The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen is a gently profound novel which explores secrets, love and family ties against the backdrop of a Gloucestershire village and London during the Blitz. It isn’t your typical Second World War romance novel, though; it’s a more literary novel showing the coming-of-age of its narrator, May Thomas. If you’re not expecting the dramatic twists and turns and heightened emotions that often feature in Second World War romances, and prepare yourself for a more gently-paced, reflective novel which ultimately delivers more value, I think you’ll find this one to savour.

Although The May Queen opens immediately to a scene of conflict and tension – May’s sister Sophie has brought shame on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock – the world Young introduces us to seems idyllic and innocent. May’s life in the country village of Fairford revolves around trips to the Big House to visit her father who’s the gardener, making her costume for the village fair, and cycling around on her bicycle delivering goods from the village shop. As her name suggests, May feels an affinity with nature – she’s awarded the accolade of The May Queen at the fair – and her love of being in the water recurs as a motif throughout the novel.

After Sophie disappears to have her daughter, Honor, May becomes attracted to the son of the occupants of the Big House, Christopher, despite the class difference between them. When May’s parents catch on to her closeness with Christopher, they fear she is going the same way as her sister; this leads May to have suspicions about who Honor’s father might be – but she still can’t quite bring herself to avoid the charming Christopher. The first half of the novel is slow, but there are quiet secrets bubbling under the surface, a sense that something isn’t quite right. Before these secrets can rise to the surface, though, we’re thrown into the midst of another conflict: the Second World War breaks out and May moves to London to become a Wren.

The contrast between the two halves of the novel is effective. While the first half is quiet, gentle and picturesque, the London section is noisy, frantic and dangerous. May trades in her bicycle for a motorcycle, roaring around the streets of London to deliver dispatches with bombs falling around her. I didn’t know much about the Wrens so enjoyed learning more about how women served during the war (which was very inspiring). As the bombs fall May loses people close to her, but Young recreates the Blitz spirit: May picks herself up and gets on with life, revealing a quiet inner strength. She attracts the attention of a sailor, John, but never feels able to fully commit to the relationship – John’s character seems distant, but it feels like an intentional projection of May’s feelings towards him – and the memory of her relationship with Christopher never leaves her. May eventually returns to Fairford and Sophie’s secret resurfaces at the end of the novel, which has an ambiguous ending with a note of hope I appreciated. Real life doesn’t have neat resolutions, after all.

In its exploration of a misunderstanding which disrupts an outwardly idyllic world and reverberates through the years that follow, The May Queen reminded me a little of McEwan’s Atonement, especially with its gently reflective literary tone. I loved Young’s voice, which captures May’s dialect not just in her dialogue but in the way she thinks and observes the world around her. Young also uses some particularly beautiful and unusual turns of phrase which I had to re-read. I enjoyed the fact the novel takes a different approach to the war, using it as a backdrop for May’s emotional journey rather than the focal point. This is an elegant debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more from the author!

The May Queen is published by Crooked Cat Books – support the indies! More information here: http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/product/the-may-queen/ 

Advertisements

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Never have I emerged from a play feeling physically battered, but that’s how I felt after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre on Saturday (battered in a good way, if that’s possible). Admittedly I was feeling more tender than usual due to having just been on a 5.5 hour wine tasting course where there was no spittoon, but in a way that helped me to relate to the play’s characters, who knock back an astounding number of drinks over the course of the action.

The play takes place in the early hours of the morning in the home of George and Martha, a history professor and his wife, the daughter of the president of the college. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and have invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, a professor in the biology department and his ‘mousey’ wife, to continue the party at theirs. Nick and Honey are sucked into George and Martha’s toxic relationship; as more drinks are consumed the couples grow increasingly disordered, the arguments escalate and both marriages unravel. The entire play takes place in the living room, a drab, pistachio-coloured incubator for bitterness, resentment and disappointment. Yes, it’s a heavy play, but the dialogue is so full of wit and energy that it’s never a drag.

I loved this production. What astounded me most is how the characters’ conversations flow so naturally – exactly the way you’d imagine an increasingly drunken conversation at a party would unfold – in a way that reveals everything you need to know about the characters, their relationships and their pasts, without being clunky. For this writer, it was a masterclass in dialogue. It builds towards the climax – the revelation about George and Martha’s absent son, who always hovers awkwardly on the edge of conversation – with a sense of inevitability. Remember those times you’ve stayed later than you should have done at a party, long after the fun has departed, watching a friend (or yourself) getting drunker, knowing humiliation is coming but doing nothing to stop it? That.

Imelda Staunton plays Martha, and it would be easy to say she steals the show, swerving between vivaciousness and charm, Medusa-like seductiveness, banshee-screeching and child-like vulnerability – but she was perfectly matched by Conleth Hill as George. He is a cantankerous old history professor on steroids: from the get-go he eviscerates Nick, who threatens him as a representation of science and progress as opposed to George’s fusty old world of history. Martha, on the other hand, he treats with ironic scorn, knowing exactly how to get under her skin. Just when you feel he’s being too cruel, she retaliates with an attack so brutal he’s again reduced to a tweedy, ineffectual object of pity. Their toxicity infects Nick and Honey, who begin as an immaculately dressed golden couple glowing with youth and end looking as if they’ve gone through several rounds in a boxing ring. The actors playing Nick and Honey play it fairly safe, but perhaps that’s what makes them the perfect foil for George and Martha.

Nick and Honey aren’t merely victims: their marriage has its own fatal flaws which are brought out of the woodwork by their night with Martha and George, and in a twisted way I felt as if the older couple were doing them a favour by sparing them years of simmering resentment. As the younger couple stagger home and dawn light streams in through the window, you get the sense that Martha and George have thrashed their way towards a stark truth, where delusions have been shattered and a bitter cycle has finally been broken. It’s not exactly a hopeful ending, but it is resolution.

There’s not much to dislike about this production. It’s an astonishingly well-written play starring four strong actors, staged in a simple way which allows these elements to come to the forefront: what could have gone wrong? The play is running until the end of May and you should see it, though I wouldn’t recommend trying thirteen glasses of wine beforehand if you don’t want to come out feeling emotionally in shreds!

A God in Ruins

I haven’t written a book review in a while. This is partly because I’ve been writing instead of reading, and partly because I haven’t read anything good. But I just read Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which I thought was fantastic, and I happen to be plagued by insomnia (it’s currently five in the morning and I haven’t slept all night), so I thought I’d write a blog post about it.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life, featuring the same characters, and while it’s best to read both I think this works as a standalone novel too. It relates the life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, before, during and after the war. There are many horrific flashbacks from the war but the novel largely focuses on Teddy in his old age, trying to cope with a future he never expected to have and a family who don’t understand what he went through – particularly his awful daughter, Viola. The book is clearly very well-researched – I remain in awe of anyone with the patience to write historical fiction – and feels authoritative, monumental even, without losing its closeness to its characters.

After reading a few underwhelming books, I knew I’d enjoy A God in Ruins. I’ve loved Kate Atkinson’s writing since I read Case Histories when I was a teenager and wrote this odd essay for my A-Level English class where I compared her to Dickens, based on the fact her characters are ‘quirky’, which now seems very tenuous. I dropped off at the Jackson Brodie novels, and was pleased when she returned to writing literary fiction. I liked Life after Life, but A God in Ruins is even better. One reason I like Atkinson’s writing is that she’s so effortlessly funny; I also love it when humour is mixed with tragedy, and I love novels about the Second World War, so the book ticked all the boxes for me. One of my favourite novels is Catch-22, and since Yossarian is also a pilot in the war, I suspect there were some homages to Heller (in particular, a grisly accident involving a low-flying plane and somebody’s head) which I appreciated.

Atkinson is a master characterisation. This is a long book, which gives her space to delve deeply into the lives of both Teddy and his family members, particularly Viola and his grandson, Sunny. Teddy is one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters I’ve encountered in fiction recently – almost inhumanly patient and kind – though Atkinson also explores the moral ambiguity of what he did in the war (for example, the bombing of Hamburg). For me, the most interesting character is Viola. She is absolutely awful to her father, bundling him off to a nursing home the second she can, and yet we also see the tough time she’s had, marrying a useless hippy and drug addict who forces her and their children to live in a commune and eventually kills himself by jumping in front of a train. I wasn’t a huge fan of the commune scenes, however, which contain a lot of clichés and caricatures; Dominic and the other hippies are very two-dimensional and seem only to exist so the author can poke fun at them.

Unfortunately, I spoiled the book for myself about halfway through. I have a bad habit of flicking to the ending. I like to pretend it’s for some profound psychological reason, but I think I’m just terribly impatient. Usually I don’t mind knowing the ending, because I read for the pleasure of the writing rather than to find out what happens. It was a big mistake in this case. My main piece of advice if you’re going to read A God in Ruins is: DO NOT flick to the end. The novel has an extremely powerful and emotional twist at the end, and knowing it affected the way I read everything before and completely changed its emotional resonance. I wish I could read it again without that knowledge. Unless you’re a monster like me, the ending will probably make you weep; it’s obvious once you get there, but also very clever – much more so than the ending of Life After Life, which is the ultimate cliché of all time travel/alternative reality novels.

I’d give this book something like 4.5/5, with my only real criticism being I felt it was too long and the pace a little too slow for me at points. I felt there were some scenes which, while wonderfully written, could have been cut without the novel losing any of its overall power, for example the unnecessary epilogue. I do get the sense, however, that Atkinson wants to stay in her world with the characters she’s created for as long as possible, and I can forgive her for that – especially since, as we all know, I struggle with brevity too!

Untouchable – a film that warms my stony heart…

Nothing screams ‘free time!’ like watching a film I’ve already seen, just because I can. Granted, I should probably be writing in my (near-mythical) free time – but on rare occasions I do allow myself to relax, I find few things more relaxing then revisiting a favourite film where I can shout ‘I LOVE THIS LINE!’ before it’s been spoken and annoy everyone else: like the journey to work in the morning, I can switch off my brain and go into autopilot. Except this is much more enjoyable than the journey to work.

Over the bank holiday weekend I watched one of my favourite films, Untouchable, for the umpteenth time, and loved it as much as always. It’s about a rich paraplegic, Philippe, who – fed up with the parade of bland, nicey-nicey carers employed to look after him, who are unable to put up with his eccentricity and short temper for long – hires Driss, a black immigrant freshly released from prison, who’s only applied for the job so he can keep claiming benefits. You can guess what happens next: an unlikely, heart-warming friendship develops and the two men change one another’s lives for the better. Predictable, yes; cheesy, yes. Why, then, since I hate anything that tries to obviously yank at my (extremely taut) heart-strings, do I love it so much?

I think it’s because it’s just done so well. Good dialogue is something I struggle with in my own writing, and I think the dialogue in Untouchable is perfect: sharp and hilarious but also realistic, and there’s genuine on-screen chemistry between Philippe and Driss during their quick-fire exchanges. Driss does and says whatever he wants without applying any filters. Rather than tip-toeing around Philippe like the previous carers, he treats Philippe’s disability with an irreverent humour that any other man might have found mortally offensive (‘Where do you find a paraplegic? Where you leave him.’) Fortunately, Philippe loves it. He wants to be able to laugh at himself. Both characters’ ability to find humour in dire situations is one of my favourite things about the film.

At a time of fierce debate about the value of immigrants to society – a debate which sometimes seems to forget they’re people – I also like the film’s portrayal of Driss as somebody whose life is a mess not because he’s intrinsically a lazy benefit scrounger and a criminal, but because his socioeconomic background has never afforded him the opportunity to do anything good. Then, Philippe gives him a chance, not in a patronising fairy-godmother way, but seemingly on a whim or even to irritate Driss. In turn, Driss shows Philippe how to live joyfully again. This has probably been done a thousand times before, but both men are such well-drawn characters that I see the film as being about their friendship, not about ‘themes’ – another thing I’ve learnt on my writing course. Nobody wants to read about themes. They want to read about people. There’s nothing new to say under the sun, but Untouchable demonstrates perfectly how to tell an old story in a memorable way.

Ultimately, whether in books or films, the thing that ‘gets’ me is great characters. I don’t have to like them, or even ‘relate to them’ (that old chestnut) but I have to find them fascinating. Driss and I have pretty much nothing in common, but his character is the best thing about the film. Despite having few reasons to be joyful, he is one of the best examples of living joyfully I’ve seen. He’s been in prison. He’s never really known his parents. His aunt has kicked him out of their tiny, overcrowded flat. He has no home, no job and no prospects until Philippe hires him. Later in the film he’s faced with the possibility of going back to that life, but not once is he self-pitying. He has no pride or sense of entitlement. He sings at the top of his voice in the bath, dances alone to Earth, Wind and Fire, devours Nutella from the jar and constantly cracks jokes. Is he idealised, his problems trivialised or pushed into the background? Maybe, but I see the film as being more about his attitude than his problems. He inspires me to drink in life until I’m heady the way he does. He also has an absurdly good heart – he’s a far better person than I am – which is the quality Philippe draws out of him: his ability to care for others. At the end, he sets up Philippe with the woman he’s been writing to for months. The exuberant smile on his face as he leaves them together gets me every time – a big achievement, since you all know what a heart of stone I have.

I’m not a film buff and I don’t really know how critically-acclaimed, well-respected or popular Untouchable is, but I also don’t care. It’s my go-to feel-good film, just enough to satisfy my very small appetite for cheesiness, and watching it over and over is one of the few ways I can fritter away time without feeling guilty. Plus it’s French, so it makes me look vaguely cool. Most people have probably seen this film and I’m being terribly conventional in singing its praises, but in case you haven’t seen it – do!

Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

A few Saturdays ago, I was sitting on a train to Stratford-upon-Avon feeling very fragile. This was admittedly mainly due to the after-effects of a bottle of wine – but my delicate emotions were rattled even more when the train passed through Leamington Spa, my old university stomping ground.

As we pulled into the station I caught a glimpse of the classy Kelsey’s bar, where one could enjoy a neon-green ‘eliminator’ cocktail (six of the cheapest, most vomit-inducing shots mixed with energy drink) whilst being perused by old men in crumpled faux-leather jackets who for reasons I cannot possibly imagine chose to hang around in a student bar. Tears welled as I remembered the time we asked the bar staff for a knife so we could cut a birthday cake that perfectly resembled Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: An Anthology in the sticky basement of Kelsey’s – which we didn’t explain to them, but they handed over the knife anyway (presumably this is a normal request in Kelsey’s). Oh, Leamington Spa! The train then arrived at Warwick, where I saw the platform sign that was the location of my first ‘lamppost embrace’, which became a stock photo every time my housemate and I went on a night out (in a moment of folly I thought I’d post the photo here, but quickly decided against it). Oh, Warwick!

I’m sure none of this is interesting – I’m just reminiscing – but I’ll now make a tenuous link to the point of this post. I was going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, feeling emotional because my journey reminded me of my days of youth and folly before I had to become a sensible adult and not dress as a fairy and jump into bushes with my friends anymore… which, if you think about it (really hard) is similar to the journey Henry goes through in Henry V, transforming from the good-for-nothing Hal into the fierce and courageous King of England. See what I did there?

A while ago I saw the RSC’s Richard II, which I thought was excellent (and David Tennant’s reprising the role in January!). Henry V is part of the same play series. Unfortunately I never got to see Henry IV (parts I and II), which affected the way I saw this play. In Henry IV Hal is a lovable rogue who spends his days hanging out in the tavern with Falstaff and other folks of questionable morals, refusing to face up to his future kingly responsibilities; in Henry V, he’s become king, ditched poor Falstaff and leads his army to victory in the Battle of Agincourt. If I’d been with him from the beginning of his journey, I would have felt more invested in his character and proud of his triumph. Still, you see him develop in this play. Alex Hassell’s Henry subtly transforms from being just a little bit naive, flying off the handle when the King of France taunts him with tennis balls, to filling the stage with his calm, regal presence. Henry pronounces some tough sentences – ordering his soldiers to murder their prisoners, for example – but overall still manages to seem humane and sympathetic, which is impressive. My problem was that I found him to be a bit of a bore. This might be my problem, because I compare everything to The Hollow Crown, in which Henry is played by the marvellous Tom Hiddlestone. He made a great scoundrel but also  convincingly transformed into a king, whilst still showing glimpses of Hal’s charm.

The most famous speech in Henry V is ‘once more unto the breach’, with its rallying cry at the end: ‘Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!‘ There’s the danger of going a bit over-the-top with this speech, since attempts to inspire good ole’ English patriotism are generally met with eye-rolling disillusionment these days (or is that just me?), but this production went for a minimalistic approach, which I liked. It didn’t leave me quivering with patriotic fervour, but I did find Hassell’s St Crispin’s Day speech very powerful. These heavy scenes are balanced well by the comic ones, in which Pistol and his rag-tag band fumble their way haplessly through the battle. The humour seems to be largely based on funny accents – but, let’s face it, we all laughed. I was less keen on the attempts to make me laugh using cheesy wordplay (pronouncing horsery as ‘whooooore-sery’) and pantomime-style audience participation towards the end. I did, however, love Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin, the hilariously camp French prince whose ridiculous hairpiece threatened to steal the entire show.

Considering I saw the play out of context, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s more difficult to make the history plays interesting for a modern audience, but as with all Shakespeare, Henry V still has that timeless quality: like Hal, we all have to step up and join in the battle at some point, though my ‘breach’ is rather different to his. Yes, I still occasionally drink too much wine on a Friday night (and suffer for it), but somehow I’ve become a publishing professional who’d never dream of embracing a lamppost on a night out… and that’s an amazing transformation.

Henry V is transferring to London in early November – do go see it if you can.

Everyman at the National Theatre

Everyman is a 15th-century morality play in which the title character is faced with Death and has to give an account of his life to God. Everyman tries to convince other characters in the play to accompany him to the afterlife to help him argue his case, but eventually realises that he must stand alone before God with nothing but the good deeds he’s done in his life, and repent of his sins before being allowed to enter heaven.

We can all relate to that, right?

You’re probably thinking no: not just because most of us haven’t stood face-to-face with God or Death, but because the concepts of sin and repentance no longer mean much to people with no particular religious beliefs. Most people subscribe to the philosophy that you should live your life to the full and make yourself happy, so long as you try to be a good person and not harm anyone else. So, it is possible to make the Everyman story relevant to the 21st century? This is what Carol Ann Duffy has tried to do in her updated version of Everyman at the National Theatre, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Everyman (‘Ev’) is a high-flying city slicker celebrating his 4oth birthday with a hedonistic cocaine-fuelled rave. He passes out amidst chants of ‘HAPPY F***ING BIRTHDAY!’ and meets God, an exasperated cleaning lady, and Death, a sardonic Irishman who relishes watching his victims cringe. Ev does his fair share of cringing before trying desperately to show God what a great guy he is. He begs his friends to come with him – but they abandon him. He turns to his family – but he’s neglected them. He tries to buy his way into God’s good graces – but he can’t take his money to the grave with him. Finally, he looks to good deeds, personified by an old woman in a trolley full of rubbish – but she’s weak because he treated her as a last resort. When he sees himself as a little boy, Ev realises how corrupted he’s become. Shoeless and wearing a homeless person’s jacket, he’s reduced to walking on broken glass and whipping himself with a belt in penance for his sins, before thanking God for everything he’s been given.

I’m still not sure whether you can take medieval morality, stick it in a sharp suit and play some occasional rave music in the background to make it relevant. Our ideas about how to live a good life are obviously much more complicated than they were in the 15th century, and one criticism of the play might be that its message is too black-and-white for a modern audience. On the other hand, that might be exactly what the play wants us to question. I liked the way Duffy has kept to the conventions of the original Everyman, such as the poetic diction the characters speak in, which highlights the disparity between the form of the play and the world it’s set in. Ev seems to exist in a moral void, where money and pleasure are the gods he worships – he’s the extreme example of a life I think we all glorify sometimes (even whilst we all talk about how ‘bankers are empty inside and miserable’). Perhaps not everyone will agree with me, but since the boundary between right and wrong seems to be much more blurry today, I found it refreshing to be reminded of some things that are unquestionably good: building meaningful relationships, caring for our families, helping others and being generous and selfless. These are all things that are just as relevant to people of all faiths (or none) today as they were to Christians in the 15th century.

The play is only an hour and 40 minutes long. In such a short space of time, and restricted to a format in which the characters are symbols, there isn’t much room for psychological depth, so it’s not really fair to criticise the fact you don’t feel particularly invested in the characters. Still, I liked Ejiofor’s Everyman – perhaps a little too much. I thought he could have been more dislikable at the outset; in the opening party scene he comes across as a pretty fun guy rather than a moral abomination. I suppose Everyman has to be likable enough for the audience to relate to him (since he represents all of us). Another criticism might be that a wealthy banker doesn’t exactly represent the average guy – and I found his visit to his presumably working-class family, where his sister berates him for abandoning their elderly parents, a bit of a patronising attempt to show us his ‘humble’ roots – but overall I didn’t think this was dwelled on enough to be off-putting. In our current economic and social landscape, where the gap between the super-rich and the poor is ever widening (and I don’t mean geographically), perhaps it’s appropriate to focus on a character like Ev’s.

The play contains some touches of bleak humour that save it from being too preachy – at the end, for example, when Death plays a game of eeny, meeny, miny, mo with the audience before the lights go out. It’s tongue-in-cheek but also quite sobering. Any one of us could be the next Everyman, and what will we be able to say we’ve done with our lives at the end? Whether you believe there’s a God you’ll need to give an account to or not, it’s something worth thinking about.

This wasn’t the best play I’ve seen at the National, but I still enjoyed it. I found the idea of adapting the original Everyman play interesting in itself, even if I wasn’t convinced it was successfully updated for the 21st century, but if you’re less of a geek you might find the format stilted and irrelevant. Some might also find the moralising tone irritating. I don’t think it’s trying to shove lessons down anyone’s throat, but simply to ask questions. You can take whatever you want from the play. One of the people I watched it with, for example, said it made him want to attend a cocaine-fuelled rave – but to be thankful for the good time afterwards. I suppose it depends how you’re inclined in the first place…

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

I’m going to Japan in October, and I’m already unbearably excited about it. I like to get a sense of a place I’m going to beforehand by reading its literature, but my only experience of Japanese literature until recently had been Haruki Murakami – and as you may know from older posts, I don’t really get the fuss, so my fascination with Japanese history and culture is really quite inexplicable (I do love udon noodles, but I’m not sure that explains it either).

To build up my excitement to an even more unbearable pitch, my lovely friend Lizzie gave me a novel by another Murakami (Ryu Murakami) for my birthday: In the Miso Soup. I read it over a series of lunch breaks sitting in Russell Square, huddled over the book with a horrified expression, my suddenly very unappetizing couscous salad pushed to one side. It’s a short and gruesome novel. I remember squirming as I read a scene in (Haruki) Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in which a man gets skinned to death very slowly. In the Miso Soup has topped that by managing to be even more sickeningly gory – and yet I enjoyed it much more. Let’s not think too much about what that says about me.

The novel is narrated by Kenji, a young guy who makes a living by giving tourists ‘sex tours’ of Tokyo’s nightlife, guiding them to the ‘relatively safe’ clubs, bars, cabarets, massage parlours and ‘lingerie pubs’ (self-explanatory). This is an aspect of Tokyo that I (obviously) didn’t consider when I decided to visit, but the novel gives a fascinating insight into a darker side of the city: a hollow and nihilistic world that’s sustained by loneliness, boredom and exploitation. Despite his line of work Kenji seems like a normal, decent guy who has no interest in what goes on inside the clubs he takes his clients to. From his description of the prostitute whose rather depressing ‘dream’ is to visit Niketown in New York and the joyless dancer whose translucent skin and thin body are cruelly exposed under the brash stage lights, to the near-empty ‘matchmaking’ pub that tries desperately to look classy but is instead gaudy and cheap, full of clients and staff who ‘look as if something has eroded away inside of them,’ Kenji paints a bleak picture of Tokyo’s nightlife. As both an outsider and an insider, he provides a fairly objective and balanced perspective on this world, and the shocking events he becomes caught up on seem to be testing how objective he can remain.

Kenji takes on a disturbing new client, an overweight American tourist called Frank. Immediately Kenji detects something off about Frank, describing his oddities comically: his skin that looks ‘as if he’d been horribly burned and the doctors had resurfaced his face with this fairly realistic man-made material,’ and his wink, which is ‘the world’s weirdest wink: his eye rolled back in his head as he closed it, so that for a second all you could see was white.’ But he also detects a pathetic vulnerability about Frank, displayed at its starkest when Frank challenges Kenji to a contest in a batting cage and then is pummeled by the balls, unable to hit a single one. Kenji begins connect Frank with a series of murders happening in Tokyo, and his suspicions are later confirmed in a horrifically violent scene (I won’t go into detail, but it was worse than reading about someone being skinned alive). Frank’s murders are brutal but also so absurd that they don’t seem quite real, as if they are being depicted in a comic strip.

I don’t consider that a spoiler, as the novel isn’t a whodunnit; it’s obvious from the beginning that it’s building up the moment Frank unleashes his true murderous self. The most interesting part of the novel for me comes after the murders, when Frank reveals his own past to Kenji and Kenji tries to understand Frank’s motives. Kenji finds himself unable to detach himself from Frank or call the police on him for reasons he can’t understand. The more he hears of Frank’s story, the more he ‘cease[s] to think of Frank as insane or not insane. I felt like someone listening to an ancient myth… I wasn’t sure any longer what was right and what was wrong. It was a very precarious feeling, but it hinted at a sense of liberation like I’d never experienced.’ This is, obviously, dangerous ground. I love how Kenji becomes more drawn in by Frank, and how Murakami creates a contrast between the shocking brutality of the murders and Kenji’s almost philosophical reflections on them afterwards, his concept of morality beginning to blur. It’s when Kenji sees Jun, his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, and feels an overwhelming desire to protect her from Frank that his humanity is restored and he’s able to walk away.

His parting from Frank is weirdly cordial; Frank leaves him with a gift, the feather of a swan he once murdered. Although it’s written very simply, it’s a complex and nuanced ending. I’m not sure sure what it means. Frank’s actions are obviously reprehensible, but I also get the sense he’s a victim of that crippling sense of alienation and disconnect from the world that pervades the novel (not that this justifies murder, obviously). I was left just as baffled about what to make of Frank as Kenji is, and feeling a desperate need to read something light and fluffy.

If you’re a squeamish person or someone who reads to relax, you will hate this book. I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone unless I knew they had a very strong constitution, or liked their thrillers dark. I found the murder scene gratuitously violent and shocking and struggled to read it, although that was probably the point. I literally had a nightmare about it a few nights later, which never really happens to me (I like to think I’m quite unimpressionable). That scene aside, In the Miso Soup is actually a very reflective novel which has a lot to say about cultural and moral corruption and the sense of disconnect  from other human beings which are increasingly features of modern life.  Needless to say, I hope my own adventures in Tokyo are a little less eventful… I’ll be avoiding the lingerie pubs, at any rate.