The Mountain in my Shoe by Louise Beech

mountainIt’s hard not be a little bit in love with Louise Beech. She tells stories, and although her novels are fictional they are rooted in human experience. I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if we all told our stories and more importantly, if we all listened to other people’s. How often do we pass our judgment on someone, who they are or have been, or project our own anxieties onto others, rather than listen to them tell us for real? Stories have power and with both How to be Brave and The Mountain in my Shoe Louise proves it.

The core relationship in How to be Brave was between a mother and daughter as they came to terms with a life changing illness. In The Mountain in my Shoe the focus is on Conor, a child moving through the care system, and his befriender Bernadette. Both of them need love and Bernadette provides stability to Conor by always returning and never letting him go in the way all the other adults in his life have, whilst she also receives a “saving” relationship herself that prevents her from sinking in an abusive marriage.

The story is told from three perspectives. Third person prose takes us through Bernadette’s experience as she desperately searches for the missing Conor whilst also reflecting on a life trapped within lost dreams. Conor tells his own story of a night of adventure and discovery, whilst between these two narratives, segments of his Life Book reveal his bigger journey through a series of looked after experiences since separation from his mother and siblings.

There is a sense throughout the novel of wounded people internalising their issues and struggling to deal with them, until they are faced with the most broken of them all and he heals them. As a society we do not deal with our wounds well, generally transmitting our pain to others rather than transforming it within it ourselves. This is reflected in the story as Frances inflicts hers on her children, Richard on his wife and Bernadette on herself, but Conor, who has been rejected time and again and hurt most of all, transforms each of them with the honesty of his love.

It’s important stuff that in Western culture we have largely pushed to the side and avoided. All of us suffer pain of some sort but it is in the vulnerability of accepting our wounds, and those of other people, that we can turn them into gifts. Bernadette had suffered great loss in a miscarriage but in time she was able to hold that pain and transform it into a love that could overturn a lifetime of rejection for Conor. Richard projected his pain onto his marriage resulting in an abusive relationship, but in Conor found a way to transform that negativity into something beautiful, saving both of them in very different ways. And somehow Conor manages to hold his suffering, despite his undoubted frustration, in a way that lights up the world around him.

Once each character was able to accept their own pain they were able to transform themselves and those around them. It is a novel, written well and with warmth, and it is also a window into a truth that can permeate our own lives. That’s why we need good writers to tell good stories.

This book is a gift.

And your story can be too.

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The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

the-bird-tribunalFor one reason or another I have not had much reading time recently. As a result this blog has fallen into a slumber with no books read, so none to review. And then another flurry of new releases from Orenda Books comes through the letterbox and I know I will regret not reading them. Somehow I have to find the time, but I don’t want to squeeze them in begrudgingly, I know that they will deserve to be absorbed fully.

The Bird Tribunal appealed initially because it is a slim volume, a shorter way back into reading than the other two, but on opening up its 185 pages they are filled with beautiful prose. Agnes Ravatn is a Norwegian author and her novel has been translated by Rosie Hedger with what feels like a very empathetic and true hand. An intriguing but simple, at least on the surface, narrative is utterly absorbing through a skilful use of language that feels very natural in English.

The cast of characters is small, tiny, but you spend quality time with them and their troubles. This is a thriller of psychology, not action, its builds slowly and surrounds you. At times it feels run of the mill but even as you think nothing is happening you feel unsettled, convinced that you could scratch the veneer off their relationship with even bitten back nails.

Allis was a television historian until her willingness to do anything to get to the top destroyed her marriage and he career. Fleeing her very public humiliation she responds to an advert for a gardener and housekeeper despite lacking the skills. From the start her relationship with Sigurd Bagge, her new employer, is peculiar and awkward, but maybe there is a sense that they also need each other.

The story is narrated by Allis so we hear her thoughts clearly but his only through her speculation. Both are seeking redemption for past failings but we are never certain whether they could accept it even if it was offered. A tense, fragile relationship develops held together by half-truths and desperation as it builds to a climax that reveals all and nothing. Do we really know Allis and Sigurd by the end? Do they really know other? And have either of them found what they need? That is what we are left to ponder and even at the end it feels awkward, unsettling and painfully beautiful.