#BookReview Seek The Singing Fish by Roma Wells

Cover Image Seek The Singing FishAbout the Book

Growing up in the lagoon town of Batticaloa, a young girl, with an unquenchable curiosity and love of the natural world, is entangled in the trauma and turmoil of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Uprooted from everything she holds dear, tragedy and betrayal set in motion an unforgettable odyssey.

Torn from east to west, struggling with what it means to belong, she desperately seeks a way home to the land of the singing fish.

Format: Paperback (320 pages)    Publisher: époque press
Publication date: 23rd June 2022 Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

The protagonist of the book is Mila, a young Sri Lankan girl. The fact that Mila directly addresses the reader, whom she has named ‘Shi’ meaning breath of life, gives the book a very intimate feel.

The author confides that she has always been magnetised by the concept of refuge and Mila’s earliest refuge is her father’s library, his ‘inky jungle’, a place crammed full of books, a ‘forest of reworked trees’. The room also contains Mila’s own personal little hideaway. Her father’s stories and the facts he relates from his encyclopedia feed Mila’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge. She develops a passionate interest in animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate, transfixed by the intricacies of their anatomical structure and habits. Comparisons between animal and human behaviour become a key part of how she sees the world. So a shop owner who has set up a line of teddy bear ‘customers’ for her toddler to practice serving reminds Mila of the way meerkats teach their pups to hunt, and a man singing songs that his listeners later find themselves humming calls to mind how humpback whales spread their melodies to other whales far across the ocean.

Although we sometimes talk about people behaving like animals very rarely does animal behaviour descend to the level of cruelty inflicted by humans, as Mila soon discovers. The peace of her childhood is disrupted in the most profound way when the Sri Lankan civil war reaches her home town of Batticaloa.  The comparison between the natural beauty of the country and the ugliness of war is starkly depicted.

Suddenly Mila is alone and forced to fend for herself. ‘War strips and chews away everything you’re sure of and vomits out a perturbing sort of uncertainty.’ Betrayed by someone who preys on Mila’s vulnerability, she finds herself thousands of miles from home, a victim of modern slavery.  The next few years test Mila’s strength of will and resilience. Unwilling to trust any offer of help in case it ends in another betrayal, she lives a hand to mouth existence on the streets where every day is a struggle to survive.

Eventually she finds a refuge, one that neatly echoes her father’s library. It’s a place that not only provides her with a place of safety and a space to heal but offers her literary nourishment. ‘Chunky stewing tomes and spines that flaked away like almond shavings. Old, new, spiced and crumbling fellows, all bustling together; real breathing books.’  Gradually Mila is coaxed out of the shell she has contructed around herself and presented with the possibility of returning home to Sri Lanka.  However, there is a further journey for Mila to make and a discovery that will bring home the terrible cost of war, whilst also demonstrating that with time and patience there is the possibility of healing.

It is impossible to write a review of Seek The Singing Fish without mentioning the beautiful, lush prose that seems to flow effortlessly from the author’s pen. For example, this mouthwatering description of wares displayed in a local market. ‘Cashew apples, avocado, and sweet citrus carambola oozed beside guavas, pineapples and spiky rambutan. Possum purple passionfruit jostled with jackfruit, plump mangos beamed by breadfruit while red lady papayas sang sweetly to passing nostrils.’ Don’t you just love the image of fruit jostling, beaming or singing?

As Mila warns the reader at the beginning of the book, it’s not a ‘polished little tale wrapped neatly in a bow but an untamed eruption’. Mila’s story is harrowing at times, not least because it is based on real life experiences, but it is infused with an appreciation for the natural world.  I thought Seek The Singing Fish was a hugely impressive debut novel.

My thanks to Seán at époque press for my digital review copy.

In three words: Powerful, moving, lyrical

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Roma WellsAbout the Author

Roma Wells is a Sri Lankan and Irish writer with a family heritage entwined with wild animals and sectarian conflict. Roma studied International Relations at Cambridge University and has worked in journalism, foreign affairs and international development. She is happiest scribbling under trees and at home you will find her bonding with an array of local wildlife. Seek The Singing Fish is Roma’s debut novel.

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#BlogTour #BookReview Villager by Tom Cox

Villager BT PosterWelcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Villager by Tom Cox. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Unbound for my digital review copy.

Villager Cover ImageAbout the Book

There’s so much to know. It will never end, I suspect, even when it does. So much in all these lives, so many stories, even in this small place.

Villages are full of tales: some are forgotten while others become a part of local folklore. But the fortunes of one West Country village are watched over and irreversibly etched into its history as an omniscient, somewhat crabby, presence keeps track of village life.

In the late sixties a Californian musician blows through Underhill where he writes a set of haunting folk songs that will earn him a group of obsessive fans and a cult following. Two decades later, a couple of teenagers disturb a body on the local golf course. In 2019, a pair of lodgers discover a one-eyed rag doll hidden in the walls of their crumbling and neglected home. Connections are forged and broken across generations, but only the landscape itself can link them together. A landscape threatened by property development and superfast train corridors and speckled by the pylons whose feet have been buried across the moor.

Format: Hardcover (448 pages) Publisher: Unbound
Publication date: 28 April 2022 Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

This is the first book I’ve read by Tom Cox so, unlike some other reviewers, I’m not familiar with his nonfiction writing and as I usually scroll past images of dogs or cats on Instagram or Twitter I’ve not come across him on social media either. Therefore I didn’t know quite what to expect, a sensation that remained throughout the time I was reading the book.

Villager is a book which almost defies description due to its idiosyncratic style and non-linear structure. The novel ranges over a vast period from the dawn of time to the end of this century. It’s a cocktail of different narratives, in a variety of styles, all of which are connected to the village of Underhill and to an American musician, RJ McKendree who visited the area in the late 1960s and composed music inspired by local folksongs. Some meet him, others inhabit places he did, observe the same views as him or are inspired by his music.

One of the most inventive elements of the book is that Underhill and the surrounding area is presided over by an omniscient narrator, referred to as ‘Me’, whom I took to be the landscape itself. (Have a peek at the cover and you might spot ‘Me’.) ‘Me’ observes the goings-on of the inhabitants, knows all their secrets and reflects on the changes that have been wrought on the landscape by mankind, changes which have often caused it something akin to physical pain. ‘The countryside looks on, bemused at the way it’s been outgrown, bludgeoned, smoothed over, suppressed, raped, waiting for the revenge it will surely enjoy when we are gone.’ At times the landscape fights back. For example, the final nine holes of the golf course that has reduced many a player to swearing at sheep or hurling their golf clubs in the river.  It works the other way as well. As ‘Me’ ruefully observes, ‘I don’t feel great today, and my not-greatness influences those around me. I made a buddleia visibly ill at ease this morning’.

An appreciation of nature and concern for the environment flow through the book. There are wonderful descriptions of the local landscape and wildlife. The last purple streaks of the sun toasted the hilltops and owls made lewd suggestions to one another down in the woods by the river.’  On the subject of flowing, I especially enjoyed the way the author gives the rivers a personality, at times rebellious – ‘One is being a thug out back of the Coop, hissing and swearing at the locals’ – at other times, placid – ‘Today, though, the river was a pussycat. It purred around the boulders beneath his feet’.

The author employs a number of different narrative formats including journals, interactions with a search engine which has developed an unnerving ability to empathise and, most memorably for me, a community message board. The latter allows the author to give full rein to his wicked sense of humour in the often inconsequential chatter of the locals, the acerbic comments of one resident or the contributions of the mysterious Megan Beaker.

My favourite section was the one entitled ‘Papps Wedge’ which features couple, Sally and Bob (not Bob and Sally) whom we first in middle-age and then much later in 2043. It provides a glimpse of a future in which profit and human convenience is prioritised over environmental protection so a new train line ‘smashes through ancient woodland, f**ks over a couple of Elizabethan farmhouses, rapes and pillages the homesteads of hares, otters, stoats and badgers’.  In addition, immersive technology has replaced direct experience for many people. Only Bob and a few like-minded people have rejected its use leaving them isolated in some ways but more in touch with the natural environment.

I’ll confess I found some parts of the book more challenging than others. For instance, many of the musical references in the section ‘Report of Debris’ went over my head. Alternatively if they were pure invention, I couldn’t tell.

Villager is endlessly inventive and jam-packed with thought-provoking ideas. I think it’s the kind of book that would repay re-reading.

In three words: Lyrical, original, stimulating

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Tom Cox Author PicAbout the Author

Tom Cox lives in Devon. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Good, the Bad and the Furry and the William Hill Sports Book longlisted Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia. 21st-Century Yokel was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize, and the titular story of Help the Witch won a Shirley Jackson Award.

He is also the man behind the enormously popular Why My Cat Is Sad account.

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Villager Graphic 2