October 16, 2016
Hardback, Penguin:Viking, £14.99, out now
Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa Matar, an active opponent of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail. After 1996, there was no word of what happened to him. This beautifully written memoir concerns not only Matar’s memories of family life before his disappearance, but also the desperation of those left not knowing their loved one’s fate. Read on Radio 4, the book has received remarkable reviews from (among others) Colm Tóibín and Hilary Mantel.
The book is particularly moving on the effect of the disappearance on everyday life. Matar’s mother continued videoing football matches for her missing husband for years after he disappeared. In their exile, Matar and his family do everything they can think of to find out what has happened to Jaballa. At the same time, Matar develops as a novelist, publishing among other things the well-reviewed Anatomy of a Disappearance. After Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Qaddafi in 2004, Matar, who was living in London, notes: “none of us felt safe. Officials from the Libyan embassy attended the first reading I gave from my first novel. A report was sent to Tripoli and I became a watched man. It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit my family in Egypt, which caused a second exile” (p. 174). While the book concerns Matar’s relationship with his father, his mother also stands out as a remarkable woman in her own right.
I learnt a lot about Libya’s history from this remarkable book, and its impacts on those who live through it. While The Return gives some truly horrendous accounts of human rights violations, it is also a book about deep resilience and love.
Review by Bethan
June 19, 2016
Hardback, Picador, £9.99, out now
Gratitude is a final gift from the excellent neurologist and writer of popular science, Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015. These short but beautiful pieces encapsulate all that is best about his writing. Humane, kind, interesting and funny, they offer his reflections on a life well lived from one who knew its end would come shortly. Shortly after finding out his cancer was back and inoperable, he wrote: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight”.
Probably best known for his books Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks’ own life has not been without bumps, as his two volumes of autobiography show. Here, we learn more about his deeply personal love of science. How excellent that as an 11 year old fan of the periodic table, he was delighted to be able to say “I am Sodium” and remained equally pleased at 79 to say “I am gold”. His reflections on his different experiences of Jewish family life, in London and beyond, are intriguing. A book to read, and read over.
Review by Bethan
February 5, 2016
Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now
A young woman flies back into Orkney with her newborn baby – pausing at the airport to introduce the baby to her husband, who is being flown out, in a straitjacket, to a psychiatric hospital. Amy Liptrot, the author of this engaging addition to the nature/memoir selection, was the baby in question.
The rest of the book is as candid and compelling as the opening. Liptrot is open and graphic about her alcoholism, which becomes particularly brutal while she is working in London in her twenties. Her account of her recovery, from several failed attempts at rehab to a successful intense course and a return to Orkney, is illuminating. This isn’t a ‘nature as healer’ book, and it is resolutely unsentimental about island life. It interleaves the events of Liptrot’s life with beautiful passages of nature writing.
Her account of searching for the rare corncrake at 3am in the ‘simmer dim’ half light of an Orkney summer night is vivid, and I found I picked up lots of unexpected information about the life and wildlife of the islands. It is pleasing to learn that an Orkney wild swimming club is called the ‘Polar Bears’, and that until 1977 sheep were individually winched on and off a particular rock on one of the islands. Her unexpected joy in the natural world is well expressed: “There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy”. This was a pleasure to read, despite its sometimes bleak subject matter, and I recommend it.
Review by Bethan
July 4, 2015
Growing up in Yorkshire, brother and sister Matty and Cathy are ordinary teenagers living in a pub with their parents. Their family is close, loving, and funny. Everything changes when Matty is knocked down in a hit and run, and suffers devastating brain injuries. Matty’s life is saved, but he enters what turns out to be a Persistent Vegitative State (PVS).
In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s courageous and illuminating memoir, she charts what happens to Matty but also to herself and her parents as they deal with the consequences of one life changing moment. A very readable narrative, it is also a personal and thoughtful account of a complex and difficult situation. She shows that what may be right is not always evident and may change over time, and details the pervasive effects of grief, guilt and trauma. Using press cuttings and legal reports as well as family memories, we get a useful and unflinching analysis of the very human difficulties that can arise in cases of PVS. While the subject is bleak, the strength, love and commitment that sustain the family run throughout. Highly recommended.
Review by Bethan
September 15, 2014
It’s a truism that old age brings a reawakening of childhood memories. For almost every writer, memory is a rich resource, but things get especially interesting when they undergo that memory reboot in their seventies or eighties. At the age of 84 – and 50 years since her debut From Doon with Death – Ruth Rendell has written a captivating novel about that experience. The Girl Next Door is nominally a crime novel, though the killer is identified at the beginning and the crime (a double murder) occurred in 1944. The case is brought to light by the unearthing of a pair of severed hands. What’s fascinating is the effect the grisly discovery has on the 70-somethings who used to play on the site as children. Memories are stirred and lives are shaken up at a time when the days, months and years might appear to be predictable and unchanging.
Penelope Lively’s brief, meditative memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, is a treasure trove of memory – from childhood in Alexandria to the ‘hospital years’ of old age – filtered through her precise and discursive prose. She is especially good on the working of memory and how it becomes “the mind’s triumph over time”, as well as childhood amnesia and the importance of teaching history (our collective memory). At 81, Lively has written a rich, absorbing memoir that has you hoping for further novels from this former Booker Prize winner.