Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

 

“What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of al of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish.”

Mayflies is novel about the friendship between two Glaswegian men. The first half of the novel is set in the summer of 1986 when our narrator, James, alongside four of his friends go to Manchester to watch some of their favourite bands. Andrew O’Hagan really brings this era to life, through their slang and the references they use. During the course of this freewheeling weekend they have the time of their lives, going to pubs and clubs, getting up to shenanigans, hanging out withs strangers, all the while animatedly discussing music and politics (Thatcher, the miners’ strike). James, who is the more bookish and reserved of the lot, is particularly close to Tully, who is the undeniable glue that binds their group together and a wonderful friend. While this first half of the novel is all about what if feels to be young, reckless, free, and full of life, O’Hagan’s characters, regardless of their age, are capable serious reflections, such as wondering what sort future awaits them and their country.
This section is so steeped in 1980s culture that I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with their banter (I am not from the UK and I’m a 90s child so I’m sure that readers who are more familiar with this era won’t have such a hard time).

“The past was not only a foreign country, it was a whole other geology.”

The second half brings us forward to 2017 when both James and Tully are in their early 50s. Here the narrative feels far more restrained, reflecting James’ age. He has different preoccupations now, a career, a partner. Yet, he is recognisably still James. Tully too is both changed and unchanged. In spite of the distance between them (James lives in London now) the two have remained close friends. This latter section moves at a far slower pace, which should have been jarring but it wasn’t. If anything it felt very natural. Here we have more measured meditations about life and death, questions about what we owe to the ones we love, and reconciliations with the past.
O’Hagan succeeds in uniting two very different moments/stages of a man’s life. An exhilarating snapshot of being young in the 80s is followed by a slower-paced and more thoughtful narrative centred around people who haven’t been young for quite some time. I have read very few—if any—novels that focus on male friendship. So often we see portrayals that show how intimate and deep female friendships are, which is wonderful but it’s refreshing to read a novel that is very much an ode to the friendship between two men. O’Hagan’s portrayal of the relationship between Tully and James was incredibly moving and nuanced.

“Loyalty came easily to Tully. Love was the politics that kept him going.”

Although I may have missed quite a few cultural references and I definitely didn’t get a lot of the Glaswegian/80s, thanks to the musical education I received from my parents I mostly managed to keep up with this novel’s music front. I really appreciated James’ literary references, which later in life make their way into his conversations with Tully. I also liked the way James would observe the character traits of those around—both as a young man and later in life—as well as his pondering about childhood, adulthood, generational differences, life in general. His thoughtful narration was truly compelling.
Mayflies is an affecting and realistic novel that presents its readers with a vibrant examination of friendship and identity, one that I would thoroughly recommend to others.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Missing Years : Book Review

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The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

The story had some potential, which is why I was very frustrated by the way the storyline developed.
To begin with, I was absorbed by the setting of the novel: a creepy manor in Scotlandwhere the main character, Ailsa, lived as child. After her father’s mysterious disappearance she and her mother moved away. Years later a ‘grown-up’ Ailsa is preoccupied by her missing father, and between each chapter we get a ‘what if’ scenario where she imagines that he is either dead, happily re-married, or after an accident has become an amnesiac and lives abroad. These tidbits were creative and made the otherwise boring Ailsa into an interesting character.
I also enjoyed the way the setting was portrayed: the accents and mannerism of Ailsa’s new acquaintances give the impression that Elliott has an ear for language and speech inflections. The manor too had a foreboding aura which was well depicted.
The slow burn mystery mostly consisted in Ailsa doubting and interrogating the people around her. ‘Someone’ is not happy of her presence in the manor and is leaving rather undesirable gifts…
Ailsa was an ‘okay’ character. I wish she had a bit more of a backbone or at least a bit more character. Her ‘half-sister’ was a rather useless character. The typical ‘younger, more attractive/charming’ sister type who was ready to abandon Ailsa for someone she had met once…the men were sort of interchangeable. I was disappointed to see how little importance some of them had in the overall storyline (given that so much time was spent on them).
A lot of suspense stemmed from what I can best describe as being jump-scares….the whole ‘reveal’ was somewhat ridiculous and off-beat.
Overall, this was a forgetful and rather cliched read. If you are looking for a quick ‘light-suspense’ read, this might be for you.

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Ashland & Vine by John Burnside

Ashland & Vine follows a film student Kate Lamber who has been deeply affected by the death of her father. Medicating her grief through alcohol Kate spends her days trying to numb her feelings. Working on a project started by her flatmate/occasional lover Laurits, Kate is tasked with ‘collecting’ stories. Which is how she ends up meeting an elderly woman Jean Culver. Jean will tell Kate her own story if Kate stays sober for four days. Kate who is drawn to Jean, by her house, her garden, her quiet yet healthy lifestyle, ‘wills’ herself off alcohol.
Jean’s recollection of her past consists in chunky paragraphs. Throughout the novel, in various meetings, Jean tells Kate the story of her family. I didn’t quite buy into Jean remembering exactly what people said to her – or even to each other – years before, and I find the disjointed manner in which Jean tells these various anecdotes to be a bit confusing. Into her story there are crammed a lot of monumental historical moments. Her family members all seem to be part of vital American movements which wasn’t very believable. As Jean’s oral-history progresses, Jean herself – as well as her words – seemed to become the author’s mouthpiece. Jean asserts certain ‘universal truths’ which came across as the author’s preaching his own believes onto his audience. The past is filled with senseless violence, we should take care of our environment, the modern age has forgotten past values. We get it. There was also many instances were entire paragraphs are dedicated to classic films, art, and literature, which could have worked better if I didn’t feel as if Burnside was showing us his ‘knowledge’.
While Kate does provide interesting observations – questioning her own self, recalling her own childhood, describing her less than ideal relationship with Laurits – Burnside’s dialogues and paragraphs are far too long. Long rants or remembrances can be interesting but to use this technique throughout the novel slowed the pace of the narrative as well as appearing repetitive.
A strong and vivid beginning is weighed down by the author’s somewhat pretentious agenda.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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