HAGSEED by Margaret Atwood

I have always been a bit terrified of Margaret Atwood and what she writes; reading four of her books over the years I thought was sufficient reason to not need to read any more. And then I read a review of this novel, her latest, part of the series whereby well-known authors are rewriting Shakespeare's plays. This novel is a rework of The Tempest, a play I have always found a bit weird and I had to do a quick Google for a plot summary. 

Well, I can safely say that this is a fantastic retelling of the story, moving with great skill and fluidity between the basics of the play and the modern day version. I loved this, just loved it, laughing out loud in parts at the wicked humour,  the nuanced workings of the relationships between the various characters, how clever it is to put 'a play in a play in a novel' as the Guardian reviewer noted, and how finely Ms Atwood has incorporated the story of the play into the story of the novel.

The book opens twelve years after the middle aged Felix lost his job as theatre director at an arts centre. Every year he would stage ambitious versions of Shakespeare's plays, until he was out manoeuvred by the slimy Tony who, twelve years later, is now Minister for Heritage. Coinciding tragically for Felix at the time of his job loss, were the deaths in quick succession of his wife, and his three year old daughter Miranda. He was also planning a fantastic wonderful version of The Tempest for that year's season, but had his plans cruelly stopped. Can you already see the connections to the original play? And this is also one of the joys of the novel - it is not at all difficult to relate the modern characters and story to the Shakespearian characters, or the loosely based plot.

Now Felix lives alone in a run down cottage, alone expect for the spiritual presence of his daughter. For a few years he has been running a Literacy through Literature programme at the local correctional facility, working with a bunch of low security prisoners funded by a government funded and approved trial under the auspices of none other than the Ministry of Heritage. This disparate group has successfully performed a  few Shakespeare plays - Julius Caesar, Richard III and MacBeth. With such successes under his belt, and a core group of actors, Felix can now see that the moment is perfect to orchestrate his revenge on Tony and his minions, and to also stage his glorious play.

It is just magic, heart warming and uplifting to see how Felix rediscovers himself, how he is able to turn a bunch of semi-literate prisoners into Shakespeare aficionados, how they interpret, prepare and stage such a play as The Tempest, and how sweet revenge can be. Brilliant.

LIFTING by Damien Wilkins

Cutty’s department store, oldest department store in the country, icon of Wellington city, epitome of tradition, class, gentility, a bygone age, is shock, gasp, closing. It’s just a shop you may well think, but no, for Wellington where this novel is set, Cutty’s is an institution, part of the city’s landscape, a destination, almost a hallowed space. For those who work there, many of whom have been there for many, many years, the closure in two short months is a catastrophe. This is the story of what happens when the rug is quite literally pulled out from under those who work at Cutty’s, those who take pride and joy in the work they do and in the place they work.  

It is more than obvious that the fictional Cutty’s is based on the factual Kirkaldie and Staines which closed last year after 153 years in business. Like the author, I too grew up in Lower Hutt/Wellington, and have very strong memories as a child of making school holiday visits to the city, going to the big three department stores – DIC, James Smiths, and the best of the lot Kirks. My mother greeted by the smartly attired doorman, stepping with great trepidation onto the old narrow escalators, a real live lift attendant, afternoon tea with my Gran. Then as a student and lowly paid worker in the 1980s, after all the revamps daring to tread the grand spiral staircase with its gold handrails, the grand piano in the middle of it all, the very posh and beautifully groomed sales people, intimidating the daylights out of me as I carefully and delicately trawled my way through the overpriced racks, and avoided the even scarier make up counters. I remember taking my small daughters to the toy department, beautiful toys, vastly more sophisticated and delightful to walk into than the endless shelves at the Warehouse. No matter what my age was, and my stage in life, it was always a treat to go to Kirks.

Amy is 34 years old, a relatively newbie to Cutty’s with only four years employment under her belt. She is a store detective, one of maybe four other D’s, under the supervision of Trevor, chief of security. She really likes her job, likes where she works, is probably not as vigilant in her pursuit of shoplifters as perhaps the management would expect her to be, but still manages to pull in her fair share of POIs – Persons of Interest. She is married to Steve, they have just had their first child, Frankie, and she has recently returned to work. They live in what I am guessing is around top of Newtown/Melrose in Wellington, as she is close enough to walk to her mother’s place in Kilbirnie. Her mother, like Cutty’s, is also in decline, suffering from a chronic lung condition, pulmonary fibrosis. There is plenty going on in Amy’s life then, and to now have the added stress of losing her place of employment and her job, is piling on the pressure with no way of stopping the looming crisis.

But she is not the only one. Many of Amy’s co-workers feature in the closing weeks of the store’s life – Billy in Luggage, the blind Donal who plays the piano, his partner Timothy who does window dressing, twins Bert and Dougie who share the role of doormen and spiral spectacularly out of control, Rupert in Menswear, Pamela the cosmetic floor manager, Kent in Hardware, and finally Gertrude Cutty, last surviving Cutty family member now in her nineties who just cannot accept her reason for living shutting its doors. As with Amy, we follow how they cope and deal with the shop closing, their search for new jobs, reassessing their lives. And the customers themselves, who have been coming to Cutty’s their entire lives, what about them?

The story opens with Amy sitting in an interview room at the local police station. We don’t know why she is there, what has happened, who else is being interviewed; all we know is that it is related in some way to the closure of the store. She is ambivalent about being there, not sure where things went wrong that resulted in her being in the interview room. Much of the dialogue between her and the two police officers seems to revolve around her work following and apprehending shop lifters. It does become apparent fairly quickly that Amy herself has an alarming past, and is this why she is being interviewed? In her youth, she was quite the opposite to the wife/mother role she is currently inhabiting, reliable and valued employee, successful in her work, best daughter, and all round good citizen.

She was once part of a women-only activist gang, going around in the darkness committing some quite nefarious deeds against property and livelihoods. And then there is the huge irony of a guard dog being deliberately killed by one of the activists during a raid. Wonder what PETA and SAFE would say about that. I did find it a little strange that Amy had undergone some sort of monumental shift along the political doctrine spectrum from destroying businesses, to now working in the last bastion of traditionalism in Wellington city. I am not sure if people change to such an extent and so rapidly.

Even though Amy quite quickly moves on from this destructive lifestyle, gaining a criminal conviction as a permanent reminder of her deeds, becoming a paramedic, and finally a Cutty’s store detective, her compassion for those less fortunate than her does stay. It is just that now her attention has shifted from caged pigs and chickens to the POIs she deals with in her work life – “the needy, greedy or seedy” as defined in Cutty’s security manuals. She will be forever grateful to Trevor for employing her with her slightly dodgy past, these two in a way forming their own little team that does not ‘deal’ to every single shoplifter they come across. Is this why she is being interviewed? Has she not been vigilant enough in her duties, letting people slip through the shoplifter net? It would seem she has a social conscience, and is this really what Cutty’s is looking for in its employees?

But with only two months left till closure it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. As the weeks and days pass, standards in the shop slip. By ten days to go, stock has been strenuously gone through, items moved from one department to another by customers are not put back at the end of the day, the grand piano has had its last play, now covered up, the statue of Mercury at the entrance to the store has mysteriously disappeared as have the fake trees, some staff have already moved onto other places, jobs. The chaos in Cutty’s directly reflects on the chaos in the lives of the staff. Amy is also in chaos: she has had a job interview, but is torn between wanting to be with her baby and ill mother, and the family’s need for money with a falling down house and ongoing uncertainty over Steve’s job. Tensions arise between her and Steve.

So, the end comes, the event that leads to Amy being interviewed by the police. There will always be a perpetual mystery around this final act – was it deliberate, was it accidental, or was it in the hands of a third party, conspiring to get back in some way at Cutty’s management? Of course, in the end it doesn’t matter, it is just a shop after all, as we know new shops always arise from the ashes, and life really does go on. As it does for Amy. The doors close, and new ones open.

Aside from this being a really good book, well written, great characters, being taken down unexpected pathways and shop aisles, what I found endlessly fascinating was the very human condition of shoplifting. According to Amy everyone has a shop lifting story, either about themselves or about someone they know. For me three immediately come to mind, the funniest one being in a pharmacy with my one year old daughter in a push chair, me frantically trying to return all the nail polishes she was carefully picking off, then getting home, and finding she had somehow stashed three away into the push chair upholstery. She was one! Now she has more nail polishes than there are colours to paint your nails.

Goodness knows where the author got his shoplifting stories from, the acknowledgements are very sparse, so maybe he does not want to reveal his sources. But he has clearly done some great research into all this. We see it all through Amy’s eyes as she goes about her work in the store, trying to behave like a customer, observing and watching ‘customers’ who are not behaving like customers should. And then the moral dilemma of whether she should apprehend the POI, give them a chance to own up and pay, or simply do nothing. Where people put goods they are stealing will make you squirm, as will the brazenness of the shop lifting – the elderly lady in the tea rooms quietly dropping teaspoons into her handbag; the two women dressed as international cabin crew, as if a uniform makes a difference to how one is perceived. I would be ruining things for the reader if I disclosed more! Since reading this I have noticed I am much more watchful of others when in a shop, and also more aware of how I move around a shop, pick stuff off shelves or go through racks. SO interesting!

I have read two previous Damien Wilkins’ novels – Chemistry and Max Gate. I enjoyed the former, and just could not engage with the latter. But this latest novel, I have enjoyed very, very much. A lot of the enjoyment has to do with the setting of Wellington, Lower Hutt and the Wairarapa, and being of the same age/hometown/schooling etc as the author; plus being a fly on the shoplifting wall is brilliant. The last thirty years have seen much change in New Zealand, affecting whole communities, people’s jobs and employment prospects, the resulting pressures on families and social structures. Although we know nothing lasts forever, the closure of something as banal as a shop can easily become the last straw, the thing that finally makes people snap. When Kirks closed last year, it was all over the news, social media, last days’ sales, interviews with long standing staff and customers. This book is a great exploration of what may well go on behind the scenes of all that glossy veneer, written with just the right amount of kindness and compassion, not just for the staff but also for the loss of a city’s icon.


What an absolute joy to read this was, definitely one I will keep, share with others, put into book club. Eleanor is almost thirty, she lives in Glasgow, she works for a graphics design company in what could loosely be termed admin, she has worked there for nearly ten years. She has no friends. Her work colleagues think she is odd, they know very little if anything about her and can't really be bothered to find out more. Every Friday night she leaves work, goes to Tesco, buys two pizzas and two bottles of Vodka. She goes home, demolishes the lot over the weekend, then turns up at work, bang on time Monday morning for another week the same as the previous. She is completely fine. These are her good days.

To the reader, her loneliness is extreme, the walls she has built around herself painful to see. It is hard to fathom the depth of loneliness that people can feel in their lives, and if this is a voluntary state, an enforced state, or a combination of the two. Is there a mental illness of sorts going on here, does she have a personality disorder, has something happened to her to have her life turn out like this at not even thirty? Slowly, page by page, we learn about Eleanor and the carefully structured life and walls she has built around herself over the years. We learn that from about the age of eleven she was in foster care, that she had a boyfriend who was violent to her, that she has a very controlling mother in prison with whom she talks once a week.

Life takes a sudden turn when she bizarrely falls madly for a wannabe rock star, her perfect man. To attract said man's attention she pays a visit to a beautician, buys some swanky new clothes. She also befriends a work colleague who is forced upon her as the repairer of her work computer. By chance they are out during their lunch hour and assist an elderly man who falls over in front of them. These minutely small human connections are the beginning of the budding and flowering of the wonderful Eleanor. There are some hiccups along the way, as she struggles with her reconnection with the world, letting people into her small tightly held bubble - there are bad days, until finally we reach better days. And of course, we find out all about Eleanor's early life that put her into foster care at eleven and explains why she has become this strange, out of touch, and odd person.

Eleanor is a wonder to behold. Being so little involved in others' lives, having no social network or friends, having no need to deal with people in her work, she has lost all the social filters that most of us develop over the years of interacting with others. Our socially conditioned and finely tuned antennae tell us when we say or do something out of kilter, not so Eleanor. Her conversational exchanges are hilarious and endearing, if they weren't quite so sad; her observations of those around her and how they behave equally wicked and funny, although of course she does not see it like that!

The writing  is wonderful, and being narrated in the first person the reader is right inside Eleanor's head. We root for Eleanor all the way even when she is frustrating the whatever out of us, as do the people she meets in the course of this story. She may be tetchy, difficult to talk with, unpredictable, but all the characters love her, from her colleague Raymond, to the elderly man, to her hairdresser, to her boss - it is as if they can all see the potential in this young woman, but just don't know how to tap into it. I want to read this book again, it is just great, and gives a tender and sensitive insight into the loneliness that many people must live in. Heartwarmingly wonderful. 

HINTERLAND by Caroline Brothers

A few years ago I read 'In the Sea There Are Crocodiles' by an Italian novelist Fabio Geda, telling the real life story of Enaiatollah Akbar, a ten year old Afghan boy who treks from Afghanistan, mostly alone, finally finding refuge in Italy. Harrowing, frightening, inspiring, I can't begin to contemplate the awfulness of this child's journey. I remember the raw courage and bravery of this boy, his blind faith and trust in those he meets on his journey. And especially the kindness of random strangers to a lone child, although he was not always met with kindness.

This book tells a similar story of two boys, brothers Aryan and Kabir, fleeing the Taliban with just their clothes. Caroline Brothers is a foreign correspondent and has first hand experience of the war-ravaged places on our planet. She has been very moved by her contacts with children who are refugees, travelling alone or in small groups across the Middle East and Europe, putting their lives into the hands of others, trusting their gut feelings in the process, sometimes with a good outcome, sometimes not.

Unlike Geda who tells the story of just one boy, Brothers has taken the stories of many children she has come across, and put them all into the story of the two brothers, and a few other characters in the novel. I can see why she does this, to inform the reader as much as possible of the terrible times of thousands of children making the treacherous journey from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, to reach a safe haven anywhere in the west. But I actually think something is lost in doing this, almost as if in her despair and urgency to tell the world about the appalling situation of child refugees, she has tried to cram too many events, traumas, anecdotes into the lives of two small boys. So much happens to these children, too much, I found it overwhelming. I imagine this is the purpose of her writing, but there was little time or space for a breath or to process  the awfulness of the refugee situation in Europe. She has done a marvellous job, but do not read this to be uplifted or inspired. It does not. And it does not give any answers either on what we in the West, could or should be doing. Despair is the overriding feeling I got when reading this. But we do need to be informed, and she has succeeded in this. 

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

The parents might take it upon themselves to completely destroy their families, letting lust take over, and there are plenty of stories out there of the dysfunction of blended families. But it doesn't always have to be this way. In this novel, the six young children from two families bond together extraordinarily well, taking advantage of their parents', at times, detached parenting. It certainly is not an easy ride for any of them, but those early formative experiences carry them into adulthood, and never let them forget that they really are a family.

It all begins in Los Angeles in the 1960s at the christening of Franny Keating. Bert Cousins, is a lawyer in the local DA's office, Franny's dad Fix Keating is a police officer. Bert turns up uninvited, wanting to escape his own domestic bliss of three young children and a pregnant wife. He instantly falls in love with Beverly, Franny's mother. Eventually Beverly leaves Fix, her two young daughters, LA and moves to Virginia with Bert. The six children from the two sets of parents move between LA and Virginia to see their absent parent, inevitably the children build their own close bonds and friendships between each other. Much of this closeness arises of summer holidays together in Virginia, initially forced to spend all their days together while Beverly and Bert are otherwise engaged, and over time, forging their alliances with each other as siblings are wont to do.

Tragedy ensues, and despite the little hints dropped in during the early part of the story, the full facts of what happens is only slowly disclosed as the book goes on. Each child feels their own particular guilt in the event, but as often happens when the words is seen through children's eyes, the fact is quite different from the child's perception of it.

Most of the story is told through Franny's eyes. She is a bright girl, but drops out of law school, unable to meet her own high expectations. While working in a bar she meets a famous author, Leon Posen, with whom she lives for some years. During this time she tells the story of her childhood, which he then publishes in novel form. Unsurprisingly it opens old wounds in the now adult children, but also renews those childhood bonds and relationships.

Ann Patchett is a fabulous writer. Bel Canto is one of my all time favourites, and I loved State of Wonder. I am not sure if this is in quite the same league as these two previous novels, but it is still a most satisfying read filled with interesting and diverse characters. I particularly love how she depicts the six children, all intensely unhappy at having to spend holidays with each, and then how over the summer the pecking order evolves as it does with children, they find their unique little niche in their grouping. And then how these strands remain tight years later, even though life does get in the way of those bonds. The imperfection of family life, so well done.