STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS by Alexander Masters

STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS by Alexander Masters

Homeless people - part of the furniture in the streets of any large city - easy to move around, to ignore, and to have little to wonder about. Generally we don't know why a person becomes a homeless person, and if we care enough to find out, we are presented with what is usually a very complicated and hopeless set of circumstances that make it very easy to turn that blind eye at.

The author, Alexander Masters, started out in life as an academic at Cambridge, studying maths and physics. While studying towards his PhD he started working at a hostel for the homeless in Cambridge. Which led him, eventually, to Stuart. Stuart, aged 33, has had a most unfortunate life, in fact, not much more can go wrong with it really.  Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a small child then sexually abused regularly from the age of ten, life very quickly spiralled out of control for Stuart. In brief he had been in and out of prison for serious crimes, was a drug addict and alcoholic, lived off and on on the streets,  and as a result of all this was not the easiest person to get on with.

But this guy, somehow, got under the skin of the author, because it would seem that Alexander Masters is actually the only person to see Stuart for the human being he is, and to give him a chance to tell his story in the most honest way he can.  First draft was rubbish according to Stuart  - 'bollocks boring' and Alexander had to write the whole thing again! This book then is as much about the relationship between these two very different men as it is about Stuart himself. As a result we get inside the head and heart of what is an extremely intelligent man, who unfortunately has not really had one good break in life. It must have taken a long time for such an intimate degree of trust on Stuart's part to build up to enable this book to be written.

Masters also has plenty to say, as does Stuart, about the attitude of the state to homeless people, homeless shelters, treatment for drug addicts, treatment for the mentally ill in our society. Basically, it seems no one knows what to do with them, and so nothing gets done. make the whole thing a 'bestseller' and 'something what people will read' as Stuart wants, Alex decides to tell Stuart's story backwards - gradually stripping away all the bad stuff till we get back to the little boy and what a marvellous little lad he was till everything started to go wrong. Terribly sad - we all start out with such promise and youth and energy.   For most people lucky stuff continues to happen, for some, it simply doesn't. And in the process of reading such a biography perhaps we now will look at homeless people on the streets with just a little more compassion and humanity.

ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes

ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes

Well, this was a totally unexpected read. After the serious tone of the last few books I had read, I really felt like something somewhat lighter. The one line review at bottom of the cover reads "Gorgeously romantic and partner-ignoringly complusive" (Independent on Sunday). And the reviews on the reverse are all in a similar vein. What's more the author has won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Twice! Excellent I thought, nothing like a bit of chick lit on a sunny summer afternoon.

Not quite as chick litty as I thought, and how many chick lits do you read require a copious number of tissues to soak up the emotion? But, oh, such a good story, and so beautifully (and romantically) told. And what's more - no sex! What's that you say? Modern day romance with no sex? How dull and how weird, what's with that?

There is no sex in this story because the romantic male lead, Will Traynor, is a quadriplegic - wheel chair bound following a horrific accident. How does one go from being a man in charge of his universe - very successful career, wealthy, gorgeous girlfriend, action man - to a man stuck in a chair, unable to do one single thing for himself. With great difficulty, and he really is a mess.

Along comes Louise Clark. Early twenties, lived in same small town all her life, no drive or ambition, bound to her parents and older single parent sister, boring exercise junkie boyfriend, stuck in a huge rut and almost lost the will to live. Out of desperation, Lou is employed by Will's mother to be one of two carers to Will. In true chick lit style, things do not start out at all well between the two of them. Then slowly he begins to thaw and see what a ray of sunshine she really is, how important she is to him and a relationship begins to develop. But this is just the beginning, and as we all know the path of true love never runs smoothly. And that is where I stop on the plot development line, even though there is plenty more to tell.

Narrated primarily by Lou, this is one of the most beautiful love stories you will ever read. Lou and Will dominate the novel, but plenty of attention is given to Lou's family and the dynamics going on there, as well as the relationship Will has with his own family and ex-fiancee. This is such a worthwhile read, and one you will think about for sometime after finishing. And just goes to show, a captivating love story does not need to wade into R18 or above territory to hold the reader's attention.  



The Irish are well renowned as great story tellers  and this author certainly carries on that legacy. I have loved past novels of his - Let the Great World Spin and especially This Side of Brightness - with rich characters, unusual situations, both set in New York City,  one taking place above the ground with its central character a tightrope walker, and the other taking place below ground during the construction of the underground tunnel network below the Hudson River. 

This book also has many similar qualities with its interesting and diverse characters, the significant incidents in their lives, its story telling, but for me, it just didn't seem to have the same impact as the previous two novels. Maybe because there is too much going on, as the chapters move between places and times - Newfoundland in Canada in the early 1900s, Northern Ireland during the Troubles and late 1990s, Southern Ireland in the famine of the 1840s, the American Civil War of the 1860s. These places and times are all held together by the movement of the characters backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, each of which forms a short story that makes up the novel as a whole. I found the links between the characters and events tenuous to say the least, and really felt that each of the chapters was worthy of its own novel.

At the core of the book are four generations of  women, beginning with Lily who finds the courage to leave famine plagued Ireland in 1845, her daughter Emily, then Lottie, and finally Hannah. These women have varying levels of importance in the course of the book; it is their interactions with the men who have greater roles to play in the book that holds the whole thing together.

As in his other books the author takes some actual events to help tell his story - the first trans Atlantic flight in 1919, the visit to Ireland in 1845 by a self educated black American slave, Frederick Douglass who was brought to Ireland to be the face of abolition, and the accomplishment of US Senator George Mitchell in brokering a peace deal between the Catholics and Protestants in Belfast in 1998.

As you can see there is a lot going on in 300 pages and it takes a very skilful writer to hold it all together. Which to a certain extent he does. The writing,  as you would expect, is sublime. He paints beautiful pictures of his characters, his descriptions of the Irish landscape, the cold and desolation of Newfoundland and the awfulness of war are stunning. I especially liked the two sections featuring Dougalss and Mitchell, strangers brought to a land to help rewrite history. Well worth the read, but don't expect to blown away by a fantastic plot.


GRIFFITH REVIEW 43 - A QUARTERLY OF NEW WRITING AND IDEAS co edited by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones

Review copy kindly provided by Booksellers Association NZ on behalf of Griffith University, Brisbane.

A New Zealand booksellers' site reviewing an Australian literary journal? Is this the next giant step forward in CER - NZ and Australian bookselling joining forces? Not quite...

Griffith Review is published quarterly by Griffith University in Brisbane, showcasing new fiction writing, essays, memoirs, poetry and art of Australian contributors.  It is probably most similar to the six monthly Otago University publication Landfall, which has been in continuous publication since 1947 and performs the same function for NZ writers and artists. In light of the success of New Zealand writers in recent years, this latest issue, "Pacific Highways" is devoted to all things New Zealand - a true showcase of the depth of writing we have here, and the issues/ideas/themes currently in circulation. In the true spirit of trans-Tasman cooperation, this issue is edited by founding editor and academic Julianne Schultz who incidentally did travel on a New Zealand passport at one stage, and NZ's very own Lloyd Jones - need anymore be said. He sees New Zealand positioned in a very exciting place at the moment, "one where it is possible to think of NZ as a hub in a mesh of highways spanning the littoral of South America, Asia, and Australia. There lies the future, as economists used to say. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge what is even more obvious. The future is here."

For a young country with a relatively small population the number and variety of high calibre contributors to this edition is fantastic. Two photographers, ten poets, three 'reporatages', six memoirs, three fiction items, and a most alarming twenty one essays. Twenty one essays? I would have liked to have seen half this number with the other half given over to ten more fiction writers. Wouldn't it have been marvellous to see something, if at all possible, from the only other Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme? Admittedly some of the essays have been written by well known fiction writers such as Damien Wilkins - finding himself 'forced' by virtue of having young daughters to watch TV reality show monster 'The X Factor NZ -,  Alison Wong, Kate de Goldi, and Hamish Clayton, but I really would have liked to have seen some more fiction.   

However, the choice of writers cannot detract from the variety of subject and the writing quality. Contributors are young and not so young, Chilean, Chinese, academics, publishers, journalists, Samoan, Maori, Pakeha, a scientist, a teachers, well known, completely unknown, fiction and non fiction writers, a sportswriter, men and women   - and many of these contributors are several of these things. It is a thing of wonder indeed that such a young and small country can produce such a huge pool of writers.

So what are the topics of choice for these writers in the twenty first century? Again many and various - the Christchurch earthquakes, the recent death of artist Ralph Hotere, a descendant of  Chinese who migrated to NZ a hundred years ago, a poem about the 1979 Erebus tragedy, beautiful and personal writings inspired by the land and seascapes, an economist looking at our economic future, a children's author marvelling over Margaret Mahy. And at the root of almost all the writing, our ongoing search for a national identity and finding our fit in the world. There is something here for everyone, a lot of it is easy to read, to understand and enjoy. And some of it not so much. But it is great to see the continued respect being given to New Zealand writers and artists from outside our borders. 



More than three quarters of the way through this heart breaking and compelling novel, the title - above - is defined for us. On page 1322 of a medical dictionary - Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organisation, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. In the middle of one of the many awful wars of the past 100 years, this unusual definition places humanity, small kindnesses, personal and intimate deeds at the heart of the story and the people in this novel.

Chechnya -  breakaway republic from the iron arm of Russia, rich in natural resources, not allowed to be in charge of its destiny by mighty Moscow. In our Western press, all we have ever really heard about this isolated far away place is the extreme actions of its terrorists. But this is a region which has had more than its fair share of destruction, rebuild, invasion, expulsion, rebuild than any population should have to bear. Hardly surprising they should choose to resist from time to time. But as with most stories of war, very little is ever told of the lives of the ordinary people, their inability to control or manage their fate and the fates of their families. So it is in this story.

Amazingly this is a first novel, and the author is still only in his twenties. Following a period of study in St Petersburg, he first came to learn about Chechnya, its people and its history. The quote above comes from a medical dictionary he was looking at one day.

The story moves somewhat erratically between 1994 and 2004 when the latest two wars took place. The action in 2004 takes place over five days and is centered in a village where three men - Akhmed, Dokka, Ramzan - all friends since childhood live. Another key character is Ramzan's father Khassan. The story is also told through the eyes of Dokka's eight year old daughter Havaa, a brilliant Russian born doctor Sofia and her sister Natasha. Heart breaking things happen to each of these people, and they are all faced at some stage with making some very hard decisions as they confront the terrible consequences of civil war.

In the very first paragraph Havaa sees her father seized by the Feds and her house burnt down. She is rescued by Akhmed who flees with her to the one and only surviving hospital which he knows is the only place Havaa will be safe from the Russians. He entrusts her to the care of Sofia, and as an ex-doctor himself stays to help out. Unfolding in the village is the ongoing search for Havaa, the dilemma that Ramzan who is an informer faces, and the position that Khassan too finds himself in. As the story unfolds Natasha's link to this small village and the resulting betrayals unfolds. Nothing, however, is ever simple, but the constant and at times annoying plot movements over the ten year period slowly begin to make sense.  

This is a haunting story, and like many other novels of its kind, can't help but make us question how we, in our safe comfortable worlds, would behave in such extreme circumstances.