Brown Eyes by Frances Ive – a family dog sees family life from a different perspective

Brown Eyes by Frances Ive

This unusual novel is told by two voices – a woman whose marriage is in trouble, and the Brown Eyes of the title – Benji, the family labrador. This dual view point gives a unique set of insights into a complex set of circumstances. Benji’s understanding of what is going on is not sophisticated, but once combined with Meriel’s account of her life over a few months it gives a picture of a separation, of friends and family, of the effects of one relationship breaking down. In some ways this is quite a simple book, written with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding of events, emotions and actions. In other respects it reflects quite a sophisticated reflection on the fall out from a potential breakup. It is a typical suburban setting of family homes, walks in parks, and conversations at gatherings. Benji, as could be guessed, is concerned with walks, food and other dogs, but also observes the mysterious arguments, tense conversations and outbursts that go with intense emotions. He has favourite humans, and struggles to understand why they are behaving differently and being so angry with each other and occasionally with themselves. There is plenty of well written dialogue, especially as Meriel consults her friends about the progress of her relationships. There are some realistic portraits of teenagers as well as adults, all in understandable and probably familiar settings. Altogether this is an enjoyable book that I was pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review.

The first chapter is headed with a phrase that really sums up the heart of the novel “Like a fly on the wall. From the inside out. The heart of the family. The only one to see it all.” Benji the dog realises that there is a problem and “My perfect life is under threat” as he hears Meriel and her husband Phil shouting and having a terrible row. In the aftermath Phil tells Benji something of what happened from his point of view. The second chapter begins with Meriel’s views, of how she is usually the person people tell their troubles to, people like Tania who is a good friend. Tania reveals something of her own troubled romantic life, with hints that her interests are no longer limited to her own husband. This format of story telling allows different insights into the same events and relationships, ranging from the simple recognition of prevailing emotions by Benji, to the complexity of Mariel’s feelings as her marriage is subject to pressures. There is tragedy to cope with as well as complex situations between people, with intervention from others. 

This is a novel which achieves a lot in quite a short book. It looks at all the reactions to a situation which affects many people either directly or indirectly. It shows the ripple effect of one unfortunate event on a big group of people from the point of view of an observer who sees more than anyone expects. Benji’s role in all this confusion is largely unintentional, but he becomes the unwitting confidante of most people. This is a very relevant novel for contemporary times, and an unexpected retelling of a relatable story.     

Finding Jo by Frances Ive – a young woman looks for herself in a Himalayan paradise

Finding Jo by Frances Ive

This contemporary novel is about finding Jo in two senses; Jo herself narrates the main part of the novel as she seeks to discover more about herself in a distant retreat centre in the Himalayas. The other part is the intervening story of various members of her family as they continue to live without her, with at least one deciding to look for her. Jo escapes her possessive boyfriend Rob in an act of desperation as their relationship seems to be going nowhere, and she begins to realise that she cannot just settle for any relationship. Her family is dissatisfied, dysfunctional and demanding of Jo who is the peacemaker, the one who tries to restore some element of harmony.

“Finding Jo” is a well written book which seeks to immerse the reader in Jo’s discoveries of her past, her present and what she actually wants from her future. It describes the setting of the Jasanghari retreat in glowing terms of a paradise, but also with a keen eye for the people she meets there, with all their foibles and attractions. The book is well paced, as it deals with many of the challenges facing both women and men in today’s society from a place and time that is very different. It is an enjoyable book from the point of view of a young woman who knows that she must make choices – and finds an idyllic place to make them in. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this honest and thoughtful book.

The book begins with Jo’s description of landing in India. It is a cultural and temperature shock; the heat even at 5am is overwhelming, the perils of travelling alone, choosing a taxi, ignoring beggars and much else is tricky to cope with. Fortunately, her accommodation turns out to be adequate with a vital shower. Her journey onwards to the cooler retreat centre in the hills is assisted by English speaking people who are travelling alone or in small groups, as it soon becomes apparent that Jo is a friendly character whose situation at home in Britain is the product of those closest to her having their own agendas and assuming that she will make the effort to settle arguments, look after the children and work hard to make family events like Christmas bearable. Her mother drinks to help her cope with her father who seems to annoy her. Her sister Beth is in a difficult relationship but will not act on the advice that Jo thoughtfully offers. Her brother Michael has always been rather distant, while his wife Hannah wants all the glamour and money his work offers. It is only with their children that Jo finds it easy to communicate. When she arrives at the retreat she discovers the attractions and potential answers to be found in a glorious array of scenery and opportunities for counselling, mindfulness sessions and yoga among other classes. Not that it is all plain sailing, as her relationship with two of her fellow guests is confusing, but overall this is an opportunity to reassess everything without pressure.

This is a thoughtful book which is written with a real insight into what people really want from life and relationships. It comments on the emptiness of many people’s lives as they seek what they think is important in terms of money and relationships. The dialogue is well handled, revealing much about the characters with humour and skill. This is a book which is well worth reading and for its inspiration that there may well be more to contemporary life.