Snake Ropes (2012) by Jess Richards
Snake Ropes is Jess Richards' debut, and it's one of the most original, exciting first novels I've read in quite some time. Set entirely on an extremely remote island somewhere off the coast of Scotland, it depicts a tiny community sustained by traditional trade with the 'tall men' who visit from the mainland. There are numerous hints of real magic here, including the 'snake ropes' of the title, but above all there is the dominance of the Thrashing House, an ancient building where liars and criminals are sent to have the truth 'thrashed out' of them. The narrative switches between two teenage girls: Mary, born and brought up in this community, preoccupied with protecting her three-year-old brother Barney; and Morgan, part of the only family not native to the island, kept locked up by her troubled mother and dreaming of escape.
The island is a fascinating place, and not just because it seems to possess magical qualities. It appears to be an almost entirely female-dominated society, with women portrayed as the decision-makers, the political leaders, and the only ones able to enforce the island's 'law' by sending wrong-doers to the Thrashing House. Women are taught to read and write (and almost all of the island's own legends involve women only), but men are not, and indeed they are often implied to be virtually useless. At the beginning of the story, boys are vanishing from the island, but despite some instances of personal anguish, this issue is largely brushed under the carpet and treated as if it doesn't really matter - Mary is repeatedly told she should just forget about Barney.
Each girl speaks with a distinctive voice. Mary's incorporates elements of dialect (although it is still easy to read) and is rich with the history and culture of the island. Morgan's is ostensibly more intelligent, but the way she interprets her surroundings highlights her lack of experience with real life. Both display sparks of humour, cleverly placed to diffuse the rather bleak atmosphere created by the island's isolation and the lack of opportunities for its inhabitants, and the girls' ignorance of the world at large makes for moments of both pathos and amusement. I don't want to say too much about exactly how the plot unfolds, but it is more about the significance and power of language, myth and the telling of stories than it is about the events that actually take place.
The real genius of Snake Ropes is that the author plunges you into a quite fantastical world yet always maintains a sense of realism strong enough to keep you anchored to the story. Full of fascinating layers of meaning, and blessed with two thoroughly sympathetic protagonists, this is an excellent debut. There is little wrong with it, and my only real complaint would be that the pacing sometimes doesn't seem quite right - although I found the story engrossing, I wouldn't say I was compelled enough to keep going back to it at every opportunity, or that I couldn't stop thinking about it. Despite this minor flaw, this is a book that deserves to be hugely successful and widely read - and I really hope it is. It's accomplished, evocative and totally unique, and Jess Richards has been firmly added to my growing list of authors to watch closely in future.
Rating: 8/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback
Monsieur (2011, translated 2012) by Emma Becker
Monsieur is ostensibly the story of an affair between Ellie, a twenty-year-old student, and 'Monsieur', a married plastic surgeon who is twenty-six years her senior. It has been widely described as an erotic novel, but it's only really erotic in the sense that a) the sex scenes are very graphic, and b) the narrator is always thinking about sex. The majority of the story is actually about the aftermath of their affair - Ellie angsting and wringing her hands over why Monsieur is ignoring her and how things could have been different. Oh, and (because he's told her to) she is also writing a book about their time together, which is called, you guessed it, Monsieur.
I loved the very beginning of the book: Ellie encounters Monsieur's eldest son unexpectedly, thinks about all the ways she could potentially introduce herself to him but doesn't dare to speak, and ends up sobbing, alone, on the train. I was instantly captivated and wanted to know the backstory, the whole messy tale of how Ellie had ended up here. Unfortunately, I didn't really get that. Instead I got some detailed sex scenes (most of which aren't very sexy), pages and pages of Ellie and Monsieur texting each other (!), and long interludes in which Ellie just spends a lot of time thinking about and analysing... well, not a lot.
It's clear that Ellie has an unhealthy obsession with Monsieur but rather than addressing why, the story throws up so many questions that just don't get answered. Most importantly, why is she even bothered about a man who treats her so badly and doesn't even satisfy her sexually? Obviously, she wouldn't be the first woman to fall in love with a horrible man, but I didn't feel like the book was doing anything to explain to me why this would have been the case here.
And on top of that, Ellie isn't a very likeable person. She's unbelievably self-centred and her naivete is extraordinary, all of which makes her seem more like a spoilt child than a woman in the throes of a meaningful affair.
I really like stories about all-consuming affairs, difficult relationships and the marks they leave on the people involved, and it's this kind of story I was hoping for from Monsieur. I was never all that bothered about the sex scenes either way - it wasn't the promise of erotica that drew me to this book, although if they'd been good they would have added some much-needed spice to the story. As it happened, they were okay: just a bit cringeworthy and, after a while, unsurprisingly repetitive. It's not that Becker doesn't have talent - she's definitely better at portraying sexual tension and anticipation, but there wasn't enough of this. If you want a brilliantly written story about a destructive affair, read Signs of Life by Anna Raverat. If you want a good erotic novel, well, I'm not really sure what I'd recommend, but it wouldn't be this.
Rating: 4/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback