Inside Out

April is the cruellest month, or so T.S. Eliot claimed, and certainly the amount of illness and worse that has been clinging like ‘ the brown fog of a winter dawn’ in recent weeks would seem to bear that out. OK, I’ve got the literary references out the way and proved I know my Wasteland. Actually, I had to look up that latter quote while I’ve never been able to forget that the famous poet’s name is an anagram of toilets. Yet Spring has sprung and all the lovely flowers nosing their way out of the earth and the trees coming into blossom and the little birdies in their nests serve as a reminder that this time of year is one of renewal and regeneration blah blah.

I had a reversible coat when I was a child and I remember fretting about having to choose which way to wear it. It was impossible for it to be inside out and that bothered me. By the same token, reading wise it’s proved to be an uneasily double sided month. On the one hand I was bored witless by Zola’s The Earth ( yes, I know it’s a classic but by God I swear my fingers had paper burns due to racing through the last chapters just to end the whole experience ) and disappointed by Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are which I’d bought on the strength of having so much enjoyed her debut novel What was Lost.

Yet flip the coin, reverse the coat and there was the wonderful My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: less than 200 pages but one of those books that somehow manages to convey the whole messiness, complexity and joy of life by depicting a fragment of it – in this sense Strout’s novella reminded me of McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Lucy is recovering from an operation, is visited by her estranged mother and they talk. So much both between mother and daughter and within the narrative itself is left unsaid; we are made aware of how many other different stories flow beneath the one that is given. It is a tender novel and one I’d like to read again. This is not the case with Jem Lester’s Schtum, although it was a great read. The novel deals with Ben’s fight to get his severely autistic son, Jonah, into the appropriate residential education while battling his own demons and a broken marriage. It’s tough painful stuff, making novels like Rain Man and Curious Incident…, which also have protagonists with autism, look by comparison as unsubstantial as candy floss. There is a lot of shit – both literal and otherwise – in this book and yet some very funny moments too. I wasn’t so sure about the later shift of focus on to Ben’s Jewish heritage and family history. While this explained a lot, as a reader one wants to stay with Jonah: a boy who can be uncontrollably destructive and violent one moment and sweet and loving the next, a boy whose genetics mean that his relationship with the external world is turned inside out.

Having started with a reference to April ( which incidentally was the name of the central character in Shena McKay’s The Burning Orchard – another of this month’s pleasing reads ) and with the forthcoming election I feel there must be something pithy and political to say about May the month and May the PM. Unfortunately, not from me!

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