Category: Fiction

#InternationalBooker2024: the longlist

The International Booker Prize is upon us, and as ever I will be joining in with the Shadow Panel to read along and offer my thoughts. Here’s the longlist, which was announced on Monday:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, translated from Spanish by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn (Seven Stories Press UK)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • White Nights by Urszula Honek, translated from Polish by Kate Webster (MTO Press)
  • Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Scribe UK)
  • A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare, translated from Albanian by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker)
  • The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk (MacLehose Press)
  • What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey (Scribe UK)
  • Lost On Me by Veronica Raimo, translated from Italian by Leah Janeczko (Virago)
  • The House on Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, translated from Italian by Oonagh Stransky (Europa Editions UK)
  • Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (Verso Fiction)
  • Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener, translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches (Pushkin Press)

I don’t have much to say at this point, because I haven’t read any of the books yet! Buts I read and review the longlist, the titles above will turn into links. It’s going to be quite a journey, so let’s get going…

Dylan Thomas Prize: Open Up by Thomas Morris

For the last few years, I’ve taken part in a blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize (awarded to works in English by writers aged under 40), looking at one of the longlisted titles. This year, my book of choice is the second story collection by Welsh writer Thomas Morris (following on from 2015’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing). 

The five stories in Open Up each revolve around male protagonists seeking a connection of some sort (seeking for the world to open up, if you will) – but there’s always a twist to how Morris approaches his material. The first story, ‘Wales’, sees a young boy going to a football match with his father (whom he hasn’t seen for three months) and feeling that everything will be fine if only Wales win. A glimpse into the future at story’s end stretches time to show that there can be unexpected turns of fortune (though maybe not perfection) after all. 

Sometimes Morris’s tales shift towards fantasy. For example, ‘Aberkariad’ is a story about seahorses. It lays human emotions on top of the particular biology of seahorses, bringing an unusual angle to the tale of a boy searching for his absent mother. In ‘Birthday Teeth’, Glyn describes himself as a vampire. Maybe he is, maybe it’s part of the disconnection he feels from his past and the world around him. Either way, he’s going to get himself some fangs on his 21st birthday. The process changes Glyn’s outlook, with the sense that he is able to become more fully himself. 

Even in the stories that seem more ordinary, there are intriguing undercurrents. ‘Little Wizard’ sees Big Mike (all five-foot-three of him) struggling with work and dating. So much of his life seems to be mediated through screens, whether that’s taking to friends on apps or watching football on TV. These represent Mike’s distance from the world but, in a nice touch, that very distance is also what helps him find a way forward. In ‘Passenger’, Geraint is on holiday in Croatia with his partner Niamh. But he’s not really present, as he’s dwelling more on the past. So there are two journeys going on in this story at the same time, and each helps resolve the other. The seems to me typical of the striking patters Morris paints in the stories of Open Up.

Open Up is published by Faber & Faber. The Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist will be revealed on 21 March, with the winner to be announced on 16 May.

Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada (tr. David Boyd)

Each of the three stories collected in Weasels in the Attic is linked by the narrator and his friend Saiki sharing a meal, meals that seem to become a focal point for broader currents at play. The stories may appear quiet on the surface, but there is an unsettling sense of more going on (or perhaps more being meant) beneath that façade.

In the first story, ‘Death in the Family’, the narrator recalls visiting a friend of Saiki’s named Urabe, who lived above his old tropical fish shop. Urabe still bred fish, and in the story all his fish tanks seem to represent the force of his personality taking up the space. Urabe invites Saiki and the narrator to snack on dried shrimp that he uses for fish food. This gathering feels like a boys’ club, with the shrimp a way of bringing the other men into Urabe’s world.

In ‘The Last of the Weasels’, Saiki has married a woman named Yoko and moved to the country. They have a problem with weasels in the house. When the narrator and his wife are invited over for dinner, she tells a story of how her parents once dealt with a weasel problem, and the narrator can’t square this with the in-laws he knows. I imagine the weasels here as standing in for the hidden problems in a relationship, experienced and dealt with beyond the sight of others.

By the time of the third story, ‘Yukiko’, Saiki and Yoko have a baby girl. The narrator is again invited to visit, and the different elements of the couple’s life feel more compartmentalised this time. The events of these stories ultimately reflect back on to the narrator’s own life, and a new phase of life is about to begin as the book ends. It’s fitting for a collection that constantly opens out the further you look in.

Published by Granta Books.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List is hosting his annual January in Japan event at the moment. Weasels in the Attic was his first title for this month, and you can find his review of it here.

The Moustache by Emmanuel Carrère (tr. Lanie Goodman)

Right, new year, new start – or at least, the start of getting back into reading. This 1986 novel begins with a small change that becomes all-consuming. “What would you say if I shaved off my moustache?” the protagonist asks his wife Agnes. “That might be a good idea,” she replies, laughing.

The man goes ahead and shaves his moustache, but is annoyed to find that doing so has left behind a conspicuous patch of pale skin in contrast with his tan. He’s surprised that Agnes doesn’t seem to notice, and even more so when their friends Serge and Veronique don’t say anything at dinner that evening.

Thinking that Agnes must be playing a prank, the man questions her, and she insists that he has never had a moustache. He grows ever more desperate in his attempts to prove that his perception is right, and in imagining the elaborate deceptions that he believes Agnes must have arranged. The stakes grow higher when Agnes denies knowing Serge and Veronique, and it looks as though the man may have lost all grip on reality.

Carrère keeps the narration tightly bound to his protagonist’s viewpoint – not so much that it can’t be questioned, but enough that its momentum does not let up. The ending is perhaps the protagonist’s ultimate attempt to assert the validity of his perception. I don’t know that I was drawn in enough for The Moustache to have its full effect on me, but it was quite the journey.

Published in Vintage Editions.

A selection of 2023 favourites

I don’t know why it happened, but there were times this year when I just fell out of the habit of reading. This is not what I want, and my aim for 2024 is to find my way back in – with this space to help. For now, though, I’m looking back on 2023. It didn’t feel right to do my usual countdown of twelve books, so instead I’ve picked out six favourites, in no particular order:

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan 

It sounds as though it will be whimsical: the tale of a woman who buys an orang-utan with the aim of raising it as a human. What it becomes, though, is a chilling exploration of the unbridgeable gap between one mind and another. 

Whale (2004) by Cheon Myeong-kwan
Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (2022)

I won’t pretend I always knew what I was reading with this book, but I do know I enjoyed it. Whale is a dance through recent Korean history, with trauma, violence, humour and magic all present in the stories of its larger-than-life characters. 

Is Mother Dead (2020) by Vigdis Hjorth
Translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (2022)

Johanna returns to Oslo after almost thirty years, speculating intensely over what may have happened to her mother. What I found most striking about this novel is how it transforms our perception of Johanna without changing the essential tone of her narration. 

Gentleman Overboard (1937) by Herbert Clyde Lewis

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this portrait of a man whose layers of gentility are literally stripped from him when he falls into the sea. I found it quite powerful, especially in how it highlights that the smallest things can be both significant and insignificant, depending on the viewpoint.

War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
Translated from Czech by M. and R. Weatherall (1937)

A shape-shifting satire in which intelligent salamanders are first exploited by humans, and then rebel against them. I was pleased to find that the novel still has considerable bite, and appreciated that it couldn’t be reduced easily to a single metaphor or interpretation. 

Time Shelter (2020) by Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (2022)

I love how the canvas of this novel widens, from a clinic that helps dementia patients by recreating the past, to a whole continent retreating into nostalgia. Time Shelter examines the dangers of becoming fixated on the past, and the narrator’s memory fails him, suggesting there is no shelter from time after all. 

***

There are my reading highlights of 2023. You can find my round-ups from previous years here:

2022, 2021202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

You can also fined me on social media at Instagram, Facebook, Bluesky, and X/Twitter. See you next year!

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack’s previous novel, Solar Bones, saw one man examine his life and the whole of existence in the same breath. This Plague of Souls also moves from a solitary portrait to the widest canvas without shifting focus. 

We first meet the protagonist, Nealon, as he returns home from prison, having been held on remand (and therefore caught between the worlds of inside and outside). His wife and son are nowhere to be seen: there are just periodic calls from an unknown person who insists he and Nealon should meet. 

Gradually we learn more (though by no means everything) about Nealon, including that he has an uncommon ability to see patterns in the world:

Art and politics, light and dark, past and future, he can see the links between them all. He can dwell on these separate things for hours before finally glimpsing what draws them together into an interlocking whole. Somewhere along the way he has mastered the trick of demarking opposing sets of circumstances while holding them together in his mind’s eyes, separate and apart, their multidimensional weave given free play without interference from himself or anything in him which might give bias or slant to their eventual coherence.

The world of the novel also opens up, from Nealon’s new domestic drudgery at the start, to the realisation that an unspecified disaster is unfolding in Ireland (and possibly beyond). Nealon decides to meet his mystery caller, who believes he’s worked out what crime Nealon has committed – a world-spanning crime that only someone with Nealon’s pattern-spotting skills could devise. 

In the end, This Plague of Souls represents a wager over whether the world can be made into a coherent whole. It’s a journey from the opening of a front door, all the way to a point where reality itself hangs in the balance. 

Published by Canongate in the UK and Tramp Press in Ireland. US publication is forthcoming in January.

Goldsmiths Prize 2023: Man-Eating Typewriter by Richard Milward

Man-Eating Typewriter begins with a foreword by the head of Glass Eye Press, a small Soho publisher. It describes how, in 1969, they were contacted by one Raymond Novak, who claimed that in nine months, he would commit a “fantabulosa crime” that would become the stuff of legend. Novak offered to send Glass Eye the chapters of his memoir, ready to be published as news broke of his crime. The publisher needed money, so here we are. 

Novak’s memoir is written in his version of Polari, a form of slang associated historically with (amongst others) fairground workers, the merchant navy, and gay men in Britain. For example, here is Novak talking about the difficulties of understanding the language when he’s been taken into a hostel as an orphan:

For months the lingo-barrier was like banging my tet against the Rosetta Rock and drawing blood. I savvied clear enough twas a specnalji privilege or punishment being dragged in before the Governor and the suits… 

I won’t say that this becomes easy to follow as such, but like the version of Old English in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, I found a rhythm that kept me reading. Novak’s life, as he narrates it, becomes more and more extreme and outlandish. But the effect of the Polari is to open up a world in which this life can take place – to establish life on Novak’s terms, not anyone else’s. 

The people of Glass Eye Press, though, are starting to feel that Novak’s memoir is a little too close to home. Footnotes chronicle their attempts to find Novak, and we end up with different voices and styles – which is to say, different versions of the world – clashing for space on the page. Milward’s novel is exuberant and well worth diving into. 

Published by White Rabbit Books.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2023

The Goldsmiths Prize is one of the literary awards I try to read along with. Sometimes I manage the whole list, sometimes I don’t – but it’s always worthwhile. Here is what we have this year:

  • Lori & Joe by Amy Arnold (Prototype)
  • The Long Form by Kate Briggs (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Never Was by H. Gareth Gavin (Cipher Press)
  • Man-Eating Typewriter by Richard Milward (White Rabbit)
  • Cuddy by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury)
  • The Future Future by Adam Thirlwell (Jonathan Cape)

To date, I’ve read one of these, Lori & Joe, a quiet novel of looping thoughts that suits the Goldsmiths well. I don’t know much about the rest of them, so I will finish this post here and get reading…

Charco Press: A Little Luck by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

I thoroughly enjoyed Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Elena Knows a couple of years ago, so I was excited to see that Charco Press and translator Frances Riddle were publishing a new Piñeiro title. A Little Luck is quite different in subject from Elena Knows, but still has the intensity of perspective. 

Our protagonist is Mary Lohan, who has travelled from Boston to Buenos Aires to evaluate a school for accreditation, on behalf of her late husband’s educational institute. However, Mary was born in Buenos Aires as María, and fled years ago. She has changed her appearance enough that she believes she won’t be recognised. But there’s one person in particular she doesn’t want to encounter – and wouldn’t you know it… 

A Little Luck gives up its secrets steadily, some quite early on. I like the way this is done, and I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I am going to be cagey about how much I reveal. A scene at a level crossing is repeated throughout the first part of the novel, embellished more and more each time, until we discover the key event in María’s past. Over the rest of the book, the protagonist explains and reflects on her decision to leave Argentina behind. In the end, there were no good choices for María, only the choices she made, Piñeiro’s novel captures the complexity of what flows from that. 

Czech Lit Month: War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

Stu at Winston’s Dad is hosting a Czech Lit Month this September. It’s not an area I know very well, so I have picked out a few books to read this month, using this list from Radio Prague International as inspiration. 

I’ll be working through my choices in chronological order, starting with Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel War with the Newts (I read the 1937 translation by M. and R. Weatherall, published in Penguin Modern Classics). It begins with one Captain van Toch discovering a colony of intelligent salamanders, whom he teaches to use knives to open oysters, before establishing a pearl trade with them. 

This grows into the mass exploitation by humans of the Newts, as the salamanders become known. They are encouraged to spread around the world, they pick up human languages, and are put to the work that humans would prefer not to do themselves. But this situation can’t last, and eventually the Newts turn against the human population… 

War with the Newts is a novel that constantly changes shape. It starts off drily humorous, lampooning groups from journalists to Hollywood stars. Its middle section covers the development of Newt civilisation, incorporating fictitious texts of various styles (such as newspaper articles and scientific accounts). Then a more serious tone comes to the fore as the war of the title begins. 

What I find particularly intriguing about Čapek’s novel is that (in my reading, anyway) the Newts can’t be reduced to a single metaphor or interpretation. There are reflections of slavery, Nazism, mistreatment of animals, capitalism, environmental degradation… Above all, though, there’s a message (still urgent now) about the consequences of our actions. In the final chapter, the author of what we’ve read debates the ending with his inner voice:

“Do you think through my will that human continents are failing to bits, do you think that I wanted this to happen? It is simply the logic of events; as if I could intervene.”

With irony, even the writer can’t face up to his own complicity. There’s power in this book, and I won’t forget it easily.

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