AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

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). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 2 

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a trio of chapbooks from Nightjar Press. Now here’s another set, again reviewed in the order that  I read them.

Hilary Scudder, ‘M’ (2013)


Our narrator, Anna, leaves a strongly worded goodbye letter for her husband, then sets out in search of the bar where her lover – referred to only as M – is waiting. She goes into the side entrance of a hotel, and soon finds herself caught up in strange happenings where she clearly doesn’t belong. She is rescued by a young woman named Kristina, who encourages Anna to re-evaluate her life.


I have to be honest that I didn’t grasp this story fully. There are some details suggestive of a particular time and place (perhaps Germany, perhaps the early 20th century) which, if correct, would give me some further context for what happens. But then again, the setting often feels timeless. I am left thinking of the hotel as representing the glamour and danger of a life with M, as opposed to the glum misery of Anna’s current life. Her journey then becomes a kinetic way of resolving the dilemma in front of her.



Tom Fletcher, ‘The Home’ (2015)


I’ve always enjoyed reading Tom Fletcher’s stories; and here is a short, sharp demonstration of why. A man sits in an armchair watching the TV, which shows his wife traversing a blank grey landscape. A caption states that this place is haunted by a predator known as ‘The Home’.

The metaphor of creeping old age is plain to see throughout this story; but the strangeness of the scenario only serves to amplify it. The ending has a double impact, from both what happens literally, and what it represents in real life.



Leone Ross, ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015)


A woman walks into a local restaurant, sits down at the table, and stays there – for days, weeks, years. She is served meals, and washes in the restroom. Any member of staff who takes against her is promptly sacked. The maître d’ tells the story to one new recruit: the woman had fallen in love with the chef-proprietor; but he was already tied to his restaurant. When the chef and the woman made love, the restaurant caused a small earth tremor in protest. The restaurant would not be left out of its owner’s affections, so the woman stays there to appease it.


All of this is told in the most delightfully measured prose, as carefully placed as the elements of a fine restaurant dish. That prose style creates its own world for the story, so that everything within it seems quite logical and natural. By the end, I was reluctant to leave.


Book details


‘M’ (2013) by Hilary Scudder, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Home’ (2015) by Tom Fletcher, Nightjar Press, 8 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015) by Leone Ross, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals 

Thought X is the latest anthology in Comma Press’s ‘science-into-fiction’ series, which sees authors paired with scientists to produce a story inspired by a particular idea, with the scientist contributing an afterword that elaborates on the scientific background. (I reviewed a related title, Sara Maitland’s collection Moss Witch, a few years ago.)

The theme for this new anthology is thought experiments. The editors point out in their introduction that there have been contrasting opinions over what exactly constitutes a thought experiment. I am much more of a fiction reader than a scientist (which was certainly brought home to me while reading the book!), so I apologise for any misunderstanding or oversimplification in the review that follows. Essentially, as I understand it, a thought experiment is a scientific ‘what if’ scenario used to highlight a particular question, or a limitation in a theorem. But I can’t resist quoting Terry Pratchett’s definition of a thought experiment, from The Unadulterated Cat: “one which you can’t do, and won’t work”.


I found that, with many of the fourteen stories in Thought X, I hadn’t known about the particular thought experiments beforehand. Now, with the benefit of the afterwords, it’s interesting to see the many different ways in which the writers drew on their thought experiments. In the spirit of placing an artificial structure on something to help describe and explain it, I’m going to organise this review according to how far the different stories refer to their thought experiment directly.


So, first of all, there are stories that don’t mention their thought experiments at all. In ‘The Child in the Lock’ by Robin Ince, Neil has been invited to dinner by his work colleague Tom, and is keen to make the right kind of impression – he’s even bought some new shoes, a pair that Tom. Neil is very early for his train, and goes for a walk to pass the time. He hears some splashing in a nearby lock, and sees the figure of a child. Should he go to the rescue?


The ‘Drowning Child’ scenario (as Prof Glen Newey’s afterword tells me) was put forward by the philosopher Peter Singer as an example of situation where taking the action which most would consider morally right (rescuing the child) would come at a certain cost to the only person nearby (getting wet, and so on). Ince has Neil reluctant to intervene (and ruin his nice new shoes?), then able to rationalise that choice to himself (maybe the kid is diving for coins, or something). The use of short paragraphs in quick succession emphasises the rhetorical dance of Neil’s thought process. The end of the story is suitably chilling.


Hannah, protagonist of Annie Clarkson’s ‘The Rooms’, needs a job. Her brother Alex gets her one at his company, training an artificial intelligence to interact in convincingly human ways. Hannah spends her working day in an enclosed room, across a desk from Myla, a robot in the form of a beautiful woman (there are no requests for male bots in this line of work, Alex tells her). She asks Myla questions on a range of prescribed topics, guiding the bot towards sufficiently ‘woman-like’ responses.


The thought experiment in this case is known as the ‘Chinese Room’, and essentially asks whether a computer carrying out various processes could be capable of understanding what exactly it is doing. Clarkson’s piece likewise asks whether a bot like Myla, simulating the appearance of humanity, could be capable of that. ‘The Rooms’ works well enough on this level alone, but here is where Prof Seth Bullock’s afterword really shines, because it explores the many different ways in which the story reflects its thought experiment: Myla may not understand what she is doing during her sessions with Hannah, but neither does Hannah, really – she just talks, with no sense of how it is affecting Myla. Could it be said that work undertaken in the Rooms is ultimately only of meaning to the client? And so on. I left Bullock’s afterword with a deeper appreciation of Clarkson’s story.


Some stories in Thought X have a discussion of their thought experiment woven in. A powerful example is ‘The Tiniest Atom’ by Sarah Schofield, in which Frank goes to visit the family of his fallen comrade Ted. Frank doesn’t give his name to Ted’s widow Nancy, even saying to her mother: “They call me Ted.” He helps around the garden, and generally makes himself part of the household.


In flashbacks to the trenches, Frank tells Ted about Laplace’s demon: a theory suggesting that the movement of everything in the universe, down to the smallest atom, follows a predetermined path; and that an intellect vast enough to process all that information could then predict the future. Frank had been working on a machine to do just this, and Ted has come to continue the task. Schofield uses the idea of the clockwork universe as a metaphor to explore the emotional displacement caused by the First World War: Frank’s death has created a vacuum; Ted, the outsider with the widest view of this particular ‘universe’, is ideally placed to fill it.


In ‘Red’ by Annie Kirby, Alice wakes one morning to find that her world is black and white – she can no longer perceive colours. A doctor compares her situation to the ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment devised by Prof Frank Jackson (who also provides the afterword). Mary lives in an entirely black-and-white room, but through excellent educational resources and intelligence, she has learned everything known to physical science about the world (including the human mind). The question posed by this scenario is: if Mary leaves the room and perceives colour for the first time, does she now gain new knowledge (given that she has studied the science of colour perception)?


Alice concludes that she is actually the opposite of Mary – she had colour perception and then lost it, for a start – but the story of Mary haunts her nonetheless. She dreams repeatedly of Mary, and certain features recur – the colour red, or Mary’s opening question: “What did you bring me?”. As Kirby’s tale unfolds, the theme of hidden (or lost) knowledge becomes key. We see Alice’s relationship with her partner Laurel unravel as Alice loses sight of what brought and held them together. We also see, chillingly, what lies buried in the imagery of those dreams.


Finally, there are stories that place the thought experiment itself at their centre. In ‘Keep It Dark’ by Adam Roberts, scientist Kay and blind theologian Broome travel out to a seemingly abandoned radio telescope, to meet their old colleague Lorenzini, who claims to have solved Olbers’ paradox: that is, in an infinite universe with an infinite number of stars, why doesn’t the night sky blaze with light?


The solution, according to Kay (and confirmed by Prof Sarah Bridle in her afterword) is simply that the universe is not infinite; but Lorenzini is convinced of another answer. He believes that all the light has been swallowed by dark matter, and he will not brook any disagreement. As the story progresses, tensions rise; but Roberts narrates this through Broome’s viewpoint, so one doesn’t ‘see’ exactly what is going on. The reader is left to interpret the meaning of what can be sensed in a world composed mainly of darkness.


Ian Watson’s ‘Monkey Business’ is all about the proposal that an infinite number of monkeys bashing away at typewriter keyboards would eventually produce the text of a Shakespeare play. Watson imagines a simulated world where that experiment plays out. 37 robot monkeys type away in the Templum of the city of Scribe. There are people to check their output for signs of Shakespeare; and whole industries to provide paper, ink, and other resources.


The story follows two characters journeying to Scribe, in order to see the monkeys. Along the way, we discover just how many variables there are in this scenario. Can any of Shakespeare’s plays be typed for the experiment to succeed, or does it have to be a particular one? Does it matter whether or not the capitalisation is correct? What if different monkeys typed out fragments that could be assembled into a complete play? And so on. It’s all told in an enjoyably theatrical style, and illustrates what a pleasure it is to think around with these thought experiments.


Publisher’s competition


Comma Press are currently holding a competition to give away a full set of their ‘science-into-fiction’ anthologies. The full details are here, but essentially you have to tag Comma on Twitter or Instagram with a photo of your copy of Thought X, along with the hashtag #ShareYourThought. The winner will be announced on 21 May.


Book details


Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals (2017) ed. Rob Appleby and Ra Page, Comma Press, 260 pages, paperback (review copy).

One of the Boys – Daniel Magariel 

A twelve-year-old boy (our narrator) stands by as his father and older brother look over some developing Polaroids. “You look too good,” the father says to him. “You were in much worse shape when I picked you up, weren’t you?” Jokingly, the brother suggests that he try slapping the boy. In all seriousness, the father thinks this is a good idea. The boy is hesitant. “I thought you wanted to come with us,” says the father. “I thought you were one of the boys.

The immediate background to this is that the boy’s mother hit him during the course of a fight. The father sees this as his chance to win ‘the war’ (as he terms the divorce and custody proceedings) – if only he can get some good photos to show Child Protective Services. I

In the end, the boy resolves the matter by slapping himself, again and again. “Take it now,” he instructs his father. “This angle,” showing his ‘best’ side to the camera. Perhaps he is one of the boys, after all.

***


It makes a difference that Daniel Magariel’s debut is a short book. Not because its depiction of violence and cruelty is so unflinching, but because of what the length does to the shape of the story.


As I was reading One of the Boys, I found myself imagining a more conventional, 400-page version of the novel, one that I would probably have abandoned. This longer novel would certainly have filled in details like the main characters’ names. But it would also have had more connective tissue: it might well have placed the relationship between father and sons in the context of a broader family history, or shown the boys growing up in a community, to contrast with the darkness waiting at home.


In actuality, it’s as though One of the Boys is narrated in extreme close-up, such that we don’t see all of the detail at the edges. For example, we see enough to understand why the brothers feel animosity towards their mother, but we don’t have a rounded view of that relationship (neither do they, of course). The outside world appears, but only intermittently. The family unit (of father and sons) is always at front and centre.


***


With victory in ‘the war’ in sight, the father moves his sons from Kansas to New Mexico to start a new life. They’re all going to be kids again, the three of them; and the father, a financial advisor, still has his big account in Kansas that will keep them afloat.


But things don’t always go to plan. A trip to a biker bar falls flat because the bartender refuses to serve children, and won’t be fazed by the father’s bravado. The narrator gets into a fight at school, resulting in the principal’s second call home. The brothers persuade themselves that their father will see the fight as a positive thing – a milestone on the road to manhood. Instead, the boy is viciously beaten, his father hissing: “How am I supposed to control you?”


Privacy is the father’s number one rule, and it’s not long before our narrator discovers why his father doesn’t want him snooping around in his bedroom. Later, the father confesses his drug use to the boys. “The sixties were a crazy time,” he says. “We are all entitled to one bad habit, aren’t we?” – as though cracking knuckles (his example) could in any way compare to the destructive behaviour that we observe.


This is how the father works: violence and hostility towards anything that might threaten his control over the family unit; then the picture of reasonableness when a shade might be cast on his character. And perhaps his most powerful card: the appeal to family. “Family is all we have,” he tells his sons – and this, ultimately, is what keeps the three of them under the same roof.


***


After one incident too many, however, the older brother decides it’s time to get out; and there’s only one way he can think to do that – to call his mother. An intense, vivid sequence follows (one of many that Magariel does so well), confirming that the boys’ father really is just a little kid – pitiable as well as contemptible. As the narrator puts it:


Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down. He was going to kill himself out here. And it wasn’t that I didn’t care anymore. He was my father. It was just that we had spent far too long as his audience, right here on this couch.


The performance metaphor is apt, because the father is desperate to be seen to be in charge, through persuasion, threat, or violence – whatever works. If the boys to be able to leave, they may need to write a new script – even if that means stepping outside the family. And at this point, there are still more hidden corners for the reader to turn, up to a pitch-perfect ending.


Elsewhere 


You can read other blog reviews of One of the Boys over at Elle Thinks and Lonesome Reader; there’s also Rabeea Saleem’s piece at Wales Arts Review


Book details


One of the Boys (2017) by Daniel Magariel, Granta Books, 168 pages, hardback (review copy).

Gone: a Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Min Kym was a child prodigy on the violin. At the age of 21, she found her perfect instrument, a Stradivarius. Ten years later, the violin was stolen on a train station concourse. Gone is Kym’s memoir of those times. 

I’m not really a classical music person: Gone was one of those books that I was offered unexpectedly by the publisher, and I accepted just because I thought it might be interesting. In the end, I found it absolutely fascinating to read this account of what it’s like to be so gifted at something that it doesn’t feel like a talent, because it just comes so naturally. 

Kym talks about having a nigh-on bodily connection to her instrument, the violin feeling as though it’s part of her. Consequently, when her Stradivarius is stolen, the person she was is also lost. Gone is concerned with some raw, deeply felt emotions; and there’s a powerful sense of that in the reading. 

Book details


Gone (2017) by Min Kym, Viking, 256 pages, hardback (proof copy, provided for review). 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow panel’s shortlist

The official shortlist was announced a couple of weeks ago; we of the shadow panel have totted up our scores and are ready to announce the shadow MBIP shortlist for 2017:

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell). 
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw).
  • Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire. 
  • Judas by Amos Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Longe). 
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell).
  • Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton). 

Four titles overlapping with the official shortlist, but quite a different list in character even so, I’d say.

We will be choosing one of these six books as our shadow winner, which we’ll announce shortly before the official winner is revealed on 14 June. For the last two years, the shadow and official panels have chosen the same winner. Will that happen again this year? Only time will tell… 

A Review of Nightjars, part 1

Nightjar Press, run by the writer and editor Nicholas Royle, publishes individual short stories as limited-edition chapbooks. It has been some time since I last covered any on the blog, but I’ve always enjoyed the Nightjar stories that I’ve read.


Last year, Nick sent me a batch of Nightjar titles, which I’ll be reviewing here in three batches of three. I regret that it has taken me so long to get around to these; not all of the books reviewed are still in print. (I mention all this in a spirit of openness and completeness.)


I’m reviewing the books in the order I read them, which was more-or-less random. 

Neil Campbell, ‘Jackdaws’ (2016)


This story begins with a wooden cross attached to a rock; stapled to the cross is a sheet of paper “with black type on it and a photograph of the girl.” Most of the rest consists of the narrator walking around the High Peak in all weathers. There are few people; jackdaws are the main constant.


It’s all in the detail. Our narrator’s account is full of specific geographical details, which mean little in practice (especially if you don’t know the area), but gain their own intensity from repetition and the sense that these locations mean a lot to the individual addressing us.


Then comes the ending, where Campbell fills in some context, and suddenly these places that we’ve been encouraged to imagine take on a new cast, as we realise the implications. It’s quite a moment to experience. 



Elizabeth Stott, ‘Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers’ (2013)


From the countryside, we go to the town. Maureen arrives at her boyfriend Tony’s flat for their regular Saturday night together. Though he has been rather a philanderer in the past, Maureen is convinced that she has put an end to that. But tonight she finds Tony in the ‘company’ of a remarkably lifelike female mannequin. He can’t remember where it came from – a souvenir from yesterday’s night out with the lads? – but there’s something uncanny about it.

This story moves deftly through several different moods: from ordinary to odd, to downright creepy as we start to appreciate just what the mannequin might be. Again (though in a rather different way), it’s a case of mundane details at the beginning coming back again towards the end, but seen by the reader in a new light – and the story ends on a perfectly sinister note. 


John D. Rutter, ‘Last Christmas’ (2015)


Four generations of a family gather together for Christmas. But the members of this family shrink in height as they grow older, so that baby Charlotte is ten feet high, while her great-grandparents are merely a few inches. Rutter gets plenty of comic mileage out of this premise, in scenes such as the family’s struggle to get the baby through the door of her grandparents’ house.


But it’s not all about comedy. As with Stott’s story, there’s a metaphor running through ‘Last Christmas’, one that poses urgent questions. This piece is particularly concerned with how we treat older people in society, with the result that its central images are as troubling as they are charming.


Book details


‘Jackdaws’ (2016) by Neil Campbell, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers’ (2013) by Elizabeth Stott, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘Last Christmas’ (2015) by John D. Rutter, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore: a snapshot review

This review was first published as a thread on Twitter; I’m going to repost some of these on the blog, sporadically. I’m calling it a ‘snapshot review’ because it was written as a snapshot of what I thought about the book at the time. 

Bonnie is a would-be writer, struggling to make ends meet in her new flat. Sylvia, her landlady, inveigles her way into Bonnie’s life, suggesting that they go on holiday to the seaside. But Sylvia knew Bonnie a long time ago, and her motives now are mysterious.

This is a tightly wound novel: there are strands on Bonnie, the story she’s writing, and Sylvia; placed so closely together that there’s little room to breathe. Events, feelings, and a general atmosphere of dread seem to seep between chapters, as Moore arranges her material to emphasise similarity and repetition.

So much remains non-specific that it’s impossible to pin down the novel completely. The feeling of dread grows, because it can’t be identified or understood.

Book details

Death and the Seaside (2016) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 192 pages, paperback (review copy).

Mother of Darkness by Venetia Welby

Following a run of Man Booker International Prize posts, I now have some recent English-language books lined up to look at on the blog. First up is the debut novel by Venetia Welby, which is published by Quartet Books

Matty Corani’s life is in pieces. His girlfriend Tera died in a car crash that also left his brother Ben in a coma. Matty spends his days in and around his Soho bedsit, drifting through various casual encounters, waiting for the next chemical helping hand from his appropriately-named friend Fix. He’s having bad dreams and seeing a psychotherapist, for what good it’s doing. 

Mother of Darkness is one intense piece of fiction, as Matty’s dreams evolve into the belief that he is the chosen vessel of a new god, Feracor. There are several strands of writing in the novel, including the psychotherapist’s reports; the life writing that she has suggested Matty attempt; and the ‘speeches’ of Feracor. Piece them all together, and the truth emerges eventually. The narrative pull of Welby’s novel in getting to that point is quite something.

Book details

Mother of Darkness (2017) by Venetia Welby. Quartet Books, 285 pages, hardback (review copy). 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shortlist

I’m a few days late reporting this, but the official shortlist of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize was announced:

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell). 
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen). 
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw). 
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra). 
  • Judas by Amos Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Longe).
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell). 

I’ve reviewed five of those; the links above will take you to the relevant posts.

I think this is an interesting shortlist, but most importantly from my point of view, it includes three of my favourites (Compass, The Unseen, and Fever Dream). I’d love to see one of those take the Prize. 

Normally, we on the shadow panel would have announced our shadow shortlist by now. However, for various reasons (not least that we’d read fewer of the books in advance of the longlist than was usual), we have decided to put our announcement forward to 4 May. How will it compare to the official shortlist? I can’t wait to find out…

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