Broken Sleep Books: Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard

The book I’m looking at today is a collection of three stories by Rosanna Hildyard, which was longlisted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize. It’s published by Broken Sleep Books, who specialise in pamphlets; Slaughter is one of their first fiction titles. 

Hildyard’s stories are all set among the farms of the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire. Each revolves around a different couple, all facing conflict in their relationship with one another and the natural world. 

The narrator of ‘Offcomers’ met her husband, an older farmer, by chance. She might have loved him at first sight, but now he’s abusive. He grumbles about tourists, by which he means farmers down in the valley. She, on the other hand, appreciates that all humans, including her husband, are outsiders to this landscape. The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 brings change, and perhaps a chance of escape.

The farming couple in ‘Outside Are the Dogs’ are of a similar age, but they’re still mismatched. She’s a local girl who has lived around the world and has an air of sophistication that intimidates him, “a man of hands, not words”. As time goes on, cracks appear in their relationship. They buy a puppy, hoping that it might bring them closer together, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. 

In ‘Cull Yaw’, Star has known her partner since school – but she’s vegetarian, and he raises livestock for meat. There are problems on the farm, while Star struggles to relate to her ailing mother. 

Throughout the book, Hildyard’s prose evokes the stark realities of farm life. There’s always a tension between the different strands of her stories, and I really appreciate the way she brings them together. I like it when a story collection feels like a cohesive whole, and Slaughter is a fine example of that. 

Blog tour: Just Thieves by Gregory Galloway

My post today is part of a blog tour for Just Thieves, the first novel for an adult audience written by Gregory Galloway. Galloway is an American author who’s previously written a couple of YA titles. Just Thieves was published earlier this month by Melville House. 

Our narrator is Rick, a thief who works for the mysterious Froehmer, stealing things to order. Those things may not always seem worthwhile, but it’s the job. Rick is firmly enmeshed in Froehmer’s organisation: he can’t see the edges of it, let alone perceive a way out. 

Rick’s professional partner is Frank, who’s prone to philosophising and knows his way around technology. Between them, Rick and Frank are skilled and careful enough not to get caught. But Frank has his superstitions, and he’s sure something will go wrong with the pair’s current job. Sure enough, he is proved right… 

Rick narrates his story in a suitably laconic noir tone. The novel gradually unpicks how he got to where he is and what’s happening to him now. Just Thieves is ultimately about Rick trying to find his place in the world when the life he had is suddenly overturned. Combine that with the engaging thriller aspect, and you have a book well worth reading. 

Click here to read Chapter 1 of Just Thieves {PDF]

Europe Readr

Today’s post is about a new international literature project that has been brought to my attention. Europe Readr was launched in July by the Slovenian Presidency of the EU Council. The website is a virtual library with 27 free books (one for each EU Member State) available in the original language and English translation.

The selection is themed “The Future of Living”, and aims to offer a range of perspectives on contemporary issues of sustainability and inclusion. The 27 titles, which are available to read until 31 December, are:

Besides the website, Europe Readr is setting up public reading spaces (“reading pavilions”) in cities around the world. Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network is also interviewing the 27 authors in an ongoing series of podcasts.

All in all, Europe Readr looks an exciting project, and I’d like to thank them for getting in touch.

Peirene Press: Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

This latest title from Peirene Press takes us to Paris in 1918, where we meet Jeanne, who makes paper flowers for a living. Her husband Toussaint has been recovering from facial injuries sustained in the war. He told her not to visit him in hospital, and she has feared the thought of what’s happened to him. 

Now, Toussaint has returned home, face covered, unable to speak. Not only is he a stranger to Jeanne, she struggles to see him as a person at first:

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo [their daughter] too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared so little since they left Belleville

Jeanne could be talking about Toussaint’s disfigurement in the abstract here, as much as Toussaint the person. Winter Flowers reminds me of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, in that both are First World War novels which strongly evoke sensation and feeling. Hunter’s translation is so vivid, as Villeneuve’s novel explores not just Jeanne and Toussaint working out how to relate again, but also the different traumas of the community around them. This is the first of Villeneuve’s novels to appear in English translation; I hope there will be more. 

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: Assembly by Natasha Brown

The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s debut novel is an unnamed Black British woman who works in the banking industry. She’s been invited to assembly at a local school to talk about her job. However, she’s ambivalent about this: the finance sector gave her opportunities for social mobility that her parents and grandparents didn’t have – but shouldn’t things be different for these schoolchildren? 

…it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent. 

Then again, she wouldn’t have been invited to the school in the first place were it not for her career:

Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth . Perhaps that’s a poor justification for my own complicity. My part in convincing children that they, too, must endure. Silence, surely, was the least harmful choice.

This kind of reflection animates Assembly, as the protagonist considers whether she really wants to do what it takes to get ahead, in a system and society that continue to oppress her. 

But I’m getting ahead of the novel here. Assembly begins with snippets of her colleagues’ behaviour that the protagonist feels she must excuse so she can keep going. Then there’s one side of a conversation with an EU national who tries to make a well-meant comparison about the two of them being made to feel unwelcome in the UK, but still ends up talking about where the protagonist is “really” from. My sense is that this is where the book starts because these are the building-blocks of what the protagonist experiences. 

As a novel, Assembly is pared back so there’s no chance for readers to get comfortable. It changes style and form as it goes, to fit whatever the protagonist wants to say. For example, later on, she describes instances of racism as a series of figures; and the prose turns more essayistic as she discusses the persistence of colonialism. 

Brown’s novel is then an assembly of different pieces, just as the protagonist assembles the self she presents to the world. As the book goes along, she finds a way to take more control over her story, which is reflected in how the prose changes. The reader is kept close to her, and the novel builds to a powerful crescendo. 

Published by Hamish Hamilton.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2021

For me, October means the Goldsmiths Prize. Last year was the first time I’d managed to read the whole shortlist, and it was such an adventure. I was looking forward to this year’s shortlist, and it turns out to be full of books that I want to read:

  • Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett (Jonathan Cape)
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown (Hamish Hamilton)
  • A Shock by Keith Ridgway (Picador)
  • This One Sky Day by Leone Ross (Faber & Faber)
  • Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner (Peninsula Press)
  • little scratch by Rebecca Watson (Faber & Faber)

As of this post, I have read two: I loved Keith Ridgway’s previous novel, Hawthorn & Child, so I was always going to read A Shock. It didn’t disappoint, and I’m glad it has been recognised here. I hadn’t got along with Isabel Waidner’s work previously, but I anticipated that Sterling Karat Gold might make this prize and/or the Republic of Consciousness. So I decided to get ahead, and I really enjoyed it.

Of the other four nominees, the only author I’ve read is Leone Ross. Her short story ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ left a deep impression on me, so I’m looking forward to reading a full-length novel of hers. I know Claire-Louise Bennett’s name from the reputation of her previous book Pond. Assembly and little scratch are debut works that I’ve heard very good things about. It’s all looking positive to me.

As always, I will link to my reviews of the books in the list above as I post them.

In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch

Born into a mercantile family, Denton Welch (1915-48) fractured his spine in a cycling accident at the age of 20, which would shape the rest of his life. He began writing in the 1940s; the autobiographical In Youth Is Pleasure (1945) was his second novel, and has recently been published in Penguin Classics

The novel tells of one summer in the life of 15-year-old Orvil Pym, a boy who doesn’t fit in either at school or with his family. Orvil is distant from his father and brothers: he was closer to his mother, but she died three years ago, and Orvil is forbidden from even mentioning her. “She was never to be thought of or considered again – because she had been loved so much.”

Most of In Youth Is Pleasure is set at a hotel in Surrey, where Orvil is spending the holidays with his father and brothers. This isn’t so much a novel of events: it’s about Orvil exploring his way of experiencing the world and his sense of self. Welch’s writing is often vivid. For example, here Orvil is reading an Edwardian exercise manual while eating in the busy hotel court:

The chatter and the music surged around him. The waves of the sound broke through the deliciousness of the cakes, then receded and were forgotten again. Orvil was not concentrating, but the hyphenated words ‘press-up’, ‘knees-bend’, ‘trunk-turn’, ‘deep-breathing’, jumped out from the printed page. His eyes also idly followed the diagrams of a coarse little man who squatted, thrust his legs out, and tucked his chin into his neck until a large vein, like a branching ivy stem, stood out on his forehead. 

The first part of this paragraph conveys the mix of sensations that Orvil experiences. In the rest, there’s a sense of him being confronted by physicality and beginning to process his feelings. This is how Welch’s novel proceeds, with Orvil working himself out as he goes along. We’re right there with him, in an experience that lives long beyond the final page.

Magma by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir (tr. Meg Matich)

This short Icelandic novel is a portrait of Lilja, a 20-year-old woman in a relationship with a graduate student. Her boyfriend is controlling, and Lilja is trapped not just in the relationship with him, but also in the way she sees him. Magma is told in short chapters, vignettes that show vividly how much of a hold the man has over Lilja:

It’s so wonderful how he likes me exactly how I am. He gets irritated, seems even hurt, if I put on makeup, and he asks accusingly, “Who are you doing that for?” I don’t understand why he gets so jealous; I would never want to be with anyone else.

translation by meg matich

Though it sounds a contradiction in terms, it feels that there’s a precise artlessness to Lilja’s narration, such that we can see what she can’t. Magma can be emotionally hard to read at times, and one wishes for Lilja to find her way out of this situation. This is a novel that draws its readers close to its protagonist, where they become trapped just as she is. 

Published by Picador.

Reflex Press: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock

It’s ten years now since I read ‘My Girl’, the story that won Emily Bullock the Bristol Short Story Prize. So many things have changed in that time, but I could still recall the atmosphere of that story. ‘My Girl’ is here again at the start of Human Terrain, Bullock’s new collection from Reflex Press. It was a pleasure to re-read: narrated by a mother acting as cutman for her daughter in a boxing match, it switches between a vivid account of the present fight and reflecting on the events that brought the pair to where they are. ‘My Girl’ is a story that works equally as well taken at face value and as a metaphor for the characters’ relationship.

Like ‘My Girl’, the title story of Human Terrain places its protagonist in a situation that may or may not be read as, real in order to illuminate a mother-daughter relationship. A woman stands at the front of a lecture theatre, but this isn’t going to be the standard War Studies lecture that the students are expecting. The narrator wants to tell the audience about her daughter in Iraq, a much more personal story than the dispassionate accounts they’re used to. History isn’t in the textbooks, she says, but neither is it quite in her daughter’s story – the truth for her is something more raw and brutal. 

Bullock’s characters are often facing situations that embody the tensions in their lives, but sometimes her stories document a more abrupt change. ‘Zoom’ is set in rural Lincolnshire, where a boy has a school assignment called “Getting to Know Your Neighbours”. But his neighbours aren’t so easy to approach, so he’s taken to filming them instead of trying to interview them. There’s an irony in that the boy doesn’t get to know his neighbours that well at all through the filming , as the story’s sudden, powerful ending illustrates. 

Perhaps my favourite story in Bullock’s collection is ‘Open House’. In this, Freddie sees that his childhood home is up for sale, and decides to pay a visit during the open house, the first time he’s been back to Whitechapel in twenty years. What he finds is an uneasy mixture of the past coming back to him while the present unspools out of his grasp. “A person’s life shouldn’t be an open house,” Freddie thinks, “for strangers to trample through and pick over”. It’s a pointed sentiment in a collection of vivid portraits.

100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but it is something I’m always interested in exploring. So I’m grateful to Yale University Press for offering me a review copy of this new anthology compiled by the Oxford professor John Carey.

Carey’s book includes poets ranging chronologically from Homer to Toni Morrison. For some poets, there’s a single poem; for others, Carey takes us through several extracts. So it was interesting, for example, to sample the varied ways in which Homer has been translated over the centuries. 

100 Poets gave me the chance to read some well-known poems that I hadn’t before: an extract from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale made me smile, and I was drawn in by Poe’s ‘The Raven’. Then there were names unfamiliar to me. Two war poems stand out as examples: ‘Rouen’ by May Wedderburn Cannan, a vivid portrait of a WW1 nursing unit; and Louis Simpson’s ‘Carentan O Carentan’, a stark account of a battle. 

I appreciated Carey’s commentary, especially in the entries with multiple poems; indeed, there are some where I’d have liked more context. But, no question, 100 Poets is a good anthology to dip into – or to read straight through, like I did. Whatever your experience of poetry, I think you’ll find something here to enjoy. 

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