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 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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Normal People by Sally Rooney.

There has not only been so much hype about this book, but a successful TV show (which I haven’t yet watched) as well. Once again, I was caught in the silly bind of asking myself do I read it and risk disappointment or not? Fortunately, I did read it and while the book wasn’t what I expected, it was a good read. 

Basically, the story centres on two misfits (though the fact they both are isn’t immediately apparent) who, thrown together through life’s vagaries, nonetheless share little in common except they’re both smart and curious – mainly about each other, though they’d be the last to admit that. While Marianne is unpopular at school, Connell is the boy most dream of being or being able to call boyfriend, a situation that’s reversed once they get to university. Then, it’s the other’s turn to shine. The book follows the social, psychological and emotional intersections of these two characters through adolescence and early adulthood; the way in which they both depend upon and yet deny their need for each other. They’re like atoms, inexplicably drawn to each other then flung apart, mostly because, for all their intelligence, they don’t really understand themselves or their need of each other and are hopeless at communicating. 

I found this quite frustrating in some ways – the fact they don’t learn from the pain they feel and cause and repeat mistakes that cause a series of emotional upheavals and damage to their souls. Are they “normal people” or is this a satiric commentary on their ability to function “normally’ (whatever that is) and embrace dysfunction instead? So, while I appreciated the rawness and realness of much of the dialogue and situations, I also found the naval-gazing a bit tedious and their white privilege a bit hard to stomach. But perhaps that was the point as well? 

Overall, I am really glad I read it and get the fuss – the writing is really good – but I am not sure about recommending it – not without caveats. 


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Devil’s Lair by Sarah Barrie

I don’t recall the last time I was so chilled by a book as this one – and I mean that in a good way! The story of young widow, Callie and her attempt to put the tragic death of her husband behind her and the suspicion cast on her by a click-bait hungry media, by hiding in a small town in Tasmania – New Norfolk – Devil’s Lair is suspenseful, atmospheric and really very scary!

Grateful that her friend has offered her a safe haven in Tasmania, what Callie doesn’t expect is the kindness of the strangers she encounters, or the eerie surroundings in which she finds herself. Located in the smaller gatehouse of a large property in which a curmudgeonly recluse lives, Callie nonetheless makes a real effort to get on with her life and interact with the people she finds herself among. More than anyone else, she finds herself drawn to Connor, one of the siblings who own a huge tourist-based property nearby and who gives her much-needed work.

But when strange letters, stories of ghosts and unexplained deaths as well as the sense of being watched start to overwhelm her, Callie finds that the most rational of explanations don’t add up. Wanting desperately to trust someone, Callie is no longer sure, after all, how can you trust anyone when you can no longer trust yourself?

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was terrific, the pace just right and the way it which it managed to capture the almost suffocating and frightening sense of being in a small house, at night, on the edge of the river and the feeling of being watched (I was looking over my shoulder in my bedroom!) against the gorgeous expanses of the Tasmanian countryside, was superb. Evocative, eerie and compelling. A wonderful read. 

I cannot wait to read Sarah’s other books. 

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