Book discussion

'We are beside ourselves' by karen J Fowler Staps Language Laboratory le 06/11/2015 à 12:15

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014*** Rosemary's young, just at> college, and she's decided not to tell anyone a thing about her
> family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to> find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes> her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child,> but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older> brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There's something> unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made> by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began> all of Rosemary's trouble. So now she's telling her story: full of> hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it's a looping narrative> that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning.> Twice. It's funny, clever, intimate, honest, analytical and swirling> with ideas that will come back to bite you. We hope you enjoy it, and> if, when you're telling a friend about it, you do decide to spill the> beans about Fern - it's pretty hard to resist - don't worry. One of> the few studies Rosemary doesn't quote says that spoilers actually> enhance reading.

Book discussion

'A spool of blue thread by Anne Tyler D302 campus le 19/06/2015 à 12:15

Way back in 1986, when Anne Tyler had already written 10 novels, including perhaps her most admired, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, critic John Blades marshalled his arguments against “the heiress apparent to Eudora Welty as the earth mother of American writers”. We might grant him a little leeway and acknowledge the pervading cultural climate in which female novelists could see their work so smoothly slotted into the language of maternity, but there were graver accusations to come. Tyler, he announced, was America’s “foremost NutraSweet novelist”, her “annoyingly synthetic” fiction “seriously diluted by the promiscuous use of artificial sweeteners”; what she offered were “sedative resolutions to life’s most grievous and perplexing problems”.

“NutraSweet”, in this context, is worse than sugary; the sweetness isn’t even real, and may furtively do us harm. We think we’re being comforted, but in fact we’re being fooled. But although Blades’ attack was swaggeringly hyperbolic, the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike. Not unconnected is the fact that Tyler has determinedly mined the same seam throughout her career, basing the vast majority of her novels in a Baltimore that seems far from the fictional landscape of The Wire or the non-fictional landscape of Serial. We are more likely to find ourselves around a dinner table than at a homicide scene in Leakin Park.

Her terrain is the family, and the micro-interactions between both its members and interlopers from without; her tone is superficially uncomplicated, her insights cumulative, her mode of realist fiction essentially conventional. Nothing about it signals the possibility of shock. Rather, it suggests that we are about to watch some fairly decent characters go through a bad time – one that will neither be entirely resolved (too pat) nor become entirely apocalyptic (too distressing) by the novel’s close.

But this is a novelist’s feint, a deceptive move that Tyler has practised throughout her career and deploys again in A Spool of Blue Thread, her 20th and, according to a rare interview given when her last book was published, her final novel (though she is writing a version of The Taming of the Shrew for the Hogarth Shakespeare series). Here, as elsewhere, we are pointed in one direction only to find the narrative sidling off in another. The story of family becomes more a story of the multiple versions of reality past and present that its members tell themselves to keep the show on the road.

The Whitshank family – Red and Abby, now in their early old age, and their two sons, two daughters and numerous grandchildren – cleave to the myth of family precisely because they lack an elaborate foundation story. Their “patriarch”, Junior, is Red’s late father, a carpenter who dreamed and schemed his way to establishing the family’s rather grand and much-admired house, which becomes central to both their story and the novel’s. The shortness of their family tree means “they didn’t have that many stories to choose from. They had to make the most of what they can get”, and such characteristics as they have managed to build up are pretty self-effacing: they pride themselves on not being melodramatic, and their tendency to pretend things are going to turn out fine even leads them to deny their own mortality. “Whitshanks didn’t die, was the family’s general belief. Of course they never said this aloud. It would have seemed presumptuous.” (Not to mention the fact that some of them have died already.)

Tyler gradually dismantles their myth-making, but she does so with a compassion that recognises that few of us will be immune to similar accommodations with the truth. She notes, for example, that what the Whitshanks infer from Junior’s acquisition of the family house – having built it for some wealthy clients, he painstakingly engineers their eventual departure – is a thoroughly admirable patience. But an alternative reading would see this as a story about disappointment; the house never quite satisfies him, and he fiddles and tinkers with it for the rest of his life. And while this is water under the bridge, their refusal to face up to other, more current, unhappinesses is a different matter, perhaps explaining why their son Denny is so cantankerous and unreliable, or why Red and Abby are so unable to repudiate their children’s intrusive help as they get older.

Traumatic episodes from the past are detonated at intervals, but their impact is muffled by the narrative’s apparent calm. There is a kind of delayed shock as we realise we have just discovered that one of the family’s four children is in fact an orphan quasi?adopted by questionable means, and kept in ignorance of his mother’s identity even as she sat around that heavily symbolic meal table. Or, via one of the novel’s piercing forays into the long-distant past, that a husband and wife had even less love between them than their descendants imagined. Or that a daughter with severe postnatal depression has turned not to her loving social worker mother but to her flaky brother when she fears she might injure her child. This is the stuff of personal life, for sure, usually enacted in a domestic arena, and most likely familiar to us from some major or minor variation in our own lives. We are not reading the fiction of estrangement, or of disorientation, but its power derives from the restless depths beneath its unfractured surface.

What have the Whitshanks gained from their comforting myths, their refusal to be showy? Some things, Tyler insinuates, are worth being melodramatic about, and that we habituate ourselves to them is the sad part of the story. Perhaps we should be more like one of Abby’s “orphans”, the dispossessed and maladroit she takes pity on and opens her home to. One such, Atta, arrives at the worst possible moment and is still welcomed in. “Yes,” she says bombastically, in response to a polite question about her own background, “my family was exceptional. Everybody envied us.” Tyler, never short on mundane detail, describes her actions as she speaks: “She plucked a packet of NutraSweet from a bowl and held it close to her eyes, her lips twitching slightly as she read the fine print.” A lesson to us all: ignore the fine print at your peril.

Book discussion

The Deaths by Mark Lawson Staps Language Laboratory le 17/04/2015 à 12:15

review from the Guardian of The Deaths by Mark lawson

Mark Lawson lives in Towcester, Northants. While Derrida urged us to believe that there was nothing "hors-texte", this biographical snippet provides a useful entry point to Lawson's fifth work of fiction, The Deaths. Towcester, situated on the grubby toe that Northamptonshire pokes into the home counties, enjoyed a grandstand view of the excesses of the noughties boom, when bankers bought up much of neighbouring Buckinghamshire and, just a few miles to the west, the Chipping Norton set were converting their Cotswold barns into plate glass palaces. Now reeling from the levelling tremors of the credit crisis, the hedge-funders, lawyers and Tory politicians who colonised the countryside around Chez Lawson, where "every home is almost a village of its own", provide fertile ground for satire. The Deaths joins John Lanchester's Capital, Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money and Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December to suggest that the satirical state-of-the-nation novel (at least when it's written by white males of a certain age) has done rather well out of the financial crash.

The setting for this grotesquerie of fat cats and their too-thin wives is the fictional town of Middlebury, Buckinghamshire, where four splendid manor houses stand, facing each other pugnaciously over lawns and swimming pools. We first meet the lords of these manors on a commuter Pendolino, travelling to work in London to pay for the homes they rarely see. The husbands are ghastly to a man; the wives – barring the genial (but frighteningly well-paid) doctor, Emily – equally odious. "The Eight," as the four couples call themselves, are filthy rich, and, in scenes that would make EL James blush, often merely filthy. As the narrative perspective hops from one posh twerp to the next, we encounter sexism, racism and all manner of perversions. The Deaths gives us a glimpse into the lives of the 1%, showing all the unhappiness that money can buy.

Nothing stirs up authorial ire so much as the question of "likable characters." In a recent interview, the novelist Claire Messud was asked if she'd want to be friends with one of her characters. Her response was something like an explosion: "For heaven's sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?... If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn't 'is this a potential friend for me?' but 'is this character alive?'" Lawson's novel wrestles with exactly this – how to keep the reader engaged when the characters are so uniformly repellent. He even has one of his (dislikable) characters bring it up during a book group discussion: "Ali Rawlinson complained that she wouldn't want any of the characters as a friend." The Eight are venal, small-minded and bullying, and if you didn't find out on page one that a handful of them have been murdered – the deaths of the title – you'd be tempted to crawl inside the pages of the book and bump off several yourself.

The murders are McGuffins that drive the narrative engine of the novel, every bit as meaningless as the "We Want What You Have" mystery that knits together Lanchester's Capital. They are mere device, there to keep us turning the pages while slowly, hesitantly, human beings crawl out from behind the hateful carapaces that the Eight present to the world. Somewhat astonishingly, given that the author spares no spleen in his presentation of these moneyed goons, we find ourselves moved as the grim facts of the murders are laid out in the book's denouement. If we follow Messud's line on likable characters then the Eight are most definitely "alive" and, for all their monstrous flaws, we end up caring about them. It's perhaps something to do with the novel's use of the close third-person viewpoint. We spend so much time inside the brains of these people, seeing the world as they see it, that we can't help but sympathise with them – one of the novel's subtle alchemies.

There are some missteps along the way though. Lawson is most comfortable in the narrative skin of Jonny Crossan, the smarmy barrister, whose pet names for everything from his Walter to his wife's Georgina to his morning Smedgwick provide regular guffaws. The women are handled less well, and while in fiction as in law it may not be criminal for a 51-year-old man to enter the body of a 16-year-old girl, it is to be strongly discouraged. "Jeez, this is awks… He's really old (thirty?) but dead fit and definitely gives her the full body scan, even though Mumsie made her wear a body-burka and what she calls the Sensible Coat. Tilly was, like, I'll be inside all day but she was only on transmit as usual. Troll." You get, like, the picture.

The Deaths is a fine, acerbic satire nailed to the frame of a pacy police procedural. As with his earlier novels – particularly 2005's Enough is Enough – the pleasure of reading Lawson's prose is in the observational detail, the sardonic humour, the mirror held up to the present day (there's a good riff on Cameron/Brookes "lol" confusion). His southerly neighbours may not enjoy it, but the rest of us will find in The Deaths a bleak, compelling portrait of the way the 1% live now.

Book discussion

Americanah by Ngozi Adichie D302 campus le 16/01/2015 à 12:15

Americanah is a wonderful epic saga of love, hair, blogs, racism in America, and life in Nigeria. It takes place over a period of about 15 years and is primarily about a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. The word Americanah refers to a person who returns to Nigeria after time abroad.

The main part of the story takes place in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey. Ifemelu is on a fellowship at Princeton and the nearest place to get weaves is in Trenton. As she is getting her hair done she goes back in time and the reader gets filled in with her life story.

Ifemelu grew up in poverty in Lagos. She managed to go to university there and won a scholarship to Wellson, a college in Philadelphia. There, she struggles with money and finds it very difficult to get a job. She knows little about the culture and "she hungered to understand everything about America, to wear a new, knowing skin right away." When she does work, she sends money back home to her parents. Ifemulu's primary job is as a nanny. She describes the dynamics of her employer's marriage as `she loves him and he loves himself'. She is introduced to her employer's cousin Curt and Ifemelu and he have a relationship for quite a while. His being white and rich cause some difficulties for them.

Ifemelu has cut off all contact with Obinze despite the fact that they had planned to be together. She had made a choice to do something that left her shamed and abased and she is unable to tell Obinze about it. So, rather than tell him, she severs their contact. He is distraught and does not know what to do. He continues to write to her for months but there is no answer from Ifemelu.

Meanwhile, Obinze goes to London where he lives underground after his six month visa expires. "He lived in London indeed but invisibly, his existence like an erased pencil sketch." He works construction and continues to do this until he is deported back to Nigeria.

Ifemelu remains in the United States for 13 years and has a series of relationships with different men. Of significance besides Curt, who is white, is Blaine who is African American and a professor at Yale. Theirs is a long-term relationship that Ifemelu breaks off in order to return to Lagos.

Ifemelu has started a blog called "Raceteenth: Understanding America for the Non-American Black." She writes anonymously about varied topics of racism that she encounters in the United States and the differences between being African American and a non-American black person. Her blog is very successful and brings her status and money as people make financial contributions to keep the blog going. She also does speaking engagements about topics she covers in her blog. "The blog had unveiled itself and shed its milk teeth; by turns, it surprised her, pleased her, left her behind. Its readers increased by the thousands from all over the world, so quickly that she resisted checking the stats, reluctant to know how many new people had clicked to read her that day, because it frightened her. And it exhilarated her."

The book has many characters in it, each of whom we come to know and connect with. However, it is primarily about Ifemelu and Obinze, their lives and love. I found the book fascinating and very readable. It does not ever let go of the messages that the author seeks to provide the reader. Racism is a constant theme in the book as is life in America for black Americans and non-American blacks. I found the idea of blogging as a way to share knowledge very intriguing. Actual blogs are a part of the book.

Adichie is a wonderful writer. Her short stories, all of which I've read, have knocked me out. I plan on reading her other novels. I can see why this brilliant woman has received a MacArthur Genius Award.

Book discussion

Americana by Don DeLillo Jim's bookcorner le 10/10/2014 à 12:15


' "My life," I said, "is a series of telephone messages which nobody understands but me" '

David Bell embodies the American dream. He's twenty-eight, has survived office coups, scandals, and beaten lesser rivals, to become an extremely successful TV exec. The images that flicker across America's screens, the fantasies that enthrall viewers, they are of his making. But David's dream is turning sour, nightmarish. He wants reality, to touch, feel and record what is real. He takes a camera and journeys across America in a mad, roving quest to discover and capture some sense of his own and his country's past, present and future.

Book Discussion

Sweet Tooth by ian McEwen Staps language laboratory le 16/05/2014 à 12:15

The plot is set in early-1970s England. Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume"), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, shows a talent for mathematics and is admitted to the University of Cambridge. But she struggles academically, and graduates with a third. While at Cambridge she becomes romantically involved with Tony Canning, a professor, who before abruptly ending the affair secures a position for Serena with MI5. The job is low-level, but a more exciting opportunity appears when Serena is offered a chance to take part in a new covert program codenamed "Sweet Tooth". To counter Communist propaganda during the Cold War, the agency wants to offer financial assistance to young writers, academics and journalists with an anti-Communist bent. Serena, who is an avid and quick reader of fiction, is given the task of vetting burgeoning writer Thomas Haley.

Serena is immediately taken by Haley's published short fiction. She travels to the University of Sussex, where he works, to offer him a stipend from the fictional Freedom International foundation. Soon the two begin a romantic affair, but things gradually start to unravel. Serena discovers that Professor Canning (who, it turns out, broke off their affair only because he knew he was dying from cancer) was in fact a Soviet spy, and she was recruited because the agency wanted to keep tabs on Canning. Then, when Haley's first novel comes out, it is a great critical success, but its dystopian, anti-capitalist theme is not well received by the agency. Finally, his affair with Serena is exposed by the press, and the whole Sweet Tooth program is threatened.

Serena fears that she has lost Haley's love forever, now he knows she has deceived him. Haley, however, had known about the program for months, and instead of ending the affair, had decided to turn the story into a novel. The reader now discovers that the author of Sweet Tooth is in fact Haley, despite its being written from Serena's first-person perspective. As the novel ends, Haley asks Serena in a letter to marry him.

Book discussion

All Passion Spent by Vita sackville West Staps language laboratory le 14/03/2014 à 12:15

All Passion Spent is written in three parts, primarily from the view of an intimate observer. The first part introduces Lady Slane at the time of her husband’s death. She has been the dutiful wife of a “great man” in public life, Viceroy of India and a member of the House of Lords. Her children plan to share her care between them much as they divide up the family property but, completely unexpectedly, Lady Slane makes her own choice, proposing to leave fashionable Kensington for a cottage in suburban Hampstead that caught her eye decades earlier, where she will live alone except for her maidservant and please herself — for example allowing her descendants to visit only by appointment. Part 1 concludes with Lady Slane’s developing friendships with her aged landlord Mr Bucktrout and his equally aged handyman Mr Gosheron.

Part 2, shorter than the others, is composed of Lady Slane’s thoughts as she muses in the summer sun. She relives youthful events, reviews her life, and considers life’s influences and controls, happiness and relationships.

Summer is over. Part 3 takes place after Lady Slane has settled into her cottage, her contemplative life, and approaching end. To her initial annoyance, her past life still connects her to people and events. In particular Mr FitzGeorge, a forgotten acquaintance from India who has ever since been in love with her, introduces himself and they form a quiet but playful and understanding friendship.

Mr FitzGeorge bequeaths his fortune and outstanding art collection to Lady Slane, causing great consternation amongst her children. Lady Slane, avoiding the responsibility of vast wealth, gives FitzGeorge’s collection and fortune to the state, much to her children’s disgust and her maid’s amusement. Lady Slane discovers that relinquishing the fortune has permitted Deborah, her great-granddaughter, to break-off her engagement and pursue music, Deborah taking the path the Lady Slane herself could not.

Book discussion

The Awakening kate Chopin Maison des Langues Campus D302 12.15 le 10/01/2014 à 00:00

The novel opens with the Pontellier family vacationing on Grand Isle at a resort on the Gulf of Mexico managed by Madame Lebrun and her two sons, Robert and Victor. Léonce Pontellier, a businessman of Louisiana Creole heritage, his wife Edna, and their two sons, Etienne and Raoul, make up the Pontellier family.

Edna spends most of her time with her close friend Adèle Ratignolle. Boisteriously and cheerily, Adèle reminds Edna of her duties as a wife and mother. At Grand Isle, Edna eventually forms a connection with Robert Lebrun, a charming and earnest young man who actively seeks Edna's attention and affections. When they fall in love, Robert senses the doomed nature of such a relationship and flees to Mexico under the guise of pursuing a nameless business venture. The narrative focus then shifts to Edna's shifting emotions as she reconciles her maternal duties with her desire to be with Robert and for social freedom.

With the summer vacation over, the Pontelliers return to New Orleans. Edna gradually reassesses her priorities and takes a more active role in her own happiness. She starts to isolate herself from New Orleans society and withdraw from some of the duties traditionally associated with motherhood. Léonce eventually talks to a doctor to diagnose her, fearing she is losing her mental faculties. The doctor advises Léonce to let her be and assures him that things will return to normal.

When Léonce prepares to travel to New York City on business, he sends the boys to his mother and leaves Edna alone at home for an extended period. This gives Edna physical and emotional room to breathe and think over various aspects of her life. While her husband is still away, she moves out of her house and into a small bungalow nearby and begins dallying with Alcée Arobin, a persistent suitor with a reputation for being free with his affections. For the first time in the novel, Edna is shown as a sexual being, but the affair proves awkward and emotionally fraught.

Edna also reaches out to Mademoiselle Reisz, a gifted recitalist whose playing is renowned throughout New Orleans but who maintains a generally hermetic existence. At a party earlier in the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz's playing profoundly moves Edna. Mademoiselle Reisz represents what Edna longs for: independence. She focuses her life on music and herself, instead of society's expectations, acting as a foil to Adèle Ratignolle, who encourages Edna to conform. Mademoiselle Reisz is in contact with Robert while he is in Mexico, receiving letters from him regularly. Edna begs her to reveal their contents, which she does, proving to Edna that Robert is thinking about her.

Eventually, Robert returns to New Orleans. At first aloof (and finding excuses not to be near Edna), he eventually confesses his passionate love for her. He admits that the business trip to Mexico was an excuse to escape a relationship that would never work.

Edna is called away to help Adèle with a difficult childbirth. Adèle pleads with Edna to think of what she would be turning her back on if she did not behave appropriately. When Edna returns home, she finds a note from Robert stating that he has left forever.

In shock and devastated, Edna rushes back to Grand Isle, where she had first met Robert Lebrun. Edna commits suicide and ultimately escapes by drowning herself in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.[1]

Book discussion

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge Jim's Bookcorner le 11/10/2013 à 12:15

Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics who lives with his second wife, "Fred," in a "northern" British town. He is becoming increasingly deaf, and, although he wears hearing aids (except when he doesn't), his social interactions--even those with Fred--are fraught with difficulty and occasional hilarious misunderstandings. His deafness is at the center of the novel, providing the title of this work of fiction, but also serving as an extended, often funny, but ultimately serious impetus to riff on aging, disability, and mortality. "Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse" (19).

Bates is at loose ends. His wife is busy with her successful interior decorating business, his adult children live elsewhere. He considers himself a "house husband" and does not really enjoy it. His aged, widowed father insists on living alone in London although he cannot be trusted to take care of himself without endangering his life (such as starting a fire in the kitchen during meal preparation). Bates visits him dutifully once a month with a mixture of dread, obligation, and guilty relief when it is over.

Desmond's hearing difficulty and boredom set him up for an encounter with a female graduate student and its unexpected complications. She is working on a thesis about suicide. Their interaction is threaded throughout the book and drives the "plot," but the details of life with hearing impairment, loss of professional involvement and purpose, and coping with an old, stubborn parent who is slipping into dementia are the main events of this clever, well-written, entertaining novel. And along the way are witty commentaries on contemporary life. The link between the narrator's profession of linguistics and his difficulty hearing the spoken word are also significant.

Book discussion

How it all began by Penelope Lively Jim's bookcorner le 29/05/2013 à 12:15

How It All Began begins in uncharacteristically violent fashion: "The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek." Charlotte, a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s, finds that she has been mugged and relieved of her house keys, bank cards and £60 in cash. As a reader, you share her sense of shock and bewilderment – after all, one might expect to be reasonably safe from street crime in a Penelope Lively novel; though the book introduces a number of elements you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find, including East European immigrants, chocolate cream frappuccinos and errant text messages used as a plot device.

How It All Began
by Penelope Lively

Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

Lively still draws the line at Kindle owners, whom she recently dismissed as "bloodless nerds". But these innovations aside, the novel is mostly preoccupied with the themes of recollection and consciousness which run through her fiction as a continuous thread. One of the principal protagonists is an ageing historian (there's often an ageing historian), while Charlotte is presented less as a character than a complex composite of previous states of being: "Charlotte viewed her younger selves with a certain detachment. They are herself, but other incarnations, innocents going about half-forgotten business." It is a distinctive device which has recurred in almost every one of Lively's novels since 1987's Moon Tiger, in which Claudia (an ageing historian) reflects that she is "composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water".

Having suffered a broken hip in the attack, Charlotte is left to consider what has hit her: "This faceless person with whom she has been in a transitory, intimate relationship. Him. Or possibly her. Women muggers now, no doubt; this is the age of equal opportunities." It soon becomes apparent that being knocked down has a knock-on effect. Charlotte is forced to move in with her daughter Rose while she recuperates, which means that Rose is unable to accompany her employer, Lord Peters, to receive an honorary doctorate in Manchester. His Lordship's niece, an interior designer named Marion, goes with her uncle instead, though a text explaining her absence is intercepted by the wife of her lover, thus hastening the demise of their marriage. It all unfolds with the inescapable logic of a well-oiled farce, though every so often Lively's authorial voice intrudes to comment on the domino-toppling effect: "Thus have various lives collided, the human version of a motorway shunt, and the rogue white van that slammed on the brakes is miles away, offstage, impervious."

The novel contains some of Lively's funniest and most enjoyable character studies, not least the pompous bubble of self-esteem that is the academic relic Lord Peters; once a leading authority on Walpole, he now worries that "the 18th century has passed him by", and hopes to re-establish his reputation with a David Starkey-style television series. Lively is deliciously intolerant of interior designers – Marion's paramour, who runs a reclamation yard, is painted as little more than an jumped-up junk merchant; while Marion's business is principally based on the resale of "a cargo of interior adornments forever on the move, filtering from one mansion flat or bijou Chelsea terrace house to another".

Yet the most telling relationship is that which develops between the comfortably married Rose and Anton, an economic migrant who comes to visit Charlotte for literacy lessons. Rose surprises herself by developing an affection for this timid man with soulful eyes and fractured English, but sensibly limits the relationship to wistful strolls round London parks and weekend assignations in Starbucks.

Anton, a trained accountant, has had to accept work on a building site while struggling to master the language. Charlotte achieves a breakthrough by throwing away the standard uninspiring teaching materials and presenting him with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. "I am like child," he says, happily. "Child learn because he is interested … Story go always forward – this happen, then this. That is what we want. We want to know how it happen, what comes next. How one thing make happen another."

It can only be a matter of time before Anton graduates from Maurice Sendak to Penelope Lively novels, as she remains a sublime storyteller – the opening sentence has us riveted with curiosity as to what will happen next. Yet she also keeps us consistently aware of the nature of the illusion. "So that was the story," she concludes, "so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story … These stories do not end, but spin away from one another, each on its own course." In other words, they momentarily collide and separate to form the kind of narrative at which Lively excels: the untidy, unpredictable one in which everyone lives ambivalently ever after.

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