Review: Shelf Life by Lidia Franchini

43862291Verdict: Dark, brilliant, creepy, way too many dream sequences.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary fiction

Published by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, August 29th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Ruth is thirty years old. She works as a nurse in a care home and her fiancé has just broken up with her. The only thing she has left of him is their shopping list for the upcoming week.

And so she uses that list to tell her story. Starting with six eggs, and working through spaghetti and strawberries, and apples and tea bags, Ruth discovers that her identity has been crafted from the people she serves; her patients, her friends, and, most of all, her partner of ten years. Without him, she needs to find out – with conditioner and single cream and a lot of sugar – who she is when she stands alone.

I don’t know if I have read a book lately with a blurb this accurate that nonetheless completely failed to give an indication what the book will be like. On the surface it’s correct; yes Ruth has just been left by her boyfriend of ten years and has to navigate her life and yes the story is told by way of the shopping list he left behind – but it also something else entirely. Told in varies formats (stream-of-consciousness in the present, a series of text messages in the past, mixing more straight forward narrations with vague ones) and from different perspectives (mainly Ruth’s perspective in first person, but also parts narrated from Neil’s perspectives, parts in second person, parts in first person plural), this book is a portrait of a woman who was very much broken before she met the awful man and became more so during the course of a fairly horrible relationship.

When the book worked, it really worked for me – but there were just so many parts I could not properly get on board with, starting with the endless accounts of weird dreams Ruth and Neil had. I am unsure I grasped what the narrative purpose of those were and I found them relentlessly boring and confusing. While I appreciated the mixed-media approach, I didn’t love reading text messages that just never ended.

I really liked the framing of the story and I thought Franchini did something very clever: in the first chapter, when Neil breaks up with Ruth I couldn’t help but think that was the right choice because she seemed fairly awful. And then Franchini goes back and recontextualizes the scene in a way that made my heart hurt. Neil is, for all intents and purposes, really really awful. He is not only a cheater but also a stalker, he made Ruth into the person he wanted her to be and then punishes her for it, and his thoughts on women are unkind and horrifying (at some point he says this about his girlfriend of ten years: “The fact of her aging makes me uneasy.”). While I found his characterization believable and him endlessly fascinating, spending time in his head was very much not fun. Ruth on the other hand was just the kind of difficult to root for woman I adore in my fiction. Overall, I found this book impeccably structured and impressively constructed  – but often difficult to stick with due to its deliberate darkness.

Content warning: stalking, grooming, eating disorders, disordered eating, cheating, emotional abuse, bullying, assault, sexual harrassment

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Netgalley and Transworld Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Review: From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

36339460Verdict: Stunningly constructed, profound, sad, and wonderful.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Published by Transworld Publishing, March 22nd 2018

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction.

Find it on Goodreads.

Farouk’s country has been torn apart by war.

Lampy’s heart has been laid waste by Chloe.

John’s past torments him as he nears his end.

The refugee. The dreamer. The penitent. From war-torn Syria to small-town Ireland, three men, scarred by all they have loved and lost, are searching for some version of home. Each is drawn towards a powerful reckoning, one that will bring them together in the most unexpected of ways.

Do you know these books that make you fall in love with an author’s writing in a way that makes you want to read everything they have ever written? This was a book like that; it blew me away. I adore Donal Ryan’s way with words and the obvious care he takes to construct perfect sentences.

This is more a collection of short stories but so much more than that in a way (and I say that as somebody who obviously loves short stories). Ryan tells the stories of three widely different men; the only thing they have in common is a deep unhappiness with their lives. All three of them are fully fleshed-out, flawed characters that were a joy to spend time with. This is even more impressive when considering how few pages Ryan uses for his portraits.

My favourite part of this book was the first: I adored everything about the way Ryan tells Farouk’s story. Here the language is the most whimsical and powerful, whereas later it becomes more understated (which works brilliantly as well, I might add, I just happened to adore beyond measure the beauty of the first part). Farouk is also the most sympathetic of the men and the one whose story seems most tragic. I do love how Ryan allows this story to be as tragic as it needs to while still offering glimpses of hope.

Beyond being a perfect snapshot of these men’s lives, this is also an ode to storytelling in its different incarnations. Be it the fairy tales Farouk and his wife tell their daughter or the stories of pub life in a small town that connects Lampy and his granddad, Donal Ryan shows how stories are the glue that keep us together. Which I obviously love.

First sentence: “Let me tell you something about trees.”

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Transworld Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

PS: Please do tell me which of Ryan’s books I should read next!

Mini-DNF-review: How I Lose You by Kate McNaughton

37881415Verdict: Not my cup of tea.

Rating: DNF

Published by Transworld Publishers, March 8th 2018

Genre: Fiction; Women’s Lit

Find it on Goodreads.

When Eva wakes up one morning to discover that her husband has died in his sleep, she is overwhelmed: with anger, with disbelief, with fear. For Adam was only thirty-one, a brilliant doctor with no health issues. They were supposed to grow old together. In the aftermath, attempting to confront the agony of her loss, Eva starts to uncover the story of her marriage, delving into those parts of her husband’s life to which she never before had access. But the secrets she finds are not what she expected.

I requested this mainly based on the tagline: “This is the story of Adam and Eve. It ends on page twelve.” I mean, that is just brilliant and how could I not? But the book just was not for me. I made it about 50% in when I decided to call it quits. I want to emphasise that this is not a bad book at all. It just did not work for me. I expected something different and I thought the playing with different timelines and the framing device would work for me brilliantly (I do love stories told unchronologically!) but it just didn’t. I think my main problem was that the story itself was kind of flat and uninteresting. I am just not that interested in people falling in love (at least not in books). The grief part of the books worked better for me: here I thought the circular way Kate McNaughton writes her paragraphs was done beautifully. Sadly this part of the book took the backseat to the love story. I also struggled with the dialogue a whole lot and did not think it felt quite natural. I don’t usually focus on dialogue in books but this just turned me off.

So overall, just not my type of book and very different to what I expected.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Transworld Publishers in exchange for an honest review.