Category: Fiction

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.

The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (tr. Jen Calleja): Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons with a new review. The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (translated from German by Jen Calleja) concerns a woman who goes in search of her parents’ birthplace and finds a quaint little town in its own bubble of reality – with a giant hole in the middle, where the secrets of the past can be conveniently lost. Eddelbauer’s novel is a striking metaphorical exploration of how people may seek to ignore the past, and how it may catch up with them. Published by Scribe UK.

Click here to read my review in full.

Melville House: My Weil by Lars Iyer

Up to now, I’ve been reluctant to try Lars Iyer’s novels, because I don’t know that much about philosophy. With a new one published, it was time to have a go. I mention this up front o you know where I’m coming from in what follows. This is how I read My Weil

Welcome to Manchester, as created through the thoughts and voices of a group of PhD students at All Saints University’s Centre for Disaster Studies. There is something uniquely authentic about this group, at least as far as they’re concerned. They see the PhD as the highest, purest form of study, “a passion of studious solitude”.

In this, they contrast themselves with the PhD students from the neighbouring red-brick institution, who have never known what it is to struggle to write. They’re far removed from All Saints’ homogenous undergraduate population (“Student-drones, preparing for the world of non-work. Student dullards, being processed for a society of busy nullity.”) And these humanities PhD students are the very antithesis of – shudder –Business Studies PhD students (“Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their disease of the soul? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them.“)

Throughout My Weil, our group rails against the decline of academia into endless seminars on professional skills. They make a film to highlight the futility of making art in the present day. They induct hapless “Business Studies Guy” into the ways of real study, pursued for its own sake even if it might never reach a conclusion.

The swirl of voices surrounding the reader makes the tone of Iyer’s novel shift from humour to despair to yearning, and back again. Our group of students may think their concerns are more substantial than most, but there’s a level of weight even beyond them. Into their number comes one Simone Weil, who essentially has the same outlook as the philosopher Weil. Her greater engagement with the possibility of God challenges the PhD students’ view of the world. Perhaps the most deeply affected is Johnny, who sees in Simone’s level of conviction something he wants to reach for. Pockets of solemnity burst from the throng of conversation, rising to an end that has a texture all of its own.

Published by Melville House.

Fly on the Wall Press: The State of Us by Charlie Hill

Here’s a very enjoyable story collection by Birmingham author Charlie Hill. There are tales of many shapes and sizes, but what I think of as Hill’s typical approach is abstracting and distilling a situation to a sharp point. 

The opening story, ‘Work’, is a good example of what I mean. In the ruins left behind after unspecified “detonations”, we meet two workers: Burt, who moves things, and Bill, who counts things. Burt would like to count things, as he tells Bill; but Bill questions his thought process. The banter between the two may raise a wry smile, but it’s ultimately chilling to see the whole of work – the whole of life – reduced down in this way. As Burt puts it: “…there is no besides, is there? […] There’s no besides at all. Look around you. Look at it. There’s this. That’s all there is. This.” 

Elsewhere in the book, ‘The Tale of Big Hal and the Bethany Tower’ gives larger-than-life dimensions to a story of competitive suburban parenting. The longest story, ‘On the International Space Station’, sees a lone astronaut giving updates to a mission control that they hope is still on Earth, and reflecting on the nature of ‘progress’. ‘Holidaying in the Maldives’ is a shorter piece whose text is increasingly greyed-out in patches to illustrate the tale being lost amid rising seas. 

This collection mostly takes a dark view of ‘the state of us’, but there is also a certain pragmatic optimism. The title story imagines specks of matter from people around the world carried to Birmingham in the wake of World War Two aircraft, then later generations making their way there: “And they found in Birmingham a city not just of a secure and diverting past but a city of a human and uncertain future, a city that was ugly, glorious, troubled, beautiful, a city that was of this earth and of this world, a city that was home…” 

This, then, may be the state of us: good and bad at the same time, precarious but here

Published by Fly on the Wall Press.

In the Belly of the Queen by Karosh Taha (tr. Grashina Gabelmann): Women in Translation Month

In the Belly of the Queen is published as two novellas back-to-back, each set amongst the same group of characters in a Kurdish community in Germany. In my reading of the book, the two novellas don’t fit into the same chronology – but I have to sound a note of caution here, because I haven’t found another review online that thinks the same. If I’m wrong in what follows, so be it – I can only write about the book that I read. 

In each novella, the narrator is close to the character Younes. Raffiq (whose story I read first) can’t help thinking about Younes’s beautiful mother Shahira, who doesn’t conform to the community’s expectations – for example, she sleeps around and wears revealing clothes. The attention is too much for Younes, who goes to find his father in Frankfurt. Raffiq’s girlfriend Amal plans to go to America, and his father wants the family to leave for Kurdistan, where he’d be qualified to practise as an architect once again. Raffiq wants to stay in Germany, and has to decide where his loyalties lie. 

The other story is Amal’s, but here she is no friend of Raffiq. Like Shahira, this Amal doesn’t abide by societal expectations, albeit in a different way: from an early age, she was nicknamed “Mowgli-girl” for cutting her hair short and beating up Younes (they would become closer later on). In this account, Amal’s father is an architect who went back to Kurdistan; she follows him, but doesn’t find quite what she expected. 

By structuring her novel in this way, Taha effectively puts Raffiq and Amal in the same position in their respective stories, then explores the different ramifications for each. There’s also the character of Shahira, who looms large in both stories but never speaks to us herself (I have to acknowledge that the author’s essay in the book pointed me towards this). In a sense, she exists beyond the narrative in the same way that she exists beyond community norms. The full effect of Taha’s novel lies in the interplay and contrast between its two halves. 

Published by V&Q Books.

Peirene Press: The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer (tr. James Young)

Reading this novel is an experience tinged with sadness from the start, knowing that its author died in 2018, shortly before his thirtieth birthday. One can’t help wondering what else Victor Heringer might have written, but it’s great that we have such a striking book as The Love of Singular Men from him, in a wonderfully fluid translation by James Young. 

Our narrator is Camilo, who grows up in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s. Though he has a condition affecting his mobility, his middle-class upbringing means Camilo’s life is largely untroubled by the wider world. One day, Camilo’s father brings a young boy named Cosme to the house and announces that he is to join the family. Camilo hates Cosme at first, but in time that emotion will blossom into love. 

Camilo narrates his story as a middle-aged man looking back. We learn there has been tragedy, and that Camilo struggles to hold on to his memories:

My Cosme has been losing his features over time. I no longer remember clearly what his face was like, just a few broad lines, a few pieces reheated a million times in the imagination: his face when he tasted unsweetened lemonade, the grimace of the first time. A tired smile at the end of a kickabout. […] I’ve recalled these memories so many times that now what I see is no longer my friend’s face of flesh and cartilage, but a worn-out image, buried under fourteen thousand re-rememberings. 

Translation from Portuguese by James Young

The past very much lives on in the present for Camilo, and he may be ready to take action now in order to resolve what happened then. Heringer’s novel takes in themes of violence, poverty and marginalisation. You never know quite where this book will turn next, but it’s always fascinating to see. 

Published by Peirene Press.

Prototype Publishing: Lori & Joe by Amy Arnold

It’s on a day like any other – or maybe like none at all – that Lori finds her partner Joe dead in their Lake District home. She doesn’t see the point in calling for an ambulance, and goes out for a walk instead. Over the course of that day, Lori thinks back on her life with Joe, and we see how out of place she felt when she moved to the Lake District, and how much she would dwell on their neighbours’ large family. 

Arnold portrays Lori’s thoughts as constantly shifting and looping back on themselves. This creates a restlessness that animates the novel, and also allows Lori to deflect thoughts that she may prefer not to have. It’s striking that, when she registers that Joe is dead, her attention turns swiftly to the coffee she’s carrying and the state of the carpet. 

For a taste of Arnold’s approach in action, here is Lori when emotion catches up with her:

And she thinks, not tears now and she feels them pushing inside her head and she thinks, all day they’ve been threatening, ever since she stopped on the bridleway and looked up at the sky. White from end to end, yes, that’s how it was this morning, Lori thinks, and it’s been nothing but rain all month, one rain after another rain, there’s hardly been time to breathe between them and she looks across the rough ground and she feels the tears pushing inside and she thinks, there can’t be another landscape that takes the rains like this one, that absorbs violence after violence and in summer gives flowers that wear veins in their petals. Bog pimpernel, Lori thinks, skylarks, cottongrass. 

What I like about this is the way Lori tries to push her feelings into the external environment: when tears come, she focuses on rain. In turn, this gives an extra dimension to the comment about landscapes absorbing “violence after violence”, as one starts to wonder what Lori might really mean. There are quiet revelations here, quiet because Lori would rather not voice them out loud. 

Published by Prototype.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize. Click here to read my other reviews of the shortlist.

Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Earlier this year, I read Appius and Virginia by Gertrude Trevelyan, which had found its way back into print thanks to Brad Bigelow from the Neglected Books Page. Brad also has an ongoing series with Boiler House Press, Recovered Books, which aims to bring back more ‘forgotten’ titles. 

The first entry in the Recovered Books series was Gentleman Overboard, a short novel originally published in 1937 and written by an American journalist, Herbert Clyde Lewis (1909-50). Lewis introduces us to Henry Preston Standish: a 35-year-old New York businessman, materially comfortable but with a nagging feeling that something is missing in his life. 

Standish leaves behind his wife and young daughter to take a trip on a steamship. He’s on deck early one morning when, unseen, he slips on a spot of grease and falls into the Pacific. In this situation, Lewis puts Standish and his sense of self under the microscope. Standish’s immediate emotion on falling overboard is shame, because this is not the sort of thing that should happen to someone like him:

Men of Henry Preston Standish’s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. it was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it.

At first, Standish’s sense of decorum remains, but the reality of his predicament eventually hits home. He starts removing his outer clothes to stay afloat, and abandoning the contents of his wallet. The layers of his genteel life are literally stripped away. 

Lewis combines contradictory tones in a way I found quite powerful: Gentleman Overboard is both comic and tragic, banal and affecting. For example here’s a passage where Standish reflects on what might be lost if he were to drown:

There would be voids everywhere through no fault of his. A void in the elevator boy’s pocket next Christmas, a void in the telephone book, a void on the office stationery…New York City would be dotted with spaces that could never be filled by anyone but the real Henry Preston Standish; his locker at the Athletic Club, the hollow in his bed, the interior of his dinner jacket, to mention just a few.

There is something absurd in the small scope of what Standish describes here. But when I think about it, it seems to me that this captures something of what life is like. Yes, in the broader picture, one human life may be insignificant; but on an individual scale, even the smallest things can carry meaning. Lewis holds these contradictions in a finely balanced tension. 

© 2024 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d