A Lifetime Burning - Reviews
AN ABSOLUTE PAGE-TURNER
A review on www.LoveReading.co.uk:
"An absolute page-turner! I could not put this book down and read it over a weekend. It is a haunting and disturbing exploration of the meaning of love within a close-knit family, the Dunbars. Flora, a twin, never feels she quite fits. The book opens with her own account of her funeral and then jumping backwards and forwards through the years of her childhood, adolescence, marriage and motherhood, we see how her quest for love and happiness lead her along a destructive path of alcoholism, broken hearts and painful truths which eventually lead to her downfall. This is a disturbing tragedy but one in which you feel drawn to the characters and have sympathy for each of them in their complex web of tangled emotions. Long after the last page is read, you are still caught up in the emotions of the Dunbars. Find a place for it in your holiday luggage!"
From a review in NORTHWORDS NOW:
"The characters are complex, their relationships often astonishing but always credible. The emotional power in these novels makes this reviewer reflect on how Charlotte and Emily Bronte might have written if they were living and writing now."
"I can heartily recommend Linda Gillard. Her two novels, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and A LIFETIME BURNING are excellent reads... I'm looking forward to her next."
ADELE GERAS, author of Facing the Light and Hester's Story
From a review on The Little Reader Library blog:
"...An absorbing, brave and unforgettable book... The dialogue flows easily; the characters are so well drawn that they leap from the page... A thoroughly riveting read."
From a review on Rhapsodyinbooks' Weblog:
"...In spite of the tough issues raised by this story, you won't want to put the book down until you find out how they are resolved. Gillard is incredibly bold not only to tackle themes that echo those in a piece of classic literature, but also subjects that threaten to scare off readers. Yet the characters she creates are so well fleshed out, that they become real people that you like in spite of their best efforts to push you away, and you want to hold them and ease their pain. This book will affect you profoundly, and is definitely one you should consider reading. It is also a goldmine for bookclub group discussions!"
BOLD AND POWERFUL SECOND NOVEL ABOUT A FAMILY IN TURMOIL
From a review in the West Highland Free Press by ROGER HUTCHINGSON, author of Calum's Road:
"...400 pages of complicated, painful internal - and external - conflicts... [Gillard] wrote well in her first novel; she writes even better in her second. A LIFETIME BURNING is hugely more ambitious. [She] jumps around from the 1940s to the 2000s - covering most of the years in between - as easily as she leaps from first to third person narration of the same story. This is enormously difficult to do, but she pulls it off beautifully... Her dialogue, characterisation and description is cool and convincing. She draws cleverly and discreetly upon her own reservoir of personal experiences in music and drama... Absorbing, clever and touching."
From Stuck-in-a-Book's book blog:
"Probably the most convincing portrayal of being a twin that I have ever read... I enjoyed her previous novel EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, but this is leagues ahead of it - can't recommend it enough. The subject matter isn't uncontroversial, but nothing in A LIFETIME BURNING is gratuitous - and almost every other modern novelist I've read could take a leaf out of Gillard's book."
From www.BookClubForum.co.uk (Reviewer Michelle Moore):
"This is a book that will grab your attention from the very first page, and each chapter leaves you wanting to know more. Although it keeps you turning the pages, there were times when I had to put it down and take a deep breath, before picking it up and getting absorbed again. There are issues explored here that aren't easy to read, but they are handled in a way that means you can take that deep breath and carry on...
Linda is a new author to me this year, and she has jumped right up there into my list of favourites. As for this book, I believe it's easily my favourite book of the year so far, and has gone onto my re-read pile, which not many achieve! Highly recommended!"
From The Bookbag.co.uk (Reviewer Sue Fairhead):
"The characters are distinct and seem real, so much so that I cared what happened to them all... And yes, the themes are disturbing. Or could be, in the hands of a sensationalist writer. The book features unrequited love, lust, the destruction of dreams, depression, and incestuous relationships. There is adultery, and promiscuity, and betrayal of trust. But Linda Gillard treats these themes with amazing sensitivity...
The writing is excellent, the twists and turns of the plot unexpected, but not unbelievable; shocking, but not as disturbing as they could have been. I have no idea how the author managed the plotting, revealing the story gradually through so many different time periods. It works extremely well. The prologue gives clues about what happens right the way through the novel, but the full picture is not clear until the end. As soon as I'd finished, I went back to the beginning and read the prologue and first couple of sections again."
A review by Sutherland bookseller Kevin Crowe in Am Bratach, a monthly magazine for the north-west Highlands
"That this book is an unusual novel is apparent from the opening sequence, in which one of the key protagonists - Flora Dunbar - describes her own cremation. She sees herself as the "black sheep", and yet as the story progresses it becomes clear that her family is dysfunctional in the extreme.
Gillard eschews the conventional chronological narrative. Instead we have the story of an apparently respectable upper-middle class family, revealed piecemeal, as the narrative switches back and forwards between the 1940s and 2000, with events seen through the eyes of different characters. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this approach could have been confusing and irritating. Instead, it forces the reader to think about the missing pieces, ensuring that much essential information is withheld until near the end. In this the reader becomes like some of the characters: not always sure what is happening, having to pick up on hints, and thus making key revelations all the more shocking.
Not only has Gillard shown great skill in handling a difficult narrative structure. She has also shown astuteness in her choice of where to place her story. If this novel had taken place in inner city slums or among inbred upper class landed gentry or in another century, it could still have been an interesting story, but it would not have made the reader engage emotionally with the characters in the way it does.
The Dunbars originate in Scotland, but live in middle England, where they have built respectable and cultured lives for themselves. They are typical pillars of the community. In 1942, at the age of 35, Dora Dunbar gives birth to twins: Flora and Rory. Throughout their childhoods, these two are inseparable, but in adulthood they both marry, though neither marriage is a success, despite outward appearances to the contrary.
In many ways, these twins are similar: stubborn, selfish, and artistic, with a single-mindedness in the pursuit of their aims. Rory becomes a concert pianist, whereas Flora takes up acting. However, there are crucial differences. Although Rory is the more successful artist, he lacks passion, whereas Flora - whose acting career is short lived - pursues her passions at the expense of all else, including ultimately her life. For all his undoubted technical skills and his great critical success, I suspect that Rory would have put little of his own feelings into the classics he played. Indeed, in one scene he states that the pianist should just be a vessel for Beethoven's and Mozart's music to reach the audience.
It is this dichotomy that is at the heart of the novel. It reminds this reviewer of the work of the English poet William Blake who, in his mystical work "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", equates Heaven with reason and Hell with energy or passion. In Blake's world view, reason without passion is sterile and passion without reason leads to anarchic chaos. He argues there needs to be a balance - or "marriage" - of the two. Gillard has created two people, each of which has one half of what is needed for balance, so each needs the other to be whole.
In their desperate struggle to achieve wholeness and the heartbreakingly awful dilemmas it forces them to face, those around them - extended family, husband, wife, children - almost become like those humans in Greek epics who are the playthings of the Gods. Lives are shattered, love affairs lie in ruins, personal histories have to be discarded and rebuilt, people's identities are trodden on - all in pursuit of the needs of these twins.
The book is also highly entertaining. It engages the reader, both emotionally and intellectually, and it is hard to put down. Practically every page has another twist in the plot, her characters develop throughout the novel and one begins to think of them as part of one's own family, at which stage one is in danger of wondering about one's own family, and what skeletons might be in its closet. It is meaty and when it needs to be it is explicit, sometimes brutally so.
Hardly a character has a fulfilled sex life. The physical and the emotional rarely meet in relationships, and when they do the result is shocking.
It is controversial and has divided people, disgusting some, delighting others. I loved it. Skye-domiciled Gillard joins an ever growing number of marvellous and courageous writers who have chosen the Highlands as their home."
A TRUE WOW BOOK!
From a US literary blog The Bluestalking Reader by librarian and writer Lisa Guidarini. Lisa also interviewed me for the site. See review and interview here.
(WARNING: plot spoilers!)
"I truly enjoyed Gillard's first book, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, and thought it so beautifully lyrical in style I read it very slowly, to savor every word. If it had a flaw I'd say it was the graphic, raw nature of both the sex and the language of the main character. It's not that I'm a prude that way. Not at all, but I'm just not one for overly graphic language or sex scenes in general. A personal call, and there you have it. But the rest of that book was so lovely, and the story so wonderful, the bit about the graphic nature didn't mar my enjoyment. Her latest, though, A LIFETIME BURNING, is brilliant in every way, start to finish.
What's somewhat surprising about that is the fact the premise of this book hinges on incest within the family, which is the focus of the plot. There are multiple incestuous layers, which you'd think I'd find more disturbing considering my minor criticism of Gillard's first book, but the simple fact is this book is so wonderfully written as to present the reader with a completely non-judgmental exploration of what is love, and what should the limits be when pursuing something you believe to be "the real thing." I found myself forgetting the taboo nature of the love, so wrapped up I was in the beauty of the raw need and complete, encompassing love between the characters.
The fact it was incest was, of course, disturbing, but Gillard manages to work her way beyond that, finding just the right perspective that made the reader feel less uncomfortable, though just aware enough to see there was a horrible element to it. In short, the book is masterful and shows a huge leap of sophistication from EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, which was at the same time one of the most outstanding first novels I believe I've ever read.
A LIFETIME BURNING is just unearthly beautiful in terms of prose style and lyrical quality. The language is gorgeous and lush, and if the author falters anywhere it's at that hideously difficult three-quarters mark, building up to the climax, when so very many writers seem to have a difficult time filling the space. But even there, when the plot slows down a bit, my interest never actually flagged. I noted the bit slower pace of things, the slight slowing of the prose, but just as soon as I had the chance to notice it was happening things took off at a brilliant clip again, never to slow down again so much as a hair.
I will be recommending this book to everyone I know who enjoys reading contemporary literary fiction. I found it tremendously moving, and even the day after finishing it I continue to find it positively haunting. I will temper my recommendation to others by adding a caveat about the theme, as the issues raised could be very painful to some, but there will be no strong warning. It's simply not needed, given the deft way Gillard handles the subject.
The sheer beauty of this book is its biggest recommendation, and this book deserves a wide readership. I'll be waiting very anxiously for Gillard's next offering."
AN EMOTIONAL AVALANCHE
Instead of asking an author for a cover quote, I decided to ask a book group. Before publication, copies of the manuscript were handed out to members of Lochcarron Reading Group, IN Ross & Cromarty. (Lochcarron is a beautiful village on the north-west coast of Scotland.)
Some weeks later the group held a meeting to discuss the book. I wasn't present but I'm told it was pretty lively! These are some of their comments:
"Disturbing themes, sensitively explored ."
"An emotional avalanche."
"Her characterisation is impressive and the sensitivity of the writing invokes compassion, not condemnation."
Librarian Cindie Reiter said, "The group loved A LIFETIME BURNING. They felt the book was definitely reading group material as it was so issue-driven. They felt the issues were very well handled and not gratuitous."
There are book group reading guides for A LIFETIME BURNING, STAR GAZING, THE MEMORY TREE and EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY.