Tag: literary fiction

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

It’s hard to know what else you can possibly add to a book that already has all the glowing reviews in the world. There is a reason some books are hyped, and everyone says “you need to read this”, because sometimes it’s true.

What Belongs To You tells the story of an American teacher living in Bulgaria who first meets Mitko in a public bathroom, where he pays him for sex. Throughout the subsequent years Mitko’s continued involvement in his life gives us a view into a relationship that is hard to define.

This is an intimate story detailing every minute aspect of a mans life as he tries to navigate his way between the deep sensual attachment he has to Mitko, and the undercurrent of violence and anger always present. Theirs is a relationship of obsession, lust, love, and dependence.

Garth Greenwell’s writing is effortlessly exquisite, building beautiful sentences that call out to be re-read and re-read time and again.

I love books that detail the small connections between two people and What Belongs To You is one of the most honest and human portrayals of that intimacy that I have read in a long time.

What Belongs To You is on the longlist for the Green Carnation Prize and I bought my copy from Wordery

 

How to talk about a plague

It was 1987 and my mum told me a story about her day at work. She’s a nurse and that day she was working in A&E, attending to patients waiting to go up to a ward. She tells me how she started her shift being told by another nurse “that patient has been asking for water, I’m not taking it to him, you do it.” Baffled, she asked why that nurse, and others, were refusing to take water to a patient. “He’s got AIDS”, my mum was told, as if this was answer enough for why a nurse would refuse to go near a patient. Mum thought, ‘well, I have no idea what that is, but I’m a nurse, so I’m going to help a patient’. She spent all night trying to get hold of the patients partner, a married man who was unaware his partner was possibly hours away from death.

I was 7 years old when my mum told me this story. It’s hard to imagine, for anyone who was born after the first cases of HIV were diagnosed, what it was like at the start. The lack of information on what this new disease was, the lies and rumours about how it was spread (even after it was known how, the denials that it was anything other than a gay disease).

There are some great novels and works of non-fiction that can educate and enrich your understanding of what life was like when this disease began to destroy lives, so I’m going to recommend a few you may want to start with.

If you want to learn more about just how horrific a time it was for those infected and their family and friends, you should start with How to Survive a Plague by David France. This book (and there is a documentary of the same name available) tells the story of a group of activists whose tireless campaigning changed forever the availability of drugs to combat HIV.

 

 

Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time (which I reviewed a few years ago) is a devastating first-hand account of AIDS. Published in 1998 it is an intimate account of love and loss which has haunted me since the day I first read it.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt in a novel which brings HIV into the lives of young people through the eyes of a 14 year old who loses her beloved uncle to the disease. She has to confront prejudice and secrets caused by both HIV and homophobia within her family and her community.

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín is a novel which doesn’t focus on AIDS as a central theme, but where the disease seeps its way into every aspect of the character’s life. Set in Argentina in the 1980s it tells the story of Richard, his family struggles, and relationship difficulties, set against a backdrop of political turmoil.

I’ve recommended the books above because these are the ones that I’ve read, but there are many more that explore the early days of AIDS and its effect on individuals, communities, and the world. Let me know your recommendations of any you’ve read. I really want to read some contemporary novels that deal with HIV so any recommendations are welcome.

Where to start with…Jeanette Winterson

I first became familiar with Jeanette Winterson due to the dramatisation of her first novel, Orange Are Not The Only Fruit, which aired on the BBC in 1990. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a lesbian growing up in a religious community in England and explores family relationships, sexuality, and religion.

I finally read the book as part of my A’Level English course and loved Winterson’s storytelling so much I tried to read everything she’d written. This was easy given, at that point, she’d only published six novels. Since I first started reading her work, she has published (if I’ve counted correctly) 16 novels, many collections of short stories, screenplays, and a memoir.

If you haven’t read Oranges I’d recommend you start with that, but following on one of my early favourites is Written on the Body.

Written on the Body is a very difficult novel to define. An intimate portrayal of lust and love, the gender of the main character remains undefined throughout, forcing you to read the book not as a response of one gender to another, but as desire for a physical body.

 

 

For a completely different story, try Tanglewreck – a children’s fantasy time-travelling tale. A sci-fi Dickensian exploration of quantum physics that is full of adventure and humour.

Winterson has also contributed to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of re-tellings which have been released since 2015. I’ve not found the time to read The Gap of Time, her re-telling of The Winter’s Tale, but the story sounds fascinating so I’d recommend giving that a try.

 

 

 

 

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera has the ability to keep drawing you in, lulling you into a false sense of security where you think everything is going to be okay, and then it isn’t. The beautiful description of the seemingly idyllic childhood in Sri Lanka quickly gives way to one of those passages that I can only describe by how it happened in my head as I read it: ‘Hang on, did I just read that right…let me go back and…oh god…oh god no.” This happened several times as I worked my way through time, through her childhood and into adulthood, repeatedly thinking things might work out only to be shocked into reality.

The main character remains unnamed until the end of the novel and in a way I felt like I never got to know her, whilst at the same time experiencing all the emotions and confusion she does at the circumstances of her life. I felt as lost and floundering as the main character often felt, unsure if I could trust her memories or the people around her.

What Lies Between Us explores the way in which memory effects our life and interacts with our present. It draws out how the past, even if long distant and buried deep, can still shake the foundations of our happier times and destroy the things which should be able to offer us some relief. At times brutal but always delicately written this novel is outstanding and definitely worth exploring.

Buy the Book

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

Guapa by Saleem HaddadReading Guapa means spending 24 hours in the life of Resa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he reflects on the immediate trauma and past events of his life.  The stories of his father’s death, his mother’s departure, and his difficult relationships with friends and lovers, are interwoven through a tale of his struggle to discover his place in the world.  This novel delivers so much more than it promises, delving deep into Resa’s mind to explore issues of marginalisation within every community Resa tries to discover an identity for himself.  Resa struggles to find somewhere that he belongs and is on a constant search to find meaning in the definitions that other people put onto him, based on his nationality, sexuality, religion (or lack of).

This is an amazing novel that explores complex issues in a delicate and sensitive way, bringing them to life through vivid characters and an evocative landscape.  I found myself nervous before the ending, worrying what Resa was going to do and what would happen to him.  I wondered how he would react at the wedding and if it would destroy him.  Being able to see through a small window in to a world that I’m not a part of was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures, as I found myself wanting to argue with almost everyone Resa came into contact with.

Publisher: Other Press
Genres: Adult Fiction, LGBTQ+, Contemporary
Published: March 8th 2016
Available to buy now


I received a free copy of this book from Other Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

 

 

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Gracekeepers Hardback ImageThe Gracekeepers is set in a very different world from our own, one where the earth has been swallowed up by the water and the divisions between those who live on land (the landlockers) and those who live on the sea (damplings) run deep. Callanish is a Gracekeeper, charged with overseeing the restings – when the deceased are sent to a watery grave. North is a performer on the circus boat the Excalibur, along with her bear. The meeting between these two complex characters sparks a change in both of them that has far reaching consequences.

This exquisitely written novel by Kirsty Logan made me curious about the divisions between cultures and the suspicion we have of people different from ourselves – how we mythologise things we don’t know or understand in order to try and make sense of it. By the end of the book I wanted to read more about North and Callanish and felt like I was leaving behind potential friends I’d only just got to know. I think this is a testament to how good Kirsty Logan is at writing characters who are essentially very private and afraid, hiding secrets that could have a serious impact on their lives if found out.

Would I recommended you read this book? Yes, slowly, to savour the beautiful writing. Buy the Book