CategoryGordon Helen

Book and story notes: Gordon, Kenworthy, Pickin

Helen Gordon, Landfall (2011)

London-based arts critic Alice Robinson is thirty-four, unsure about her place in the world, and haunted by the disappearance of her sister Janey seventeen years previously, when her magazine ‘suspends operations’; taking advantage of her parents’ offer to house-sit for them, she moves back to the suburbs to take stock. Alice’s existence there is enlivened by the arrival of her sixteen-year-old American cousin Emily (who’s been sent over for an improving visit, though she’d rather not be there), and a large dog named Selkirk, whom Alice’s old flatmate Isabel has talked her into looking after (despite Alice’s dislike of dogs). Alice is mostly drifting through life in suburbia when her former editor holds out the possibility of an interview with one of her favourite artists, Karin Ericsson, a recluse who lives on the south coast – could this be the key to Alice’s getting her life back on track?

Helen Gordon’s debut novel is a nicely observed character study, ranging from pithy observations about minor characters (for example, Alice’s artist ex-boyfriend is described as “one of those men of a certain haircut who gravitated towards the east of the city” [pp. 8-9]) to more sustained portrayals of the main players. Alice’s neighbours’ boy, Danny, is a conflicted figure: saved from drowning as a young boy, that piece of great fortune has also made it hard for him to relate to other people (though one senses he ultimately means well), which in turn has led him to dabble in crime. Emily begins as something of a grotesque, obsessed with her body-image to an alarming degree, but, by novel’s end, she is moving towards a more positive view of life; she and Danny come together in a halting, and very real, fashion.

And Alice? She spends a lot of time thinking, but also falls back on instinct, reciting maxims from her Girl Guide and London days. Those recitations may feel forced when she’s at her parents’ house, but Alice’s practical instincts come into their own when she has travelled to the coast. She, like Emily and Danny, makes not so much peace with life, as a kind of messy truce.

Christopher Kenworthy, ‘Sullom Hill’ (2011)

Our narrator recalls his childhood in western Lancashire, in particular his period of friendship with John Stack (“You’d never see him in a group: it was John and one friend for a few weeks and then he’d move on” [p. 6]) and his ambivalent attitude towards learning-disabled Neil Kingsley. The protagonist admires John for his cheek and ability to stand up to his reprimanding teachers – but John’s bravado hides a violent home life, and now he’s picking on Neil.

This is one of the latest chapbooks to be published by Nightjar Press, who specialise in dark fiction at (or beyond) the edges of the supernatural. I make a point of mentioning this here because Kenworthy’s story takes a particularly striking approach to the subgenre. There’s nothing overtly (or even necessarily covertly) fantastical about ‘Sullom Hill’, but Kenworthy portrays John’s behaviour as being rooted in a bargain – maybe not one made with a supernatural agency, but a bargain of a similar kind. Neil’s response to John can be read in an analogous way. The effect of these is to imply a different way of looking at the world, and thereby to disturb the world’s equilibrium – creating a very subtle kind of horror.

Christopher Kenworthy’s website

G.A. Pickin, ‘Remains’ (2011)

The second new title from Nightjar Press takes us to a Scottish moor, where an ill-prepared walker (who is experienced enough that he shouldn’t be in his current predicament, and knows it) leaves behind an abandoned church and the remains of its surrounding settlement, and tries to find his way to the holiday cottage where he’s due to catch up with some friends from an old volunteering project – but the dark and the weather are closing in.

As a story, ‘Remains’ is very much focused on its landscape; Pickin effectively turns what is at first, if not exactly a friendly environment then at least one open to exploration, into somewhere more threatening. The ending is both nicely open and a neat closure.

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.

© 2021 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: