Blog-Tour: Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi

Today I have the pleasure to host the Blog-Tour for Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi. Featuring a fantastic Q&A with Alex Christofi and my review. The answers to the Q&A are just as captivating as the novel itself. The last four questions contain some spoilers, so for anyone who hasn’t read it yet and wants to read it without any extra info I will be adding a fair warning before and after those particular questions.

About the Author

Alex Christofi was born and grew up in Dorset. After reading English at the University of Oxford, he moved to London to work in publishing. He has written a number of short pieces for theatre, and blogs about arts and culture for Prospect magazine. Glass is his first novel. His second novel, Let Us Be True, is published by Serpent’s Tail.

Follow @alex_christofi @serpentstail Visit alexchristofi.com

Buy Let Us Be True

About the book

Paris, 1958. After a chance encounter, Ralf and Elsa begin a love affair that will mark their lives. Both already bear scars from their continent’s violent upheavals. The end of the war brought Ralf to Paris, where he feels he can hide from the past. Elsa meanwhile tries to hide not just her past from Ralf, but her present too. As they fall more deeply in love they face a dilemma: can you really love someone without giving yourself away?In a Paris recovering from the Second World War but riven by protests and discontent as the old world order falls away, Ralf tries desperately to hold on to the only person he has ever felt he belongs with, while facing the prospect of a reality where love might not be enough. Deeply moving and sweeping in scope, Alex Christofi’s second novel is an unforgettable love story as well as a profoundly affecting study of the personal cost of Europe’s bloody twentieth century.

Q&A

Before we get down to business (i.e. talking about your book) I would like to ask a set of questions I call ‘Breaking the Ice.’ (readers love to get to know all about their favourite and new authors)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I tend to consume books like tapas, so this is actually quite hard to answer. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, or a selected volume of Voltaire, or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, or Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Mikhail Bulgakov, Emmanuel Carrere, George Orwell, George Saunders, Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Roth, Albert Camus. I love writers who can fuse beauty and cleverness with social purpose.

The last book you read, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Everyone has been talking about her for years so it’s not exactly a hot tip, but that’s the honest answer.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Movie night. There are enough hanging plot threads in my actual life – I want to be able to sit back and look at the whole story. I don’t need Scheherezade feeding me cliffhangers every night forever. It’s like asking if you’d rather have limbo or a quick death.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Not probably any of the people I most admire. Marcus Aurelius was objectively a top guy, but would be a terrible date – after two drinks he would leave citing moderation in all things. You’d want someone with a wicked sense of humour who knew how to live. Hunter S Thompson would probably kill me, but maybe Angela Carter or Ernest Hemingway. Or Obama. Everyone wants to meet Obama.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Let Us Be True.

Where did you get the inspiration for Let Us Be True? Probably a question you have been asked before, but I am genuinely interested in the inspiration for the story of Ralf and Elsa. It’s strange, because what I have ended up with is really a character novel – one that devotes a lot of space to investigating the particular psychology of two particular people – but I first conceived it as a novel about the moment after the Second World War that is rarely written about, after the initial reconstruction efforts but before the individualistic, consumer-driven sixties was in full swing. I wanted to write about what it was like to find yourself on the very cusp of the modern era.

Why Paris? Did you pick this particular setting because you know it well or because it made sense logistically, culturally and from an historical point of view? I wanted to write about a place very like our own, but different enough that people could judge it for what it was – a bit like the way Shakespeare tore into society by setting everything in Italy. But Paris in 1958 was also a fascinating place in its own right: the Fourth Republic was collapsing; the communists were still one of the biggest parties, but there was a fascist fifth column in the police; French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power in a military coup and suspended the constitution; France was effectively at war with its own Muslim population; there were peaceful protests, but people were still being guillotined. Parts of Paris were already petrifying into an eerily timeless postcard city, and at the same time some of its residential neighbourhoods were ‘îlots insalubres’, dirty islands of slum housing, where no one owned a fridge and tenants shared a squat toilet. I can’t think of a better (or more intense) analogue for the conflicts we are worrying about here and now.

Although you don’t play on the underlying theme too much, do you think Ralf and Elsa connect in such a monumental way because they share a common denominator in their home country and war-trauma? Absolutely – it is a part of why they connect and also one of the reasons why they clash. But the war itself can’t be spoken about directly, because it simply wasn’t done. It could be referred to, or implied obliquely, but very few people who were involved had any desire (or perhaps even ability) to talk about what they had been through. It is an elephant in the room – the clearest metaphor in the book is of Ralf and his mother sitting at the dining table, painfully aware of the father that isn’t present. Ralf eventually opens up about some of his childhood experiences, but Elsa doesn’t reciprocate, and we implicitly understand why.

Does Elsa accept the negative aspects of her marriage, because she feels guilty and believes she deserves to be punished? Is her separation from Ralf a form of penance? I don’t know if I could be that specific, but sadly it wasn’t uncommon for women to accept physical abuse as a fact of life at that time (which is not to say we have resolved the problem now). Whenever we make choices, we weigh them up relative to our life experience. Elsa’s life with Theo isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, and its great virtue is that it’s secure and predictable. She has never had that before – for me at least it becomes hard to judge her choice, even if we wish she could make the leap.

Unbeknownst to Ralf Elsa represents the root cause of why his life changed in such a drastic way. Does Elsa make a choice against Ralf because she believes the truth about her past would be an insurmountable hurdle between them? Yes, I think so. But more than that, in order to reveal her past to him, she would have to give him access to parts of herself that she hasn’t shared with anyone, including her husband and family, and it would make her vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been since she was a young girl hiding in a forest, muddy, shivering, terrified and alone. The war didn’t end when the last shots were fired. There was a whole generation of survivors whose lives were irrevocably scarred by what they saw and did, and they were out there, walking in the world, for the best part of the twentieth century. We’ll never know whether so many of them remained silent to protect themselves or to protect the rest of us.

One could argue that Elsa presents a certain coldness, a lack of emotion even, and one could suggest that her experiences in childhood, and as a very young woman, have defined her personality and the choices she makes. However that specific sense of survival and ability to detach herself from emotions was already evident at an early age. This information in combination with the actions of many Germans during the Nazi era begs the question whether Elsa really is the lovable enigma who has managed to enchant Ralf like a personal Mata Hari or is she a woman who is a ruthless survivor? In some sense Elsa is, if not the Nazi ideal, at least a Nietzschean ideal, a forceful, self-directed character. She can’t or won’t be absorbed into a group mentality, which exposes a fundamental contradiction in Nazi ideology: they simultaneously exult exceptional individuals and demand people subsume themselves to the herd. Are some people more valuable than others, or are we all interchangeable members of a group?

I did also really want this to be a story about love, and I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that love is one of the best answers to some of the questions posed in the book. But I wanted to resist this idea that’s very common in romance, that the underlying purpose of women’s behaviour can always be explained with reference to sex. Perhaps she is not stringing him along; perhaps it has nothing to do with him.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! It was a pleasure – thank you for reading it with such care and attention. I think all writers dream of having careful readers!

Review

This read brings a sense of nostalgia with it and an aura of hidden emotions and unfulfilled desires. It is so much more than just a love story. It is about fractured identities and the trauma of war.

It is often hard for non-nomads or people who stay in one place their entire lives to understand what it is like to not feel as if you have a home or a country that feels like home. Being uprooted and becoming a displaced person can rock the very foundation of your existence.

I believe Elsa and Ralf share this feeling of not belonging and loss. Their home country and country of birth is their common denominator, despite their completely different paths in life.

Ralf doesn’t even feel at home in his surrogate country, and he also refuses to maintain a relationship with his mother. His landlord has become his family, a port of call in dire situations and France has become his safe haven.

Elsa is a survivor, albeit one from the other side of the battlefield. Her experiences have made her emotionally unresponsive, which is why she finds it hard to connect with her child and why she struggles to find a sense of peace in her life. It is also the reason she accepts certain negative aspects of her marriage including the occasional  bouts of violence.

I wonder if Elsa believes her guilt is something that would eventually come between them. A secret she can never reveal and perhaps never completely move on from.

Overall Elsa gives off a sense of detachment, a cold and hard face she presents to the world. It’s easy to forget her age at the time of her crimes and her complicity. Her trauma is no more than a footnote in history, although it is ultimately what steers and directs her sense of unhappiness.

In that sense the two of them share another bond in the form of very specific trauma. One could argue that his will always be greater because of the historical implications, however I would argue that trauma cannot be measured by what outsiders think.

France, like many other countries are often guilty of revisionism, especially when it comes to history. They like to forget and hide their guilt and crimes, and the part they played in some of the bloodiest and politically disruptive times in the twentieth century. They like to sweep a lot of uncomfortable truths under the carpet of national charm.

This is a love story taking place during some of those periods in time, so it isn’t just about two broken people finding a safe haven in each other, it is also about shining a light on the past. A past that is in danger of being repeated as we speak.

The author brings a maturity, insight and wisdom to the pages. He writes as if he has experienced decades of longing, pain and heartbreak. He is an author I will be revisiting. Oh and kudos to him for the Vélodrome d’Hiver part of the story. It’s a very significant and poignant part of history. A small moment in the book, but those are the ones that count.

Buy Let Us Be True at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Let Us Be True blog tour (1)

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

the womenWhen you compare how many books are written about the perpetrators of the Holocaust vs books on the brave people who tried to stop the face of evil. Well, the scales are rather imbalanced. Regardless of whether it would have changed the outcome of history or not, at least they tried. Against all odds, they tried.

Marianne thinks she needs to keep her promise to protect the women and children of her husband’s co-conspirators. That in itself is a noble thing to do, and she does in fact save Benita, Ania and their children in her own way, however Marianne can be very judgemental at the same time.

The pain, horror and difficulties of those considered to be the guilty party tend to be swept under the rug. After everything the people of Germany did, and their collaborators of course, why would anyone feel any pity towards them? The author gives the reader a flavour of some of those post-war difficulties. This doesn’t mean she excuses or shifts the blame, she just tries to remind us that in war there is a lot of collateral damage, and the lines between guilt and innocence are often very blurry.

Towards the end of the book there are conversations between Ania and her daughter Mary. They are reminiscent of conversations, questions and clarifications Jessica Shattuck had with her own grandmother about her past.( I loved my grandmother, but she was a Nazi) Shattuck has tried to align the image she has of her grandmother with that of her past as a member of the Nazi party.

Many scholars and historians have spoken of a collective criminality, responsibility and guilt when it comes to the Nazi era. Men and women, who under normal circumstances would never have committed crimes, are guilty of participating in and allowing the worst of atrocities.

No matter how hard Shattuck looks for an explanation there will never be a satisfactory answer. The majority of these men and women weren’t sociopaths, psychopaths or sadists. The majority of them were normal people in the midst of a mass movement of propaganda, patriotism and not so subtle brainwashing, who did condone and commit sadistic crimes. They looked the other way and chose to believe the truth of the concentration camps was merely Allied propaganda. It’s easier to ignore than to accept that you are part of the problem.

The one thing Shattuck can and should take away from all of her literary attempts to alleviate some genetic sense of guilt, is that the descendants are not to blame for the sins, mistakes or crimes of their ancestors.

The Women in the Castle is a well balanced read. It considers both sides of the coin, and most importantly the collaboration of both sides to attempt to rebuild lives after the war. Marianne, Ania and Benita are mothers and friends, there aren’t just women influenced and driven by the choices of their past.

It is tale of friendship, hardship and ultimately one of loyalty. Shattuck delivers the harsh reality of war in a direct and no nonsense way. There is no need for violins or overly dramatic scenes. The truth is sufficient. Definitely an author I will be revisiting again.

Buy The Women in the Castle at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

chilburyThis book sort of reads a wee bit like a TV series (home-front setting), with the reader discovering a little bit more about each character each week. It is a comfortable read, despite all the drama.

The trials and tribulations of the choir members become inconsequential when they get together and sing for Britain. Singing for Britain might seem like an exaggeration, however in times of war when the country is fighting to survive it probably feels as if they are.

There are a lot of different character story-lines connected via the occasional sing-song. The choir becomes the busy traffic junction for all the members. It is something consistent during a time of fear, worry and turbulence.

I think the author should have emphasized the choir more and the moments of pure harmony between the singers. Those few minutes of joy and happiness struggle to stay afloat in the sheer volume of sub-plots. It was a little disjointed, perhaps because it needed more focus on one boat in a sea of ships.

Buy The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Follow @JenniferiRyan  or @HarperCollinsUK on Twitter.

Indecent by Ethan Brant

indecentBrant weaves the criminal element of the Yugoslav Wars into the story and life of his main character. Zlatan is recruited from inside a prison cell, but his so-called freedom has a high price.

He essentially becomes the lap-dog of the people who have freed him. They can demand his obedience at any time. To kill, to stalk and to destroy. He is their personal pawn.

Often it seems as if Zlatan is having a dialogue with the reader, almost as if he is asking their opinion or wanting their understanding.

In a way I believe it is him asking the audience/reader to be his conscience. Will we judge him for his violent crimes and complete lack of restraint? Do we understand the fact he has no choice?

Of course the truth is he does have a choice. Perhaps he enjoys the power, the violence and the lifestyle. In fact given the right circumstance he might even be at the top of the pyramid.

The author delves into the murky financial, political and personal motivation going on in the background of the Yugoslav Wars. At the forefront is the criminal underworld, the secret police and the criminals who played a pivotal role in the Wars.

What Brant needs to do is focus his energy a little more, give the plot more direction and give the characters more depth. There is a lot of potential, and the political and historical context is a minefield with plenty of avenue for exploration.

Buy Indecent at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Sweet Breath of Memory by Ariella Cohen

Today is my turn on the Blog-tour for Ariella Cohen’s debut adult novel Sweet Breath of Memory. It  is an interesting journey of grief, memories, guilt and friendship.

About the author

Ariella is a graduate of Columbia University, the Hebrew University and the University of Michigan Law School.  Although she makes her home in New England, her dream self resides in County Mayo, Ireland.

Sweet Breath of Memory is her debut novel and she’s hard at work on the sequel. Ariella believes in the healing power of cat purrs, champagne, Vivaldi and almond cookies.

To read more about Ariella Cohen go to ariellacohenauthor.wordpress.com

Follow @ariella_cohen or @Kensingtonbooks on Twitter

About the book

With its tree-lined streets, vibrant downtown and curbside planters of spring bulbs, Amberley, Massachusetts, seems a good place for Cate Saunders to start over. It’s been two years since her husband, John, was killed in Iraq and life has been a struggle. Her new job as a caregiver doesn’t pay much, but the locals are welcoming. In fact, Cate has barely unpacked before she’s drawn–reluctantly at first–into a circle of friends.

There’s diner-owner Gaby, who nourishes her customers’ spirits as well as their bodies; feisty Beatrice, who kept the town going when its men marched off to WWII; wise-cracking MaryLou, as formidable as Fort Knox but with the same heart of gold; and, Sheila, whose Italian grocery is the soul of the place. As Amberley reveals itself to be a town shaped by war, Cate encounters another kindred spirit–a Holocaust survivor with whom she feels a deep connection. When revelations about John’s death threaten Cate’s new-found peace of mind, these sisters-in-arms’ stories show her an unexpected way forward. And Cate comes to understand that although we suffer loss alone, we heal by sharing our most treasured memories.

Review

At the very heart of it this story is about friendship. Strong supportive relationships between women, regardless of their ages and backgrounds. They share bonds through pain, loss and tragedy.

The reader learns about their personal stories and how the bonds between them became so strong in the first place. The main character is welcomed into the folds of this unusual small town. Enveloped by the care, the concern, the questions and the emotions of all these close-knit women.

Cate has been fighting an inner battle of guilt and grief since the death of her husband. He died in combat, or so the powers that be say. She is convinced that there is something fishy about his death. Her own personal guilt about not being able to help him or be there for him when he needed her the most, is what fuels her quest for answers.

Cohen integrates quite a few historical, political and socio-economic issues of our era into the story. One of those is the blanket of silence over the deaths of soldiers in recent wars. Loved ones are looking for answers, and the way veterans and widows (ers) aren’t supported sufficiently after their service to their country is over.

Then there is Miriam’s story, which becomes the inspiration for Cate and her writing. The tragic tale of a war refugee, a Holocaust survivor and a woman who has lost everything. Cate starts finding single pages of a journal written by Miriam or rather the pages find her. The pages tell the tale of her tragic journey from the Lodz Ghetto all the way to Amberley. She describes the horror of war, of the Holocaust and of the death she managed to escape.

The underlying element and moral of  Cohen’s story is allowing ourselves to feel compassion for others. Learning to recognise how similar we are and yet how different our reactions are to grief, loss, anger and sorrow. An interesting read.

Buy Sweet Breath of Memory at AmazonUK, Waterstones or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson

photographer.jpgThis book has an English Patient feel to it. The smell of colonialism is spread like a thin layer of sweat upon the story, especially the early years of Prudence. The British as the invaders, the foreigner attempting to control the fate of another country, as usual.

The title is a little misleading, because the photographer’s wife is really just an afterthought. Prudence is the main focus throughout the story. As a child, then as a teen and as an adult.

I liked the subtle parallels between Prudence and Skip, and Prudence and her father. Whether she realises it or not she actually treats her child with the same level of contempt and neglect.

I have to say I am not sure why the rape scene was necessary. It was superfluous to the story, and there was no follow-up whatsoever, so what was the point? Just a shock factor or was it to show the carelessness of Ashton? Surely her witnessing the violence by Lofty was sufficient enough to make the same point. The way she slips into an abusive relationship and her erratic behaviour can be explained by both the neglect and the traumatic events she experiences.

In the end this is a story about politics, betrayal, spies and morality. It’s about the lines people cross in the name of war and political skirmishes. For me it didn’t come together as well as it could have.

Buy The Photographer’s Wife at Amazon UK or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

and afterAt first I didn’t think twice about the cover. It’s a little indistinct, and seems to be a bit of an understatement.

The blurred and featureless face represents all the unnamed victims of Nigeria’s war torn and politically corrupt landscape.

The more emotional personal story gets a wee bit buried by all the politics, but then that is and was the reality of Nigeria. The corruption of government and the way they walk hand in hand with the oil companies, and now with terrorists, with no regard for people or landscape.

At the time of Paul’s disappearance the country is in a state of unrest. People disappear into thin air without any trace.

In the end the solution and reason for his disappearance has become irrelevant. The family just need and want to know whether or not he is dead or alive. All the assumptions and theories they have tossed around over the years. The guilt, the despair and all the unanswered questions. The truth comes as a relief.

There seems to be a disconnect between the emotional side of the story and the bulk of factual information. It interferes with the flow of the story. I think if the author irons out this articular wrinkle he could produce a poignant and memorable piece of work.

Buy And After Many Days at Amazon UK or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.