start to move forward together, honouring the theme of the book, and Will’s message to “Live well.”

Although it appears Lou could be doing this at the expense of her own happiness, even to the extent of turning down a dream job in New York, proving that doing the right thing and the thing that feels right is often complicated and far from clear-cut.

It’s moving enough to cut Moyes some slack for the awkward love scenes and Lou’s descriptions (she has developed a desire to sniff things a lot) and baffling oversights. We’re supposed to believe she lived in Paris for months, picked up parts of the language but was bamboozled by the French naming of beef cheeks on a menu, only to later use the phrase in her narration, “entente cordiale,” as if it were an everyday occurrence.

But these gripes don’t ruin what was an ambitious attempt to breathe life into a story that had already been completed first time around. The scenes are sometimes forced, but overall Lou’s natural way and humour, not to mention her caring spirit, shine through.

The final sequences may be too over the top for some, it’s telling that Jojo Moyes has had her head in movie scripts because we get the big Hollywood ending. But it’s also clear she still has the ability to draw believable characters that pull on heart strings.

Will there be a third in the series? Probably. Let’s hope next time Lou manages to stay more grounded from the start.

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Book Review: The Widow

Book Review: The Widow

In the foreword, author Fiona Barton explains how in her former life as a journalist, she would often sit in court and look at the wife of the accused. Was it possible a partner could ever know the monsters they housed? Were they blind or assisting? What went on behind closed doors in those darkest of relationships? Her debut novel explores the themes of trust and deception, ignorance and naivety.

The title of the book, The Widow, should make it obvious we aren’t going to sit through a courtroom drama. That may have been the real life setting that sparked Barton’s interest but the story starts with our protagonist Jean Taylor already alone, the main drama in the past. Her husband has already passed on after being hit by a bus. This would usually be enough to leave a life in tatters but we soon learn that the damage had been done a long time before.

Early on, the build is slow. This never becomes a strain, it is far too gripping. The inner detective wonders how her husband, Glen Taylor, ended up beneath a bus. Was he hounded? Pushed? The hints and breadcrumbs are left from one chapter to the next. But this isn’t a big reveal – or even that important. When the heart of the story unfolds we learn why Glen had become a figure of hate.

The novel doesn’t just stay with Jean’s point of view. When we are seeing the world through her eyes it’s always in the first person, present tense. The blanks and alternating perspectives are filled in as we switch between characters. These are always told in the third person POV, past tense.

The first is a reporter, Kate Waters. She breaks the barricade of TV crews and other journalists and manages to get inside Jean’s home. Her super trick was carrying a bottle of milk. The offer is a chance for Jean to tell her story, help put perspective on events that followed Glen around.

In these chapters we have no idea what the story could be or why a widow would still be in the public eye.

Through more backstory, breaking up into sections (The Reporter; The Widow; The Detective), more becomes apparent while raising further questions.

The reporter is Bob Sparks. He is a warm accessible character and trusts Kate Waters. In later chapters this helps weave the plot together as they share information. Through the arrival of Bob Sparks the meat of the story is revealed.

Glen Taylor had been accused of kidnapping a little girl called Bella.

There are times the police procedures can raise eyebrows. Such was the author’s eagerness to keep the story rolling by placing suspicion over Glen, she turns Bob Sparks into the sort of officer seen in Making a Murderer.

Rather than explore every avenue, the police become fixated on Glen Taylor until they are convinced he has to be the guilty man. Or was this just canny writing because by doing so doubts creep in surrounding the validity of each and every situation.

Bella’s mother plays the media circus, and in the light of the Shannon Mathews case it’s hard not to develop a distrust. Many times she is frowned upon, or verbally attacked, for leaving a child alone in the garden.

Glen is no doubt slimy but his seemingly manipulative behaviour toward Jean doesn’t make him a child snatcher. Jean herself begins to sound obsessed with the case. The unhealthy fixation on Bella, combined with a change of attitude from the early years to a more stoic then stern approach, has the reader asking Barton’s original question: How much does the partner really know?

The answers start to appear with Kate Waters performing the sort of investigative journalism the police should have been one step ahead of. That’s not to say Bob Sparks remains impotent throughout. His dogged determination and perseverance carries him to a path for the truth.

Eventually the backstories catch up to Jean’s present day narrative. The journey there is tense and there are many moments that become almost too uncomfortable to read. The unknowns surrounding Bella and the possible suggestions, often planted from years of media coverage about these type of distressing cases, create fear and uneasiness.

From a practical point of view, it helps raise awareness on how to keep our children safe. From a literary sense, it makes for compulsive reading and a memorable first novel for Barton.

Homage to Revolution

Homage to Revolution

An unstable Europe, led by an unelected totalitarianism regime, is divided, facing an uncertain future with opposing fundamental ideologies, without a clear roadmap for moving forward. A fitting post-Brexit statement, proving the essence of history repeats itself, but one that sums up the 1930s world that George Orwell found himself.

Animal Farm is the best political allegory ever written. Nineteen Eighty-Four, his final novel, is almost prophetic. So what were the real life experiences that motivated him? Homage to Catalonia offers some insight into this, serving as a tool for him to recount his time in the Spanish Civil War.

If one is tempted to read this book for an exploration into intense battlefield activities, then it will not sate that appetite. There are rare occasions Orwell describes running the enemy line and taking ground, but as he explains early on, from his first-hand experience, war is mainly boring.

That’s not to say the young Orwell was eager to avoid conflict; his apparent bloodlust to kill a fascist may shock some. But that particular title for the enemy has taken on different ramifications over the years. Say “Nazi” and “Fascist” today, and two different responses will be evoked. To the Orwell of 1938, the evil was equal, the ideology just as dangerous.

It is this fear that means the option to not intervene was unthinkable. He joins the POUM and goes to the frontline with them. His original intention to write as a journalist passing immediately. What becomes apparent from the start is how ill-equipped the revolutionists are. After days of drill, he notes there is no weapons class because they lack any firearms to train with.

None of the disarray deters Orwell. Indeed, in the early chapters the rag-tag outfits parade the streets as a symbol for hope and change. Those that would oppose chose to wear working class garments to go undetected.

The accounts reflect, how after 115 days on the frontline, the class divisions have returned to the streets and the revolution isn’t as strong. During his leave from the front, he is involved in a stand-off, with opposing forces occupying neighbouring buildings, all with gentlemen’s agreements in place. Agreements he sees as fickle as the unity between parties.

Upon returning to action, a gunshot wound to his throat sees him leave conflict for good. He decides to depart Spain but the POUM are declared illegal and a suppression against their members means he has to evade detection. This further underlines the falsehoods and lies such wars bring about. He worries that those still fighting are being turned into scapegoats despite having honourable intentions.

Homage to Catalonia isn’t a perfect body of work, the language can become repetitive, proving, no matter the talent, there is a vast difference between journalism and storytelling. And his accounts here do not fill in the complete picture, he warns as much, but it’s an important snippet.

What is clear is the admiration he has for the Spanish people. Their generosity is highlighted on multiple occasions and he describes them as too noble (and albeit, too ill efficient) to serve a successful totalitarian regime.

His wider opinions aren’t explored in great depth. The arrival in Spain speaks volumes enough, and description included for democracy as the centralised swindling machine, shows he wasn’t fighting against communism, as he later would with words, but fighting with people to bring about change.

In time an extensive American propaganda machine would colour our perception of what communism was to the point it holds no value. In this raw, 1938 release, we see Orwell’s disillusionment with all methods to control the masses through misdirection.

That’s not to say he didn’t criticise the communist control of press but even papers back home in London failed to deliver true accounts, and on many occasion out-right lied about events in the Civil War. His views during this time have been labelled as Trotskyism but it’s fair to say Orwell had a democratic socialist heart that stood to fight totalitarianism.

Those efforts must have felt wasted in the immediate aftermath of his journey but sometimes making a stand is enough to ensure evil never wins. Franco may have retained power, but the damage inflicted from the resistance saved Spain in the long run.

By the time World War II arrived, Spain was crippled. Despite being in Germany’s pocket for over $215m of aid during the Spanish Civil War, they couldn’t align with a natural allied force. Even though Franco was receptive, he eventually submitted demands to Hitler he knew would be refused, sparing Spain further decline.

Without the anarchist’s intervention in the 1930s, Spain would easily have become an extension of Nazi Germany, possibly sending the whole world into a fascist state.

The fight for principles bared fruit in the passage of time.

Orwell couldn’t have foreseen how future decades would be shaped following his contribution to the Spanish Civil War but he strongly believed in standing against the opposing ideology. His future works would perfectly surmise complex political systems and falsities in simple terms. Homage to Catalonia lays bare the human cost of these deceptions and the lengths men will go to when protecting ideas.

Orwell demonstrates why revolution in the face of certain paradigm shifts is not only brave – it’s necessary.