#InternationalBooker2020 longlist: let the shadowing begin!

It’s International Booker Prize time, and once again I’ll be reading along and reviewing where I can. The longlist was announced this morning, so here’s what we’ve got:

  • Red Dog by Willem Anker, translated from the Afrikaans by Michael Heyns (South Africa, Pushkin Press).
  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated from the Farsi by an anonymous translator (Iran, Europa Editions UK).
  • The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Camara, translated from the Spanish by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh (Argentina, Charco Press).
  • The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse, translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls (Norway, Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Georgia, Scribe UK).
  • Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside (France, William Heinemann).
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (Germany, Quercus).
  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Japan, Harvill Secker).
  • Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins (France, Peirene Press).
  • 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.

As always, I will be taking part in the shadow panel to choose our own shortlist and winner. This year, I will be joined by Stu, Frances, Bellezza, Vivek, Barbara, Paul, Antonomasia and Oisin. I wish us all – and you – an enjoyable journey.

Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist 2020

One of my favourite literary awards, the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, announced its shortlist this evening:

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.

A fascinating selection – congratulations to all!

#FitzcarraldoFortnight: Langley and Hildyard

Patrick Langley, Arkady (2018)

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. ⁣

Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight

For the rest of this month, Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy’s Literary Life are hosting Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. I’ve followed the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions since they started in 2014. They caught my attention with their striking house cover design and uncompromising approach to publishing (any publisher that would start with a book like Mathias Enard’s Zone is making quite a statement).

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.

Eula Biss
On Immunity

Jeremy Cooper
Ash Before Oak

Mathias Enard
Compass
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants
Zone

Annie Ernaux
The Years

Agustín Fernández Mallo
Nocilla Dream
Nocilla Experience
Nocilla Lab

A Peirene Press round-up

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.⁣

Paul Barnett (1949-2020)

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. 

Blog tour: The Island Child by Molly Aitken

My post today is part of a blog tour for The Island Child, the debut novel by Molly Aitken, which was published last week by Canongate. It’s set on the small Irish island of Inis, where Oona grows up in the mid-20th century. Inis is a place steeped in tradition for better or worse, where the old tales are told, and the cycle of life turns fixed on its axis – especially for women.

But Oona tries to break free, building a new life for herself in Canada. Twenty years later, she has her own daughter, Joyce, who goes missing, gone to Inis to find out about the past. Oona follows her, bringing her life full circle.

What I particularly like about The Island Child is the way that Aitken weaves in folklore. The people of Inis may often view life through that kind of framework. For example, the English incomer Aislinn has a reputation for being something of a witch. Oona sees her on the beach one night:

On the water a round and glistening shape floated towards her. My fingers clamped cold to the damp rock. She was calling her dead husband back. Bringing life to him again…

She ran screeching into the waves and, laughing, she called out to him, a melodious sound without meaning. Her long fingers reached out for him but he sank and vanished.

But the islanders’ view of Aislinn may have more to do with the fact that she is a single mother who doesn’t conform with how women in this community are expected to be. Aitken continually peels back the layers of folklore to reveal the truth beneath. This can be painful for her characters, but Oona finds a place in her life for stories by novel’s end. The Island Child is a vivid tale of character and place.

Red Circle Minis: part 1

Red Circle is a publisher specialising in translations of Japanese fiction. A while ago, they offered me a set of their Red Circle Minis to review. These are a series of individually bound short Japanese tales, which have been specially commissioned and published in English translation first. I’ve been working my way through the stories; here are my thoughts on the first three.

Stand-in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi
Translated by Raj Mahtani

The first chapter of this story sets the scene as follows: when Yutori has an affair and child with another man, she and her husband Hayato divorce. Hayato is granted the right to a “stand-in companion” – an android replica of Yutori, complete with her memories. ⁣

The second chapter tells a similar story, but here it’s Hayato who has the affair and child, and Yutori who receives a stand-in companion. The the rest of the story is wonderfully ambiguous as to who is who – or who is what. Since stand-in companions don’t know they’re androids, maybe this Hayato and Yutori are both artificial. ⁣

Shiraishi uses this set-up to explore the emotions that come out of a disrupted relationship. Both Yutori and Hayato are out for rev\nenge in some way against their ex-partner, but taking it in such an artificial situation underlines how hollow it may ultimately be. This is a thought-provoking piece of work.

Backlight by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Richard Nathan

This story was inspired by an actual incident that took place in Japan in 2016. A boy is abandoned on a mountain road by his parents to teach him a lesson. When they change their minds ten minutes later, he had disappeared. Hanawa writes about the search for the boy, but his focus is on the small group of psychologists brought in to help.

While others are out doing the hard graft of looking for the missing boy, we’ll often be with the psychologists in their comfortable accommodation, where they discuss their theories of abandonment. Their talk gets quite abstract, and far removed from the reality of the boy’s predicament. Backlight becomes quite a cutting reflection of how society may treat those who fall through its cracks.

Tokyo Performance by Roger Pulvers

Roger Pulvers is an Australian writer who has a long association with Japan, and writes in both English and Japanese. Tokyo Performance is the tale of Norimasa Inomata, a popular TV chef in the 1970s. We meet him as he’s filming his live weekly show, but this week there’s something more personal to go along with the cookery. Inomata starts ranting about his personal life, and we discover that he is estranged from his wife and children. The chef’s commentary grows more and more heated, until he dares his wife to ring him live on air… ⁣

You just know that Inomata is on a path to self-destruction but, with Pulvers’ words, this is one performance from which it’s hard to turn away.

My favourite books read in 2019

The end of the year has come around again, so it’s time to look back. Going through my list of books read this year has brought back some happy memories, so here are my twelve favourites. As ever, the list is in rough descending order of enjoyment, but they’re all warmly recommended.

12. The Perseverance (2019) by Raymond Antrobus

I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of poetry this year. Antrobus’ highly personal collection – which explores themes of language, communication and family relationships – stood out to me. A worthy winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

11. Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane

I’ve never read a novel that evokes childhood imagination quite like this. A boy in 1940s Australia imagines hidden worlds in the abstract patterns of everyday reality (such as the play of light through glass). The raw, deep feelings of growing up are made vertiginous in Murnane’s prose.

10. Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine

A collection of personal essays in which the act of writing seems at least as important to the writer as what she’s writing about. Pine is unflinching as she explores issues of the (her) family, body and self. The sense is that she’s taking the stuff of her life apart and building it anew.

9. The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

An account of the mid-to-late 20th century whose writing stopped me in my tracks. The narrator’s personal history plays out against and within the broader passage of time. I was particularly struck by the way the text changes shape to reflect different ways of knowing and remembering – stories giving way to fragments of information.

8. The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill

Possibly the book that was the most pure fun to read this year. The Drover’s Wives consists of a classic Australian short story retold in 101 different ways, from ‘Hemingwayesque’ to ‘A 1980s Computer Game’ and even a chart of paint swatches. O’Neill brings out different sides to the original story, and though there’s a lot to smile about, there are some poignant moments too.

7. The Cheffe (2016) by Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

The very last book I read before compiling this list, but one that made a considerable impression. It’s the tale of an elusive culinary genius through the eyes of a former employee who thinks he has insight into her that may be the product of obsession. The ‘double remove’ between us and the Cheffe makes the novel so tantalising.

6. Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson (2018)

Nothomb takes my ‘should have read this author sooner’ slot for the year. This novel is a short, sharp, 360-degree view of its protagonist’s female relationships, from her jealous mother to the assistant professor who may not be as much of a friend as she appears.

5. Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt
Translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019)

Talking of short and sharp… This is the piercing portrait of a terminally ill young woman who has moved to a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen, recently turned into a hospice. Transfer Window is harrowing in its sense of life cut short. Inside the hospice, the protagonist’s old life slips away: for everyone outside, life goes on.

4. The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) by Irmgard Keun
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)

Doris is a secretary with dreams of being a star; she leaves her job and travels to Berlin, where she finds that life’s pendulum may swing in a different direction without warning. Doris’s voice is compelling as the world shifts around her. There are moments of joy, but also signs of the darkness that was to come – signs that seem all the more pronounced from this historical distance.

3. Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (2019)

The final part of Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, and my personal favourite. We follow a version (or versions) of the author on a trip to Sardinia, through four sections written in different styles. The question becomes, can we trust the narrator to be the same individual throughout? The sense of a single coherent ‘I’ grows ever more fragile.

2. Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford

A novel of genuine strangeness that gains power from refusing to explain itself. Ada and her father heal people, but exactly what they do (or even what they are) is a mystery to us. When Ada falls in love with one of her “Cures”, this threatens to upend her entire existence… and that core of mystery gnaws away all the while.

1. Berg (1964) by Ann Quin

I first heard about this novel ten years before reading it, and eventually got to it at just the right time. I was expecting the prose to require some concentration, but I wasn’t expecting the book to be so funny. Quin’s hapless protagonist goes to the seaside intending to kill his father in revenge, but finds he can’t actually go through with it. Events descend into outright farce… and I found a new book to treasure.

***

So, that was my 2019. How was your reading year?

If you’d like to catch up on previous yearly round-up, they’re here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or here.

“She told me the meal was there, spare, magnificent and perfect”

Marie NDiaye, The Cheffe (2016)
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

Although I’m not much of a foodie, I have a soft spot for programmes like Masterchef and Great British Menu. I think it has something to do with seeing already talented people excelling themselves, especially when it’s in an area I can relate to but couldn’t venture into myself. There’s also a certain mystery in watching these shows, trying to imagine what the food actually tastes like from the judges’ descriptions. I guess it’s a bit like trying to capture what it was like to read a book that you may well not have read yet yourself.

On that note: here is The Cheffe, the latest novel to appear in English translation from the French author Marie NDiaye (whose Ladivine was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize back in 2016). It is the story of an enigmatic culinary genius, known to us mostly by title rather than name.

From humble beginnings in south-western France, the Cheffe discovers her talent as a teenager, working in a wealthy couple’s kitchen. In time, she becomes a celebrated restauranteur, but she’s not interested in showing off – “cooking was sacred” to her. She also remains intensely private. It’s in the kitchen where the Cheffe is in her element:

…it’s a fact that I never saw the Cheffe make a motion or gesture that wasn’t marked by a magical precision, even in the most cramped or cluttered quarters, every tiny part of her diligently obeyed order to make every move precise, and did so gracefully, what’s more, with a radiant eagerness that suggested everything she did in the ritual space of the kitchen was done in accordance with the precepts of beauty and necessity.

NDiaye’s unnamed narrator is a former employee of the Cheffe; the text of the novel is an interview he’s giving after she has died. This man thinks he knows who the Cheffe was and how she thought, but he’s not the most reliable of narrators. He’s rather obsessed with the Cheffe (as you can perhaps tell from the tone of the quotation above), and that colours his account of her. There’s a sense that some of the narrator’s interpretations, such as his view of the Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter (which he sees as a difficult one), might be projections of his own situation.

The end result is a kind of double distancing: an already elusive character made even more so by the overlaying of another character’s preoccupations. We’re apprehending the Cheffe through two thicknesses of glass, as it were – but the impressions left of both her and the narrator are vivid nonetheless. The Cheffe is a tale of imagination filling in the gaps when first-hand knowledge falls short, as tantalising and perilous as that may be.

The Cheffe is published by MacLehose Press in the UK and Knopf in the US.

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