Wednesday 14 April 2010


I'm getting lazy in my old age, and always on the look out for friends to write guest posts here - especially when it means getting down my piles of review copies. A while ago I mentioned Grace by Alex Pheby in one of Stuck-in-a-Book Weekend Miscellanies (which never happened at the weekend when I remembered it was my Blog Birthday, sorry!) - well, it sounded like it would suit my housemate Mel, who has written a great review, below... (Oh, and do comment and say whether or not you're intrigued, because I definitely am!)

I'm not really sure how to review a book, so I'm tempted to say: 'it was good' and leave it there. But I think Simon will give me a withering stare.

So.... Grace tells the story of Mr Peterman (his first name has become irrelevant), who has been in a secure psychiatric hospital for a long, long time. He escapes, is badly injured, and is nursed back to health (and sanity?) by the reclusive occupants of a weird, filthy little house in the middle of a forest, full of animals, dirt, and the clothes of dead Nazis. They are 'Granny', an old lady of ninety-nine who is a no-nonsense communist philosopher:

“I see you are shocked,” the old woman smirked, “but I will not apologise for the squalor. I have long since passed the age when I had energy to waste maintaining an illusion of cleanliness, if indeed I ever had it. Even the most pristine home is, in truth, a swarming mire of microscopic filth... The body must acclimatise to this fact, not deny it. Do you agree?”

Peterman clutched his leg defensively.

“I don't know.”

...and her nameless twelve year-old 'granddaughter'.

Being treated like a normal person in their house, away from his medication, Peterman becomes quite sane, recovers his character, and begins to tell them his story in return for theirs. I don't want to ruin the whole thing for you. But the distrustful old woman and the innocent girl come to trust him, believe he is sane, and believe he is innocent, and eventually he starts to agree with their opinion. And most importantly, love comes back into his life.

I love books about crazy people. Let's put that another way: I love books that deal with the issue of whether or not somebody is sane, where you can never quite be sure whether to trust the narrator and what is true and what is imagined. Maybe it's the psychologist in me. Anyway, this is one of those stories, skilfully done.

'Part Two' of the book was my favourite – it's a graphic portrayal of life in the secure hospital, and so well written that you start to doubt Peterman's sanity yourself, even though for the first half of the book you have been totally convinced that he's okay. Everything you've just read is thrown into question. These chapters made me worry that a sane person really could end up trapped in a world that believes they're crazy. Once Peterman is inside and everyone believes he's delusional, there's no getting out by telling the truth...

Or IS it the truth?!

At this point, the book was so good that I almost missed my stop on the train.

So, my only slight reservation about this novel is that I was a bit disappointed by the ending. I'm not going to give it away. Upon reflection, this must have been a pretty difficult novel to end – Pheby was left with a choice between twee and unbelievable, devastatingly tragic, or some ambiguous third way. I won't tell you which he chose. But I'm not sure what else he could have done. Oh, and I was also irritated by not being able to work out which country it's set in. The UK, I think, but there seems to be way too much snow. I probably needed to just let that go... The ending aside, this is still a book that will really stick with you for a while... I am still thinking about it and it paints some vivid pictures you won't forget in a hurry.

It's a bit depressing when someone write a first novel this good. Basically, read it, it'll be a worthwhile use of your time.


  1. So pleased to see another good review of a fantastic novel! There's a reason why it's Lizzy's April book of the month at the Big Green Bookshop!

    There's an very illuminating interview with Alex Pheby at my place too.

  2. Ohhh: I love unreliable narrators too! So now this is definitely on my TBR list. :D

  3. Hello Simon:
    I love reading your blog; you have a captivating voice! Therefore i am giving you the Beautiful Blogger and Honest Scrap awards. I hope you have fun with this. Post 10 things about you and 10 blogs you want to pass the awards on to....

  4. Hey Mel! Get you! A brilliant review - I want to read the book - although I am sure I will be confused by it!

  5. Nice review Mel -- sounds fascinating.

  6. I usually don't read a book if somebody say I should. But after reading your brilliant review I'm tempted to read this book!

  7. Enjoyed your review of this book which sounds quite interesting. I love how we get both parts of his life - at the mental ward and in that grotty house. Plus, I love that we don't really know which truth is real. Hmmm. I think I will add this my TBR list.

  8. I too would be a tad bothered by not knowing the exact setting and wondering whilst reading could be distracting. Sounds like an interesting read though!


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