Game-changing

Chris Cleave's Gold

Chris Cleave’s Gold

This week I’ve been reading Chris Cleave’s Gold, set in Manchester in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It follows the equally intense careers and personal lives of Britain’s two best female track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and explores the difficult dynamic between friendship and rivalry as they train and grow up together, under the supervision of their coach, Tom. Whether for closeness or for competition, the two women depend on each other more than they think.

I chose this book, out of all the wonderful suggestions offered for Greater Manchester, for the same reason I chose to read Money Can’t Buy Me Love a few weeks ago – because of how recent the setting is. As I said then, it always amazes me when I find a book about events in my own living memory, having spent so many years reading curriculum-prescribed classics. Cleave, in an interview published in this very edition of Gold, explains this far more eloquently than I manage to:

“Some people find it jarring to read work that is set almost in real time. I understand that – it’s not something novelists generally do – but I like that territory for fiction and I suggest that it’s a fascinating space in which to be an artist, because it’s the space in which public opinion is formed. My novels area hybrid between reportage and fiction and they take place in the five year gap between the point at which newspapers leave a story alone and the point at which historians generally take up their analysis.”

'Fan-fiction' - is it so bad?

‘Fan-fiction’ – is it so bad?

Wonderful as it has been so far, my education – along with many other people’s I imagine – usually encourages me to associate modern writing, no matter how popular, with so-called ‘bad’ literature, simply because it might not (yet) carry historical or canonical weight or might not use complicated language or need footnotes to translate allusion and symbolism.  I admit I have been guilty of turning my nose up at Jodi Picoult’s global bestsellers, hiding my apparently humiliating enjoyment of Dan Brown and rolling my eyes at the epic Twilight series. But the truth of the matter is that these are the books that sell in modern times; the pursuit of understanding why certain genres have such cultic followings in the present is as fascinating and meritorious as the research done in any Jane Austen class, the real difference being that only one of these subjects has already been done to death.

(This video clip is a trailer for the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s classic in which the Bennett sisters are trained to fight the undead as well as to find suitable husbands.)

Think of this decade’s vampire phenomenon, the prevalence of zombie apocalypse fiction since 2000, and how, in 2012, erotic fiction suddenly became widely acceptable – even in the staunchest minds of our middle-age, middle-class relatives – and made its way onto bestselling shelves with Fifty Shades of Grey. Why then? Why not before or after? What forces are brewing under the surface of society now that might erupt into a new literary craze in ten years’ time?

I spent most of my final degree year (and all the time since – hence this blog) obsessing about these very questions, my interests shifting away from Shakespeare and Chaucer – as much as I value them – and resting on what I’d always dismissed: the current. I refused to stay in the closet any longer: having an interest in popular culture isn’t a cop-out; nor is it glamorously avant-garde. It’s a study of the nitty-gritty here-and-now, of the themes and events that are relevant to us in an increasingly battered world.

I love being on the other side of the dividing line that Cleave defines between history and fiction in this challenge. Producing serious writing set in ‘real time’, without being pejoratively classed as Airport Fiction or Chick Lit or Easy Reading – all the terms synonymous with Trash that sceptics choose to deploy – is a skill, and one that Cleave succeeds in. I find it bizarre that some reviewers describe his plot as predictable or farcical and his characters as underdeveloped. I completely disagree. I was deeply impressed with the descriptions of training and races in particular; I could feel the athletes’ muscular and emotional sensitivity twitching the pages in my fingers. There is an intense physicality and even sensuality in reading this novel which, aside from making you believe you’re on the racetrack too, gives the novel a cinematic feel – you hear the breath of Kate’s pursuer and the hum of Zoe’s tyres on the ground. It is not the same exhilaration as I felt when watching the London velodrome events on television last year; it’s much more tuned-in, more personal, more close-up. In short, Cleave is able to describe so much movement in so much slow-motion detail without once comprising on pace. Masterful. For this aspect of the novel alone, it’s a 4/5 star read.

Bodies at their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for victory in the final Sprint.

Bodies pushed to their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for supremacy in the final Sprint.

So finely tuned are the girls’ bodies, in fact, that the distinction between themselves as animals and machines is difficult to make, and Cleave’s juxtaposition of the two is hugely effective. Their “twelve thousand dollar American prototype race bike[s]” (9) are extensions of their own limbs, with “no distinction between their skeletal systems and the bones of their bikes” (74). In racing and training their reflexes are mechanical – superhuman, programmed in – and yet at the same time, bestial. Their senses are heightened to a primal state, in which changes in the breath and slight movements in the muscles of their competitors causes immediate and instinctual physical responses to achieve the most primitive of urges: to win. Teeth gnashing and claws scratching all the way.

And yet these girls have been friends for 15 years, through youth training, national competitions, the Olympics in Athens and Beijing…They are a support to one another, understanding the dangers of such a high level of competition, both physically and psychologically. There are, in fact, constant reminders of the damage it causes: Tom’s dodgy knees, the girls’ sore ankles, Zoe’s crash, Kate’s difficulty in juggling career with family life, Zoe’s brother’s early death and her resulting emotional trauma and failure to maintain relationships, as though “as soon as she got off the bike her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions – like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere – when all she’d ever trained it to do was pump blood” (45). Cleave expresses, completely convincingly, the way in which racing obsesses them, consumes them and is always one step away from breaking them. They cannot even escape their bodies’ pressure when off the track, for when sitting on the sofa and unable to switch off, “Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race […] hopelessly” (11).

Manchester's National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

The complicated relationship the girls have to their own bodies results in an equally complicated relationship to the space around them: they cannot belong. For Zoe in particular, everything outside the racetrack is described as unfamiliar and disconnected. Despite her ability to see practically 360o from her luxurious skyscraper apartment – she looks over Manchester city and can pinpoint Snowdonia, Liverpool, the Blackpool Tower and beach and Cheshire plains in the distance – she feels so out of touch with the ground beneath her that she is like a “ghost” (42). There is “no traffic noise; no sound of the neighbours’ TV; nothing” (44), her apartment no more than an empty space designated for living by a faceless architect. Even Management has identified the need for a “souvenir of Earth” this far above it and is intent on “making a ‘green space’ with birds and plants and a water feature” (40) – but the “Italian olive tree ascend[ing] silently past [her] window” (45) attached to its crane only makes Zoe’s world even more surreal.

In fact, the whole of the country seems, to Zoe, like a series of disconnected “planet[s]” (86), Manchester being one of them, the generalised “up north” (220) another and “Surrey” a third, where “rain comes in bottles labelled Evian” (221) rather than being icy cold and endless. (North-South divide, we meet again.) Much like her inability to connect genuinely with other people, she is unwilling to admit to affection for any place she has lived or raced.

Victoria Pendleton, GB's winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Victoria Pendleton, GB’s winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Ultimately, Cleave creates an excruciating world in which the girls race round and round in circles on tracks that never change: no wonder their bodies jar at the tension between so much speed, and absolutely zero movement. Kate notes at one point, “What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?” (16). Add to this the pressure of personal lives and off-the-track developments and Cleave has produced an excellent novel that has as much of a human factor as superhuman. I’ve heard it said that London 2012 did great things for the popularity of cycling in Great Britain – writing this novel in 2011, Cleave knew what he was doing.

Next week I’ve picked up Maureen Lee’s The September Girls to read. Can’t wait!

CLEAVE, Chris. Gold. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Featured Image: Anna Meares (Australia) vs. Victoria Pendleton (GB) in the Track Sprint at London 2012.

http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest/541076/anna-meares-returns-to-international-track-competition.html

Advertisements

2084

I had a book-related disaster this week when I realised, having already begun it, that Willy Russell’s The Wrong Boy is not set in West Yorkshire as I thought. (You may also have realised if you picked it up after my recommendation last week – sorry!) So after flinging it – both hurriedly and reluctantly – onto my towering ‘books to read later’ pile I dashed to the library to locate one of my other suggestions for this county. Melvin Burgess’ Kill All Enemies was, thankfully, available. Never has there been a quicker change of plan!

Melvin Burgess' Kill All Enemies

Melvin Burgess’ Kill All Enemies

Against the backdrop of Leeds, three teenage “troublemakers” (198) – Billie, Rob and Chris – do all they can to rebel against the expectations that their school, their parents and their society have of them. Their violent and unruly behaviour seriously jeopardises their families’ middle class personae – for the adults, there is nothing worse than succumbing to the behaviour associated with their humiliating “working-class roots” (34). Nevertheless, Billie’s repeated recourse to violence has taken her “through five schools in the past two years” (6) and to the verge of prison; everyone, without exception, expects her to end up in the “Secure Unit” (60). As well as getting into their own fights, the disengagement Rob and Chris demonstrate with the schooling process and their homework – overall, their refusal to conform to ‘the rules’ – means that they too are ousted repeatedly, thrown into a downward spiral of underperformance and disruption.

What the ‘System’ fails to take into account is the reason behind these teenagers’ distraction: at home they are forced to confront issues of “suicide. Drugs. Prostitution” (118), alcoholism, domestic abuse, disabilities, foster care, rape, divorce and abandonment. In fact, no one seems to care that they have “no idea what it felt like, sleeping somewhere where you know you’re not going to get hit, knowing that someone who loves you is sleeping under the same roof” (174). To society, these kids do not matter.

UK 'Secure Units' for young people

UK ‘Secure Units’ for young people

And that’s clearly how the three have come to look on themselves: as “bottom of the pecking order” (5), “bad-luck charm[s]” (192). “Big old Billie” (63) calls herself names that others have assigned to her, and has come to believe that “things go wrong when [she] turn[s] up” (24) and she is “some kind of enemy” (23) to her family. Rob, too, can’t get away from others’ labels: he’s “Roly Poly Rob” (27) even to himself, and is made to feel as worthless as a “lump of shite” (189).

These are not the only ‘values’ instilled in them by their neglectful society, which also seems to be guilty of ugly materialism, judging by Chris’ appetite to “get rich” rather than becoming “a teacher, or a doctor, or by going to uni” (12) as well as Rob’s admission the “I didn’t matter – it was the [expensive] T-shirt that mattered” (75). More to the point, since the trio are confronted, again and again, by abusive figures of authority, they have developed a vengeful thirst for power in return, led by these poor examples of “pure blind prejudice” (148). Billie, for example, plans the gruesome murder of one of her abusers; Chris is desperate not to “work for the man” but to “be the man” (13) and cause misery for others the like of which he has been subjected to; and Rob is fixated by the feeling that the screaming music of Metallica gives him, of strength “pouring out of [him], like shining beams of light”, of being “God” (28). Each of them has an unhealthy desire – whether fulfilled or not – to punish their families, peers, teachers, social workers…In other words, to “Kill All Enemies” (31). Not only does Burgess present society as being guilty of unfairness and inflicting frustration on these young people, but he also shows the irony of punishing the immoral urges that these very social problems cause.

Baby P, who was allowed to die as a result of failings in Haringey Council's Social Care

Baby P, who was allowed to die as a result of failings in Haringey Council’s Social Care

As a result, this novel is very much a comment on society and English society in particular, with its discriminatory class system, flawed social care “industry” (63) (of which we’re only too aware recently in the case of Baby P) and the value placed on conformity. In many ways, Burgess’ novel reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984, presenting a similarly totalitarian state that maintains its level of power through stifling individuality, creativity and free will. Not only are the politicians and so-called harbingers of justice in on it – “there isn’t a judge in the country won’t chuck the book” (147) at Billie out of sheer prejudice – but so are the schools and the parents, who exert their power “like a police state” (100).

I liked this book and I’m always a sucker for an Orwellian representation of society. The characters were well-drawn and the plot engaging. I particularly enjoyed the ironic use of fairytale imagery juxtaposed against some of the horrors these teenagers are shown to experience, a reminder of their lost childhood: Chris’ brutish dad becomes a “red-faced dwarf” and “barely human” (244); Rob feels himself magically swelling and shrinking with pride and fear as he goes about his life and coming up against classmates who seem like “man-mountain[s]” with “veins stuck out like crocodiles” (236). In general, a cycle of changing perspectives is not my favourite technique in the world as I find it becomes tedious after a while, but it worked well enough here. I think Kill All Enemies is an easy 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Gold by Chris Cleave. Let’s hope it’s set in Greater Manchester as I’ve planned…?! Read along with me.

BURGESS, Melvin. Kill All Enemies. London: Penguin, 2011.

Featured Image: Michael Radford’s film of 1984, made in that year and starring John Hurt.

http://www.thehollywoodnews.com/2012/06/18/big-brother-is-still-watching-you-new-nineteen-eighty-four-adaptation-pending/

‘Brighter lights of other towns’

51Wk6LgiqFL

“The Innkeeper’s Daughter”, Val Wood

Before I begin, I’d just like to say that Val Wood should be counting her blessings that the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because, goodness me, the cover of The Innkeeper’s Daughter – and, indeed, of each and every one of her books that Corgi has published – is an embarrassment to behold. With its naff image and cheap tag line I was actually reluctant to get it out in public for fear people would think it was some kind of seedy publication. Although this doesn’t seem to have hindered her novels’ popularity (they’re often bestsellers and among libraries’ most popular), it is still a shame, because what’s inside is really rather good.

The novel is set in the “hummocky”, “low-lying”, “marshy” (15) area of Holderness and in the port town of Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The story begins in 1847 and continues through the early years of the Crimean War, making it the first example of historical fiction we’ve come across in this literary challenge!

The plot revolves around the Thorp family, who own the Woodman Inn in Holderness. The lives of mother Sarah, sons Joe and William, eldest daughter Bella, young rebel Nell and new-born Henry are turned upside-down when Bella’s father dies and leaves them to run the business. Sarah chooses to move her family to Hull, her birthplace, against their wishes, and they take on tenancy of the Maritime Public House – all except William, who goes to fight in the Crimean War, and Nell, who runs away to join the theatre shortly after they arrive. After a lot of hard work in the new, grimy city, they have huge success with their ever-expanding venture – mainly thanks to Bella’s skill and dedication.

When I first started this Placing Myself journey, I had to think for quite a while about whether I would allow historical fiction on my List at all. After all, I made rather a big deal of stipulating that ‘all books I read must be published after the year 2000’ so as to give an insight into life in modern England; is it appropriate, then, to select one that is set 150 years ago?

The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Painting by Richard Caton Woodville.

The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Painting by Richard Caton Woodville.

I eventually reached the conclusion that if writers such as Val Wood (and her publishing entourage) consider mid-19th century England relevant to readers in 2013, then there must be a reason for it – perhaps there are parallels to be drawn in the kind of events, characters or political situations associated with the two eras; perhaps Wood’s depiction of life in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1847 really can shine light on more recent happenings too.

As it happens, my hopes for this novel did come to fruition. Writing historically – during the time of the British Empire – allows Wood to offer greater critique on the subject of ‘the state versus the individual’: while national propaganda surrounding the Empire’s foreign military efforts in the Crimean War focussed, conveniently, on images of England’s ancestral and military glory, verdant pastures and hip happening capital city to encourage patriotism as well as perturb potential enemies, the hard lives of impoverished individuals in industrialised northern counties – which are believed to do nothing to boost the magnificent, romanticised reputation of the country – are swept under the carpet. This ostracism of individuals from popular society in order to better suit the needs of the state remains hugely relevant today; just think of the tourist industry of ‘Britain’, which actually fails to represent most of its territory and thrives instead on attributing the same magnificent stereotypes as above to highly select parts of England.

Wood presents Holderness as one such area of England that is deemed insignificant, populated as it is by “country bumpkins with straw in [their] hair” who, as the stereotype goes, “onny know about country matters, about haymaking an’ pigs an’ sheep” (175). The view that they are “salt of the earth” and that the “country couldn’t keep going wi’out [them]” (68) is definitely in the minority, for even within this small farming community residents are conditioned to think of themselves as “different” (99) from ‘most people’, as “strangers” (186) in their own homes, as “working folk” (239) who don’t “stand a chance against authority” (346). This point of view is shown in Bella’s observation that Jamie Lucan, her rich, doctor love-interest from the coast is “without an accent like theirs” (69) – usually, of course, it’s the “incomer” (97) (sound familiar?!) who is thought to seem strange or different; in this case, Bella is shown to paint herself as the accented oddity. (Like many other characters we’ve seen in other novels in this challenge, Bella also suffers from a distinct lack of belonging: she is not drawn to the town of Hull as her mother is, being a “townie” (178) at heart, or back to Holderness, like Joe, who is “a fish out o’ water” (308) anywhere else. Rather, she makes the best of what she is allowed to have.)

"How Jack Made the Turk Useful at Balaklava". British propaganda during the Crimean War. Sketch by John Leech from Punch, 1856.

“How Jack Made the Turk Useful at Balaklava”. British propaganda during the Crimean War. Sketch by John Leech from Punch, 1856.

So what conditions the Holdernessians into believing they are so worthless? Why, the force of the imperial state, Wood seems to present. Her characters are used to being held back by their own national “officialdom” (346), so that they have become acceptant of their powerlessness and insignificance. To start with, the increasing prevalence of “mechanical machinery” is “becoming a threat to the rural population” (16) who, made unemployed, are thrown into workhouses at the whim of the state. In town, the initiation of “window tax […] put on buildings with more than ten windows” is another way in which the state seizes control of what we would now consider to be people’s rights; individuals are “robbed of light and air” (225) simply to generate more money for those in charge. Bella, in particular, feels the strain of a strong gender dichotomy that presents itself through state legislation and cultural practice and actively restricts women’s futures; she is made to exist “in a grey bubble in which she floated through the days, doing what was expected of her” (169). This is ironic as although Bella is not allowed to own property, her business success with the Maritime Public House proves her to be far more capable of managing an estate than Jamie is as a landowner’s son. Of course, one of the most significant ways in which the state cripples its population again and again is by sending off “the tens of thousands of infantrymen and thousands of cavalry” (330) to fight in a war that has “nothing to do with us” (344).

An example of the impacts of Window Tax: boarded up windows to avoid fees  in this house in Stanton, Derbyshire

An example of the impacts of Window Tax: boarded up windows to avoid fees in this house in Stanton, Derbyshire

At the same time as the novels’ various characters are feeling the pressure of the state’s control, Wood also shows their increasing frustration with its limitations as – thanks to advancements in science, technology, travel and military prowess – the world opens up opportunities around them. Bella is prevented from pursuing her dreams to be a teacher by her family’s domestic situation, despite the possibilities this career would afford her to “travel […] learn another language and even go abroad” (10); she knows there is “so much more” (10) of the world to experience, and her feet are awfully itchy. The rest of the country is certainly trying to get on the move too; Bella notices how “the narrow coast road opened up to the more adventurous travellers who braved the Holderness plain to reach the delights of sea and sand” (54); Nell dreams of “theatres an’ concert halls” (175) in Hull; and Jamie can’t wait to study in London, “its being so universal” (106). Ironically, the nature of the Empire in Wood’s novel inspires its population with the will to explore and extend their reach but, simultaneously, seems to disallow this possibility to most.

Florence Nightingale, one of the only women with a prominent role in the Crimean War, nursing soldiers

Florence Nightingale, one of the only women with a prominent role in the Crimean War, nursing soldiers

Another irony in the way Wood depicts Empire is that its age-old customs are becoming redundant or increasingly problematic with its continuing success, affluence and advancements. For example, as Bella is permitted (partly out of necessity) to take a more active role at the Woodman Inn – a very ‘modern’ shift – her class status also mutates. Running a respectable inn, she is neither a labourer nor a landowner; she is an example of the emerging middle class. This causes great confusion in the mind of Jamie’s younger sister, Mary, who has been strictly educated in the Empire’s standard but “perplexing rules of etiquette” (140) that only instruct behaviour towards the two extreme classes. As a result, she doesn’t “know how to address her” and cannot fathom whether or not “she [is] a servant” (143). Thus the pattern of manners that has suited English society for centuries is becoming obsolete in the modernising world.

Overall, Wood does an excellent job of balancing broad depictions of the Empire with intimate domestic scenes in an engaging way. In fact, the British Empire as a whole – and the fortune of its population – is set up by Wood at a crucial fork in the road; one path leads to greater prospects, wider horizons and “brighter lights” (250), while the other heads towards military and cultural downfall and the disillusionment of its population. I think it is through the build-up of these see-saw moments (as well as the endearing characterisation that encourages readers to take an avid interest in what the outcome is) that makes The Innkeeper’s Daughter relevant to 2013, in which the fortunes of ‘Britain’ as a joint Scottish-English-Welsh concept are equally up in the air. I cordially invite this novel to partake of 3/5 stars. Any thoughts?

Next week I’ll be reading Melvin Burgess’ Kill All Enemies, set in West Yorkshire. Join me!

WOOD, Val. The Innkeeper’s Daughter. London: Corgi, 2013.

Featured Image: Area affected by Crimean War.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_of_Paris_(1856)

Chancing ‘Chick Lit’

One of the reasons I started this challenge was to branch out in my reading, since my booklist over the three years at university – which is also fairly representative of my recreational reading up to this point – looks something like this:

graph

As you can see, less than 10% of books I have read in my life have actually been written during my life. If it’s not classical, canonical or critical, it’s a safe assumption that I have not had the chance to read it yet. Though I utterly adored my degree and feel privileged to have read so many great literary works, I was also desperate to experience something topical! ‘Maybe one day I’ll finally be able to read a current bestseller,’ I thought, ‘or catch up with Richard and Judy’s Book Club, or even buy a book I’ve never heard of, on a whim, simply because I like the look of it.’

"Money Can't Buy Me Love" - Julie Reilly

“Money Can’t Buy Me Love” – Julie Reilly

Enter Money Can’t Buy Me Love by Julie Reilly, my choice for Lancashire. I am thrilled (yet suitably apologetic) to say that I have never heard of it and chose it for the simple reason that, as I flicked through its pages, I got ridiculously excited at seeing the all-too-recognisable references to “Marks and Spencer” (49), “Facebook and Twitter” (85), “JK Rowling” (120) and “repeats of Red Dwarf on Dave” (125). As an interesting aside, it is yet another modern novel in this challenge that mentions 9/11: protagonist Linzi “visited Ground Zero and took the walking tour of the perimeter of the site, remembering the moment in 2001 when she had first heard that an aeroplane had crashed into the side of the World Trade Centre.” (72)

The book begins, though, in Blackpool, where clinically obese Linzi lives with loving boyfriend Adam. Throughout the course of the novel, she wins £13 million in the National Lottery; becomes selfish and ungenerous whilst obsessing over a new dangerous weight-loss regime that halves her body weight in little over a year; loses everything and everyone she loves in a quest for celebrity status; moves into a huge mansion in Cheshire “where the footballers live” (126); tries to kill herself when she realises she can’t win Adam back; moves away to Devon to get away from her problems and the press; finds true love and a real home in the countryside; and gradually redeems herself.

National Lottery

National Lottery

As that brief summary might suggest, Linzi lives a life that is all over the place, with no sense of home, comfort or belonging. Despite being dubbed by the newspapers as the “notorious vanishing Lottery winner from Blackpool” (362), the town inspires no special attachment in Linzi, who “only moved to Blackpool because [Adam] got a job here” (137). Her parents’ house is no safe haven either, since her mother criticises her weight at all opportunities. In fact, after her gigantic win, Linzi spends most of her time checking in and out of “drab and soulless” (375) hotels, unsettled in more ways than one. Most importantly, she cannot even find rest inside her own “container” (101), her body, because of the self-loathing her weight incites.

Reilly compares Linzi’s struggle to redefine the lines of her body with her failure to maintain the lines round her property or create a sense of belonging for herself; after finally settling (it seems) in Cheshire, members of the press repeatedly encroach onto her driveway and into her personal space, making the mansion feel like little more than an “expensive prison” (252) which she must “climb over the wall” (264) to access. Her own home becomes “out of bounds” (123) and a place of discomfort; she moves around the rooms “awkwardly” (208), intimidated as she is by the “ample formal reception rooms” (143), the “tufts of pink stuff” (205) in her own garden that she cannot identify and its “spinning steps” (236) that bring Mount Kilimanjaro to mind.

Linzi works tirelessly towards her own literal disappearance, to satisfy her self-loathing. Not only does she want to get thinner and thinner, but she makes herself invisible to the press by wearing disguises, staying away from her own windows or using discreet entrances and exits. She chooses to decorate her bedroom with carpet “so thick you could lose your toes in it” (163) to silence her own footsteps. On top of that, and aside from the suicide attempt (which would, most definitely, have removed her from her own story), Linzi’s body visibly shrinks – through the use of diet pills, anorexic eating patterns, brutal exercise plans and, in the final stages, plastic surgery – to a size eight; she all but vanishes before readers’ eyes. Through this theme, Reilly also criticises many aspects of society (including science and technology) for aiding this superficial obsession with the “magazine body” (12), through the development of

a)      “this number called BMI which […] was actually a measure of just how grotesquely obese you were, as if the number on the scales wasn’t enough” (23) and

b)      “Microsoft Excel”, which allows Linzi to live out her addiction by “set[ting] up a spreadsheet of her weight loss with a weekly target and a chart” (24).

The NHS's BMI Chart

The NHS’s BMI Chart

This self-elimination is directly contradicted at the end of the novel, when Linzi moves to Devon and “feels like [she’s] finally come home” (274). In the “psychologically more uplifting” (323) environment of the countryside, she throws herself into village life at all possible opportunities. Tellingly, one of the first things she appreciates about the houses (in contrast with her Cheshire mansion) are “the boundary walls between the properties”, which are not only clearly defined, but attractive and protected too, “constructed of local stones” (272). She can finally be at peace with her “container” (101) – in both her body and her property.

Reilly’s novel had some interesting characters and themes but the plot was not my cup of tea. At times, especially as Linzi’s life was spiralling steadily downhill in Cheshire, the narrative dragged a lot. There were several points at which I thought the novel was going to end, but then yet another tenuous twist occurred and Linzi’s obsession was allowed to sputter on. The intricate detail of Linzi’s weight-loss regime, while commendable in some respects, made the novel feel more like a how-to book for masochists. Perhaps this is because, as I learnt at the end, “like Linzi, [Julie Reilly] lost a great deal of weight, took up running and ran the 2011 Virgin London Marathon”. Overall, it was a new experience to read a book that was so relevant to modern life but I can’t justify giving Money Can’t Buy Me Love any more than 1/5 stars.

I’ll be reviewing Val Wood’s The Innkeeper’s Daughter soon, so pick up a copy or, if you’re modern, download one and argue the toss with me next week!

REILLY, Julie. Money Can’t Buy Me Love. Secret Cravings Book Club, 2012.

Featured Image: Central Pier, Blackpool by Andrew D Hurley

http://www.orangesmile.com/travelguide/blackpool/photo-gallery.htm