Book Reviews: 19 April - 2 May

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HADOW DAUGHTER: A MEMOIR OF ESTRANGEMENT by Harriet Brown (Da Capo Lifelong Books, £20)

‘My mother is dead and I have been missing her my whole life.’ In the opening pages of this blisteringly honest and perceptive memoir, Brown captures with shattering conciseness the conflicting feelings of an estranged daughter who is facing a toxic parent’s death. 

Drawing on her own experiences and a range of case studies, she explores this stigma-ridden subject, and the misconceptions that make an already difficult predicament – growing up effectively unparented, having to break away in order to survive – unnecessarily harder. The nuclear family, she argues, remains such a potent and pervasive myth of normality that its severance, even if necessary for emotional or physical survival, is regarded as aberrant. As an estranged daughter, I often found myself nodding in recognition – or gasping for breath. Brown touches on many important aspects: ‘estrangement’ is not     a one-off event but a variable spectrum; lacking the support network that most people take for granted; the attendant sense of shame; the lasting social, economic and psychological effects, and the harsh truth that reconciliation is not always possible or even desirable.

This clear-sighted and well-researched study, citing the work of psychologists such as Alice Miller and Suzanne Freedman, is uncomfortable reading at times, but ultimately life-affirming. It’s about time we talked openly about estrangement: Brown opens the conversation hitting all the right notes.

Juanita Coulson 

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THE NIGHT TIGER by Yangsze Choo (Quercus, £16.99)

Set in 1930s Malaysia, this whimsical novel draws on Chinese folklore, superstitions and colonialism to weave together a multi-layered story.      Its premise begins with Dr MacFarlane, a British doctor, who is dying and worried about his soul not resting in peace due to his severed finger. MacFarlane thus asks his servant, Ren, to find the finger and bury it with his body. Meanwhile, Ji Lin, a seamstress working at the Mayflower dance hall to pay off her mother’s gambling debts, meets a client who gives her the severed finger in a vial. 

Connecting the stories of Ren and Ji Lin are supernatural themes of prophetic dreams, ghosts and        a tiger that takes a human form. The lyrical prose transports the reader to a dream-like landscape which parallels with the real world of racism and discrimination, and the roles the characters are expected to fulfil: Ren must obey his dead master, and Ji Lin must abandon her ambition of becoming a doctor and instead aim for marriage. A difficult novel to summarise   due to its many subplots (and spoilers), the stylistics used are breathtaking and the plot-twists hold one’s attention. Balancing good writing and strong attention to historical detail, the author has created something that is clever and unique.

Lyndsy Spence  


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LIAR by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin, £12.99)

The corrosiveness of deception, guilt and moral ambiguity are explored in this hypnotic novel. Set       in present-day Israel, it tells the story of mousy, teenage Nofar, who is cruelly verbally abused while serving ice-cream to ex-TV celebrity Avishai Milner. As crushed as an insect, she flees from the shop pursued by Milner, and in the pandemonium that follows allows him to be falsely arrested for sexual assault. Suddenly everyone wants to speak to ‘the girl who dared to scream’ – the press, her schoolmates – and she blossoms and appears on TV, while Milner is vilified and faces prison. There is one problem, though: the strange boy upstairs who saw what really happened. Entertaining and suffused with erotic tension, this elegant tale looks at what constitutes abuse – particularly relevant in the age of #Me-Too. A fascinating if troubling read.

Rebecca Wallersteiner

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THE GIRL IN THE LETTER by Emily Gunnis (Headline Review, £7.99)

Set in the present day and in 1956, this novel’s formula is similar to Martin Sixsmith’s Philomena, with a journalist uncovering    a family secret and bringing redemption    to those who were wronged. The contemporary protagonist, Sam Harper, is an unfulfilled features writer and single mother, who relies        on her widowed grandmother, ‘Nana’,  to provide childcare. Meanwhile, in 1956, Ivy is sent to St Margaret’s home for unmarried mothers to deliver her baby and give it up for adoption. With many characters and subplots working in two different periods and settings, the novel can be confusing, though suspenseful. Emily Gunnis’s writing is  easy to read, and this readability is balanced with the harrowing, vivid details from the past and the author’s ability to evoke sympathy for the characters. A good debut novel.

Lyndsy Spence


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EDVARD MUNCH: LOVE AND ANGST Edited by Giulia Bartrum (Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum, £30) 

Published to coincide with an exhibition of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s printmaking at The British Museum (from 11 April to 21 July) this impressive tome examines ‘the culture and society in which Munch’s prints were made,’ while also championing them. It is a medium that helped establish his reputation on the world stage. Munch’s early life was plagued by hardship – his mother died when he was five followed by his sister, and his father was mentally unstable. Recurring themes of love, anguish and death run through his work, and included here are lithographic stones, prints and woodblocks. The artist produced over 30.000 prints using 800 different techniques. A gripping excavation into   a little explored corner of the Munch’s oeuvre: there is so much more to him than The Scream. Beautifully intense. Elizabeth Fitzherbert

 

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