Sugar Hall

Tiffany Murray
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
No votes yet

Sugar Hall glints and glimmers’ – David Mitchell, author of New York Times bestseller The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas

Easter 1955 and Britain waits for a hanging.
Dieter Sugar finds a strange boy in the red gardens at crumbling Sugar Hall – a boy unlike any he’s ever seen.

As Dieter’s mother, Lilia, scrapes the mould and moths from the walls of the great house, she knows there are pasts that cannot be so easily removed. Sugar Hall has a history, buried, but not forgotten.

Based on the stories of the slave boy that surround Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, this is a superbly chilling ghost story from Tiffany Murray.

‘A beautiful and haunting book. Tiffany Murray is a wonderful storyteller.’ Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit

'Sugar Hall is not just a brilliantly effective ghost story. It also pries open a window on to a vanished decade, exploring the long consequences of old sins and the suffering of the exile, the refugee and the powerless. Chillingly empathetic, it’s a book that cries out to be read again - and again.' Andrew Taylor, author of The American Boy and The Scent of Death

'A shiveringly good read, Sugar Hall reminds me of the days when I used to read under the bedcovers with a torch, because I simply had to find out what happened next.’Aminatta Forna, author of The Hired Man

'Tiffany Murray isn’t quite like anyone else writing today. She's a mad geneticist of a writer, specialising in taking narrative elements we think we know and splicing them with the unexpected, giving us Emily Bronte the rock chick (Diamond Star Halo) or Stella Gibbons with a louchely 70s drug habit (Happy Accidents). Sugar Hall lingers in the mind like a half-remembered nightmare and confirms Murray's as an intensely British talent.' Patrick Gale, author of Notes from an Exhibition and A Perfectly Good Man.

‘As darkly tantalising as any enchanted forest, a novel that sees a writer with the lightest of touches take on the deepest of our fears – spellbinding.’ Tim Butcher, author of The Trigger

Sugar Hall is a dark tale brightly told, beautifully written and thoroughly unsettling.' Emylia Hall, author of The Book of Summers and A Heart Bent Out of Shape

'Tender, troubling and telling, Sugar Hall is a box of delights. With prose delicate as moth scales, Tiffany Murray has written her best book to date, a simply delicious and creepy read,' Jon Gower

‘A mysterious, complex and riveting novel, poised between this world and the next.’ – New Welsh Review


Review by John Fish, The Last Word Review

Sunday, October 18, 2015

One of my all-time favourite ghost stories is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, there have many others since then, and after reading Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray I would be happy to call this a classic ghost story.

This novel is set in 1955, the war still looms large in the memories of people. Sugar Hall is a country house in the Welsh borders and is based on the haunting stories of Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.

Sugar Hall is in a very poor state by the time Lilia Sugar and her two children Saskia and Dieter arrive to take up residence, Poor Liliana has to put up with the freezing cold the rusty locks and the ice from the windows. There are strange rooms that are cold and rooms that are dark and forbidding.  But it is Dieter that falls under the spell of Sugar Hall the young boy is lonely and spends time exploring the residence and then one day a strange boy appears from nowhere and Dieter is captivated by the boy except the boy appears and disappears as if by magic, the story of Sugar Hall really starts here. Murray really has a fabulous way at captivating her reading audience with a mix of fact and fiction as the story really unfolds.

Lilia moved to England in 1938 at just 15 years old. As with the classic ghost stories Lilia has her own ghosts to deal with and we learn more about Lilia as the story unfolds. Now with her husband Peter now dead she has inherited Sugar Hall. How is she going to cope with little in the way of money. Dieter’s new friend is now becoming more menacing and is slowly taking over. Dieters grandfather (Gerald) was a keen collector of Butterflies and Moth’s and one of the rooms they call the ‘room of death’ is clearly marked by Lilia as a ‘no entry’ room and is kept locked. I am keen on Butterflies and Moth’s and will never look at them the same again after reading Sugar Hall. Why? You will find out after reading this fabulous twisting creepy story.

One aspect of the book I enjoyed is that each new chapter has an illustration that just adds to the qualities of Murray’s writing skill. Some may find the story has a number of layers that leave questions. For me that is just an added quality that Sugar Hall delivers it wants you not just to read but to question and debate.

Some readers will feel some lingering sadness for the boy ghost and his past, what really happened to him and what was the story of his Mother? Why has he suddenly appeared to Dieter? So by now you realise that this is not just a compelling ghost story but also added mystery. I was compelled to try and get to know more about some of the characters in the story, but these are questions that will haunt you after you have finished reading Sugar Hall.

This is classic writing that should be making Sugar Hall an all-time classic story that should be up there with the Woman in White and the Woman in Black.  Simply a superb creepy ghost story laden with twists that will keep you guessing.

Thank you to Seren Books for a review copy of Sugar Hall.


REVIEW by John Lloyd, The Bookbag

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sugar Hall is a place of transitions. It has recently gained new residents – Lilia Sugar, and her children Saskia and Dieter. It has lost several portions of the estate, however – several valuable trinkets, the billiard table – as Lilia has to sell things to keep the family from poverty. But apart from things arriving and things going, there are things moving – possibly the objects left, possibly the butterfly patterns on the wallpapers. And there are things appearing – such as a lot of actual, living insects, and the naked boy who sometimes appears only as a disembodied head to the young exploring Dieter…

It took a few pages for me to like the style of this book – not too many, but a notable few. But it was well worth the wait for me to see what the author was doing – creating an artful doldrum for Dieter, to contrast with his previous life. The family had been four persons strong (and the mystery of why one is absent is left up to us to think they got it right), living in the heady days of post-WWII London, and Dieter is much more used to rummaging around in a gang of friends on bomb-sites, than in decaying sheds on a country estate none of the family really wishes to be living at. That fourth member, and the reason for the move, both count as ghosts in this self-declared ghost story, but there are countless more – the naked boy, complete with silver tag around his neck, and in fact the ghosts of what every main character was, is now, and what otherwise might have been…

This is not The Others, this is not The Turn of the Screw, this is not Jo Baker's The Telling, but this is its own beast of a country house ghost story. As befitting any story in a country house there is a class issue as a minor element, while another theme is a recurring mention of the Ruth Ellis hanging trial. And as befitting any country house story the house is a bit of a character here – although not perhaps as much as one could wish.

No, for there's a stronger character, one who turns the story to his path, one who plays the pipes that everyone else dances to. There is a case just over halfway for there being too many of those dancers – not to the book's detriment, but you could imagine a more claustrophobic book, without having cameos from too many people. This in some respect comes down to what kind of book it is. If the house was more of a character, if the haunting was more a chilling ghost story, the book would actually be quite different – and it would really be a ghost story. As it is, the book – like the aforementioned Baker (and I know, because I asked her about it in person) is a ghost story while not belonging in the ghost story genre. It certainly ends with a stereotypical currying of the genre tropes, but before then is something more nuanced – with the flavour of melancholy rather than frights, wistfulness and regret as opposed to shocks.

Therefore one can take a lot of the blurb quotes with a pinch of salt – this is not a book for staying up all night, back to the wall and regretting needing to turn every page. The pages do go sailing by very speedily – especially as all the short chapters are separated by found items – letters, newspaper cuttings, mounted insects… It's one indication among many that this author is interested in narrative as opposed to genre, and with the slight touch to the style I mentioned above might make this a literary fiction book, as opposed to a general fiction read – but doesn't make it a genre piece in line with its subtitle after all. It is on the whole more subtle than that, and as a result deserves a much wider and more general audience.

REVIEW by Naomi Frisby, The Writes of Woman

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

There was a boy; there was a small boy and the boy appeared out of thin air, and he, Dieter Sugar, was sure this boy was something different, he was almost certain this boy wasn’t like any other boy he’d seen before.

Sugar Hall begins with young Dieter running, petrified, from the long shed on the edge of the gardens to the reception room in the stately house which is his inheritance. He’s seen the boy mentioned above, a boy who is definitely no longer alive.

The Sugars – Dieter, his older sister Saskia and their mother Lilia – have moved to Sugar Hall from London following the death of Peter, Lilia’s husband and Dieter’s father. Dieter misses his friends, the Wee-Hoo Gang, who played in the wasteland on the edge of the Thames. It’s his sadness about being away from London that makes him declare:

‘A boy was out there,’ he whispered, ‘he did wear a silver collar and you’ll see, I’m going to make him my friend.’

As Dieter makes friends with the ghost boy, completely naïve as to the consequences this will bring, Lilia’s also making friends of her own:

Juniper Bledsoe, neighbour, arrives on horseback, wearing a wax jacket, carrying a joint of beef and being a thoroughly English countrywoman. She’s practical and open.

And John Phelps whose mother used to be a servant at the hall:

John visited because there were things that were difficult for Ma, and although Dieter knew John couldn’t help with every difficult thing, like sadness, he could hit the taps that dribbled green with a spanner; he could climb up onto the roof as Ma worried below, and he could bang until the gush of water stopped. Ma said if it wasn’t for John Phelps they might be dead.

It’s clear that although they’ve never been well off – Peter was estranged from his father due to his marriage to Lilia – there’s been an attempt to raise the children to aspire to something superior, they’ve been given elocution lessons, for example. It’s not until they take over the hall that their financial status becomes crippling and standards begin to slide.

The story’s told in a third person subjective narration moving mostly between the points of view of Dieter and Lilia. This allows us to witness the boy ghost from both Dieter’s perspective, who can see the boy and attempts to help him to his own detriment, and Lilia’s terrifying position as a mother whose son is suddenly and inexplicably ill.

Murray intersperses the narration with a variety of other texts. These take many forms, including newspaper articles, letters, lists and pictures, all of which link to key events in the story.

Sugar Hall, despite its early introduction of the ghost, is a slow burner. Murray allows the reader to become acquainted with the hall, the locals and have a glimpse of the Sugar ancestors and their collections – butterflies, moths, masks and animal heads – in order to build a terrifying atmosphere which hurtles towards it’s grim conclusions. The novel explores how the sins of the ancestors are passed down the generations who ultimately pay for the inhumane crimes committed. Not only is it a very good ghost story, it’s also a reminder of atrocities whose aftermath still resonate today.

REVIEW by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, The Independent

Friday, July 4, 2014

Dieter is the heir to a crumbling mansion, built on the ill-gotten fortune of Caribbean sugar plantations run on slave labour. When he and his sister Saskia are uprooted from their happy urban existence, 11-year-old Dieter is horrified by his surprise inheritance. In London, he was the leader of the Wee Hoo gang, and his days were spent in unfettered play in "the Wasteland" around their flat. Here, in his vast, gloomy and overgrown dominion, he has no friends at all. Until, that is, he meets a boy wearing nothing but a silver collar, who seems to want to play, but doesn't speak.

At first the slave boy, as we discover him to be, seems benign, and we are happy for Dieter that he has found a playmate. But then his mother notices strange cuts on her son's fingers, along with a peculiar passivity and listlessness. The slave boy begins to dominate the lonely Dieter, sitting on his chest at night, then luring him out to play in the woods at all hours, until Dieter is almost comatose with lack of sleep. It seems that the mysterious boy, whose counterpart looks out from a painting above the fireplace, is draining Dieter's very life-force.

The unforgettable conclusion of this haunting novel will shock you into a state of vigilance.

REVIEW by James Lloyd, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sugar Hall: A Ghost Story by Tiffany Murray was some four years in the making. Given that the book is based on the stories of a ghost who haunted and continues to haunt Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean (stories that the author first heard in the school playground when she was ‘a knock-kneed girl’) it seems fair to suggest the gestation period of Murray’s third novel was much longer.

And it shows. Sugar Hall is a dazzlingly clever, superbly crafted book, demonstrating Murray’s dexterity as a storyteller; it is a classic ghost story furnished with a modern, stylish interior. What emerges is an exploration into our commonly held ideas of what a ghost is.

The story begins during the Easter holidays in 1955. Dieter Sugar, (‘the last Sugar’) the sole heir of Sugar Hall, a dilapatated country house near the Welsh borders, sees ‘the boy’, who is unlike ‘any other boy he’d seen before.’ Dieter returns home to his mother, Lilia, and sister, Saskia, to tell them of his encounter. The first piece of dialogue spoken in the book is a question (‘What is it, Dee?’ asks his mother) and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel as the characters, as will the reader, explore sins personal and historical, past and present, and the tragic flaws and traces of memory they leave behind.

Having left London following the death of his father, Dieter had left his friends behind him, ‘the Wee-Hoo Gang’, of which he was the leader. There, they had made an area they called the Wasteland their playground (a place that evokes T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’) with ‘the smog came in from the Thames and the cranes that were building, building, building chugged in the distance.’ And it is not only Dieter that is affected by the move. London had afforded the Sugar family an anonymity that the verdant landscape surrounding Sugar Hall forces them to confront; their new residence is anything but a country retreat, and Lilia longs for the ‘noise of London’ as ‘it had drowned out so much.’

The friendship that develops between Dieter and the boy ‘who wears a silver collar’ symbolises the former’s continuing struggle to create meaningful relationships at Sugar Hall. Sugar Hall knowingly draws comparisons with Jane Eyre andWuthering Heights (both are referenced in the novel), but Dieter’s relationship with the mysterious boy who appears ‘out of thin air’ finds a more rewarding parallel in the friendship between Antoinette and Tia in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

Except for a silver collar, the boy had appeared naked to Dieter. He then has the idea to give his dead father’s shirt and trousers to wear. When the boy appears a second time, amid the ‘dust dancing and cobwebs pulsing’, Dieter sees that he has no body beneath his face. ‘Who are you?’ asks Dieter. The boy does not speak. Instead he performs a movement that makes the bones in his neck click and pop, and the sound makes Dieter’s chin fall to his chest where ‘his nose dropped splashes of blood onto his father’s white shirt.’ In Wide Sargasso Sea, as Antoinette’s house in Coulibri burns, she sees Tia and runs for her, ‘for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river.’ When Antoinette catches up with Tia she sees the ‘jagged stone’ in her hand, but does not see her throw it, she feels ‘only something wet, running down my face…we stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.’

Sugar Hall is sophisticatedly layered and lends itself to multiple interpretations. But the above-mentioned comparison is important because it is an explicit marker of the Lacanian concept of the mirror stage in psychoanalytic theory. Similarly, it is possible to draw reference to Freud’s concept of The Uncanny. For instance, is the boy Dieter encounters dead or alive? Is he a figment of Dieter’s imagination, a mechanism that allows him to cope with the untimely death of his father? Like Antoinette and Tia, the comfort Dieter takes in the boy’s presence throughout the novel suggests that he can only self-identify through him.

At times there is a sexual complicated rivalry between Dieter and the boy. As the latter becomes less benevolent and more of a threat – a classic motif of the döppelganger – he visits Dieter in the room he shares with his mother and sister. The boy climbs on top of his Lilia’s chest, ‘I must kiss her properly’, he says, and Dieter, seemingly paralysed, watches as ‘his face moved closer to hers.’ Fittingly, Murray uses an epigraph at the beginning of the novel, an extract from a poem by Kamau Brathwaite, entitled ‘Limbo’:

And the limbo stick is the silence in front of me / limbo / limbo / limbo like me

Its inclusion, of course, adds a dimension to the book as a whole, and complements the wonderful illustrations by Mexican artist, Eme De Amario. However, in this particular instance, ‘Limbo’ brings to mind Dieter’s indeterminate state, one that results rom the inability to fully identify with ‘Pa’, his dead father. ‘Come here and kiss her,’ says the boy to Dieter as he leans over his sleeping mother Lilia. His face clammy with sweat. In a scene that recalls the King Oedipus myth, Dieter then sees that ‘the boy’s eyes weren’t black or brown or blue or green or bright with gold anymore, they weren’t even eyes.’

The mysterious boy is, like any ghost, a reminder of loss. His appearance at Sugar Hall is the tipping point. Memories and histories from the darkest recesses of the minds and pasts of the characters and landscapes are brought to the boil. Sugar Hall is aptly named as it was built from the revenues of sugar cane plantations operating under slave labour conditions in the Carribean. Dieter’s mum, Lilia, escaped to England from Germany when she was only fifteen years old. Her personal traumas, born not only out of past ordeals but out of an intensity of will that is unique to those living in imposed exile, are discernable in her single-mindedness. As the third person narration shifts from character to character, each one revealing their own secret history of Sugar Hall, events build to an crescendo and culminate with an unforgetable conclusion.

Tantalisingly paced and elaborate in scope, Murray’s narrative patterning is very clever. Like Delillo and Ellroy, real life events intersperse the action of Sugar Hall and sometimes dictate and intensify it (the execution of Ruth Ellis is one brilliant example). If you want to read a book by a writer who knows exactly what she is writing about and has written it fabulously, read Sugar Hall.

Review by Eluned Gramich, New Welsh Review

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Set just after the Second World War, Tiffany Murray’s third novel tells the story of Dieter Sugar and his family – his mother, Lilia, and older sister, Saskia – as they move away from their London home and Dieter’s beloved gang of friends, to an ancient estate near the Severn Estuary. The manor house, Sugar Hall, which Dieter is in line to inherit, is a vast and crumbling building from a distant age. There, in its unfamiliar and decaying environs, events take place which reveal a dark history and an even more terrifying present.

In the course of the novel, Murray invokes both Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden, thereby placing the narrative in an oscillating movement between childhood romanticism and Gothic realism. Like the eponymous heroine of Jayne Eyre, Dieter’s young life has not been an easy one. His childhood is marred by this father’s death, a family history of mental illness, and the memories of the recent war, which especially affected his Jewish-German mother, Lilia, a refugee. However, like Tom in The Secret Garden, Dieter is full of life and wonder, eager to explore the overgrown grounds of the estate and make new friends.

Murray moves expertly between characters: from Lilia to Dieter, from the no-nonsense neighbour, Juniper, to the uptight vicar, and then to the chilling voice of the ghostly ‘Black Boy’, Dieter’s imaginary friend. Deeply and sympathetically imagined, their actions grow organically from their personalities, offering a realist weight to the supernatural elements of the story. The novel is also well researched and filled with details drawn from 1950s Britain without being overly heavy on historical exposition. Sugar Hall, a frightening yet hallowed place, dominates the novel’s landscape, just as it dominates the minds of the protagonists. Its position on the border between England and Wales, close to the dangerous mudflats of the Severn estuary, serves to convey a sense of instability, and highlights the shifting relations between past and present, reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity.

There are many strands to the novel – Lilia’s tale is very different from Dieter’s and is, again, different from that of her daughter, Saskia – but at its centre, Sugar Hall is the story of a boy’s mental breakdown. Despite beginning with a reassuringly formulaic scene (a new life in an old house), the book rapidly progresses to far stranger territories. Scattered with surprising twists – appearances from old friends, surreal happenings and unhappy love affairs – the story captures a reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. Murray’s female characters, Juniper and Lilia, are particularly engaging. Although very different personalities, both are widows struggling to make do in difficult circumstances; both are complex, clever and warm-hearted. Men, on the other hand, are all innately afflicted. These afflictions range from the father’s severe depression to the comic obsessive-compulsive behaviour of the vicar, ironing and re-ironing his underpants. This is a welcome rewrite of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ trope; in Sugar Hall the attic’s inhabitant is not a wronged wife, but a menacing boy.

However, female relationships aren’t all as healthy and strong as Lilia and Juniper’s. Halfway through, it is made clear that Lilia dislikes, even hates, her daughter, Saskia. There’s a reason, but the sudden revelation is confusing and doesn’t fit the portrayal of Lilia. Saskia is shown to be selfish and stupid, so the hatred her mother feels towards her isn’t alleviated by authorial compassion. Saskia is only a teenager and has suffered like her little brother, Dieter, who by contrast is treated lovingly by the adults around him. I can’t help but wonder whether the reason that the blonde, blue-eyed Saskia is suddenly vilified is because she turns out to be the daughter of a German soldier?

The novel confronts national histories through the personal history of the Sugar family: Nazism, the slave trade (Sugar Hall was built with the money made from sugar plantations), capital punishment (the last woman is about to be hanged in England). Murray deftly raises the issues, but in the end does little more than point them out. Dieter and Lilia are left largely ignorant about Sugar Hall’s foundations on slavery and Dieter never discusses the issue directly. Only the emotionally restrained vicar speaks of it at length, yet he is the wrong person to attempt to process the effects of that history. Since the protagonists do not confront their connections to slavery, nor does the reader. At the Gothic heart of the novel, both Saskia and Dieter are being punished for the sins of their ancestors. Murray seems to be suggesting that we all share a common guilt, but at the same time she shies away from these problems rather than reaching a conclusion.

That said, surely a feature of good literature is to resist neat conclusions. Sugar Hall is a fine example: it’s a mysterious, complex and riveting novel, poised between this world and the next. It leaves many questions unanswered, questions which will continue to haunt you far beyond the last page.

User Reviews

Sorry there are no reviews yet for this book


Anonymous's picture

Review by New Welsh Review

No votes yet

Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
See the full article here:

09/12/2013 - 13:53
Anonymous's picture

Review from Cordite

No votes yet

Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

See the full review here:

09/09/2014 - 11:44
Please Login or register to post a comment or review