Welcome to my first stop on the longlist blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize. The book I’m looking at today is Flèche, the debut collection by Hong Kong-born poet Mary Jean Chan, a collection that won the Costa Poetry Award.
‘Flèche’ is the French word for ‘arrow’, but it’s also the name of a technique in fencing, a sport that Chan competed in as a young adult. “As a teenager, fencing was the closest thing / I knew to desire,” writes Chan in ‘Practice’, and fencing becomes one of the metaphors she uses to explore the assertion of her identity. In the poem ‘Flèche’:
The day I learnt to lunge, I began to walk differently, saw distance as a kind of desire. Once, my blade’s tip gently flicked her wrist: she said it was the perfect move.
One of the collection’s main themes is the poet’s relationship with her mother. ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ describes an idealised coming out: “You sieved my tears, added / an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.” The reality that Chan presents in the book doesn’t go so smoothly. In ‘Always’, she writes that her mother is “always where I begin…Always the lips wishing / they could kiss those mouths / you would approve of.”
But perhaps the main theme of Flèche is love — romantic and familial love alike. Here’s an example from ‘an eternal &’:
look I say to you / listen watch / how we can make it through another day / on this shore / of lifetimes / we’ll have this ocean / an eternal &
There’s a restless power to Flèche that makes it a memorable collection, well worth a read.
It’s time for my second stop on the UK blog tour for Boekenweek. Today I have an extract from Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi, translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder and published by World Editions.
The blurb goes like this:
Amsterdam Airport, 1998. Samir Karim steps off a plane from Vietnam, flushes his fake passport down the toilet, and requests asylum. Fleeing Iraq to avoid conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army, he has spent seven years anonymously wandering through Asia. Now, safely in the heart of Europe, he is sent to an asylum center and assigned a bed in a shared dorm—where he will spend the next nine years. As he navigates his way around the absurdities of Dutch bureaucracy, Samir tries his best to get along with his 500 new housemates. Told with compassion and a unique sense of humor, this is an inspiring tale of survival, a close-up view into the hidden world of refugees and human smugglers, and a sobering reflection of our times.
Today’s post is part of a UK blog tour to mark Boekenweek, an annual celebration of Dutch literature that takes place each spring in the Netherlands.
I’m pleased to share an extract from The Blessed Rita, the latest novel by Tommy Wieringa to appear in English, translated by Sam Garrett. I was impressed by Wieringa’s The Death of Murat Idrissi last year, so I’m looking forward to this one.
Here’s the blurb:
What is the purpose of a man? Living in a disused farmhouse with his elderly father, Paul Krüzen is not sure he knows anymore. The mill his grandfather toiled in is closed, the glory of the Great Wars is long past, and it has been many years since his mother escaped in the arms of a Russian pilot, never once looking back. What do they have to look forward to now?
Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes, watches over Paul and his best friend Horseradish Hedwig, two misfits at odds with the modern world, while Paul takes comfort in his own Blessed Rita, a prostitute from Quezon. But even she cannot protect them from the tragedy that is about to unfold.
In this darkly funny novel about life on the margins of society, Dutch sensation Tommy Wieringa asks what happens to those left behind.
If that’s piqued your interest, here is an extract from the book…
Most of my reading this March will be taken up with the International Booker Prize, but there are a couple of other events coming up that I want to tell you about.
From 7-15 March is Boekenweek in the Netherlands, an annual celebration of books. A couple of years ago, the Dutch publisher World Editions organised a blog tour for Boekenweek that I took part in, and they’re doing the same again this year.
As part of the 2020 tour, I will be running a couple of extracts from Dutch novels in translation. On Sunday 8 March, there’ll be an excerpt from The Blessed Rita by Tommy Wieringa (tr. Sam Garrett), and on Wednesday 11 March it’s the turn of The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (tr. Michele Hutchison).
Dylan Thomas Prize
Starting on 5 March, there’s a big blog tour in support of the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, which is for writers aged 39 or under. A total of 66 bloggers will be reviewing the books on the longlist.
I’ll have a couple of posts as part of the Dylan Thomas Prize tour. I will be concentrating on poetry: on Tuesday 24 March I’ll be looking at Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and on Monday 6 April it will be If All the World and Love were Young by Stephen Sexton.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Argentina, Oneworld).
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (Netherlands, Faber and Faber).
Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull-Costa and Sophie Hughes (Spain, Harvill Secker).
Okay, well… To date, I have read two of these: the Pagano (which I liked) and the Ogawa (which I really liked, but I’m reviewing it for Strange Horizons so you’ll have to wait to find out more…). It’s great to see Schweblin and Vila-Matas on here, and I’m excited to explore the rest. How much I’ll get through is another question, because some of these books are quite long (and the Haratischvili is very long indeed). But I don’t want to rush – we’ll just see what happens.
Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (tr. Frank Wynne) – Fitzcarraldo Editions. A novel about a French farming family’s experience through the 20th century.
Broken Jaw by Minoli Salgado – the87press. A collection of Sri Lankan short stories spanning the public and private spheres.
Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken) – And Other Stories. A short Norwegian novel about the relationship between a mother and son, told over the course of an evening.
Patience by Toby Litt – Galley Beggar Press. The story of a disabled boy yearning for connection, from the publisher of last year’s co-winner.
We Are Made of Diamond Stuff by Isabel Waidner – Dostoyevsky Wannabe. A tale of belonging and ambiguous reality set on the Isle of Wight, by the only author to have been shortlisted for the Prize twice.
I’m starting Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with the first debut that Fitzcarraldo published: Patrick Langley’s novel Arkady. It’s told as a series of episodes from the lives of Jackson and Frank, brothers on the margins of an austerity-ravaged society that feels only a few steps away from now. They find an abandoned canal boat that they name Arkady. The brothers then have a chance to leave their city and look for a new life.
What really makes Arkady work for me is its impressionistic quality. It is tempting to read the brothers’ city as being London, but really it’s not a place with a precise geography. The brothers experience their environment as an abstract urban landscape, and that’s how Langley makes us see it. That background makes the relationship between Frank and Jackson all the more vivid. Their bond is one thing that might weather the storms life throws at them, in a strikingly affecting piece of work.
Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body (2017)
This book is an essay in trying to square the human sense of being a physical-bodied individual with the fact of being embedded in an ecosystem. Daisy Hildyard refers to the latter as “having a second body”, one that reaches around the world.
Hildyard draws together science, literature (this book gave me a new perspective on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in particular) and personal experience. She argues that it’s difficult for us to imagine the individual and the global scale at the same time, unless perhaps nature invades your personal space, as when Hildyard’s house is flooded in the book’s final chapter.
I find myself agreeing with her on that – it has been my experience, in the past and even during the reading of this book. So The Second Body is a challenge: to think differently. It will stay with me for some time.
I wanted to join in with Fitzcarraldo Fortnight because I have plenty of their books that I still haven’t read, so here’s a chance to catch up a bit. I’ll post individual reviews over on Instagram first, with two or three round-ups on here.
To start with, though, I’ve gathered together all my existing reviews of Fitzcarraldo titles below. If you’ve never tried this publisher, I warmly recommend them.
Claudio Morandini, Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)
Peirene’s series theme for 2019-20 is ‘Closed Universe’, and this first title takes us into the troubled mind of one old man living in the Alps.
Adelmo Farandola (always referred to by his full name) spends the winter up in the mountains away from people, and the summer even further up in the mountains. When we meet him, he goes down to the village to stock up on supplies for the winter. The shopkeeper is surprised to see him because (she says) he visited only last week. Adelmo has no memory of that.
For most of Morandini’s novel, it’s just Adelmo, his dog, and the young ranger who goes by from time to time. Adelmo is snowed in for months, then has to decide what to do when he sees a foot poking out of the snow.
What makes Snow, Dog, Foot so compelling is the ambiguity running through it. Reality is fluid for Adelmo, so there’s no fanfare when (for example) the dog starts talking to him, because that’s just the way things are. Adelmo has complete trust in his senses, which means we have constant mistrust. The book grows ever more poignant as the layers of perception peel away and we understand what’s happening.
Emmanuelle Pagano, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (2012) Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis (2019)
Part of Peirene’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series, this is a collection of linked stories set in rural France. These are vivid tales of character: the hitchhiker who stands in drivers’ blind spots. The old man near the holiday rental who’ll tell stories of the local area to anyone who will listen. The father remembering his daughter’s childhood through an old jigsaw puzzle.
Characters and images recur, not least the roads that link up places but also lead away from them. The repeating references to individuals and events serve to remind how small a community can be. But the details of the stories reveal how even familiar faces may be unknown or forgotten.
Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me (2016) Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2019)
Another title from the ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Vanderbeke draws on her own childhood for this tale of an East German refugee trying to settle into West German society in the 1960s.
I particularly like the childlike tone of the narration: the hurried gabble of this happened and then that and this and you know what else, as though the narrator wants to tell us everything.
My friend the writer Paul Barnett – who mostly wrote as John Grant – died suddenly this week, at the age of 70. To some, his name may be unfamiliar. For me, there has scarcely been a time in my reading life when he wasn’t somewhere in the background.
I first came across Paul’s work in the early 1990s, in my high school library – there was a book on Viking myths, and one on ‘unsolved mysteries’. Already I could tell he had a way with words, and a sense of humour, that I liked.
I was into adventure gamebooks at that time, including Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. This led me to the Legends of Lone Wolf novelisations, which were co-credited to John Grant – the same John Grant I knew from those library books. Collecting the Legends of Lone Wolf was something of an adventure itself: just as I started reading them, they began to drop out of print. I alternated them with Discworld books, and loved both series.
I didn’t realise at the time how far the Legends went against the grain of much fantasy fiction. Paul believed that fantasy could go much further, be more subversive and transformative, than it often did and was. In the Legends of Lone Wolf, he was quietly working out his own vision of the genre. I wasn’t thinking about that – I just enjoyed the books – but my taste is still for fiction that pushes against the norm in some way, and I credit that in large part to reading Paul’s work.
In Paul’s author biography in the Legends books, I began to see mention of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which he co-edited with John Clute. It was published in 1997, and I found a cheap copy a couple of years later. I spent hours browsing it, and much longer following up references. Of course Paul was far from the only person who contributed to this volume, but I could see that his view of fantasy ran through it – and this inspired me. It showed me a new way to read, which could also be a new way to think, and in turn a new way to see the world.
Paul’s email address was given in the Encyclopedia‘s introduction, and he became the first author I ever wrote to (it would have been in 2000, I think). We kept in touch, which I’m so glad about. In the early 2000s, Paul was reviewing books for the website Infinity Plus. I admired his style: rigorous and humorous in equal measure. When I began writing book reviews myself, Paul was one of my key influences.
Born in Aberdeen and later resident in Exeter, Paul had moved to the USA in 1999. Nevertheless, we met in a person a couple of times at SF/fantasy conventions. He was always friendly, funny and insightful.
As the years went by, we were in touch less often. But Paul remained an occasional commenter on this blog, and I enjoyed catching up with his thoughts on his reading over on Goodreads. When I was invited to contribute to Jonathan Gibbs’ A Personal Anthology newsletter, one of Paul’s stories was my first choice, because his work was so significant to me. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend his story ‘Wooden Horse‘ again.
It’s not unusual for books, music, TV and films to form part of the furniture of our lives. But a select few become more than that: they truly become part of who we are. Paul’s work was like that for me. I don’t know if I can put into words just what that means.
Thank you, old pal. Farewell. I’ll miss you, but I will always have your writing.