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The Dollmaker – Nina Allan: a Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons this week, with a review of Nina Allan’s latest novel, The Dollmaker.

Nina is a long-time friend of this blog, and one of the authors I’ve written about most often – but never quite at this length. It was a pleasure to spend time thinking through The Dollmaker: on the surface, the novel is about a maker and collector of dolls paying a surprise visit to a correspondent, but it also explores how lives lived beside each other can be as distant as parallel worlds.

Click here to read my review in full.

The Dollmaker (2019) is published by riverrun in the UK and Other Press in the US.

Transfer Window – Maria Gerhardt #WITMonth

Maria Gerhardt (1978-2017) was a Danish writer and DJ who died of cancer soon after completing her third novel, Transfer Window, a fact that couldn’t help but colour my reading. The protagonist is a terminally ill young woman who lives in a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen that’s been turned into a hospice. The boutiques have given way to juice bars and therapists. The narrator spends much of her time at the Virtual Reality Store, reliving old memories.

Transfer Window is a portrait of life derailed by illness and the knowledge that it will be cut short. It’s written as a series of fragments: no linear narrative here, because the ongoing thread of the protagonist’s life has snapped. Any ambitions she might have had must be abandoned. The optimism of her schooldays has given way to pain and tiredness. Her relationships with other people – her sense of how they see her – has changed:

I don’t have to do anything today, other than care for my body and soul, enjoy life, as they say. There is no one to disappoint, no one to burden. Everyone, who does anything for me, is paid one-hundred-and-fifty kroner an hour. No one has to call me up voluntarily, or come for a visit and get a bad conscience about all the things they cannot change.
(translation by Lindy Falk van Rooyen)

Transfer Window is a piercing novel which depicts a character slipping out of her old life in plain sight. The suburb-hospice becomes a potent metaphor: a parallel world within the visible world, where lives play out to a different rhythm and outsiders can just walk on by. It’s a book that continues to linger and haunt.

Book details

Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019), Nordisk Books, 92 pages, paperback.

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Taeko Kono

It’s August, which means Women in Translation Month (founded by Meytal from Biblibio). My reading for 2019 starts in Japan, with this collection of stories by Taeko Kono (1926-2015), all originally published in the 1960s. Kono’s tales explore the darker undercurrents of their protagonists’ lives and desires. For example, the title story concerns Akiko, who can’t bear the sight of little girls. They remind her of a pupa she once saw in science class.

Akiko dotes on little boys, however. She has a habit of buying expensive boys’ clothes and choosing a friend’s son to give them to, almost on a whim – often to the consternation of the friend in question. Kono’s unflinching eye makes even the smallest interactions in the story disquieting, as the reader tries to piece together where Akiko is coming from.

In ‘Night Journey’, a couple head into town one Saturday evening to look for their friends whom they had invited for dinner. Kono fills in the history of their friendship along the way, while the present-day journey grows ever more charged:

Nobody had ever lived in this half-finished house, Fukuko realized: such places have their own peculiar atmosphere, different from that of an old abandoned house. An abandoned house would be creepy and cold, too frightening to enter. But this one almost seemed to taunt her with its own strange vitality. There was nothing hateful about it, but she felt an urge to scrawl graffiti on the broad doorframe of bare wood, or throw a wooden clog through an empty second-floor window.
(translation by Lucy North)

Past and present develop in parallel, until it becomes uncertain where either the friendship or tonight’s travels will go next. Kono’s stories often end on ambiguous images that linger once the reading is done, refusing to resolve into easy explanations.

Book details

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, tr. Lucy North with one story tr. Lucy Lower (1996), New Directions, 274 pages, paperback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

Night Boat to Tangier: trapped in the conversation

In Kevin Barry’s newly Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier (pub. Canongate), ageing Irish gangsters Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have travelled to Spain to search for Maurice’s missing 23-year-old daughter Dilly. Towards the start of the novel, the pair corner a young Englishman named Benny, who looks like he belongs to the kind of crowd they imagine Dilly has fallen in with. They question him over whether he might have seen her:

Benjamin? Maurice says. We’re not saying ye all know each other or anything, like. Sure there could be half a million of ye sweet children in Spain. The way things are going.

Charlie whispers –

Because ye’d have the weather for it.

Maurice whispers –

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.

Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.

Under the starry skies, Maurice says.

Charlie stands, gently awed, and proclaims –

‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Whose line was that, Maurice?

I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it might have been Little Stevie Wonder.

A genius. Little Stevie.

The dialogue rolls on like this, trapping the reader in the conversation as surely as Benny himself is trapped in the encounter. This is not a situation with any rules that Benny can grasp, and the sense of uncertainty builds: will the next line be friendly or lethal? It’s electrifying to read.

What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

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.

Resistance – Julián Fuks

Like its author, the narrator of Julián Fuks’ Resistance is Brazilian, of Argentinian descent. The narrator’s parents were opponents of Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, and had to flee. In the present, the protagonist travels to Buenos Aires, trying to piece together his family’s story. But so much is beyond his reach. For example, in one chapter he describes the evening his parents held a dinner party where no one came, because their friends knew how dangerous it would be to gather together. Fuks’ protagonist realises that he simply cannot grasp what it was like to live in those circumstances:

I can’t conceive of a suppression of the self being exploited to the maximum, the systematic destruction of the void that is the self, its transformation into an object of torture. I cannot imagine, and this is why my words become more abstract the unspeakable circumstances in which staying silent is not a betrayal, in which staying silent is a resistance, the most absolute evidence of commitment and friendship. Staying silent in order to save the other: stay silent and be destroyed.
(translation from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn)

Ideas of resistance run through the book: people resisting oppression, of course, but also history resisting comprehension, or reality resisting being captured in language. But the narrator does what he can, because he feels that he must – that he owes it to his family, and himself.

Book details

Resistance (2015) by Julián Fuks, tr. Daniel Hahn (2018), Charco Press, 154 pages, paperback.

A Simple Story – Leila Guerriero

After a look back, it’s time for my first ‘new’ post for this year’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story is a piece of journalism from Argentina. Every year in the town of Laborde, young working-class men compete to be crowned champion of the malambo, a physically-demanding traditional dance. Custom dictates that the winner must never perform the malambo again – but the prestige he’ll gain is unparalleled.

Guerriero says in the book that she set out to write about the malambo competition in general, but that changed when she saw Rodolfo González Alcántara dance:

He became the countryside, the dry earth, the taut pampas horizon, he was the smell of horses, the sound of the sky in summer, and the hum of solitude – fury, illness, and war. He became the opposite of peace. He was the slashing knife, the cannibal, and a decree. At the end he stamped his foot with terrific force and stood, covered in stars, resplendent, staring through the peeling layers of night air. And, with a sidelong smile – like that of a prince, a vagabond, or a demon – he touched the brim of his hat, And was gone.
(translation by Thomas Bunstead)

A Simple Story then follows Rodolfo as he trains for the 2012 Laborde festival. Though the two books are quite different, I was reminded of Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot, which captures a similar sense of physicality and all-consuming determination.

If you’d like to see Rodolfo dancing the malambo, here’s a clip.

Book details

A Simple Story (2013) by Leila Guerriero, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback.

Ten books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month

I don’t know quite where half the year has gone, but it’s July, which means it is Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (hosted this year by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog). I look forward to this month, because I invariably come across some great books. I thought I would start by taking a look back through my archives. Here are ten recommendations (six translated from Spanish, two from Portuguese, one from Basque, one from Catalan), with links to my reviews…

***

Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (Basque Country), tr. Elizabeth Macklin – A novel about the history of its author’s fishing family, lives that grow larger in the telling.

I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher (Brazil), tr. Adam Morris – A retiring academic who survived torture by the military dictatorship in the 1970s reflects on the impossibility of telling a coherent story about the past.

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (Brazil), tr. Alison Entrekin – A classic tale of childhood chronicling the adventures of a charming young protagonist, which carries a poignant sting at the end.

Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernández Cubas (Spain), tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts – Six eerie stories of unstable reality.

No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi (Argentina), tr. Nick Caistor – An ex-policeman is framed for murder in a novel that presents its world as an intractable puzzle of corruption which resists attempts to be solved.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (Chile), tr. Megan McDowell – The story of a woman who loses her sight suddenly, then finds herself having to work life out anew.

The Slaughter Yard by Esteban Echeverría (Argentina), tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe – The oldest piece of Argentine prose fiction this is the story of a young man killed by a mob for his political beliefs. A tale of powerful imagery and metaphor.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Catalonia), tr. Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell – The tumult of early 20th century history, experienced through one woman’s ordinary (yet extraordinary) life.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (Mexico), tr. Natasha Wimmer – A tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, played across the sweep of early modern history.

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Dueñas (Spain), tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García – A highly enjoyable historical yarn that moves from Mexico to Cuba and then Spain, as a miner who’s set to lose everything tries his best to stay afloat.

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