CategoryDunthorne Joe

Book notes: Kurkov, Cornwell, Dunthorne

Andrey Kurkov, The Milkman in the Night (2009/11)

Ten years on from the English-language publication of his debut, Death and the Penguin, comes Andrey Kurkov’s ninth book. The Milkman in the Night (translated from the Russian by Amanda Love Darragh) tells of three main characters whose lives intertwine in contemporary Kiev: Dmitry, the airport sniffer-dog handler who finds a case of ampoules containing a substance which has a remarkable effect on those who consume it; Irina, the single mother who sells her breast milk for a living; and Semyon, who finds that he has been out walking at night with no memory of doing so – and his business partner’s report from monitoring those journeys only leaves Semyon with more questions.

For all the strangeness in its pages (and it’s by no means confined to the three protagonists), The Milkman in the Night has a strongly deadpan quality, both in the reactions of its characters to events, and in Kurkov’s prose. This turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the novel: on the one hand, it creates an effective contrast which draws the reader in by making one want to know just where the book’s going next; on the other, it puts a certain distance between reader and characters which makes engaging emotionally that bit more difficult. But the structure works well, a series of short chapters that shift between viewpoints, creating a narrative skein that gradually reveals the connections between characters, and a truth that may or may not be fully uncovered.

This review first appeared at We Love This Book.

Guardian interview with Andrey Kurkov.
Reviews elsewhere: Marina Lewycka for the Financial Times; Tom Adair for The Scotsman.

Hugh Cornwell, Window on the World (2011)

The first novel by singer-songwriter (and former Stranglers frontman) Hugh Cornwell is the story of Jamie Thornberry, a botanical writer who becomes infatuated with an artist named Katherine Gaunt whom he meets at an exhibition. He buys one of her paintings at auction; hears of another one in Paris and buys that; then tracks down a third to a Paris apartment, and takes it for himself. Jamie becomes determined to collect Katherine’s works; his methods for doing so grow more extreme – and he may be just as obsessed with the artist herself.

Window on the World is a fine character study. Cornwell initially portrays Jamie as reasonable enough; even when he steals a painting, we can rationalise it as an aberration brought on by the sudden intensity of his love for Katherine’s work (and even the protagonist seems to recognise he’s done something wrong and out of character). But, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to explain Jamie’s action’s away like that – and there’s a brilliant perceptual shift towards the end which reveals that Jamie may not be such a reliable narrator after all. It’s the kind of narrative move that makes one want to go back to the beginning and re-read to see what other clues there were, what other stories were told without our realising.

Hugh Cornwell’s website
Extract fromWindow on the World [PDF]
Quartet Books

Joe Dunthorne, Submarine (2008)

I enjoyed hearing Joe Dunthorne read from his second novel, Wild Abandon, earlier this year; but I’ve decided to start with his debut before going on to that newer book. So: Submarine is narrated by Oliver Tate, fifteen years of age in mid-1990s Swansea. He’s discovering long words and girls (in particular Jordana Bevan, who likes to set fire to things, and came on to Oliver at least as much as he did to her). But Oliver senses problems at home, because he’s found an empty bottle of antidepressants in his father’s waste-bin, and is suspicious about his mother’s going on a retreat where an old (male) friend will be teaching capoeira.

I warmed to Dunthorne’s prose style and observation from the very beginning, when Oliver describes a modem as ‘playing bad jazz’. The narrative voice as a whole rings true, the fancy words and facts peppered throughout symbolic of a young man who’s smart but still unsure of his place in the world (we see this particularly strikingly when Jordana tells Oliver that her mother has a brain tumour; all his words are no help in reacting appropriately).

That sense of being only halfway there is also present in how Oliver reacts to events in his life; he instinctively understands something of what’s going on around him, but doesn’t grasp all the subtleties, and that means things don’t always work out as well as he’d like. Now I really want to see the film of Submarine, because I can imagine some of these scenes playing out really well on screen, such as when Oliver goes to the retreat to find out what his mum is really up to, or when he tries to ‘help’ with Jordana’s dog.  All in all, this is a great debut; and now I’m looking forward to Wild Abandon even more.

Joe Dunthorne’s website
Wales Online video interview with Dunthorne
Reviews elsewhere: Chasing Bawa; Tim Adams for the Observer.

Seven Penguin authors

Earlier this week, Penguin Books held a reading event with seven of their authors, each on their first or second novels. A bunch of bloggers and friends gathered at the Union Club in the heart of London to hear about some new books – and it was a very enjoyable evening.

First up was Joe Dunthorne, whose debut novel, Submarine, has just been made into a film. He read an extract from Wild Abandon, about young Albert, who is convinced the world will end in 2012. Attempting to dispel his fears, the boy’s mother persuades Albert to imagine a conversation with his sixteen-year-old self, thereby reassuring himself there is life beyond a couple of years hence. But the plan doesn’t quite work out as Albert’s mum intended… The conversation that Dunthorne read out was very funny, and I’m sure I’ll be checking out Wild Abandon when it’s published in August, and perhaps also Submarine before then.

Luke Williams’ The Echo Chamber (due in May) was already on my radar because it has the sort of crossover speculative premise (the life of a woman with preternatural abilities of hearing) that particularly appeals to me. I’m not sure how well I can judge from the opening extract Williams read here just what The Echo Chamber will be like as a whole (and he did say that the novel goes through a number of styles as it progresses), but it is still a novel I want to investigate.

The next author was Jean Kwok, whose novel Girl in Translation concerns Kimberly Chang, who moves with her family from Hong Kong to a squalid apartment in Brooklyn, and finds herself caught between the worlds of great achievement at school, and working in a factory at night to help make ends meet. Kwok told how she drew significantly on her own life experiences for the novel, which sounds an interesting story.

I’ve been meaning to read God’s Own Country, the first novel by Ross Raisin – a fellow native of West Yorkshire – for some time now. I will get around to it – honest. Tonight, Raisin was reading from his forthcoming book, Waterline (to be published in July), which is set amongst the shipyards of Glasgow. As it’s written partly in dialect, Raisin said, it didn’t sound right in his natural voice; so he affected a Glaswegian accent to read his extract. How good he was, I’m in no position to judge; but the extract itself was nicely atmospheric, and bodes well for the whole novel. I’ll probably read God’s Own Country first, though.

On now to Rebecca Hunt, whose novel Mr Chartwell was the only one of the seven featured writers’ that I’d already read. Essentially it’s the story of Churchill’s Black Dog of depression come to life, well worth a look. Hunt was an excellent reader; had I not known about the novel already, the strength of her reading alone would have made me want to seek it out.

Helen Gordon’s debut, Landfall – about an art journalist reassessing her life when she moves temporarily back to the suburbs – is not published until October, so it was quite a treat to hear an excerpt of it so early on. The snapshot Gordon read was a conversation between the protagonist and her daughter during a car journey; again, I’m not sure how much of a sense of the wider novel I have from this, but it was a nicely observed extract and I am intrigued.

The final author to read was Hisham Matar, a Booker nominee for his first novel, In the Country of Men. He read an excerpt from his newly-published second book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, which concerns a boy dealing with the disappearance of his father. Matar’s description was vivid, and left me wanting to read more. A fine conclusion to a strong set of readings.

© 2022 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: