Today I’m joining the blog tour for this year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, which is awarded to writers in English who are aged under forty. This post looks at one of the longlisted titles, Losing the Plot, the second novel by Derek Owusu.
Losing the Plot is inspired by the journey of Owusu’s mother from Ghana to the UK. We get a sense of the impetus for this book from its epilogue, in which the narrator Kwesi conducts a “factless interview” with his mother – factless because she’s reluctant to answer his questions about her life in any sort of detail.
This means that Kwesi has to stretch his imagination in writing about his mother, leading to an account that’s fragmented and impressionistic, shifting between prose and poetry. Through this, there is a keen sense of the displacement felt by Kwesi’s mother. For instance:
She lifts her head, towel for tresses, watches as snakes of steam dance and fight to rise and fall,
condensing, dripping, drops dying and spreading,
reminding her tears cling to the face to live a little longer.
She brushes her teeth out of time with her reflection,
watches suds touch the porcelain prefering the scrub and ease of a chewing stick.
One striking aspect of Losing the Plot is its use of marginal notes. The mother’s account includes words and phrases in Twi, which come with their own sidenotes. Rather than provide a direct translation, Kwesi uses these notes to give his own observations. For example, one note begins like this:
Honestly, certain insults can’t even be translated and put into context that makes sense, you just have to feel the vim of the insult and know it’s devastating and it’s all gonna end with a scrap. Bro, I know this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. She’s bare small so I didn’t even clock she can fight.
So, it seems the sidenotes are there not so much to open a door for the reader, as to help Kwesi bring himself closer to the story he’s trying to tell. In reading Losing the Plot, we are confronted by the limits of what we can and can’t know about another person’s life. It also becomes clear that there is an urgent reason for this story to be told, and together these help give Owusu’s novel its power.
Book published by Canongate. The shortlist for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize will be announced on 23 March, with the winner to follow on 11 May.
The (unnamed) narrator of Eva Aldea’s debut novel admires her greyhounds while they’re chasing after squirrels:
…it is the flutter of a furry tail above the grass that sets them off, from still to leaping in no time at all, paws thundering like hooves on the ground – she loves that sound, feels it in her chest through her own feet. She loves the sight of their bodies in flight, the double suspension rotary gallop, only sighthounds and cheetahs hunt by this fastest and most explosive of gaits, where the body is in touch with the ground only a quarter of the time. The rest is spent flying.
In this opening scene, one of the dogs has got lucky, and the woman has to put the squirrel out of its misery. This is a gruesome little episode that doesn’t fit neatly into the woman’s life as a university lecturer. It sets the tone for a novel that explores what darkness might lurk beneath the everyday.
In the main part of the novel, the woman’s banker husband has moved them from London to Singapore. At first, it seems as though life there will be idyllic, but the shortcomings soon become apparent. It’s too hot even for the dogs to enjoy their walks, and the narrator is disconcerted by the distorting effects of globalisation (such as coffee grown nearby, sent halfway across the world to be packaged, then back to Singapore).
The woman essentially ends up as an affluent expat housewife, which is tedious and puts her high up in a hierarchy where she doesn’t want to be. These frustrations lead her to give free rein to her darkest thoughts, and it’s written in a way that blurs the line between reality and imagination. This is what makes Singapore such a striking debut.
A Happy New Year to you! I’m starting 2023 on the blog with an obscure classic that took me by surprise…
Gertrude Trevelyan published eight novels before she died tragically young in 1941, from injuries incurred when her home was bombed in the Blitz. She fell into obscurity, but a few years ago her work was rediscovered by Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books Page. This led eventually to her debut novel, 1932’s Appius and Virginia, being reissued. It’s the story of a woman who raises an orang-utan as a human child, and from that description, I was expecting to be rather whimsical. It really isn’t.
Virginia Hutton is on her own aged 40 and frustrated with life. She decides to conduct an experiment to see if an ape can be nurtured into humanity. This is her chance to leave a mark:
All her will power, all her suggestive force, her whole reserve of nervous and mental energy, was not too much to expend on this experiment. For If it succeeded she would indeed have achieved something. She would have created a human being out of purely animal material, have forced evolution to cover in a few years stages which unaided it would have taken aeons to pass…
Virginia buys a young orang-utan, names him Appius, and retreats from London to the countryside to set about her task. It isn’t easy, because Appius experiences the world on a much more abstract level than Virginia, and often he doesn’t understand what she’s trying to tell him, or why she does what she does. But eventually, Appius gains skills such as rudimentary speech and the ability to read, and Virginia feels she’s making progress. Oh, what a future she imagines for Appius – and herself:
She saw him, in Eton suit and shining collar, bowing over an armful of gilt and crimson tomes while the oak-panelled hall resounded with discrete, kid-gloved applause. She saw herself in the front row, surrounded by secretly envious parents and gratified masters, clapping shyly, blushing a little at this honour paid to her big boy, doing him credit by her clothes, her sleight figure, her youthful but not too girlish appearance.
Key to Virginia’s approach, though, is keeping Appius unaware of his true animal nature. There are times when this breaks through despite her best efforts, and the whole reading experience becomes something much rawer, elemental. The unbridgeable gap between Appius and Virginia becomes more apparent as the novel reaches a higher pitch – until the ending, which gives me chills just thinking back on it.
If 2022 has taught me anything with regard to reading, it’s that I shouldn’t bother with firm reading plans! Over the year, I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get into my usual reading routine. I also had a sense that some of my reading cornerstones (such as the Goldsmiths Prize) weren’t chiming with me as they usually did. Whether that’s just a blip or a broader change in my taste, I’ll gain a better idea next year.
Whatever the case, I still read some grand books this year. Here is my usual informal countdown of the dozen that have flourished most in my mind:
12. Faces in the Crowd (2011) by Valeria Luiselli Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2014)
My chance to catch up on a book I’ve long wanted to read, and it was worth the wait. A young woman’s life in Mexico City contrasts with her old life in New York, and with the novel she’s writing, and the life of the poet she’s writing about… Different, blurred layers of reality make this such a rush to read.
11. Standing Heavy (2014) by GauZ’ Translated from French by Frank Wynne (2022)
A novel about the changing experiences of Ivorian security guards in Paris, Standing Heavy is intriguingly pared back in its form. Three story-chapters capture the movement of history around the characters, and more fragmented observations deepen one’s sense of the book’s world. This is a short novel with a lot to say.
This was a fine example of how a novel’s brevity can bring a distinctive atmosphere to familiar subject matter. Appanah focuses on a young man who’s been apprehended after a road crash, as well as his sister and mother – all three of them ill at ease with the world. This novel has an intensity that might easily be diluted in a longer work.
9. The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991) by Ágota Kristóf Translated from French by David Watson (1991) and Marc Romano (1996)
These two novels follow on from Kristóf’s The Notebook: I read them together, and they belong together here. Kristóf’s trilogy tells of two brothers displaced by war. There’s great trauma in the background, but emotions are kept distant. Geography and time are also flattened out, adding to the feeling of being trapped. The trilogy progressively undermines any sense of understanding the truth of what happened to the brothers, and therein lies its power for me.
8. Love (1997) by Hanne Ørstavik Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken (2018)
This novel is about a mother and son who live in the same space yet still in their own worlds. That theme is strikingly reflected in the writing, as the two characters’ stories merge into and out of each other repeatedly. Often, the pair seem closest emotionally when they’re separated physically. The ending is sharp and poignant.
7. The Sons of Red Lake (2008) by Zhou Daxin Translated from Chinese by Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan (2022)
Breaking the run of short, spare novels is a longer one that I enjoyed taking my time over. A woman returns to her childhood village, falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart, and finds her fortunes changing for better and worse. Zhou’s novel explores the effects of tourism and the temptations of power. I found it engrossing.
Some of the best writing I read all year was in this book. It’s a novel following the life of an African American woman from Chicago. She has aspirations for herself, but the reality turns out to be rather mixed. In the end, I found hope in Maud Martha, as its snapshot structure opened up possibilities beyond the final page.
5. Life Ceremony (2019) by Sayaka Murata Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2022)
I’m not sure that anyone combines the innocuous and strange quite like Sayaka Murata. This story collection is typically striking, using larger-than-life situations to explore basic questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most of all, Murata puts her readers in the position of her characters, so we see them differently as a result.
4. Mothers Don’t (2019) by Katixa Agirre Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis (2022)
Few books that I read this year made such an immediate impression as this one. Agirre’s narrator tries to understand why another woman killed her children, while trying to come to terms with her own feelings about motherhood. Contradictions abound and nothing is reconciled, and this is what drives the novel – not to mention its vivid prose.
Russell Hoban was my discovery of the year, someone I know I’ll read again. Turtle Diary is the story of two lonely characters linked only by a wish to set free the sea turtles at London Zoo. I really appreciated the ambivalence of Hoban’s novel, the way that saving the turtles in itself isn’t enough to fill the hole in the characters’ lives. I simply haven’t read anything quite like this book before.
I loved this novel exploring the ramifications of new technology. Morgan imagines the development of a matter transporter and, step by step, puts humanity’s relationship with it under scrutiny. What is perhaps most chilling is the way that everything just trundles on, away from the people actually experiencing this technology. Appliance provides a welcome space for reflection.
1. Cursed Bunny (2021) by Bora Chung Translated from Korean by Anton Hur (2021)
At the top of the tree this year is a story collection that grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Some of the stories are strange and creepy, others more like fairy tales. Many are built around powerful metaphors that deepen the intensity of the fiction. It’s all held together by Chung’s distinctive voice, in that wonderful translation by Anton Hur. I look forward to reading more of Chung’s work in the future.
The Peckham Experiment was a project begun in 1926, aimed at encouraging working-class families to better themselves through access to leisure and cultural activities. Guy Ware imagines twins born into this project: Charlie and JJ. As the novel begins, we meet Charlie aged 85, looking back on his life to write a eulogy for JJ.
The brothers’ parents were communist, and JJ and Charlie carried into adulthood ideals of improving life for everyone. JJ was a council architect, looking to design better housing for working-class people. Charlie was a surveyor, building those homes. As time went on, they would find their ideals compromised, and placed in the shadow of structural failure and disaster.
Charlie’s narrative voice is dense and discursive, his recollections haphazard at times, but still sharp. It’s a voice that can weave together the personal, political and historical. As a result, the twins’ experiences reflect undercurrents that play out across broader society in the novel. It’s fascinating to read.
The voice of Mona Arshi’s debut novel belongs to Ruby, a young British Indian woman. It’s an expressive voice in this written (or thought) form, but Ruby decided as a girl that she would stop speaking:
The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again.
The scattered vignettes of Somebody Loves You are appropriate for a narrator who’s not used to telling a story to an audience. Still, Ruby’s tale covers a lot of ground in a relatively short length, including growing up, racism and mental health. The latter is explored through the character of Ruby’s mother, and I’m picking it out because I think it’s a good example of how Arshi’s book works.
This is how the subject is introduced:
The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.
It’s an arresting line, but one that’s at least as interested in the fox as in Ruby’s mother. Actually, in that whole short chapter, the mother’s mental breakdown is strikingly ‘off-page’. Quite a lot (though by no means all) of what happens in Somebody Loves You happens to characters other than Ruby, and of course she can’t see into their experiences – though she can observe.
Ruby notices that her mother finds respite in the garden – a defined space, so rare in this novel of hazy edges. Gardens become one of the book’s recurring motifs, an anchor point for characters and reader alike. The vignettes of Somebody Loves You build together into quite a powerful whole.
Andrew Komarnyckyj wrote one of my favourite books from last year, Ezra Slef. That novel was a joyous romp about a pompous writer who makes a deal with the Devil. The Revenge of Joe Wild is something rather different: a coming-of-age yarn set in 19th century America. What unites the two books is that they’re anchored by strong narrative voices. Here’s Joe Wild:
The schoolhouse was the worst house in the world ‘cept our house. It had a bell on the roof that went right through you like a stone through a window when it rang. If you warn’t inside when that bell rang woe betide you, you was in for a leatherin’. I knows better’n most about leatherin’.
In 1861, Joe is a twelve-year-old boy from a poor Illinois family. When he’s wrongly accused of murdering a neighbour, Joe runs away from town and into an even wilder world than the one he knew. Eventually he will join the army and return home a man, to set the past right.
Joe Wild is as compelling in its own way as Ezra Slef, a tale of vivid set-pieces that just doesn’t let up. If you’re looking for a rip-roaring adventure, this is a book well worth your time.
A new book by Charles Lambert is always worth a look. This one is a Victorian ghost story, with an eerie atmosphere similar to his earlier novel The Children’s Home.
In 1880s London, Edward Montieth is a young gentleman who goes along to a séance with a group of acquaintances from his club. He becomes captivated with Settie, a flower-seller he sees outside the theatre, and they embark on a relationship. But society would frown on their love, because Settie is Romani. When she falls pregnant, Edward feels forced to take drastic measures – and tragedy follows…
Two years later, Edward has turned away from his old life and now lives outside of the city with his Sicilian wife Marisol and their son Tommaso. However, although Edward may wish to leave the past behind, the past isn’t finished with him. Lambert builds up an unsettling feeling through ordinary sights and sounds, like a child’s cry, that seem oddly out of place. The strangeness grows, in a tale that pits rationality against the supernatural as much as social structures clash with the freedom to go one’s own way. The Bone Flower is engrossing stuff, especially as the autumn nights draw in.
Originally published in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not a book I had heard of before, and indeed the recent Faber Editions publication is the first UK edition. I’m so glad to have come across Maud Martha, though, because I loved reading it.
Maud Martha Brown is born in Chicago in 1917, and we follow her life into adulthood. She dreams of more than her immediate life can promise; for example, here she is thinking about New York:
The name “New York” glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard. It was silver, and it was solid, and it was remote: it was behind glass, it was behind bright glass like the silver in the shops. It was not for her. Yet.
Life turns out to be mixed. Maud Martha marries Paul, a lighter-skinned man with aspirations and eyes for other women. There are moments of racism, but also small triumphs for Maud Martha. For instance, in one chapter she visits a hat shop. The manager hides her contempt under a veneer of politeness – but Maud Martha sees straight through it and strings her along.
There is hope here, built in (it seems to me) to the very shape of Brooks’ novel. The book is a series of snapshots, which gives space for Maud Martha’s life to be more than we see – and it goes on beyond the final page, ultimately with optimism.
I enjoyed J.O. Morgan’s debut novel Pupa earlier in the year. Now he’s back with Appliance, which I think is even better. It’s about the development of technology and how this can run away before people have a handle on the ramifications. Morgan’s new technology of choice is teleportation, but it could really stand in for any form of tech. The way Appliance moves from the specific to the general helps give the novel its power.