AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (2018)
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

Sometimes you read a second book by an author and you think you have an idea of what’s coming. In Earthlings, we meet Natsuki, who as a child believes that she has magical powers, and that her plush toy Piyyut is a visitor from another world. Natsuki’s cousin Yuu says he is an alien himself, and that a spaceship is coming to take him home. Natsuki wishes she could go with him. But events conspire to tear the cousins apart, and Natsuki and Yuu make a pact that they will survive, whatever it takes. 

These are not just games: there are horrific events in Natsuki’s childhood (graphically written, so be warned), and a real sense that she acts this way as a means of protection or displacement from reality. So I thought that, like Convenience Store Woman, here was another study of a character with an unusual view of the world, another challenge laid down to the reader to meet such a character on their own terms. 

Well, Earthlings is all of that. But it’s also so much else. 

As an adult, Natsuki pretends to fit in. She views society as a ‘Factory’ for producing babies. She’s able to opt out of that, but still has a deep-seated conviction that she does not belong here. When Natsuki finally has cause to reunite with Yuu, it seems that he has put away what he now sees as childish fantasies – but these are clearly still realities for Natsuki. 

And then… Well, I’m not telling. Not since New Model Army have I read a book whose ending felt so audacious to imagine. I won’t forget the experience of reading Earthlings, not for a long time. 

Published by Granta Books.

Époque Press: The Nacullians

Craig Jordan-Baker’s debut novel, published by Époque Press, was the November selection for the Republic of Consciousness Prize Book of the Month – and it’s an absolute gem. The Nacullians is a family saga about a kind of family that’s not normally the subject of such a book: a working-class family in Southampton, whose founders emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s: “Patrice Nacullian concentrated on pregnancy, smoking, and crosswords, while Nandad spent his days laying bricks and being racially abused on building sites.”

The structure is non-chronological, with chapters ranging from Nandad’s son Bernard learning the unwritten codes of acceptance on the building site in 1988, to a hospital volunteer singing songs on a ward in 2011 where one of the Nacullians is a patient. This raggedness of structure mirrors a general sense that the Nacullian family don’t quite fit into this kind of story – so the story is reshaped to fit them.

I really appreciated Jordan-Baker’s prose style. It reminds me of Dan Rhodes’s writing, and has the same capacity to start out whimsical and end up serious and poignant. There’s a real feeling in this book that it will not be bound by any preconceived ideas of what a novel should sound like, and the result is exhilarating to read. It builds up to a scene of someone eating cheese and bread: something that sounds mundane, but in this novel has the whole weight of a family’s history behind it.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: a Shiny New Books review

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kevin Barry’s third story collection, That Old Country Music. I love Barry’s short fiction, and this book is no exception: tales rooted deeply in the west of Ireland, characters navigating contemporary life while older rhythms hum in the background, all told in Barry’s distinctive voice.

Read my review in full here.

Book published by Canongate.

Read my other posts on Kevin Barry’s work here.

Fantasy, Galley Beggar style: Mordew by Alex Pheby

It’s a year or so now since I heard that Alex Pheby’s third Galley Beggar Press novel was going to be fantasy. I was intrigued as to what sort of fantasy novel Galley Beggar might publish, but also wanted to have some idea of what Pheby’s other work was like. That’s what led me to read Lucia earlier this year. It was a powerful experience of vivid language… and so was Mordew.

Reading this book took me back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense of a fantasy novel that was vibrant and wide open, that could go anywhere it wanted. Mordew is built on archetypal foundations: Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums with a mysterious ‘Spark’, is sent on a mission by the powerful Master of the city of Mordew. There are echoes of many a classic fantasy city, but Pheby’s novel is something all of its own.

For a start, there’s the writing. Here, towards the beginning, is Nathan wading through a patch of Living Mud, which can spontaneously generate life-forms:

Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving through the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant nothing to anyone. They meant nothing. 

It’s easier for Nathan to tell himself these things are nothing than for him to act that way in reality. This passage made my skin crawl when I read it!

Mordew also lingers in my mind because of the extent to which Pheby pushes his novel’s imagination. I could list examples, but I find that I don’t want to, because a large part of this novel’s effect lies in the discovery. Suffice it to say that, if you like the sound of Mordew, I highly recommend it.

Pushkin Press: At Night All Blood Is Black

David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black (2018)
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2020)

This is a short and powerful novel of World War One by French-Senegalese writer David Diop. Our narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, came from Senegal and joined the French army with his friend (his “more-than-brother”) Mademba Diop. As the novel begins, Mademba is dead – Alfa found him mortally wounded, but couldn’t bring himself to do what his friend pleaded and finish him off. Now Alfa regrets that, and it has driven him to seek bloodthirsty revenge against the German forces.

The scenes set in Alfa’s childhood provide a contrast to the chaos and brutality of war, and it seems clear that the conflict is what has made him like this. Alfa’s commanding officers are happy to let him carry on at first, because his behaviour plays into their stereotypical views of African soldiers. But eventually he is sent to a field hospital for treatment, though even then the outcome is far from certain.

The language of Diop’s novel (a fine translation by Anna Moschovakis) is built around loops and repeated phrases that bring us closer to Alfa’s viewpoint, almost stiflingly so. This leads to some intense shifts of perception. We see with painful clarity what Alfa has done, and what has been done to him.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Peirene Press: The Pear Field

Nana Ekvtimishvili, The Pear Field (2015)
Translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (2020)

The third title in Peirene’s Closed Universe series (following Snow, Dog, Foot and Ankomst) takes us to Tbilisi, and the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – known more informally as the School for Idiots, which tells you in how much esteem its inhabitants are held. In practice, the school is an all-purpose dumping ground for children who aren’t wanted by their families.

This includes our protagonist, 18-year-old Lela. She’s lived at the school for years, has been through some dark times (to say the least), and is old enough to leave – but she doesn’t know where she would go. In some ways, Lela herself is as much a closed universe as the school environment. She is driven by strong emotions, but still we see her at a certain remove.

Lela’s main project in the novel is to help a young boy named Irakli. He’s pretty much been abandoned at the school by his mother (he calls his mother periodically, and she insists she is coming back for him, but we understand differently). When an American couple express an interest in adopting a child from the school, Lela is determined that it should be Irakli. But plenty of preparation is needed if there’s to be a chance of that happening.

The Pear Field shows how insidiously the children become institutionalised, as particular ways of thinking come to the fore. It’s a quiet book, with dark tones.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Bina by Anakana Schofield

I can’t help associating Anakana Schofield with the Goldsmiths Prize. I read her for the first time when her previous novel, Martin John, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths in 2016, and now here we are again with Bina.

Like Martin John, Bina was a minor character in Schofield’s first novel Malarky (you don’t need to have read Malarky to enjoy Bina – I hadn’t – but there are several references to the earlier book). In Malarky, 70-something Bina was arrested for taking a hammer to an aeroplane at a protest. Now she spends much of her time in bed, with medical waste in her garden, and assorted activists camping outside the house as the threat looms of being arrested again.

I described the novel Martin John as being organised to create meaning for its protagonist rather than the reader. Bina runs along similar lines: although its narrator wants to tell her story and be heard, she’ll do it in her own time and her own way. This involves scribbling on the back of receipts and whatever paper she can find, which explains why some sections break down into short single-sentence paragraphs on the page. Bina is a choppy novel to read, reflecting its main character’s restless mind.

Bina’s account revolves around three characters: her late friend Phil (Philomena), the protagonist of Malarky; her ex-lodger Eddie; and the mysterious Tall Man, who recruited Bina for something that I’m not going to reveal. These characters exist in the novel more as shadows than presences (at least, so I found). Their stories grow out of oblique snippets (such as Bina commenting that she found Eddie in a ditch), and only gradually does it become apparent what has been going on in Bina’s life, and how the dark the book will grow.

Bina is subtitled “A Novel in Warnings”; Bina herself is clear what she’s about:

I’m only telling you this to warn you. I’ve better ways to waste my time than mithering on here. I’m a busy woman. Of that be certain. People think old women have nothing to do but stand around. They’re very wrong and very ignorant and do take that last combination of wrong and ignorant as another warning. If people think you have time to stand about, let them know otherwise, by not standing about. Take off! Take off when they least expect it.

So, Bina has several types of warnings for her readers: warnings not to do certain things, to walk away from certain situations – but also not to make assumptions about people or overlook those left in the margins.

My abiding memory of Bina is of a deeply affecting book. I didn’t realise how much it had affected me until the end. Those stories unfolding obliquely within the novel got under my skin, and I hadn’t noticed. But I’ll remember that feeling, long after turning the final page.

Published by Fleet.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

The lover: a Chinese woman who moves to London to study for a PhD. At a picnic one day, she sees a man picking elderflowers. She meets him again at a book club, and they get talking. From such random moments, love blossoms.

The discourse: a chronicle of the woman’s new life and an examination of her love, inspired by Barthes’ book of the same name (which I haven’t read). It’s told in a series of short chapters, snapshots in time.

Each chapter of Xiaolu Guo’s latest novel begins with a brief passage of dialogue that appears in the text later on. For me, this affects the experience of reading in two key ways. First, it emphasises the fragmented structure: you recognise the dialogue when you read it again, and the chapter seems to revolve around it, to become a self-contained piece. Second, the dialogue starts to feel more like a performance.

We end up with a love story that’s ragged in form rather than smooth. This is appropriate, because the experience of moving to London is far from smooth for Guo’s protagonist. There are immediate issues such as unfamiliar terminology (the word ‘Brexit’ appears everywhere when our narrator moves over, but not in her dictionary) and loneliness (“What were we supposed to do at night in our rented rooms, if we didn’t drink or watch sports?”).

As time goes on, the stumbling-blocks evolve, becoming subtler and, in some ways, more profound. The narrator would like to put down roots, but her partner is much more at ease with a transient lifestyle – at one point, they move into a houseboat, but it’s not her idea of home. The protagonist’s boyfriend is German-Australian, with family in both countries, while her parents have both passed away. Unlike her, he is at home in multiple cultures, and comfortable moving between them.

Language itself is a contested space for Guo’s narrator. In one chapter she’s at a New Year’s Eve party where her partner is conversing in English and German, and she can’t follow it:

I thought, even though I speak English, and I can read and write in English, still, I feel monolingual. Really, I had only one language. And even worse, I could not possess this language…Whatever I spoke, whether it was my borrowed English language or my native Chinese Mandarin, I didn’t feel I had that language in me. That language spoke for me, instead of my speaking it.

So perhaps we could see this lover’s discourse as her essay at working through her feelings, taking possession of what it is to live in this place, with this language. Guo’s novel is a love story which puts love to the test, because that’s what its protagonist needs in order to find solid ground in her life.

Published by Chatto & Windus.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths

In 1823, Beethoven was commissioned to compose a biblical oratorio in the United States of America. He didn’t live to take up the commission… but what if he had? That’s the question posed by music critic Paul Griffiths in his latest novel.

I like it when historical fiction acknowledges the constructed nature of history. Mr. Beethoven goes much further than that. We begin with Beethoven on a ship headed for Boston – yet Griffiths emphasises that this is not how things were, but a plausible alternative:

It would be possible to work out which vessel this might have been, in whose dining salon these people were delving into their cabbage soup with greater or lesser pleasure. Suppose the year was 1833, as could well have been the case…

In this way, Griffiths is able to take his novel apart and rebuild it as he goes. The sense that this all provisional, contingent, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s a brilliant chapter which rehearses a conversation between Beethoven and his librettist, Reverend Ballou, three times. In the first two versions, the composer says the same things but Ballou’s dialogue changes, giving the scene a completely different tone. In the third version, Beethoven doesn’t understand Ballou at all. Which is the ‘correct’ conversation? Take your pick.

Communication is one of the first problems that Beethoven encounters. Griffiths imagines a girl named Thankful, who uses Martha’s Vineyard sign language to interpret for him. But there’s still inevitably a distance between the composer and the world around him. All of Beethoven’s dialogue in the novel has been taken directly from his letters. Of course, it’s then out of context, which has the effect of making Beethoven seem to be at a slight remove from reality. It’s subtle but unnerving.

The subject of Beethoven’s oratorio is Job. As Thankful listens to the performance, she reflects on its meaning: “It is about this universe in which God is omnipotent. And it is about a larger universe in which God is powerless, helpless.” I’m struck that Mr. Beethoven puts its author in a similar position: totally in control over what’s between the covers in one sense, but at the mercy of history in another. If the author is like God, then – as Robert says in his review at The Bobsphere – Beethoven in this novel is like Job, undergoing his own trial of faith (in himself as much as anything).

Mr. Beethoven is a novel that twists language and history to explore what might have been, but also to expose the inherent fragility of any fictional account. I must mention as well that this is a beautifully made volume from Henningham Family Press. I’m pleased to see it highlighted by the Goldsmiths Prize.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

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