A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

25612964This is a simply magical book that, as the title suggests, covers a year in the life of ninety year old Marvellous Ways, a fantastically named, sprightly, imaginative and kind old woman with a unique take on life.

Born in simpler times, Marvellous, the daughter of a “mermaid” and the man who adored her, she is a vulnerable and strong child and later woman who endures and sees much in her long life and yet never loses her faith in the universe and people. A recluse by choice and circumstances, Marvellous’s life is simple and self-sufficient, but she is wonderfully complex. Content with her own company, and in tune with nature and the rhythms of the seasons, she is able to adjust easily to changing circumstances. When a young, former soldier and drifter, who also has a fabulous and somewhat ironic moniker, Francis Drake, washes up on the shores of her riverside home believing life as he knows it is over, Marvellous (who has been expecting him) shows him why it isn’t and teachers him about life and love and why, even when we believe we cannot, we go on.

Segueing from past to present, allowing stories of Marvellous, Drake and others who enter their orbit to unfold, the prose is sublime – poetic, really – and the events, encounters and the scenes heart-wrenchingly lovely. From before the wars to mid-last century, this is a tale about age and the ages, love, loss, faith, friendship and so much more. As I read, I felt as if Marvellous, Drake and their stories nuzzled their way into my heart and, when I finished, I knew it was there they would remain.

This is a gorgeous and very special book that will stay with you long after the final page.

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Echoes From the Dead by Johan Theorin

11479981Echoes From the Dead by Johan Theorin is such a marvellous, evocative and yet also oppressive book to read. Set on the Swedish Island of Oland, it tells the story of Julia Davidsson whose six-year-old son, Jens, went missing on the fog-bound alvar (marshes/fields) of the island over twenty years earlier. When her mostly estranged elderly father, who has abandoned his home on the isle and thus independence for the comfort of a nursing home, is sent her son’s sandal in the post, it not only reopens wounds Julia has never allowed to heal, but sends her back to the island she left all those years ago and the memories it holds in order to discover the truth of her son’s disappearance.

Tied in with Julia, Jens and Julia’s father’s story is that of the island’s resident sociopath, Nils Kant. Believed dead and buried long ago, stories about Nils as a violent boy and later, as an aggressive and exiled man, continue to swirl, his ghost haunting not just the remaining residents, but managing to inculcate its way into Jens’ possible fate as well.

When friends of Julia’s father and others who believe Nil Kants still lives and will do anything to prevent his whereabouts from being discovered die or are silenced, Julia and her father risk their lives to discover exactly what the island of Oland is hiding.

Ostensibly a story about loss and grief, and the impact this has on an individual and families, it’s also about the way people deal with trauma and the resultant victim status that can follow. Segueing between past and present, the war and changing socio-economic circumstances of the country, island and industries, the novel cleverly situates, but never reduces, personal tragedy within a wider cultural and social picture. While the landscape and weather of Oland is stunningly created, the cold, the wind and rain and the frigid waters that lap the sands, as well as the thick fog that can descend and obscure, it’s the internal landscapes of the characters, particularly Julia’s, that are the most suffocating and, like the fog, almost impossible to escape from. Her grim reality and the demons that haunt her and heart-breaking and so very real and poignant.

Interior lives and histories are masterfully rendered and though the book is slow-moving, it is never, ever dull. On the contrary, I couldn’t put it down and despite reading closely (wrapped in a blanket with one eye over my shoulder), I never saw the tragic twist in the finale coming.

As soon as I finished, I immediately downloaded Theorin’s next novel, also set in Oland. Before I commence, I want to raise my head, absorb some light and warmth and then plunge back into what I’ve no doubt will be another delightfully gloomy prospect.

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The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty

Redesign_9780425260937_HypnotistsLo_cover.inddThis is another wonderful novel from the fantastic imagination of Liane Moriarty. She’s fast becoming my go-to author when I want a lighter, but beautifully written and thought-provoking read. The lightness here is not meant to be derogatory or infer “light-weight”. On the contrary, it’s not about content or style as Moriarty often deals with difficult topics and doesn’t hesitate in exploring the flaws and weaknesses of human nature and in wonderful prose. Rather, it refers to Moriarty’s deftness as an author and the fact she has what I can only describe as a light touch.

The Hypnostist’s Love Story is no exception. It’s a tale about a young woman named Ellen who has her own hypnotherapy business, helping people overcome addictions, fears and irrational behaviours. When she meets widower and single dad, Patrick, through an online dating service, it seems she’s met the perfect man. Even his son is adorable and both he and Patrick love her. But Patrick comes with more baggage than a dead and beloved wife and her family. Patrick also has a stalker, his ex-girlfriend, Saskia.

Instead of being concerned about what Saskia signifies, especially when she starts turning up at the most inconvenient times and impacting upon the growing relationship she has with Patrick, Ellen is intrigued by Saskia’s obsession and inability to let go. When Saskia starts stalking her as well, Ellen knows she should be afraid, but she’s more curious than anything.

But curiousity is not necessarily a healthy response either – not where grief, jealousy and obsession are involved…and not only Saskia’s…

This is a brilliant and very gratifying book about relationships – personal, professional and familial and all the complex emotions, choices and responses to others we make as we stumble through life, love and loss.

What makes this novel particularly fascinating is Moriarty tells it not only from Ellen’s point of view and through her, Patrick’s, exploring the tension, fear and anxieties being the victim of a stalker can arouse – how damaging it can be – but from Saskia’s as well. This is quite unexpected and though every part of you wants to loathe Saskia, it’s kudos to Moriarty that the reader develops sympathy for her, even though we recoil at her actions. The reader learns about her relationship with Patrick and what led to their break-up. We slowly come to understand if not sympathise with Saskia and her odd and, frankly, inappropriate behaviours – how she cannot stop herself. It doesn’t change the nature of them and how wrong and detrimental they are, but it does put the reader in the stalker’s shoes for a while and allows empathy to flourish.

A really gratifying read that is beautifully and lightly (that word again) told, even though some of the themes are heavy. Having read all Moriarty’s books now, I need her to write another one… stat!

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was given a huge recommendation by a friend who shares similar reading tastes but not even her high praise prepared me for the story that unfolded when I began reading The Nightingale.

24447955Set on the eve of Word War Two in rural France, Paris and other locales, this is fundamentally a tale about two sisters: the gentle, loving and loyal Vianne, who simply wants to get on with the business of living and loving her husband and daughter, and her rebellious, impulsive sister, Isabelle. Fundamentally abandoned – if not rejected – by their father after their mother died and while still young, the two sisters found different ways to ope with their grief and loss. Sadly, they’re unable to find solace in each other; Vianne is frustrated by her sister’s perceived lack of responsibility and selfishness, Isabelle by Vianne’s lack of interest in and feelings for her – it’s as if she’s been rejected by her sister as well.

But it’s also a story about war and what it does to those who are drawn into its tragedy; how it strips some of their humanity, while for others it reminds them of what’s important and why no risk is ever too great to sustain this.

When the rumours of Nazis invading become a reality and the sisters’ very different lives are overturned, Vianne is forced to billet a Nazi officer. Terrified for her daughter, wondering about her husband who has been conscripted to the front, as her beloved village is transformed almost overnight (including some of the villagers) Vianne faces terrible deprivations and loss of heart and soul as she is forced into a series of difficult and dangerous choices simply to survive.

In the meantime, a chance encounter with an earnest young man sees Isabelle risking her life in order to stand up to the Nazi injustices and the destruction these monsters leave in their wake.

What neither Vianne or Isabelle can predict, however, is just how many sacrifices they’ll be asked to make, how many losses they’ll have to endure and how much faith and courage they’ll have to find – not only in each other, but within themselves.

Moving from the late 1980s and the reminiscing of a dying old woman and back to the young woman and the war tearing the world apart, this heart-wrenching, beautiful and brave story of women and men who resist the lure of evil, who stand up for what is right is remarkable. Taking its time, the novel draws you into the lives of the sisters, their family and neighbours. With gorgeous prose, meaningful reflections and such truth in the complex familial relationships portrayed, even when what’s being revealed is painful or unflattering, you come to understand the characters and their motives. Because the novel is set against a backdrop we know so well, the reader is privy to what the characters don’t know – the heartless onslaught of Hitler, the Gestapo and Nazis, the horror of the Concentration camps, and the chaos and utter heartache that await them all. How hope is so hard to cling to, but cling they must. This knowledge creates a particular frisson as you read, making the narrative even more powerful than it already is.

Hauntingly tragic yet also so very beautiful, this is a story that lingered in my heart and mind for days afterwards. A simply wonderful book that I cannot recommend highly enough whether you’re a lover of history, fine fiction, a tremendous tale or whether you long to hear the voices of those so often rendered silent.

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The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

17802724Once more, Liane Moriarty invents a premise for her novel that is quite irresistible. Imagine if, after many years of happy marriage and three children later, you happen upon a letter your husband wrote years ago that states it’s only to be opened on his death. What would you do? Respect the instruction on the front, or break faith and open it?

That is the quandary facing Cecilia Fitzpatrick, one of the most ordered and organised working mothers and wives in the neighbourhood. Respected by other parents at her daughters’ school, well-known and admired within the community, she faces a very real dilemma: what did her husband consider so important that he put it in writing but didn’t want the contents known until after he died?

While this secret is central to the novel, as is usual with Moriarty’s work, she revels in what makes ordinary people tick. What women and men reveal and conceal from each other and even themselves. Intersecting with Cecilia and her husband’s tale is that of Tess, recently moved to Sydney from Melbourne with her young son after her husband drops a bombshell on her.

Tess enrols her son at Cecilia’s children’s school and takes an instant dislike to this together Fitzpatrick woman who seems to have a finger in every pie and a degree of control over her life that Tess can now only dream about.

And then there’s sixty-odd year old Rachel, the woman most don’t know how to speak to and treat her like a china tea-cup or bad luck omen. Afraid if they mention the daughter she lost years ago she might break or if they spend too much time in her company some of the ill fortune (her husband died as well) might rub off, Rachel is both loved and pitied.

But Rachel doesn’t want pity, she wants revenge.

A compulsive read that yet again, kept me up until the wee hours as I had to know how the story was going to resolve itself. Able to make the characters rich, complex and above all real, Moriarty makes the ordinary and every day extraordinary. Wonderful stuff.

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