MacLehose Press: The Sky Above the Roof by Nathacha Appanah (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)

I’m intrigued by the way that the brevity of a short novel can bring a distinctive feel to familiar subject matter. One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel springs to mind here, the way it puts a toxic family relationship into extreme close-up by removing all but the most essential detail. 

Another example is The Sky Above the Roof, the latest novel to appear in English by Mauritian-French author Nathacha Appanah. It revolves around three characters who are all, in some way, ill at ease in the world. We begin with young Wolf in the back of a police van. He drove on the wrong side of the road, there was a crash, and now here we are. To an outside observer, Wolf may just seem a boy who doesn’t pay attention. In fact, though his mind mixes up times and memories of events, his mechanical instinct is something else. His mother thinks of him like this:

…a boy who does not have a licence and cannot catch a bus on his own, suffers from anxiety attacks and can go for days without speaking. One who has magic fingers and can repair little things when they break down (hairdryer, telephone, power drill), his gaze acting like a scanner and detecting where the fault lies. He who can run round and round the house for two hours without stopping, is afraid of the hollow in the garden and, now, does not want to see her.

At the time of the crash, Wolf was driving to visit his sister Paloma, who walked out years ago. Paloma is someone who hides on the sidelines of life. Then there’s the siblings’ mother, who was named Eliette as a girl, and hated the way her parents made her dress up and sing – which is to say nothing of where that led. She made a life for herself as an adult, changing her appearance and calling herself Phoenix. She also made sure that she wouldn’t constrict her children in the way her parents did with her – but, as we see, not everything turns out as intended. 

The Sky Above the Roof has 130 pages and encompasses this family’s immediate history, as well as Wolf’s brief (though still harrowing) stay in the remand centre. It seems to me that the novel loses some nuance of cause and effect through its brevity: sometimes it feels as though upbringing is the be-all and end-all. But its shortness also brings Appanah’s book intensity, making it a string of set-pieces with that swirling prose in Geoffrey Strachan’s fine translation. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

This is another title from Bernardine Evaristo’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. Jacqueline Roy has written a number of children’s books. The Fat Lady Sings (published in 2000) was her first novel for adults – her second will be published later this month.

The Fat Lady Sings revolves around two Caribbean women living in a psychiatric ward in 1990s London. Gloria is in her fifties, a naturally exuberant presence: her mental health was assessed when her neighbours complained about her singing. It’s as though life has conspired to prevent Gloria from living it on her own terms. She has been ostracised by the family of her partner, Josie. When talking to police at the scene of the train crash that killed Josie, Gloria only felt able to describe herself as Josie’s friend. It’s a similar story on the ward: Gloria is told to keep her voice down, and the food is bland English fare.

Gloria has been in the unit for some months. Roy’s other protagonist is a new arrival: twentysomething Merle, who’s quiet and afraid of the voices in her head. Where Gloria’s narrative viewpoint is continuous, Merle’s is fragmented and subject to interruptions. But over the course of the novel, we see both women’s pasts, and they try to find a future for themselves.

The Fat Lady Sings is written in a way that brings the reader close to both its protagonists. We have to piece together their lives, just as they are doing. But there are moments of humour and light along the way – ultimately this is a tale of survival.

Published by Penguin.

Red Circle Minis 6 and 7: Japanese fiction in English

Let’s start the year by catching up with Red Circle Minis, the series of short Japanese books which are published straight into in English translation. My previous reviews of this series are here and here.

One Love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

One Love Chigusa is the longest Red Circle Mini to date, written by Soji Shimada (whose locked-room mystery Murder in the Crooked House I enjoyed previously) and translated by David Warren, a former British Ambassador to Japan. 

Beijing, 2091: 25-year-old Xie Hoyu is severely injured in a road accident. Technology is advanced enough to repair his body and memories, but he’s as much machine as flesh, if not more. Xie finds he’s lost interest in life, and his perception has also changed: in particular, women all seem to have the snarling red faces of demons. 

One day, Xie notices a beautiful woman whose face appears human. He feels that she gives him reason to live, and becomes obsessed with her. He learns that her name is Chigusa, and asks to go out with her – but something isn’t quite right. 

One Love Chigusa paints in broad narrative strokes, and Xie’s obsessive behaviour is difficult to take to. But the story asks questions about the nature of humanity that I found compelling in the end. 

Monkey Man by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley

In this story, a hacker group called Arlecchino works to expose The Complex, the vast organisation responsible for many of the world’s ills. One of Arlecchino’s operatives is Monkey Man, a masked figure with preternatural agility. He’s among the number of young people who are developing remarkable abilities. Our protagonist, Yuri, is another: she has healing powers. She’s also about to discover that Arlecchino are closer to home than she imagines. 

Takuji Ichikawa writes in his afterword that Monkey Man is a companion piece to The Refugees’ Daughter, his previous entry in the Red Circle Minis series. Both are about young people saving the world, and they’re deliberately broad-brush, heightened and idealistic. 

So I think it’s important to accept Monkey Man for what it is in order to enjoy it properly – and it’s a fun romp that wears its heart on its sleeve. Part of Monkey Man‘s message is that the world could do with a bit more idealism. It makes the case persuasively. 

Moving into 2022

Happy New Year! This is going to be a short post to see in 2022, because I don’t have detailed reading plans for the year. But, when looking over my favourites from 2021, it strikes me there was a lot from that year, which is something I’ve wanted to get away from. I feel as though I didn’t follow my nose as much as I’d have liked to when choosing books during the year.

It also strikes me that relatively few of the books I read in 2021 affected me as much as The Tomb Guardians or Lean Fall Stand. I’ve always assumed that such books would be a rarity, but do they have to be? What if I went looking for them more actively?

All of which is to say, I’m planning to be more selective in what I read this year, and I’ll see where that takes me. Here’s to a great year of reading!

My favourite books read in 2021

Here we are again, approaching the end of another year. As usual, I’ve picked out my twelve favourite books that I read in 2021, regardless of when they were first published. I always find that doing this provides me with an interesting snapshot of my reading year as a whole. This year’s snapshot has given me cause to reflect – but more on that in another post. For now, here are my reading highlights of 2021:

12. Angélique Villeneuve, Winter Flowers (2014)
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2021)

A novel set in the aftermath of World War One, in which a woman tries to rebuild her relationship with her disfigured husband, while the community around comes to terms with its own traumas. Winter Flowers is one of those books that cuts through preconceived notions about its subject matter to capture raw feeling. 

11. Judith Bryan, Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (1998)

If it hadn’t been for the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo, I might never have come across Bernard and the Cloth Monkey. I’m so glad I did. This tale of a young woman returning to her family home constantly shifts in register, creating a kaleidoscope of emotion in a seemingly ordinary setting. 

10. Adam Mars-Jones, Batlava Lake (2021)

I like stories that are shaped by a strong narrative voice, and that’s very much the case with Batlava Lake. Mars-Jones introduces us to Barry, a matey, chatty engineer who’s really not equipped to convey the brutality of war in Kosovo. But that very inadequacy is what makes the book work so well. 

9. Andrew Komarnyckyj, Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (2021)

Of all the books I read in 2021, I think this was probably the most fun. It’s a spoof literary biography whose purported author talks more about himself than his subject, and deals with a Twitter troll by (inadvertently) making a deal with the Devil. Just thinking back to reading Ezra Slef makes me smile. 

8. Rebecca Watson, little scratch (2021)

little scratch was the least conventionally written novel that I read all year, with its words scattered in different patterns across the page. Those words are the thoughts of a young woman going about her day while something plays on her mind. It’s a technique that really brought me close to the narrator and the tension that grows throughout the book. 

7. Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue (2009)
Translated from Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood (2019)

This book was probably my biggest surprise of the reading year, in that I wasn’t prepared for the way it turns, so subtly and effectively. Its protagonist takes a summer job working with disabled people, but struggles to cope. Her mental health is affected, which we see entirely through changes in the shape of her narration – which is what makes the effect so powerful. 

6. Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)

More shapeshifting prose here, but in this case the protagonist is finding her voice. A Black British woman working in the banking industry reflects on her situation, and asks herself how she really wants to be. The prose is constantly changing to match her thoughts as she assembles the pieces of her life, building to a crescendo for narrator and reader alike. 

5. Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold (2021)

A worthy winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, this novel strikes me as a carnival – in the sense of both an entertainment and a festival challenging social structures. Sterling and their friends face a nightmarish authoritarian world that works against them in ways they don’t understand. There are matadors, showtrials, time-travelling spaceships – and hope to be found in pushing back. 

4. Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (2016)
Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft (2021)

I love story collections that work as a whole, and this one certainly does. Falco’s protagonists are all facing pivotal moments of change in their lives, and his stories are suitably dynamic. There’s a great sense of place and character about these tales, and each one opens out memorably as it ends.

3. Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (2007)
Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena has Parkinsons, and this novel is structured around the ebb and flow of her energy levels. She’s forced to confront the limits of her knowledge about her daughter, which reflects the limits of what she can do during the day. With so many of the books on my list, the language brought me right into the protagonist’s world – perhaps none more so than Elena Knows.

2. Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand (2021)

I was intrigued at the prospect of a Jon McGregor novel set partly in the Antarctic. In the end, I experienced Lean Fall Stand as viscerally as any of his others. A polar guide tries to rebuild his life and self after a stroke. McGregor explores how language breaks down and re-forms around this event, in a dizzying rush of a novel. 

1. Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians (2021)

The single most powerful reading experience I had in 2021 was this slim novel interweaving conversations between the guardians of Christ’s tomb and a present-day lecturer examining 16th-century depictions of them. The book hovers on the knife-edge of uncertainty, and rivals Convenience Store Woman for the sudden power of its ending. This is why I’m reading fiction in the first place.

***

There we go. I hope you’ve found some books in 2021 that you enjoyed as much as I did these. If you’d like to see my selections from previous years, you can find them here: 2020, 20192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. As ever, thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year – you can also catch me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Haus Publishing: Land of Cockaigne by Jeffrey Lewis

Jeffrey Lewis is an American novelist who has also written for television (including Hill Street Blues). His latest novel takes us to the small town of Sneeds Harbor on the coast of Maine. Walter and Charley Rath came to Sneeds twenty years ago with money, which they used to buy their house, and a disused summer camp for Charley’s art studio.

All this changes when their son Stephen dies in a carjacking in the Bronx. He worked with young people, aiming to keep them out of prison. His dream was to set up a programme on which Bronx kids could experience a different way of life by spending a couple of weeks in Sneeds Harbor.

Walter and Charley decide to honour Stephen’s memory by giving over their home to his dream project. Walter describes this as the Land of Cockaigne, referring to a mythical land of plenty from the Middle Ages. The Raths’ idea is not totally welcomed in Sneeds Harbor, but change is on its way regardless…

One of my favourite things about Land of Cockaigne is its style, which I would describe as nervy and on-edge:

Back in Sneeds the Raths did the things that were done by people in their situation, including not knowing what to call their situation so that they wouldn’t be hurt further either by too much honesty or too many lies, the middle way of grief.

There’s something in the shape of the sentences that means they don’t quite run smoothly. This really suits a novel about a community going through intense social change, and makes for striking reading.

Published by Haus Publishing.

Prototype Publishing: The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven

Somewhere in Europe, a young woman arrives in a secluded mountain town to work as apprentice to the pharmacist, August Malone (symbolically, we know his name but not hers). Malone believes in finding out and anticipating his customers’ needs and wants to an extreme extent – so much so that they will happily reveal all sorts of information about themselves. This information is useful for Malone (albeit not ethical) when he runs for Mayor.

In the meantime, the narrator finds her personality and sense of self dissipating in the force of Malone’s presence and the flow of customers’ stories. There’s a hazy quality to the prose that really works to convey this feeling. The town itself also feels slightly out of time, despite having modern technology – not antiquated, but perhaps somewhere whose essence remains the same whatever happens in the world. It’s the sort of place where one can imagine a life becoming static and fraying at the edges.

The Weak Spot is Lucie Elven’s debut, and she’s clearly someone I will want to read again. The atmosphere of the novel is so vivid, and it’s what lingered most for me after the last page.

Published by Prototype.

Salt Publishing: The Retreat by Alison Moore

This new novel by Alison Moore (probably best known for The Lighthouse) is typically unnerving – and it’s my favourite one of hers yet. In the 1990s, fortysomething Sandra joins an artists’ retreat on a private island, hoping to rekindle her interest in painting. She’s also been fascinated with the island since childhood, as it belonged to a reclusive silent movie star. 

The retreat does not go as Sandra had hoped. The other guests are standoffish, excluding her from their conversations and activities. (My favourite telling detail in the book is that the other group members tend to fob Sandra off with a cheese salad when making dinner, as she’s the only vegetarian in the group.) Her work is defaced, her things go missing… There’s a sense that something supernatural may be menacing Sandra, not just her fellow guests. 

A second strand of The Retreat is set in the present or near future. Carol retreats to the island to work on a novel, but she’s by herself – and going there by private arrangement, rather than in response to a public advertisement. Ghosts interfere with Carol’s stay, too but the tone is lighter – or at least, that’s the way Carol reacts. 

Tension builds gradually in The Retreat, as it moves from the interpersonal to overtones of the supernatural. But, look, the highest compliment I can pay this novel is that I just wanted to keep on reading it. I don’t generally say that I couldn’t put a book down, but certainly I was always impatient to pick The Retreat up again. If you’re in the mood for a ghostly tale, give this a go. 

Published by Salt.

Mountain Leopard Press: The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

Mountain Leopard Press is a new imprint of Welbeck Publishing Group, founded by Christopher MacLehose. Over the years, I’ve come to associate his name with quality, so I was keen to see what Mountain Leopard would publish. 

The Earthspinner is one of their first titles, the latest novel (and the first I’ve read) by Anuradha Roy. In 1970s India, Elango is a potter who has fallen in love with Zohra. After dreaming of a horse from myth, he resolves to spin it in clay for her. The problem is that Elango is a Hindu and Zohra a Muslim, so their love is forbidden. 

Our other protagonist is Sarayu. Elango taught her pottery when she was younger, and she rediscovers her love for it at university in England. The Earthspinner is an elegant tale of how pottery helps open the world up to Sarayu, even as we see Elango’s world grow more precarious. 

Mountain Leopard’s other launch title is Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal by Charif Majdalani (tr. Ruth Dover), a stark account of events in the Lebanese capital last year. 

World Editions: New Year by Juli Zeh (tr. Alta L. Price)

Life has scuppered several plans I had this month, including taking part in German Literature Month. Still, I’ve managed to read this, the latest novel by Juli Zeh. I have read Zeh once before, when I reviewed Decompression for Shiny New Books. Like that novel, New Year is set in Lanzarote – and it’s an interesting character portrait. 

Henning has taken his young family to Lanzarote for a surprise Christmas break. He might have been hoping to get away from life’s problems, but the trip soon creates issues of its own, such as another man flirting with Henning’s wife Theresa. 

On New Year’s Day, Henning resolves to make a new start, and cycles up into the mountains. The first part of the novel alternates between Henning’s bike ride and his reflections on the current holiday and his life. There’s a real sense here of the environment and Henning’s state of mind. 

We learn that Henning has panic attacks, caused by something buried in the past. When he reaches the summit of his ride, something about the place doesn’t feel quite right. A memory stirs – and, for the rest of the book, we see what happened in Henning’s childhood. In effect, New Year is structured like Henning’s bike ride: the journey to the top that maps out Henning’s present and recent past; and the exhilarating ride down again, as we discover just why Henning is the way he is. 

Published by World Editions

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