AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

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.

#YoungWriterAward shortlist 2019

Over on Instagram, I’ve been reviewing the shortlist for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, which is given to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a writer aged 35 or under. The winner will be announced on Thursday, so now is a good time to put my shortlist reviews on the blog.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

I’m still finding my way when it comes to reading (and writing about) poetry, but this is a collection I really enjoyed. Language and communication are two of the key themes. In ‘Jamaican British’, Antrobus considers both sides of his heritage, and how comfortably (or not) the two words sit together. ‘Echo’ is a sequence of short poems revolving the beginnings of Antrobus’ relationship with sound as a d/Deaf person: “What language / would we speak / without ears?”

Another theme running through the collection is Antrobus’ relationship with his late father. The poem ‘The Perseverance’ depicts the young Raymond standing outside the pub, waiting for his father who has just “popped in for a minute”. On the one hand, there’s a sense here of the poet’s father neglecting his family; on the other, when this situation has become a memory for Raymond, the loss of his father’s laughter is keenly felt.

Elsewhere, Antrobus describes how his father’s dementia “simplified a complicated man, / swallowed his past”. But the collection ends on (what feels to me) a hopeful note, with “Happy Birthday Moon”, in which the child Raymond’s father reads him a bedtime story. The second line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next, which gives a constant sense of rising up, reaching towards.

Published by Penned in the Margins.

salt slow by Julia Armfield

The opening story of this collection sets the tone. ‘Mantis’ is narrated by a teenage girl with a mysterious skin condition that makes her “dream in sheddings” and means that she’s constantly bandaged up. It’s just her genes, the girl’s mother insists, but she still has an uneasy relationship with her body and the thought of intimacy. Then events take a decidedly macabre turn… ⁣

Typically, the stories in Armfield’s collection revolve around a single strange or fantastical idea that gains power from being treated as ordinary. In ‘Formerly Feral’, the narrator’s father falls in love with a woman who has adopted a wolf. The protagonist and wolf are viewed as sisters, leading to some shifts in identity. ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’ features a band who incite the most extraordinary level of emotion in their listeners – and we only see this from the outside, which makes it even more disturbing. ‘The Great Awake’ sees people losing their ability to fall asleep, which takes physical form as a shadowy figure haunting each individual, reconfiguring society’s relationship with sleep. salt slow is a collection that lingers on beyond the final page.

Published by Picador Books.

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

⁣We don’t so much read about the life of this novel’s protagonist as piece it together. She has a Brazilian mother and an English father; the book explores her life within and between these two cultures, and what it means to belong. The questions come: where are you from? How do you pronounce your name again? Why don’t you have an accent? There are moments of happiness and joy, but also trauma that makes the protagonist feel a stranger in her own body. ⁣

The structure of Stubborn Archivist is fragmentary, and the style veers between prose and poetry: language that bends and stretches to accommodate what this person needs to say. The nearest match I can think of is Anakana Schofield’s Martin John – very different in subject matter, but both novels organised to create meaning for the protagonist more than the reader. She’s not there to tell us her life story; we are allowed in – and the honour is ours.

Published by Fleet.

Testament by Kim Sherwood

When celebrated artist Joseph Silk dies, his granddaughter Eva finds a letter among his effects that brings back a past he had tried to shake off. Silk was born Jószef Zyyad, who left Hungary as a refugee in 1945. Unlike his brother László, Jószef was determined to leave that part of his life behind, and Eva knows nothing of his experiences during the Holocaust. The letter she finds is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, asking Silk’s permission to use in an exhibition his account of the time, which has been found in the museum’s collection. ⁣

There are then three strands to Sherwood’s novel: Eva’s present-day uncovering of the past, and the contrasting historical stories of Jószef and László. There are some powerful moments as the truth is gradually revealed, and Sherwood explores what it means to bear witness.

Published by riverrun.

Thanks to FMcM Associates for providing review copies of the shortlist.

100+ Books That Shaped My World

You may have seen the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World“, compiled by a panel of writers and commentators. Well, the other week, Nina Allan was inspired to make her own list of books that had shaped her world. I was really taken by the idea, so I’ve been compiling a list myself.

My 100 entries include novels, story collections and series, English-language works and books in translation –they’re all key parts of my reading history. The only restriction I’ve given myself is one entry per author.

Like Nina’s, my list is arranged in rough order of first reading, from my early childhood to this year. It’s the first time I have attempted to put my entire reading life in one place. I can see the evolution of myself as a reader – the continuities as well as the changes.

The resulting list isn’t really meant to be representative or comprehensive. But each of these books and series played its own part, small or large, in making me the reader I am today.

100 NOVELS, COLLECTIONS AND SERIES THAT SHAPED MY WORLD

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
The Hodgeheg by Dick King-Smith
Flames in the Forest by Ruskin Bond
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo
The Conker as Hard as a Diamond by Chris Powling
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler by Gene Kemp
The Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (et al)
The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The Legends of Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and John Grant
The Virtual Reality Adventure series by Dave Morris and Mark Smith
A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines
The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
253 by Geoff Ryman
Quicker Than the Eye by Ray Bradbury
Escardy Gap by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove
The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived by Robert Rankin
Ye Gods! by Tom Holt
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Royal Changeling by John Whitbourn
The Saga of the Exiles series by Julian May
The Great Game trilogy by Dave Duncan
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The Orokon series by Tom Arden (David Rain)
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Gold by Dan Rhodes
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha
The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
Solo by Rana Dasgupta
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
The Rapture by Liz Jensen
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla
Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Loving by Henry Green
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Longshot by Katie Kitamura
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
Nod by Adrian Barnes
70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado
Communion Town by Sam Thompson
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Zone by Mathias Enard
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Wandering Pine by Per Olov Enquist
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila
The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash
T Singer by Dag Solstad
Berg by Ann Quin
Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane

Goldsmiths Prize 2019, part 1: Haddon, Levy, Main

Here are my thoughts on half of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus)

Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a plane crash. She is raised by her wealthy father Philippe, who over the years grows protective and possessive of her – dangerously so. When Darius, a friend’s son, gets too close to the truth, Philippe tries to kill him. Darius escapes on The Porpoise, a schooner that a friend is looking after – and a couple of days later, he wakes as Pericles in ancient Greece.

Angelica tells herself the story of Pericles as a form of protection – and reshapes reality in doing so. Characters’ identities shift and the novel’s focus changes as Angelica reaches for the story she needs to help her get through what’s happening. Haddon’s writing is propulsive and engaging… a fine start to the shortlist.

[Link to publisher]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

In 1988, historian Saul Adler is knocked down by a car while his girlfriend Jennifer is photographing him on the Abbey Road crossing. Jennifer ends the relationship when Saul asks her to marry him, and he seeks solace in a research trip to East Germany. While there, Saul finds himself falling for his translator, Walter, but it’s a relationship that will remain beyond reach.

There are certain details in this scenario that don’t sit right, not least that Saul appears to have advance knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Any doubts about what Saul has been telling us will only increase in the novel’s second half. It’s 2016, and Saul has apparently been knocked down on Abbey Road again, but this time it has put him in hospital. His mind keeps drifting back to 1988, blurring past and present…

The Man Who Saw Everything becomes a hall of mirrors, as it won’t quite resolve into a single interpretation of ‘what actually happened’. There’s also an interesting sense that Levy is looking back from a precarious present to a time when great change was on the way. The feeling of uncertainty extends from Saul’s individual life to the broader sweep of history within the novel. It’s quite electrifying to read.

[Link to publisher]

Good Day? by Vesna Main (Salt Publishing)

Well, this is a lot of fun. It consists mostly of dialogue between a husband and wife, Reader and Writer. She’s writing a novel about Anna and Richard, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is under strain from Richard’s infidelity. Each day, the ‘real’ couple discuss the Writer’s novel and her characters, often with differing views: for example, the Reader is more sympathetic to Richard, the Writer more defensive of Anna.

The Reader is concerned that people will think that the Writer’s novel is based on their own lives. The Writer insists it’s not, though that doesn’t stop her incorporating the odd detail. The sense grows that a conversation about the Writer’s and Reader’s relationship is going on by proxy (and sometimes more directly than that) as they talk about her novel.

Good Day? turns the structure of a typical novel inside out, and the experience of reading it is also transformed. The tale of Anna and Richard is disconcertingly fluid, because it hasn’t yet been settled – and the tale of the Writer and Reader is just out of our reach. There are also some nice touches that made me smile: it’s common enough for an author to incorporate one of their previously published short stories into a novel, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this… and I shall say no more about that!

[Link to publisher]

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