Sunday 24 June 2018

5 books, 5 digest reviews

The Black Mirror, Food Needs Labelling, People Don't, Infidelities Short Stories, Vertigo, Nobody Is Ever Missing

The Black Mirror, Food Needs Labelling, People Don't, Infidelities Short Stories, Vertigo, Nobody Is Ever Missing

The Black Mirror

Raymond Tallis

Atlantic Books



Review by Patrick Kelleher

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A book about death may not seem like the most uplifting reading to be getting on with, especially when that book is described as “fragments of an obituary for life”. Despite this, however, The Black Mirror is a thing of immeasurable beauty. What becomes apparent is that this is all about living — even if that does mean confronting death in the process.

The Black Mirror looks at the life of Raymond Tallis, formerly professor of geriatric medicine, and brings us to his current resting place in a

morgue. In between descriptions of how he lived his life, are observations on his senses, family, relationships and working life.

As Tallis explains in his introduction: “The unspeakable Nothing italicises at least some of the Everything that is life.”

This is perhaps closer to the premise of the book than anything else.

Tallis refuses to shy away from death, and in so doing, he provides us with many answers.

The result is a book that reminds us why life must be appreciated and relished. It encourages us to find meaning in the everyday occurrences — the common moments of beauty that are often overlooked.

Tallis’s latest offering is an eloquent reminder of life’s everyday joys. It is, as he says, “an invitation to marvel at all those seemingly important hurries, all that activity and passivity, action and experience, from the standpoint of a stillness in which all hurry is spent”.

It may not sound immediately appealing, but The Black Mirror is necessary reading — a beautifully written reminder of mortality that serves a greater purpose than sadness and anguish.


Food Needs Labelling, People Don’t

Chris Ricketts

Little Singing Bear Publishing



Review by Deirdre Conroy

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‘Biology is not always destiny” — so said Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan after criticism of remarks he made about transgender last week. Chris Ricketts was assigned female at birth, but as the years passed she knew she was different from her sisters and other women. Born in Wales and educated in Dublin, Chris married and had two children. After 17 years, she made the choice to leave a difficult marriage with her two children. In essence, she was attracted to women, but as a man would be.

She was not a lesbian and explains in her book how she was so repulsed by a lesbian being attracted to her female attributes that she began to overfeed herself to hide her shape. Ill-health was the inevitable result. She sought medical assistance. The first doctors she encountered offered radical surgery and hormone therapy. Many in Chris’s position have chosen this route. Caitlyn Jenner is a prime example and has done much good in highlighting the issues of transgender people. But it is expensive and a life-long commitment.

Up until recently, Chris had worked in secondary school education. She eventually found her path to self-acceptance through more spiritual means. Having discovered a wonderful Reiki teacher, her mind opened to alternative perceptions of her “gender identity disorder”. Independently published, the autobiographical detail of early family life takes up much of the book, with the child Chris searching for clues. There are many heart-­rending moments and this story would re-assign many of society’s identity perceptions.



Short Stories

Kirsty Gunn

Faber & Faber



Review by Anne Cunningham


There’s a strange echo of disconnection running throughout Kirsty Gunn’s latest volume of short ­stories. It could be coincidence, but given the subject matter and the calibre of the author, I suspect it’s deliberate. As deliberate as the Prologue, where two old lovers meet for a drink and it transpires the woman is writing a short story collection called Infidelities. The man scoffs. Nobody buys short ­stories. “No-one thinks there’s enough going on.” Indeed. It’s a bit self-­conscious, a bit tricksy, the prologue. Creating art and commenting on your own creation from within is risky business, it forges an unsettling sense of detachment. But of course detachment is at the very essence of infidelity.

Detachment is very much the stuff of the first story, where harried mother and housewife Helen discovers a Tibetan monk sitting in silent meditation on the village green. After dark that night, she follows the monk to the nearby forest, leaving her children at home with her very drunk husband, oblivious of the danger. She’s gone in search of something. A higher calling, perhaps.

In “Glenhead”, a recently divorced mother of teenagers goes to view a house with her boyfriend, reluctant teenagers in tow. The idyllic country pile, so inviting in the real estate brochure, loses its charm as she confronts the possibility of the damage she’s doing to her two ungrateful, bolshie kids. While betrayal and loss are central themes, so too are the “stories we might tell ourselves”, borrowing from one short story’s title, simply to survive. There is much introspection in these tales, as both the betrayed and the betrayers dither and falter and question themselves endlessly. We do whatever we must, Gunn reminds us with her elegant prose, to avoid hanging ourselves from the Judas tree.



Joanna Walsh

Tramp Press


Short story

Review by Justine Carberry


I have, at times, suffered from vertigo, a debilitating, spacey sensation that throws you right off balance. A bit like reading this collection of short stories by the creator of the ­Twitter hash-tag #readwomen, Joanna Walsh. The protagonist of these minimalist stories is a nameless woman facing moments in her life that fill her with unease, jealousy, a lurking sense of failure.

She is strangely child-like, yet brutally honest, hovering over each moment, trying out words, trying to get to the core of things. What emerges is a woman, in many guises, a young mother, a daughter, a wife contemplating an affair.

These fragmentary glimpses into her interior life show us someone detached and coolly observant, yet vulnerable and sensitive. She finds it difficult to connect, to belong, as reflected in her description of the titular condition.

“Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space. I sense no anchorage. I will pitch forward, outward and upward.”

The stories in this collection revolve around failure: failed marriages, unsatisfactory affairs, disappointing parties, ruined holidays, each delivered with deadpan precision in deceptively simple unembellished language.

I have never read anything quite like them and did wish guiltily more than once for a bit of guidance.

And the stories were too similar in style to be read one after another.

Like eating chocolates, it’s best to savour one now, save the others for later. Deeply introspective, you need time to digest them one at a time.


Nobody is Ever Missing

Catherine Lacey



Review by Claire Coughlan

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This is a novel about — as the title would suggest — what it means to voluntarily go missing from your own life, a difficult thing to do from the outset, with the world being the global village it now is.

Elyria, a writer for a soap opera, leaves behind her comfortable existence with her husband in New York and boards a one-way flight to New Zealand to stay in the home of a poet, Werner, whom she has met just once and who has promised her a room, should she ever visit.

However, along the way she must journey from the north to south of the country, hitch-hiking and sleeping in fields, forests and public parks.

I found the premise for this book by Catherine Lacey (below) unlikely, and the plot seemed to have possibly boarded that plane along with Elyria.

However, I may be missing the point, as the precision of the writing zings along with lines such as,

“ . . . Harriet gave me the same tangled feeling I had while watching television shows about sharks . . . ”

and, “‘I’m not writing a novel,’ I said. ‘I don’t like novels.’ ‘It’s for the best,’ Werner said. ‘Misery begins in publishing.’”

The disintegration of a marriage and tracing its evolution fires the motor of Nobody is Ever Missing, as it flits seamlessly between present day New Zealand and the recent past in New York.

Though ­technically brilliant, it still felt as though there was indeed something missing.

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