Book review – My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonI have a stubborn streak that makes me shy from the books that hit mainstream esteem. Part of me wants to seek out the underdogs that will really benefit from the boost of a review. However, My Name Is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman whose childhood placed her squarely in the camp of underdog, with a level of poverty that Elizabeth Strout paints with visceral skill, rendering it utterly relatable without oiling the hinges with sentimentality.

Throughout the novel we are entirely within Lucy’s head, seeing her experiences through her own eyes. At times her memory is uncertain, in the way that all childhood memories are to a degree, but because she doesn’t view her early years as pitiful, neither do we.

We join Lucy during an extended stay in a New York hospital following an operation to have her appendix removed. Lucy’s long-estranged mother arrives to keep her company, and the pair drift through anecdotes from the past, while Lucy observes her mother with a fond yet wary eyes. It’s an interesting set up, made more complex as Strout parkours into Lucy’s future, where she is taking a writing class and the novel, or rather Lucy’s memoir, is taking shaping. The opening line forewarns of this chronological fluidity: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.”

Strout is an agile and fearless writer, freerunning between past, present and future in a way that sharpens our understanding of Lucy’s nature, as well as the backdrop of her life in Amgash, Illinois and New York at the start of the Aids epidemic, when yellow stickers were placed on the hospital doors of patients suffering from the virus, and outside “gaunt and bony men continued to walk by.”

We learn that Lucy is the youngest of three children in a family once so poor that for a time they lived in a garage, that she was aware from an early age of her differences compared to the other children (“We were outcasts”) and minds this less than her older sister does, and that as soon as she can read she takes refuge in fiction.

We know that her parents punish their children for crimes such as lying or wasting food, but that they, particularly the mother, also on occasion hit out “impulsively and vigorously, as I think some people may have suspected by our blotchy skin and sullen dispositions.”

Yet she feels a great fondness for that childhood and her family. “I missed my mother, I missed my father, I suddenly missed the stark tree n the cornfield of my youth, I missed this all so deeply and terribly.”

Lucy, like any of us, is complex, contrary and swirled through with emotions built on experiences, deprivations and desires. She sees her good fortune in having moved on from the meanness of her beginnings, but argues, if only in her head, with those who believe she came from nothing: “No one in this world comes from nothing.”

This is a novel that will deepen your empathy for others, while impressing on you the value of compassion and forgiveness, as demonstrated by Lucy. It’s a story that is relatable at the most innate levels, and one that will give you hope that however dire things seems, a bit of courage and obstinacy might just carry you through to something brighter.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin Books and is available to buy here.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Your indie Christmas list

Christmas gifts by Judy DarleyI’ve been reading and rereading books from numerous independent presses recently. Here’s my pick of the titles I believe warrant a place on your festive wishlist.

Nia coverNia by Robert Minhinnick

Published by Seren

Written in a style that verges on stream of consciousness, this dream book follows protagonist Nia around her home down fringed by sand dunes, underground and through her memories. With no speech marks in place, it’s occasionally uncertain what is spoken and what’s thought, while some conversations drop all attempts at signposting who speaking. It’s akin to eavesdropping in a place where voices are murmurs blanketed by a sea breeze – curiously soothing. Minhinnick is probably best known for his poetry, and his innate lyricism glows throughout. “Dad down on his knees pulling away the ivy. The ivy leaving scars, that’s how close it clung. I can still see the nettle blisters on the backs of his hands. All these white bumps. Like the ivy scars on the stone.” There is threat here, at times, but the painterly scenes make this a far gentler read than the hint of plot supposes. Ideal for early mornings in bed while the central heating clanks into life.THE COLOUR OF THINGS UNSEEN cover

The Colour of Things Unseen by Annee Lawrence

Published by Aurora Metro Books

An unerring respect for the spaces required for cultural differences underlines Annee Lawrence’s novel. From Java to Sydney, she paints a young artist’s blossoming understanding of the world as he travels from his rural village to art college in Australia. Yet, the real journey is far more internal, as Adi grasps at his own expectations, particularly with regards to women, and learns that there’s more than one route to follow for a relationship to thrive.

Adi is a character who is difficult to know, as Lawrence keeps him at arms’ length. His emotions always take on an abstract sense that not only reflects his own artwork, but illustrates how he feels as he navigates Australian values, so at odds with the ones he has grown up with.

Lawrence’s descriptions of Adi’s painting process, as well as of the locations in Java and Australia, make this an evocative novel that will inspire the urge to travel and discover the richness of cultural diversity for yourself.

Read Annee Lawrence’s guest post for SkyLightRain on how writing connects us across cultures and borders.

The False River coverThe False River by Nick Holdstock

Published by Unthank Books

“It had ben a year of four funerals and a poisoned cat,” writes Nick Holdstock in his story ‘New Traffic Patterns May Emerge’. “His flat had been burgled; his car stolen; he’d been punched in face by a stranger. His perfect girlfriend Rachel had tried to stab him, then broken up with him by text.”

Don’t you want to read on?

This story trembles with the narratives that ripple beyond its confines, sometimes overtly with lines such as “Fifty years later, as he walks through an airport, one of the huge lights will drop from the ceiling and miss him by only a foot.” Holdstock has harnessed the omniscient viewpoint with an enviable aplomb, walking a tightrope between characters that keeps your focus taut. It’s a skill evident throughout his debut collection.

She Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear coverShe Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear by Louisa Bermingham

Published by Valley Press

For something entirely different, Valley Press’ most experimental title to date should tick a few boxes. Not quite poetry, and not quite prose, the story of a fuzzy, passionate bear succeeds in covering issues around depression, self-doubt and the power of embracing our inner bear. Every page features author and artist Louisa Bermingham’s quirky mixed media artwork, with line drawings and paintings brought to life with bundles of her own hair trimmings, not to mention elastic bands and other household scraps.

Don’t let the hair put you off! Our Hairy Scary Bear is a fierce, vulnerable and entirely lovable heroine who will remind you that it’s healthy to have the occasional emotional outburst, but that you might do better to fight fire with water in tricky situations. Plus it’s beautifully printed, so there’s no risk at all of bear hair ending up in your tea.

the everumblethe everrumble by Michelle Elvy

Published by Ad Hoc Fiction

Without a doubt, this is my favourite book of 2019, if not the decade. Just thinking about it, my head fills with its colours and textures.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

Author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity.

Read my full review of the everrumble by Michelle Elvy.

Anthology review – No Good Deed

No Good DeedUnexpected gems abound in Retreat West’s 2019 Charity Anthology. You’ll unearth them like lost ancient treasures by  roadsides where characters dreamt up by an assortment of outstandingly original writers immerse themselves in stories of generous acts, for the most part committed for no better reason than to alleviate someone’s anxiety or improve a slim chance of a better life.

In the case of the latter, it’s not only humans on their way to hopefully improved circumstances. Johanna Robinson‘s exquisitely wistful Bufo Bufo juxtaposes an ailing father with a communal project to help toads cross a road. “A toad stirs next to my foot, and I crouch and reach. I’m careful to hold it and not-hold it. It’s a new sense, to grip but not squeeze. Not too hard; not too soft. (…) Body soft but bony and skin glowing like topaz. Dangling legs every now and again pumping the air, like an electrical fault.”

Climbing Wall by Rosie Garland offers an askance view of what happens when we only take care of others and forget to look after ourselves, while in Seedlings by W.T. Paterson, a child’s belief converts a father’s lie into a startling truth.

“‘The first language a child learns is story,’ Navi said. ‘The second language is games, things like risk/reward, probability and chance, and what if. Their third language, which is spoken, becomes their native tongue.’”

A Longing For Clouds by Amanda Huggins is redolent with aromas that weave through the passages, evoking the rich, sensual squalor of heat, from “the pungent scent of overripe mangoes” to “sandalwood on warm skin”. Huggins’ story is a masterclass in engaging the senses, as she evokes scenes vivid with jewel colours, textures and flavours, overlaid with a yearning nostalgia.

“The only sound she could hear was the faint tinkle of the tiny bells on the women’s bracelets and ankle chains. The noise reminded Maggie of the dress she wore to Deepak’s wedding; cerulean blue with bells around the hem. It conjured the warmth of the soft Jaipur dusk; the air heavy with incense and sandalwood attar, the gate adorned with flowers. Bright saris, silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes. The bride, nervous and pale, beautifully gift-wrapped in red and gold.”

Thought-provoking lines shine throughout the anthology, often revealing a wealth of backstory in only a few, carefully chosen words. In Blue Swing by Matty Bannond, it’s the memory of a father “who was always there but usually facing the wrong way”, while in Dancing Crimson by Claire Hinchliffe, we encounter the zigzagging narrative of a woman, Miranda, who we begin to decipher through her simple yet poetic description of a common kitchen implement: “There’s a strange silver bowl covered in tiny holes, like rain and sprinkles and Blackpool.”

The breadth and variety of the stories is at times startling, with a focus that zooms into the minutiae of everyday lives before swooping outwards to carry us thousands of miles across our planet to concentrate on another life, another viewpoint and another example of empathy.

In many cases, the theme of ‘Help’ is the only connecting thread among these compact, heartfelt, and occasionally surreal stories. But what a strong thread that is, reminding us that regardless of our protagonists’ preoccupations and concerns, the underlying characteristic they share is humanity and the desire, however confused or grudging, to reach out and make a positive difference. An uplifting read for our times.

Sales from No Good Deed raise funds for the Indigo Volunteers charity. No Good Deed, edited by Amanda Saint and Sophie Duffy, is available to buy here.

Confession: My story What We Talk About When We Talk About Owls is included in this anthology.

A coppice of poetry

Three Seren poetry titlesI recently experienced the joy of arriving home to a package full of poetry collections from the inestimable Seren Books. It got me wondering what a collective noun for poetry collections should be. A library seems too literal, so I began thinking about what poetry offers – how it provides the space to pause and reflect before carrying on with the busy act of living. So, a poetry collection is a coppice, in the forest of everyday life.

Each of the collections on my doorstop hummed with its own resonance.

Footnotes to Water cover

Footnotes to Water by Zoë Skoulding immediately rose to the surface, in part thanks to the quirky duck feet displayed on the cover as though glimpsed through ice. This quiet collection shines with Skoulding’s finesse – she plays with shape, form, punctuation and alliteration to paint an impression of rivers’ movements against your skull. Throughout, we’re invited to view water in its relation to human feats of engineering, and to compare our own dances and dalliances to that of a river, as in Observation Chamber, “where no light falls surface/ except * in pin-pricks on red water*” Gorgeous.

Skoulding writes of our attempts to confine and control rivers, and of the floods that follow rainfall: “wicking up cracks in plaster/ where the houses drink it in.”

Her rivers mirror our bodies; each striving to speak and make themselves heard, and each craving to explore beyond their outer edges. There’s something ancient in the descriptions surfacing here, even as Skoulding’s sculpted lines tether modernity: “There are/ three days of gathering clouds/ and the cheapest is free.”

The collection is divided into three parts too, with Adda, focused on Bangor’s covered river, followed by Heft, a word meaning, Skoulding explains in Notes & Acknowledgements, “localised knowledge passed on through generations of sheep” or “habitat”. At once, we’re redirected from webbed feet to hooves, celebrating the “twitching flanks”, “wild primrose eyes” and “the silences between.”

Part three is Teint, dreamt up during a Paris residency where the theme of habitat and hidden rivers is continued with the idea of movement, of sound and repetition carrying us back and forth and forth again, so that progress towards our conclusion is barely discernible yet inevitable. Each of these begins with what Skoulding is not describing: “Not flooded marsh but ice/ with skaters engraving/ continuous serifs/ on the halted waters.”

Skoulding examines how we sit against the world around us, as well as how we strive to make it fit around us.

A Second Whisper cover

A Second Whisper by Lynne Hjelmgaard takes us on a different sort of journey: “It opens with the sweet lapping/ of water on a rock/ and closes gently where the tide/ has nowhere to run.”

A deep tenderness ripples through evocations of quiet intimacy. Examinations of time, memory and seasons thread stanzas with subtle fragrances – the smell of yellow autumn leans and the scent of old paper anchor hints of a richly sensuous life. There is humour in the fondness captured here: a baby magpie described as a “little trollop”, daffodils are “still hibernating”, and rats leave teethmarks “on apples and soap.”

Simultaneously, seemingly light lines shiver with feeling: “whenever it rains/ now or anywhere the rain/ stops everything/ to think of you.”

In Once, Hjelmgaard remembers a long friendship: “Now we write careful letters/ as if they are to lost versions/ of ourselves.” To me this describes the entire collection of thoughtful, inward-reaching poems, and we are privileged to be privy to them.

The Black Place, titled after Georgia O’Keefe’s name for a beloved yet desolate strip of land, is Tamar Yoseloff’s unflinching look at the subjects we shy from. Beginning with The C Word, “Not to be confused with the other c word/ that cuts at both ends”, the poet lets us know at once that the contents may challenge and delight in equal measure.

Touching on fairytales and mythology, Yoseloff treads a line where glib and godly rest side by side: “There is a God,/ at least a guy who’d buy a round/ for the lads outside The Pineapple.”

Elsewhere, in Darklight, Yoseloff harnesses words like the shooting stars she describes as making “a sound like a scratch in vinyl”. “Our lives are brief”, she reminds us, “like the bank of candles in cathedrals, each a flame for someone loved.”

It’s a comfort to cling to those stanzas as Yoseloff draws us onwards towards Cuts, and has us consider the bleakest of prophesies: “I’m an open book/ I want to close.”

There’s beauty in this collection, trussed to hope and a hunger for life. Perfect for days when dusk insists on arriving early.

All three titles are available to buy from Seren.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

All aboard The Spooky Ship

Dorothy Collins as Emily Lancaster, The Spooky Ship 2017. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ss Great Britain, moored at Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, is a wonderfully intriguing vessel. Populated with impressively realistic models of people and animals, it also has a hint of the uncanny about it.

Each year in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, these characters are brought to life in an eerie succession of immersive performances that share stories inspired by real lives lost and lingering, drawn from the depths of the ship’s history…This year The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked focuses on the night in 1846 when the ss Great Britain ran aground.

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship - 2016 - Photos by Jon Rowley

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Previously, I had the chance to go along, bringing a friend with me to hide behind if necessary. We were expecting something along the lines of a haunted house, but what we got was so much more, as our guide led us through the impressive architecture of the ship to witness vignettes from a pitiful bride, a broken soldier from the Crimean war (Scott Bayliss), a vengeful nun (Kirsty Asher) and a ship’s butcher (Hal Kelly) who happened to enjoy his work just a little too much.

The ship's butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ship’s butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

We paused in the first class dining saloon where a 19th couple (Julia Head and Matt Landau) were feasting and gossiping – all good and fine until one confessed to chowing down on a plague-ridden rat and the other commented on the deliciousness of the ship’s pudding-faced cat, then turned their eyes hungrily on us.

The atmosphere was heightened by overhearing fragments from early set scenes – while Sister Benedict talked of the fallen women she despised, shrieks from the distressed soldier rose through the floor. Our guide fed us titbits of the histories that gave the performances their foundations, while cabins fitted out as they would have been in previous centuries, complete with realistic figures in the midst of their own frozen adventures, added to the creepiness.

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Many of the tales pulled at the heart strings, such as that of Mrs Gray (played by Stephanie Kempson), who arrived at docks to welcome her husband Captain John Gray home only to discover he’d mysteriously disappeared a month earlier when the ship was still at sea. Her wailing grief sent shivers through the crowd.

The story of Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins – shown top of post) was particularly disturbing. Crouching on a flight of steps beneath the dry dock, she told us how she’d succumbed to the pox and been flung overboard before she was dead. Her anger and sorrow was palpable, enhanced by the wonderful setting.

The mix of frights, facts, horrors, dark humour and laments, all staged in and around the ship, made this a fabulously immersive Halloween voyage.

The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked is on from 31 October until 2nd November 2019.

All photo by Jon Rowley. Find out more and book tickets at https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/spooky-ship-shipwrecked.

Art review – Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

In Real Life by Olafur EliassonI became aware of Olafur Eliasson thanks to ‘The Weather Project‘ at Tate Modern in 2003. It was one of my first encounters with the way art can influence viewers’ behaviour, so that they become active participants. As people sat, sprawled and sunbathed in the cold hall of the Turbine Hall, it was clear that through toying with our perception, Eliasson and his team prompted us to grow more playful.

The same can be said of every installation in his In Real Life retrospective, which spans more than twenty years of imaginative experimentation and creative absorption.

Stardust Particle by Olafur Eliasson

Stardust Particle by Olafur Eliasson

Like a magician revealing his tricks, Eliasson is keen to offer insights both into his idea-generation stage and how these initial thoughts become physical entities. The exhibition begins with a cabinet of curiosities crammed with models, and ends with a replica of his studio wall crammed with press cuttings, fragments from fiction and other intriguing elements. It neatly bookends the works of art, presenting us with an insight into the artist’s preoccupations. I love the way this induces a sense of being part of something, rather than simply looking on. Eliasson’s works are intrinsically collaborative, not only with the input from his team, but in the dialogues and even problem-solving discussions they seed and enable.

Moss wall 1994 by Olafur Eliasson

Moss wall by Olafur Eliasson

Not all the works are as interactive here as they’ve been elsewhere. Here, ‘Moss wall’, originally created in 1994, is a sight to marvel at rather than dig your fists into, while in ‘Beauty’, the rainbow is out of reach behind a barrier, like an exotic creature in a zoo.

Beauty_Olafur Eliasson

Beauty by Olafur Eliasson

Other experiences are fully there for the grabbing. For me the ‘Your blind passenger’ was eerily enchanting. The space brims with colour-shifting fog so dense I had to trust the ground to remain safe and reassure myself that no dangers lurked in the inches beyond the scope of my vision. The sensation was akin to how I imagine it feeling to be lost at sea.

Interactive highlights include the kaleidoscopic walk-through ‘Your spiral view’ and the extraordinarily vivid ‘Your uncertain shadow (colour)’, in which prisms cast spectators’ shadows in a glorious array of colours – perhaps the perfect modern-day family portrait.

Your uncertain shadow (colour) by Olafur Eliasson

Your uncertain shadow (colour) by Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson’s interests lie in changing as well as reflecting the world. ‘The glacier series’ is step one of a photography project, with the second currently in progress, tracking melt patterns and climate change over the past twenty years. His work raises awareness of our impact on our home planet, as well as inventing practical solutions in some cases, such as with his ‘little suns’ – solar lights created to illuminate off-grid African villages at night.

Eliasson has been described as a renaissance man for his breadth of works covering everything from sculpture to architecture. Perhaps more widely he is an instigator, reminding us of the volume of influences we can harness in seeking solutions, and that even in these alarming times, human ingenuity could hold the answers.

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Modern until 5th January 2020. Find details and book tickets here.

Art ablaze – review

Still from film. Provided by RWA BristolThe Royal West of England Academy (RWA) is currently holding an exhibition that examines the beauty and peril of fire.

From the romantic flicker of candle glow to a lurching, gigantic charred figure (Man on Fire by Tim Shaw), the artworks on display at Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art 1692-2019 demonstrate the challenges of this most voracious and ferocious of phenomena.

Au centre de la Terre II, Nadege Meriau, Photo courtesy RWA

Au Centre de la Terre II, Nadege Meriau

As always, the curatorial team have called in exquisite classic works, as well as showcasing how modern artists are exploring the element currently devastating the Amazon rainforest. The third of the galleries’ element-themed exhibitions feels weightier, unsurprisingly, than either the Water or Air-themed shows, and yet lacks the otherworldly after-feel of either of those, which I particularly loved.

Catherine Morland artworks

Here, there are fewer pieces that spill outwards from attempts at categorisation, but those that feature, not least Tim Shaw’s afore-mentioned Man on Fire sculpture, made from bin bags, foam and wire, as well as two dreamy pieces by Catherine Morland created using candle-flame on glass (shown above), are powerfully thought-provoking.

There are an array of artworks made by harnessing the power of fire and explosives, if only for a moment. Aoife van Linden Tol blasted discs of sheet copper to render her gorgeous, heat-scarred Sun III. In her case, the explosion was the focal point of a performance, rather than merely the means of creation; rather, it’s the artwork itself that is the byproduct.

Sun III by Aoife van Linden Tol

Sun III by Aoife van Linden Tol

Roger Ankling painted directly with sunlight, with a lens for a paintbrush in an act of heliography, to produce his sculpture Voewood, while David Nash crafted his fingertip-tempting Burnt Bent Book using a blowtorch.

As Mowgli learnt in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, fire is what sets us aside from other animals. It can be terrifyingly destructive, and yet it can also bring us together in comfort and safety.

Single Nights, Naima by Mat Collishaw

Single Nights, Naima by Mat Collishaw

Artists include William Blake, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Jeremy Deller, David Nash, Cornelia Parker, Stanley Spencer and JMW Turner.

Contrary to my own expectations, I found it was the more traditional pieces that drew me in – the richness of colour-play, of the fires’ brilliance against nightfall and its beauty set against what can only be panic and most likely death, makes them illustrations of the fragile line we tread beneath safety and peril.

My favourites include three watercolours by J. B. Pyne depicting the 1831 Bristol riots are jewel-like miniatures – undeniably exquisite despite their subject matter.

Look out for Sophie Clements’ mesmerising film (shown top). And on the way out, take a moment to admire Karl Singporewala’s sculpture of a blackened, skeletal Notre Dame tower – a reminder that human as well as natural wonders are susceptible to the hunger of flame.

Images supplied by the Royal West of England Academy.

Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art 1692-2019 is on at the Royal West of England Academy until 1st Sept 2019.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judydarley(at)iCloud.com. I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review – All That is Between Us by K. M. Elkes

All That Is Between UsWarning: the intimacy in this book sneaks up on you, so that you’re living between the lines before you’ve had a chance to consider the implications – that if you do this, you’re going to empathise. You’re going to feel.

It’s a trait of K.M. Elkes’ writing that’s impossible to avoid. He draws you in with humour, and with exquisitely visual writing, until suddenly you realise you’ve become the character pressing their ear “against a window to feel the vibrations of trains and the deep, deep breath of the city”.

That’s a rare talent, most visible in this collection, perhaps, in You Wonder How They Sleep, in which the lines above appear.

Somehow, Elkes transports you, body and soul, less to another place than to another state of mind, into another’s state of mind.

In this collection, his debut (remarkably, it feels he should already have a shelf-ful of own-works), Elkes not so much invites you into other lives, as commandeers you: for the time it takes to read one of these brief flashes, or one and the next, and the next – as they’re addictive – you are immersed. You breathe the air his characters breathe, and ache exactly where they ache.

Elkes’ elegance with language is vivid throughout, frequently offering fresh terms on which to understand the world – “the buttery tang of trodden grass”, an old book with “the edges of its pages the colour of beer”, taxi cabs “yellow as a smoker’s finger.”

Picking a favourite story seems cruel, like choosing between a class-full of children, but inevitably one charmed me with its wit, its pathos and the ecological truth underpinning its fantasy. The King of Throwaway Islandis a love story in which the tale itself is being written by the protagonist repeatedly and released in plastic bottles from the island of refuse he’s been shipwrecked upon. “My island gets a little smaller ever time I send you a letter. But I stay confident – that’s part of the new me.”

In Swimming Lessons, an overbearing dad battles the ingrained hurt inflicted by his own father. Fathers crop up in many of the stories, often cruel, usually misguided, occasionally striving to do their best, and, at times, succeeding.

In Three Kids, Two Balloons, Elkes takes a passing moment and harnesses it in a way that somehow manages to be funny and moving and powerful. Hints of flippancy here, as in many of the stories, are deceptive, as beneath each is a bolt of such tenderness that you’ll be stopped in your tracks.

It’s intriguing that by fixing our focus firmly on the people at the heart of each tale, the stories themselves swell outwards, so that the details chosen to depict place and time become transferable across countries and, to an extent, eras. Loss is perhaps the most universally recognised emotion, and Elkes has the ability to make every situation he turns to infinitely relatable.

In that sense, the collection’s title rings with particular resonance – chiming with the awareness that in fact all that is between us are the things that make us human, which means that time, location and circumstance matter far less than our responses to the situations we find ourselves within.

 All That Is Between Us by K. M. Elkes is published by AdHoc Fiction and is available to buy here.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Book review – the everrumble by Michelle Elvy

the everumbleAt the age of seven, Zettie stops speaking and concentrates instead on listening to the world.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching  that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

I often see sentences as strings of interwoven colours, but in the case of the everrumble, it was a far more textural experience. Grains danced over my bare arms as I absorbed the passages. I felt tendrils of thread waft over the nape of my neck and the polish of seashells against my toes. Most of all, perhaps because of the blanket that Zettie takes refuge beneath at the beginning, which “light enters like tiny diamonds”, throughout the ever rumble I saw the stitch-work of crochet – that alchemy of yarn, deft fingers and hook, and the hushed focus that comes with that skill (which I do not have).

In other words, author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life. Sitting here typing this, I feel the pleasure of contact with each key, and a delight in the warmth of this sunlit room, while the soft sounds of bells chiming and traffic passing drift through the window to keep me company.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity. Even her name is notable, borrowed as it is from her aunt – Little Zettie being a nickname bestowed on her by her brother when she was small.

Through her silence, Zettie opens up herself to the riches of Earth’s sounds, from the human, to the natural, to the unnatural, to “the everrumble. The heartbeat of every living creature.”

And in other ways, she is utterly normal. She gets crushes, falls in love, earns a living, bears and raises children. It’s her contentment, and her intense empathy for the most part, that is extraordinary. But she is mortal, and human, for all her communing with nature – a detail powerfully examined in a segment in which she imagines reading to her children.

In an era when climate change is accelerating at a dizzying pace and governments seem ever more disconnected both from their nations and the environment they’re impacting, the everrumble is a welcome pause, and a reminder: to listen, to savour, to live well.

the everrumble by Michelle Elvy is published by AdHoc Fiction and has been longlisted for the Guardian Newspaper’s Not-The-Booker-Prize. Buy your copy.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Theatre review – Malory Towers

Malory Towers production photography by Steve TannerEmma Rice revels in the high jinks of vintage boarding school fiction, with a typically shrewd yet tender take on the Enid Blyton ‘Malory Towers’ classics.

Riddled with song and dance numbers, oozing energy and awash with acts of heroism shored up by a compassionate heart, Wise Children‘s second production, in collaboration with York Theatre Royal and in association with Bristol Old Vic and Bristol City Council, is as complex, entertaining & irresistible as any of the characters.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Rose Shalloo as Mary Lou Atkinson and Francesca Mills as Sally Hope.

Rose Shalloo as Mary Lou Atkinson and Francesca Mills as Sally Hope.

Staged within the impressively adapted Passenger Shed at Bristol Temple Meads, (which happily includes a popup by Storysmith bookshop, and a bar – what a fabulous combination, as well as plenty of tiered seating), Malory Towers is conjured with a simple set by Lez Brotherstoni (who also designed the costumes), featuring rolling desks and pull-out dorm beds.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner5With the outline of the turreted school doubling up as a perilous cliff top, you’ve got everything you need to provide the backdrop to a story full of jollity, treachery, heartbreak and forgiveness. The costumes are deceptively simple, comprising burgundy blazers and pleated tunics, boaters, virgin socks and patent leather t-bar shoes.

Projected animations add to the atmosphere, from the steam train journey to head mistress Mrs Grayling (voiced by Sheila Handcock). It’s a trick that makes much of little, and allows the focus to remain firmly on the pupils, including gorgeous ‘Bill’ Robinson, played with swagger by Vinnie Heaven.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Vinnie Heaven as Bill Robinson

Vinnie Heaven as Bill Robinson, centre.

If you attended the company’s debut production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, you may recognise Mirabelle Gremaud, who plays Irene Barlett, who turns backflips at the slightest provocation, and supplies much of the music composed by Ian Ross, along with pianist Stephanie Hockley.

Francesca Mills as Sally Hope delivers that character’s sensible lines with a comic touch, and reveals her megalomaniac side and “fearful heart” with such verve you can’t help but delight. Alicia Johns, played by Renee Lamb, is the class clown hiding her own secret shame beneath her humour.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Rebecca Collingwood’s Gwendolyne Lacey

Rebecca Collingwood as Gwendolyne Lacey, centre

Rebecca Collingwood’s Gwendolyne Lacey is possibly the biggest challenge – a truly unpleasant piece of work who is sneakily spiteful to Rose Shalloo’s meek but sweet Mary Lou Atkinson, while Izuka Hoyle’s Darrell Rivers is the fierce bestie who’d you wished you’d had on your side at school. The characters each reveal the strength wound through with vulnerability that makes them relatably comparable. This is girl power in a time before the Spice Girls claimed the phrase, a applying equally well to men with that core strength of fallibility.

Inevitably, the dramatised version has a slightly tongue in cheek tone, not least when Darrell Rivers (Izuka Hoyle, pictured below with Francesca Mills), comments on how Alicia Johns’ is ‘deliciously naughty.’

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner3

In true Blyton style, there’s a convenient storm for our school chums to rush recklessly out into (perhaps a teacher who is more than a silhouette would have been helpful at this point), and a horse to ultimately save the day (although, the girls claim the hero is in fact “working together as a team.”)

The only weakness in the plot is that it begins in the present and deposits us here again after a superfluous foray into the school pals’ attempt at staging Midsummer Night’s Dream (a nod to Rice’s brief tenure at London’s Globe Theatre?). It these bookends were deleted, the story would hold together seamlessly, but as it is they feel like unnecessary distractions.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner10

The play neatly encapsulates the idea that each rock-solid friendship group, production company, or, let’s take a leap and say board room, benefits from a diverse and varied assortment of skillsets and points of view.

As with the Wise Children play, the power bolstering Malory Towers lies in the empathy the characters demand from us and from each other. In fact, compassion surrounded by drama, laughter and song, is becoming something of a this flourishing theatre company’s trademark.

Malory Towers is on at Bristol Old Vic until 18th August 2019 and will then be touring the UKFind out more and book tickets. Production images by Steve Tanner.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.