#BookReview Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson

Mouth To MouthAbout the Book

A struggling author is stuck at the airport, his flight endlessly delayed. As he stares at the departure board and browses the shops, he bumps into a former classmate of his, Jeff, who is waiting for the same flight. The charismatic Jeff invites the narrator to drinks in the First Class lounge, and there, swearing him to secrecy, begins telling him the fascinating and disturbing story of his life, starting with a pivotal incident from his youth.

Alone on the beach, he noticed a man drowning in the rough surf, his fate resting in Jeff’s hands. Overwhelmed but ultimately determined to help, Jeff rescued and resuscitated the unconscious man. Unexpectedly traumatized by the event, Jeff develops a fixation on the man he saved, sure that they are now inextricably linked. Upon discovering that the man, Francis, is a renowned art dealer, Jeff finds a job at his gallery in hopes of connecting with Francis and processing the event. Even though Francis seems to have no recollection of the incident, he takes Jeff under his wing, and Jeff becomes increasingly involved in Francis’s life, dating his daughter and attending important art world parties. As the two grow closer, Jeff notices some of Francis’s more unsavoury characteristics – his tendency to cheat artists and carry on affairs – but, convinced that their encounter on the beach is fated, brushes his concerns aside and continues to pursue a deeper connection with Francis, even as the nature of their relationship grows darker…

Format: Hardback (192 pages)      Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 3rd March 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

My first thought is that I’m not sure the long blurb does the book any favours – personally, I would have limited it to the first paragraph – as it discloses quite a lot of what happens although, admittedly, not the final climactic reveal. Having said that this is a novel which exudes a pervading air of menace and in which the author skilfully ratchets up the tension bit by bit.

Jeff’s perhaps natural desire to find out more about the man whose life he saved becomes more than mere curiosity but something bordering on obsession. Jeff finds himself drawn closer and closer to Francis Arsenault, an art dealer with a supposed remarkable ‘eye’ for what will sell, a skill that doesn’t seem to extend to recognising the man who saved his life.  However, as Jeff discovers, Francis is a master in the art of maintaining a double life (Francis Arsenault isn’t even his real name) and of using others for his own ends. The world of art dealing thus makes the ideal environment for him to inhabit. ‘The only reason Francis is in this business is because it’s the most easily manipulated market in the world, and he’s a master manipulator.’

The book is in essence about consequences as Jeff finds himself carried along by the train of events, events in a way he enabled by saving Francis’s life. As he confides, ‘I wanted him to be good, though, I wanted to feel that I had done a good thing not only for him but for all the people he came in contact with.’ As Jeff’s life becomes more closely intertwined with Francis’s through his relationship with Francis’s daughter, Chloe, he finds his loyalties tested and begins to wonder just what he unleashed when he saved Francis’s life. What if Francis is far from good? Is Jeff then implicated in Francis’s deceit?

But, of course, we only have Jeff’s word for all of this. The narrator begins to wonder about Jeff’s motivation for telling him the story. ‘Was it excavation, though, Jeff getting everything off his chest? Or was he painting for me a kind of self-portrait? And what is a self-portrait if not self-serving?’

Mouth to Mouth is a compulsively readable, deliciously disquieting little novel with a sting in its tail.

I received a review copy courtesy of Atlantic Books via Readers First.

In three words: Taut, compelling, dark

Try something similarThe Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard

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Antoine WilsonAbout the Author

Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and h is a contributing editor for A Public Space.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives with his family in Los Angeles.

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#BookReview These Days by Lucy Caldwell @FaberBooks @ReadersFirst1

These DaysAbout the Book

Two sisters, four nights, one city.

April, 1941. Belfast has escaped the worst of the war – so far. Over the next two months, it’s going to be destroyed from above, so that people will say, in horror, My God, Belfast is finished.

Many won’t make it through, and no one who does will remain unchanged.

Following the lives of sisters Emma and Audrey – one engaged to be married, the other in a secret relationship with another woman – as they try to survive the horrors of the four nights of bombing which were the Belfast Blitz, These Days is a timeless and heart-breaking novel about living under duress, about family, and about how we try to stay true to ourselves.

Format: Hardback (288 pages)      Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication date: 3rd March 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

These Days is set between April and May 1941, focusing on four days during which Belfast was subjected to intense bombing raids. The book is structured in three parts – The Dockside Raid, The Easter Raid and The Fire Raids. Through the experiences of the Bell family – sisters, Audrey and Emma, their younger brother, Paul, and their mother and father, Phillip and Florence – the author illustrates the impact of the raids on the people of Belfast.

When the novel opens, Belfast has so far escaped the intense bombing experienced by other UK cities so, initially, the concerns of the family are close to home.

Audrey, the eldest daughter, is due to marry Richard, a doctor who works alongside her father Phillip, also a doctor. However, she has started to have doubts about whether her feelings for Richard are strong enough and whether the direction her life is moving in is the right one. ‘I wish, Audrey says, impulsively. I wish – But she doesn’t know what she wishes.’

Emma, a volunteer at a First Aid Post, is attracted to one of the other female volunteers and has taken the first tentative steps towards an intimate relationship, a relationship that would be considered shocking by her family, possibly even by wider society, but which has opened up for her a whole new set of feelings. ‘She hasn’t known, ever, that it is possible to feel so – ardent.’

Although by all appearances happily married, unbeknownst to her husband, Florence secretly continues to pine for her first love, lost in the First World War. ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life […] It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot; just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’

Everything changes when the bombing raids start, initially targeting the docks but later becoming more indiscriminate in nature.  (Over the night of 4th and 5th May 1941, the so-called Fire Raids, nearly 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Belfast including in residential areas.) The experiences of the Bell family are a microcosm of the impact of the bombing raids on the city: loved ones killed or injured, people desperately searching for missing family or friends, families seeking to be reunited.

The descriptions of the death and destruction inflicted on the city are harrowing but horrifyingly realistic: homes and buildings demolished, people buried beneath rubble, bodies in their hundreds laid out in a makeshift morgue. I found it impossible to read the scenes of the aftermath of the raids and of people fleeing the bomb-damaged city without thinking of the dreadful scenes we are currently witnessing in Ukraine.   ‘Cars, carts, bicycles, perambulators, batch chairs, even children’s bogey-carts, anything with wheels has been pressed into service, loaded with human and material flotsam, leaving the city.’

I found Florence’s compassionate and empathetic response to Phillip’s experiences tending to the injured and dying and the terrible images that are now seared in his memory, particularly moving. ‘It will never go away, she wants to say then. None of it does – the real or the imagined. Once you have seen those images, whether with your eyes or in your mind’s eye, they are etched there – seared into the body. They are there for ever and you can’t pretend otherwise.’

These Days is a compelling, hard-hitting depiction of the realities of war but also an illustration of the resilience of the human spirit, the instinct to rebuild and to carry on, in the words of Emma, come what may.

I received a review copy courtesy of Faber & Faber via Readers First.

In three words: Moving, dramatic, immersive

Try something similar: Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different At The Time by Inez Holden

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Lucy CaldwellAbout the Author

Lucy Caldwell was born in Belfast in 1981. She is the author of three novels, several stage plays and radio dramas, and two collections of short stories: Multitudes (Faber, 2016) and Intimacies (Faber, 2021). She has twice been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award, and has won the Commonwealth Short Story Award (Canada & Europe) and the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Award. Other awards include the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the George Devine Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize – for her novel The Meeting Point – and a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018 and in 2019 she was the editor of Being Various: New Irish Short Stories. (Photo credit: Publisher author page)

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