Book review: Families and bids for freedom compelling fiction novels | Books | Entertainment

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The Librarian, Property a collection and Whistle in the Dark

Whistle In The Dark by Emma Healey (Viking, £12.99)

Her reappearance is a relief but Lana, who has a head injury and ligature marks on her ankles, resolutely refuses to say where she has been or what happened to her.

The troubled 15-year-old had already been self-harming and made a suicide attempt but in the wake of her disappearance Lana’s aggression towards her parents, in particular her mother, becomes even more difficult to manage than before.

The long-suffering Hugh Maddox also gets no answers from his daughter.

He tries with mild irony to be supportive of his wife while giving his unhappy daughter space to regroup.


Sudden exhaustion from the burden of the love she felt for Lana

Emma Healey

But Jen, laid off from her designing job because of her erratic attendance, faces Lana’s hostility all day long.

Any attempt to bridge the gap is repulsed.

In this disturbing book Emma Healey skilfully evokes Jen’s plight: a woman desperate to help her daughter but constantly pushed away as her incessant care begins to border on stalking.

At one point, rebuffed again, Jen experiences a “sudden exhaustion from the burden of the love she felt for Lana.”

Her daughter’s alienation begins to affect Jen’s own mental balance and the novel builds to a dramatic conclusion back in the Peak district.

Healey is a grimly humorous writer with a light touch to leaven what is often a bleak tale.

Her daughter’s alienation begins to affect Jen’s own mental balance and the novel builds to a dramatic conclusion back in the Peak district.

Healey is a grimly humorous writer with a light touch to leaven what is often a bleak tale.

During a visit to a Christian bookshop, Jen notices disposable Communion cups and gluten-free wafers.

“So some Christians were bothered by germs. And gluten allergies.

It was reassuring and disappointing at the same time.”

In the hospital where Lana recovers after her disappearance, Jen watches a woman knitting.

“The colour of the cardigan she wore (teal) and the colour of the wool she was knitting with (dark turquoise) were so close it seemed as though she were adding to her own clothes as she went.”

Healey thoughtfully explores complex problems facing young women and families today and in Lana she has created a masterpiece of angry inarticulacy.

Property: A Collection by Lionel Shriver (The Borough Press, £14.99)

THIS rich collection of 10 short stories and two novellas are in essence about ownership, not just of property and objects but also of experiences and of people.

In the opening novella The Standing Chandelier a 25-year friendship between a man and a woman undergoes a seismic change when one of the friends marries.

Does the new wife own her husband or can she share him with his old friend?

And is the standing chandelier of the title,finely wrought by the old friend from items of personal relevance to herself, an appropriate wedding gift?

Intergenerational problems are another theme, viewed through the prism of property.

Often the generations are on a collision course with adult children assuming that their parents will continue to house them and pay for meals.

But in The ChapStick a son looking after his domineering father’s concerns finds himself just as cowed as he was as a small boy.

In other stories property owners are confronted by enemies within.

In Repossession a first-time buyer is thrilled to have bought a bargain but is haunted by the previous unhappy owner.

Vermin sees a couple buy the dilapidated New York home they had been happily renting only to discover that home ownership undermines their relationship.

Many characters harbour anger until the resentment becomes another form of property ownership.

In the final novella, The Subletter, Sara Moseley is an expatriate American living in Belfast who takes a proprietary interest in the peace process.

She feels she has been short-changed when the Omagh bombing happens while she is on holiday in America.

The venal postman in The Royal Male is one of the few characters in these stories for whom things turn out well.

He steals post for himself and acquires a lady friend by answering another man’s letter.

Lionel Shriver is the master of the neat twist.

She lives between London and Brooklyn which is perhaps why she depicts characters dispossessed by living away from where they were born, viewing them with her detached and jaundiced eye.

This sense of dislocation gives depth to an unsettling but grimly entertaining collection.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers Viking, £16.99

IT MAY be rather generous to compare Salley Vickers to one of the greatest writers in the history of English literature but there are elements of Jane Austen in her fiction.

Like Austen she is able to take a cast of ordinary characters in a small country community and weave a kind of magic out of their stories.

She certainly succeeds with her latest novel The Librarian, set in a small market town in Wiltshire in the late 1950s.

Sylvia Blackwell, an only child, has found companionship in books.

So as an adult she becomes a librarian and moves to East Mole to look after the neglected children’s library.

Initially she is welcomed by the people of the town, including her landlady Mrs Bird, and she helps Mrs Bird’s granddaughter Lizzie to pass the 11-plus.

Before long she is inspiring children to visit the library, chief among them being the doctor’s precocious daughter Marigold and Sylvia’s neighbours’ gifted son Sam.

But chief librarian Mr Booth feels threatened by Sylvia and tries to thwart her at every turn.

And as a single woman she is regarded with suspicion by WI members.

When she is seen getting into the car of the unhappily married doctor, gossip puts her job and the library at risk.

The disappearance of Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer from the locked, adult-only section causes further ripples, especially when it is found in Lizzie’s hands.

Sam is implicated in the book’s theft and his sparkling future is threatened. With a few deft brushstrokes, Salley Vickers conjures up 1950s country town life.

It is a world of subtle class distinctions with a sense of continued post-war privations.

Money is tight even for people with jobs. And tensions simmer beneath the apparently smooth surface of the town: unhappy marriages, possible sexual abuse and adultery.

But children have greater freedom to roam and the library is a much more important place in the days before every house had a television.

Above all the theme is the power of books and their ability to change lives.

In a postscript Vickers pays tribute to a librarian, also a Miss Blackwell, who inspired her to read as a child.

This tender, sad tale offers a final positive message.



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