A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

​Nocilla Experience –Agustín Fernández Mallo: a snapshot review

This is the follow-up to Nocilla Dream, which I reviewed on the blog previously. Nocilla Experience is a thematic rather than a direct sequel (would it ever have been direct?). The format is broadly the same: short chapters mixing vignettes of characters (some connected) with apparent non-fiction (that may be adapted or even invented). 

As before, the effect is of a novel — a reality — without an anchor. A set of pieces that float freely, now coming together, now drifting apart. The key difference, to my mind, is that Nocilla Experience is more concerned with ideas and where they come from. So, for example, we’ll meet characters with grand ideas — about art or the nature of the world, say — but the book’s overall structure will suggest that each is one idea among many, of no greater significance than the rest. The overriding image is that of a radio playing to nobody, in an empty palace devoted to a particular board game. Individual ideas, the book seems to suggest, are ultimately no more substantial than that palace.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I grasped everything in Nocilla Experience. But it’s not about grasping everything — it never is. Sometimes I need to read a novel that requires me to reach up. Sometimes I need to see that the form and horizons of fiction are limitless.

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

Book details 

Nocilla Experience (2008) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2016), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pages, paperback. 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Earlier this week, the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels was announced. The winning book was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I’m reading at the moment. The novel I’m looking at today, however, was one of the shortlisted titles. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has written a tale of navigating life at the confluence of two cultures – and it’s a strong debut.

In 1968, Yuki is the daughter of a Japanese family living in New York. Her father’s company is sending him back to Tokyo, but Yuki is torn over the prospect of going there: on the one hand, she doesn’t have a single friend in New York; on the other, Japan is a distant memory for her.

Skipping class at school, Yuki meets a girl who calls herself Odile, and who dreams of being a model. Odile becomes the closest thing that Yuki has to a friend, and Yuki decides to move in her and her mother Lillian, a romance novelist. Yuki wants to be more like Odile – which is to say, she’d like to be whiter; Yuki is never quite able to resolve the tension she feels of being between two cultures. The two experience teenage girlhood in New York – but when Odile gets her dream, they start to drift apart, and Yuki has to look elsewhere for a connection.

Buchanan is excellent at delineating the development of Yuki’s different relationships, how each grows alongside the last to begin with, before gradually superseding it as circumstances change. The author also evokes Yuki’s feelings about art brilliantly. Yuki’s great desire is to be an artist; her feeling for art is visceral. Here she is experiencing an exhibition of contemporary art for the first time:

Warm tears raced down her cheeks and into her mouth. She swallowed them, imagined the salt absorbed by her gut and revolving up again towards her eyes. The clear white gallery lights pointed and blurred like stars. It was as if someone had peeled off the crisp outer layer of her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing. Finally, this sadness was no longer trapped in her cramped body. It was a living thing and bright as joy itself.

This is a raw, deep emotion that seems to emerge spontaneously. An outside observer may not understand, may think: why is she being driven to tears by a pile of dirt? The sense is that this feeling of Yuki’s doesn’t fit into the world; her wish as an artist is to create a space in the world where it will fit – just as she is looking for a space for herself.

Alternating with Yuki’s story is that of her son Jay, almost fifty years later. Half-Japanese, half-wit, Jay was abandoned by his mother when he was a young child. Jay’s main story begins as he becomes a father; a few months later, he loses his own father, who died after swerving off the road to avoid a deer; dealing with his father’s estate will finally lead Jay to confront Yuki.

Jay’s situation is not quite an inversion of his mother’s, but the landscape of his life is different. As a gallery owner, the art world is no mystery to him. He’s puzzled by parenting, though; and still ponders his place in the world. Perhaps we might say that Jay had at least part of a path through life illuminated for him in a way that Yuki didn’t; but he still has to find his own way through in the end. Harmless Like You is the story of how both Yuki and Jay come to a conclusion in life, by finding each other.

Book details

Harmless Like You (2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre Books, paperback, 308 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor: a Shiny New Books review 

Jon McGregor is a key contemporary writer for me, so it was a great pleasure to review his latest novel for Shiny New Books. Reservoir 13 examines a rural community in the aftermath of a disappearance – both immediately and in the longer term.
So much of the novel lies in experiencing its language that my novel revolves around a couple of extended quotations. I hope you find it interesting to read; and, of course, that you’ll go on to read Reservoir 13, which is typically excellent stuff from McGregor.

Click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Reservoir 13 (2017) by Jon McGregor, Fourth Estate, 336 pages, hardback (proof copy, provided for review).

Breathing into Marble – Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė: a EuroLitNetwork review

I have a short review up at European Literature Network of Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s Breathing into Marble. It’s a dark family drama, and the first title published by Noir Press, which specialises in contemporary Lithuanian fiction. I won’t say much more, except that the book is warmly recommended. 

Book details 

Breathing into Marble (2006) by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2016), Noir Press, 192 pages, paperback (review copy) 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: and the winner is…

The other day, I wondered whether the official MBIP winner would match the shadow winner again. Now I know the answer to that question: well, no. 

The winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017 was…

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape). 

I quite liked the book, but it wasn’t one of my favourites; and it didn’t make our shadow shortlist at all. As Tony notes in his post on the winner, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you’ve invested several months in following this competition, and the result doesn’t go the way you wanted. 

Of course, there’s more than one point of view. A Horse Walks was by far the favourite longlisted title of readers from the Mookse and the Gripes Goodreads group who were also following the Prize. A lot of people rate this book very highly. We on the shadow panel weren’t among them. Ah well, so be it. 

My congratulations go to David Grossman, Jessica Cohen, and everyone else involved in the publication of A Horse Walks into a Bar. My thanks go to my fellow shadow panellists StuTony MaloneGrantBellezzaTony MessengerClare, and Lori. Thanks also to everyone who’s been reading along with our discussions. 

See you again next year? 😉

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow winner

A little over a month ago, we of the MBIP shadow panel revealed our shortlist. Now it’s time to announce our shadow winner… 

The votes have been counted, the numbers have been crunched… and the result was the closest it has ever been. So, before we come to the winner, we have one novel which is Highly (Highly) Commended. That novel is:

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press). 

The Unseen is an excellent novel, but it was just pipped to the post by another excellent novel. And so – drum roll please – we can now reveal that the MBIP shadow winner for 2017 is… 

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Congratulations to all involved in this worthy winner! 

Now, there is one other little matter, of course: the official MBIP winner, which will be announced tonight. Both Compass and The Unseen made the official shortlist – I wonder whether either of them will take the Prize. The shadow winner has matched the official one for the last two years. Will this be a third time? I look forward to finding out. 

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch: a snapshot review

This is the first title in Peirene Press‘s ‘East and West’ series; and, unusually for the publisher, it’s a classic – first published in 1910. Ricarda Huch was a pioneering German writer and intellectual, one of the first women to obtain a doctorate from the University of Zurich.

The Last Summer is an epistolary novel set in the early 20th century. Having closed the university due to student unrest, the Governor of St Petersburg receives a death threat. His wife hires him a bodyguard, Lyu. But Lyu is in on a plot to assassinate the Governor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Jamie Bulloch’s translation creates a real sense of urgency underneath an apparently placid surface. The letters of Lyu and the Governor’s family reveal a complex web of emotion and relationships. But they also bring into question how much one can really know another person. Ultimately, Huch’s characters become trapped by the form of the novel itself. 

This review is adapted from an earlier Twitter thread. 

Book details 

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (1910), tr. Jamie Bulloch (2017), Peirene Press, 120 pages, paperback (review copy) 

Inventing Love – José Ovejero

The book I’m talking about today is part of Peter Owen Publishers’ ‘World Series’, which is published in association with Istros Books. Twice a year, they publ ish a set of three titles from the same country or region; Spain is the country of choice this spring. The publishers have kindly sent me a set of the books, so I’ll be looking at all three in the next few weeks.

Inventing Love is the second of José Ovejero’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is Samuel, a single man drifting through life at forty. He’s someone who has trouble with the idea of love:

I’ve always avoided the word ‘love’. It’s a noun that’s been devalued, a coin so overused that it’s been rubbed smooth, so that you could hold it between your fingers without feeling the relief design, a coin that I wouldn’t dare use to pay for something in case I was accused of being a fraudster…Does anyone really use it? Do couples really gaze into each other’s eyes and say ‘I love you’?

(Translation by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles)

One night, Samuel receives a phone call telling him that his lover, Clara, has been killed in a car crash. The thing is, Samuel has never known anyone called Clara. Seizing the chance to add a little colour to his life – and curious as to who this Clara might have been – he goes along to the funeral.

None of Clara’s family or friends knows what ‘her’ Samuel looks like, so it’s easy enough for ‘our’ Samuel to step into the role. After the funeral, he is approached by a woman who turns out to be Clara’s sister, Carina. She’s heard a lot about Samuel, and is curious about this man who led her sister to have an affair. Carina gives Samuel her card; over time, they get talking – about Clara most of all.

At first, it’s Samuel who gets to learn about Clara, allowing him to build his mental picture of this young woman he never knew. But Carina wants to understand the side of her sister that only Clara’s lover would have known… so Samuel has an opportunity to imagine part of Clara’s character for himself, and indeed to shape the image of Clara in the minds of those who did know her.

I don’t think the events of Inventing Love are meant to be taken literally – there are too many fortuitous coincidences for that. Instead, I think of Ovejero’s novel as a space to explore what it means to have a mental picture of someone else, by stretching the concept to such an extreme. 

One issue emerging from the book is how well we can actually know others. Samuel is clear on his view:

We share our lives with strangers. We can live with someone for decades and not know how she really feels when she says ‘I love you’ or replies to a question with the words ‘I’m not angry.’…We live with fantasies we create for ourselves in order to explain to the other person and to create a relationship that reassures us and gives us what we want.

He’s right in a strict sense, in that we are all individuals without direct access to each other’s minds. But then again, it’s not as if Samuel has made much of an effort in the long-term relationships department, so how sure can he be that it’s impossible to know another person?

Rather ironically, there is someone else whom Samuel thinks he knows, and that’s Clara. After some digging around online, he manages to find her Facebook profile, but he doesn’t want to go any further: “I don’t want to enter the false intimacy of her wall because I already know who Clara is, and I don’t want reality to spoil her.”

So there you go: Samuel can gather and imagine all the detail about Clara that he may; his image of, and feelings towards, her could be larger-than-life – but the Clara in his mind will never be ‘real’. Taking a cue from the novel’s title, perhaps the key question facing Samuel is whether love is something he can invent for himself, or whether it has to be found. 

Elsewhere 

Read an excerpt from Inventing Love at European Literature Network. 

At the time of writing, I can’t find many English-language reviews of the book online. Michael Orthofer has written it up at The Complete Review; he also links to Larry Nolen’s review of the Spanish original at the OF Blog, as well as a number of reviews in Spanish. 

Book details 

Inventing Love (2013) by José Ovejero, tr. Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 219 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Photographer – Meike Ziervogel

You might know Meike Ziervogel best as the publisher of Peirene Press; but she’s also built a career as a novelist over the last few years. The Photographer is her fourth novel (published, like the others, by Salt), and draws upon the history of the 11 million Germans who fled west in 1945 to escape the fighting. Like Han Kang’s Human Acts (albeit in a rather different way), Ziervogel’s book examines a large human event at an intensely individual scale.

In a small Pomeranian town, a young girl named Trude dreams of being whisked away by her prince. In 1933, shortly after turning eighteen, she finds him: a photographer named Albert. His work allows the couple to travel Europe; later they have a son, Peter. However, Trude’s mother Agatha never takes to Albert: he’s “a boy from the gutter”, not fit for her daughter. Discovering from Peter that Albert listens to enemy radio is all the pretext Agatha needs to report him to the authorities and get him sent to the front. In 1945, the family is forced to leave for Berlin before Albert has returned. The rest of Ziervogel’s novel chronicles how this broken family heals itself.

Appropriately enough given its title, The Photographer revolves around themes of image and appearance, which are often tied to social status. So, for example, we begin with Trude’s dreams of a romantic life – which, for a while, she gets. But, when the family flees to Berlin, those dreams come crashing down around her:

She hasn’t even put on any lipstick and looks like a common woman with a tear-stained face whose husband has just been taken away, has just died. There are thousands and thousands of these women. She feels ashamed to be one of them now.

All of a sudden, Trude feels that her individual, exceptional story has collapsed into something generic: the tale of any other refugee wife. To an extent, she’s right: in the grand sweep of history, she will become part of a statistic, one of those 11 million people. What Trude overlooks, though, is that each of the refugees has their own life, as rich to them as hers is to herself.

In 1947, the family is reunited after Albert has been released from Russian captivity. Here, there is a key lack of images: Albert and Peter can’t remember what the other used to look like, and therefore can’t recognise each other in the present. They have to get to know each other from first principles in order to bridge the gap of the years

Albert’s sense of displacement extends to how he has come to think of photography:

While before the war the camera was his extended eye, which he used to capture his view of the world, it was now what protected him, behind which he hid, which kept him, the real Albert, at a distance. Far, far away from everything that was happening around him.

Where Albert once faced the world with confidence, now photography is just about his only point of stability. No surprise, perhaps, that he attempts to reach Peter by trying to get him interested in photography, although the boy would rather spend his time boxing. Ultimately, it seems, Albert and Peter need to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. 

The Photographer has that wonderful combination of being dense with reading, yet with an openness to the writing. The novel is structured like a photo album: whole lives are narrated, but intermittently. Some events are told in detail; others have to be inferred by the reader; still others are so private that they don’t appear on the page. This is a novel of history as something lived through and looked back on, vivid incidents scattered among the threads of life.

Other reviews 

Read other reviews of The Photographer by Mika Provata-Carlone at Bookanista, and Jackie Law at Bookmunch

Book details

The Photographer (2017) by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, 171 pages, paperback (review copy). 

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