Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Book Review: See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg

If perfect characters are boring, then Tore Renberg's latest novel, his first to be translated into English, promises to be very interesting indeed. Lifting the lid of respectability on Stavanger, oil capital of Norway, to reveal the seething detritus beneath, See You Tomorrow brings together a collection of flawed individuals in a fast-moving sequence of events, which will push them towards acts of ever-increasing desperation.

Welcome to Hell, where everybody has their own circle. Fifteen-year-old good girl Sandra is in love with handsome but dangerous Daniel William Moi, and has a fight on her hands if she's to keep him. Single father Pål is struggling to bring up his two daughters, Malene and Tiril, on his modest civil servant's salary, hiding his addiction which is spiralling into debt. Out of better options, he turns to a gang of small-time criminals he knew in his school-days; Jan Inge, Rudi and Cecilie, each one inhabiting the long, dark shadows created by their own past.

See You Tomorrow takes place over three claustrophobically intense September days of unusually late sunshine, holding the winter at bay. Stories are interwoven, with each chapter told from a different character's perspective. Sandra brings with her all the longing and insecurities of a teenager's first love; she knows who she wants, but it's messing with her head:
All she's got is heat and dread, haste and apprehension. All she feels is this drizzle within, like a strange rain falling inside her, wonderful and dangerous.
She'd love to know what Daniel really thinks of her. If only she could read his thoughts:
Wow, she's slightly knock-kneed. He hadn't noticed. She runs like that and all, knees banging together, one hands under her tits, her head sort of dancing from side to side, her other hand swinging out as though it had a mind of its own, alive, free from the rest of her. Christ she looks gorgeous, looks super sexy running along. 
Daniel and Sandra meet in the woods at night, where Pål is asking Rudi for help. A one-man stream of sex-devoted consciousness, Rudi has been totally in love with poor, damaged Cecilie for the last twenty-seven years. There's no doubt Cecilie loves Rudi too, most of the time, but she's worn out by the seediness of their life, all the petty break-ins on speed. She habitually cries from just one eye and carries her own secret; she's expecting a baby but doesn't know who is the father.

Cecilie shares her childhood home with Rudi and her brother and gang leader, Jan Inge. Obsessed with horror movies and having previously pimped his own sister for sex, Jan Inge may just be the most broken one of all. He's overweight and afraid of loneliness, yet considers himself big-hearted, living by his own warped and hilarious code of morality:
'...let me make it quite clear that we're anti-porn. We're feminists twenty-four hours a day. At your service, women!'
The fourth gang member is Korean hard-man Tong, who will be released from Åna prison just in time to take part in their next job. Unsurprisingly, the gang's solution to Pål's problems, a classic in their book, is one that Pål himself is far from comfortable with. As Malene and Tiril, preoccupied with their new friend Sandra's predicament, become aware that something is going badly wrong for their father, they may already be too late to prevent more than one life from unravelling.

See You Tomorrow is a gripping, fast-paced read in the tradition of Nordic noir. The twists and turns of the plot have you in its thrall; its shocks are not for the squeamish. The atmosphere, layered with music, is reminiscent of an Ian Rankin Rebus novel, albeit from a different source; there's Metallica and Motörhead, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, along with Evanescence for the younger generation.

Tore Renberg is already an author of repute in Norway, having published several successful books which have been made into films. He's also a charismatic speaker and, if you get the chance to see him in person, I'd urge you to do so. His work has been translated into nineteen languages and the sequel to See You Tomorrow, featuring the same characters, will also be published in English by Arcadia.

What transforms See You Tomorrow from a straightforward crime thriller into such a genre-defying accomplishment is Renberg's sense of humour, coupled with an unusual structure and powerful detail which lets the reader right into his characters' heads. You sympathise with them no matter how self-inflicted their dilemmas or despicable their actions; even a lowlife like Rudi, who in reality you'd cross the street to avoid, becomes strangely endearing in his one-note obsessiveness and furtive love of Coldplay. Only with Tong, the inscrutable Korean tough guy, was I really unable to feel any connection (but then he is supposed to be inscrutable).

Most unexpectedly of all, See You Tomorrow proves ultimately to be an uplifting read; in the shafts of light between the darkness, there's a whole lot of love going round. Life more or less damages us all and, no matter how broken, everyone in this story is in some odd way celebrating their time on earth. And that, in itself, is perfection.

See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg (translated by Sean Kinsella) is published by Arcadia Books in the UK and available in hardback. Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Book Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

When talking about her novel Honour at the 2013 Bath Literature Festival, Elif Shafak agreed with an audience member that it's still difficult for a young woman in Turkey to break away from the traditional wife and mother role. 'But don’t forget the young men,' she said. 'It’s hard for them, too. Often they don’t know what’s expected any more.'

Honour opens in London in 1992 with the voice of Esma, a Turkish-born London-bred Kurd, about to meet her brother on his release from Shrewsbury prison:
My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten, but I could never find the time or the will or the courage to write about it. That is, until recently. I don't think I'll ever become a real writer and that's quite all right now. I've reached an age at which I'm more at peace with my limitations and failures. But I had to tell the story, even if only to one person. I had to send it into some corner of the universe, where it could float freely away from us. I owed it to Mum, this freedom. And I had to finish it this year. Before he was released from prison. 
The story moves back in time to a remote village near the River Euphrates in 1945, where Esma's mother Pembe and her twin sister Jamila are born. In a family with six daughters already and no sons, they're not exactly welcome. From an early age, they're taught that modesty is a woman's constant shield; men may have honour but women only have shame.
It was all because women were made of the lightest cambric...where men were cut of thick, dark fabric. That is how God had tailored the two: one superior to the other. As to why He had done that, it wasn't up to human beings to question. What mattered was that the colour black didn't show stains, unlike the colour white, which revealed even the tiniest speck of dirt. By the same token, women who were sullied would be instantly noticed and separated from the rest, like husks removed from grains. 
The girls grow up, identical but with contrasting personalities; Pembe spirited and adventurous, Jamila quieter and home-loving. Yet it's Pembe who marries Adem and has three children, Iksander, Esma and Yunus, fulfilling her wish to travel by moving with her family to Istanbul then London and leaving her unwed twin behind.

With Adem increasingly plagued by his own demons, tradition dictates that Iskander, young and uncertain behind his bullying veneer, must become head of the household. Determined to protect his family's honour by applying a different set of standards to his mother and sister than to his western girlfriend, he makes a series of decisions which will ultimately end in tragedy.

Not only are there time-shifts within Honour but also multiple viewpoints; from early in the narrative Iskander writes in prison as the days move closer to his release. Back in 1970s London, Pembe must adapt to a world with different values, while her children forge their own identities. Like so many parents before her, she wonders at their differences;
While Iskender craved to control the world, and Esma to change it for once and for all, Yunus wanted to comprehend it.
In a parallel story, Jamila, revered as the 'Virgin Midwife', lives out her days on the fringes of Kurdish society, riven by dreams and premonitions. It's through Esma that Shafak draws all the threads together, darting back and forth between the decades, circling ever closer until she reveals the ultimate, heart-wrenching sequence of events.

Honour exposes the conflict between traditional beliefs which have remained unchanged for centuries and the greater freedoms of a multicultural society. From the very first, this novel's twisted secrets and intrigues draw the reader in and, although the fragmented and frequent changes of time-frame have the potential to confuse, Shafak creates all her characters with such compassion that the motives of each one, however flawed, can be understood. As she reveals the complexities behind the family turmoil that leads to shock headlines of 'honour killing', her words at the literature festival, that it's hard for men too, still resonate.

Shafak's prose has a haunting, lyrical quality; a fusion of magical realism and storytelling on an epic scale. Writing in both English and and her native Turkish, she's an extremely popular author in Turkey and now more widely receiving the recognition she richly deserves; Honour was longlisted for both the Asian Man Booker Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013.

Shafak dedicates Honour to ' those who hear, those who see' and makes it a little easier for us all to do so.

Honour is published in the UK by Penguin and available here. Thanks to my lovely daughter Livvy for giving me this book.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Review: Bad Jews at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

A play set in the aftermath of a funeral promises heightened emotions, family discord and most likely a disputed inheritance. When the deceased is a Holocaust survivor and three of the four characters are his grandchildren, you can add the provocative potential of lacerating, darkly comic argument to the mix.

Bad Jews begins quietly enough in the Manhattan apartment that Jonah and his brother Liam’s parents have bought for them, a tiny but well-equipped studio with a view of the Hudson from its bathroom window. Jonah (Joe Coen) is sleeping on the sofa bed and cousin Daphna has a mattress; returned from seeing their beloved grandfather Poppy laid to rest, they discuss the events of the day. Foremost in Daphna’s mind is what should happen to the one item of religious significance that Poppy has left, a memento which, as the only grandchild still upholding traditional Jewish beliefs, she believes she should rightfully inherit.
It’s when Liam arrives with his latest girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow, having missed the funeral because he lost his cell phone while skiing in Aspen, that the atmosphere becomes instantly charged. Accusations fly back and forth as Daphna and Liam revive their deep-seated enmity with diametrically opposed views about the nature of Jewish faith and identity and its place in present day America. Picking at each other’s weaknesses with echoes of the same words, the fiercely intelligent Daphna lashes out at Liam’s lack of respect for centuries of tradition while he responds by accusing her of holding ideas of racial purity more akin to the Nazis. Above all, Liam has reasons of his own for believing Poppy’s most precious inheritance is his and that he alone should be able to decide its future.
The cast is superb and Jenna Augen and Ilan Goodman in particular portray the friction between Daphna and Liam, two sides of the same spirited coin, with great conviction. The tension is palpable and, after a slightly hesitant beginning, under Michael Longhurst’s assured direction highs and lows are well-paced. Furious argument is relieved by moments of tenderness as the cousins recall a disastrous family celebration at a Japanese restaurant and pure comedy as Melody, the conciliatory non-Jewish girl from Delaware who doesn’t even know her own origins, is persuaded to demonstrate her operatic skills. The set design, a central living area allowing escape or banishment to the bathroom and angry asides in the hallway, cleverly adds to the overall dynamism of this production.
Joshua Harmon’s provocatively-titled Bad Jews was first seen in New York in 2012 and his writing delivers strong characters whose words and ideas, although unflinching, today seem more urgently relevant than ever. As the arguments circle with little chance of resolution by the next generation, by the end we’re forced to confront what has so far been overlooked.
We've become used to expecting great things of the Ustinov and their latest UK premiere of an new American play is no exception; it’s a funny and intense, savagely satisfying and ultimately moving experience to uncover the power of silence amidst the onslaught of words.
Runs until 30th August 2014, more information and tickets are available here. My original review can be found here

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Bookishness: Exposing the 'To Be Read' Pile

I shared this photo of my To Be Read (TBR) pile with some bookish friends on Twitter the other day and found it an unexpectedly cathartic experience. Despite attempts at self-control and the counselling of my family, I can't help but add to this wall of books at every opportunity. An unexpected siege might prevent me from leaving home, connecting to the WiFi or receiving post for a couple of years, but at least I'll know I'm not going to run out of reading material.

Looking at the variety of Twitter TBRs we were sharing, some smaller but others even larger than mine, I was suffused with delirium at the thought of no longer being alone in my obsession. Here was proof of others just as afflicted as me! Equally fascinating was the chance to check out their books, see what authors we had in common and yes - shame upon shame - find new inspiration.

I discovered some of my fellow addicts have neat shelves, others are more 'organic'. Some even have a system, dividing TBR books into genres; quite a crafty move this, dotting lots of small piles around the place to give an overall impression of order. Perhaps something to think about as my generic sprawl begins to spawn sub-piles (including some intended rereads) like this:

I wonder how much of the attraction is the physical book itself - the cover, the typography, the feel and smell - as well as its content? Writing for Oprah's website, Zadie Smith discusses what it means to be addicted to reading and why this is not so much a positive choice as an immutable part of your being. Even though she now owns a Kindle she recounts how, going to a friend's house for dinner, she still takes several books with her...for what? 

I suspect most bibliomaniacs can relate to this. When my car broke down recently, I was less annoyed about being late for lunch and more irate that this was one of the few times I'd convinced myself to leave home without a book. I'd squandered the perfect reading opportunity of an hour waiting for the RAC  - a mistake I've vowed never to repeat. From now on, I'm not even going as far as my local bookshop without a large, sturdy bag stuffed from one of my sub-piles - just in case.

Do you have a TBR pile? How does it compare?

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Think of forgetting so much that you might not even recognise your own daughter and you'll begin to identify with the bewildering world of Maud, the elderly narrator of Emma Healey's first novel Elizabeth is Missing. Simple things like setting the table (which way round do the knife and fork go?) or boiling an egg (leaving the gas on) become fraught with difficulty, memories slither away and words are as elusive as teenagers at sunrise. Jars become 'glass things, those things for drinking and jam' and a cardigan 'the sleeved thing, the buttoned and sleeved thing I've been trying to fold'. It seems she may be the most unreliable narrator of them all.

But Maud writes things down and, no matter how much her daughter says otherwise, her pocket full of notes is telling her that her friend Elizabeth is missing.
Helen sighs again. She's been doing a lot of that lately. She won't listen, won't take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she's thinking, that I've lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don't remember having seen her recently. But it's not true. I forget things - I know that - but I'm not mad. Not yet. And I'm sick of being treated as if I am. I'm tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused and I'm bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. 
Maud feels the frustration of not being believed any more, the invisibility of the old. She's shocked when she catches sight of her reflection, caged by the mental and physical limitations of age and enraged by the condescension of strangers. But puzzling over the whereabouts of Elizabeth reawakens memories of the past when, still living at home with her parents, she was enthralled by the style and sophistication of her older sister Sukey. Married to Frank, a furniture dealer with black-market connections and a lively temper:
Sukey often complained about the 'junk' that Frank brought home. Paintings of boats all done in brownish paint and ugly plates teeming with insects. This time it was a glass dome the size of a coal bucket full of stuffed birds. I got up, pressing a hand to the fiery side of my face, and peered in.The birds were brightly coloured, green and yellow and blue. Some had their wings spread out; some had beaks poking into flowers; others, as I moved round, pointed straight at me. Their glassy eyes seemed not to fit quite in their sockets and their feathers had a dullness to them which made me think they'd been dyed. I couldn't look away.
One tea-time, Sukey appeared at the family home and suggested she might stay the night, before changing her mind and disappearing without a trace. As Maud determines to investigate what has happened to Elizabeth, she also begins to unravel the mystery surrounding Sukey which has tramelled so much of her life.

Retelling the seventy-year-old story frees Maud from the confusion of the present and Healey is equally adept at capturing the detail of a young schoolgirl's life in a post-war Britain pre-occupied with rationing and food coupons. There's the lodger with his gramophone and the mad lady who lives on the streets and connections threading between past and present; Maud unearths the compact Sukey used to own and knows there's some significance to planting marrows. Just in case a novel full of Maud's present might be too difficult to decipher, the interweaving of an earlier era adds a welcome balance to the mix.

In her remarkable protagonist, Emma Healey has created an unforgettable voice, with a deftness of touch quite startling in a debut novelist. Maud is at once both extraordinary and yet quite ordinary, the face of all our elderly parents and grand-parents with a lifetime of experience and a need to still engage with society. While understanding the exasperation of her carers, we empathise as Maud attempts to retain the shreds of her independence in a world becoming ever more alien and applaud her determination to uncover the truth, no matter how many times she's told she's wrong.

Elizabeth is Missing has already brought considerable success to its author, the subject of a bidding war between publishers, with TV rights sold and a place on the longlist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize showcasing young writers. At the heart of Elizabeth is Missing is a conventional mystery being solved by unconventional means, but the novel is so much more than this; a mix of genres which is sad, wise and often funny, an unsettling glimpse of a future we just might not wish for ourselves.

Thanks to Viking/Penguin for my review copy.
Photos courtesy of The Guardian.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Book Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

A recent book conversation on Twitter resulted in my making an impulsive proposal to reread Testament of Youth. It was only afterwards, checking its page count of over 600 while glancing at my teetering tower of unread books, that I wondered at the size of my commitment.

Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain's memoir of her experiences during the First World War, but the opening finds this vibrant, intelligent young woman fighting a personal battle with Victorian parents to permit her to study at Oxford. 'The desire for a more eventful existence and a less restricted horizon' than provincial Buxton leads her to relentlessly pursue a place at Somerville College.

Meanwhile her brother Edward, whose own path to Oxford is straightforward, as well as sweetheart Roland and their friends Victor and Geoffrey, are rapidly abandoning education for the army. Idealism abounds and this golden circle of young men enrols with heads full of heroism and valour, realising they might lose their lives in the service of their country, but envisaging a gloriously patriotic death.

Today we realise they will face not a quick, victorious war won by Christmas but years of hardship in front-line trenches mired in mud. The four friends each endure their own separate hell of danger-spiked tedium alternating with interludes of that fierce, sporadic fighting which sacrificed so many thousands of infantrymen for so little gain. During her first longed-for year at University, with most of her male contemporaries in action, Brittain reaches the conclusion that she, too must make a physical contribution to the war effort and sets aside her studies to volunteer as a Red Cross nurse.

Like many, I first read Testament of Youth after watching the moving 1970s television dramatisation starring the brilliant Cheryl Campbell. Since then I've reread it on several occasions, but this time round, as we near the centenary of Great War's beginning, it seems even more achingly relevant and richly rewarding of the commitment. Brittain's recollections now have an almost prophetic note, sounding a trumpet blast against the waste and futility of today's armed conflicts in the streets of Gaza and Syria and our inflamed international relations after the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine. Her generation was to pay such an enormous price for a war which attached little value to so many human lives; how have we forgotten so quickly and is this a lesson we must really learn anew?

Brittain's writing emphasises the devastating personal suffering of war, the near impossibility of having to endure every day without knowing whether those you love dearest are safe. She gets through by making herself too physically exhausted to think, yet still scans the casualty lists in The Times with dread and fears the knock at the door that might herald a telegram. When the worst news comes, there is no relief. Most shocking is the army's extraordinary return to a grieving family of all a dead soldier's possessions, including the shredded, blood-soaked clothes he was shot in.

As the War progresses, Brittain places herself further in harm's way by volunteering for service overseas. Her experiences in the sunshine of Malta and the 'corrupt clay' of France are both perilous but sharply contrasting, yet despite her essential role she faces growing demands from her parents that, with shortages of domestic staff commonplace, her place as a daughter is to look after the home.

Sometimes there's still joy in nature and the simple beauty of a sunset, even when seen from the trenches. The poetry in Testament of Youth is deeply evocative; often these are Brittain's verses which draw on her own and Roland's experiences, as well as the better-known lines of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and the heart-breaking simplicity of May Wedderburn Cannan

When the vision dies in the dust of the market-place
When the light is dim
When you lift up your eyes and cannot behold his face
When your heart is far from him,

Know this is your war; in this loneliest hour you ride
Down the roads he knew
Though he comes no more at night he will kneel at your side
For comfort to dream with you

Although war is central to Testament of Youth, Brittain writes of more than this; at the beginning she reminds us of the intensity and passion of first love, especially in a time now gone when a young couple are usually chaperoned on the rare occasions when they meet. She describes the elaborate outfits she took such care over; particularly memorable is her black moiré and velvet hat trimmed with red roses. Women can neither graduate from University nor vote and marriage is seen as the natural pinnacle of their ambitions. It's only in the darkest days of 1918, with women already doing much of the work traditionally undertaken by men, that partial suffrage is granted to those over thirty. By then, so much has happened that Brittain doesn't even notice this monumental achievement for feminism which
crept to its quiet, unadvertised triumph in the deepest night of wartime depression.
Her description of the end of war is one of 'numb disillusion' and in the aftermath she returns to Oxford, not to be hailed a war heroine but to be shunned by students too young to serve. Struggling to come to terms with peace, through her journalism and work for the League of Nations, she experiences at first hand the disastrous consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.

Nobody is more deserving than Vera Brittain of the measure of personal happiness she eventually finds, not least due to her great friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby. But she is forever 'shaped and shadowed' by the War, as her daughter, Shirley Williams, explains in the preface;
It was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind, the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply.
Small wonder that she became an advocate of pacifism, distressed at the prospect of another approaching war. Her wonderfully articulate, haunting masterpiece still stands today as a testament to her beliefs.

Read Helen Stanton's review of Testament of Youth on her blog MadabouttheBooks here

Testament of Youth is available in the UK as a paperback from Virago Books. 
Photographs courtesy of The Telegraph and The Birmingham Mail.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Reading the Classics: Achebe, Steinbeck and Bulgakov

My reading of the classics has been decidedly patchy over the years. I hated everything we studied in English at school on principle - even novels I've later come to adore like Jane Eyre. Essay writing was always a chore so, despite having otherwise loved books, I gave up on taking literature post-16. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot - seems I was intent on blasting a double-barrelled shotgun at mine.

These days I'm trying to make up for my wilderness years, as well as weaning myself off a complete diet of new books, which I tend to read and review for this blog. So here are three recent reads:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I became intrigued by the writing of this internationally acclaimed Nigerian author after discovering its influence on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The opening line of her first novel Purple Hibiscus is a direct reference:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother Jaja did not go to communion...
I also like the way Achebe and Adichie nestle together on the bookshelf:

 In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is an important man in the village of Umuofia, a wrestler and warrior of great esteem. He has three wives, many children and a plentiful supply of yams in his barn. In this patriarchal farming community, life is physically demanding and a successful harvest, the bridge between life and death, is at the mercy of the elements. There's a strict hierarchy to respect, gods to honour and customs to be obeyed. Often they are brutal; twins are considered evil and left to die in the forest and Okonkwo participates in the killing of a boy he has virtually adopted as a son, in order to appease the Oracle. But things really begin to fall apart when Okwonko offends the gods and is banished from his home. Upon his return, he finds that white men have arrived, threatening to overturn life as he knows it.

Traditional Nigerian village existence is challenged by the arrival of colonial power in the guise of Christian missionaries and a white civil governor. Things Fall Apart is the first in a trilogy of works about the changes wrought in this community. I was absorbed by the unstinting power and directness of Achebe's writing and will be reading more.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Having loved and cried over The Grapes of Wrath, I'd been intending to read Of Mice and Men for a while. It was this book's recent 'banning' from the English syllabus which made me pick it up, interested to find out why it had been studied by a phenomenal 90% of GCSE students in England.

George and Lennie travel together in search of work on the ranches of California during the Great Depression. George, small and quick-witted, looks out for Lennie, a gentle giant of limited mental capacity who doesn't know his own strength. The duo are migrants but dream of a better life where they own their own land and keep rabbits for Lennie to stroke.

Existence on their latest ranch is fraught with danger and, despite being a hard worker, Lennie is ill-equipped for it; there are threatening moments as the boss's son Curley craves a fight, while his new wife is busy craving the attention of every man she happens across. George and Lennie's dream comes so close they can almost reach out and touch it, but tragedy is foreshadowed in the fate of animals be they mice, old mutts or newborn puppies. Foolishly George leaves Lennie on the ranch for an evening while he goes to town with some of the other hands, with farther-reaching repercussions than even he could have imagined.

Steinbeck's writing is as unflinching and atmospheric as ever, but I was startled that such a brief novella, more of a snapshot than a fully developed masterpiece, could have become the book of choice for GCSE. Maybe brevity is the point; the story can easily be absorbed in one sitting and regurgitated without too many problems. But surely it's an issue that there's only one stereotypical female character in the book, even though she has a suggestion of greater depths which could be explored in a longer novel. Does any of this make Of Mice and Men easier to discuss in answering a GCSE question? I have a feeling it might not.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Entering the surreal world of 1930s Moscow when the Devil comes calling was my favourite of these three reads. He appears in the city one evening with a fast-talking black cat named Behometh and a motley collection of other associates, plus a set of bizarre predictions which unnervingly come true. Wreaking havoc all around him, it seems the citizens of Moscow are powerless in his grasp. 

Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate is in Jerusalem, overseeing the trial of Yeshua, a story at the heart of the Master's novel. Margarita, the Master's lover, believes passionately in his work, but given the opportunity by the Devil to become a witch with supernatural powers, she takes it and presides over his midnight ball.

This is a multi-layered satire of good and evil filled with allusion to Stalin's repressive regime and many of the absurdities it created. It is full of cultural and literary references, but tellingly, the devil has all the best lines; 'Manuscripts don't burn' he proclaims as he produces the novel the Master earlier threw on the fire.