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What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

Plume – Will Wiles: a Splice review

This week I’ll have two reviews up at Splice: here’s the first. Plume, the third novel by Will Wiles, is the story of a lifestyle journalist keen to interview a reclusive cult writer who may (or may not) have some special insight into what makes modern society tick. Plume goes from harrowing depictions of its protagonist’s struggle with alcoholism to a sharp examination of how precarious urban life can be. It makes an interesting point of comparison with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is something I talk about in the review.

Read my review of Plume here…

…and here are some more reviews. In The Quietus, Nina Allan considers Plume as a London novel. Jackie Law at Neverimitate is also largely positive. In The Spectator, Christopher Priest calls the novel “joy unconfined”.

There’s also an interesting interview with Wiles over at Minor Literature[s].

Book details

Plume (2019) by Will Wiles, Fourth Estate, 352 pages, hardback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

Anthology review: Zero Hours on the Boulevard

There have been a few anthologies published recently in response to the current political climate. I reviewed one, Tempest, last month – and today I have another. Zero Hours on the Boulevard (ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans) comes from the Welsh publisher Parthian and is subtitled ‘Tales of Independence and Belonging’. It includes a mixture of English-language originals and translated pieces, often revolving around how individuals may relate to their surroundings (whether old or new). An opening poem in three languages sets the tone: in ‘Lands of Mine’, Hanan Issa writes about being one person from multiple places.

One story that I found particularly affecting is ‘A Birthday Card From the Queen’ by the Maltese writer Clare Azzopardi (tr. Albert Gatt). Old Kelinu spends most of his time making tea, even though he doesn’t like drinking it. He struggles to come to terms with the contemporary world, thinks things were better in days of Empire, and waits patiently for his hundredth birthday when he’ll receive a card from the Queen. The sense is clear that Kelinu is a figure out of time, and his grip on life may be fragile; but there are some piercing moments, such as this, where Kelinu remembers his late wife Maria:

When the tea has cooled he pours it into the sink. He puts a lot of washing-up liquid into the glass and lets the foam rise and rise, then he rinses the glass and rinses away Maria’s face, the white dress gliding across the carpet of a humble church and the hard years that followed. Maria lying in the throes of her illness, heavy as the rain clouds dimming in the light of the room. Nothing remained of Maria’s pear-shaped body, nothing but foam.

Some of the pieces in Zero Hours on the Boulevard concern characters who move (or have moved) to a new place. In ‘When Elephants Fight’, Cameroon-born and Wales-based Eric Ngalle Charles describes his daughter being deeply concerned about what Brexit means for her and asking him where he’s really from. He tells the harrowing tale of what caused him to leave Cameroon, which gives her a new dimension of understanding. ‘The Book of New Words’ by Eluned Gramich sees a German girl start school in England, where she finds the nuances of language rather different from what she’s learned so far. By the time she returns to Germany, her sense of self has shifted. Durre Shahwar‘s ‘Split’ is the short but powerful tale of a woman turned away from the Life in the UK test on a technicality, and Faiza, the invigilator whose mother took that same test in the past. Faiza worries for the woman she glimpses through the Test Centre doors, but is grimly reminded of how little she can do to help.

Other stories in the book revolve around dealing with changes to a familiar place. ‘Mercy’ by Lloyd Markham (an extract from his novel Bad Ideas\Chemicals) takes us to a near-future (or alternative-present) Wales. 19-year-old Louie Jones is trying to jump through the hoops of ‘Careers, Lifestyle & Attitudes’ when he is assigned a work placement at the Mercy Clinic, which leads him to reconsider his relationship with his alcoholic father. This piece is a rush of developments that straddle the borderline between absurd and chillingly plausible. In ‘The Garden’ by Slovak writer Uršul’a Kovalyk (tr. Peter and Julia Sherwood), Ela moves to a new flat in the capital, her modestly-paid job leaving her in a precarious position. She finds the apartment building’s beautiful terraced garden a source of peace, and gets to know Boženska, the old woman who has lived in the building for decades and looks after the garden. The history of the garden comes to stand in for the changing world outside – and, as so many of the stories in this anthology underline, change comes to everywhere and everyone.

Book details

Zero Hours on the Boulevard (2019) ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans, Parthian Books, 248 pages, paperback.

Animalia Paradoxa – Henrietta Rose-Innes

Animalia Paradoxa is one of the first fiction titles from Boiler House Press, a small imprint based at the University of East Anglia. It’s a story collection by Henrietta Rose-Innes, a South African writer whom I first read when her story ‘Sanctuary’ came second in the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award.

‘Sanctuary’ opens this collection, and it was a pleasure to read again. The narrator describes travelling to a campsite through a series of wire fence gates, and encountering a family staying at a nearby lion sanctuary. In the morning, there has been an accident: it seems the father has been attacked by a lion. But it soon becomes clear to the narrator (and us) that something else has gone on; the story is all the more powerful for what it leaves unsaid. When the narrator leaves with the family, the group passes through those gates again:

I drove through and waited while [the family’s mother] did up the complex metal knot, and then we moved on again, making good our slow, methodical escape. Over and over we did this again, locking ourselves out for good, locking it all away behind us…

At this point, the gates represent much more than a means of traversing a fence: this is leaving behind an old life, never to return.

Several of Rose-Innes’ stories work like this, with something in the environment serving as a metaphor for what’s happening to the protagonist. One of my favourites is ‘The Boulder’, which sees teenage Dan staying with his girlfriend at her parents’ holiday home. Dan feels he doesn’t belong, like the boulder which has fallen down the mountainside and now intrudes upon the lawn. The tension of that feeling builds to a wry conclusion. In ‘The Leopard Trap’, Daniela takes a breather from her marriage by driving out to stay in an unfamiliar farmhouse. She comes across a little enclosure once used by hunters for capturing leopards; her ambivalence about the place comes to reflect how she views her relationship.

Some of the stories in Animalia Paradoxa venture into more fantastical territory. ‘Limerence’ concerns a woman with a condition that induces involuntary feelings of – well, desire, if not quite love. There’s some wonderful imagery in this piece, to match the intense rush of the protagonist’s emotional state. In ‘The Bronze Age’, a man has travelled from Johannesburg to the UK, to spend a week with his son Robbie. They visit a historical site, and the man then finds that Robbie has brought home a flint knife that he feels he needs for protection. In this story, the Bronze Age represents the distance that exists between father and son, adulthood and childhood – Robbie taking part in historical activities when it’s not how his father imagined the day would go; their differing attitudes towards the knife. A closing vision of the Bronze Age itself makes the father realise just how far apart he is from his son.

I found Animalia Paradoxa an evocative and affecting collection of stories. It leaves me keen to read more of Rose-Innes’ work, and to see what else Boiling House Press has in store.

Book details

Animalia Paradoxa (2019) by Henrietta Rose-Innes, Boiler House Press, 228 pages, paperback.

An avant-garde seaside farce: Berg by Ann Quin

The first sentence sits there on its own page, drawing you in, enticing you to read on:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

I first read this sentence at the top of Max Cairnduff’s review in 2010, and the book caught my imagination. But I didn’t read it: I guess I wasn’t in the right place as a reader back then to appreciate it. Still, I never forgot Max’s enthusiasm for Berg, and when And Other Stories published a new edition in March, that was my cue to give it a try.

Berg (1964) was the first of Ann Quin’s four novels. It is the tale of one Alistair Berg, a hair-tonic salesman who lives with his mother Edith (her imagined voice is a constant presence in his mind). His father Nathaniel left them some years ago; this seems to Berg’s principal reason for wanting to do away with the man, though he’s constantly trying to justify it to himself:

Of course it’s ridiculous to think the whole thing is simply a vehicle for revenge, or even resentment – hardly can it be called personal, not now, indeed I have never felt so objective. If inherent in the age, well and good, though historically speaking the idea perhaps is a little decadent.

Berg is even hesitant to actually do the deed, often passing up the chance when it arises. He seems at least as interested in getting together with Judith, the woman his father now loves. Berg takes an adjacent room in their lodgings; he can often hear them through the thin partition. Intense feelings abound in such circumstances, and Quin’s prose is an apposite medley of description, internal monologue, authorial commentary, and Berg’s own imaginings. Here, for example, is Berg remembering Sunday school and childhood summers:

Only perhaps now recalling the shaft of light, the summer’s half-hearted breezes through the swinging chapel door; the mumbled hymn-singing no one ever really knew; peering through a crack in a grave, in awe at the stick-like bones, or staring at unpronounceable names inscribed on marble, counteracted by own writing on pavements and garden walls: Josie loves Aly; Barney Broadbent stinks. The tree with the swing, the hollyhock bowers; untouchable ladybirds, catching a Manx by its stubby tail; trespassers be warned. But you king of the jungle, a warrior supreme. I see an eye through a slit in the wall, my own unique eye, insouciant at everything, beyond what it can now see.

As Max says, Quin’s writing requires concentration; but, with passages like this, I think there’s ample reward. I also agree with Max that Berg is very funny, surprisingly so: I wasn’t expecting it to turn into an outright farce, but it does. Berg gets into scrapes with a pet budgie, a ventriloquist’s dummy… I won’t say more, as I think these are best discovered for yourself.

Berg is also enriched by its sense of place. The unnamed seaside town is recognisably Quin’s hometown of Brighton, and it’s depicted in a way that reflects the rawness of Alistair Berg’s situation. For example, the boarding house is memorably seedy: “Door upon door, separated merely by strips of plaster and pink wallpaper damp-stained: the carpet as though just unrolled leading perhaps to a saw-dust ring. Everywhere the smell of disinfectant.”

If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate in ten years of book blogging, it’s that so-called ‘experimental’, ‘challenging’ fiction is not sealed off in some rarefied bubble, but belongs equally to an ordinary reader like me. Berg is a prime example: for a novel with this kind of humour and setting to be written in this kind of language still feels unexpected to me, although it shouldn’t (any other suggestions will be gratefully received!). I’ll be reading Quin again, probably The Unmapped Country, the short fiction collection published by And Other Stories in 2018.

Elsewhere

Lee Rourke has written several interesting articles on Quin’s work. Max links to two, from 2007 and 2010; and there’s this one from 2018.

Book details

Berg (1964) by Ann Quin, And Other Stories, 160 pages, paperback.

Tempest: an Anthology

Tempest (ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson) is a new anthology from Patrician Press themed around the current ‘tempestuous’ political climate. It brings together fiction, non-fiction and poetry; as I’m more of a fiction reader, I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite stories.

‘The wall’ by Emma Bamford is a good example of how voice can shape a story. It’s narrated by a builder talking to his mates down the pub (“Lord, can’t a man get a bit of peace with his pint of an evening after a hard day’s labour? If I tell you, will you leave me be?”). The story his friends are so keen to hear concerns the time he was invited to America to work on a new border wall, and it didn’t work out quite as anticipated. The homely narrative voice does just enough to push the tale to one side of reality (it’s a voice that doesn’t belong in the situation it’s describing), without losing sight of the seriousness beneath.

Some of the stories in Tempest work as evocative snapshots of a strange new world, and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. ‘The carp whisperer’ by Petra McQueen and Katy Wimhurst takes us to a highly stratified world of water shortages. The protagonist is mistaken for someone who can talk to – and maybe even shapeshift into – carp. All this comes together into a striking final image of rebellion.

Justine Sless’ ‘Tempest on Tyneside’ is another of these strange snapshots. In a country beset by storms and prone to flooding, everyone is still heading to the North East for the football. But first a visitor, Miranda, has to work out the underlying geology and make sure its safe. I think that’s what she is doing, anyway; I must admit, I didn’t grasp everything that’s going on in this story. Still, it doesn’t matter to me, not when there’s such spectacle to fill the mind as the image of hundreds of football supporters on bikes descending on a brightly lit stadium while a storm rages at sea.

‘Fenner’ by Suzy Norman is a poignant tale of trying to move on after loss. It is ten years since the narrator’s musician husband, Ray, died, and now Dewi, a film-maker, wants to make a tribute to him. The narrator accepts Dewi’s request for an interview, but this stirs up old memories and brings change to the old house she shared with Ray. Norman’s writing carefully illuminates the very beginning of a new future for the protagonist.

Book details

Tempest: an Anthology (2019), ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, Patrician Press, 178 pages, paperback.

International Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour: House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

My post today is part of a blog tour for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize, which is awarded to a novel written in English by a writer aged 39 or under (39 being the age at which Dylan Thomas died). The a blog tour is looking at the books on the longlist. The book I’ve chosen is House of Stone, the debut novel by Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.

House of Stone is narrated by the orphaned 24-year-old Zamani, who lives with Abednego and Agnes Mlambo. He would like to be more than a lodger in this family and sees his chance when the Mlambos’ son Bukhosi goes missing. In an effort to ingratiate himself with the couple he refers to his “surrogate” father and mother, Zamani asks Abednego and Mama Agnes about their lives. He tries his best to oil the wheels:

We spent the whole of yesterday seated in the sitting room, in a battle of wills, me trying to get [Abednego] to take just one sip of the whisky, he pursing his lips, glaring at the wall, willing Bukhosi to reappear, declaring himself to be mute unless the boy popped up abracadabra before his eyes, and snapping at me to shurrup when he I pleaded with him to continue with his story.

Despite initial reluctance, Abednego does continue with his story, as does Agnes. Through their accounts, Tshuma explores the history of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, while telling an intriguing family story. Zamani also has secrets of his own, adding up to a multi-layered and engaging book.

Book details

House of Stone (2018) by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Atlantic Books, 374 pages, hardback. [Paperback published on Thursday 4 April.]

Take a look at the other stops on the blog tour in the graphic above. The shortlist of the Dylan Thomas Prize will be announced on Tuesday 2 April.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is an academic at University College Dublin. Notes to Self is a collection of personal essays, first published in Ireland by Tramp Press, and now given a UK edition by Penguin. The book begins with Pine and her sister visiting their seriously ill father in a Greek hospital:

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.

This is typically unflinching of Pine as she delves into her life across the six essays. In the first piece, ‘Notes on Intemperance’, she details that immediate situation, where she and her sister have to clean up and look after their father because the hospital is so understaffed, but also her complicated relationship with her father’s illness. He was an alcoholic, which caused liver failure and the haemmorage that has put him in hospital, but also left him cold and antagonistic as a father. For Pine, this made him difficult to love:

I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father. It took years of refusing him empathy before I realised that the only person I was hurting was myself.

Pine captures these ambivalent feelings on the page, but she also confronts what it means for herself and her family to write about life in this way. Yet ultimately there’s a sense that this act of writing is vital: “what my dad really taught me, despite himself perhaps, is that writing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing – of possessing – thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain.”

Through writing, Pine then takes possession of deeply personal experiences: infertility, her parents’ separation, sexual violence. Sometimes the subject of an essay is intertwined with writing itself. For example, Pine begins ‘Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes’ with the metaphor of a writer bleeding on to the page, before going to consider periods and societal taboos around her body. At the end of this essay, she wonders what her body might say if it could tell its story:

I think it would talk about blood. Its mesmerising flow and its ebb. About ending and renewing. I think it would talk about the touch of my fingers and my hands and another’s lips. The feel of skin on skin. Wet and slow. Soft and hard. The shock of cold, the pleasure of warmth…

Notes to Self is a raw and powerful reading experience. It’s often harrowing, but there are also compelling moments of hope and optimism. The passage I’ve just quoted reads like that to me: hope through writing, the stuff of life taken apart and rebuilt to find a way forward.

Book details

Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine, Hamish Hamilton, 206 pages, hardback. Also available in Tramp Press paperback.

Reading round-up: early March

Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant (2018)

Newly longlisted for the Women’s Prize, Lillian Li’s debut novel centres on the Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant is owned by brothers Johnny and Jimmy Han, who inherited it from their father. Jimmy wants to set up his own place, but he’s gone to Uncle Pang, a dubious family friend, for help – and that’s unlikely to end well. Alongside this strand, Li’s novel explores the relationship between two long-serving members of staff, and the lives of the younger generation. The end result is a composite portrait of a family (and the wider community of the restaurant) at a point of pressure and change, where the future is far from certain.

Alan Parks, February’s Son (2019)

February’s Son is the second of Alan Parks’s crime novels set in 1970s Glasgow, following on from Bloody January. We pick up the action in February 1973, when detective Harry McCoy is tasked with solving the murder of a young footballer who had the words ‘BYE BYE’ carved into his chest. The trail leads McCoy into the world of local gangs, and puts him back in touch with his childhood friend-turned-gangster Stevie Cooper. This is another intriguing mystery from Parks; the ongoing development of McCoy’s character is also interesting, as he sails (or finds himself pushed) ever closer to the wind.

Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On (2014)
Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won

I’ll Go On is a novel in three parts, each narrated by a different character: Sora, her sister Nana, and their childhood friend Naghi. Nana is pregnant, which is tough news for Sora to take, because it puts her in mind of the difficult relationship she and Nana had with their own mother. Hwang’s novel chronicles a process of coming to terms with (or trying to break away from) past and present. I particularly like the different voices captured in Yae Won’s translation, as they cast each narrator in a different light from section to section.

Trevor Mark Thomas, The Bothy (2019)

This debut novel begins with Tom fleeing to a remote, run-down pub called the Bothy. His girlfriend’s family blame Tom for her death, and now there is a price on his head. He is taken in by Frank, the gangster in charge of the Bothy, but even this may not be enough to protect him. By keeping the focus tightly on Tom’s present predicament, rather than the background that led up to it, Thomas gives his novel a sense of urgency and drive which pushes the reader on. The Bothy is a hothouse of character that remains tense to the end.

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