2021 Booker

⫸ There are many safety nets which we turn to in a time of ongoing global uncertainty, and one of them is the search for the truth. Opinions of experts and everyday people, the reliability of data and keeping up to date with what is happening to humanity in all corners of the globe consumes us. While effectively living in a world we only thought possible in a dystopian novel, perhaps more dystopia in our reading is not what we are after right now.

Surprisingly this year’s Booker shortlist is alternative-reality free and in fact swings the other way, relying heavily on true-to-life fact and real events as their foundations. Fortune Men details the life and death of the last man hung in Cardiff Prison after being wrongly imprisoned; A Passage North is set in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War; The Promise‘s setting and characters represent South Africa and the struggles with ending apartheid; No One Is Talking About This is autobiographical fiction detailing events in the life of the author and also studying our obsession with the internet; the collapse of the natural world, society and political reliability in America is the basis for Bewilderment; Great Circle uses famous female aviators as inspiration to create a character we thought must have been real! (But was not!!)

Rachel and Suzy both acknowledge this is one of their loves in fiction reading, for when a novel is based on fact it is educates us as well as entertains us, and the truthfulness lends veracity to the fictionalised components. Authors create a vehicle to convey their societal concerns and document moments in history. (It’s not surprising climate change and an unnamed American president feature in two of the books.) And what better way to impart the sense of an atrocity or celebrated event than to fictionalise it with great emotion and a narrative that pulls the reader into the story. It’s far more affecting than a straight non-fiction account. (ioho)

So, as we hunkered down in a stunning beachside AirB&B, checking the portal for new cases of Covid springing up around us, we discussed, debated and pondered the six very readable shortlisted books and came up with the following assesments:

The trauma of loss permeated throughout Bewilderment, in Theo’s family life, in the environment and in the social structure of America. Powers raises several causes of concern without sentimentality and formed the perfect protagonists to ponder and protect all that is wrong. It’s a domestic story on a global scale. We both thoroughly enjoyed this and would be happy if it won.

A Passage North has poetic and philosophical ruminations of trauma and survival, and its calm pacing compelled us to slow down and ponder with care the time and place the author has documented. The techniques Arudpragasam has used is notable and he should be commended for his unique structure, but we thought perhaps we were not sophisticated enough readers to appreciate it fully.

The fact that we both thought Marian Graves must have been a great aviator we had, ashamedly, never heard of goes to show how dedicated the author of Great Circle was to creating a work of extraordinary realism. The book starts on a high and continues with a great sweeping narrative never plummeting into the abyss of boredom. With developed links back to New Zealand and our own Jean Batten we felt connected to this story. Perhaps too much of an adventure story to get the nod, but we’d be pleased if it did win.

The Promise‘s powerful language addresses us directly with a mix of third and first person narratives, drawing us in to the plight of post-apartheid South Africa. Starting with a lighting bolt of realisation, we are alongside Amor, wishing she could fix everything and honour the promise. A book of extreme scope and devastating honesty should surely be one of the top contenders for the prize this year.

Nadifa Mohamed has committed to correcting a piece of history by detailing Mahmood Mattan’s story in The Fortune Men. We appreciated her even-handedness and honestly in detailing everyone’s backstory and agree this is a respectful, dignified account of a moment in history. While it’s important and should be celebrated, we thought it was more conventional than literary and we’d be surprised if it was placed ahead of others on this shortlist.

True events as seen in the portal (internet) pepper the pages of No One Is Talking About This. The author’s commentary on the degradation of American society and the environment is clear but the investigation into our fixation with the internet as a tool for validation and information gathering is what stands out. It’s cross-genre style and dark humour made the reality more biting. A truely unique book that again we are sure must we one of the top picks.

⫸ Suzy: This was a very eclectic mix of books that all had their own strengths and I wouldn’t be too mad if any of them won. My favourite was The Promise. It was so atmospheric and gripping and I took a perverse pleasure in the downfall of a generally awful family.

In regards to the others: Great Circle is an amazing story and dare I say it a page-turner; No One Is Talking About This is a worryingly accurate commentary on modern society; Bewilderment is overwhelming as any book on species extinction should be; The Fortune Men is a necessary rewrite of history to reflect the truth; A Passage North was quite meditative.

In terms of who I think the judges will pick, I’m going with No One Is Talking About This as it’s a book with a form like no other I’ve read before and has such a searing commentary on society it demands attention.

⫸ Rachel: This has been one of my most enjoyable selection of Booker Reads in years and I am so pleased to have read them all. All of them heightened my thoughts on some topic or rather and to be honest I’d like to select a four way tie – but I will not!

Although Great Circle was my best read for a read’s sake, I’ve been jostling between The Promise and No One Is Thinking About This for the top prize, and I think I’m going to choose the latter. I appreciate the author’s own genre creation and do love a good dose of absurdist humour to bring attention to important issues. I laughed, and cringed at myself for laughing, many times in this book. The fact it is autobiographical adds to its integrity.

The other two in my four way tie are Great Circle and Bewilderment. I’d be happy if any of them won. Fortune Men and A Passage North I appreciate but they weren’t my faves.

Suzy, favourites 1-6

The Promise – Damon Galgut
Great Circle –Maggie Shipstead
No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood
Bewilderment – Richard Powers
The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed
A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam

Rachel, favourites 1-6

No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood
The Promise – Damon Galgut
Great Circle –Maggie Shipstead
Bewilderment – Richard Powers
A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam
The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed

Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead

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The story of daredevil female aviator Marian Graves and her plans to circumnavigate the globe

⫸ “Marian and Jamie Graves are rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, then raised by their uncle in Montana. After encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes Marian commences her dream of being a pilot.

“At 14 she drops out of school and finds a patron who subsidises her flying lessons, an arrangement that will influence her decisions for the rest of her life, even into her ultimate destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

“A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centres on Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica. With her own determination to succeed and create an individual life, Hadley is eager to redefine herself by immersing herself into the character of Marian.”

“Not only is Marian’s attempt at circumnavigating the globe detailed but so are many other momentous piloting moments, including mentions of Jean Batten, Amelia Earhart and the role of female pilots in World War II. New Zealand gets a few mentions, too.”

I was born to be a wanderer. I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave. Some birds fly until they die. I have made a promise to myself: my last descent won’t be the tumbling helpless king but a sharp gannet plunge – a dive with intent aimed at something deep in the sea.

⫸ “Great Circle felt like the perfect adventurer’s novel. It dipped and dived into so many different offshoots of stories – sometimes frenetically, other times more languidly.

“Throughout the novel we always knew we were moving closer to Marian’s final flight. Yet somehow this didn’t loom over the story and I felt comfortable settling in and just enjoying what was happening in the moment rather than being distracted by the impending doom. 

“Every story’s thread was tied up by the end of novel but not in a way that felt forced or implausible. This was such an enjoyable read.” – Suzy

⫸ “Great Circle has two interwoven narratives, that of Marian and her determination to circumnavigate the globe, and that of Hadley, an actress who plays her in a film, a hundred years on. The story lines run parallel so we’re able to feed off Marian’s adventures and then observe Hadley as she attempts to re-create them amidst her own 21st-Century woes.

“At 608 pages there is a lot of story and a big cast yet it never feels overwhelming. In fact, every character’s life and loves and successes and failings are detailed so well, its’ hard not to feel attached to them all. The pacing and timing is spot on with narrative drops and plot markers clearly delineated but also anchored to other such markers so there is never any confusion over what Century we are in or where things are headed.

Great Circle has more of a traditional narrative than some of the other genre-busting shortlisters but this epic tome has been structured so well it doesn’t feel any less outstanding. In fact, I couldn’t put this book down.” – Rachel

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Published 2021
Knopf
608 pages

Bewilderment – Richard Powers

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An astrobiologist helps his neuro-divergent son understand our beautiful, imperilled planet

⫸ “Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist looking for life in space while also caring for his behaviourally challenged son, Robin. Theo’s wife, an environmental activist, has died in a car crash and as means to connect, Robin is intensely focused on the deterioration of the natural world.

“He is prone to violent rages when frustrated or challenged, and authorities from his school are concerned about Theo’s parenting abilities. Until Robin is accepted into an experimental programme focused on enhancing his emotional control as well as re-connecting him with his dead mother.

“The book provides commentary on the political, scientific, environmental and social state of the world within the private universe of a close father-son bond.”

Get out, my son said. You’re making that up. And we were, we Earthlings. Making it up as we were went along, then proving it for all the universe to see.

⫸ “Powers has a common theme of environmental and political care in his novels, and I appreciate that he never makes his points preachy or suffocating. In this instance he has a focused narrative about Theo and his mentally troubled son Robin whom he is trying to raise alone. The boy’s obsession with the world and Theo’s obligation to be his teacher, provides an opportunity for Powers to educate us on his thoughts of what’s wrong with the society and how to fix it. Yet at the same time the relationship between the two protagonists is beautifully detailed keeping the reader hooked.

“I especially liked the science fiction/dystopian touch with the machine that can connect people’s thoughts with those already passed. A real mix of topics and styles both real and not brought together in an enlightening read.” – Rachel

⫸ “In hindsight, the conclusion of this book was entirely predictable, but at the time it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I don’t have the eloquence to convey even a sliver of the grace Richard Powers has as an author. His commentary on the degradation of the environment interwoven with the helplessness and terror felt by the character of Robin left me feeling depleted. There was no glimmer of hope or redemption, and nor should there be.” – Suzy

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Published 2021
WW Norton Co
288 pages

The Promise – Damon Galgut

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The lives and deaths of a white South African family, and a promise made to their black housekeeper

⫸ “When Rachel, a 40-year-old white South African dies in 1986, her country is transitioning out of apartheid. The subsequent decline of the family after Rachel’s death parallels the history of South Africa, a common feature of Galgut’s writing.

“The eponymous promise is one made to the family’s black maid, that she shall be given the deeds to the house she occupies. Yet it goes unfulfilled and the karma of that seems to be the death of one family member per chapter.”

Trouble in all the townships, it’s being muttered about everywhere, even with a State of Emergency hanging over the land like a dark cloud and the news under censorship and the mood all over a bit of electrified, a bit alarmed, there is no silencing the voices that talk away under everything, like the think crackle of static.

⫸ “The life of each family member is highly detailed in The Promise, drawing you in, before culminating in their untimely death. And every family member’s life is a page turner, enhanced by the plot line of the younger sister Amor who is attempting to right the wrong of the unfulfilled promise.

“It’s a somber book but beautiful and captivating and poignant at the same time. I was heavily invested in the lives of the family members and felt like I learned I little bit more about South Africa’s history too. I would recommend this book to everyone, very accessible as well as well-constructed and -presented.” – Rachel

⫸ “I loved this book and as a reader it felt a bit like I was living through history alongside the characters. I found the ongoing demise of Swart family grim but satisfying. There was nothing redemptive in any family member’s actions, with even the ‘good’ character’s behaviour left lacking. I’m four books in with my Booker reading and this is the standout for me so far.” – Suzy

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Published 2021
Chatto & Windus
304 pages

The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed

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A novelised account of the real events of the a Somali man in Cardiff prison.

⫸ “Set in 1952 in Cardiff, The Fortune Men details the real events surrounding the wrongful imprisonment of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman. False witness accounts and racist policing led to him being found guilty of the murder of a local shopkeeper. In prison his hope for justice dwindles as he fights conspiracy and prejudice in all corners.

You cannot look like prey here. You cannot show weakness or your days are numbered, like those of the Somali drunk the police beat to death last year. Mahmood had learnt to do the black man’s walk early on in Cardiff.

⫸ “This was a shocking story and a shameful part of Welsh history. Throughout the novel I thought – yes this is truly awful, but surely things were never that bad. I was in a state of disbelief by the end of it and nothing that was done in the wake of these events can ever make things right.

“I was going to say for a highly unusual piece of Welsh history this book is recommended, but I do have to wonder just how unusual it was.” – Suzy

⫸ “It took me a little bit to get into this book as we jumped between many different characters to begin with. But I soon came to appreciate the author’s meticulous detailing of both prime and sundry characters, including the murdered woman, the grieving family and the accused and his family. Their voices are authentic and the settings are vivid.

“Mohamed has chronicled an important part of both Welsh and Somali history. What results here ends up in the history books and Mohamed has dealt with the entire situation with compassion.” – Rachel

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Published 2021
Viking
372 pages

A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam

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⫸ “I am in NO position to be saying the things I’m about to say as, well, it’s not like I have had a book shortlisted for the Booker Prize: I really like books that have interwoven fiction and non-fiction – for example last year’s shortlisted The Shadow King looked at the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

“I felt like A Passage North was a half-hearted attempt at this. While the base storyline held my interest I felt like the author’s interspersing of factual information was done in a strange way. Often there were pages and pages of information on the history of Sri Lanka that was just the main character recalling a book he had read or a documentary he had watched. It felt like a lazy tool to educate the reader on information that, while undoubtedly important, would have been more impactful if it was blended more with the characters that I was emotionally invested in as a reader.

“Maybe I am not appreciating the creativity? What right do I have to demand important information to be fed to me in a way that I prefer?

“Overall I felt like these factual asides, while interesting and informative, were a distraction from the main storyline rather than nicely flowing alongside it. In saying that I was very invested in the storyline of the main character, his experiences and relationships.” – Suzy

⫸ “A Passage North is set in Sri Lanka at the conclusion of its long civil war. Tamil Krishan is back from studying overseas and is contacted by his former girlfriend, an activist called Anjum, whom he still loves. The book is a study of not only Tamil and Anjum’s relationship but of Sri Lanka’s war-torn past and Tamil’s experience of it and in it.

“While I appreciate the author’s investment into recording an important part of history, I found the prose too over-written for my liking. The protagonist tells his stories with such detail and passion and some of those moments are poignant and affecting, but others are not, like when two men on a train simply look at each other for paragraphs on end, and every assessment of the look is discussed, and the ways in which the look could be interpreted are drawn out. Sometimes this kind of intensity is profound and sometimes it’s distracting. Tamil’s narration was very observational too so while the plot was moving along I felt a little removed from it.

“Arudpragasam is clearly a talented writer. He has produced meticulous characters and provided them rich and layered experiences. I can see why the book was an attractive pick for the Booker judges as the author has pushed out the traditional scope of a novel, but the style of prose means it pushed me out too.” – Rachel

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Published 2021
Hogarth Press
304 pages

No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

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A woman with new online prominence grapples with the reality of the cyber world and real life

⫸ “The internet, referred to as ‘the portal’, is given a life of itself in this novel, a place where the unnamed protagonist is constantly experiencing huge fluctuations in emotional response. In the opening pages she laughs at bodies being flung from a carnival ride at the Ohio State Fair …

“Such is the state of play in this no-genre book, where a woman is made internet famous for tweeting ‘can dogs be twins?’ The content and her reactions are shallow and superficial, conveyed in unlinked fragments, and as such a realistic portrayal of modern screen time and the often inane and pointless content we get sucked in by.

“But there is also a lot of hidden social commentary amongst the online space junk: climate change, economic woes, the rise of an unnamed but laughable dictator all cause her to delve deeper and face being consumed by the overwhelming onslaught of imagery and texts. But isn’t this also a true to life example of how we now gather our information and knowledge? Wading, drowning, surfacing, siphoning off the sand and hoping we spot the gold.

“Amongst the trials and travels accorded by the woman’s internet fame, is the story of her sister giving birth. But when there is bad news about the health of the baby, the women’s reality and the absurdity of the portal collide causing her to confront her thoughts and fears about the real and fake worlds which she exists in.

“This book adeptly portrays so many elements of the modern world, it is a snapshot of our times and an interesting form of the novel. I loved it.” – Rachel

Previously these communities were imposed on us, along with their mental weather. Now we chose them—or believed that we did. A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.

⫸ “For me as a reader, what started as utter confusion soon gave way to an appreciation of the deep sense of the love that the author so convincingly conveyed for her niece. The juxtaposition of something so visceral with the empty and vacuous social media experience felt a bit forced at times but was ultimately effective.

“I’m unsure if it was the author’s goal to get readers to reflect on their own social media usage but if so it was certainly successful with me.” – Suzy

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Published 2021
Riverhead Books
210 pages

Blue Ticket – Sophie MackIntosh

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Chosen by Jo

A woman granted a blue ticket and therefore a childless life, takes matters into her own hands.

⫸ “Set in a dystopian future, all women, on the first day of their menstruation, are allocated a future at random: a white ticket grants marriage and children; a blue ticket grants a career and freedom. Women are told this is to relieve them of the terrible burden of choice.

“Calla receives a blue ticket but after questioning her fate, and taking matters into her own hands, she finds herself on the run, with the system and other women pitted against her.

“MackIntosh has placed Calla in a system that deliberately withholds basic information about her body, and then focuses the story on that body and its denied physicality, creating an enquiry into free will, social expectation, and motherhood. Much else in the book is vague; as if in a dreamworld, though the contrasting states often collide with equal measures of violence and tenderness. “

Having a child is both the most rational and irrational decision possible, in this world. This fucking awful, beautiful world, which I can’t stop loving, though I have considered it, I have evaluated and counted the ways.

⫸ “Blue Ticket has a fascinating premise, raising a central theme of free will. It made me wonder which ticket I would hope to get and why. Would I want another life if told I could not have it? The detail around the society, the country and the ruling government was limited and I found this frustrating, I really wanted to understand Calla’s world more. The men in that world had virtually no redeeming features either, and there seemed to be little trust between the women. It was truly a dark patriarchal society and I was captivated from the start. I really enjoyed following Calla’s journey, and the ending was satisfying despite not being a joyous one.” – Jo.

⫸ “Blue Ticket is a dystopian novel but executed in a more subtle way than other alternative realities I have read about. We weren’t drawn into the complexities of the society and so were able to totally focus on the main character, Calla, and her plight, on the run rebelling against her life as a blue ticket. Calla was a highly relatable character who did not want what was being forced upon her, and I’m sure most of us would have wished to rebel too if this was our life. I was totally engaged in the novel and would recommend it.” – Jodie

⫸ “We read Blue Ticket at around the same time the horrific anti-abortion laws in Texas were being put into force so I felt quite uneasy to be reading something fictional where the lives of women were so controlled and the right to procreate (or not) was such an overwhelmingly large part of their existence. I was so invested in the storyline of Blue Ticket and the outcomes for the characters, however at times I just could not shake the feeling like this was like fan-fiction for The Handmaid’s Tale. It must be incredibly hard to approach a genre that has such a revered and well-established classic.” – Suzy

⫸ “Mackintosh’s prose matches her plot. It is often dreamy and spiritual but also brutal and earthy, much like motherhood itself. It drives home Calla’s inability to make her own choices but also the conflict many woman feel over the motherhood-career decisions they have to make. There is a familiarity to the story. Maybe because it deals with fertility in a dystopian setting it reminded me strongly of The Handmaid’s Tale. However it has unique and beautiful prose with an intriguing storyline and satisfying conclusion – I would definitely recommend it.” – Rachel

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Published 2020
Doubleday Books
304 pages

The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald

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Chosen by Jodie

A fictional treatment of the early life of Friedrich von Hardenberg who, under the pseudonym Novalis, later became a practitioner of German Romanticism

⫸ “Penelope’s Fitzgerald’s last novel, written in 1997, details the early life of the German romantic poet Novalis and his love for 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn. Set in provincial Saxony in the 1790s, the title of the book comes directly from Novalis’ own unfinished novel: Heinrich von Oftterdingen, in which the blue flower is something unattainable and unreachable.

“Thought of by some as a ‘writer’s book’ it acts as an introduction to the Romantic era combining artful intelligence, political upheaval, intense friendships, innocence as well moral ambiguity.”

Sink, he told his hopes, with a kind of satisfaction, sink like a corpse dropped into the river. I am rejected, not for being unwelcome, not even for being ridiculous, but for being nothing.

⫸ “The Blue Flower is a work of historical fiction and its emphasis seems to be largely focused around recounting historical facts. And yes, Fitzgerald does fit in a lot of what happened in Novalis’ early life as a Romantic poet into The Blue Flower. However, this focus on fact came across as too stilted and matter of fact for me. Fitzgerald’s use of traditional language and German phrasing made it a hard novel to become attached too. The choice to use Fritz’s deep love for 12-year-old Sophie as a main thread of the novel was a little disturbing as the author invested so much effort into making it sound beautiful and natural, which clearly it is not.” – Jodie

⫸ “When reading a fictional recount of a genius there is a certain level of intellect and creativity expected. I’m pretty sure The Blue Flower has all the right elements to convey the life of this Romantic writer. However as I am not schooled in either Romanticism, Novalis or 1700s Germany, I imagine I missed a lot of the relevance. I did enjoy sections of the plot and the characters’ stories but did, as always, struggle to get engaged with a work of historical fiction.” – Rachel

⫸ “I felt uneasy about a few of the comments made by the characters in this book, eg something along the lines of how do you get your housework done with no females in the home, but it was the main character’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl that finished me off. I couldn’t accept that this was a reflection of the times – authors can write about anything they want and Penelope Fitzgerald is clearly a capable writer. I feel like it was an unforgivable focus for her to have.” – Suzy

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Published 1997
Mariner Books
226 pages

Death In Her Hands – Otessa Moshfegh

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Chosen by Rachel

An investigation of an elderly woman’s mental wanderings after finding a note referring to a murder.

⫸ “Vesta Gul is an expected Moshfegh character: a female loner with convoluted, dangerous thoughts. She is 72, living alone in the woods after the death of her husband, with only her dog Charlie for company.

“After discovering a note in the woods that reads ‘Her name was Magda. No body will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body’, Vesta starts a crusade to discover the truth about Magda. However, her over imagination gets away with her to the point it is difficult to work out what is real and what is imagined.

“But this is fiction, so everything is imagined, and Magda is as much a character as Vesta. As such, it becomes a kind of post-modern scrutiny of the processes of fiction writing, with a power play of narrative authority between Otessa Moshfegh writing Vesta Gul, and Vesta Gul writing Magda.”

⫸ “A fabulous study of loneliness and of the impact of living with an oppressor on the psyche. Vesta slowly reveals the details of her suffocating marriage at the same time as she imagines the life of the unknown Magda. The two are clearly linked. Her obsession with the murder allows Vesta the same freedoms and clarity as she has given her imagined Magda and so her unreliability deepens. Death In Her Hands is a dark, mysterious novel which I found compelling as a character study on madness. I could not predict the outcome and had to invest time and effort into working out what was real and what was imagined. I really enjoyed it.” – Rachel

⫸ “Reading this book over a relatively short period of time I almost felt like I was experiencing the same uncertainty and confusion as the main character Vesta. As we moved into her spiralling thoughts I felt increasingly uncomfortable – I was less concerned with ‘solving the mystery’ and more worried for her wellbeing. Overall it was a very compelling read. Side note – this is the second fictional dog called Charlie I have come across where things have not gone well for the owner (I’m looking at you A Star is Born).” – Suzy

⫸ “The protagonist started off as someone who seemed sane and quite interesting, though somewhat neurotic, and her gradual slide downhill into incoherence was convincingly portrayed. It was often difficult to interpret what was real and what wasn’t and this added to the intrigue. Revelations about Vesta’s marriage became darker and darker as we moved through the book. It was almost as if she was slowly choosing to open up to the reader, revealing more intimate details as the story unfolded. The novel had a great ending that was sad but strangely satisfying.” – Jo

⫸ “I appreciated the concept of the novel which is essentially a story within a story and found that quite interesting. The second half of the story became more thrilling as Vesta’s mental health began to decline and her confused state led us into the sometimes dark, sometimes pitiful meanderings of her mind. A clever and well written book but to be honest it wasn’t really for me.” – Jodie

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Published 2020
Penguin Press
259 pages