The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov: a European Literature Network review

Bickford FuseI have a new review up at the European Literature Network this month: Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk). It’s a journey through an absurd, askew version of the USSR under Khrushchev. We follow a shipwrecked sailor as he wanders the land through a series of strange encounters, all the while trailing the safety fuse with which he could blow it all up.

I enjoyed The Bickford Fuse, and the way it creates its own little world. Read my review to find out more.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Bickford Fuse (2009) by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Dralyuk (2016), MacLehose Press paperback

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

LastDaysofSummerThis debut novel came along at the right time to be the kind of refresher that I was looking for. It’s July in Texas: jasper Curtis is released from prison after ten years, to move in with his sister Lizzie and her two daughters. Jasper is an interloper, in his family and the outside world: we don’t know exactly what he did to end up in prison; Lizzie doesn’t know whether she’s about to find her brother or a criminal; Jasper’s nieces don’t know him at all.

What I particularly like about Vanessa Ronan’s book is the way she builds up a sense of menace through her prose. Here, for example, is Lizzie overhearing an approaching truck:

Rumbling sound of the engine low as thunder and as distant, but uninterrupted and now quickly coming closer, growing louder, faster than any storm. Cobalt blue. Bright, shiny, new. Puts her rusted Chevy parked out front to shame. Lizzie turns the faucet off. Dries her hands on a dish towel. Places it, crumpled, on the counter beside her.

It’s the jagged rhythms of long and short sentences that makes this passage work for me; the fragments of action, colour and image. It disturbs the sense of a coherent, easily understood world – paving the way for the darker events to come.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Last Days of Summer (2016) by Vanessa Ronan, Penguin Ireland paperback

Man Booker International Prize 2016: and the winner is…

You might well have heard the news by now, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize.



As you can imagine, I’m very pleased with that result: The Vegetarian was my favourite book of last year (here’s my review for Shiny New Books), not to mention my favourite book on the MBIP longlist. I’m pleased that this win will bring it to a wider audience; and it’s good to see such a singular, uncompromising work getting this kind of recognition.

This also brings to an end our award shadowing for this year. Thanks to Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Bellezza, Clare, Grant, and Lori for being such excellent reading companions. We chose the same book as the official jury, albeit from rather different shortlists – I’ll champion The Vegetarian to anyone who will listen, but do check out the rest of the MBIP longlist because there’s some really good stuff on there.

What next? Reports are that fiction in translation is thriving, and my hope is that Han’s and Smith’s win will open the door wider. I will continue to search for more of these remarkable books from around the world, and report back here and elsewhere (I’m quite keen to read more Korean fiction, and this reading list by Han Kang seems a good place to start). Reading experiences like The Vegetarian don’t come along every day; but there is always another one out there, waiting.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Vegetarian (2007) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2015), Portobello Books paperback

Man Booker International Prize 2016: the shadow panel’s winner

Today’s the day when we’ll find out the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in its new incarnation. But first, we have a shadow winner to announce.

It was close – extremely close. After our initial round of voting, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine narrowly missed out on a place in the run-off vote…

…and, in the final vote, Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water came a close second…

…but our shadow winner is:


The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

This means that, following last year’s IFFP result, this could be the second year running in which the shadow and official winners coincide. Given how much I love The Vegetarian, I actually hope it will be. Only a few more hours to wait…

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.


Back to the beginning: a few thoughts on Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

VoyageOutI haven’t had a lot of time lately for blogging (or, at times, reading), so I’ve had to scale back some of the plans that I had. But I do want to sketch out a few notes on my second #Woolfalong book. The theme for phase two (which covers March and April, so I’m still in time… just!) is ‘beginnings and endings’ – Woolf’s first or last book. After reading Mrs Dalloway, I decided that I wanted to go back to the beginning and Woolf’s 1915 debut, The Voyage Out.

It’s interesting to compare the two. Stylistically, The Voyage Out is much more conventional; but I still notice seeds of what I found in the later novel. For example, there’s something of Mrs Dalloway’s shifting web of consciousness: The Voyage Out is ostensibly the story of Rachel Vinrace, a young woman on the journey to South America that will be her rite of passage. But the novel is larger than her viewpoint: it starts and ends with other characters, and there are familiarly abrupt transitions between perspectives.

Clarissa Dalloway herself even makes an appearance towards the beginning of The Voyage Out. But it was particularly interesting for me to contemplate a parallel – suggested by Lorna Sage in her introduction to the edition I was reading – between the characters of Rachel Vinrace and Mrs Dalloway’s Septimus Smith. Thinking about the endings of each book, I guess those two characters could be seen as interruptions into a safe and ordered (one might say complacent) world. I suspect this won’t be the last time I find that happening, as I read more of Woolf’s work.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Voyage Out (1915) by VIrginia Woolf, Oxford World’s Classics paperback

A world without centre: Nocilla Dream

Nocilla DreamThe author bio tells me that Agustín Fernández Mallo’s ‘Nocilla Trilogy’ (of which 2006’s Nocilla Drream is the first volume) was instrumental in bringing about an aesthetic shift in contemporary Spanish writing. Now we get to read Nocilla Dream in English, courtesy of translator Thomas Bunstead and Fitzcarraldo Editions; and you can see why this novel must have shaken things up. Nocilla Dream has a teeming cast of characters, with hints at a web of hidden connections – and that’s where the similarity with a conventional plot-driven novel ends.

Each of Nocilla Dream’s 113 chapters consists of a single paragraph, from a few pages down to a few lines. Some are extracts from other books; some come from New York Times articles; others are snapshots from the lives of various characters. Amongst others, we’ll read about Falconetti, an ex-soldier who left San Francisco with the idea of circumnavigating the globe from west to east; Pat Garrett, who wanders around carrying a suitcase of found photographs; and a community of surfers in south-east China, with its roots in a group of North American expatriates. Many of the novel’s events revolve around U.S. Route 50, with one recurring image being a poplar tree from whose branches people have hung shoes. Trees in general are a common metaphor throughout the novel, particularly in terms of the idea that branching networks underpin reality.

I’m going to quote an extended passage which illustrates various aspects of Fernández Mallo’s approach. Here is Chii-Teen, a Chinese character, looking through some old newspaper cuttings:

On the reverse of one of the cuttings, he’s come across a picture of an elderly painter, clearly from the West, distinguished looking, with slicked-back hair and moustache, apparently at work in his studio. What he cannot understand is that the room the painter is standing in is full of paint pots with great daubs of paint on them, that the floor has daubs of paint across it too, that there are lots of different brushes resting in white spirit, that the painter is wearing a paint-spattered smock, but that, without soiling it in any way, he’s working on a blank, spotless canvas, and he’s using a cutter to make vertical slashes, nothing more, vertical slashes. Chii-Teen suddenly becomes very excited, considering the possibility of a body without a mind, the possibility that the studio, the smock, and all the dense mass of painting materials could be a body that has been separated from the pure mind, Cartesian, fleshless, I,e. the blank canvas to which the painter is applying the cutter to.

This passage establishes a hierarchy of realities: the character in the fictional present looking at a two-dimensional image of the past (and, in turn, the reader apprehending fictional reality on the page). It illustrates a shift in context, as the slashes in the canvas, which clearly would have been meaningful to the artist making them, become unknowable to Chii-Teen. And there’s a fleeting sense of hidden order.

The thing is that, for every glimpse of a deeper meaning to reality in Nocilla Dream, there’s a suggestion that what we sense is illusion. The connections in the novel are those of globalisation: not necessarily visible from the ground, but neither indicative of a meaningful structure. Reading Nocilla Dream is the experience of a novel – like the world it depicts – without a centre: slot the pieces together as you will, but what you end up with is no more stable than one of those fragments.


Read more views of Nocilla Dream at 1streading’s Blog, Workshy Fop, and minor literaure[s].

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

The official Man Booker International Prize shortlist 2016

The official shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize was announced on Thursday:

  • A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portugese by Daniel Hahn (Harvill Secker)
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books)
  • The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap (Faber & Faber)
  • A Whole Life by Rbert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador)


This list has three titles in common with our shadow shortlist, but they’re quite different selections overall. (If I’m honest, I prefer ours). It never ceases to surprise me how two groups of people can read the same books and reach such divergent conclusions.

(If you’re wondering, my personal shortlist would have been different again: Mend the Living, The Vegetarian, Tram 83, Ladivine, White Hunger, and The Four Books.)

The winner of the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on the evening of 16 May, and we’ll reveal our shadow winner shortly before them. Right now, I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at what either winner will be; but I am looking forward to finding out.

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 shadow shorlist

We’ve browsed the books and totted up the totals, and now we have our shadow shortlist for the MBIP. It was a close-run thing , with Tram 83 almost making it; but here (in alphabetical order) are the books that made our top six.

  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books)
  • Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from the French by Jessica Moore (MacLehose Press)
  • The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Chatto & Windus)
  • Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (MacLehose Press)
  • Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliner Boem (Atlantic Books)

I haven’t had the chance to review as much of the longlist this year as I’d have liked; but I have read all the books, and this is a strong shortlist. We really are spoilt for choice when it comes to a shadow winner, so arguing this selection down will be interesting.

We’ll find out what’s on the official shortlist tomorrow.

A reader’s beliefs

I believe that a work of fiction is not…

…a machine. It cannot be understood simply by breaking it down into its component parts. It lives in the reading.

…a business transaction. Once the book is in my hands, there is no customer relationship. The book owes me nothing.

…an exam. There is no such thing as ‘difficult’ fiction. There may be fiction that requires concentration, or setting aside preconceived ideas of how a work ‘should’ be – but it’s all there to be read. There won’t be a test at the end, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t see everything. What matters is opening myself to the experience.

…functional. There are times when I’d like a book to fit a particular bill, and sometimes I’ll find the right one and the right time. But many of favourite books do things that I may not have anticipated, which is why I try to let the book have its way when I read.

…mandatory. There is no  single book that I have to read, be it old or new. There are books which are essential to me, but these can only reveal themselves with hindsight. Reading is an ongoing process.

…an unfiltered view. Reading a book is like looking through a window, but even the plainest window frames and shapes what you see.  The fiction I value most builds that sense into itself: form is the window, and it is made to be part of the view.

…written for my benefit. The author wasn’t thinking of me when writing this book (any book); I ought to bear that in mind.


What, after all that, do I believe a work of fiction is? Just that: a work unto itself.  No matter how old, no matter how much has been said or written about it, the work remains, ready to speak anew. I just have to listen.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila: #MBI2016

Tram 83Tram 83 is the debut novel by Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila (published by Jacaranda in the UK and Deep Vellum in the US). It’s set in ‘the City-State’, which has seceded from its parent country and is now a mélange of locals and incomers, many drawn by the lure of wealth from the local mines. Lucien is an incomer, but his main intention is simply to write; he comes to the City-State with the help of his friend Reqiuem, whose preoccupations are rather more… worldly.

The environment of the City-State is multifarious, and can be bewildering to those unused to it. This is reflected in the jagged swirl of the prose and its arrays of details:

The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined. It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes. Indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place. Jackals don’t eat jackals. They pounce on the turkeys and partridges, and devour them.

Language surrounds Lucien as he tries to make his way through this place: dialogue cuts into description; repetitions abound, such as “Do you have the time?”, the constant, coded solicitation of the women who gravitate towards Tram 83.

Tram 83 is the City-State’s night club, where all the deals are done. In my mental map of the novel, the Tram is its pulsing heart, with lines and circles of language radiating out from there (Roland Glasser’s translation is superb at creating that sense). When reading this book, I was reminded of my experience of reading Mrs Dalloway, and the way that Woolf transformed a geographical space into a linguistic and mental one. It was as though events were taking place not just in London-the-city but also at the level of consciousness and thought.

There’s a similar sense of multiple levels in Tram 83. When Lucien tries to give a reading at the club, he doesn’t last long, and it’s as though he is beaten down by the language of the Tram itself. As the novel puts it:

There’s cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.  They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders.  They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.  The City-State, an example among so many others—she pulsated with literature.

Lucien tries to bring his own literature to the City-State, and succeeds to a certain extent. But he can’t tame the literature spreading out from Tram 83, and ultimately he becomes just another part of its web.


Is this a shortlist contender?

Yes, I think so. It’s such a powerful reading experience, I can’t imagine Tram 83 not making my final six. I’d like to see it on the real Man Booker International shortlist, too.

Other reviews

From the shadow panel, Tony MaloneStu and Grant have reviewed Tram 83 to date. You can also find reviews by Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers (who is also maintaining a list of all the shadow panel’s reviews), and Adrian Nathan West at Words Without Borders.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, tr. Roland Glasser (2015), Jacaranda paperback

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

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