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The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times

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‘An orphan is travelling through the deep, dark woods and discovers that the monsters she encounters are as much tragic as wicked and that the handsome young prince may be ugly inside. The world around her is callous, unjust and horribly scarred by the past. But she brings compassion and even a glimmer of hope.’

Summer 1923. The modern world. Orphaned Lucy Marsh climbs into the back of the old army truck and is whisked off to the woods, where the funny men live. If she can only avoid all the hazards on the path, she may just survive into a bright new tomorrow.

390 pages, Paperback

First published April 15, 2017

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Xan Brooks

3 books12 followers

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 112 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
August 23, 2019
War Corrupts Everything

War extinguishes the lives of many of the (mostly) men who are engaged in it, and many of the (mostly) women and children who are in its vicinity. But, however ghastly these immediate effects, they are trivial in the scheme that war has in mind. This is a novel about the Great War in its real greatness, the corruption of an entire society, sometimes overtly but also (mostly) insidiously, among young and old, rich and poor, educated and ignorant. Everyone pays for war, but not (mostly) through taxes.

The individuals fundamentally changed by war include, of course, its survivors, many of whom are physically or psychically maimed, sometimes grotesquely so. These latter are the undead. The effects of the dead, undead and otherwise injured ramify through the networks of families, friends and workmates that constitute a collective of suffering. These, not the graves of the dead, are where the real corruption takes place: “When the world has been shattered, nothing makes any sense. All hail the power of the bouncing balloon. In the absence of Jesus or him one must accept what one’s given.”

And quite apart from individuals, relationships disintegrate. Children without parents, women without husbands, de-populated towns and villages, are open to infection, both organic and social. The great flu epidemic, which originated in the trenches, was as effective as the Great War in its killing power. Government, established to handle the routine and predictable, becomes inept and even more exploitative than usual. And the ideologies of crackpot spiritualist and political ideas take up residence in the minds of the rest of the population.

So it shouldn’t be all that surprising to encounter a paedophile ring established as part of a public charity and sponsored by a deranged titled family. In the run of things, such an endeavour hardly seems worthy of notice much less prosecution. It seems the ideal literary focus for bringing together the ever-lengthening threads of war. Corruption of the young is how war transcends generations and survives those brief periods of peace. Youth absorbs the mores of war through sex more than formal education. War normalises everything since nothing about war is normal. The abnormal is, strangely, a way of forgetting about what war has accomplished. The rag and bone man can dispose of the remnants.

What’s lost in war is the entirety of a civilisation. Civilisation, as Freud knew, is that which restrains random human impulses. War does not create the impulses but it does release their constraints. As one of the undead laments “It’s too easy to say that we came back as beasts. We were beasts to begin with and then the war brought it out.” War is then a sort of reverse therapy, dislocating everything for the sake of chaotic reconstruction, only to engage in it over again. Civilisation, it would appear, is (mostly) the respite between rounds in which to take a breath and have a wash before re-engaging the foe, and losing another home, another civilisation.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,518 reviews2,464 followers
August 16, 2019
Nominated for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction 2018
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2017

(Update: I just changed my rating from 4 to 5 stars - months after reading it, this book is still haunting me!)
So much for the Costa being about light entertainment - this nightmarish horror-version of a fairy tale, populated by teenage prostitutes, severely disfigured war veterans, and coked-up nobility, plays in one league with A Little Life when it comes to dark story arcs and haunting imagery (so in case you think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which is shortlisted in the same category, is severe social commentary and/or you're one of those people who are inclined to write stuff like "oooohh, the feels!" in your reviews, don't read this, you'll never sleep again). The topic of Xan Brooks' debut is human cruelty, and as he is a tremendous writer, he will unsettle you in ways you never thought possible.

England, 1923. Orphaned Lucy Marsh finds herself in a country struggling with the social aftermath of WW I and an economic slump. The 14-year-old lives with her grandparents, and as their public house does not earn them enough money, they make Lucy work as a prostitute, meeting once every week with disfigured war veterans in a nearby forest. Those veterans have officially been declared dead, as their injuries were so severe that they were initially not expected to survive. Lucy's relationship with these veterans and the rich family whose charity provides them shelter is at the core of the book.

What makes this story particularly inventive is that Brooks employs the imagery of a fairy tale: The four veterans are named after characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Toto), there's a dark forest, orphans, evil parents and grandparents, a castle, a prince (who is actually a villain), a magician with a supernatural power, and something like a ball, but with jazz and cocaine. The familiar stereotypes are so twisted that they become nightmarish and scary. The disabled veterans (some of them multiple amputees, some of them lost their faces and wear masks) are criminals raping children, but they are also outcasts who lost everything in the war and feel like they can't go back to their families and burden them, and they have and will become victims in other ways as well; Lucy is without protection which puts her in danger of being taken advantage of; and the factors of power and class will set the whole microcosm on fire.

Unfortunately, there are some parts of the book where Brooks gets sidetracked and is lost in all his ideas - it's not that these ideas are bad per se, but there are just too many of them and the story partly loses focus and intensity (although I am not sure whether I really want this book to have more intensity, thank you very much). The connection between part 1 (The Forest) and part 2 (The House) is also a little flawed and lacks some stringency, but it did not bother me too much.

This novel is extremely hard to digest and frankly, there's a part of me that wishes I'd never read it. Nevertheless, this is no doubt a great book, and it is daring move by the Costa judges to include this in their selection.
Profile Image for Viv JM.
692 reviews153 followers
April 7, 2017
Well, this was unexpectedly and weirdly wonderful!

The subject matter was disturbing, at times verging on the grotesque, and yet there was also great beauty here. The setting is post-Great War Britain and the story revolves around an orphan, Lucy, and a group of men who have been disfigured in the war and live on the fringes of society. It could have been a depressing tale, and to be fair, there are some very sad and upsetting scenes, but somehow I have come away feeling quite uplifted. The writing has a dreamy, almost fairy tale quality, and the overall takeaway vibe is a hopeful one (though it takes some time to get there!)

This is a debut novel and I think Xan Brooks is definitely going to be an author to watch out for. I will certainly read any of his future works.

Full disclosure: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway. I can't remember what prompted me to enter the giveaway in the first place, but I am very glad I did! So, thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy :-)

Profile Image for Jacob Overmark.
204 reviews9 followers
March 16, 2018
Damaged Goods or What Really Happened to Dorothy Gale.

So many men died for king and country in The Great War.
So many did not return, fate unknown, presumed dead.
So many came back disfigured, physically and mentally.
So many were widowed and orphaned.
The trenches in France, once dug out for protection are now mass graves, giving permanent shelter.

But onwards, onwards, for king and country.

8 years have passed, we must move on, start over, rebuild and develop a new England.
But the foundation is weak. Nearly a full generation of young men are missing, the economy is failing, and it feels like our lust for life has been put on a temporary hold.
We get by, more or less on our basic instincts.

This is where we meet Lucy Marsh, a 14-year old schoolgirl, orphaned, living with her grandparents and her brother, tapping beer in the family run pub and daydreaming a bit.

This is not a novel for the weak of heart.
You will meet neglect, abuse, poverty, despair and violence – and the opulence of the rich.
However, you will also meet an extraordinary will to survive, no matter the cost and you will see how kindness of heart can influence even the worst of situations.
These are the things we do to get by.

I will spare you the synopsis, if you decide to read The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times, you may already know how it is themed around The Wizard of OZ.
But there is not one single evil witch to oppose and the obstacles Lucy is meeting are not resolved by a fairy godmother, neither are there any silver shoes around.

In half a year Lucy transforms from a child into an adult, taking experiences with her which are harsher than most will encounter in a lifetime.
Is there any hope left? Are The Funny Men, The Magician and the cocaine-munching aristocracy just bumps on the road?
Maybe they are, and maybe Lucy´s comrades are as well, phases you have to go through if you by accident is planted in the world at a time when everything is chaos.
Lucy´s matter-of-factly approach to the world is probably what in the end will get her through. She knows very well that her coping strategies are just that. That a girl can take so much and then some, but there is an end to it and at that point you break down and have to start over.
So British stiff upper lip, you may say, but, there are amazingly few “nice cups of tea” in the novel. I guess Lucy knows tea is not a solution to life´s crisis.

This is a study of human nature seen through the eyes of a child, a child turned into an adult almost overnight.
Human nature under stress, the pressure you feel when you should live up to certain ideals, but there are no idols left, only the false gods. It is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It is Jung´s 4 Archetypes and it is Little Red Riding Hood and a bit of The Wizard of Oz, in one beautiful mixed salad.
I was touched, repelled and at time amused and most importantly I was reminded of all the mechanisms and all the little dots of glue that are necessary to keep a sane, a civilized society together.
Profile Image for Pamela.
1,306 reviews
November 29, 2017
I would not expect this book to appeal to me. It is dark, grotesque, disturbing. The writing has an eerie, dreamlike quality that often jars with the unsettling story of damaged and abandoned characters. Even so, I found this weird fable totally compelling, and strangely uplifting.

The central character, Lucy, is a young orphan who is taken to Epping Forest, where she meets four men 'the funny men', who were severely disfigured in WWI. The novel explores the complex relationships of the group, slowly revealing their history, as they move through a decaying post-War landscape peopled with decadent aristocrats, fake spiritualists and grieving widows.

The Essex countryside, grimy London streets, a sprawling country estate - all these are vividly brought to life, and reflect the characters who move in and out of Lucy's life. This is a fascinating novel. So I'm very glad I overcame my early unease to see it through to its stunning conclusion.

I received a free copy of this book from a Goodreads giveaway.
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,182 reviews217 followers
April 12, 2018
The recent experiences of the so-called ‘funny men’ who 14-year old orphan Lucy and her companions meet on their trips to the woods turn out to have been anything but funny.  In fact, they have been traumatic and life-changing, leaving them excluded from society.  And the Sunday evening trips to the woods, though they involve seemingly innocent games and coveted treats like trifle and ice-cream, turn out to be far from benign.

Tragically, Lucy and her friends are initially too innocent to see how they are being manipulated and used.  Gradually, the true nature of events is revealed – I have to say to the disquiet of this reader.   Lucy comes to suspect that what is taking place is wrong.  After all she and her friend, Winifred, refer to it as ‘The Terrible Unmentionable’, as if not naming it for what it is makes it less real.  However, the trips to the ‘funny men’ also fill a void in Lucy’s life, leaving her conflicted.  ‘And this is why, as long as she lives, she will never completely regret her trips to the forest, in spite of the trouble they cause and the horrors that follow.’

Alongside Lucy’s experiences with the ‘funny men’, the book introduces several other often eccentric, sometimes grotesque, characters and other narrative threads that, initially, seem quite random and disparate.   However, the connection the author makes between these characters and story lines is the long-lasting impact of the First World War on people, livelihoods and places.  One character observes: ‘It is a time of beginnings for those who can make them and this is surely essential; the world must move on.’  But what about those who can’t move on?

The lives of the main characters converge in the second part of the book, set in Grantwood House, the home of aristocrat Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, heir to the Grantwood estate.     In a manner reminiscent of Jay Gatsby, he throws wild drug and alcohol-fuelled parties, gathering around him a group of misfits and outcasts as a kind of human zoo, with his ‘collection’ expected to provide endless novelty and entertainment.   However, events will take a tragic turn with cataclysmic consequences.

I really admired the author’s imaginative writing, in which metaphors morph into others, such as in this description of a performance by the jazz band, The Long Boys.  ‘Aboard the Maplewood stage, the Long Boys take songs that are already unfamiliar and proceed to twist them out of shape, so that a tune that sets forth dressed as one thing changes costumes in the space of a bar, or doubles back on itself, or spins to reveal a set of outlandish music cousins who start to chatter and squabble, each vying for attention.’

The book ends in a way that suggests there may be redemption and repentance for some, and more hopeful times ahead for Lucy and those who care for her.  However, this couldn’t quite wipe out for me the memories of the book’s darker moments.  I’m afraid I found it difficult to get past the problematic nature of Lucy’s encounters with the ‘funny men’.  I appreciate that the men’s wartime experiences had been dreadful leaving them scarred in all sorts of ways, but I couldn’t understand why this would make them want to act as they do with children.

‘When the world has been shattered, nothing makes any sense.’  I regret I did feel a little like this about the book. It has a dreamlike quality at times and at other times is more like the stuff of nightmares.  The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times is a book I admired for the skilful writing and imaginative characters but couldn’t fall completely in love with because of its dark, unsettling themes.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,212 reviews35 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
August 6, 2018
DNF at page 79 (20%).

I've decided not to continue with this, another case of me being the wrong reader for a book - when you notice yourself constantly checking what page you're on it's time to give up and move on. That said, I found the first couple of chapters interesting, but then the next handful were really confusing... almost like some kind of weird 1920s fever dream set in Epping Forest. If that sounds up your street and you like offbeat fantasy novels then this might be the book for you.
Profile Image for Jackie Law.
876 reviews
April 10, 2017
The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, by Xan Brooks, is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrals and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past.

Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their paternal grandparents who run a now failing pub. Money is tight so Lucy, along with three other young teenagers, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, the home of Lord Hertford. His Lordship runs a charitable foundation which helps injured war veterans and has provided accommodation on his estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men.

The leader amongst the children is Winifred. She and Lucy become friends. They refer to the damaged soldiers as the Funny Men and have their favourites, regarding the behaviour required of them as distasteful but not so much worse than other tasks demanded of them at home. The forest evenings have interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their difficult lives. Despite why they pay for the youngsters company, the Funny Men provide an enlightening, if disquieting, diversion.

“He tells her that the trees in the forest are several centuries old but have been kept healthy by a process called pollarding, which involves stripping back the upper limbs. When a tree is top heavy it will topple or split and very likely crash into its neighbours and bring them down as well. The pollarding prevents that; it ensures growth and progress. He says that every society, however advanced, could use some pollarding every now and again.”

When events force an end to these outings Lucy and Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate gathers misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his peers at drug fuelled parties. Over the course of a summer he draws the Funny Men into this web. The heir and his father believe themselves to be forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat. Naturally they regard themselves as superior.

“Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. This is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all. […] Let me state it quite plainly. Men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself.”

The author has created a compelling tale and so much more. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. There is a lingering poignancy but also resilience and determination. Despite the catastrophic climax the denouement is uplifting.

A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging. It should be relished by every discerning reader.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.
55 reviews5 followers
April 15, 2017
The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is the strange and unsettling tale of Lucy, a young orphan, who every Sunday night takes a trip back in time, in order to meet the funny men. Named after each of Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz, the funny men follow her deep into Epping Forest, where the lines between fairytale and reality are blurred. As Lucy leaves 1920’s England behind, we’re taken on a mesmerizing journey into the disturbing and grotesque. We follow her into an adulthood she never expected, and on an adventure that seems to turn darker and eerier with every page.

As I mentioned above, I ended up truly enjoying this book. The writing was dark and witty, and had a dreamy and disturbing quality to it that I really liked. It was also very beautiful and fluent, and gave me a hard time putting the book down, once I’d picked it up.
I did struggle a bit with the first 50 pages or so, and feared that the plot would simply be too weird, but I’m glad I pressed on, as this turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year so far! I truly loved the fairytale elements, and I loved how all of the seemingly random perspectives came beautifully together in the end. I loved the 1920’s setting, the WW1 focus, and most of all, I loved how this book completely fascinated me and drew me in, although it was inarguably both messed up and unsettling.
This book both warmed my heart and broke it, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of fairytale and doesn’t mind a darker read.
5/5 stars!

I requested this book for review from @saltpublishing, and they very kindly sent me a copy - thank you so much!
Profile Image for Robyn.
377 reviews
August 6, 2017
'The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times', by Xan Brooks, is a fascinating exploration of taboo from the mind of a young teenage girl. It follows a varied cast of characters in the aftermath of World War One and the subsequent Spanish Influenza pandemic - their losses, the survivors, and what some of those survivors have sacrificed to stay alive. The protagonist, Lucy, is both very young and wise beyond her years. Her perspective is fascinating and refreshing, and the author deals with very difficult topics with beautiful linguistic prowess. Overall, the book is thought-provoking and a very worthy addition to anyone's shelves.
Profile Image for Andrea.
345 reviews10 followers
March 31, 2017
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

I know authors put a lot of time, effort and passion into writing a book, therefore I find it hard when I come across one, which sounds good, but on reading find it is really not a book for me. Unfortunately I really did not get on with this book, I have read about three quarters of it, but it just does not appeal to me so I am not going to finish it.
Profile Image for Hanneke.
326 reviews325 followers
September 27, 2017
This novel is simply devastating. Review to follow as I am travelling at the moment.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,133 reviews
May 19, 2017
It is five years since the Great War finished and the country is still shattered. Casualties from the war abound, and some of who have suffered the most are sheltering in Epping Forest. Lucy Marsh and her brother Tom have been orphaned and live with their grandparents in a struggling pub in the grimy streets of north London. As money is tight, they have been despatched to Grantwood House, home of Lord Hertford where men from the war are convalescing. But there are four of these ‘funny men’ who have suffered horrific injuries have called themselves after characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, Toto and the Lion. Each week Lucy and Winifred climb into an old army lorry to go and see these men, to offer them comfort and companionship.

Circumstances mean that those visits stop and Lucy and the others end up spending lots more time on the estate and come into increased contact with the repulsive Rupert, son of Lord Hertford. He has drawn in a large number of oddballs and outcasts and proceeds to ply them with increasing amounts of cocaine, the drug of the future supposedly… But that future might already be starting to unravel for Lucy.

I loved the title of the book, which was the thing that drew me to it originally. Drawing on the deepest elements of folklore and the forest, Brooks has written a book cannot be called comforting at all. The writing is not fast paced and it borders on the surreal at times, full of subtle euphemisms as the dark plot is revealed little by little. However, it is compelling. If it has one flaw, it took a while to get going as Brooks has lots of characters to place in the story, but once I was there I read this in just a couple of days. A great debut novel and one that rewards you for sticking with it.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,261 followers
December 27, 2017
[Epping] Forest is ancient. It exists outside time. It sprang up when the planet was freshly cooked and still cooling. It remains today a place of possibilities. Under the trees is easy to believe that the deer might talk and that owls might fly backwards and that an ordinary fourteen year old girl – the kind of girl people rarely pay much attention to – could sit down on the grass and picnic among beasts. She might shake hands with a ghost or dance alongside a lion or spoon trifle into the mouth of a storybook dwarf

This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many and were just longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for the wonderful In the Absence of Absalon. This book has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award.

Interestingly Salt like the brilliant small press Galley Press are based in Norfolk.

This story is set in an England in 1923, still coming to terms both at a national/economic and personal level with the aftermath of World War I. Lucy Marsh is a 14 year old orphan, living now with her grandparents whose London pub has fallen on hard time as a result of both the start of the depression and a main road re-routing – at the book’s start she is told by her grandfather to go on an outing (with 2 other girls and a boy) to visit, picnic and chat with some “funny-men” in a clearing in Epping Forest.

As the tale of her repeated visits unfold, she and we quickly realise that the funny men (named after characters in the Wizard of Oz) are disfigured ex-soldiers (we later discover soldiers that were declared dead and due to their wounds decided not to let their families know they were alive). We also realise slightly more gradually (with at least for me, the realisation postponed by hoping it was not true) that the main aim of the visits is to satisfy the physical as well as emotional needs of the men and that Lucy’s grandfather has effectively sold her into prostitution.

This first part of the book (“The Forest”) tells the story of these visits, with the true horror of the child abuse deliberately down played by the author by being described in a placid, matter-of-fact way by Lucy. It also introduces us to some other characters: the widowed wife of a pilot; Arthur Elms an odd fat man who serves as a poorly skilled medium, able to disguise his lack of talent to fake that convincingly, by his genuine but mysterious ability to spark flames from his fingers; Rupert Fortnum-Hyde the flamboyant heir to the Grantwood Estate, run by his father, the socially active but elderly Lord Hertford whose charitable works include giving accommodation to the ex-soldiers.

This adds to the sense that the book is describing a series of tribes affected by the war – small business holders, orphaned children, widows seeking consolation in spiritualism, even the rich crippled by taxes.

When, in a rare moment of reaction, Lucy confronts her grandfather with his betrayal of her, he simply responds: “You want me to say sorry? Right you are, then. I’m sorry it happened for what it’s worth. Wish it could have been different. But there we are and that’s how it is. Wish it could have been different.

The visits (and first part) come to an end when one of the ex-soldiers commits suicide and the activities are spotted by a pacifist version of the scouts. The second part (“The House”) is set on the Grantwood Estate – Lucy and another of the girls decide to offer themselves directly to the funny men in their cottage there, but quickly get tied up in the cocaine fuelled parties held by Rupert and attended by famous politicians, artists and misfits including a black-American jazz band and Arthur Elms.

An unusual book, in theme very consciously a modern fairy tale, but one in a traditional rather than Disney sense, with its cast of grotesques, the innocent children subject to horrors the haunted forest, the magical house, the ambiguously happy ending. Overall too dark for me to really recommend, but a memorable and distinctive debut, with a unique take on the lasting effects of the Great War, which are as far as possible from “They all lived happily ever after”.
Profile Image for Callum McLaughlin.
Author 4 books84 followers
April 7, 2018
I hate feeling like the party pooper, but something about this book really didn't sit right with me. The blurb gave me a very clear idea of what I was going to be getting from the story, but what it ultimately delivered was something very different. At least, I think so. And that is my biggest problem with the book: I don't really know what it was trying to say, and what I think it said made me angry.

We're told that the story is about a young girl visiting a group of men (named after the characters in The Wizard of Oz) who live a secluded life in the woods, shamed out of society by the extreme disfigurements they sustained during the war. Thus, I expected a poignant fairytale-esque story about friendship and acceptance; exploring bodily difference, and the cruelty and prejudice that it can lead to. Whilst this was certainly an aspect of the book, it quickly became apparent that something much more sinister was going on in these secretive meetings. What made me uncomfortable was the succession of what felt like excuses for these actions coming from the author. The revelations as to what was going on should have made them abhorrent (and to me, it did), but I couldn't shake the feeling that the author still wanted me to like these men.

Either way, I found it riddled with moral issues. If he was making excuses for the men’s actions and expected me to feel sympathetic for them, I’m not comfortable with that. No amount of pain or redemption is going to make me think their behaviour was justified. End of. If, however, he wasn’t trying to excuse them and actually did want me to hate them, then he’s simply perpetuating the harmful and lazy stereotype that people with disabilities and disfigurements are 'corrupt' or 'evil', which I’m also not comfortable with.

In addition to these problems, because I was so disconnected from the characters and themes, I just couldn't get in to the story at all either. The narrative felt like it was jumping about all over the place, annoyingly so. And the habit that emerged in the latter half of the book to refer to certain characters by their full names all the time was tiresome as well.

It's worth note that the more you expect to love something, the more disappointing it is when it lets you down, and that was also undoubtedly a factor here. I think it speaks volumes when you find yourself charging through a book, not because you're loving it, but because you want it to be over. Ultimately, I was left feeling icky and confused about what the author expected me to take away from the story. Like I said, I hope I missed something (it does seem I'm very much in the minority, after all), but this book just did not work for me at all, sadly.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,210 followers
June 10, 2018
Sometimes it is necessary for old, broken items to be laid to rest and for weeds to be uprooted and for the blackboard to be cleaned. It is his view that this onerous task falls to the young and the brave. Men who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty and who know that true progress is impossible when One is swaddled with outmoded old luggage.

I bought Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times as part of Salt Publishing's #JustOneBook campaign:
Dear readers, we need your help. Sadly, we're facing a very challenging time and need your custom to get our publishing back on track. Please buy #JustOneBook from our shop right now https://www.saltpublishing.com/

Salt is one of UK’s foremost independent publishers, committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature. We are advocates for writers at all stages of their careers and ensure that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.

and I would strongly encourage everyone to support this wonderful small independent publisher, ideally by buying books direct.

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is a perfect example of the sort of book that would, I suspect, struggle to find a mainstream commercial publisher due to its ultimately highly disturbing subject matter: not to put too fine a point on it, under-age girls being sexually abused by crippled WW1 veterans funded by a hedonistic, superior, cocaine-addicted, albeit socially concerned, young aristocrat.

But it is an enthralling and haunting, if troubling tale, brilliantly told and an excellent debut, fully deserving its nomination for the Costa First Book prize, although ultimately losing out to the irresistible Eleanor Oliphant.

The book has been well reviewed by many of my Goodreads friends - so I'll confine myself to thoughts on the tone, and two specific observations.

The tone of the book is certainly key, and somewhat contentious, the nature of what the girls are required to do with the funny men is hidden until 100 pages in (although the clues are there) and then rather downplayed when revealed, and the overall story has a fantastical element with quite explicit nods to The Wizard of Oz. Brooks has explained his approach in an interview:
I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It's a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy's perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment - partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.
I'm not sure whether it quite worked for me or not, in particular whether the anxiety to avoid the 'Lloyd Webber' treatment meant he dialled it down too much - hence the 4 not 5 stars - although it is certainly a distinctive approach. Brooks is a film journalist by training, and it isn't hard to imagine a film made from the book, albeit it would not be the usual Hollywood fare. The dialling down though has turned this more into a Terry Gillam movie - indeed there were elements of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - rather than a darker Guillermo del Toro script (see e.g. Pan's Labyrinth).

A couple of specific observations:

Politics plays a background but still key, and fascinating role. Lord Hertford of Grantwood, and his son and heir Rupert, are both socially liberal but highly paternalistic, believing that the upper classes should dispense justice, telling one of the 'lower classes': men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself. Rupert is considering standing for Parliament, if this country needs leadership, let the natural leaders provide it, but for the Liberals, as he and his father believe they and the Conservatives are the two natural parties of Government. This was, as Brooks and we know, a rather poor prediction of the future: the December 1923 election saw the Liberals return to power, but as the smaller partner in a coalition with the first ever Labour government, and the October 1924, which saw the Tories returned to power, saw the Liberals reduced to just 40 seats, and ushered in a new-era of two party politics. And while Labour was then out of power for some time, after the next world war, the returning soldiers deliver a Labour landslide with the largest swing ever seen in the UK, leading to an era under the three great leaders Attlee, Wilson and Blair when Labour was arguably the natural party of Government.

Finally, I felt the character of Clarissa, sister of the young heir Rupert Fortnum-Hyde was rather underdone and could have been used to explore the topic of female rather than male behaviour (Rupert and his hangers-on) in the aftermath of the Great War. Clarissa (and to an extent albeit in a different social class, Audrey ) reminded me of something my maternal grandmother, who did domestic service in the 1920s talked about, the Flappers, a generation described overly-critically in a much reported lecture at the Institute of Social Hygiene as:"the social butterfly type: the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations." A popular view is expressed in this cartoon from the time:


But, relevantly for this book, one of the iconic movie-star flappers, Louise Brooks (same surname as the author), was herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse (and when reading the novel I couldn't help but wonder if Lucy's matter of fact reaction to the abuse in the forest had roots in earlier trauma). From Wikipedia
When she was nine years old, a neighborhood predator sexually abused Louise. This event had a major influence on Brooks' life and career, causing her to say in later years that she was incapable of real love, and that this man "must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure....For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough – there had to be an element of domination". When Brooks at last told her mother of the incident, many years later, her mother suggested that it must have been Louise's fault for "leading him on".
Recommended - and indeed my only issue with the Salt Publishing campaign is that once you have sampled their catalogue #JustOneBook won't be enough.
Profile Image for WndyJW.
608 reviews99 followers
March 23, 2018
I've had to let this book settle in my mind for a bit before I commented on it. I should have been repulsed by this story, a tale of tragically disfigured WWI vets and teenage prostitutes, but I loved this book. Many reviewers say it reads like a fairytale and I agree with that: there are poor villagers, a wealthy family living in the manor on the hill, "funny men" (named after Wizard of Oz characters) living in the ancient forest, a dwarf, a magician, a fool, and young girls in need of rescue.

Xan Brooks did a remarkable job of creating complex, sympathetic characters; all wounded, all trying to survive in a world where the worst has already happened, and who are engaged in situations they thought unimaginable before the war. Brooks most remarkable achievement is that he made us care about men breaking taboos. We see that everyone, those exploiting others and those being exploited, are desperate to feel loved and to feel connected to another, and it is difficult to judge anyone too harshly.

I highly recommend this book. The story was dream like, the characters memorable and complex. It is an unforgettable story that will trouble you for quite awhile.
Profile Image for lucky little cat.
546 reviews104 followers
September 4, 2018
Dear Xan Brooks,
Thank you for the beautifully written book about maimed WWI veterans, poor London orphans, and other quirky misfits circa 1923.
They're all barely scraping by in vivid contrast to the novel's high-living Jazz Age aristocrats, and the two groups are pretty clearly on a collision course from the outset.

I'd be angry with you for breaking my heart, except you've done it so eloquently and stylishly that it was entirely worth it. And the poetic parallels to The Wizard of Oz are just exquisite. All is forgiven. Please write again soon.
Profile Image for Tim.
70 reviews31 followers
December 4, 2017
The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks is shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2017.

I was fascinated to read how Xan Brooks came about the main story in an interview with bookwitty.com:

“In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he'd had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she'd been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) "the funny men from the war". My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn't feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It's fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.”

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks is a tale of loss and survival. Set in England in 1923, a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters includes those who have returned from the war and the families of those who did not. The country is still reeling from the consequences of the Great War.

Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their grandparents who run a failing pub, The Griffin. In order to make ends meet, Lucy, along with two other young girls and one boy, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, where Lord Hertford runs a foundation which helps injured war veterans. He has provided a cottage on the grounds of the Grantwood estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men whom they refer to as the Funny Men. Despite the true nature of the weekly visits, the forest evenings serve as interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their lives.

As unfortunate Events force an end to these outings, Lucy and her friend Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate, Rupert, invites all sorts of misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his friends at lavish parties where alcohol and drugs are consumed without abandon. The heir and his father believe themselves to be modern, forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat, although naturally they regard themselves as superior. Things start to start to fall apart as Rupert’s behaviour spirals out of control.

This book makes for uncomfortable reading. Drawing inspiration from fairytales and folklore, it is dark and surreal. Yet, it has – in my mind – some obvious flaws. It took a while to get going as Brooks has lots of characters to place in the story, and even after reading the whole story, I’m not quite sure what purpose some of the minor characters served. To my mind, they rather took the focus away from a very intriguing plot line at the centre of the novel surround young Lucy Marsh. The frequent change of pace and storyline left me frustrated with what could have been a great book.
Profile Image for Robert.
1,999 reviews195 followers
January 7, 2020
Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Xan Brooks Clocks… ( I get so lazy with long titles) is…is… well I can say that I REALLY enjoyed reading this novel from beginning to end but to describe it is a different beast.

The story itself takes place in post first world war Britain. The year is 1923 and an Orphan called Lucy and four other children go to a field every Sunday and perform sexual favours to soldiers disfigured by the war in some cases physically all psychologically. Eventually an event happens which concludes these outings but then takes the book to new territories.

At the same time there are some chapters dedicated to various characters and they all come together halfway through the book.

After the big event Lucy and her friend Winifred move to the house where the soldiers are kept and they indulge in drugs and partying until things turn ugly and Lucy has to move on again discovering the terrible secrets of the first world war.

Brooks tackles a lot of topics in this wonderfully complex book. The main one would be the advent of progress that the war brought. During this period cars were gaining popularity and the effect of them is evident that things will change for the worst. Brooks describes early 1900’s Britain as a peaceful place where innocence reigned and life was simple. However after WWI life had to evolve, which leaves a trail of destruction that’s as bad as the war.

The other major theme is social class. Lucy and her friends are from a working class background but once she moves to a Lord’s mansion she encounters a different type of people but also one that has been ravaged by war and are losing their power.

The psychological effect of war also has an important role as this is represented by the maimed war ‘heroes\ or as they are called The Funny Men. The most severe case is the character who suffers from PTSD. Also these protagonists also represent the disillusion that comes with war: on one hand they are heroes but at what cost?

The title itself, which is a description of the clocks in the manor, in my opinion, stems from the fact that time is different for each character in the book and indeed for the world itself, time is moving at a disorientated pace.

Stylistically Brooks uses the third person, a tense I dislike and constitutes the majority of unread books on my shelves but here I couldn’t stop reading, I guess it goes to show that one has to be in the right mood to read a book.

The Clocks… is a thought provoking, quirky read. It is different but does also contain closure, which works in this case. I can officially call myself a Xan Brooks fan and I can see The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times gaining more accolades as the word spreads.

Profile Image for Nell Beaudry.
135 reviews39 followers
June 5, 2017
The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is a gorgeous, unsettling masterpiece. Brooks' prose is simple, unique, engaging. The characters are drawn together in intricate pieces of glass that on their own are all brilliant and colorful, and together a stunning work of art. Their individual stories are brought together by Brooks to both relate a horrifying story about the various kinds of souls lost, but living, after the Great War in England, but also to engage readers with wider story of England as a whole, and the part of itself lost and yet held on to too tightly - shown with great effect by King Roo and his friends, with the Funny Men as a horrific and yet touching counterpoint; what is lost by the aristocracy is much less than Toto, Lion, Scarecrow and Tinny (and Lucy and Fred), but seen by them as much more, and the way in which they fetishize and abuse "the funny men" and the "pleasure dolls" makes Brooks' book especially poignant. A difficult read, but a worthwhile one.
Profile Image for Isobel.
307 reviews18 followers
July 30, 2017
Lucy Marsh was orphaned by the First World War and so is sent, in the early 1920s, to live with grandparents who can't afford to keep her. Together with three other children she is driven to the woods every Sunday night, paid ten shillings a week to satisfy the needs of the funny men - a group of 'War heroes' named after characters from the Wizard of Oz, so disfigured by the fighting they have been listed as dead and are afraid to return to their old lives.

When a tragedy in the woods risks their behaviour becoming known and creating a scandal, the group is whittled down and moved to the grounds of Grantwood estate, whose self professed liberal owners keep the funny men and the girls along with a collection of other strange or eccentric individuals the master keeps around for his amusement.

The whole story is dark, uncomfortable, but beautifully written; the sentences are loaded with alliteration and colour, using the lull of fairytale language to create contrast with the vivid scenes it sets. Whilst the novel is careful not to gloss over what is going on - essentially children being sold by their guardians in to prostitution - I felt that it somehow was never able to appreciate the gravity of that. I found myself thinking that this was written by someone who has clearly never been a 14 year old girl as the main character is.

The aristocracy they are surrounded by in the second half of the book also never get past caricatures, though I'm sure the majority of these were intended to appear superficial and so that might not necessarily be a fault. The funny men are afforded a decent amount of character exploration and I felt that actually the parts exploring their past could have sufficed for a good story and it wasn't really necessary to include all the cocaine fuelled parties and upper class characters.

Overall it was an interesting (although very sad) story, well written and yet not quite deep enough despite its length. I liked the way the ending was satisfying and yet not appeasing or over explanatory, which I think is a hard thing to get right and so appreciate when a writer is able to do that.
Profile Image for Dawn.
1,150 reviews44 followers
March 22, 2017
I received a copy of this book for free through a giveaway at Goodreads.com.

For the first 50 pages or so, I wasn't sure I was going to like this book. It felt as though there were going to be loose ends left all over the place, and that by the end I'd be left with too many questions to make this a satisfying read.
About 90% of my questions were answered, and I realised the other 10% didn't really matter.
I'm glad I kept going.
Xan Brooks has a fluid writing style that makes "The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times" easy to read, and the story is definitely entertaining. I found myself chuckling at points, and then just a few sentences later wishing I hadn't.
This is a book that will mess with your mind - but it's an enjoyable experience.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
281 reviews7 followers
January 13, 2018
A dark, disturbing, and twisted, yet sad and redemptive, debut novel on the Costa shortlist 2017, and I loved it. The setting is post-Great War north London in Summer 1923. The British economy is devastated and people are desperate to make ends meet. The story follows 14-year-old orphan Lucy who finds herself whisked away to the dark woods north of London to meet with the 'funny men', monstrous war-ravaged veterans with Wizard of Oz character names. From here the adventure starts much like with Dorothy going to Oz, but this one is darker and seamier. There are sociopathic people abound in this novel that Lucy meets along her way, including fake spiritualists and the repulsive rich. Xan Brooks's writing is beautiful and critics have compared it to Graham Greene.
Profile Image for Nicole.
1,132 reviews25 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
September 28, 2019
DNF September 2019 23% p.90/390 (read till 40, then skim-read to 90 to see if what I thought was going on was actually going on)

Sometimes it’s a good thing when a book makes you feel uncomfortable, other times it makes you want to stop reading.

Basically; Lucy, a young teenager, is taken into the woods with a group of other children/teens where so goes to ‘meet the funny men’.
The funny men are actually disabled & disfigured WW1 veterans, ‘meeting’ them means having sex with them.

Now I’m not sure where the author is going to go with this, either we’re supposed to feel sympathy for these ‘funny men’ (what it feels like so far), which I can’t because I’m just really not okay with them having sex with minors. Or we’re supposed to see them as ‘bad men’ but in that case I’m still uncomfortable reading about it, plus it makes the disability/disfigurement rep even worse. Either way (or whatever lies in between), I’m out.
Profile Image for Ashleigh.
202 reviews13 followers
May 6, 2017
This book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Salt are one of my favourite publishers; I’ve never read a bad book from them. I was fortunate enough to win this book in a giveaway on Goodreads – as someone who never wins anything, I was absolutely elated when this arrived in the post!

I don’t know what I was expecting going in to this book, but honestly what I got wasn’t anything like I imagined. Trying to explain what this book was is difficult – because honestly it’s very unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It was absolutely mesmerising, but also quite an uncomfortable read in places, and I really enjoyed it.

The book is set shortly after WWI has ended, and we meet our young protagonist – Lucy – as she is on her way to the forest to meet The Funny Men. This band of men are named after Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz, and over the first part of the book we learn why Lucy is off to the forest to meet these men, who these men are, and the lines between fairytale and reality get heavily blurred. Over the course of the novel as a whole, those lines get even more blurred, the plot gets darker and even weirder, and seemingly unrelated plot points all come together and, frankly, it’s fantastic.

The first 20 or 30 pages for me were the hardest to get through, I had to read them twice before I actually found myself engaged in the book. It was quite a jolting start, if I’m entirely honest, and a little weird even for me! Once I got through them, and persevered, I found this a hard book to put down. Yes it was disturbing, and unsettling but come the end of it all I couldn’t help but have this overwhelming feeling of sadness that I was done with it.

This book was weird and wonderful and, while nothing like what I had imagined in my mind when I first read the blurb on Salts website in Autumn last year, it was incredible. It’s definitely not a book for the faint of heart and it’s also not a book that will be enjoyed by everyone. Personally, I loved it.

For a full review, head over to my blog: Ashleigh's Bookshelf
Profile Image for Noelia Alonso.
755 reviews119 followers
July 8, 2017
I so wanted to love this story but for whatever reason — maybe I wasn't in the right head space to fully appreciate it — this book didn't work for me. The story is quite dark and the narrative extremely non-sensical and I tend to enjoy these elements but as I said, this time, it didn't work for me. As always, if any of you find the blurb/plot appealing, I'll say give it a go.
Profile Image for Grace Harwood.
Author 3 books30 followers
November 7, 2017
This is quite honestly the BEST book I've read in a long, long time (and I read a LOT of books). It wasn't an author I'd ever heard of, but I loved the idea of a sinister reimagining of the characters from The Wizard of Oz featuring the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Toto and Cowardly Lion as ex-serviceman who are supposed to be dead and the Dorothy character (and the services she provides).

The premise is basically this: it's 1923 and the after-effects of the First World War are still being felt in a recession in the economy and the numbers of injured returning servicemen. Lucy (the Dorothy character) has lost both parents during the war years and lives with her Grandparents. Struggling to survive the downturn in the economy, Lucy's grandfather basically sells her services in 'visits' with injured servicemen in Epping Forest. It's a nightmarish situation which takes its time in the telling - the chronology of the text and the clever way in which the author relates the tale adds to the tension and conflict between this as a tale of childish experiences in a surreal adult world.

Chronology is imperative in the tale - the clocks are all telling different times for the characters. Some of them are stuck in the past, whilst others - the only ones who will flourish - are embracing modernity. This is a brilliantly executed novel which basically tells a tale as old as time (war = bad and the faceless statesmen who inflict these wars upon the ordinary citizen will get away with this scot-free, whilst the ordinary citizen pays the price). It's £2.63 on Kindle!!! It's a bargain! Snap it up now. I literally could not put it down for 7 hours when I started and completed this book pretty much in one exhilarating sitting.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 1 book7 followers
May 15, 2017
I anticipated this book for a long time, having heard of it via Twitter and Goodreads, various authors talking about it, and most of all seeing that Salt had published it made me eager to read. I admire Salt, the stories they champion which may be too different for safer publishing houses. This is a story of light and darkness effortlessly told by a wordsmith. It is the most intricately woven tale of a girl whose circumstances take her to trips out to a wooded glade where she meets 'the funny men' who have all been seriously disfigured in the war (First World War) and are the guests of a local landowner. The narrative of first person, Lucy, takes us on her journey.

It wasn't only the story which intrigues, and it's a marvellous tale with much humour and darkness. As we travel out of the woods into the grand house we learn of the callous and reckless nature of its inhabitants and as each of the funny men reveal how they got to be the Tin Man, Toto, and the Scarecrow, we realise that society then could not deal with the war and its aftermath, of the guilt and terror these men faced and that they were placed outside of society to be pitied and deemed charity cases. Xan Brooks is a wonderful writer, the prose, the effortless descriptions of the characters and settings are a delight. Lucy's tale is mapped out beautifully, her character changing through each encounter. I loved every page, it is my kind of book and I am happy to have this on my shelves for a re-read in the future. I recommend it to anyone who wants to see deeply into the lives and souls of those outside the norm. Anyone who loves a good story with such gorgeous words . Highly recommended.
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