Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Linda Gillard: The Glass Guardian

I don’t normally buy paranormal fiction, though I read the 'Turn of the Screw' at university and last year very much enjoyed Dee Weaver’s indie published novel ‘The Winter House’.  So I wondered how I’d feel about Linda Gillard’s new novel ‘The Glass Guardian’.  The ingredients intrigued me - a musical mystery, a concealed stained glass window, a first world war journal, and a love affair with a ghost, all set in a magnificent, dilapidated house on the Isle of Skye.

Ruth Travers, a TV gardening presenter, has been recently bereaved, losing her lover, her father and her beloved Aunt Janet within the space of a year.  Living alone on the island in the house she has inherited from her Aunt - a famous classical composer - Ruth believes she may be losing her mind when things begin to go bump in the night and a strange red-headed figure in a kilt begins to materialise in the shrubbery.

‘For a start, [ghosts] don’t exist. Obviously.  And even if they did, you aren’t the kind of sad weirdo who’d see one. Ghosts only happen to attention-seeking fantasists with over-active imaginations’.   Ruth is a very normal woman who doesn’t seem to fit any of the categories she mentions, although her life has been so disrupted by grief, if does cross the reader’s mind that she might not be the best person to make an assessment.  Can her judgement be relied on?

There are two other, rather more substantial, men in Ruth’s life; the first is her childhood friend Tom who has been working as a gardener for her Aunt Janet. Tom is single, muscular, and not only attractive, but attracted to Ruth.  Then there is a persistent Canadian musicologist, anxious to look at her Aunt’s papers and resolve an old mystery regarding one of her most famous compositions.  But it’s the ‘phantom lover’ who occupies Ruth’s thoughts, to the point of obsession.

This novel sits firmly in a genre I didn’t even know existed, which is listed on the internet as ‘Adult Paranormal Romance’.  The contents of books in this category are pretty much what the label implies - adult romance with paranormal elements.  I had a quick skip through some examples and quickly realised that, although the Glass Guardian fits the description of the genre, it is much, much better written than most - as you’d expect from an author whose books are described on Amazon as ‘Women’s Literary Fiction’.

Linda Gillard knows how to write a page-turner.  Among her novels House of Silence is still my favourite, though I also loved Untying the Knot.  Many of her readers have liked the Glass Guardian more than her other novels, but I wouldn’t go as far as that.  I’m a complete cynic when it comes to the paranormal - there’s always a knot of cold logic in the centre of my brain that won’t suspend its disbelief, however much I’m enjoying the tale.  But enjoy it I did, in spite of my scepticism.  I wanted to stand in the garden facing the sea and feel the wind blowing in from the Atlantic and glimpse the mountains at my back.  I wanted to be in that kitchen with its warm Aga, a glass of Talisker in my hand, and a very attractive piece of Scottish talent doing the washing up.

The author has already anticipated readers’ reservations - as one of the characters remarks: ‘I used to be more sceptical myself, when I was young and not easily impressed, but I have a clever little sister who’s a particle physicist. Believe me, by the time you’ve had String Theory explained to you, ghosts seem really quite mundane and the existence of time travel only a matter of - well, time.’

I finished reading the novel on a ferry, at night, in the middle of the north sea, and I thought how rare it is to find an author whose books you can trust to be a reliably good read without being the same novel written over and over again.  I have to agree with a fellow reviewer  who wrote that ‘Linda Gillard writes convincingly and authentically about emotions and relationships, creating believable female characters and attractive male leads, incorporating serious elements, and humour, as well as always delivering a highly readable, compelling storyline that keeps me engrossed.’   I still haven’t read 'A Lifetime Burning' or 'Emotional Geology', so it’s back to the Kindle store.  I’m a quick reader, so I hope she has more in the publishing pipeline!

This review first appeared as the Hallowe'en choice on the Indie E-Book Review which features independently published e-books.  The Glass Guardian is my October E-book of the month.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Lighthouse: Alison Moore

It's good to see a small press like Salt up there with the juggernauts, and good to see a debut author in the Booker Prize shortlists.  I'm a great fan of Salt, which publishes some quality writing - short fiction and poetry - so I pounced on this novel straight away.  It's short, under 200 pages, so makes a change from the bloated tomes around at the moment.

The central character of The Lighthouse, Futh, whose grandparents were German, is setting out on a walking holiday in Germany after his wife has left him.  The breakdown of his marriage, slowly revealed through the pages of the novel, parallels the failure of his own parents' relationship which culminated in his mother leaving both of them, without ever making contact again.  Futh is clearly emotionally damaged by this.  His wife has the same name as his mother - 'Angela' - and is prone to telling him "I'm not your mother!"

The novel is as tightly structured as a poem - returning neatly to  its starting point - as circular as the walk Futh is embarking on. There is a strong sense of foreboding, as Futh is befriended by an odd man on the ferry who hitches a lift part of the way and insists on inviting Futh to his mother's house.

At the first hotel Futh meets Ester, a sexually predatory, middle-aged woman with a violent husband.  He barely exchanges a word with her, but something inevitable begins to unfold that involves all the characters.  Margaret Drabble described the book as  'A serious novel with a distinctive and unsettling atmosphere', and it is.

The Lighthouse of the title is a metaphor - central to the novel, but it is also the name of the hotel 'Hellhaus', and the silver casing of Futh's mother's perfume vial which he carries with him like talisman.   Some have criticised the novel for being a bit heavy-handed with metaphors and symbols - too structured in the parallels it creates, but I didn't mind that.  The mechanisms made it feel like a long short story, and - as Nicholas Royle had a hand in the editing - that shouldn't be a surprise.

The writing is clean and spare - not a word too many and the characters are drawn with considerable complexity.  Ester could simply have been a blowsy blonde and Futh a boring sociopath, but they weren't.  Even if the Lighthouse doesn't win the Booker Prize, Alison Moore is an author to watch.  I gave it four stars on Goodreads, not five because it didn't have that 'wow' factor for me - I admired it, a lot, but I didn't love it.