AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

Mountain Leopard Press: The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

Mountain Leopard Press is a new imprint of Welbeck Publishing Group, founded by Christopher MacLehose. Over the years, I’ve come to associate his name with quality, so I was keen to see what Mountain Leopard would publish. 

The Earthspinner is one of their first titles, the latest novel (and the first I’ve read) by Anuradha Roy. In 1970s India, Elango is a potter who has fallen in love with Zohra. After dreaming of a horse from myth, he resolves to spin it in clay for her. The problem is that Elango is a Hindu and Zohra a Muslim, so their love is forbidden. 

Our other protagonist is Sarayu. Elango taught her pottery when she was younger, and she rediscovers her love for it at university in England. The Earthspinner is an elegant tale of how pottery helps open the world up to Sarayu, even as we see Elango’s world grow more precarious. 

Mountain Leopard’s other launch title is Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal by Charif Majdalani (tr. Ruth Dover), a stark account of events in the Lebanese capital last year. 

World Editions: New Year by Juli Zeh (tr. Alta L. Price)

Life has scuppered several plans I had this month, including taking part in German Literature Month. Still, I’ve managed to read this, the latest novel by Juli Zeh. I have read Zeh once before, when I reviewed Decompression for Shiny New Books. Like that novel, New Year is set in Lanzarote – and it’s an interesting character portrait. 

Henning has taken his young family to Lanzarote for a surprise Christmas break. He might have been hoping to get away from life’s problems, but the trip soon creates issues of its own, such as another man flirting with Henning’s wife Theresa. 

On New Year’s Day, Henning resolves to make a new start, and cycles up into the mountains. The first part of the novel alternates between Henning’s bike ride and his reflections on the current holiday and his life. There’s a real sense here of the environment and Henning’s state of mind. 

We learn that Henning has panic attacks, caused by something buried in the past. When he reaches the summit of his ride, something about the place doesn’t feel quite right. A memory stirs – and, for the rest of the book, we see what happened in Henning’s childhood. In effect, New Year is structured like Henning’s bike ride: the journey to the top that maps out Henning’s present and recent past; and the exhilarating ride down again, as we discover just why Henning is the way he is. 

Published by World Editions

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle): Shiny New Books review

It’s been a while since I had a review elsewhere, but there’s a new one up now at Shiny New Books. This time it’s a book from Charco Press: Elena Knows by the Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro (translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle. Elena is an old woman with Parkinson’s, whose daughter Rita has been found hanging in the church belfry. Elena is convinced that this must be murder, and she’s travelling across the city to see someone who may be able to help her learn more.

Of all the Charco books I’ve read, I think this may be my favourite. It explores themes of identity and motherhood, and the limits of what we can know about other people – and it conveys vividly how Elena’s life is structured around her condition.

Click here to read my review of Elena Knows in full.

Inkandescent: Address Book by Neil Bartlett

My post today is part of a blog tour for Address Book, the latest title by Neil Bartlett, published by Inkandescent. Address Book is a cycle of seven stories, each inspired by an address at which the author has lived. 

My favourite stories are at the beginning and end. In the first piece, ’14 Yeomans Mews’, hospital doctor Andrew takes us back to when he was fifteen in 1974, and met an older man, John, at a railway station. Andrew was powerfully attracted to him, as he had been to others – but there was something different this time: “None of the other men I’ve ever met has made me admit that the boy doing the staring and the boy with my name are the same person.”

John invites Andrew to visit his home, which changes everything. Bartlett brilliantly evokes the combination of desire, joy and trepidation that Andrew feels. It becomes clear that this is not just a question of love or sexual attraction: John also represents an aspirational lifestyle – a secure life – that’s beyond anything the young Andrew knows. This is a story of powerful emotions, not least the poignant ending. 

At the other end of the book is ’40 Marine Parade’. After almost thirty years together, Roger and Todd left London to settle down by the sea. But life took a tragic turn just seven years later, as Bartlett (in Roger’s voice) conveys in stark terms: “one cold Wednesday afternoon in March, Todd just wasn’t there any more. He wasn’t on the stairs; he wasn’t in the kitchen, and he wasn’t in the bed.”

The story depicts Roger working through his grief dynamically, represented by him exploring a run-down old house. Eventually he meets someone new, which makes this piece something of a mirror to the first one, looking hopefully to the future, as Andrew looked back on the past. 

The seven stories of Address Book range through time and perspective. For example, ‘203 Camden Road’ is set in the 1960s, where a pregnant woman gets to know her gay neighbour. ’72 Seaton Point’ is narrated by a gay man who attends his friends’ civil partnership ceremony, and reflects on how times have changed. I really enjoyed Address Book, and I’ll be looking out for more of Neil Bartlett’s work in the future. 

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Sometimes you have to start reading a novel before you realise what makes it unconventional. Then there are books like little scratch that just look unconventional on the page. To see what I mean, look at the sample page in this review at the Glasgow Guardian.

The words scattered across the pages of little scratch are the thoughts of a young woman who works as an assistant at a news organisation. The novel takes place over one day: the narrator gets up, goes to work, spends the evening with her partner (“my him”) at a poetry reading. Ordinary enough, perhaps – but the telling makes all the difference. 

Rebecca Watson’s writing places the reader right into the ebb and flow of her protagonist’s thoughts. A conventional paragraph may give way to two columns of prose (external dialogue on one side, internal thoughts on the other), to a swarm of words, to any number of patterns… This woman’s mind is restless, and we feel that. 

Among all the protagonist’s thoughts, it’s clear that she dwells on something in particular – the itch that she longs to scratch. There are glimpses of this in the way she’s wary around men: for example, in one scene the woman is walking to the train station, and the prose becomes a grid of the word ‘walking’, apart from a few words that reflect what she sees from the corner of her eyes. A man is driving up: “is he going to say something?” There is a real sense of dread here. 

The woman’s inner turmoil grows throughout the day. She wants to be able to say out loud what happened to her, but she can only say it internally. Watson keeps the tension up to the very end. little scratch is her debut novel, and it leaves me intrigued to see where she goes next. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Broken Sleep Books: Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard

The book I’m looking at today is a collection of three stories by Rosanna Hildyard, which was longlisted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize. It’s published by Broken Sleep Books, who specialise in pamphlets; Slaughter is one of their first fiction titles. 

Hildyard’s stories are all set among the farms of the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire. Each revolves around a different couple, all facing conflict in their relationship with one another and the natural world. 

The narrator of ‘Offcomers’ met her husband, an older farmer, by chance. She might have loved him at first sight, but now he’s abusive. He grumbles about tourists, by which he means farmers down in the valley. She, on the other hand, appreciates that all humans, including her husband, are outsiders to this landscape. The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 brings change, and perhaps a chance of escape.

The farming couple in ‘Outside Are the Dogs’ are of a similar age, but they’re still mismatched. She’s a local girl who has lived around the world and has an air of sophistication that intimidates him, “a man of hands, not words”. As time goes on, cracks appear in their relationship. They buy a puppy, hoping that it might bring them closer together, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. 

In ‘Cull Yaw’, Star has known her partner since school – but she’s vegetarian, and he raises livestock for meat. There are problems on the farm, while Star struggles to relate to her ailing mother. 

Throughout the book, Hildyard’s prose evokes the stark realities of farm life. There’s always a tension between the different strands of her stories, and I really appreciate the way she brings them together. I like it when a story collection feels like a cohesive whole, and Slaughter is a fine example of that. 

Blog tour: Just Thieves by Gregory Galloway

My post today is part of a blog tour for Just Thieves, the first novel for an adult audience written by Gregory Galloway. Galloway is an American author who’s previously written a couple of YA titles. Just Thieves was published earlier this month by Melville House. 

Our narrator is Rick, a thief who works for the mysterious Froehmer, stealing things to order. Those things may not always seem worthwhile, but it’s the job. Rick is firmly enmeshed in Froehmer’s organisation: he can’t see the edges of it, let alone perceive a way out. 

Rick’s professional partner is Frank, who’s prone to philosophising and knows his way around technology. Between them, Rick and Frank are skilled and careful enough not to get caught. But Frank has his superstitions, and he’s sure something will go wrong with the pair’s current job. Sure enough, he is proved right… 

Rick narrates his story in a suitably laconic noir tone. The novel gradually unpicks how he got to where he is and what’s happening to him now. Just Thieves is ultimately about Rick trying to find his place in the world when the life he had is suddenly overturned. Combine that with the engaging thriller aspect, and you have a book well worth reading. 

Click here to read Chapter 1 of Just Thieves {PDF]

Europe Readr

Today’s post is about a new international literature project that has been brought to my attention. Europe Readr was launched in July by the Slovenian Presidency of the EU Council. The website is a virtual library with 27 free books (one for each EU Member State) available in the original language and English translation.

The selection is themed “The Future of Living”, and aims to offer a range of perspectives on contemporary issues of sustainability and inclusion. The 27 titles, which are available to read until 31 December, are:

Besides the website, Europe Readr is setting up public reading spaces (“reading pavilions”) in cities around the world. Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network is also interviewing the 27 authors in an ongoing series of podcasts.

All in all, Europe Readr looks an exciting project, and I’d like to thank them for getting in touch.

Peirene Press: Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

This latest title from Peirene Press takes us to Paris in 1918, where we meet Jeanne, who makes paper flowers for a living. Her husband Toussaint has been recovering from facial injuries sustained in the war. He told her not to visit him in hospital, and she has feared the thought of what’s happened to him. 

Now, Toussaint has returned home, face covered, unable to speak. Not only is he a stranger to Jeanne, she struggles to see him as a person at first:

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo [their daughter] too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared so little since they left Belleville

Jeanne could be talking about Toussaint’s disfigurement in the abstract here, as much as Toussaint the person. Winter Flowers reminds me of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, in that both are First World War novels which strongly evoke sensation and feeling. Hunter’s translation is so vivid, as Villeneuve’s novel explores not just Jeanne and Toussaint working out how to relate again, but also the different traumas of the community around them. This is the first of Villeneuve’s novels to appear in English translation; I hope there will be more. 

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: Assembly by Natasha Brown

The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s debut novel is an unnamed Black British woman who works in the banking industry. She’s been invited to assembly at a local school to talk about her job. However, she’s ambivalent about this: the finance sector gave her opportunities for social mobility that her parents and grandparents didn’t have – but shouldn’t things be different for these schoolchildren? 

…it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent. 

Then again, she wouldn’t have been invited to the school in the first place were it not for her career:

Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth . Perhaps that’s a poor justification for my own complicity. My part in convincing children that they, too, must endure. Silence, surely, was the least harmful choice.

This kind of reflection animates Assembly, as the protagonist considers whether she really wants to do what it takes to get ahead, in a system and society that continue to oppress her. 

But I’m getting ahead of the novel here. Assembly begins with snippets of her colleagues’ behaviour that the protagonist feels she must excuse so she can keep going. Then there’s one side of a conversation with an EU national who tries to make a well-meant comparison about the two of them being made to feel unwelcome in the UK, but still ends up talking about where the protagonist is “really” from. My sense is that this is where the book starts because these are the building-blocks of what the protagonist experiences. 

As a novel, Assembly is pared back so there’s no chance for readers to get comfortable. It changes style and form as it goes, to fit whatever the protagonist wants to say. For example, later on, she describes instances of racism as a series of figures; and the prose turns more essayistic as she discusses the persistence of colonialism. 

Brown’s novel is then an assembly of different pieces, just as the protagonist assembles the self she presents to the world. As the book goes along, she finds a way to take more control over her story, which is reflected in how the prose changes. The reader is kept close to her, and the novel builds to a powerful crescendo. 

Published by Hamish Hamilton.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

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