Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy: a Shiny New Books review

I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I was particularly intrigued by the premise of this book… Homelands (published by Canongate) is journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s account of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor. It’s part biography and part memoir, as Ramaswamy finds echoes and points of connection between her life and Henry’s.

I’ve reviewed Homelands for Shiny New Books. It felt a bit strange at times to be passing comment on a living person’s account of their recent life, but hopefully I achieved a good balance in the review. Anyway, Homelands is an absorbing book, and if you like the sound of it I suggest you give it a try.

Click here to read my review in full.

Twenty Years of Melville House: The Queue

This year is the 20th anniversary of the publisher Melville House. They publish an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, including an extensive classics range, and I’ve always found their books intriguing. I was invited to review one of their titles for this blog tour, so I thought I’d revisit one of my favourite Melville House books: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette). Abdel Aziz is an Egyptian writer, artist and psychiatrist; The Queue is a sharp tale of authoritarianism.

Following an uprising, a mysterious structure, the Main Gate of the Northern Building – or just ‘the Gate’ – appears in a Middle Eastern city. Large and windowless, it dominates the surrounding physical space; but that’s nothing compared to the effect it soon has on people’s lives. The Gate begins to issue all manner of decrees: ‘before long, it controlled absolutely everything, and made all procedures, paperwork, authorizations, and permits – even those for eating and drinking – subject to its control.’

Then there’s a revolt against the Gate; but this one fails, and the Gate closes its doors. People are forced to queue – for hours, days, longer. Life as it was grinds to a halt:

No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there. The new decrees and regulations spared no one.

Society reorients itself around the queue, to the point that little side businesses spring up providing refreshments, telephone calls, or other services to queuers. The novel’s deadpan tone serves to highlight the fundamental absurdity of this situation, as in (for example) a scene where people at different points of the queue start to argue over its length; and it takes a surveyor calculating the actual distance to stop the groups coming to blows over what might seem such a trivial thing. But this is a measure of how much the queue has distorted life, that it becomes so central to individuals’ preoccupations. There are also those with ulterior motives, waiting to take advantage of the queuers’ predicament: a company named Violet Telecom offers free handsets and calls to people in the queue, but it becomes apparent that their calls are being recorded and transmitted elsewhere.

Alongside the broader story of the queue, Abdel Aziz focuses in on a number of individual characters. Perhaps the central of these is Yehya, who was wounded in the ‘Disgraceful Events’ (as that uprising against the Gate became known) and still has a bullet lodged inside him. He’d like to have it removed, but that requires a permit (bullets being official property, you understand). But the authorities would rather that Yehya’s injury never happened; so his X-ray goes missing, his medical records are censored… and the people around him will find out what happens to those who try to interfere. The Queue is a novel that chills by appearing quiet and abstract, but underneath is an urgent precision.

This post is adapted from my original review of The Queue on Shiny New Books.

Check out the other stops on the blog tour

Tramp Press: Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Sara Baume’s third novel begins with a disconcerting description of a mountain in south-west Ireland. First, Baume emphasises that this apparently passive landscape is full of the eyes of animals:

And each eye was focused solely on its surrounding patch of ground or gorse or rock or air. Each perceived the pattern, shade and proportion of its patch differently. Each shifted and assimilated at the pace of one patch at a time.

Then, the mountain itself becomes an eye:

It’s kept watch on the sky, sea and land, and every ornament and obstruction – the moon and clouds; the trawlers, yachts and gannetries; the rooftops, roads and chimney pots; the turbines, telegraph poles and steeples.

The image of an eye recurs throughout Seven Steeples, along with the sense of the landscape as an antagonistic (or at least indifferent) presence. 

Into this landscape come Bell and Sigh, a couple who believe that “the only appropriate trajectory for a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear.” They have moved here determined to cut all ties with their old lives (for reasons which are at most only hinted at). They resolve to climb that mountain, but for the seven years of this book, it remains unclimbed. 

Seven Steeples is one of those novels that takes you into the minds of its protagonists through the way it’s written. This is not a novel concerned with ‘what happens’ so much as with the ebb and flow of the life Bell and Sigh want to lead. The rhythms of Baume’s prose reflect that the couple want to live as part of the landscape, and it’s absorbing to read. 

Published by Tramp Press.

#2022InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s shortlist

It’s time for the International Booker Prize shadow panel to announce our shortlist. We’ve given our scores, totted up the totals, and here are our top six :

  • Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Honford Star)
  • A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from French by Leslie Camhi (Virago)
  • Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)
  • Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press)
  • Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press)

Our list shares four titles with the official shortlist (the differences are interesting, I think). All my favourites are here… I wonder what we’ll choose for the shadow winner.

New Island Books: Lenny by Laura McVeigh

Today’s book is from the small Irish publisher New Island Books (the last title of theirs I read was Sue Rainsford’s excellent Follow Me to Ground). It’s the second novel by Laura Mcveigh, who grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London and Mallorca.

In 2011, a boy named Izil watches a pilot fall from the sky to Libya’s Ubari Sand Sea. The man has lost his memory, but takes the name Goose and is reliant on Izil’s people to help him survive.

In 2012, we meet ten-year-old Lenny, who lives in Louisiana. His mother has left and his father is scarred from PTSD. He spends much of his time with old Miss Julie, who longs for her husband to return from the war in Korea; and Lucy, the town librarian. The town itself has suffered deprivation and is also threatened by a sinkhole. Lenny searches for something he can do to help.

It gradually becomes clear how these two timeframes are connected. What unfolds is then a poignant tale of loss, family and belonging. McVeigh creates a distinctive atmosphere in her novel, one where time itself might potentially be held back or twisted. I enjoyed spending time with Lenny – both the book and the characterisation.

Henningham Family Press: Pupa by J.O. Morgan

Another handsome volume from Henningham Family Press (not that there’s any other kind), this time the first novel by Scottish poet J.O. Morgan. I don’t know Morgan’s poetry, but after reading Pupa I am certainly intrigued. 

In the world of this novel, people hatch from eggs and may choose to spend their entire lives as a larval (apparently of insectoid appearance), or go through a pupal stage and become an adult (who seem to bear a closer resemblance to humans as we know them). We meet Sal and Megan, two young larvals in low-level admin jobs. The question of whether to pupate is on their minds, and Sal for one is sceptical. As he says to Megan:

“And when you end up looking so different, how can you be sure it’s really you? You can’t know if you’ll like how you’ll turn out. And you can’t switch back again. That’s it forever. You’re stuck. At least this way you already know. You can be content. Just as you are.”

Megan is more inclined to keep her thoughts to herself, and Sal eventually discovers why: she has chosen to pupate. The two then find themselves in different social worlds, and having to reconfigure their friendship as a result. 

There’s potentially a whole history behind the world of Pupa, but by focusing in on these two characters, Morgan highlights the metaphor. The larval/adult divide could stand for age, class – any social division where you could move from one side to the other. There’s an openness to Pupa which allows the reader to imagine with it in different ways. It’s a sandbox of a novel, and a pleasure to spend time with. 

#2022InternationalBooker: Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)

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Oh, how I loved this. It’s not often that a story collection will grab my attention from the beginning and keep it throughout. But, for me, there isn’t a weak link among the ten stories in Cursed Bunny

Bora Chung’s stories in this book are often strange, often creepy, always compelling. The title story concerns a family who make cursed objects. The grandfather tells his grandson how he broke the rules and cursed an object for personal use: a bunny-shaped lamp designed to wreak revenge on the company that destroyed his friend’s family business. Rabbits chew their way through the company’s paperwork, but they don’t stop there – and the tale takes some unexpected and horrific turns. 

Some of Chung’s stories are built around powerful metaphors. In ‘The Embodiment’, a woman finds that her period won’t stop. She takes birth control pills for several months, to no avail – in fact, they make her pregnant. The doctors tell her that she must find someone to be the child’s father, or things will go badly for her. Societal pressures around motherhood and relationships are transformed into vivid narrative strokes that raise the protagonist’s predicament to a higher pitch of intensity. 

There are entries in Cursed Bunny that read like fairy tales, though with Chung’s distinctive stamp. ‘Snare’ begins with a man coming across a trapped fox that bleeds liquid gold. He becomes rich from this, but eventually bleeds the fox to death. The man has the fox’s fur made into a scarf for his wife, who then falls pregnant. The man finds a way to obtain gold from his children, but at a terrible cost. This is a sharp parable of greed. 

What really makes Cursed Bunny hang together for me is the voice. Anton Hur’s translation from Korean is beguiling, as it persuades the reader that all of this could happen. Bora Chung goes on to my list of must-read authors. 

Published by Honford Star, a small press specialising in books from East Asia.

Read my other posts on the 2022 International Booker Prize here.

Naked Eye Publishing: The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing by Darina Al Joundi

Time for something a little different today: a dramatic monologue. Darina Al Joundi is a Lebanese writer and actor now living in France. She first performed this one-woman play in 2007. She co-wrote a novel based on the play which has previously been translated into English, but this is the first English translation of the play itself. The translator is Helen Vassallo, who runs the excellent blog Translating Women (she’s written a post here on how she came to translate the play. 

Al Joundi’s protagonist is Noun, whose father was a secular freedom fighter in a strict Muslim family. She interrupts his funeral, locking herself in the room with his body. She is there to carry out his wish to have Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ played at his funeral, rather than recitations from the Qu’ran. The monologue is Noun’s reflection on her life in Beirut, and on her father’s influence. 

Noun’s father encouraged her to live as she wanted, and didn’t judge her. In turn, she looked up to him. For example, as a girl Noun tells her father that she wants to wear a bra. He warns her that she’ll find it painful and constricting, but she insists and he goes along with her wishes. Noun soon discovers that he was right.

There is humour running through Noun’s story, but she also experiences great violence – both personally and as part of the war escalating around her. In time, she has cause to question whether her father appreciated how free his daughter might really be in a society that didn’t share his values. Noun comes across as a vivid, complex character in this thought-provoking piece of work. 

Published by Naked Eye Publishing.

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker: a Strange Horizons review

I have a new review up at Strange Horizons. This time I’m looking at Composite Creatures, the debut novel by Caroline Hardaker (published by Angry Robot).

Composite Creatures is set in a future where nature has mostly been replaced by artificial substitutes. Norah and Art are learning to live together with Nut, their “perfect little bundle of fur”, and Norah feels she’s presenting different versions of herself to the world.

I found that reading Composite Creatures felt like peeling back successive layers of the novel, so that’s how I structured my review.

You can read the review in full here.

#2022InternationalBooker: the longlist

We now have our longlist for this year’s International Booker Prize, and it’s a striking selection:

  • Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Honford Star)
  • After the Sun by Jonas Eika, translated from Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg (Lolli Editions)
  • A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from French by Leslie Camhi (Virago)
  • Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Picador)
  • Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Tilted Axis Press)
  • Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)
  • Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press)
  • Phenotypes by Paulo Scott, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories)
  • Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press)
  • The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Tony has posted the Shadow Panel’s response on his blog, so I won’t say too much more myself. But, if you think back to the last time David Grossman was longlisted for this prize, five years ago, that was a very different longlist: mostly European, five titles from Penguin Random House imprints. This year, most of the authors are from outside of Europe, and two small publishers (Fitzcarraldo and Tilted Axis) make up almost half of the nominated books. I’m really pleased by that change.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reading and reviewing what I can from the longlist, along with the rest of the Shadow Panel. To date, I have read four from the longlist but reviewed only one – and it will take a very special book to dislodge Elena Knows as my favourite. Still, this is all about discovering good books, so let’s go for it.

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