The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year

No it’s not me. The most I have managed is half a day. Great title though. When I saw that this novel was written by the British icon of young adult comic fiction in the 1980s, Sue Townsend, I was intrigued. I hadn’t read anything of hers since the early titles of the Adrian Mole series.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers everywhere. When your identity – and all your time – is subsumed by what you do for other people, you may suddenly find yourself a lost cause.

On the day her twins leave home for university, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. She doesn’t have a plan or a manifesto, just a conviction which evolves into a phobia that she cannot leave that bed.

Against this backdrop Townsend introduces a host of characters, some loveable, some dreadful but all very human and highly amusing. The best laughs of the book come from the antics of Eva’s appalling husband Brian, closely followed by his long-suffering mother.

What I like about the book is that it’s entertaining first and thought provoking second. It will be enjoyed by young women – should even be handed out in maternity wards as a guide to the pitfalls of mothering (and marriage!) – but perhaps most appreciated by older women.

On a practical level what I took away from Townsend’s story was a decision to step back ever so slightly last Christmas. Eva’s long description of the exhausting self-imposed burden that the family’s Christmas celebrations had become rang warning bells for me. This time round I shared the festive secrets and the to-do list, and will do my best to resist the temptation from now on to scale up the traditions and obligations from year to year.

Back to Blackbrick

May I introduce myself? I was the person sitting next to you on the flight last Sunday who had to keep closing her book because she was welling up. I also had to keep going back to it because I was hooked by the plot. What was I reading? Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. I don’t normally read young adult fiction; it all looks a bit deliberately silly to me – judging by the covers (I know!). But this novel is different. The main character Cosmo is like Adrian Mole’s sweet younger cousin. He has all the right instincts in the face of life’s challenges, without the judgement or the conviction to make the right moves. Cosmo can’t really handle his emotions and yet he is the character who remains truest to those he loves.

Who hasn’t dreamt of going back in time to see how our forefathers lived? The Blackbrick of the title is the stately home where Cosmo’s grandfather lived and worked as a boy. Distressed at his grandfather’s decline brought on by Alzheimer’s, Cosmo goes back to Blackbrick and discovers a way to unlock the secrets that overshadowed his grandfather’s early life. There are some pretty adult themes in Back to Blackbrick – bereavement, the perils of the class system and the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers. But here is a writer who can make you smile when she describes the tragic advance of dementia, who celebrates the bonds of family and friendship no matter what. If you are looking for something a little more meaningful to buy your teenagers or bright pre-teens, Back to Blackbrick is it.

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s book was launched earlier this month in Limerick and Dublin, published by Orion. The US version will be published soon as far as I know and translations are in the pipeline. So, bearing in mind the small disclaimer that I was once Sarah’s sweet younger cousin (less sweet now), rest assured this is an exceptional piece of fiction.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Back-Blackbrick-Sarah-Moore-Fitzgerald/dp/1444006592

True History of the Kelly Gang

Last October I stepped off a bus in Wicklow town on the east coast of Ireland into hard driving rain. I made a run for the old town jail, a place I’d been meaning to visit for a while. On the tour of the building, which dates from 1702, visitors are transported back to crueller times, just as the inmates of the prison were once transported to Australia. You learn about the inhumane conditions the prisoners, including children, were kept in, the miserable rations they were given on the ocean voyage and the petty crimes, borne of poverty, which sealed their fate.

Under the Banishment Act, Irish convicts from Wicklow Gaol were sentenced to transportation up to 1856, around the time the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly, son of an Irish convict, was born in Victoria.

Kelly, whose remains were only given a proper burial in January this year, is a hero to many (though not all) in Australia but whatever your political colours, Peter Carey’s truly original novel True History of the Kelly Gang is captivating. Narrated in Kelly’s voice, the words come tumbling onto the page charged with passion and pain. It is such a convincing account, the period details and nineteenth century Irish-Australian idiom so fresh and vivid that within a few lines, you are there in the hot, dusty township walking in the footsteps of the little boy Kelly.

Carey’s novel is a story of a pride, prejudice and the abuse of power. It is also the story of a son’s love for his mother and the human capacity for endurance. When you read True History of the Kelly Gang you wear the clothes of the downtrodden colonials, eat their food and feel their burning sense of injustice. It must be one of the most accomplished fictional representations of the life of an historical figure. You believe Ned Kelly is speaking, you want it to be him – and you don’t want it to end.