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Three Dreams in the Key of G – Marc Nash: a Splice review

The focus at Splice this week is Marc Nash and his latest novel, Three Dreams in the Key of G, which is published by Dead Ink Books (who are also behind the Eden Book Society). I’ve reviewed Three Dreams, which I found fascinating to read and write about. Let me introduce it…

Three Dreams has three narrators: Jean Ome, a mother living in Ulster; Jean Ohm, who runs a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. They speak in what I’ve called “extravagantly articulate” voices, that ask you to slow down and listen. Several themes recur throughout – such as language, writing, and agency – refracted through each narrator’s individual perspective. The novel ranges from everyday human life to some of the fundamentals of biology and existence.

One of the things I find most interesting about Three Dreams is how it’s structured to reflect aspects of DNA: for example, there isn’t a conventional linear plot, as befits unguided genetic reproduction. The language and themes form a network of relationships, as genes are expressed.

If all this sounds intriguing, you can read more in my review, and Splice also has an interesting Q&A with Nash about the novel.

Book details

Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash, Dead Ink Books, 216 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

A pair from Glagoslav

Today I’m looking at two books from Glagoslav Publications, who specialise in Slavic literature. I have a contemporary Russian novel for you, and a Belarusian classic.

Vasil Bykau, Alpine Ballad (1964)
Translated from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (2016)

This is the first Belarusian book I’ve read (in terms of both country and original language). From what I’ve read about him, Vasil Bykau (1924-2003) is one of the most significant figures in Belarusian literature. Glagoslav’s edition of Alpine Ballad is the first English translation to be based on Bykau’s original, uncensored manuscript.

During the later years of World War Two, a bomb explodes in an Alpine concentration camp. Ivan, a Belarusian soldier, makes good his escape. Shortly after, he comes across Giulia, a young Italian woman who was also being held prisoner in the camp. She doesn’t speak a lot of Russian, but through a mixture of that, German and Italian, the two are able to understand each other. We then follow them over the course of a few days as they try to evade capture and reach safety.

Alpine Ballad is a briskly told tale, constantly in motion. Bykau’s action sequences, when Ivan and Giulia are on the run, are gripping. There are also some really affecting moments where it becomes clear how the pair are developing feelings for each other. Giulia has an idealised image of Soviet communism, which Ivan is quick to dispel. This combination of social commentary, romance and action makes Alpine Ballad compelling reading.

Igor Eliseev, One-Two (2016)

Igor Eliseev is a Russian writer who writes in English; One-Two is his debut novel. This is the story of two conjoined sisters named Vera (our narrator) and Nadezhda – or Faith and Hope, as they are referred to throughout the book. The girls spend much of their childhood in a series of dismal institutions, including a foster home whose principal dubs them ‘One’ and ‘Two’, and where they’re subjected to much worse indignities than that. Eventually the sisters run away from the home and head to the city, hoping to find a place for themselves.

One-Two is a harrowing book, as Faith and Hope travel a difficult road. The history of 1980s and ’90s Russia unfolds in the background, and there’s a sense that Eliseev is reflecting this in the personal story of his protagonists. As well as everything that happens to them from without, the girls face their own internal struggles, as their very different personalities come to the fore. There is the tantalising prospect that they may be able to undergo separation surgery, which leads the pair to wonder what it might be like to have their own individual body, for all that the consequences may be drastic. One-Two is an interesting character study, and a powerful tale of personal struggle.

Book details

Alpine Ballad (1964) by Vasil Bykau, tr. Mikalai Khilo (2016), Glagoslav Publications, 206 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

One-Two (2016) by Igor Eliseev, Glagoslav Publications, 244 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Reading out loud: The Girls of Slender Means

I’ve been intending to read Muriel Spark (last time was The Driver’s Seat) again all year, what with it being her centenary. It took me until the autumn to actually do that, but better late than never…

I’m trying something a bit different with this post, taking inspiration from that Twitter discussion of The Rings of Saturn in the summer. I tweeted my thoughts on The Girls of Slender Means as I was reading it, and am now collecting them together here. I’ve called this “reading out loud” because it’s more off the cuff and impressionistic than a proper review would be. I felt that a ‘known’ book like this could support that kind of post.

To introduce the book briefly: The Girls of Slender Means was first published in 1963. It’s mostly set in 1945, and concerns the May of Teck Club, a London hostel for women aged under 30. I’ve expanded the original tweets a little for clarity, but still I doubt the post below will make much sense if you haven’t read the novel. If you’re looking for a recommendation, though… consider the book recommended!

***

It’s been too long since I last read Muriel Spark. I’m enjoying it from the first sentence: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Instantly recognisable voice: reading it feels like coming home.

Already the narrative is being subtly destabilised (which I’m coming to expect from Spark). The present-day passages feel more like intrusions than an alternative plot strand.

Interesting that present-day passages (which discuss a character’s death) are all telephone conversations. I need to read further to understand what this means, but I’m thinking it’s perhaps a comment on the distance created by that form of communication.

I love the little details that punctuate a scene with humour, such as the arguments over brown wallpaper in the drawing-room, or the frequent soundtrack of lines from Joanna’s elocution lessons.

Just twigged that there’s a theme of missed (or misunderstood) communication: the present-day phone calls that break up, the rote learning of elocution lessons (lines that are repeated but not necessarily felt by the person saying them).

A bomb explodes in the club’s garden towards the end of the book. Interesting that this is explicitly framed as disrupting the girls’ sense of time and space. Time is experienced differently by those trapped inside the club, and those outside who realise how urgent the situation is.

Besides bringing the plot to a point of singularity, the fire seems to bring individual characterisation to a head. I noticed this especially with Joanna reciting her elocution lines – which manage to be both empty and all too meaningful.

The closing scene of murder and violence amidst the WW2 victory celebrations underlines themes of darkness beneath events and distance from authority that have run through the book.

I love that the final paragraph manages simultaneously to link back to the start of the novel, push forward into the future, *and* leave the present both open and closed off.

Book details

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark, Penguin Books (2013 edn), 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Round-up: Aussie crime and famous teeth

I’m trying out different ways of writing about books, because I was getting a bit tired of the cycle of read, review, read, review. I’d like my blogging to be more responsive to how I read: to group things together, zoom in and out, make connections, and so on. This is one post format that I’m going to try out: a round-up of shorter comments on a few books that I’ve read. We start this round-up with a couple of Australian crime novels…

Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident explores the aftermath of a young woman’s murder in a small Australian town through the eyes of two characters: the victim’s older sister, and a journalist sent to cover the story. Where you might normally expect a mystery to give a sense of progressing towards a solution, there’s a void at the centre of Maguire’s mystery, which fills up withmore and more uncertainty. It’s engrossing stuff, with a strong narrative voice.

And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic is the sequel to Resurrection Bay, once again featuring deaf investigator Caleb Zelic. This novel begins with a young woman dying in front of Caleb moments after she has sought him out, and sees the protagonist follow her trail to his home town. He becomes caught up in the local drug trade as he tries to find out who the woman was and why she wanted to find him. Like its predecessor, And Fire Came Down is briskly told with plenty of intrigue in plot and character.

From Australia to Mexico: The Story of My Teeth (tr. Christina MacSweeney) is the first book I’ve read by Valeria Luiselli. It’s narrated by one Gustavo Sánchez, an auctioneer who buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own, then auctions off the old ones by making out that they belonged to famous people. Then it gets stranger… I found this book great fun to read: tricksy and playful, with a serious exploration of how the meaning of an object (such as a tooth) shifts when you change the context. After this, I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Luiselli’s work.

Book details

An Isolated Incident (2016) by Emily Maguire, Lightning Books, 320 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

And Fire Came Down (2017) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 344 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Story of My Teeth (2013) by Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2015), Granta Books, 196 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Ninja Book Box reading: Anna Vaught and Tony Peake

For a while now, I’ve been a reader for Ninja Book Box, a quarterly subscription box and monthly book club focused on small press titles. Today, I thought I’d post reviews of a couple of the books I’ve read for them recently.

Anna Vaught, Killing Hapless Ally

This (semi-autobiographical) debut novel is a vivid portrait of an individual living with mental health problems. Our protagonist is Alison, who intends to do away with Hapless Ally, an alter ego she devised in childhood to be a more acceptable face to show the world – an alter ego that has overshadowed her life ever since.

Killing Hapless Ally is a compelling tour of Alison’s life. We’re immersed in her fraught childhood (her mother would tell Alison that she should have left her to die as a baby, for instance), and discover some of the ways she found to deal with the scars it left throughout her life (for example, Alison has a veritable company of famous imaginary friends, including Shirley Bassey, Albert Camus, and Frida from ABBA).

Though most of the novel is written in third person, we’re firmly viewing things from Alison’s viewpoint. For example, most characters are referred to by nicknames or pseudonyms (Alison’s mother is Santa Maria, a psychiatrist is referred to as Dr Mirror-Neuron, and so on), and the narrative is organised thematically as much as chronologically, whatever suits Alison. These techniques help reshape the novel’s world, bringing us that bit closer to Alison. This is not necessarily a comfortable place to be, but it is thoroughly engaging, sometimes darkly amusing, and ultimately uplifting. Killing Hapless Ally is warmly recommended.

Killing Hapless Ally (2016) by Anna Vaught, Patrician Press, 276 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Killing Hapless Ally is the choice for this month’s Ninja Book Club.

Tony Peake, North Facing

In 1962, Paul Harvey is at boarding school in Pretoria, South Africa. His English parentage marks him as an outsider, but he’s keen to join the most exclusive club in school: the friendship circle of one Andre du Toit. At first, du Toit appears nothing but a bully, but then he starts to be more friendly towards Paul – and soon Paul finds himself part of du Toit’s group.

Du Toit is known to set the members of his club tasks in order for them to keep their place. Paul’s secret mission is to keep an eye out for anything unusual at the meetings of Mr Spier’s after-school General Knowledge club, write a report for du Toit, and steal whatever he notices. All is not as it seems, however, and the ramifications of Paul’s task can still be felt fifty years later, when he returns to South Africa to face the past.

North Facing is an interesting character study that takes in large events and issues (such as apartheid and the Cuban Missile Crisis) but explores them from a small, personal viewpoint. The key turning points of the plot emerge only gradually, which is a very effective touch. The present-day strand feels a little underplayed, as it turns out to be more of a frame than an equal plot thread. But overall, this quiet-seeming novel is well worth a read.

North Facing (2017) by Tony Peake, Myriad Editions, 176 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

El Hacho – Luis Carrasco

Today’s book is a debut in two senses: the first novel by Gloucestershire-based writer Luis Carrasco, and the first title from publisher Époque Press. For both of them, it’s a fine start.

El Hacho – “the beacon” – is the Andalusian mountain on whose slopes Curro has spent his life farming olives. But times are tough: a prolonged drought threatens to ruin the current crop. Curro’s brother Jose-Marie is in favour of selling off El Hacho for its stone to be quarried – but he’s never been involved in the family farm, doesn’t understand the soul of the place. As Curro says to his brother:

You might say I lack ambition but that land is an extension of my own body. I could no more leave it than tear the tongue from my mouth. When I work it I stir the memory of our people into the fragile dust and every drop of sweat, every callous on my hand and groan in my joints is theirs as well as mine. To abandon it would be to abandon myself and that I cannot do.

El Hacho, then, is in part a tale of tradition versus modernity, but it does not come across as sentimental. Carrasco is clear on what the personal costs to Curro of selling the mountain would be, but also on the price he pays for staying. The story of El Hacho’s drought also becomes the personal story of Curro’s wish for life to go on as it has.

There is a certain timeless quality to El Hacho: it’s not completely out of time, but there’s not much to place it in a specific period. The story reads pretty much as though it could take place at any point over (say) the last sixty years. So, as well as being the tale of one particular farmer, El Hacho feels emblematic of a story that could play out over and over again, in many different times or places.

Book details

El Hacho (2018) by Luis Carrasco, Époque Press, 116 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Sing of the Shore – Lucy Wood

Over the last few years, Lucy Wood has been creating her own distinctive fictional worlds of Devon and Cornwall. Although the general settings are recognisable, the places are rarely named, which to me always gives a feeling that the worlds of Wood’s stories are unbound. Each of her books has had a different focus: the stories in Diving Belles have foundations in folklore; the novel Weathering revolves around the relationship between characters and raw landscape.

Now we have Wood’s second story collection, The Sing of the Shore, which is an evocation of Cornwall off-season. An epigraph explains the book’s title: “the sing of the shore” is the varying sound of waves as they break against different surfaces (sand, pebbles, etc.), which enables experienced fishermen to tell where they are even when it’s foggy – in other words, it represents the secret soul of a place, known to locals but not to outsiders. Unlike Diving Belles, there’s only a relative tinge of the supernatural in this book – but the sense of otherworldiness running through Wood’s work is as strong as ever.

In these stories, the place gets in everything:

There’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth. We’re out on the edge of town, where the cliffs start to crumble and turn to sloping dunes. The dunes are heavy and soft, like flour in a bowl. They never stay still. They slip and shift about; sometimes growing, sometimes flattening out. When the gales come, loose sand blows down the road and heaps at our front doors.

This is from the story ‘Salthouse’, which begins with teenagers Evie and Gina going to plant their Christmas trees in the sand, as most people in the area do, in order to keep the dunes in place. On the way there, Gina suggests visiting the fair, yet seems reluctant to join in with Evie. It transpires that Gina has arranged to meet a boy, and Evie’s time at the fair becomes a kinetic dismantling of the childhood she thought she still had. Except, as the ending makes clear, some things don’t change: the sand is still there, advancing and receding as ever.

‘The Dishes’ provides another example of how Wood layers character and metaphor with a lightness of touch. In this story, Jay has moved to Cornwall with his wife Lorna for three months, where she has been seconded to a satellite ground station. Jay spends his time looking after the couple’s baby; since Lorna can’t talk about her work, a lack of meaningful conversation is getting to Jay (“All he wanted was to speak to someone and not have them say forofoo, or whatever the hell it was, back”). There are mysterious comings and goings at the neighbouring house, which also make him anxious. Wood paints an elegant study of a man succumbing to paranoia, out of little more than baby talk and next door’s phone ringing.

There’s a great range of tone among the stories in The Sing of the Shore. ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ invests a tale of a woman crossing fields and dodging cows with an atmosphere of genuine menace. ‘Way the Hell Out’ turns a conversation about a mysterious figure seen from a house into something of a shaggy dog story. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a wry catalogue of the dead, who may persist (“Now someone’s tapping on windows. Who is it? It’s Jameson with his stick, out in the rain again, trying to remember where he used to live”); it reminded me of ‘Notes from the House Spirits‘ in Diving Belles. ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ ends the volume on a melancholy note, with the story of a couple forced by circumstance to flit from house to house. A certain sense of transience may run through Wood’s tales in this book, but the stories themselves linger long in the mind.

Elsewhere

Watch Lucy Wood reading from the story ‘Home Scar’.

Read other reviews of The Sing of the Shore at Shiny New Books and Caught by the River.

Book details

The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood, 4th Estate, 230 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Missing – Alison Moore: a snapshot review

A new Alison Moore novel always promises to be splendidly unsettling, and Missing is no exception. Moore’s protagonist is Jessie Noon, a translator living in the Scottish Borders. Jessie’s job may be about finding the right words in order to make a connection between writer and reader, but her life is full of gaps and ambiguities. Her son walked out on her years ago, her second husband much more recently. Her cottage might be haunted, and a plot strand set in 1985 suggests that something tragic happened then between the teenage Jessie and her young niece.

Missing is full of everyday minutiae: supermarket shopping, train travel, a halting relationship between Jessie and a local outreach worker. But there’s a constant undercurrent of tension and uncertainty: you can never be quite sure how each individual element will resolve. As a result, reading Moore’s novel feels like being on a knife-edge.

Book details

Missing (2018) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Eden Book Society: Holt House

The Eden Book Society was a private subscription publisher founded in 1919. For almost a century, it published horror novellas, always under pseudonyms. Now, the people behind Dead Ink Books have acquired the rights to the Eden Book Society’s backlist. This year, they are reissuing the six titles that the Society published in 1972; the first to appear is Holt House, by the mysterious L.G. Vey.

Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, in the middle of the Holtwood, live old Mr and Mrs Latch. Ray watches them through a hole in the fence: as a child, he was taken to stay with the Latches one night when his mother fell ill. Mr Latch showed him something that was stored in the wardrobe; Ray can’t remember what it was, but the experience has blighted his life ever since. Now, as an adult, he has returned to Holt House to find out exactly what happened. When Mr Latch dies suddenly, Ray seizes the chance to befriend Mrs Latch and find his way into the house.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Ray finds that life at Holt House has a curiously timeless quality; a real sense of eeriness develops as Vey unveils this. But where the novel really shines is its exploration of Ray’s character: the realisation that he’s not entirely sympathetic, and the queasy to-and-fro of whether the tale’s real source of horror is setting or protagonist.

It would be nice to maintain the pretence, but I think I should be honest: there was never really an Eden Book Society, and Holt House does not originate from 1972. The Society is a publishing project from Dead Ink, and was initially funded via Kickstarter (they’re now offering subscriptions through the Society website, linked at the start of this post). However, the books are being published anonymously: Dead Ink have announced that this year’s novellas are by Andrew Michael Hurley; Aliya Whiteley; Alison Moore; Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst; Gary Budden; and Sam Mills. That’s a fine list of writers, and what really got me excited about the Eden Book Society in the first place. I don’t know who’s writing behind the name L.G. Vey, and it doesn’t matter: Holt House is a strong start for the Society; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Book details

Holt House (2018) by L.G. Vey, Eden Book Society, 101 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Zero Hours – Neil Campbell

Zero Hours is Neil Campbell’s second novel, the sequel to 2016’s Sky Hooks (which I haven’t read, though the new book mostly stands alone). As its title suggests, this is a novel about work:

Try doing some of this zero hours shit. If you’re off sick then drag your arse in because you won’t be getting sick pay, you’ve got no rights whatsoever. Day after day you phone in asking for work. Day after day you sign in at the desk, just another face from the agency. On the phone, they used to call you for work. Now you have to call them. Time after time it’s engaged.

Campbell’s narrator is a young working-class man from Manchester. Throughout the novel he works a number of zero hours jobs, first at a mail-sorting depot, later at a number of libraries. There is nearly always something to dishearten our man, be it his duties, colleagues, managers, or just the constant uncertainty that comes with this kind of employment. Besides work, the narrator has a number of unsuccessful attempts at relationships, and sees the face of his city change, losing its character to gentrification. There’s a stop-start feel to reading the novel itself: as with zero hours work, the present moment is all, and even the immediate future uncertain.

Alongside his ‘day job’, the protagonist is a writer, active in the local literary scene and with a number of books published. This comes across as the glue holding the man’s life together, a source of continuity in contrast to pretty much everything else happening in his world. Sometimes reading Zero Hours feels like eavesdropping; at other times, it’s like being confided in. It makes one hope that, by novel’s end, there will be some light on the horizon.

Book details

Zero Hours (2018) by Neil Campbell, Salt Publishing, 138 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Read my review of Neil Campbell’s chapbook ‘Jackdaws’ (Nightjar Press) here.

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