Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

The moment I read the first few sentences of this glorious book, I knew I was going to love it – and I did. The writing is lyrical and lovely, the story fascinating and clever, and the history that weaves through its pages brought to life in simply stunning ways. But what really makes this utterly engrossing novel so captivating is the premise that underpins the entire narrative. 

While most of us either grew up with Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue/novel, Gulliver’s Travels, or know of the extraordinary adventures its protagonist, ship‘s surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver underwent through various popular culture retellings (eg. the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver) not much thought at all is given to his wife or family who were left behind. Well, Chater changes that. This is the story of Mary Gulliver and her two children and how they survived in Lemuel’s absence on upon his unexpected return. 

The book is set during a time when women were completely subordinated to their husbands and society was patriarchal in every sense. When Lemuel is believed dead after three years missing at sea, Mary Gulliver not only provides for her family through her formidable skills as a healer and midwife, but excels. Imagine then, after attaining liberty, repaying her selfish husband’s debts and raising her children, her husband returns, expecting his household to revert back to the way it was – with him at its head and his every need and whim met. Furthermore, though he’s ill, he won’t be shifted from telling incredible tales of what happened to him while he was away, stories that threaten to undermine and even destroy the reputation Mary has, through hard graft and determination, restored. 

This is the story Chater gives us – from the point of view of Mary and her daughter (who grew up adoring her fantasist father and his wild stories and even wilder promises to her) with all its psychological and emotional twists and pain. In this tale, Gulliver is not the heroic survivor of ship-wreck and centre of a wondrous tale, but a narcissist who is unable to see the damage his return, and inability to understand the changes that have been wrought while he was away, is causing. Recruiting whoever he can to take his part, Gulliver reverts back to his old ways undermining not only the livelihood Mary has striven to build, but his very family. 

It is a beautifully, heart-achingly told tale – realistic and raw. I was completely swept into this story and didn’t want to part with it. I adored Mary, her daughter, Bess, too. The battles within the Gulliver family are echoed in the professional one that Mary is flung into as well, as midwives struggle for their independence and right to practice without the interference of male physicians and their shocking new technologies. 

I couldn’t put this book down and, as soon as I finished, downloaded Chater’s other novel, The Lace Weaver, chastising myself that I have only discovered this gem of a writer now. I cannot wait to read what else springs from her marvellous imagination, what else she grounds in such well-researched history. Magnificent. 

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The One by John Marrs

While I’d heard of many of John Marrs’ other books, I hadn’t yet read one. It was a recommendation from a bookshop that encouraged me to buy and read this one, and I’m really glad I did.

The story centres on the notion that out there in the world, somewhere, there is “The One” for each of us – not in the Romcom, Disney, Mills and Boon way so much – but someone who is genetically programmed to be our perfect match. The only problem is that you have to be willing to hand over your DNA and pay for the result and a little more for information on who The One is.

This is the premise underpinning the story, which not only follows a series of individuals and their experiences in finding (or failing to) their “perfect match”, but also the level of cynicism and doubt levelled at such an idea, especially by those already in relationships without having resorted to science to inform them if they’re with Mr or Ms Right.

But such an invention as “The One” is not without dire problems as an increasing divorce rate, misery of those yet to find a match or who are stuck with someone they’re not matched with, and the desire of the media to paint its recluse of a creator as some sort of Machiavellian scientist, responsible for all relationship/family woes indicates.

The short, fast-paced chapters are a roller-coaster as the reader follows the lives and loves, disasters and triumphs, emotional discord and joy of a number of different men and women who choose (or not) to be Matched and the consequences of what they do with that knowledge once they possess it.

While I felt that sometimes the scenarios stretched credibility a tad too much and the emotional heft was occasionally lagging, I also found the book hard to put down. I wanted to know the outcome of each person’s choices – would they get their “happy ever after” that finding “The One” implicitly promises, or would they be making the biggest mistake of their lives?

Marr throws in some twists and turns I didn’t see coming and which certainly kept me turning the pages.

Overall, I really enjoyed this almost satirical take on society’s long-held fascination for finding our “other half”. Stretching back as far as Socrates and The Symposium, it’s a desire that’s almost coded into us (through popular cultural representations (think of even old shows like Blind Date or Perfect Match, The Bachelor/Bachelorette and those mind of modern dating shows, Tinder, Grindr, and all the other Cyber dating services which promise so much and yet do they deliver? And fairy and folk tales, novels and films, all of which spin yarns about romance and finding the right person). You can’t help but ask, what would you do if you knew you could find out who the perfect person for you was, your other half, with little to no risk? What would you do if you were already in a stable relationship? If you shared children? If it’s relatively easy to find The One, does that mean you don’t have to work at a relationship anymore? Can one take The One for granted? What changes will the right person instigate in you if any? What will you transform about each other? The ethical/emotional/moral conundrums the book raises are certainly interesting and, towards the end, are thrown back at us in a credible way as well.

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The Phone Box at the Edge of the World Laura Imai Messina

This exquisite book, set after the shocking Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 and took so many lives, wreaking havoc upon the people and land, tells the story of how some survivors handled their overwhelming grief in the aftermath.  While the book focuses mainly on Yui (whose mother and daughter were swept away) and Takeshi, a doctor whose wife died of cancer and whose young daughter has fallen into silence ever since, we’re introduced to a host of other characters who find solace, not just in each other (though not in the sense you’d usually expect – they don’t console one another in the ways we traditionally understand this), but in their memories, actions and choices and, through a special place. In a garden by the ocean, Bell Gardia, an elderly couple have a disused phone box which houses the “Wind Phone.” Here, people who are grieving, are welcomed to come and speak into the hand piece, communicate with those who’ve died or who are no longer present in their lives. In expressing their pain, dreams, love, rage etc and sharing with those they’ve lost, these people find ways to connect their past, their sorrow, and reconcile their present. That this place and the phone and its purpose really exist (how wonderful!) gives the tale a special frisson. 

I admit, I was a little concerned that a book that focuses so much on such tragedy, on death and its impact on the living, would be bleak and miserable. Far from it. This heart-achingly lovely book has moments that do explore the depths of sadness, but it’s done with such beauty and thoughtfulness, imbuing even the smallest actions and thoughts with deep meaning. Yes, I ached, I cried, but I also felt a warm bud of happiness that grew as the tale progressed and finally blossomed. Through exploring grief, the ways in which we live with it and finally understand the role it plays in life, and the ways in which it irrevocably changes those experiencing it, the main characters and, indeed, the reader, flow into the future. A future that offers cause for optimism. A lovely, unexpectedly calming and even enchanting read that will linger in your heart and soul, especially if you’ve felt the loss of a loved one and raged against the fates, long after the last page. 

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The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

This book was unexpected. While the premise was fairly typical of a mystery/crime novel (a group of old friends travel somewhere remote – the Scottish Highlands – to celebrate New Year when tragedy strikes and they’re stranded), the style was very original. Written as a number of first-person narratives, the reader gets to know a few of the characters intimately whether they’re the London guests with relationships spanning up to twenty years, or the staff that work at the gorgeous lodge they’ve booked in the wilds of Scotland. While the tale commences with the tragedy, it then segues back and forth to three days before, to “Now” and then brings the reader ever closer to the moment death strikes. 

The combination of first-person POV, which means we sometimes see the same set of circumstances and interactions from completely different perspectives, as well as the shifting time frame, gives such immediacy to the story. I found I wanted to keep reading, even as my eyes grew heavy. Turning the next page, I would experience a chill, a frisson, that made me keep going. In that sense, the book is a real page turner. I have seen criticism of the book in relation to the characters, some readers finding them genuinely unpleasant. There is that – most are not ‘nice’ with secrets and flaws that make them unlikable but never, I felt, unrelatable. They admit to their faults, even try to psychoanalyse themselves. While the this generally fails, it’s the fact Foley gives the reader contexts and other perspectives for understanding certain characters’ actions and motivation that redeems them somewhat. I found it refreshing to have characters portrayed in such shades of grey. It’s also what made the perpetrator hard to pick.

Overall, I thought his a great, escapist read. So much so, I have already bought Foley’s next book, The Guest List and look forward to being chilled by that as well. 

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The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle

This is yet another book that has received a great deal of hype (debut novel that blew the publisher’s mind re the quality of the writing, Hollywood knocking, an author with a terrific back story herself etc), only this time, I didn’t hesitate, but went along for the ride and what a ride it was. 

The Girl in the Mirror is the story of mirror twins, Summer Rose and Iris who, along with the rest of their extended family (their father was married three times and they have a number of step-siblings and a brother) find themselves pawns in their dead father’s will. You see, their filthy rich and manipulative father (he’s a man who tells his children “nice is dumb” – what a charmer) has written some strict rules for inheriting his wealth: forget dividing his incredible legacy between his kids. Oh no – not this bloke. Only one will get the lot: the first of his children to be legally married and then give birth to a living child will inherit his enormous wealth – $100 million no less (did I say this was very soap opera?). So, the race is on. With six daughters and a son – and the twins with a chronological advantage (they’re older) – who will be the first? But with Summer refusing to bow to her father’s unethical instructions, choosing love over money, and the other children far too young to even be able to conceive, Iris appears to have it in the bag – or would if her own, hastily conceived relationship hadn’t self-destructed. 

Just when all seems lost (including the money), perfect Summer, the twin Iris wishes she was, throws her “Twinnie” a life-line. 

Believe it or not, what I’ve revealed above is not a spoiler, but just the beginning of the story, a story that twists and turns and takes place in Australia, on the ocean and in the Seychelles. You really have to suspend your disbelief and invest (even partially) in this melodrama of entitlement. But gosh it’s a bit of ambivalent fun if you do – a sort of guilty-reading pleasure. The writing is good and certainly, the crazy plot keeps you turning the pages and ignoring the holes. I saw every twist coming a mile away, but so enjoyed seeing how it played out and if I was correct. 

The lead character is incredibly flawed and it’s easy to dislike her, but somehow, you end up accepting her motives, even if her morals are questionable. But when everyone’s are, the bar is set very low. Mind you, the role models she’s been given are also pretty fraught. White privilege drips from the pages (even the Seychellois characters are well-off and live in a manner of which many of us can only dream) and it’s very Dynasty/Dallas-esque. In some ways, this makes the story unpalatable – but I think (hope?) that might be the point. There are threads left dangling, but I never mind that because life rarely squares things up and it allows the reader the opportunity to fill in the gaps.

If you enjoy mystery/thrillers with large lashings of soap opera (and be prepared, everyone is beautiful and rich), and are looking for a quick, wonderfully escapist read, then this is for you. 

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