#BookReview Violets by Alex Hyde @grantabooks

VioletsAbout the Book

A young woman, Violet, lies in a hospital bed in the closing days of the war. Her pregnancy is over and she is no longer able to conceive. With her husband deployed to the Pacific Front and her friends caught up in transitory love affairs, she must find a way to put herself back together.

In a small, watchful town in the Welsh valleys, another Violet contemplates the fate she shares with her unborn child. Unwed and unwanted, an overseas posting offers a temporary way out. Plunged into the heat and disorder of Naples, her body begins to reveal the responsibility it carries even as she is drawn into the burnished circle of a charismatic new friend, Maggie.

Between these two Violets, sung into being like a babe in a nursery rhyme: a son. As their lives begin to intertwine, a spellbinding story of women’s courage emerges, suffused with power, lyricism and beauty, from an exhilarating new voice in British fiction.

Format: Hardcover (256 pages)         Publisher: Granta
Publication date: 3rd February 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

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My Review

Set towards the end of the Second World War, the book tells the story of two women, both called Violet, with the narrative alternating seamlessly between the experiences of the two women.

The first Violet we meet has just suffered a miscarriage and she and her husband, Fred, find themselves without any prospect of having the child they have longed for, and prepared for.  ‘And the room upstairs, ready and waiting, the walls still bare. No summer baby, she thought. No noise and mess.’ With Fred posted abroad, Violet has to bear her grief alone and try to pick up the pieces of her life.

The second Violet is in the opposite position, pregnant as the result of a brief relationship. Desperate to hide the fact from her mother and fearful of the response to her unmarried state, she signs up for the ATS and is posted abroad. On the voyage to Italy she meets the vibrant and worldly Maggie and they form an unlikely friendship.  Despite Violet going to greater and greater lengths to disguise the fact she is expecting a child, discovery is inevitable.

The way the lives of the two Violets intersect is perhaps not that surprising but still provides a resolution  for both of them, and for Fred, a character I loved.

However, the most remarkable aspect of the book, and the feature which sets it apart from other books I’ve read, are the lyrical passages which interrupt the text from time to time. Addressed to ‘Pram Boy’, the unborn son of Violet, these passages are poetic in nature and contain some striking imagery. They chart the progress of the child Violet is carrying from conception, through gestation, to birth.  Often the passages use metaphors linked to Violet’s experiences at the time, such as this during her voyage to Italy.

So wait then, stay your course
Decked and berthed and set in the hold, darkly stowed
That’s you, mother-lover, filling her up.
Deep in the womb glow, sweet loving cup.

Finally, Pram Boy makes the journey from being ‘a rounded pod of seed’ in his mother’s womb to the outside world.

Come now, hush
A moment’s respite, release,
Before your un-knit skull crowns to the air
To the burn of a ragged tear
And your Mama a cat panting its litter-runt free

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of the book is that the ‘second Violet’s’ story is more eventful and compelling but this is a minor quibble because Violets is a remarkable debut and I think Alex Hyde is an author to look out for in the future.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Granta Books via NetGalley.

In three words: Lyrical, intense, imaginative

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#ThrowbackThursday #BookReview The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

Today I’m revisiting my review of The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay which was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2020. The Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize is one of the most prestigious awards for young writers, aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide, and celebrating and nurturing international literary excellence.

The Far FieldAbout the Book

In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bangalore, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to confront him.

But upon her arrival, Shalini is brought face to face with Kashmir’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in. And when life in the village turns volatile and old hatreds threaten to erupt into violence, Shalini finds herself forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love.

Format: Paperback (464 pages)        Publisher: Grove Press
Publication date: 2nd January 2020 Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

The book switches back and forth in time between Shalini’s memories of her childhood and the visits of Bashir Ahmed, and her journey to Kashmir to try to track him down following her mother’s death. It’s skilfully plotted so there’s always more to be revealed and there is a tantalising sense of tension throughout. I expect I’m not the only reader who had a disturbing sense of history potentially repeating itself at certain moments.

The author brilliantly conveys the tensions within Shalini’s family, in particular her mercurial mother who can change from charming to disdainful in a moment, what Shalini refers to as her mother’s ‘lightning switch from one self to another.’ It’s something her father finds difficult to handle.  With Bashir Ahmed and her mother, it’s a different matter. Shalini recalls, ‘Looking back, I can see that something powerful occurred in that moment and it still astonishes me all these years later: Bashir Ahmed understood in about five minutes what took my father decades‘.

Like some three dimensional chess game, Shalini recalls her younger self’s struggle to make sense of ‘these shifting, traitorous pieces – mother, visitor, father – trying to keep track of their masked sentences, their mutable moods, waiting for a clear sign of what my next move should be.’ The burden of keeping secrets is also evident. Shalini reflects, ‘I thought of all the secrets I had carried as far back into my childhood as I could remember. I felt them pile one on top of another, suffocating me.’ However, perhaps some secrets are best left buried.

The author’s acute observation of the way in which people interact is memorably displayed in a scene depicting what must surely be the most ill-judged dinner party in history.

I loved the descriptions of the small Kashmiri village where Bashir Ahmed’s family live and the details of everyday life. ‘…The houses were flung wide upon the mountainside, like a handful of brightly coloured toys tossed by a careless hand, separated by narrow rocky ridges and terraced cornfields.’ The generous hospitality offered to Shalini both by Bashir Ahmed’s family, and earlier by Abdul Latief and his wife, Zoya, shows how this is embedded in Indian culture. However, the tension between the different religious communities and the shadow of past events are always in the background, as Shalini will discover as she faces difficult decisions about her future and comes face to face with the realities of life in Kashmir. The contrasts are stark: ‘...this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty.’

One of the question the book poses is whether the impulse to act is always the wisest option, even for the best of intentions. “Isn’t that the important thing, to do something?” Shalini insists at one point. On the other hand, is the price of not acting just as high? Shalini’s experiences lead her to conclude that, in her family at least, ‘Ours has always been a story of cowardice, of things left unsaid.’ The book also reveals the unintended consequences on others of our actions. In Shalini’s case, this is manifested in a quite devastating way.

The Far Field is the sort of book I love: great writing, a compelling story that immerses me in the lives of its characters, and that gives me an insight into the culture and history of an area of the world about which I knew little.

In three words: Assured, acutely-observed, compelling

Try something similar: The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan

Madhuri-VijayAbout the Author

Madhuri Vijay was born and raised in Bangalore. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-Required Reading, and Narrative Magazine. [Photo credit: Goodreads]

Connect with Madhuri
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