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Reviews by Katherine Muskett, Louisa Young, Mic Wright, Joanna Grochowicz and Rowan Pelling

THRILLER OF THE MONTH

West Heart Kill
By Dann McDorman
(288pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99, hb)
Reviewed by Katherine Muskett

Set in an unspecified year in the 1970s (although clues suggest 1976), the plot of West Heart Kill unfolds over the course of the Fourth of July weekend at the West Heart country club, a private hunting estate in upstate New York. A private detective with a troubled history inveigles his way into the club, having been employed to investigate West Heart and its members. The set-up is predictable (surely part of the genre’s appeal?): a group of troubled and frequently unlikeable characters are assembled in an isolated spot, where tensions and possible motives for violence begin to emerge even before the first murder is committed. Over the course of the long weekend several deaths occur and multiple suspects emerge. The detective – with the reader metaphorically shadowing him – must piece together the clues to identify both murderer and motive. So far, so typical.

The novel is introduced in its opening sentence as a “murder mystery”, but this categorisation belies its generic complexity. West Heart Kill does not simply recount the deaths and subsequent investigations. The narrative, which is peppered with knowing asides to the reader from the author/narrator, is supplemented by a questionnaire for the reader, question-and-answer sessions between the detective and other characters, and a child’s map of the estate. The primary plot is also interpolated with passages of homage to the genre and its writers, and provocative accounts of its history and conventions, in which McDorman traces the murder mystery’s literary development from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, via Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe and others. At one point he proposes (a claim that even he admits is “tenuous”) a link between Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Christie. Although it isn’t immediately apparent what these digressions into literary history add to the plot (they could have been incorporated a little more coherently into the main narrative), the overall effect is playfully meta-fictive.

West Heart Kill’s reader is invited not only to solve the mystery from the evidence gradually revealed, but also to consider their own role in the narrative. After all, according to the book’s opening paragraph, “every novel is a puzzle, and every reader a sleuth”. However, the reader must keep their wits about them. The primary narrative shifts with almost vertiginous rapidity between first – (both singular and plural), second – and third-person narrative, requiring close attention to keep track of who exactly is speaking. The mystery’s dénouement takes the form of a play, in which “the reader” enters the drama and reveals not only “whodunnit”, but also why and how. By breaking the literary fourth wall, the author makes explicit what usually remains implicit: that the reader is as important a part of a murder mystery as the detective, victim and murderer.

I’m not convinced McDorman entirely fulfils the implied contract between writer and reader, namely that the identity of the murderer should be discernible from clues scattered through the narrative: the final confession feels a little too clever by half. Nevertheless, it is a witty, enjoyable and intelligent celebration of a genre whose literary sophistication and demands upon the reader are often underestimated.

Katherine Muskett is a part-time academic, freelance writer and tutor

Julia
By Sandra Newman
(400pp, Granta, £18.99, hb)
Reviewed by Louisa Young

Bad writers can have good ideas; good writers can have bad ideas. We needn’t mention the bad writers having bad ideas. And sometimes, an excellent writer has an idea which could easily go wrong, but turns out, in her hands, to be a very good idea indeed.

It’s a simple one. Julia is “a bold feminist retelling of 1984”. Julia, always very unsatisfactory in Orwell’s novel, is given her backstory, her family, her character in the best sense of the word. Julia doesn’t want to die. Julia likes the feeling of a cool breeze blowing over her naked body, and had a crush on Big Brother when she was a teenager. Julia works as a mechanic, fixing the fiction machines (nice touch), and isn’t above wandering in Prole areas for a bit of light black-market activity. Julia would like to have pals, better soap and more sex. She’d like not to have done what she had to do, but Julia’s not stupid and, see above, Julia doesn’t want to die.

Sandra Newman has written a splendid novel in its own right, which will sit without shame on the Dystopia shelf with The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power. I was tempted to reread 1984 as homework, but decided not to until after I’d read Julia, in order to see it clearly as a standalone work. When I did hoick out the ancient paperback (1977 edition, 70p, 11-point print, hello A-levels), I read them in parallel and realised just how cleverly and subtly Newman has shaped her project.

She doesn’t follow the timeline religiously, or make sure everything is covered. What a writer leaves out is always as important as what they put in. But then, with the lightest touch – well, no spoilers here, but have an example – during a scene of state violence, a glass paperweight is shattered, and the tiny sprig of coral which lay within it falls bereft to the floor. Newman has mentioned the paperweight in passing in Julia, with no (sorry) weight attached. But then in 1984 itself, in a chronologically earlier scene, we see Winston in the private room where he and Julia had their assignations, gazing at the paperweight, thinking, “The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia’s life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal.” Newman’s imagery is based on an image from the origin book! And it works.

Newman lifts directly from Orwell when she likes – neat phrases, the jeering, coarse “yellow note” of a corny song, dialogue, description. Her own can be lyrical, patches of loveliness to lift the reader’s heart in this otherwise bleak and violent tale (sorry, I skipped the rats; they were disgusting, as they should be). It is tempting to check, line by line, what is his and what is hers. But so much of it can only be hers – a woman’s. And how excellent it is to have this missing dimension, this completion. Orwell told us nothing, really, about Julia; the author seems as ignorant of her as Winston Smith is, and almost as uninterested. Like Logan Roy, it seems he couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head.

Pretty much the whole of Western culture is up for this treatment: grabbing history from the mouths of the winners, and literature from the pens of the men. What next? The Martin Papers, from Rachel’s POV? GoldfingHer, by Pussy Galore? The late, so great, and badly missed Deborah Orr was planning, when she died, Mrs Jekyll (and Mrs Hyde?). Onward and upward, comrades. The challenge is thrown, and the standard is high.

Scattershot:
Life, Music, Elton and Me

By Bernie Taupin
(393pp, Canongate, £25, hb)
Reviewed by Mic Wright

Bernie Taupin is the best kind of famous; he has the money and acclaim without the inconvenience of being recognised in the street or bothered in restaurants (where he can still get the best tables). Elton John has always been two people – the icon in the glittery outfits, the piano player and master musician formerly known as Reg Dwight, and in the background, writing words that can be both devastating and baffling, Mr Bernard “Bernie” Taupin.

Why is Taupin writing his side of the story now? It’s clear that Elton John’s epic farewell tour coming to an end is a good time commercially, but the tone of this book (garrulous, good-humoured, sometimes grumpy-old-man) suggests Taupin needs to keep writing. Remember, he’s the man who yearned for and feared the stillness of space in Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time), and told us Saturday night was alright for fighting. If Taupin and Dwight hadn’t met, the latter may have remained a well-respected session player.

Taupin is addicted to digressions; it’s like a music-industry Zelig has grabbed you to go on a time-hopping journey through the history of twentieth-century rock and roll. There’s Al Green upset at the quality of his overnight accommodation (“I ain’t staying at no ranch.”), Montgomery Clift as the original inspiration for the Marilyn Monroe memorialising ballad Candle In The Wind, Elton John compared to Reggie Kray (“A hardcore soccer fan, eclectic musical tastes, tough as old boots”), and Bernard taking us inside Lennon’s not-so-lost weekend.

Scattershot delivers on the author’s promise/cop-out (“I have no sense of specific timelines and recollections and dates are as bad as my sense of direction…”) by (tiny) dancing through Taupin’s life and career in a semi-chaotic manner. But when he wants to focus, he really focuses. Take the section where he turns his gimlet eye to the issue of adult men “dating” teen groupies:

“When you’re 28 and dating a fourteen-year-old, don’t try and blame it on the way it was back then… it’s indecent and degenerate, a salacious proclivity for which there is no excuse.”

This is not the story of Elton John. At times, it feels like the autobiography of a one-man Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Taupin was central to “Elton John” but he can sound almost accidentally comic in his self-imposed distance from the real heat of fame. He also makes you feel like a trusted confidante:

When Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, I believed him. I wanted to get to that place, that level of storytelling.

If you want Elton John’s side of all this, he’s already written it in his autobiography Me (2019). Taupin makes their work as songwriters sound prosaic: he’s like a very talented plumber explaining the intricacies of pipework. He’s also delightfully bitchy; take his review of the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park after Brian Jones’ death:

… the Stones came on pretending like they were sorry [Brian] was dead, and proceeded to rush through a half-hearted tribute that included… the release of three thousand white butterflies, the majority of which plummeted senselessly to the stage.

That acid is leavened by a confession that an attempt to deploy doves at an Elton John Hollywood Bowl show saw birds “simply [fluttering] apathetically to the ground”.

The title character in Tiny Dancer had “a busy day today”; Bernie Taupin has had a busy life and it’s all in this book. And, of course, his friend and collaborator for all that time – Elton – gets the dedication and Bernie’s frustrating discretion.

The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read
*(and maybe a few you don’t)

By Philippa Perry
(224 pages, Cornerstone Press, £18.99, hb)
Reviewed by Louisa Young

I was seriously considering just copying out 400 words of psychotherapist Philippa Perry’s wit and wisdom for this review. To be honest, with this small and helpful book what you see is what you get: the title is true, the advice is great, and so many millions of people worldwide have read her previous one, the #1 Sunday Times Bestseller The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) that you’re almost bound to be among them. So, you know, there’s no surprises here.

Except then there are. I’ve done as much therapy as the next guy and consider myself not entirely un-au fait with modern layperson’s knowledge in this area – admittedly, mainly because I too have read her bestseller – but I didn’t expect to be told not to be a fruit fly (it’s about rejoining your flock after rejection). Perry continues to offer new and useful observations as well as elegant phrases for our enlightenment. “We cannot numb hurt and pain without numbing joy as well,” she writes. Now I did know that, but it hadn’t actually come into focus for me before: when we’re going through it, we’re otherwise occupied. To paraphrase Lyle Lovett, it’s part of the process of learning to access all of the things that we already know. “When you play the victim, you give away your power,” she observes. Yes! So commonsensical, and yet it so often eludes us in moments of crisis. “Being right is overrated” – story of my life! The perils of “Fact Tennis” – lobbing facts at each other in arguments, instead of understanding how everybody is feeling. How we allow our lives to be “tarnished with background dread” rather than just biting the bullet and pulling out of something we really don’t want to do – which leads to: “If you have to choose between guilt and resentment, choose guilt.”

She is perceptive too on the pride that grows out of being shamed – she explains how she feels particularly proud of her books and newspaper column because she once failed a typing test, and initially wanted her “now dead teachers to feel the shame I was made to feel”. But “what was self-preserving can become self-sabotaging,” she reminds us. Things change. You can learn the value of surrendering, “but surrender to a shark and you’ll be a shark’s dinner.” And “if you need permission to cut somebody out of your life because they fill it with dread, I am giving it to you.”

Dig in. Don’t be a fruit fly.

Black Ghosts:
A Journey into the Lives
of Africans in China

By Noo Saro-Wiwa
(393pp, Octopus, £25, hb)
Reviewed by Joanna Grochowicz

“Dream big,” the Pentecostal pastor encourages his Nigerian congregation. Extolling limitless opportunities for economic success to those who work hard, he holds sway over his flock, switching from English to Igbo to speaking in tongues. The raucousness and fervency of the occasion, the amped-up band and the cheering is undoubtedly characteristic of many charismatic churches all over Nigeria, yet there is a critical difference – this prayer service is taking place in China.

“You will prosper in this the land of China. You will take control of the Chinese economy.”

The pastor’s three-hour sermon finds a ready audience. These economic migrants are here to succeed. Yet to do so for these hei gui “black ghosts” takes a certain tenacity both in terms of withstanding official persecution and racism, and in creating sustainable and lucrative businesses.

In her search for the oft-mentioned “developmental parallels” between China and Africa, Anglo-Nigerian journalist Noo Saro-Wiwa’s colourful and animated account captures a range of fascinating stories. Predictably, for many of the Africans she encounters in Guangzhou, China is “a means to an end”. Communicating in commercial Chinese, they intend to transact or establish trading opportunities, to stock up on clothes and leave with a 40ft container.

Others stay for years, in hopes of making enough money to return triumphantly to their homeland, get married or establish themselves as wholesalers and business people. There’s a cost, however. Their lives in China are spent in male-dominated dormitories, Formica-floored apartments with saggy mattresses, or “garrisoned by clothes racks” in subterranean spaces.

For others, China becomes home. Chinese wives and girlfriends are common. Many have children who speak not a word of Igbo and will likely never visit their fathers’ African homeland. But as African migrants, even those committed to a life in China must do constant battle with officialdom. Visa raids and police harassment are common.

Traders whose visas have lapsed turn into “nocturnal creatures”, evading the authorities while continuing to sell services to other migrants. It seems a brutal double standard that unmarried Americans are granted ten-year visas, while Nigerians with local wives and children fear deportation when their one-year visas lapse.

Noo Saro-Wiwa’s own experiences of travelling as a black woman are fascinating. Despite adopting the “casual entitlement of a Western tourist”, she’s repeatedly gaped at, misgendered, and subjected to laughter and derision. Gutsy and determined, perhaps cut from the same cloth as her subjects, Saro-Wiwa succeeds in getting her story. The reader cannot help but be filled with admiration, especially when one considers the often sexist and gruff attitudes she encounters amid the very Nigerians whose experiences she seeks to raise from obscurity.

My Lady Parts:
A Life Fighting Stereotypes

By Doon Mackichan
(256pp, Canongate, £16.99, hb)
Reviewed by Rowan Pelling

At the start of her enthralling, funny memoir, Doon Mackichan tells the reader what it’s not about. She will offer no showbiz tales of “improvising with Michael Caine” or hanging out with Matt Berry. Instead, it concerns the hard grind – and joy – of comedy, acting, parenting, protesting, swimming the Channel and navigating all-too-frequent episodes of misogyny. Or, as she puts it: “It’s about putting food on the table without selling out, and continuing to create in the chaos.”

Anyone familiar with Mackichan’s wayward comedy and brilliant character acting (Smack the Pony, Plebs, Two Doors Down, The Borrowers) will be happy to learn she inherited some of that verve from her Jag-driving, parrot-owning parents, who moved the family from Berks to the wilds of Fife when she was eleven. When she started at a big, tough Scottish secondary school she discovered her talent for impressions (Basil and Sybil Fawlty) could save her from bullying. By sixth form, clowning around had become her métier and she almost missed attending Manchester because of poor grades. But she jumped on a train and begged the drama department to take her anyway.

At university, she embraced Brecht and political protest and had her first, intoxicating taste of stand-up comedy. Afterwards, she made her mark on the emerging alternative comedy scene of the 1980s – although she swiftly learnt women were seen as “feeds” (straight performers who set up gags for the funny blokes), or sex objects, and were side-lined if they wanted to breastfeed babies on set. It’s fair to say some well-known male comedians and drama institutions emerge with scant honour. Happily, she, Sally Phillips and Fiona Allen reversed all the tired conventions with Smack the Pony, which won two Emmys.

But the emotional core of the book is the chapter titled “The Deranged Mother”. When Mackichan’s middle child, Louis, was nine he developed myeloid leukemia and the actress and her husband were plunged into the nightmare of hospital-bedside parenting. You won’t emerge dry-eyed from this, but there are plenty of laughs afterwards. And inspiration. Anyone longing to release their inner maverick, challenge sexism and improve the world, one brave deed at a time, should grab a copy.

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Arts & Culture, Books, October 2023

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