MonthNovember 2010

Library of Lost Books: Echeverría and Salway

Esteban Echeverría, The Slaughteryard (1871/2010)
Sarah Salway, Something Beginning With (2004)

I’m a sucker for an eclectic list, and that’s exactly what is provided by The Friday Project’s new ‘Library of Lost Books’, a series that aims to bring back into print some titles that have fallen by the wayside for whatever reason. They’re available as handsome little print-on-demand volumes, as well as ebooks. The Library is being launched with four titles, all very different; here, I’ll be looking at two of them.


Esteban Echeverría’s short story ‘El matadero’ (originally published in 1871, twenty years after its author’s death, and here translated as The Slaughteryard by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe) is, says di Giovanni’s introduction, one of the ‘cornerstones of Argentine literature’. I must admit here and now that I know very little about the literature and history of Argentina (and of Latin America in general), so I’m coming to The Slaughteryard very much as a general reader.

Fortunately for me, di Giovanni has supplied a substantial introduction and glossary which do an excellent job of providing context (and there’s a lot of context to provide). The story itself is set during Lent of 1839, and tells of a group of Federalists who get to work on  a bull in one of the slaughteryards of Buenos Aires, before a turning on a young man of the opposing Unitarian faction. Echeverría’s prose is dripping with irony (on the arrival of a herd of bullocks at the slaughteryard, at a time of year when eating meat was prohibited: ‘How odd that some stomachs should be privileged and some bound by inviolable laws, and that the Church should hold the key to both!’, p. 9); on a narrative level, in his portrait of the city, he builds very well the tension which is so violently released at the end; and, on a more figurative level, Echeverría’s use of butchery as a metaphor for the treatment of political opponents is worked through the whole text. The result is a powerful piece of work.

The volume is rounded out with additional material from di Giovanni, including the original Spanish text of ‘El matadero’, several accounts by other hands of the Buenos Aires slaughteryards, and some (translated) verses from the time. I must say that the presentation of The Slaughteryard in this volume is an excellent example of how to make an old text accessible to contemporary general readers whilst still allowing them to discover that text for themselves.


From a 140-year-old text to one which first appeared only six years ago. Sarah Salway’s debut novel, Something Beginning With (aka The ABCs of Love) is the story of Verity Bell, a secretary in an industrial publishing company, who falls in love with a married man just as her best friend Sally’s own affair enters turbulent waters.

The most immediately striking thing about Something Beginning With is its structure: the novel is arranged like an encyclopedia, with alphabetical entries (which have headings from ‘Baked Beans’ to ‘Railway Stations’ and ‘True Romance’) and cross-references. What this does is make the narrative highly fragmented, so that passages from the fictional present jostle with recollections from Verity’s past and her inner wonderings. From these pieces, we build up a portrait of a young woman who is pretty insecure with herself, and not always a sympathetic character. From an early scene in which the eleven-year-old Verity destroys an ant colony with boiling water, Salway drops in these details that complicate and colour our mental image of Verity.

Perhaps Verity’s greatest wish in life is ‘to matter’ (p. 154), not to be one of those people who goes through life never being noticed by anyone. But she doesn’t make life easy for herself: emotionally, she can push people away; and, materially, she has the financial means to live much more comfortably than she does. The way Salway portrays Verity, and especially with that alphabetical structure, one starts to wonder just how much is not being said and what might be happening in between the passages of the text. On the strength of this, I’ll be looking out for more of Sarah Salway’s work – and, of course, for more titles in the Library of Lost Books.


Further links

The Slaughteryard
Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s website
Caroline Smailes blogs about the book and interviews di Giovanni

Something Beginning With
Sarah Salway’s website
Cardigangirlverity blogs the book

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., ‘Icarus Above…’ (2010)

Like ‘Apotheosis’. this story draws very much on its context, though in a very different way, as Pulver makes use of not only the title of Null Immortalis, but also the name of its publisher and the wind-turbine imagery on the book’s jacket. So, the assemblage of eight turbines becomes ‘the Null Immortalis of Megazanthus’, which a young Scott Tullis sees at the age of eight. He is immediatley drawn to it as a symbol of the wind (he’s also saving up for a kite), but the Null Immortalis will cast a long shadow over his life and family.

Pulver’s prose is oblique and fragmentary, making for a dense four pages. I didn’t grasp everything about ‘Icarus Above…’, but I do appreciate its singular atmosphere and the rush of its telling.

Rating: ***½

Richard Gavin, ‘Only Enuma Elish’ (2010)

A man’s elderly neighbour believes herself to be the incarnation of the Babylonian goddess Tiamat; there are tragic consequences. This story hinges on the question of whether the old woman is correct; the trouble is that character names and other surface details force us into making a particular interpretation, but there’s no true sense of otherness at the heart of the tale. Furthermore, the story brings in a very real natural disaster, in a way that I find frankly distasteful.

Rating: **

Books of 2011

Anyone who has been to university may remember the feeling of looking at all the societies during Freshers’ Week and going, that looks fun, and so does that, and so does that… until you end up joining more than you reasonably have time for.

Well, I thought I’d have a look through some publishers’ catalogues for next year, and make a list of books that sounded interesting. You can guess where this is going.

So, let us be clear that the following is not a list of books I intend to read in 2011, though I certainly will read some of them. Think of it more as a kind of ‘advance recommended reading’ list, with the caveat that I don’t know what any of them are like. But that one looks interesting, and so does that one, and so does that…


Alice Albinia, Leela’s Book
Paul Bailey, Chapman’s Odyssey
Elia Barceló, The Goldsmith’s Secret
Kevin Barry, City of Bohane
Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man
David Bezmozgis, The Free World
Rahul Bhattacharya, The Sly Company of People Who Care
Frances Bingham, The Principle of Camouflage
Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie
Sharon Blackie, The Bee Dancer
Stefan Merrill Block, The Storm at the Door
Chaz Brenchley, House of Doors
Chaz Brenchley, Rotten Row
Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination
Keith Brooke (ed.), The Sub-genres of Science Fiction
Ellen Bryson, The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
John Burnside, A Summer of Drowning
John Butler, The Tenderloin
Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point
Warwick Cairns, In Praise of Savagery
George Makana Clark, The Raw Man
Ben Constable, Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa
Anthony Doerr, Memory Wall
Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf
Enruque de Hériz, The Manual of Darkness
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
Will Elliott, Pilgrims
Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking
Tom Fletcher, The Thing on the Shore
Essie Fox, The Somnambulist
Claudie Gallay, The Breakers
Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory
Rachel Genn, The Cure
Andrew Sean Greer, The Path of Minor Planets
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Fallen Blade
Faïza Guène, Bar Balto
Benjamin Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Sophie Hardach, The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages
Dermot Healy, Long Time, No See
Ida Hattemer-Higgins, The History of History
Alois Hotschnig, Maybe This Time
Lars Iyer, Spurious
Richard T. Kelly, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest
M.D. Lachlan, Fenrir
Simon Lelic, The Faciility
James Lovegrove, Diversifications
Michael Marshall, The Breakers
Cornelius Medvei, Caroline
Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
China Miéville, Embassytown
Angela Morgan Cutler, The Letter
Bradford Morrow, The Diviner’s Tale
Adam Nevill, The Beast
Cees Nooteboom, Foxes in the Night and Other Stories
Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox
Matthias Politycki, Next World Novella
Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides
Christopher Priest, The Islanders
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
Adam Roberts, By Light Alone
Geoff Ryman, Paradise Tales
Sunjeev Sahota, Ours are the Streets
Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country
Jacques Strauss, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.
Kirsten Tranter, The Legacy
Jan van Mersbergen, Tomorrow Pamplona
David Vann, Caribou Island
Katie Ward, Girl Reading
David Whitehouse, Bed
Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation
Luke Williams, The Echo Chamber
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys
Alexi Zentner, Touch

What are you looking forward to next year? What have I missed?

Mike Chinn, ‘A Matter of Degree’ (2010)

The Scott Tullis of Chinn’s tale has invented a set of highly effective suction cups, and uses them to cross a suspension bridge, in a bid to obtain ‘immortality, of a sort’. He gets his wish, though not necessarily in the way he intended. ‘A Matter of Degree’ is crisply told, and its ending raises a wry smile — good stuff.

Rating: ***½

Margaret B. Simon, ‘Troot’ (2010)

In the aftermath of a future war, a woman approaches narrator Tullis, asking for the ‘troot’ (truth) of what happened to her daughter. Truth being a rare commodity in his world, Tullis must decide whether to reveal what he knows. Simon sketches her future efficiently (the story is only three pages long), but ultimately I feel that the prose doesn’t have enough density to compensate for the brevity of the piece.

Rating: ***

The finding of lost children: Donoghue and Robinson

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)
Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (2010)

The two novels I’m reviewing here weave beautiful tales from ugly subject matter: namely, the abduction and long-term captivity of children. Both are less concerned with plot than with character – the key question is not, ‘will they escape?’ but ‘what effect do these events have on the people involved?’ Whilst the process of uncovering the answers may be harrowing, it has resulted in two powerful works of literature.

Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in the 121 square feet of Room, the space in which his mother (‘Ma’) has been held captive for the past seven years by a man whom she and Jack call ‘Old Nick’. As far as Jack is concerned, this space is all that exists; the novel progresses from establishing the parameters of Jack’s mental world, through Ma’s (successful) escape bid, to Jack’s attempts to adjust to life in an outside world that he didn’t know was real.

Jack’s narrative voice is critical to the success of Room; though I’ve heard a few people say they felt it stumbled at times, it mostly held up for me; the main quibble I’d have is that Jack continues to call the sun ‘God’s yellow face’ throughout the book, which didn’t convince me given what else he knows, and the influence of astronomical concepts on Jack’s mental framework (he thinks of TV programmes as ‘planets’). I also have a general, vague sense that Jack doesn’t seem quite as disoriented by the outside world as I might expect him to be; but, to be fair, I can’t put my finger on any specific instances to illustrate that.

(As an aside, it strikes me that the success or otherwise of Jack’s voice depends on what one considers the first-person narrative to be. I can see that Jack’s voice may be problematic if the text is considered a straightforward spoken/written/thought account; but, unless they indicate otherwise. I tend to think of first-person narratives as ‘impressions’ filtered through the medium of prose, which leads me to allow more latitude than I otherwise might.)

The character revealed through Jack’s narration has a convincing mixture of precocity and naivety: his education through television and Ma has given Jack knowledge beyond his years in some subjects, but he still has many misconceptions about the real world; Jack’s little linguistic quirks (for example, he doesn’t go to sleep, he ‘switches off’) serve as jarring reminders that we view the world of Donoghue’s novel through a distorting lens.

But Room’s real power, I think, lies in its gaps. There’s a gap between what has happened to Ma and what Jack understands; it’s up to us as readers to fill in that gap; so, for example, Jack’s comment, ‘I think Old Nick put those marks on [Ma’s] neck’ carries much more weight for us than it does for the boy.

Even more poignant, I think, than the gap between the reality of events and Jack’s perception of them, is the gap between who Ma is and who she might have been. She was kidnapped by Old Nick as a nineteen-year-old student; at times, such as when she tells Jack her story, we catch glimpses of the independent young woman she would probably have been in her early twenties – but that life is forever lost to her, because she became Jack’s Ma instead (symbolically, we never do learn her name; even though Jack sees it written down, he doesn’t reveal what it is). Ma’s life, like the novel, revolves around Jack; it’s a struggle for him to comprehend what’s happening when she tries to assert her individuality in the outside world. By novel’s end, however, there’s a sense that both Jack and Ma are ready to move on.

If Room is focused relentlessly inwards on Jack, then Ray Robinson’s Forgetting Zoë faces outwards, reaching across vast landscapes and into the lives of not just its abductee, but also her mother and her captor. In 1999, Thurman Hayes takes his mother’s body to Canada, where she grew up; whilst there, he abducts ten-year-old Zoë Nielsen. For the next eight years, Hayes keeps her captive in his ranch in the Arizona desert and its underground bunker; by the time she escapes, the girl Zoë was is a distant memory.

Robinson’s prose and characterisation in this novel are exquisite. Here, for example, is Thurman reflecting on his father’s hands:

…to Thurman the hands only ever spoke one word and that was hurt. They contained bones that had fractured many times and reset, broken against walls and furniture, the skulls of cattle, Mom, Thurman. Hands so masterful at gripping axes and shovels and carpentry tools and soldering irons, the stock of his rifle and shotgun. So useful for overturning a table with a single, effortless flick, for giving a backhand so fast it was heard before it was felt, for grabbing a fistful of hair and smashing heads into walls.

The precision of the detail there is so vivid, and the way it illustrates manual ability sliding so easily into violence. The opening section of Forgetting Zoë shows brilliantly how the young Thurman is damaged and becomes the monster we see in the later parts of the novel. Growing up in a violent household, with feelings of inadequacy because he can’t be the man his father wants him to be, Hayes’s feelings bubble over and he ends up with a confused attitude to women that leads him to…

Well, that’s another striking thing about Forgetting Zoë: some of the key events take place ‘off-stage’, so there are gaps in our knowledge of cause and effect. For example, we never see the actual abduction of Zoë; whilst it’s readily possible to construct a theory of why Hayes kidnaps her, we don’t know the full story; when we meet him and Zoë again after the abduction, they are changed characters; we have to work to reach them once again, which adds another layer of richness to the novel.

Another lacuna in the narrative is the bulk of Zoë’s captivity. In 1999, we see the beginnings of Zoë the ‘true Canadian girl of big sky, big moon, of big sunsets and clouds’ slipping away in the bunker; but the contrast with her eighteen-year-old self when we jump forward to 2007 still carries quite an impact. The section covering the run-up to Zoë’s escape is perhaps the most powerful in the whole book, as Zoë is torn between her desire to escape and her reluctance to leave Hayes behind. With its uncertain passage of time, this section has a sickening ebb and flow, as one wonders if Zoë ever will gain her freedom – and the fact that we already know from the section title that she will does nothing to diminish that effect.

The title of Forgetting Zoë refers more than anything to Zoë forgetting herself. She starts to do that during her captivity, of course; but there’s a more positive interpretation of the title to be found at the end – that of being able to forget the past. As with Jack in Room, there is a sense of new beginnings for Zoë. And, as good a book as Room is, I think Forgetting Zoë may just be one of my reads of the year.


Emma Donoghue’s website
Video interview with Donoghue
Some other reviews: Adam Roberts; Farm Lane Books; Bookgeeks; Savidge Reads.

Forgetting Zoë
Ray Robinson’s website
Scott Pack interviews Robinson
Some other reviews: BookmunchFarm Lane Books; Scott Pack; Alison Flood for The Observer.

Derek John, ‘Oblivion’ (2010)

‘It is Tuesday the 43rd of March and I have hanged myself.’

So begins the narrator of ‘Oblivion’, as he relates how he tried to take his own life, but finds himself still alive, dangling from a tree. The story then goes backl to uncover how our man ended up in that situation; he was an antiquarian investigating the Tullis family, whose gravestones suggest remarkable longevity, and sometimes bear impossible dates. John’s explanation for all this is intriguing, and its consequences within the story bring a shiver to the spine; but the prose is frequently overstuffed (e.g. ‘the bizarre dates on the stones were beyond any conjecture I could fashion – their mystery stood impenetrably obscure like hieroglyphs from a forgotten language’), which reduces the impact of the tale as a whole.

Rating: ***

Green Books Campaign: Javascotia

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco-friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

The book reviewed here is printed on FSC-certified paper.

Benjamin Obler, Javascotia (2009)

It’s 1994, and Mel Podgorski – still in his early twenties, with a failed marriage behind him, and a year spent in the doldrums – gets another chance to make something of himself. He lands a job as a market researcher working on behalf of a large coffee chain, and is sent across the Atlantic to Glasgow, to scope out the competition. Whilst there, Mel finds himself falling for an art student named Nicole Marston – and gets caught up in the group of anti-motorway protestors to which she belongs.

Javascotia is one of those frustrating reads which is never quite as good as one senses it could be. Benjamin Obler has a flowing prose style, tending towards lengthy expression, but only rarely in a way that outstays its welcome. However, some aspects of Mel’s first-person narration are more problematic: for example, he’ll note the differences in language (“[…]most of the listings were bedsits – in American English, studios or efficiencies – and the section of the paper was headed adverts”, p. 39); which is fine at the beginning, to show that Mel is still finding his feet – but he’s still making such remarks towards the end of the novel, when the technique is redundant and can be pretty irritating. I’m also not sure that the novel’s structure serves it all that well – Mel’s life in the US is dealt with mainly in one long section (over a hundred pages) in the middle, which I found to really disrupt the momentum built up in the earlier part of the book.

There is an interesting theme running through Javascotia, though, which I’d characterise as exploring the gap between impression and reality. It’s there in the way that Scotland doesn’t live up to its tourist-brochure image for the American characters (Mel isn’t the only scout we meet), and the way that Glasgow’s coffee outlets aren’t as Mel imagines them to be. It’s there in the way that Mel is shown not to have known his wife (and, indeed, his parents) in the way he thought he did. And it’s there in a nicely rueful ending.

There’s an interesting story told in Javascotia, but the way it is told doesn’t quite do it justice.

Ben Obler’s website
Extract and Obler’s “five favourite cups of coffee”, at Penguin Books
Obler’s top 10 fictional coffee scenes, at The Guardian

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

The Blue Bookcase blog is hosting a “Literary Blog Hop” this weekend, and I thought I’d take part, as I tend as I tend to think of this blog as covering literary fiction. Participants are asked to answer the following prompt: Please highlight one of your favourite books and why you would consider it “literary.”

Okay, that’s a good opportunity for me to think through what I mean by “literary”. I doubt I could come up with any hard-and-fast definition that wouldn’t have fuzzy edges, but here goes. I don’t think of literary fiction as a category that excludes particular genres; I think of it as a general description of books that I can appreciate as something more than just a way of passing the time.

The novel I’ve chosen to highlight here is my favourite read of last year – The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. I’ve already written on it at some length here, and so don’t want to repeat myself too much, but, to give some context: The Rehearsal is about an alleged scandal between a teacher and pupil at a girls’ school, and a play inspired by the scandal which students from the local drama college decide to stage. Then again, that’s not really what the book is “about”; it’s about different kinds of performance and pretence – in life, not just in theatre.

What makes The Rehearsal “literary” for me is the way that its main theme is played out on so many levels, and that the different aspects reinforce each other. The drama students literally put on a show; the girls at the school do so metaphorically in how they relate to each other. Some scenes read more like a theatrical production (and not necessarily the one being staged at the drama college) than a report of “reality” – even the novel itself is putting on a show. Catton takes risks with structure and dialogue, but it all works, because everything is tied back to the central idea of rehearsing.

So, that’s The Rehearsal. Now to check out some of the other blogs in the hop…

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