#YoungWriterAward shortlist 2019

Over on Instagram, I’ve been reviewing the shortlist for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, which is given to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a writer aged 35 or under. The winner will be announced on Thursday, so now is a good time to put my shortlist reviews on the blog.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

I’m still finding my way when it comes to reading (and writing about) poetry, but this is a collection I really enjoyed. Language and communication are two of the key themes. In ‘Jamaican British’, Antrobus considers both sides of his heritage, and how comfortably (or not) the two words sit together. ‘Echo’ is a sequence of short poems revolving the beginnings of Antrobus’ relationship with sound as a d/Deaf person: “What language / would we speak / without ears?”

Another theme running through the collection is Antrobus’ relationship with his late father. The poem ‘The Perseverance’ depicts the young Raymond standing outside the pub, waiting for his father who has just “popped in for a minute”. On the one hand, there’s a sense here of the poet’s father neglecting his family; on the other, when this situation has become a memory for Raymond, the loss of his father’s laughter is keenly felt.

Elsewhere, Antrobus describes how his father’s dementia “simplified a complicated man, / swallowed his past”. But the collection ends on (what feels to me) a hopeful note, with “Happy Birthday Moon”, in which the child Raymond’s father reads him a bedtime story. The second line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next, which gives a constant sense of rising up, reaching towards.

Published by Penned in the Margins.

salt slow by Julia Armfield

The opening story of this collection sets the tone. ‘Mantis’ is narrated by a teenage girl with a mysterious skin condition that makes her “dream in sheddings” and means that she’s constantly bandaged up. It’s just her genes, the girl’s mother insists, but she still has an uneasy relationship with her body and the thought of intimacy. Then events take a decidedly macabre turn… ⁣

Typically, the stories in Armfield’s collection revolve around a single strange or fantastical idea that gains power from being treated as ordinary. In ‘Formerly Feral’, the narrator’s father falls in love with a woman who has adopted a wolf. The protagonist and wolf are viewed as sisters, leading to some shifts in identity. ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’ features a band who incite the most extraordinary level of emotion in their listeners – and we only see this from the outside, which makes it even more disturbing. ‘The Great Awake’ sees people losing their ability to fall asleep, which takes physical form as a shadowy figure haunting each individual, reconfiguring society’s relationship with sleep. salt slow is a collection that lingers on beyond the final page.

Published by Picador Books.

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

⁣We don’t so much read about the life of this novel’s protagonist as piece it together. She has a Brazilian mother and an English father; the book explores her life within and between these two cultures, and what it means to belong. The questions come: where are you from? How do you pronounce your name again? Why don’t you have an accent? There are moments of happiness and joy, but also trauma that makes the protagonist feel a stranger in her own body. ⁣

The structure of Stubborn Archivist is fragmentary, and the style veers between prose and poetry: language that bends and stretches to accommodate what this person needs to say. The nearest match I can think of is Anakana Schofield’s Martin John – very different in subject matter, but both novels organised to create meaning for the protagonist more than the reader. She’s not there to tell us her life story; we are allowed in – and the honour is ours.

Published by Fleet.

Testament by Kim Sherwood

When celebrated artist Joseph Silk dies, his granddaughter Eva finds a letter among his effects that brings back a past he had tried to shake off. Silk was born Jószef Zyyad, who left Hungary as a refugee in 1945. Unlike his brother László, Jószef was determined to leave that part of his life behind, and Eva knows nothing of his experiences during the Holocaust. The letter she finds is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, asking Silk’s permission to use in an exhibition his account of the time, which has been found in the museum’s collection. ⁣

There are then three strands to Sherwood’s novel: Eva’s present-day uncovering of the past, and the contrasting historical stories of Jószef and László. There are some powerful moments as the truth is gradually revealed, and Sherwood explores what it means to bear witness.

Published by riverrun.

Thanks to FMcM Associates for providing review copies of the shortlist.

100+ Books That Shaped My World

You may have seen the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World“, compiled by a panel of writers and commentators. Well, the other week, Nina Allan was inspired to make her own list of books that had shaped her world. I was really taken by the idea, so I’ve been compiling a list myself.

My 100 entries include novels, story collections and series, English-language works and books in translation –they’re all key parts of my reading history. The only restriction I’ve given myself is one entry per author.

Like Nina’s, my list is arranged in rough order of first reading, from my early childhood to this year. It’s the first time I have attempted to put my entire reading life in one place. I can see the evolution of myself as a reader – the continuities as well as the changes.

The resulting list isn’t really meant to be representative or comprehensive. But each of these books and series played its own part, small or large, in making me the reader I am today.

100 NOVELS, COLLECTIONS AND SERIES THAT SHAPED MY WORLD

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
The Hodgeheg by Dick King-Smith
Flames in the Forest by Ruskin Bond
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo
The Conker as Hard as a Diamond by Chris Powling
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler by Gene Kemp
The Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (et al)
The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The Legends of Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and John Grant
The Virtual Reality Adventure series by Dave Morris and Mark Smith
A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines
The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
253 by Geoff Ryman
Quicker Than the Eye by Ray Bradbury
Escardy Gap by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove
The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived by Robert Rankin
Ye Gods! by Tom Holt
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Royal Changeling by John Whitbourn
The Saga of the Exiles series by Julian May
The Great Game trilogy by Dave Duncan
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The Orokon series by Tom Arden (David Rain)
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Gold by Dan Rhodes
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha
The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
Solo by Rana Dasgupta
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
The Rapture by Liz Jensen
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla
Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Loving by Henry Green
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Longshot by Katie Kitamura
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
Nod by Adrian Barnes
70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado
Communion Town by Sam Thompson
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Zone by Mathias Enard
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Wandering Pine by Per Olov Enquist
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila
The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash
T Singer by Dag Solstad
Berg by Ann Quin
Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane

Goldsmiths Prize 2019, part 1: Haddon, Levy, Main

Here are my thoughts on half of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus)

Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a plane crash. She is raised by her wealthy father Philippe, who over the years grows protective and possessive of her – dangerously so. When Darius, a friend’s son, gets too close to the truth, Philippe tries to kill him. Darius escapes on The Porpoise, a schooner that a friend is looking after – and a couple of days later, he wakes as Pericles in ancient Greece.

Angelica tells herself the story of Pericles as a form of protection – and reshapes reality in doing so. Characters’ identities shift and the novel’s focus changes as Angelica reaches for the story she needs to help her get through what’s happening. Haddon’s writing is propulsive and engaging… a fine start to the shortlist.

[Link to publisher]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

In 1988, historian Saul Adler is knocked down by a car while his girlfriend Jennifer is photographing him on the Abbey Road crossing. Jennifer ends the relationship when Saul asks her to marry him, and he seeks solace in a research trip to East Germany. While there, Saul finds himself falling for his translator, Walter, but it’s a relationship that will remain beyond reach.

There are certain details in this scenario that don’t sit right, not least that Saul appears to have advance knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Any doubts about what Saul has been telling us will only increase in the novel’s second half. It’s 2016, and Saul has apparently been knocked down on Abbey Road again, but this time it has put him in hospital. His mind keeps drifting back to 1988, blurring past and present…

The Man Who Saw Everything becomes a hall of mirrors, as it won’t quite resolve into a single interpretation of ‘what actually happened’. There’s also an interesting sense that Levy is looking back from a precarious present to a time when great change was on the way. The feeling of uncertainty extends from Saul’s individual life to the broader sweep of history within the novel. It’s quite electrifying to read.

[Link to publisher]

Good Day? by Vesna Main (Salt Publishing)

Well, this is a lot of fun. It consists mostly of dialogue between a husband and wife, Reader and Writer. She’s writing a novel about Anna and Richard, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is under strain from Richard’s infidelity. Each day, the ‘real’ couple discuss the Writer’s novel and her characters, often with differing views: for example, the Reader is more sympathetic to Richard, the Writer more defensive of Anna.

The Reader is concerned that people will think that the Writer’s novel is based on their own lives. The Writer insists it’s not, though that doesn’t stop her incorporating the odd detail. The sense grows that a conversation about the Writer’s and Reader’s relationship is going on by proxy (and sometimes more directly than that) as they talk about her novel.

Good Day? turns the structure of a typical novel inside out, and the experience of reading it is also transformed. The tale of Anna and Richard is disconcertingly fluid, because it hasn’t yet been settled – and the tale of the Writer and Reader is just out of our reach. There are also some nice touches that made me smile: it’s common enough for an author to incorporate one of their previously published short stories into a novel, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this… and I shall say no more about that!

[Link to publisher]

The Measure of a Man – Marco Malvaldi: a European Literature Network review

On the table today, an Italian novel: The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi (translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor). If you like the idea of a Renaissance murder mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci, with added political intrigue and a few sly nods at the present day… you’ll want this book in your life.

Click here to read my review of The Measure of a Man for European Literature Network.

Book details

The Measure of a Man (2018) by Marco Malvaldi, tr. Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor (2019), Europa Editions, 272 pages, paperback.

Now on Instagram

I’ve joined Instagram, where you can find me as @davidsworldofbooks.

I’d never really considered it before, because I’m not much of a photographer. But then I started to think about it as a way of structuring a blog, and then it seemed worth a try.

At the moment, I’m experimenting with using Instagram for shorter posts, and reserving this blog for longer ones. I’ll try that for a while, and see how it works out. I may end up cross-posting back here, but for now I’m linking to Instagram from my reading log.

If you’re on Instagram, please stop by!

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2019

The shortlist for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced on Wednesday:

  • Amy Arnold, Slip of a Fish (And Other Stories)
  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Mark Haddon, The Porpoise (Chatto & Windus)
  • Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Vesna Main, Good Day? (Salt Publishing)
  • Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

It’s been a good few years since I did a proper shortlist readalong (apart from the Man Booker International Prize, of course), and I already have half of these, so I’m going to read the list and report back. The Goldsmiths usually comes up with some gems, so I’m looking forward to it already.

Blog tour: The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis

Today’s post is part of a blog tour for a new Welsh novel: The Jeweller (Y Gemydd) by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies, published last week by Honno Press). Lewis is a prolific writer for adults and children in the Welsh language, and has also worked on the TV drama series Y Gwll/Hinterland and Craith/Hidden. She won the Wales Book of the Year Award for her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco, which was translated into English (by Davies) as Martha, Jack & Shanco. I reviewed that book for Fiction Uncovered a few years ago, and I’ve looked forward to reading Lewis again ever since.

The Jeweller is the story of Mari, who lives alone in a cottage by the sea with her cat and her monkey, Nanw. Mari runs a market stall selling jewellery and vintage clothing; she also helps her fellow trader Mo with clearing out dead people’s homes, in return for for first refusal of anything she might like to sell.

So, Mari spends her time surrounded by the bits and pieces of other lives. But her most prized possession is a piece of raw emerald that first caught her eye as a child. She would love to cut it just a little, to see the shine within. However, Mari knows enough to be wary:

But yes, of course such gorgeous uncut gems can trick you. She’d heard of jewellers sent insane by years of knowing a stone’s face as incisively as they did their own. They’d put all their faith in it. Been led to believe they had the key to every cell. That it was rock solid. But they’d take up their tools and it would flake to powder just the same. Leaving the memory of that germ of beauty.

This illustrates one of The Jeweller‘s main themes, which is about what lies beneath the surface of life, and how fragile it may all be. For a start, Mari’s market is under threat of closure. There are also hints of secrets in Mari’s past. They don’t come into full focus until the novel approaches its end, so there’s a sense of tension throughout as you never know which way things will turn. The Jeweller adds up to a portrait of a character at a crossroads in her life, uncertain of her options but in need of a direction.

Book details

The Jeweller (2007) by Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies (2019), Honno Press, 208 pages, paperback.

Tamarisk Row: a world in glass

There are a number of writers I’ve been intrigued to read, whom I’ve heard about through blogging. Ann Quin was one; another name that has kept cropping up is the Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Murnane’s work has not been that widely available in the UK, but And Other Stories are in the process of publishing several of his books. I’ve been reading his 1974 debut, Tamarisk Row, which is previously unpublished in this country.

Tamarisk Row chronicles the childhood of Clement Killeaton in 1940s Victoria. Each section is a single paragraph, sometimes pages long. This is a novel that asks you to slow down and focus on the writing. When you do, what opens up is quite something. Murnane will insert Clement’s daydreams and imaginative games seamlessly into the middle of his long paragraphs. This creates vertiginous spaces where the everyday reality of the book seems about to twist into something transcendent. A particularly striking example comes when Clement imagines a world within the shifting light of his front door’s coloured glass:

Creatures neither green nor gold but more richly coloured than any grass or sun try to find their way home through a land where cities of unpredictable shapes and colours rise up on plains of fiery haze, then vanish just as quickly while some of their inhabitants flee towards promises of other plains where cities may appear whose glancing colours will sometimes recall for those few who reach them certain glimpses of the places that have gone…

Long, winding sentences like this draw the reader in; then there are these flashes of a world beyond.

Book details

Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane, And Other Stories, 288 pages, paperback.

The Drover’s Wives – Ryan O’Neill

Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer now resident in Australia. His previous book, Their Brilliant Careers (which I haven’t got around to yet), was a set of ‘biographies’ of fictitious Australian writers. The Drover’s Wives also plays around with Australian literary history: inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, O’Neill has reinterpreted a classic Australian short story – ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson – in 101 different ways (two more in the UK edition than the Australian original).

First of all, if you don’t know the source story (as I didn’t previously), it doesn’t matter. Lawson’s 1892 original is reprinted at the front of O’Neill’s book (you can also read it here). It’s the story of an (unnamed) woman living with her children in a remote house in the Bush. Her husband has been away with his sheep for six months. On the day of the story, a snake has hidden under the house. The woman stays up all night, thinking back over her married life and more recent times, waiting for the snake to re-emerge.

The entries in The Drover’s Wives cover a bewildering range of styles and forms. Part of the fun (and this book is a lot of fun to read) lies in not knowing what’s coming up next, but just to give a few chapter titles: ‘Hemingwayesque’, ‘A Real Estate Advertisement’, ‘A 1980s Computer Game’, ‘Wordsearch’ – even a chart of paint swatches on the back cover.

Perhaps it doesn’t do to get too analytical here. The Drover’s Wives effectively lampoons its own criticism, with spoof reviews and essays, and a meandering ‘Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ (“I suppose this is more of a comment than a question”). But I do appreciate how O’Neill brings out different themes in Lawson’s story, and looks at it from different viewpoints – one entry, ‘Biographical’, serves to remind that the story is actually covering quite a short, not necessarily significant, part of its protagonist’s life.

The mood also changes. I was particularly touched by the ‘Backwards’ chapter, which not only retells the story in reverse, but also flips around cause and effect, so that good impossibly comes from bad (“Fond memories she had of the floods receding and repairing the house and dam, and the bushfire that had come and turned all the charred grass green again”). For all the variety of styles, O’Neill often keeps Lawson’s closing image of “sickly daylight” breaking over the bush; after a while, this has an almost incantatory feel when it comes around again.

In short, The Drover’s Wives is highly enjoyable, constantly surprising, and well worth your time.

Special offer

Lightning Books, the publisher, are currently offering a free copy of Their Brilliant Careers if you order The Drover’s Wives from their website. See Scott Pack’s comment on this post for details.

Book details

The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill, Lightning Books, 264 pages, paperback.

Poetry for #WITMonth: Night by Sulochana Manandhar

Today I’m trying something different on the blog, writing about a poetry collection. I’ve never quite felt at home with poetry in the way I do with prose, so I don’t know exactly how this is going to go, but let’s see…

Sulochana Manandhar’s Night (translated from the Nepali by Muna Gurung) is one of a series of poetry chapbooks published by Tilted Axis Press under the title ‘Translating Feminisms‘. It’s a set of 25 short poems (taken from an original set of 60) themed around the night, and were mostly written at night.

Each poem tends to revolve around a central image, from night as fertile ground for dreaming…

Night – rich soil of silence
where I sow exquisite dreams,
harvest pleasure,
filling the granary
(‘Rich Soil’)

…to the night as a space of liberation.

My night is no one’s property
is the land in which I feel free
where I no longer fear subjugation
(‘Property’)

It’s striking to me how quiet these poems are: this is not a book about a busy, active night – the night as a backdrop for things to happen against. Manandhar is very much concerned with the individual’s relationship with the night, especially the night spent in solitude. Night is not only something to fear, either: in these poems, the night can also be a source of mystery, wonder, even comfort.

Perhaps inevitably after reading Manandhar’s collection, I ended up reflecting on my own relationship with the night. Chances are that, among these poems, there will be some way of looking at the night that hadn’t occurred to you. Night is a book to contemplate, one that slowly unfurls itself in the mind.

Book details

Night by Sulochana Manandhar, tr. Muna Gurung (2019), Tilted Axis Press, 40 pages, chapbook.

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