Beautiful Books 6


‘Grange Hill’ was probably the one of the most important and influential British children’s  television programmes ever. Beginning in 1978, it was every ordinary child’s dream: here were kids just like us who went to a school just like ours and had the same fears and worries and got into the same scrapes and trouble as us. There was instant uproar from the usual suspects: busybodies who kidded themselves that what they saw on television encouraged bad behaviour when, in fact, the truth of what went on in schools didn’t come anywhere near what could be depicted in the show.

This was 1978 and I was 10 and I loved school almost as much as I loved ‘Grange Hill’ and this book (which, at the time, was shockingly expensive at 80p. To put it into context, a Doctor Who paperback at the time was around 60p) just makes my heart leap at the happy memories it evokes. But more than that, it depicts the boundless energy of ordinary kids whose lives revolved around towns and bikes and concrete, where adventures could be had which didn’t rely on being whisked away in a wardrobe or having homemade lemonade on a permanent holiday with queer relatives. Of course, there is nothing wrong with escapism: I loved Enid Blyton and CS Lewis as much as the next child and there had been a strain of working class realism in children’s fiction if you cared to look for it: ‘Gumble’s Yard’; ‘Widdershins Crescent’ and ‘Hell’s Edge’ by John Rowe Townsend; The ‘Sadie and Kevin’ series about life in modern day Belfast by Joan Lingard; ‘A Pair of Jesus Boots’ by Sylvia Sherry or ‘Break in the Sun’ (and others) by Bernard Ashley to name but a few. But what we needed was a balance: imagination to stretch the soul and support to feed it. That support came from these books and ‘Grange Hill’. These were stories for the generations of kids who needed to be told that they mattered and to make them matter their stories needed to be told: those who were shocked by ‘Grange Hill’ were shocked not because of what they saw but because they didn’t want to comprehend that such lives existed and such things happened.

‘Grange Hill’ was revolutionary, allowing more than one generation of kids (it lasted until 2008) to see themselves in what they watched and what they read, to understand their lives a little bit more, and to help them see that their lives mattered and that there was  whole lifetime of adventures ahead of them. And to see that in this cover is what makes it so, so beautiful.

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‘Weathering’ Lucy Wood

SAM_1724 - Copy

‘what was saved and what was dead’ by AN Stuart

‘Weathering’ is a cold, cold novel. At every page you can feel the icy river scrubbing your flesh, the mulch on your nostril, the snow nipping at your fingertips.

After thirteen years of aimless flitting, Ada returns to her mother’s house to clear the contents and put their relationship to rest.  Ada brings her own daughter Pepper who, on her lonesome adventures in the cold, wet countryside begins to see an old woman, watching. Ada, coming to terms with the return to her past begins to sense something else…

‘When she awoke again she was alone and it was still dark. She sat up and looked around the room, could just make out a small chair, a mirror, bare walls – where was the picture of the silver mountain, where was the yellow clock? Then she remembered. No white birds cooing softly downstairs. Only a branch thumping against the roof. Blue covers with gold stars on. She turned over and tucked herself back under. The bedsprings crunched. A lump in the mattress where her shoulder needed to be. She kicked and turned. Back through the hall, there came a sharp, sweet smell, very faint, moving through the rooms.’

Such passages as this are creepy in the best MR James fashion. Footsteps are heard and shadows glimpsed. A cat bristles at an invisible menace. But, and this is my main criticism of this novel, by the time we get to these scenes, we have already learned that whatever causes these distractions is not malevolent. In fact, it is the restless spirit of Pearl, Ada’s dead mother…

We meet Pearl’s spirit at the very start of the book, almost as a warning to the curious that this isn’t your standard ghost story. For Pearl, in death, is slowly becoming at one with the landscape, the river…

‘Something glinted. At first she thought it was the water but it was further away than that; it looked like a light in a window. What was it – a house? It had slipped her mind. But of course it was the house – there was the house behind her, she could see it through a watery blur. Vague memories of the long hallway, the kitchen with its wet-leaf smell. Or was it just her, smelling of wet leaves?’

Interspersed with the main narrative, we hear Pearl’s thoughts and I can’t help feeling that they weaken the overall novel. Great ghost stories show but never explain. Suggestion, implication and doubt all add to the cold, dark atmosphere and to explain is to banish them with the flick of bright revelation.

As the novel progresses we see Ada coming to terms with her past and the countryside which quickly inflicts itself on the lives of mother and daughter. Pepper, meantime, finds a whole new world of flora and in their new house a place called home.

Wood is a beautiful writer. She conjures up the rawness of a winter in the countryside, the harsh reality of nature – neither malevolent nor benevolent – without sentiment or saccharine. I loved the worldly sharpness she instils into Pepper, a child of wonder and yearning. And in Ada, she distils all those feelings about returning to your childhood, navigating friends not seen, questions unresolved, your placed in the world uncertain.

Would the novel work without Pearl’s ghost being conjured up and made sentient? It certainly would have been a spookier novel and certainly more slippery and chillier than its’ published cousin…and one which I would have preferred.


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This week’s book haul

First up, a couple of Puffin books: ‘Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man’ is quite, quite beautiful: note the clever use of the Puffin in the bottom left hand corner of the cover and the saucy little minx on the back.


Next is ‘The Cave’ by Richard Church – lovely illustration of three boys on a underground adventure and a fantastic font!

If you are interested in the beautiful world of Puffin books, then check out my blog, ‘Puffin Heaven’.


Another beautiful book, this time with a cover reminiscent of 1950s and 1960s Faber and Faber books. Don’t know much about this, but it sounds great: ‘When an impoverished but close knit family undergoes and almost miraculous change in fortune, allegiances and desires realign, a marriage falls apart, and tensions build unstoppably towards a devastating conflict’

Shanbhag is, apparently, an established writer in the Indian and Kannada languages but this is his first to be translated into English. In The Guardian, Deborah Smith (translator of Han Kang’s terrific ‘The Vegetarian’) hailed the book as providing a ‘masterclass in crafting, particularly on the power of leaving things unsaid. In fewer than 28,000 words Vivek Shanbhag weaves a web of suggestion and implication, to be read with a sense of mounting unease.’

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‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ Beth Underdown


‘Evil posseses neither depth nor any demonic dimension’  Hannah Arendt

‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ is a novel full of dread and fear and like some of the greatest horror stories it is allegorical in nature. However it contains nothing of the supernatural, rather it is folk-horror at its purest, keeping the reader on edge until, literally, the very last word.

‘But one of the men said, ‘Come, madam, enough of this silliness. That is a rabbit.’                      At which she smiled. ‘It may look like one,’ she said, ‘but if I gave the word he would squeeze himself down your throat and lay a feast of toads in your belly.’

This is a story set in 1645, when folklore and farming rubbed along in a rural world which Underdown depicts with a palpable sense of a community at work, an everyday tale of country folk which serves to heighten the horrors to come: terrible acts carried out by Matthew Hopkins, self proclaimed witch hunter who, in a few short years, was responsible for the torture and death of over 100 women.

‘… I heard of Susan Cocke form St Osyth, to whom the Devil had come out of a hedgerow and promised that he would provide for her, promised her vengeance on her enemies, and that he would share her bed. ‘

But this is no serial killer detective thriller. Hopkins and his crimes exist as blood clots on English history – a man who carried out his acts with the consent of the law, the church and community; a leader able mould the people to his will, through manipulation and fear, until they are only too willingly became part of his fearful plan.

Underdown skilfully blends fact with fiction as our narrator, Hopkin’s sister Alice, learns of Hopkin’s plans but her naïve belief in the inherent goodness of humankind cannot countenance that he will actually carry them out. Surely she, his sister, can discover what set him on this terrible path and lead him to salvation?

But first this naivety costs her dearly, for in order to understand Alice must get close to her brother until – too late – she is implicated in the reign of terror: ‘I see now that my brother was letting me grow used to my new circumstances, letting me lower myself into the scalding bath, inch by quarter-inch.’

She becomes Hopkin’s unwilling servant, ‘searching’ the accused’s bodies for ‘teats’ at which it was believed imps suckled – the imps being sent by Satan to seal his pact with the witch by sucking her blood. (In fact these were more likely moles or third nipples). But rather than satanism, Alice finds something sadder and more pathetically human.

‘Each (woman) had a different tale, fit to break your heart, but what they had in common was loneliness, and too many nights spent listening; loose flesh where they had given birth or gained weight in other, better summers. What they had in common was fear.’

As the horror reveals itself Underdown cleverly infuses the narrative with imagery and incident from horrors closer to the modern period: We see and hear of neighbour set against neighbour, daughter against mother, all desperate to denounce and deflect suspicion. We hear of crowds of captive women being herded on carts to their fate…

‘..and then I saw the laden cart pull to the side to let us pass. There were thirty of them, in the cart, and only room to stand. Their hands had been tied together, so that they could not save themselves when the cart laboured in the ruts. Most were crowding away from one among them who had soiled herself. I will not forget their eyes, as we pulled up our horses behind Matthew while he spoke with the gaoler.’

…and how Hopkins was determined to these eradicate these women, to ‘purge the place and leave it, as he would think, clean’ . In Hopkins Underwood has created a character who exemplifies Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality of evil’, used by the philosopher to describe the work and ethos of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organisers of the Nazi holocaust. Eichmann and others, she believed , were able to countenance their evil by making their work into routine and system, enabling them to ignore any moral or political considerations: they were simply ‘doing their job’. In 1645 we hear of Hopkin’s lists of women with descriptions of them and their alleged crimes, a ledger of terror: ‘How mundane it was, and so how terrible.’ Hopkins sees his role as God-given and one he cannot question: ‘What I think is I owe it to God. To do his work with as much thoroughness as I can’. These reflections make this novel all the more powerful and, by applying it to a small canvas, helps us to reflect on just how easy the seeds  of fascism are all around us, needing the right conditions to germinate and grow. And if you think that the holocaust metaphor is somewhat stretching, then make sure you keep reading until the bitter end.

Underdown is a master of stunning imagery, such as here describing the pub in which Hopkins has made his base I the midst of the witch trials:

‘The Thorn was like a bell-tower with a bell that is ringing and flinging itself to pieces, and you can feel it in your teeth, but all you can do is wait for it to cease.’

And while Alice occasionally seems to be curiously modern in her outlook, this is a minor criticism. Underdown has conjured up a novel which depicts without flinching  a terrible moment in history, made all the more frightening by speaking as much about the 20th and 21st centuries as it does about the 17th. She builds and sustains a creeping sense of dread leaving us with a final crescendo which, like death itself, is all the more disturbing for its relative calm and quiet.


*Images: Top: a still from ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (Dir Piers Haggard 1971); Bottom: a still from ‘Witchfinder General’ (Dir. Michael Reeves 1968)

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Beautiful Books 5

.or, ‘You can (sometimes!) judge a book by its cover’


With a cover by Chris Achilleos, this 1973 edition of David Whittaker’s ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’ is a reprint of Whittaker’s story which was published on the back of the first wave in Doctor Who mania in 1964. It was the very first novelisation of a Doctor Who story (almost all of the Doctor Who stories from the original run, which ended in 1989 would be novelised) but this was the first and probably the best. It also boasts possibly the best, most ‘Doctor Who-ey’ cover of them all.

Imagine, you are 8 years old and mad on Doctor Who. Tom Baker is the current Doctor and you can remember Jon Pertwee being in the title role. You have heard about the earlier Doctors (William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton) but have seen nothing of their stories because Doctor Who was rarely repeated and when it happened it was usually recent stories which you could remember. Until the advent of ‘Doctor Who Weekly’ (later to become ‘The Doctor Who Magazine) in 1979, there weren’t even any stills from stories to paw over. In fact the only regular fix of old Doctor Who were occasional showings of the two Peter Cushing Doctor Who films from 1965 and 1966. Garish and occasionally silly, these were terrific as a child (and still are) and provided food for the imagination.

What you did have, though, are these novelisations each and everyone with a colourful rendition of the adventure within…and to your mind there is absolutely nothing to dispel your knowledge that the television story is every bit a great as they are.

And just look at that cover: those strong, muscular Daleks in garish alien colours, firing scorching flames which bleed into a universe which provides blood and guts of the mysterious, stern Doctor. This image is the perfect Doctor Who adventure because those are always the ones which you had when you were eight years old with an imagination which knew no bounds.

This novelisation  is a strange one in that it completely ignores the first television adventure of the Doctor and his companions. In doing so Whittaker makes Ian Chesterton (one of the Doctor’s first companions – in the TV show he and fellow companions are teachers of the Doctor’s ‘grand daughter, Susan) the narrator of the story and has him bumping into the rest of his travelling companions on a foggy night in Barnes Common…

‘I stopped the car at last and let the fog close in around me. I knew I was somewhere on Barnes Commons and I had a suspicious idea it was the most deserted part as well. A warm fire and the supper my landlady would have waiting for me seemed as far away as New Zealand. I wondered how long it would take me to walk home to \Paddington and the possible answer didn’t do anything to cheer me up. A fitting end to an impossible day, I thought savagely.’

And later when the band of strangers are whisked away to the planet Skaro, we get our first introduction to the Daleks themselves…

‘Susan stopped and looked round her wildly and then stared at me, her eyes distended in a dreadful sort of horror. She looked past me and I knew that there was something behind me somewhere. I was just about to turn and look when the Doctor collapsed in my arms. I laid him down on the floor in a sitting position and looked at Susan, a question forming on my lips.

The answer came through the front entrance slowly. A nightmare answer that had blood draining away from my face and the skin stretching around my eyes…’

What more do you need – go out and read it now!

Above is a facsimile of the first edition which, apart from the strangely spooky Doctor Who logo is deadly dull. The Armada edition from 1965 boasts a far better cover with a rather heroic and swashbuckling Doctor and a glorious TARDIS…but no Daleks, which I suspect copyright costs prohibited them from using.

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‘Little Deaths’ Emma Flint


‘Little Deaths’ Photo adapted  by A N Stuart

‘Little Deaths’ as a title is ingenious, drawing you to the heart of this excellent novel. ‘Little Deaths’ because it is the murder of two children which sets off the chain of events which their mother, Ruth, must endure. ‘Little Deaths’ because this is a literal translation of the French slang for orgasm – ‘Les Petites Morts’. Sex and death.

A book I loved last year was Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Eileen’, which came to us undercover, hiding a unique character study within the dressings of ‘noir’ fiction. ‘Little Deaths’ comes at us full in the face, unapologetically using the tropes of the ‘noir’ novel to tell its tale. Like ‘Mildred Pierce and ‘Sunset Boulevard, ‘Little Deaths’ starts at the end: Ruth Malone is in prison, counting the days to her freedom, dwelling on what brought her to this place:

‘So that was how it began. With a locked door to an empty room. With her running out into the street, a set of sweat-slicked keys held tightly in her hand, pressed hard into her palm. With her circling the block calling their names.’

While there is a mystery to solve, this is a study in the destruction of a woman. A woman who won’t play to the game and be what society expects of her. Separated from her husband, Ruth is a lonely woman raising two children and looking for a little joy in life, a bit of passion. She works in bars and enjoys sex. She wants to look good, to look sexy. In short, she is seen as ‘the very picture of a scandalous woman’. And for this she must be punished. We see how the print media and the police collude to bring her down, punishing her for not being what they want her to be. But Ruth is determined, because she knows they ‘…knew nothing about leaving your kids home alone or with a teenage sitter while you went out to work eight hours on your feet in a pair of heels that rubbed, serving drinks to assholes who thought they were buying the right to paw you with every round. (They) knew nothing about leaving your sleeping children while you went to meet a man who would pay you for your company because your daughter needed shoes. (They) knew nothing about sending your kids to bed on half-empty stomachs, trying to fill them up with water, adding a drop of whisky to make them sleep – because if you let them eat, there’d be nothing for breakfast and your dead-beat husband’s checks kept bouncing.’ As the novel points out, some of the harshest critics of women like Ruth are other women, and  ‘Eileen’ would certainly be one of them:

‘…a young woman came to visit her perpetrator – her rapist, I assumed. She was a pretty girl who had a tortured flamboyance, and at the time I thought all attractive women were loose, sex kittens, tramps, floozies.’

It is a tale as old as time, especially for a woman who appears to have committed that most heinous of crimes: filicide – the killing of a child by a parent. Society considers this act, when committed by the mother, to be one of the most unnatural of acts and unforgivable of crimes and one which must be punished above all others. Consider the case of Myra Hindley. We know she was complicit with the terrible torture and murder of a number of children (at around the same time just before that in which ‘Little Deaths’ is set). Ian Brady may have been the psychopathic brain behind the crime but it is Hindley who will always bear the brunt of society’s hatred, because as a woman she is seen as having the ‘natural role’ of creator, mother and nurturer. To go against this is seen as offending society and nature. It is also no coincidence that the police photograph etched on a generation’s consciousness is one in which Hindley shows no remorse, in fact there is more than a hint of petulance. The book I am currently reading, ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown also touches on this issue. Set in 1645, this novel covers the crimes of Matthew Hopkins, the notorious witch hunter:

‘Matthew took these women and he killed them, but without once breaking the law. He took women who did not want their own children, women who wanted other people’s, and , at least at first, there was hardly a murmur to prevent him. For a woman is brought up ti believe that children are her life’s work – to make them and feed them and kiss their hurts. But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them, and they cannot protect you? If you have them and they die? If you weep for your loss too much or not enough – that is when folk begin to wonder of it is your fault, your misfortune.’

But this analogy isn’t stretching the point too far. In her terrific books ‘Misogynies’ and ‘The Public Woman’ Joan Smith writes about the position of women in society and touches on the view of woman as witch. In her essay on the Yorkshire Ripper, she talks about how the police and media’s blatant sexism in viewing women as whores allowed the Ripper’s deadly spree to carry on far longer than it should have. And, at the end of the day, it was his wife who had to carry some of the blame:

‘He worshipped her. She dominated him. Both hid their thoughts behind a mask of reserve.

There were tantrums and tears. But never in public. Only behind the respectable faced of their Bradford home did the mask drop. Then Sonia, shy and frail to the world outside, would often become the nagging wife. And Sutcliffe, pent-up fury would build to a destructive force.’ (Daily Mirror 23/05/1981)

If was as if Sonia held some sort of power over Sutcliffe, some sort of magical force. Fast forward 26 years and in ‘The Witches of Perugia’, Smith makes clear the analogy with the case of the murder of Meredith Kercher and how, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary both the police and media constantly hunted and taunted Amanda Knox, determined to prove her guilt:

‘Scampering around Perugia, (Knox) was only doing what liberated athletic, self-absorbed young American girls do: having fun. And that fun – boisterous, brazen maybe – was read by Italian men like Rudy (the young man who would eventually serve a shockingly short sentence of the crime) and the others, including Mignini (Chief Prosecutor) and the police, the only context by which they had to understand female behaviour: she was the witch, the deliberate player of men.‘ Nina Burleigh, ‘Fatal Gift’

There is little difference between this scenario and the witch trials of old when women were put into a ducking stool: if they drowned they were innocent, if they lived they were guilty and would burn. Lose lose.

Flint writes clearly and effectively, producing a cast of characters which carry the novel to its inevitable conclusion. She makes Ruth a truly convincing character, one who never quite believes or takes notice of what is happening around her until it is too late; Flint makes Ruth a character contemporaneous with her time: she is a ‘natural’ feminist in that she doesn’t theorise or proselytize about the position of women like her – she simply reacts to her situation, a reaction built around anger, frustration and downright unfairness.

Finally, going back to my comparison with ‘Eileen’, one trait both books share is a wonderful highlighting of body odours. Compare the lines one from ‘Little Deaths’, one from ‘Eileen’:

‘Sometimes she could smell herself – that ripe, yellow odor that she still thinks of as peculiar to her, and that embarrassed her on those days that she woke up with company. Like a bitch on heat ain’t ya, honey?

‘Although I was generally paranoid about how I smelled – if my sweat stank, if my breath was as bad as my mouth tasted – I never wore perfume, and I always preferred the scentless soaps and lotions. Nothing calls more attention to one’s odor than a fragrance meant to mask it. At home alone with my father, I was in charge of the laundry, a duty I inherited by default and which I rarely honoured. But when I did, the aroma of his soiled garments was so distressing. I often gagged and coughed an dry-heaved when I sniffed them. It was the smell of something like soured milk, sweet and laced so strongly with the perfume of gin, it turns my stomach just to think of it now.’

I love this display of people as physical human beings with smells and secretions, things which these days are – whatever your gender – being scraped out of our consciousness alongside all traces of body hair, like dirty little secrets – as if, as a society we wish to revert to being hairless, scentless, hormoneless children.

Posted in Beth Underdown, Emma Flint, Joan Smith, Ottessa Moshfegh | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment


Temple Woods – Mist – Neat Buxton by Norman Elliott

The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley

I so wanted to like this book and did – but with a grave reservation. This is the story of a place – the Loney – a ‘strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune’ where our narrator travels each Easter for penitence, prayer and to ‘look for God in the emerging springtime’, with members of both family and church. In particular is the narrator’s brother Hanny, a simple soul unable to speak…if there is one thing the group wish for it is a miracle to cure his problem…

Hurley has a clear talent for creepy. He has created a claustrophobic, cluttered world where everything causes pause for thought, nothing is left to bask in the sun when a shadow or chill breeze will do.

‘The stink of booze drifted from them as they sang old songs in bass voices; songs that didn’t have the predictable, homely rise and fall of the hymns we’d been singing all week, but which tumbled through strange minor keys and moved across intervals that sounded like they might have once charmed the Devil to the surface of the world.

It is a world of the grotesque, both in people and incident:

‘Inside was an ark of stuffed animals – a hundred or more. These were the unsold, uncollected, unfinished works. Botched jobs. Seconds. The cold and damp had taken its toll and there were rows and rows of shrunken squirrels and rabbits. A poodle’s head had sunk in on itself like an old balloon. In the far corner we found a tandem being ridden by two mangy chimps. Neither of us wanted to touch them so we fetched a broom and pushed them off. They fell stiffly to the floor, still grinning, their hands like claws, as though they had been frozen solid.’

All of this Hurley does so well, so it comes as a great disappointment that the ending is botched. I don’t want to spoiler the book for those who haven’t read it, except to say that I’m still not entirely sure what happened in those last few pages at the end of that fateful sojourn. However, I truly look forward to Hurley’s next book: if he can pull off a great ending I see him becoming a great writer of the creepy, subtle horror story.



Thin Air – Michelle Paver

I LOVED Paver’s last book for adults, ‘Dark Matter’, a wonderful ghost story in the manner of M.R. James. Her latest, ‘Thin Air’, follows a similar story, that of a doomed expedition, this time up Kangchenjunga, a mountain in the Himalayas…and therein lies the problem. It feels too much like ‘Dark Matter’ to be truly interesting: Once the set up is known I felt I knew what would happen next and surely enough… The other issue I have with the book is that Paver moves away from the unexplained nature of the horror in ‘Dark Matter’ to one which comes down to a human desire for revenge, and as I have said previously a great ghost story is one which doesn’t explain, doesn’t humanise the supernatural. In doing so Paver relegates her book to less than great. However, we mustn’t forget that Paver is still a great writer and can conjure up shuddering slights of hand like James himself:

‘I switch off the torch, and darkness presses on my face like a hand’



Christodora – Tim Murphy

Christodora is painted as ‘The powerfully moving story of one family and a bold and poignant portrait of the bohemian Manhattan of sex, drugs, art and activism over four decades.’ Like all the best soap operas it is a compulsive read. However, there are some major issues which need to be tackled.

The Christodora is a crumbling building in Manhattans Lower East Side until during the 1980s those with money move in and , like in the rest of Manhattan, begin to gentrify. Artist Jared takes over the apartment bought by his rich father and he is soon joined by Milly, his wife and fellow artist. Milly’s mother, Ava, works for the City’s Public Health department with her new intern, Hector. As AIDS develops, both Ava and Hector move into activism in order to save those around them. As a gay man Hector is acutely aware of what AIDS means to his friends and lovers such as Puerta Rican Issy Mendes who joins the activists when her status becomes clear. Issy dies leaving a beautiful baby boy – Mateo – who Ava vows to protect, a child who Milly falls in love with and adopts. Mateo grows up in Christodora and develops his art…and a drug habit which brings him into the orbit of Hector, fellow Christodora dweller and now fallen on hard times, fuelled by drugs and sex.

Murphy flits back and forth across the 4 decades covered by the plot, which works well, apart from the occasional slip. It presents an engrossing story with a strong emotional pull centred around the relationship between mother and child.

However, this novel made me angry in the way it uses the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s as a footnote, as a plot device, a backdrop to the family saga. Sure we learn about Issy Mendes and Hector, but they appear to be there simply to produce Mateo in the first instance and then to encourage wayward urges in the later years. This feels so wrong, so mercenary. I presume ‘Christodora’, being named after a building which famously was at the centre of anti-gentrification riots, is an extended metaphor for how society now wants to white-wash all the unsightly, ugly, testing aspects of society from view, instead preferring the nice and the pretty and the good and the privileged. Sure, Murphy shows the ugliness that can exist behind these doors of privilege, but he does this by carrying out gentrification of his own: by placing the destruction of a generation of gay men, poor immigrants and black people in the margins.

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