Monday 26 April 2010

'drowning very slowly day by day'

It's Just The Beating Of My Heart

by Richard Aronowitz

You may have seen that I made a pledge to try and read and review more fiction from smaller and independent publishers this year (publishers take note, I am ripe for exploitation) and when I was contacted by Flambard Press about the latest novel from their stable I thought I'd jump in with both feet. The novel itself presents a problem for the reviewer, there is an aspect to the book which if mentioned might act like a spoiler, so I shall present this post in two sections: the first is nice and safe, the second could fundamentally alter your reading experience and so may be best read by those who have already read the book or those who think they never will. Certainly read the first and if you want to you can move onto the second.

Part One

Aronowitz is the author of a previous novel, Fiver Amber Beads, which was commended for using 'the language of art' as a fresh way to look at the Holocaust. Working in the art world himself his central character here is again a member of that same scene. John Stack is a gallery owner and art dealer who made a name for himself a few years ago when discovering young talent but who is trading on past successes now. In fact his life is on a pretty steep decline. His wife has left him, his gallery is dangerously close to closure with bank loans remaining unpaid whilst business slows down and he's drinking far too much, although he has his own view about what the significance of that.

I am not an alcoholic. I have days off drinking and can control my intake. It is just that I really like it. It is just that I do not want to stop the drinking surge that I began when they left me. It is just that I am often frightened that I want to die.

Stack lives away from the hustle of the London scene in the Gloucestershire countryside where he enjoys rural retreat. Aronowitz is a poet too and so knows how to use the right language to create a picture for the reader of his native Gloucestershire. There are moments of beauty but what he really aims to show, amongst the teeming life of the valley and forests, is the deep loneliness of Stack.

There is one set of footprints in the snow behind me; there will be one pint glass at the pub table at lunchtime; there was one bowl and one spoon in the kitchen sink this morning. I am bloody fed up of speaking in monologue.

That solitude is broken only by the occasional visits of his twelve year-old-daughter Bryony (the choreographed handover from his wife in London, allowing the estranged couple to remain estranged, is a nicely realised touch) until that is he encounters a neighbour, Nicola, who holds the promise of conversation, companionship; all the things that are missing from his life as it stands. Alcohol remains a stumbling block, perhaps fuelling his suspicions about the circumstances of Nicola's previous husband's death. I mentioned that Stack is on a downward trajectory as the book begins and this continues, with alcohol and suspicion contributing to a fragile mental state that slowly collapses. That all sounds rather depressing but the strange thing about it is that it's only really in the opening pages that it feels that way. It may not be the most energetic place to start a book from but Aronowitz skilfully charts Stack's descent and arouses sympathy with Bryony's attempts to keep her father on the straight and narrow.

Part Two

This isn't a spoiler in the traditional sense, I'm not going to give away a detail of the plot so much as a fundamental part of the book's structure.In the email from Flambard was a link to an article by Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent in which he discussed this novel, and the latest from Tim Pears, both books united in their use of a twist. There, I've said it. The book has a twist. And that's all you need to know for it to radically alter your reading experience. You don't even need to know what the twist is. If you know there is one then you cannot help but guess at it, and if you're anything like me then you're going to work it out before the writer gets to do his big reveal (almost on the very last page here) and therefore be left a little underwhelmed by it. This is also because, as Sutcliffe notes in his article, 'you suspect Aronowitz's novel is built around its twist and wouldn't exist otherwise'. As far as the book's power goes, it's all about the twist really, and if you've guessed it early, or just aren't into twists generally, then the book may disappoint. However, I think there's enough to admire in the book before worrying about whether the twist performs the coup the writer may be aiming for. As a study of loss, loneliness and hope it has plenty to say, in prose that is shot through with the sparkle and description one would hope to find from a poet.


Tom Cunliffe 27 April 2010 at 13:09  

A nice review William - thanks for commenting on mine.

I can see you enjoyed the book as did I. I think the twist is well-handled, and although I had my suspicions, I didn't grasp the full extent of it until the end - it then answered lots of questions I'd had until then!

Its interesting to read someone else's review of a book I've read myself

Sue Guiney 28 April 2010 at 09:38  

Hurray. I found you! And so great to see your commitment to indie presses, especially since I seem to have become the ultimate indie girl (or old lady, depending on your perspective). I'll be reading you from now on, and if you want to drop by mine you'll find other writers (indie or not) that may interest you. PLUS I have the inside scoop on a wonderful new indie that will soon be launching. If you'd like to blog about them, I can put you in touch. Say hi to the little 'uns for me.
Sue Guiney

William Rycroft 29 April 2010 at 00:37  

I'm always interested to see what people have made of books I've also read. Lovely when they agree with you (whether good or bad), stimulating when they don't, occasionally mortifying if they don't agree and read it on your recommendation!

Sue - I'm heading over to your blog pronto...

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