The Angel in the Stone – R.L. McKinney: a snapshot review

More than 20 years on, Calum is still haunted by his brother Finn’s death in a climbing accident. Their mother Mary, who now has dementia, blames Calum for Finn’s death, and is becoming increasingly paranoid as her condition progresses. Calum returned to Scotland five years ago, following a failed relationship in America. He still isn’t entirely settled, even now. Meanwhile, Calum’s estranged daughter Catriona is heading over from Aberdeen, seeking reconciliation and carrying secrets of her own.

The Angel in the Stone is the second novel by R.L. McKinney, an American writer who has lived in Scotland since 1995. In the book, McKinney weaves a nuanced portrait of family relationships, exploring what may cause those bonds to fray, break, or be made anew. There are also neat thematic parallels in the background: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and the changing face of the Highlands. All in all, The Angel in the Stone is an interesting read, worth checking out.

A version of this review was first published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

The Angel in the Stone (2017) by R.L. McKinney, Sandstone Press, 298 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Elmet – Fiona Mozley: a Shiny New Books review 

The shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced tomorrow. One of the titles that might make an appearance is Elmet, the debut by British writer Fiona Mozley. It’s an intriguing novel about a family living outside the frameworks of modern law and society – and I’ve reviewed it here for Shiny New Books. 

Book details 

Elmet (2017) by Fiona Mozley, JM Originals, 320 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The White City – Karolina Ramqvist: a snapshot review

I have to admit, one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize; and I loved the one book of Enquist’s that I’ve read, so naturally I’m going to like a novel that won a prize named after him, aren’t I? Well, whether that’s sound reasoning or not, it worked: I liked The White City (Karolina Ramqvist’s English-language debut, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) very much. 

Karin lives with her baby daughter Dream, in the mansion bought for her by her gangster husband John. But now John has ‘gone’ (the circumstances are not specified), and Karin’s life is crumbling around her, with the house due to be repossessed. Karin is desperate for a way out, even if that means heading further into John’s shadowy world.

The White City reads like a gangster thriller turned inside out: never mind the gangsters; this novel focuses on two people left behind. Karin’s viewpoint is disorienting at first, because she’s not so preoccupied with the background information that would be handy to us. Her world is in turmoil, and what she holds on to – what’s most vivid in her mind – is her daughter, and being a mother to Dream.

The strongest images at the start of the book are of weather and landscape – and body and movement. In this way, the ‘white city’ of the title is not just Stockholm; it can also be seen as Karin herself, coming to terms with motherhood. And there are still thrills there, ready and waiting for the right time. The White City is short and sharp – just as I like novels best.
Elsewhere 

  • Saskia Vogel writes for the Paris Review on translating The White City

Book details 

The White City (2015) by Karolina Ramqvist (2017), tr. Saskia Vogel (2017), Grove Press, 176 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Record of a Night Too Brief – Hiromi Kawakami: a snapshot review

This is a collection of three stories by the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase); The Nakano Thrift Shop; and Manazuru. The protagonists of all three stories are disconnected from life in some way; Kawakami explores this through various fantastical encounters.

The title story takes its narrator through a series of strange vignettes (dreams?): transformed into a horse; guest at a bizarre banquet. Alternating chapters chronicle her relationship with a girl, who shrinks, disappears and reappears as circumstances change.

In ‘Missing’, the protagonist’s brother has disappeared – though occasionally he returns, and only she can see him. Now the family is trying to find room for the brother’s wife-to-be (who, unbeknownst to her, is now marrying the narrator’s other brother). There’s a deadpan quality to this story which offsets the strangeness, and which I really like.

The final story is called ‘A Snake Stepped On’. Its protagonist does indeed step on a snake — which then turns into a woman, takes up residence in the narrator’s home, and claims to be her mother. As the story progresses, snakes appear all over, perhaps representing …the tensions squirming beneath the surface of everyday life. With some arresting imagery, this story is a fitting end to an intriguing collection.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Elsewhere 

  • An extract from the story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ at Words Without Borders.
  • Reviews of the book by my fellow MBIP-shadowers Tony’s Reading List and 1streading.
  • An interesting interview with translator Lucy North at Bookwitty. 

Book details 

Record of a Night Too Brief (1996) by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Lucy North (2017), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback (personal copy).

The Castle of Whispers – Carole Martinez

It’s time for some historical fiction, the second novel by French writer Carole Martinez. In the late 12th century, Esclarmonde is the beautiful daughter of a lord; she faces marriage to the philandering Lothaire, scion of Montfaucon, but she knows that this will lead to an unacceptable loss of autonomy:

I would be nothing but a modest container whom successive pregnancies would finally carry away. And even if Lothaire died before me, my widowhood would not protect me, but would abandon me again to the highest bidder as a token of some alliance or other. 

(translation by Howard Curtis) 

There’s only one thing that Esclarmonde can think to do: at the wedding ceremony, she cuts off her ear and announces that she will dedicate her life to Christ as an anchoress. Her family’s seat, the Castle of Whispers, has been added to piecemeal over the generations; now her father adds the chapel in which Esclarmonde will be sealed for the rest of her days. She will be considered dead to the world, even receiving the rite of extreme unction.  

However, the night before her confinement begins, Esclarmonde is raped. In the following months, she falls pregnant and gives birth to a boy whom she names Ezléar, “God’s help”. She decides to keep the child, whose birth comes to be seen as miraculous (no one asks Esclarmonde the question that would reveal otherwise). Add to this that no one has been claimed by death since Esclarmonde entered her cell, and the Damsel of the Whispers’ reputation only grows. 

But although Esclarmonde’s godliness increases in the eyes of others, her own feelings are moving in a different direction:

Gradually, without my even noticing, my attention moved away from the hagioscope to my son and all the people he attracted. God occupied me less than his creatures from now, and I never grew tired of watching them, listening to them, trying to understand what motivated their little brains. I no longer dreaded their judgment, or even that of God. I had not lied, I had merely kept silent about a truth that nobody wanted to hear anyway, and my silence had offered a blank space to be embroidered, an emptiness that everyone had seized on with delight. 

Esclarmonde’s self-questioning over her faith is a recurring theme of The Castle of Whispers. Another is motherhood, and what Elzéar represents you Esclarmonde – whether she’ll be happy to surrender him to the outside world before he grows too large to fit through the window to her cell. A further theme is power: in a world ruled by men, Esclarmonde gains a certain amount of power through her status as an anchor essay. Later on in the novel, she convinces her father to join Frederick Barbarossa’s forces on the Third Crusade; the lord’s young wife Douce, Esclarmonde’s stepmother, rules at home in his stead. The book becomes an exploration of the shifting spaces of male and female power. 

I’m struck by how much The Castle of Whispers encompasses when its protagonist spends most of time confined to a small space. More than that, it’s thoroughly engrossing. After this, I’ll certainly be going back to look at Martinez’s first novel, The Threads of the Heart, and looking out for future books, too. 

Elsewhere 

Stu has reviewed this book over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

The Castle of Whispers (2011) by Carole Martinez, tr. Howard Curtis (2014), Europa Editions, 194 pages, hardback (review copy). 

You Will Grow into Them – Malcolm Devlin: a Minor Literature[s] review

Today I’m delighted to make my debut at Minor Literature[s], a site that I’ve long admired. If you’ve never come across Minor Lit[s] before, it publishes fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and more. The ‘minor’ in the site’s name originally referred to writing in a second language, after Kafka; but it has broadened out to encompass different ways in which literature can be considered ‘minor’ (though not lesser!) in the context of contemporary publishing – all while maintaining its own distinctive aesthetic. 

The book that I’m reviewing is You Will Grow into Them, the debut story collection by Malcolm Devlin, published by Unsung Stories. Devlin’s name was new to me when I accepted the review copy; but I saw that he’d had stories published in Interzone and Black Static, and the book came with plaudits from trusted names like Nina Allan, so that was enough for me.

I found in Devlin a writer whose work demands my attention. The stories in this collection are centred on change in its various forms, and carry a real sense of how destabilising it can be. But I don’t want to say too much on this blog when there’s a review for you to read right here

Book details 

You Will Grow into Them (2017) by Malcolm Devlin, Unsung Stories, 344 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Russian Riveter 

Last week, the European Literature Network published the second edition of its regular magazine The Riveter. This one is devoted to Russian literature, and has fiction and poetry in translation, as well as reviews – including my review of Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (tr. Boris Dralyuk). 

The Russian Riveter is available to download free as a 48-page PDF from here. Do take a look. 

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane

August is Women in Translation Month, and that’s going to be my main focus on the blog this month. But Spanish Lit Month has also been extended to August (and expanded to cover Portuguese lit) – so I thought I’d start the month off with a book that falls under both headings. 

Lina Meruane is a Chilean writer and academic living and working in New York. Seeing Red is her fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English. It’s also semi-autobiographical: Meruane’s protagonist has the same name as her; and the book revolves around a medical condition that the author herself lived with. 

It begins at a house party. Lina is on her own in the bedroom when suddenly blood fills her eye: juvenile diabetes had meant that her retinal veins were fragile, and now one has burst. Immediately, Lina starts wondering about the future: is this going to lead to “the dark passage where only anonymous, besieged cries could be heard,” or is there a way out? Lina won’t have any answers until she sees her doctor in a few days, by which time there’s enough blood in her second eye to leave her effectively blind when she moves. The doctor suggests that it may be possible to restore Lina’s sight with an operation – an option she leaps at – but not for another month at least. Much to her consternation, Lina has no choice but to wait. 

Naturally, her sudden sight loss affects Lina’s life in many ways. A flavour of some is given in this passage, where Lina has travelled back to Chile on vacation and is met by her father at the airport:

My father comes to the rescue and pulls me out of my introspection. It’s his bony tourniquet hand that falls onto my shoulder. His debilitated skeleton, his long femur I hold onto. He leans over to kiss my forehead and I extend my fingers to run them over his face, trying to trace his face into my palm. I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s alive in there, inside his body. Then his voice, the word daughter, winds its way through the crush of passengers waiting for suitcases, and in my ear drum his relieved words echo: I had to insist before they’d let me come in and look for you. 
(translation by Megan McDowell) 

Here we have a clamour of sensory information, as well as a laborious process of working it all out, something that’s increasingly familiar to Lina (that wry “professional blind woman” comment). I’ve quoted at some length here because that’s the nature of the book: each chapter is presented as a single long paragraph. This has the effect of bringing the reader down to Lina’s pace, having to work through situations slowly. It also heightens the sense that there’s no escape from Lina’s circumstances, no short cut to recovery – especially in the sections concerning Lina’s treatment, when it’s unclear whether the operation will work, and she has to take extreme care to avoid causing damage while her eyes heal. 
Megan McDowell’s translation is superb, so much rhythm, sound and colour. Here, for example, is Lina in bed with her partner Ignacio:

I started by putting my tongue in a corner of his eyelid, slowly, and as my mouth covered his eyes I felt a savage desire to suck them, hard, to take possession of them on my palate as if they were little eggs or enormous and excited roe, hard, but Ignacio, half-asleep or now half-awake, refused to open them, he refused to give himself to that newly discovered desire, and instead of giving me what I wanted he pushed me back onto the bed and put his tongue in my ear and between my lips although he didn’t dare lick my sick eyes when I asked him to… 

That sentence goes on still further, evoking the slow unwinding of Lina’s desire. There are strong feelings throughout Seeing Red, as Lina’s relationships with her loved ones come under strain, and she fixated on the possibility of a cure for her blindness. Strong feelings on the page turn into an intense experience for the reader; a fine English-language debut for Meruane.

Book details 

Seeing Red (2012) by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell (2016), Deep Vellum Publishing, 162 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The UK edition of Seeing Red is published by Atlantic Books

Such Small Hands – Andrés Barba

When I talk about my new-found love of short, sharp novels, I’m talking about books like Signs Preceding the End of the World and Mildew and The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Fever Dream (those are just some of the Spanish-language ones) – books that are dense enough to blossom into their own reality, and short enough that they reach a peak of intensity. 

Now here’s another one. Andrés Barba is a Spanish writer who was named among Granta’s Best Young Spanish-language Novelists back in 2010. Such Small Hands is not his first novel to be translated into English (a number of others have been published by Madrid-based Hispabooks), but it is his first from a UK-based publisher (namely, Portobello Books). It is a novel of childhood, secrets and identity – and it’s very creepy indeed (the cover image above captures perfectly the mood of the book).  But it begins with the building-blocks: words. 

Marina is seven when she’s in a car crash with her parents. Her memories of the event are abstract: sounds, speed, a sensation of thirst. She has learned to say, “My father died instantly, my mother is in the hospital, but not necessarily with a real understanding of what those words mean:

Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. Marina’s learned to say them without sadness, like a name recited for strangers, like my name is Marina and I’m seven years old. 
(translation by Lisa Dillman) 

Marina has not yet formed for herself the language to describe what happened to her, so she ends up learning phrases by rote. There’s a gap between what she says, what she understands, and what she has experienced. It doesn’t stop there: Marina is told she will be sent to an orphanage, but has no way to conceive of what this might be. In the face of everything, Marina turns to the doll given to her by her psychologist. She gives the doll her own name, invests it with personality; it’s just about the only thing that feels real to Marina at this time. 

When Marina has arrived at the orphanage, Barba’s narration switches to a disconcerting chorus, representing all the other girls. Until now, they have viewed themselves as being all the same – part of the same whole, even. Seeing Marina’s scar from her injuries introduces a difference, and sets off a cascade of realisation among the girls:

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her. 

Following this, the chapters’ viewpoint alternates between Marina and the girls, each adding (or perhaps peeling back) another layer of the complex game of growing up together. The other girls are by turns fascinated and repelled by Marina, and they treat her accordingly. Marina herself realises that she is different, and tries in various ways to take ownership of that. Underlying these events is the ever-shifting logic of childhood, something captured in the fluid nature of Lisa Dillman’s translation. There’s an extraordinary sequence which weaves together an interview between Marina and the orphanage psychologist about the car accident, and an instance where Marina uses a stick to skewer a caterpillar in the playground, as the other girls gather around. This passage dissolves the boundaries of time and reality: disorienting for the reader, perfectly intuitive to Marina. 

One night, Marina proposes a game to the other girls: they will take turns to dress up as a doll, in clothes and make-up that Marina has obtained; the doll will then remain quiet while the girls play with her. The girls’ chorus describes what this is like:

You are passed from one set of hands to the next, from one bed to the next. You’re never alone again. Safe inside the doll, you love harder, feel deeper, exist boundlessly, no moderation. And yet you disregard the sound of girls kissing your cheek. Nothing matters now. 

The doll game allows each girl to experience individuality to a greater degree than she has before – albeit paradoxically by suppressing any thoughts or personality she might have of her own. It’s a deeply private experience that can only be articulated generically, and in that sense perhaps analogous to Maria’s experience of the car crash. 

Marina herself cannot understand why the girls continue to bully her during the day when they’ll happily submit to her game at night. It’s another example of that fluid logic underpinning events… but let’s leave that there. The experience of reading Such Small Hands becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the book’s pieces fall into place. This is a novel that will continue to haunt me for some time; and, of course, I’ll be reading more of Barba’s work in the future. 

Elsewhere 

Book details 

Such Small Hands (2008) by Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman (2017), 102 pages, Portobello Books, hardback (review copy).

The UK edition of Such Small Hands is published on 3 August. The US edition, published by Transit Books, is already available. 

No-one Loves a Policeman – Guillermo Orsi

​I picked this book up in a charity shop, based primarily on the same trust in MacLehose Press that led me to read Nevada Days. It was the first of Argentinian journalist Guillermo Orsi’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is one Pablo Martelli, who receives an urgent call from his friend Edmundo Cárcano one night in December 2001. Martelli travels through the night to Cárcano’s retreat in the seaside village of Mediamundo. When he arrives, he finds that his friend has been shot. 

Soon, Martelli meets Lorena, the beautiful young blonde woman with whom Cárcano had fallen in love; then she is apparently abducted, and Martelli’s car taken. Pablo travels to Bahía Blanca for Cárcano’s funeral, where Lorena suddenly reappears. After a night out alone in Bahía Blanca, Martelli is beaten up, and wakes in the police station, where an inspector slaps him around for good measure. Then Martelli returns to his hotel, where he finds Lorena’s dead body in the bed. Pablo learns that the manner of Lorena’s murder resembles that of several other killings – it appears someone is trying to frame him. Martelli heads back to Buenos Aires at the first opportunity; it won’t surprise you to learn that, even after all this, his troubles are only just beginning. 

Martelli himself is an ex-policeman, dismissed from an elite division known as the ‘National Shame’; these days, he sells bathroom appliances. His main allies are the inspector and officer from Bahía Blanca, whom he likens to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and the forensic doctor whom Martelli constantly describes as “roly-poly”. They’re not stereotypical heroic types; but this is not a tale with space for heroes. 

Commenting on his country’s police force, Martelli says: “it is not Sherlock Holmes we need in Argentina, it is the will to investigate.” This sets the tone of how the plot unfolds: not the solving of an elaborate puzzle, but more a journey through a world that constantly resists Martelli’s attempts to ‘solve’ it – the plot happens to him as much (if not more) as he drives it. When a key piece of information is revealed, or there’s some other important event, Orsi will often begin a new scene and fill in what has happened in retrospect; this reinforces for the reader the sense of having to push against the novel (the world) for answers. 

Corruption is rampant in No-one Loves a Policeman, along with a general sense of enervation: a dead body may never be reported, let alone investigated; and at one point a raid on a shanty town is staged just so the police are seen to be doing something. Over the course of the novel, Martelli comes to realise just where his career path has led him:

Death does not make ethical distinctions. It claws at everyone in the same way. It is a tiger living inside us, just waiting to escape and fulfil its destiny. […] Patrolling the streets of a city like Buenos Aires is to live side by side with the tiger, to let it loose in return for getting paid, to think the beast was really someone else when it mauled and then watched the dying groans impassively, refusing the hand held out for us at the last. To be a policeman is to shut your eyes, stuff your hands into your pockets, and let people die. 
(translation by Nick Caistor) 

No-one Loves a Policeman is set at a specific moment in Argentina’s recent past: a time of economic crisis and popular riots, which resulted in the resignation of president Fernando de la Rúa. This is more than background, as Orsi ties the events of his novel firmly into history, ultimately heightening the sense of circumstances that are too great for individuals fully to grasp or change. No-one Loves a Policeman is grim yet absorbing, its narrator facing the inevitable with wry wit because that’s just about all he has left. 

Book details 

No-one Loves a Policeman (2007) by Guillermo Orsi, tr. Nick Caistor (2010), MacLehose Press, 284 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

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