Tuesday, 21 June 2011

HUNGRY THE STARS AND EVERYTHING by Emma Jane Unsworth Hidden Gem Press pbk. £7.99

Sherry Ashworth teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University is the author of books such as REVOLUTION and JUST GOOD FRIENDS which many ABBA readers will have read and enjoyed. She has, however, branched out and is now also a small publisher. The firm that she and her husband Brian have set up in Manchester is called HIDDEN GEM. http://www.hiddengempress.com/
Its first offering is a début novel by a young woman with a background in journalism who contributes to the Big Issue and has published short fiction in magazines and collections.

The title isn’t one that trips off the tongue and it isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to say when you’re asking for the novel in a bookshop or library. Most of the time (and I’m speaking as someone who has hung on to a poetic cluster of words at least once when I ought to have listened to wiser council) the plainer and more direct the title, the easier it is for the bookbuying public to want it. But to be fair, the book is about hunger and the stars figure in it too, so this is not so much a complaint as a little niggle.

HUNGER, etc is a somewhat unusual love story. Helen has a relationship with the Devil. She met him one Christmas Eve and since then, he’s turned up in her life at certain times and she knows when these occur by a variation on ‘a pricking of my thumbs.’ She has a birthmark over her palm which becomes burning hot whenever Satan’s around. The story is structured most ingeniously. In the present, Helen, who’s a restaurant critic, is having a meal at a very strange restaurant indeed called Bethel. Each dish she eats leads her into a memory and thus a patchwork of her life emerges. We are shown her love affair with Luke (this is where the stars come in) and how that developed. We learn of her relationship with Pete, who’s a chef. Details of her friendship with Kate, and her dealings with her family also emerge and I won’t give any more away except to say that I had the book pegged as one kind of thing and it turned out to be another. The ‘devilish’ or ‘spooky’ elements, and there are quite a lot of them, turned my thoughts in a certain direction and so I was quite surprised by the way things turned out, but in a good way.

Emma Jane Unsworth writes well and the book is never dull. There’s a description of the high, canyon-like walls you pass on the approach to Liverpool Lime Street Station, which I’ve often wondered at and noticed, that is absolutely brilliant and I liked the way the book sends up in the nicest possible way the work of the restaurant critic and the chi-chiness of some eateries. It’s a promising beginning for Hidden Gems Press and for Unsworth herself. May they flourish and prosper.

CADDY'S WORLD by Hilary McKay. Hodder hbk £10.99

I know Hilary McKay is a prize-winner and a writer of long-standing excellence, but I feel that she’s not talked or written about enough, so I’d like to draw the attention of readers of this blog to her latest Casson Family book.
Those who know the Casson Family will need no introduction, but for anyone who doesn’t, they’re a most unusual normal family. Mother, always called Eve, is an artist. Dad lives away from home much of the time and I won’t spoil your fun by telling you why. The children are named for colours: Indigo, Saffron, Cadmium (Blue) and (Permanent) Rose. There have been five previous books about these children but CADDY’S WORLD takes us back to a time before Rose was born.
It has an exemplary beginning which I’m going to quote in full because it tells you most of what you need to know about the book in five lines:
‘These were the four girls who were best friends:
Alison….hates everyone.
Ruby is clever.
Beth. Perfect.
Caddy, the bravest of the brave.
(“Mostly because of the spiders,” said Caddy.)

You now have the skeleton of what the book’s about. The details, the way the story develops, the ups and downs and disasters and triumphs, the heart-stopping anguish and the laughter and the tears and every single relationship will now unfold before you as seamlessly and easily as though they weren’t written down but grew organically. It’s a masterclass in how to put together a novel of this kind and you only see how outstanding it is when you’ve read to the end and can look at the story in its entirety. Then you appreciate the careful structure, the way the small things at the start lead to the big things at the end, and especially, since it’s Caddy’s story, the way the bravery about spiders becomes much more than that.

The cover image of a pretty girl blowing bubbles will attract girls, which is fair enough but it doesn’t give any indication of the wit, sense, heart and toughness of what lies between the covers. This is the sort of domestic comedy (and sometimes tragedy) that seems to be less popular these days than flashy, fast, fantastical, whizzy books aimed mostly at boys. For anyone wanting a present for a ten or eleven- year- old girl (which she might lend to a brother who will find himself more interested than he thought he would be) this is just the thing. It’s more than time to shout about the glories of domestic fiction, which has just as much drama and incident as any adventure. The Casson Family books are a terrific achievement and this one is superb.


Lynda Waterhouse said...

Hoorah for mentioning Hilary. Will look out for Caddy. I hope there is a resurgence of demand for more domestic, subtle stories

Keren David said...

Caddy's World is a wonderful addition to a marvellous series...but I don't like this cover, just as much as I didn't like the cartoony covers. Ignore it, and read the book anyway.