What writers really do when they write: George Saunders (from The Guardian)

A wonderful piece by George Saunders on writing. Saunders is a short story writer, and his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, has just been published. He writes about how the idea for the book came to him, and what it takes to move from an idea to a finely honed piece of writing.

“A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them. This intuitive approach I’ve been discussing is most essential, I think, during the first phase: the gathering of the pins. This gathering phase really is: conjuring up the pins. Somehow the best pins are the ones made inadvertently, through this system of radical, iterative preference I’ve described. Concentrating on the line-to-line sound of the prose, or some matter of internal logic, or describing a certain swath of nature in the most evocative way (that is, by doing whatever gives us delight, and about which we have a strong opinion), we suddenly find that we’ve made a pin. Which pin? Better not to name it. To name it is to reduce it. Often ‘pin’ exists simply as some form of imperative, or a thing about which we’re curious; a threat, a promise, a pattern, a vow we feel must soon be broken. Scrooge says it would be best if Tiny Tim died and eliminated the surplus population; Romeo loves Juliet; Akaky Akakievich needs a new overcoat; Gatsby really wants Daisy.

“Then: up go the pins. The reader knows they are up there and waits for them to come down and be caught. If they don’t come down (Romeo decides not to date Juliet after all, but to go to law school; the weather in St Petersburg suddenly gets tropical, and the overcoat will not be needed; Gatsby sours on Daisy, falls for Betty; the writer seems to have forgotten about his grey motif) the reader cries foul, and her forehead needle plummets into the ‘N’ zone and she throws down the book and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.”

The article is worth reading in full–an inspiration for writers and for anyone who is curious about the craft.

Thank you to Christina O’Shaughnessy for sharing this!

Read the article.

Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian

Dark Fire: C.J. Sansom

When I mentioned to a friend that I enjoyed Susanna Gregory’s medieval whodunits, she lent me the entire series of novels set during the time of Henry VIII with a hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, as the main character. Having just finished the first one (although strictly speaking, Dark Fire is the second in the series), I’m glad she did.

Dark Fire is a historical novel that is also a murder mystery, set in London during the last years of Henry VIII. The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a disaster, and he wants to divorce her and marry Katherine Howard. But there are fears that the marriage to Howard will take England back to Catholicism, with dire consequences for Protestants and those who had defied Rome.

The novel takes place in 1540, the hottest summer of the century. Matthew Shardlake takes on the case of Elizabeth, a young girl who has been accused of killing her cousin. But Elizabeth will not utter a word, either to Shardlake or at her trial, and is condemned to the press, an inhuman punishment for those who will not plead.

In the meantime, Thomas Cromwell, Shardlake’s old master, is losing favour with the king. Cromwell arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves and would stand to lose his position and very possibly his life, if the king married Katherine Howard and went back to Catholicism.

Cromwell promises the king Greek fire, a legendary substance used by the Byzantines to blow up ships—a fire that could burn on water. The formula had been lost for centuries but had been found in London, and the substance had been secretly recreated. Cromwell wants Shardlake to help him find the Greek fire in time for a demonstration planned for the king in ten days. He “persuades” Shardlake by delaying Elizabeth’s sentence.

But people connected with Greek fire are being brutally murdered. Shardlake has not only to find the formula and expose the person behind the killings but also unravel the mystery surrounding Elizabeth. He is helped in this by Barak, one of Cromwell’s men sent to help—and keep an eye on—the lawyer.

C.J. Sansom’s fine eye for detail brings Tudor London alive: the noise and commotion of the streets; the narrow, warped wooden stairs in a badly built, lopsided house; the expensive red and green wallpaper on the walls of a senior barrister’s office; and the bottles of herbs and spices and musky smell of a Moorish apothecary’s shop. I  could feel the heat and the smells that came off the river at low tide.

The characters are engaging. Shardlake, because of his disability, is an outsider and a loner with a strong sense of justice. Barak seems like a thug at first but Sansom slowly reveals the man behind the tough exterior: a loyal man who, like Shardlake, cares for those hard done by.

Like the best of historical novels, Dark Fire immerses the reader in the period—a time of turmoil and uncertainty, power struggles and religious strife. Not that different, then, from ours.

New York Times on Truth and Lies in Fiction–Lie to Me: Fiction in the Post-Truth Era

truth_edited-1Adam Kirsch
New York Times, 17 January 2017

Adam Kirsch on the problematic relationship between truth and lies in writing.

“Reality is the ingredient that turns a bad fiction into an enthralling one.

“This dynamic is part of the novel’s origins. The earliest English novels, from ‘Moll Flanders’ (1722) to ‘Clarissa’ (1748), were published anonymously, with titles that implied they were true stories. It took generations to establish the conventions of fiction sufficiently to allow readers to take pleasure in novels that were explicitly untrue. The suspension of disbelief that fiction involves is a late stage in the evolution of taste, and it may prove to have been a temporary one.

“The rise of the memoir over the past few decades doesn’t mean that readers are ready to abandon the techniques of fiction; but, like readers three centuries ago, they want the freedom of fiction along with consequentiality of fact.

…..

“The problem with our ‘post-truth’ politics is that a large share of the population has moved beyond true and false. They thrill precisely to the falsehood of a statement, because it shows that the speaker has the power to reshape reality in line with their own fantasies of self-righteous beleaguerment. To call novelists liars is naïve, because it mistakes their intention; they never wanted to be believed in the first place. The same is true of demagogues.”

Read the article.

Born to Run: Bruce Springsteen

born-to-run-9781501141515_hrIt was in the early 80s that I first heard Bruce Springsteen. Looking for new music, I raided the tiny music shop in Secunderabad (India) and picked up Born to Run. I was hooked. The music spoke to me, although I was from a different culture and a different continent—it was the feeling deep down inside of needing to be on the move (and I thought Thunder Road was one of the best love songs I’d heard). I’ve been a fan of his music ever since.

So I was excited, but a little nervous, when this book came out. Did I really want to get to know someone I admired? Maybe there is something to be said about keeping a distance.

He didn’t disappoint. The book is funny and poignant and above all, honest. You do get to know Springsteen better, warts and all. He doesn’t gloss over the problems he had getting close to people, his depression and his single-minded ambition. Although the writing can be lyrical, it is not polished—he tends to throw around ellipses and words in capital letters (which can be a bit disconcerting) and strings of adjectives. But this makes his story feel immediate. You can really feel what it must have been like to be young and full of music—and hormones! And it’s a distinct style, which I liked, rather than a bland recounting of events that you sometimes find in autobiographies. His passion for music, and for making music, shines throughout the book.

Springsteen grew up in New Jersey, son of an exuberant Italian mother and a misanthropic Irish father (with some Dutch heritage, which explains the surname). The father’s frustration and anger would come out when he’d been drinking and would often erupt on his son for not being tough enough. Looking back, Springsteen is able to see his father more clearly: “beyond his rage, he harboured a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. These were all the things I harboured on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him.”

Springsteen knew quite early that the only thing he could do with his life was make music. He started out with rock—one of his early bands was Steel Mill that played “primal rock” with long guitar solos. Inspired by Bob Dylan and wanting to write about his experience and the world he lived in, he started working on songs that became his first album, Greetings from Ashbury Park. That was the beginning of the long road for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They have played together for almost 40 years. I saw them in Bern in 2009, their last tour with the charismatic saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, to whom Springsteen dedicates a chapter. Of Clemon’s death in 2011, Springsteen says “losing him was like losing the rain”.

Springsteen dealt with the emotional scars left by his father by never allowing anyone to get really close and staying constantly on the move. But you can’t run from yourself, and it was only a matter of time before depression caught up with him, “spewing like an oil spill over the beautiful turquoise green gulf of my carefully planned existence”. He got through it, mostly, with help from his wife Patti Scialfa and his manager Jon Landau. But through it all—through the depression, the fame and the wealth—he’s never lost touch with reality.

His songs are often about ordinary people trying to get by. He captured 9/11 in The Rising, and the financial meltdown of the late 2000s in Wrecking Ball. I enjoyed the time I spent in his company, and hope he carries on doing what he has been doing all these years: reminding us that the “other” isn’t really all that different from us. And in this fraught time, when societies are so divided, this message is more important than ever.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster—Svetlana Alexievich

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voices-from-chernobyl“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

On 26 April 1986, Energy Block No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was destroyed by a series of explosions. This was one of the biggest technological disasters of the twentieth century, and no one was prepared for it. Soviet officials—under enormous political pressure from from those at the top who worried about how the country would be perceived after this—tended to err on the side of caution. (More information on the reaction.)

Ten years after the explosions, Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and author, began talking to the survivors, including residents of the area and those who came to clean up. Their testimonies form this book. Alexievich stands back and lets the people speak. And an oral history of the disaster emerges from the monologues of those whose voices had not yet been heard.

While it did not even have a nuclear reactor on its soil, Belarus has been the most affected by Chernobyl. It lost 485 of its villages and settlements. Of a total of 10 million people, some 2.1 million—or one in five, of whom 700,000 are children—now live on contaminated land. In the two regions that are closest to Chernobyl, mortality rates are 20 percent higher than birth rates.

Through these individual stories, the author builds up an overall picture of what really happened, both during the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath. What comes through is a suffering that is unimaginable and an unthinkable negligence on the part of the authorities.

Many of the interviewees spoke of the beauty of Chernobyl’s landscape—and its stillness. As if even the birds knew something terrible had happened, and left. But radiation is an invisible and lethal enemy. Farmers living off the land could not understand why they had to milk their cows and then throw the milk away. Or why they could not eat the carrots and cucumbers they grew. Although the liquidators—civil and military staff who cleaned up—were asked to dig up the topsoil and bury it deep in the earth, keeping it away from the water table, this did not always happen in practice.

An interviewee spoke of the liquidators who helped clear up the roof of the reactor. The lead vests they wore were of no use as the radiation came from below them. The only “protection” they had for their feet were cheap imitation-leather boots. The liquidators would spend a minute and a half to two minutes a day frantically cleaning up the debris, and then would be let go with a hundred roubles and a certificate. “And then they disappeared into the vast peripheries of our motherland….They were young guys. They’re dying now, but they understand that if it wasn’t for them…These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice.”

The unquestioning faith of citizens in their state and their duty is striking. Those who were called upon to go to Chernobyl went without protest. People in the exclusion zone were not too concerned, initially. After all, if the situation was really so serious, would the authorities not have informed them? However, their faith did not survive Chernobyl.

This book is not for the squeamish. On a physical level, there are graphic descriptions of what radiation can do to humans. Every pregnancy was a nightmare. There is a telling remark made by a midwife: “It was a long time since I had seen a happy pregnant woman”. Many women opted for abortions. Children who were carried to term were born deformed.

On an emotional level, the stories are heartbreaking. Lyudmilla, for example, was married to a fireman who was part of the clean-up operation and was dying of radiation sickness. Through it all, she nursed him, refusing to leave his side, trying to protect him as best she could. “And they photographed him. For science, they said. I’d have pushed them all out of there!…How dare they? It’s all mine—it’s my love.” Those who moved to another part of the country were stigmatized.

Listening to these stories—and it really does feel like you’re listening to them—is overwhelming. There were times when I felt numb because of the sheer volume of detail, told and retold. The author’s writing reflects the people as they speak, flat and repetitive at times, lyrical at others. Alexiviech has found a way to bring the disaster to life simply by listening to ordinary people who have seen it first-hand.

A photographer, Viktor Latun, captured the events in Chernobyl in the days after the disaster. He is quoted as saying: “We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death.”

In 2015, Svetlana Alexiviech was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. And I can see why. The voices she records in her book stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

Italian Shoes: Henning Mankell

italian-shoesWe find an aging man, living by himself on a Swedish island, where he has been in solitude since his retirement 12 years back. Once, he made a mistake he regrets so badly he has left everything to stay by himself with only a cat and a dog for company.

His world is suddenly disrupted when Harriet, his first and only love, who is suffering from a deadly illness, comes to see him to claim a promise he made before he left her; that he would take her to a pool in the forest he visited as a child.

For the first time in many years, Frederick is forced not only to think about the past, but also to confront it in flesh and blood, and by that, also to change his situation, and shape a different future.

Frederick is not able to understand why he left Harriet, nor is she. Indeed, there are a number of things about himself and the choices he has made in life that he is not able to comprehend, and he must realise that he has not always been a good person. He cannot make up for everything that has been lost, but he can try to fulfill his promise.

Throughout the book, the reader gets to know more and more why Frederick has decided to abandon everything to live on an island. A journey which takes the reader through a number of encounters; Italian shoemakers living in the forest, girls who have fled war but are unable to escape conflicts which continue inside themselves, athletes who lost everything, and professional postcard writers.

Sometimes Mankell’s stories are so farfetched they become difficult to relate to, but every story also has a purpose. As in his other books, Mankell wants his readers to be reminded of those who are worse off, including those who live far away, to be made uncomfortable by the large inequalities that exist in the world today.

Italian Shoes is a book about getting old, loneliness, and how our life choices affect us. It makes us consider what is really important. Despite the many opportunities to change his life journey, for our hero, doing so seems very hard. This is the situation for many people, and should remind us to reflect about our situation – time passes fast and at certain point things can no longer be done, or undone, depending on the situation. 

Despite the difficult themes, the book is beautiful, almost poetic. Mankell’s language, and the way he depicts Frederick and his emotional journey, makes this a book that should be prioritised. 

The MFA & the Literary Consultant: A dilettante’s procrastinations

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The articles posted on this blog have so far concentrated exclusively on books and reading. With this article, Thomas Peak is turning the focus to the other side of the process—the writing. How should aspiring writers hone their craft? Thomas shares his thoughts on the pros and cons of creative writing courses and literary consultancies.

Today, most aspiring writers will, at some point, have flirted with the notorious ‘MFA Dilemma’. Should I or shouldn’t I? Can I or can’t I? Well, the MFA (Master in Fine Arts, thank you very much) presents an opportunity to spend two or three years honing one’s craft in the comfort of some of the most literaryfriendly university towns in America. Opportunities criss-cross the continent; choices range from the Ivy League experience at Brown, where literary experiments are encouraged within the cosy confines of quaint New England red-bricks, through the bustling urban creative scenes at Colombia or Boston U., and stretch to the Bohemian Californian coast where the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford imposes not a single distraction upon the process of thinking, drafting, rethinking, redrafting. The top programmes fully-fund all those accepted, and accordingly, competition for this first step into professional writing is, so they say, ‘fierce’. This MFA system has been hailed as the most extensive – certainly the most meritocratic – system of artistic patronage yet established. And places such as Texas, John Hopkins, Virginia, Vanderbilt, and the famed Writers-Workshop in Iowa (whose influence has elevated inconspicuous, small-town, Iowa City into North America’s only UNESCO City of Literature) present opportunities for the cream of literary aspirants in some, perhaps, how should we say?, unexpected settings.

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But in this day and age, we are well aware that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Dissatisfied rumblings abound on blogs and think-pieces decrying the ‘MFA Machine’. The sprawling empire of the accredited professional stalks the literary world, spewing forth an endless stream of first time writers, accredited artists, mechanised novelists producing work beaten within an inch of its life by the orthodoxies of de-individualising seminar critiques akin to Maoist self-criticisms. So we have both the fear and the promise of the MFA. Because how does one get work in front of its audience? For many emerging writers, the feeling is that to slink before the editor-agent-publisher, one almost requires an MFA. But will the work survive this pounding indoctrination, the threat of systematic creativity?

And then there is the cost.

For the top programmes, to get an offer you must beat anywhere between 100 and 130 others. With these odds, applying to a single programme would be confidence bordering upon the reckless. Really, it only makes sense to go with at least 5 or 6 choices, and at up to $100 per application, excluding postage of hefty manuscripts, this represents a not inconsiderable investment, with fleeting chances of success. On top of this, applications swallow a considerable amount of time, the dreaded ‘Personal Statement’ for instance; you are pretending to be a writer after all, so this must be, all together, insightful, succinct, witty, and, for sure, effortless. But just like a super model’s makeup, natural is the hardest look.

Part of the trouble with writing is the uncertainty. Do I have a readership? Talent? Something to say that resonates? In this sense, the MFA application process could be seen as, less dipping a toe into the waters, more hurling oneself head first through the ice. Hell-for-leather. Because if the end result is a constant stream of polite-yet-generic rejections, the inevitable answer to these questions is ‘probably not’. Of course, one could say the same about the agent soliciting process (which is brutal, on this I speak from experience) but there is always the consolation that you were simply ‘not ready yet’. A brick-wall from the hardened bouncers loitering outside the MFA Garden of Eden is far more definitive. One must ask, am I ready for that type of rejection? Might it stifle my promising yet premature art in unforeseen ways, viciously kneecapping fragile self-confidence?

If you have read this far, then similar thoughts have possibly entered your mind too, dear friend. And you may also have considered an alternative route: forking out for a literary consultancy report. Perhaps the road-less-travelled, it is financially equivalent to the MFA application process minus some of the gruelling process, such as bothering loved ones for personal references, and posting big fat manuscripts all over the American continent. A literary consultancy will evaluate your work, and offer a blunt yet honest assessment. If it is bad, hopefully, they will tell you; if it is middling, they will suggests ways to improve; if it is good (enough) then perhaps they will recommend you to agents. Whilst they may not exactly be ‘talent scouts’, they don’t want a good thing to slip through their friends’ fingers either. However, as Ferrante’s Elena Greco discovered, one person’s dross could be another’s masterpiece. And the literary consultant gives a single – albeit expert – opinion, whilst the MFA process will put you on the desks of numerous readers at multiple institutions.

For now, this is where we part. Having drafted some stories, mostly narrative love letters so far, prematurely self-published a first novel, only to retract for improvement beyond recognition, and in the meantime having begun a second, I have the material. I have, too, the desire to reach past overly kind friends and to finally find out, do I have an audience? The MFA promises a golden dawn of time, encouragement, opportunity, inspiration. Yet it also threatens rejection, deep – potentially crippling – rejection, and even in success, there hovers the noose of conformity. The literary consultant offers consolation, nuance, and even a shortcut to the editor’s desk, but, at what loss?

Photo: Jim Nix

The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

glorious-heresiesAn intruder breaks into Maureen Phelan’s apartment. Without thinking, she brains him with a Holy Stone, a religious relic. Worrying over the dead body and the blood seeping into the grout on the kitchen floor, she calls her son James, a gangster, to deal with the mess. James asks his old friend Tony Cusack to help, figuring that Tony—who doesn’t have a job and is trying to raise six children on his own—needs the money and can be relied on to keep his mouth shut. Tony recognizes the corpse as Robbie, a junkie, and lets the name slip to Maureen, who then starts to see Robbie’s sad ghost wandering around the house. When Georgie, Robbie’s girlfriend, starts looking for him and comes to Tony’s house asking questions, things start to get complicated. Throw into this mix Ryan, Tony’s 15-year-old son, embarking simultaneously on a career as a drug dealer and his first love affair; Tara, a nosy woman preying on people under the guise of doing good; and a religious cult called Christians Active In Light, and things get very complicated indeed.

Lisa McInerney uses the murder and the ripples it creates to open a door into the underworld of Cork—a world peopled by gangsters, whores, drug dealers and alcoholics. People on the make, trying to survive and make a go of it—or not. It’s a small world where everyone is linked in some way to everyone else, and there is no escape.

The history of Ireland permeates the pages, especially the grip of the Catholic Church. Maureen visits the now-abandoned Laundry, where unwed mothers used to be sent, and where she would have gone if she had been born a generation earlier. In spite of escaping the Laundry, she has been scarred by the fear of “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”. Thinking that there is “nothing as cleansing as a fire”, she sets a country church alight, much to the horror of her son, who is beginning to regret bringing his mother back from London.

McInerney writes in short, punchy sentences that bring this world alive, and the characters practically leap off the page. They have depths that are revealed as you get to know them. Maureen is a wonderful creation—feisty and perceptive with a shrewd understanding of what the world can do to people. Ryan’s truculence hides a more sensitive side, a musician “whose fingers had the grace for concertos so long as there was no one there to hear them”. There are moments of lyricism in the midst of all the mayhem: “He was out of booze and in no shape to get more; he was logey from the heat and too caught up in the kaleidoscope of memories to want to leave the house. The children had scattered in the sunshine.”

This is McInerney’s first novel and won the Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction. I can see why. It is a rambunctious novel, full of black humour, that pulls no punches.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—JK Rowling, John Thorne and John Tiffany

So yoharry-potter-and-the-cursed-childu thought we’d come to the end of the Harry Potter story…well, think again. JK Rowling, with some help this time, has written another instalment. This one takes place 19 years after the events of the last Potter book, and the plot revolves around Harry’s second son, Albus Severus Potter. (Note: I’m writing this on the assumption that the readers are familiar with the Harry Potter books/movies.)

Harry, now an employee in the Ministry of Magic, has a difficult relationship with Albus, who doesn’t want to be the son of a famous father, especially as he feels he could never live up to him. Not only does he have Harry Potter for a father, but he is named after two men whom Harry admired—so no pressure there! On his first train ride to Hogwarts, Albus meets Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy. The two not only become friends but the Sorting Hat puts Albus in (gasp) Slytherin! There are rumours that Voldemort had a child, and some suspect that child is Scorpius. Then Albus decides to travel back in time with his friend to put right something his father did. But you cannot change something in the past without it having ripples in the present…

My frustration with this book was the first 30 pages felt very fragmented, as we are rushed through a bit of background. I felt like I couldn’t settle on anything because I was hurried on to the next scene. It settles down eventually, but the play still felt like there was a book trying to get out. And a novel would have done justice to the story—because it is a good story. That is something you can rely on Rowling for, with or without co-authors. Maybe it works on stage but as a book, I could have done with more depth and detail.

A Passion in the Desert: Thomas E. Kennedy

The title oa-passion-in-the-desertf this book is borrowed from a story by Balzac about betrayal and mistrust, two threads running through the book. The third is love, with all its inadequacies and flaws.

Fred Twomey is a creative writing professor, married with two sons. He has a reasonably good life—married to Jenny, an artist, with two sons and a good job, liked by his peers. But there are tremors in this seemingly perfect world.

As the book starts, he is at a conference, where he almost cheats on his wife but manages to back away before anything happens. He loves Jenny and is terrified that she will find out. Should he tell her? He senses that Jenny is drawing away from him as he is falling in love with her again and doesn’t want to push her away further. But does infidelity lie in the action or the intention to act?

Then there is his older son, Jimbo, named after Twomey’s brother. Jimbo the brother shot himself when the son was a child. And now Twomey is growing apart from his older son and cannot find a way to reach him. How can he love him when he understands him so little?

So far, these are crises that a lot of families go through. But there is a darker strand to this book. Twomey starts to notice small things going wrong—the tyres of his cycle are frequently flat; the sculpture of a child-like doll Jenny is working on is found holding a knife; and someone has been writing in Twomey’s notebook.

There is someone is haunting this story: a watcher, a stalker. Someone whose father had abandoned him as a child, leaving him vulnerable to abuse. Full of rage, he has been spying on his father’s comfortable life, determined to make him pay. And an act from Twomey’s past—the “passion in the desert” of the title—comes home to roost.

This is an extremely well-written book. The tension comes from the fact that the entire story is seen either from Twomey’s perspective, which is narrated in third person, or from the stalker’s, narrated in second person. There is no omniscient narrator. You get the feeling that you are in their heads. Although the second person narration does put a little distance between the reader and narrator, it is still disturbing.

Kennedy writes perceptively about relationships and the different facets of love. And how we betray and are betrayed by those closest to us, and somehow find a way to live with it.