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A Review: He Wants, Alison Moore

he wants

 

Retired teacher Lewis Sullivan always imagined living by the sea.

He lives instead in the Midlands village in which he was born. His grown-up daughter visits every day, bringing soup. He does not want soup. He frequents his second-favourite pub, where he can get half a shandy, a speciality sausage and a bit of company.

When a childhood friend appears on the scene, Lewis finds his life and comfortable routine shaken up.

In the wake of Moore’s award-winning first novel, The Lighthouse, and her debut short story collection, The Pre-War House (which I reviewed here), my expectations were high and this book did not disappoint. With Moore’s typically sparse plot, her attention to the minute detail of everyday occurrences, and her use of quiet tension, I sunk into this and did not resurface until I reached the end. At 182 pages, it is a short novel but needs no further chapters; its impact lies, in part, in its brevity and in its silences.

I appreciated John Oakey’s clever cover design, and the irony of the brightness of the yellow against the protagonist’s rather dull existence. It is possible that the colour yellow is scattered throughout the text for this very reason. Lewis Sullivan’s reserve and quiet desperation is painful at times, but he also resists change in the same way that a child might stamp his feet. Although, Lewis’s determination to keep a routine existence is done quietly and without a fuss. His occasional need to break out or to experience something new, something shocking, touches on the natural curiosity in all of us, and reminds us of the idea that there is always more beyond the borders of our existences. There is something inherently Freudian about the focus on Lewis’s loss, his inhibition and self-absorption.

Moore’s skill lies in lulling the reader into a comfortable, but temporary, sense of experiencing the ordinary, before she shocks the reader with an aggressive and threatening outside force through language which makes the character feel uncomfortable, or a dry expression and a sense of foreboding. Without giving away the ending, the whole story builds up to an unexpected climax, leaving you replaying the story to see where the clues may have been buried in the pages, if at all. Lewis Sullivan’s routine existence, with daily visits from a daughter with whom he shows no real connection, is shaken up when his old pal, Sydney, resurfaces, causing unexpected disruption to Lewis’s days. The fact that Sydney is also a far-flung destination is not lost on the attentive reader.

The book title is followed through with chapter headings beginning with an ominous, He does not want…, He wants…, or He wanted to… There is a combined sense of anticipation, regret, fear and uncertainly in each chapter – with much of the tension rising from what is left unsaid, in the unspoken sentences – in as much as his life is made up of the things he did not do and the places he did not visit. And then there is the matter of the dog who is weaved through the pages, a dog whose ownership is unclear. At one point we find ourselves in the company of the two characters and the dog in the kitchen, and it is unclear for a while to whom both the dog and the kitchen belong: “The man, who has been looking at him, looks at him some more and then says, ‘Your house?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Lewis. ‘You are in my house. This is my kitchen. You are sitting in my wife’s chair at my kitchen table. I thought for a moment that this was my dog.'” In the following lines Lewis wonders if he is being burgled. I can’t help thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as we wonder about the intruder. There is an almost surreal element to the book, a sense of other-worldliness.

The themes of religion and eternity are well expressed with their uncertainties and extremes, in particular in the chapter,  He wants to fly, where we are drawn back in time to Lewis’s father taking him to see Billy Graham in Manchester at the age of eighteen. His concerns about baptism focus on whether or not a person would need to be clothed or naked, and whether it would require a clean pair of pants. He lists some of the Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible, with which many are familiar, in a way that may threaten to close his life in even further.

The narrative is beautifully layered, with generational links and well-planned time frame jumps. So many elements of the book feel familiar, yet much is also unexpected. Themes of loneliness, memory and loss are unfolded with a deep originality. Lewis is, at times, an unreliable narrator and I sense that Moore enjoys this element of surprise. This book is not for those who want a fast paced thriller, but there are dark aspects to He Wants and an intensity of emotion that will pull you in until the last page.

I’m off to buy myself a new suit and travel the world!


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Transatlantic Anthology: The very best of Litro fiction.

litro

I’m thrilled to be able to share the news that one of my short fiction pieces has been published in the US in the Litro Anthology, Transatlantic. I am in the company of some wonderful authors and will be excited to read this in its entirety. The collection will be published in the UK next spring.

SYNOPSIS

Transatlantic: The Litro Anthology collects some of the best writing to have passed through the pages of Litro magazine, including stories by Anthony Doerr, Sean Beaudoin, Nikesh Shukla, Lucie Whitehouse and Jenn Ashworth. Litro has always taken a global view of the literary world, and this collection is no exception. There are stories from authors on both sides of the Atlantic, spanning locations as far apart as Ithaca and Nairobi – and even the surface of the moon. What connects them is the strength of their voices, and the vibrant originality of their storytelling. Transatlantic contains disturbed choristers and post-apocalyptic survivalists, aspiring rock stars and morally bankrupt nuclear power plant workers – but more importantly, it contains some of the most exciting and unique new voices to have appeared in modern fiction over the last few years.


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Bird: A Short Story

Bird cover

One of my short stories is free to download on kindle for a few days.  You can download it from Amazon in all available countries. Here are the US/UK links:

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Description:

A caged bird, an aging mother and a family loss that no one will talk about. This short story delves into the pain and longings of a girl caring for her mother, with an insight into the world through her unspoken wishes.

Reviews:

“BIRD is beautifully written. The prose flows and I felt the chains of the mother’s illness grabbing hold of the daughter as she tries to be respectful and diligent while caring for her mother. I could feel how the daughter wants the bird to fly off but is glad he does not. Both settle for less than life can offer but at the moment it is the best either can do.”

“I am really becoming a fan of this authors short stories, her descriptive style of writing is perfect in portraying the emotions of the story, the struggles and similarity of the mother with dementia, the caregiver daughter and the bird all living in their individual cages was beautifully subtle and yet glaringly obvious. I find the author writes the perfect short stories, leaving you wanting more but not needing more.”

“Bird is a beautifully written, poignant story. It tells about the loneliness and the feeling of helplessness when caring for someone with dementia. Ît also tells about the desire to be released from the “cage” and yet either you can’t or you decide to stay.”


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Scenes Along The Danube And The Importance Of Writing Breaks

Last week I took a week off from writing. It may not sound like much, but the weeks where I don’t write at all are really rare. This is partly because I am pushing myself to finish book two and partly because of the sheer love of writing. I’ve had the odd week here and there but this time I completely switched off. We walked, explored and swam, visiting the Natural History Museum in Vienna, a thermal spa and we drove along the Danube to Dürnstein and Krems. Both were stunning and are part of the Wachau region of Lower Austria. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 because of its architectural and agricultural past. A popular wine growing region, it draws tourists for its vineyards and for the history of Dürnstein castle, where Richard the Lion-Heart was held captive by Duke Leopold V. One of the photographs show a building from as far back as 1476!

My body felt better for the exercise and my brain was refreshed at the end of the week. The result was a morning of writing 3,000 words and figuring out the ending of book two. For those of you who are writers, you’ll know that this is pretty epic, as writing days go. I usually aim for between 500 and 1000 words. I sometimes end up with more, sometimes less, and sometimes I edit or plan.

So I thought I’d share a few photos, as Austria really is a beautiful country.
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Natural History Museum, Vienna

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Stein

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Dürnstein (Castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned)

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Dürnstein Abbey

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Wine-growing region of Dürnstein

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Krems


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Grief, Loss and Creativity

Dead Poets Society

Yesterday the world lost an incredibly talented comedian and actor. He was a man who saw me through my childhood, teens, twenties and beyond with an equal measure of thought-provoking moments and good humour. But it was no surprise to hear that the star of Dead Poets Society and Goodwill Hunting had also been battling severe depression.

I felt stunned by the news of the death of Robin Williams because he was part of the fabric of my childhood and teenage years, through what I watched and through what those films taught me about life. It was his remarkable ability to bring characters to life that has entertained millions of us through the years. And I believe that comedy and acting quite possibly provided the escape that he needed, an escape from the darkness of his own mind. Depression is a very hidden issue and it is often misunderstood. Scientists have been fascinated by the possibility of a link between depression and creativity for years. In this interesting article on the link between the two, we learn that Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, wrote the following diary entry: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Early studies found that creatives often suffered from depression: Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath also sadly took her own life.

Why am I discussing this here? Because I believe that writers have an innate ability to tap into the pain of grief and loss; to take the experiences which they encounter, and to illustrate the difficulties of anxiety and pain. They are able to translate these emotions into the lives of their characters, allowing the reader to tap into their own difficulties and to rise above them.

I often hear people talking about finding solace in books. Some readers say that they find particular books healing. The talent of a creative who is able to paint, act, write or create music lies in their ability to mold their own suffering and angst into a form that is universally understood. Where it might be difficult and overwhelming to face certain situations head on art, books, film and music allow a release of emotions and allow people to reach into the painful aspects of life and engage with issues that can be difficult to discuss.

Writers and artists are often accused of being oversensitive or overly analytical, as though these traits might be weaknesses, but I would argue that this is exactly where their strength lies, and where their empathy and ability to connect with difficult emotions helps them to write a character with flaws, a character who experiences setbacks and difficulties. Interestingly, the body releases natural opiates as a result of the creative process. Harvard Professor, Shelley Carson, says that “creative endeavors are intrinsically rewarding, and you get shots of dopamine in the rewards center of the brain.”

What are your thoughts? Are you a writer with any experience of depression? Do you find find solace in reading or writing?

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