Book review: The Scent of Death, Andrew Taylor

This is the story of Edward Savill, a British man, dropped in New York by the American Department to help investigate and settle claims of compensation in the American War of Independence. It is 1778, and Manhattan is in tatters, following the ravages of war. Edward Savill is lodging with Judge Wintour, and his rather mysterious daughter-in-law Arabella. Savill’s first task is to investigate and report on a murder, which seemingly is resolved with an eye-witness account, leading to execution. This historical novel twists and turns through family sagas and deeply held emotions, set against the torrid backdrop of war, where Savill becomes detective in unearthing the past, whilst battling his own future.

Taylor delivers one of the best opening lines of a novel that I’ve read, ever:

‘This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first, shimmering from afar like the new Jerusalem in the setting sun. It was Sunday, 2nd August 1778.’

The language is rich, descriptions are laid out with incredible details, and the speaking manner of the characters all serve to conjure up late 18th century New York in wartime. At times it is like looking at the set of a play, and Taylor achieves what CJ Sansom does for Tudor England.

At the outset, the slightly morose, lonely figure of Edward Savill is almost a pitiful character, so out of place in the setting, yet he grows in stature. The simplicity of his tasks initially, seem to unsettle him, as he searches for truth, desire and answers. The Scent of Death has a ‘slow burn’, and as the relationships deepen, and the tension mounts, it becomes a book that is almost impossible to put down. There is increasing complexity in the motives of the main characters and a deepening of emotions, which makes the reader truly care what happens. It is a master-class in observation and character development, with a well thought out plot.

Tensions come in the developing relationships (and a wish of this reviewer not to give too much away), and some brilliantly observed scenes – muggings, drinking sessions, and the prowling of the shadowy Scarface.

The book climaxes with a kind of pilgrimage to the old family estate, in search of something that Savill isn’t even sure about, where one by one the party are picked off, ending up with the capture of Savill in a truly gripping scene. The images are painted strongly before my eyes now, some weeks after finishing it (and a couple of books in between). That said, I did not see the end coming, until it was upon me. Yet it was resolved in a satisfactory way.

Taylor has written a brilliant book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or even a good detective story.

Book Review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (Kindle Edition)

The Shock of The Fall tells the story of Matt Homes, who has schizophrenia, and is struggling with the mental health services, so embarks on his own writing therapy. He captures his reflections on a type writer stored along with letters and drawings. Matt’s reflections makes a bundle of papers that make a gripping, and at times, a tough and tragic read. Matt’s internal voices are those of his dead brother, Simon, who died during a family camping holiday when they were children. Matt is tied to his brother’s death, in an irredeemable way, and as he tries to navigate his illness and memories and tries to explain it all. It is a very compelling first person narrative, that at times is chaotic, and at others incredibly lucid.

It is a very haunting tale, often very disturbing, like when we have a glimpse under the petticoats of the Mental Health system, and what it is like to be in a psychiatric ward. Filer’s knowledge and experience is woven into the voice of Matt, describing this almost painful, repetitive life. “Mine is a cut and paste life,” Matt observes, as the trauma of his monotonous existence is explained. Matt tells us about other people in his life, his parents, lost in their own grief, and the rock that is his Nanny Noo, who provides a warmth, compassion that is a stark tenderness amongst the pillars of drugs and routines in his life.

There is something in the simplicity of the narration that is very absorbing – a life laid out without emotion, and therefore it reminded me of the tone of The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night. However, at times there is a poetic quality to the writing, and some paragraphs I found myself re-reading because they were simply delicious. Filer’s writing is indulgent, and utterly brilliant.

The construction of the book is like nothing I’ve ever read before – appearing as a bundle of papers – and this really builds the sense of Matt, this man/boy lost in his own world. As the story develops, and his family’s stories are revealed too, then different questions emerge. Is this a book about mental health or other themes? This is a real gift in this book, in that these questions linger long after the book has been closed. It makes it perfect for book clubs, as well as therapy courses!
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Note about the Kindle Edition – There was a ‘pop up’ recommending to go with the publisher’s font. Do! The font changes make for different aspects of the story, and are important in its narration.

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

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Recently retired Harold Fry receives a letter with news that his old work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, has cancer and that it is now untreatable. She is in a hospice in Berwick upon Tweed. Harold writes a feeble note, and goes to post it, but he’s not really satisfied with it, so goes to the next post box… and the next. Instead of mailing it, he keeps on walking, from Kingsbridge, Devon to Berwick upon Tweed. A chance encounter with a girl from a filling station sets off a belief that if he walks all the way, he will save her. And so begins his pilgrimage; in only the clothes he walks out in including his trusty pair of yachting shoes. Harold meets people along the way, collecting stories and experiences. The solitude that he finds himself in allows him to look at his own life, his stale marriage and his relationship with his son.

Joyce’s first novel, an expanded radio play, is a real gem. There is an underlying narrative suspense of whether he will succeed, because it seems so unlikely. Harold Fry isn’t instantly likeable; he is rather grey and in the early stages I was uncertain whether I was interested enough in him, or his wife, to see it through. However, there is a simplicity and a rhythm in ‘walking’ with Harold as he begins to face up to himself – and the glimpses of the past that he’s avoided. It is a journey that you take with Harold, and with Maureen – we see her reflections too, as the void left by Harold exposes herself to her past. It reveals a shut-down life, half lived in many ways, especially when you see the people that they’ve somehow become, weighed down in the disappointment in each other. Joyce shows a sad unfolding of a marriage, some 40 years later, rested in a comfortable impasse. I really hoped that they could find some way back, and in that respect, the ending is very moving, without going too saccharin.

The book has the potential to be schmaltzy, but there is this darkness to it that, for me, stops it being too sentimental. The characters of Harold and Maureen stayed with me long after the book had been finished, so the book has a longevity that I did not expect when I first set out on Harold’s pilgrimage.

I would recommend this book, but in a more cynical mindset, I could imagine not having the patience to get to know, and grow rather fond of, Harold Fry.