Carew is a natural storyteller, and each of these tales works like a perfectly paced standup routine, punctuated by some gorgeous phrase-making: the “eerie shuddery whiteness” of mating moths that “look like Rorschach blots”, or the strange sensation of intimacy we experience when reading a good book, “a kind of one-to-one whispering”. It’s hard to make writing look this easy, but Carew’s stories have the knack of easing the reader happily from page to page, leaving us squirming at the situations she finds herself in while secretly hoping that she won’t escape them just yet.
Carew has a knack for spinning an amusing yarn, and this account of her life’s various disasters can be painfully funny, thanks largely to her self-awareness and willingness to show up her own absurdity as much as other people’s. A chapter about her experiences in an overly-strict Tayside hotel comically exposes the pettiness of the proprietors. But the fact that Carew’s long-awaited revenge is equally petty, as she drops more and more clues to its name until one finally throws the book aside to Google it, makes it funnier still.
Yet this is more than forgivable given the frequent glimmers of gorgeous prose. Carew has a beautifully evocative style — her first book, Dadland, a biography of her war-hero father in the later stages of dementia, won the Costa Biography Award in 2016.
She’s at her best here when travel writing: when describing a bazaar in Jodhpur (“a man selling pigment, each bright colour heaped into a miraculously tall holy lingam, erect and side-by-side, a rainbow line of phalluses”) or canoeing in south-west France, the river’s “ballet of aqua light, its quivering mercury skin, its mysterious dark pools”.
A lot of the charm of the stories lies in the detail, especially the visual detail. In The Tidy House, she is trying to retrieve three trunkfuls of stolen items from a friend’s girlfriend, including the Beatles cake decorations used on Carew’s eighth birthday cake. The way she describes them, I feel as if I owned them myself. They have “the Beatles” written on the drums and a miniature Ringo is playing them. It’s obvious from the occasional illustrations, photos and journal extracts that she is someone who documents everything and keeps everything, otherwise the level of recall in this book would be impossible.
For all this, Quicksand Tales has none of the emotional jeopardy, the sniping, silence and chaos of Dadland. And, as with most family accounts, honed in the retelling, you sometimes feel that “you just had to have been there” to get it.
But Carew does excel at pinpointing the disjointedness between the life we boast about and the messy lives we actually end up living.