Tagbook review

The Dinner Guest – Gabriela Ybarra (#MBI2018)

The opening of Gabriela Ybarra’s debut novel (longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize) explains its title:

The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.

The first to vanish was my grandfather.

[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

The novel narrates and juxtaposes two deaths in the author’s family; a prefatory note suggests that this is Ybarra’s way of trying to come to terms with what happened.

The first part of The Dinner Guest focuses on Ybarra’s grandfather Javier, a Basque politician who was kidnapped by separatists in 1977 (six years before the author was born), then killed after a month of unsuccessful negotiations. The second section mostly concerns the death from cancer of Ybarra’s mother. There lies the contrast at the novel’s heart: on the one hand, public events which are told at a certain remove; on the other, a more private, intimate loss.

There are some poignant moments as Ybarra depicts her mother’s decline, but the novel is also striking when she brings the different strands together. For example, Ybarra searches the internet for images of the man who sent her father a package bomb in 2002, and finds herself experiencing a particular that she can’t quite pin down:

Looking at pictures of him, I feel the same way I do when I look at images of cancer cells. I don’t think about the threat, but about the story conjured up. The images of the tumours look like galaxies, and when I look at them, I tell myself stories about space.

It’s that impulse, to make stories out of what could be seen as threatening, which drives the form of this novel. The intersection of those different stories is intriguing.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

The Dinner Guest (2015) by Gabriela Ybarra, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2018), Harvill Secker, 160 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi (#MBI2018)

Frankenstein in Baghdad is Ahmed Saadawi’s third novel (although, as far as I can tell, the first to be translated into English). It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, making Saadawi the first Iraqi writer to win the award. If I’m honest, though, my attention was caught by the title alone.

The setting is US-occupied Baghdad. We are quickly introduced to a number of memorable characters, including Elishva, an old woman believed to have special powers, who still longs for her son Daniel to return from the Iran-Iraq war; Hadi, an old junk-seller and teller of tall tales; and Mahmoud, an ambitious magazine journalist. In the first few chapters especially, the view of events overlaps as we go from character to character, so already we get a sense of shifting, unstable reality.

This is a place where danger and violence can erupt without warning:

When he was twenty yards past the gate, Hadi saw the garbage truck race past him toward the gate, almost knocking him over. A few moments later it exploded. Hadi,together with his sack and his dinner, was lifted off the ground. With the dust and dirt and blast of the explosion, he sailed through the air, turned a somersault, and landed hard on the asphalt.

Hadi has been collecting body parts and stitching them together, hoping that the government will give the pieces a proper burial if they’re part of a complete corpse. The corpse, however, has other ideas. The soul of a hotel guard killed by that exploding garbage truck finds a resting place in Hadi’s creation, and it only takes an inadvertent wish from Elishva to animate the body… and soon she thinks Daniel has returned.

But then the corpse – soon to be dubbed “the Whatsitsname” – disappears, and gains a gruesome purpose. He is driven to kill those responsible for the deaths of his individual parts. But, whenever the Whatsitsname kills such a person, his corresponding body part disintegrates – and so needs to be replaced, leading to another urge to kill, and so on, and so on. The Whatsitsname becomes a walking cycle of killing for its own sake. This becomes a powerful metaphor for life in the besieged city. It grows even more grimly absurd when the Whatsitsname attracts his own acolytes willing to assist his cause, so ending up at the centre of a cult-of-sorts.

But… what if it’s all not real? Saadawi builds enough trapdoors into his novel that the whole business of the Whatsitsname could be false. The Whatsitsname purportedly tells his story on a digital voice recorder provided by Mahmoud, via Hadi – at two or more removes, in other words, with one of those being a notorious liar. Furthermore, the whole book is presented as a text written by an unidentified author and found by a shady government department. The effect of all this is not so much to undermine the Whatsitsname as to reinforce the notion that he’s not needed – all the absurdity, the random killing, can and does go on anyway.

Jonathan Wright’s translation is measured in tone, making the supernatural grounded and everyday horrors all the more shocking. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frankenstein in Baghdad, and it will be my benchmark as I go through the Man Booker International longlist.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi, tr. Jonathan Wright (2018), Oneworld, 272 pages, paperback (proof copy provided for review).

You Have Me to Love – Jaap Robben: a review for #BoekenweekUK

Welcome to the final stop on World Editions’ blog tour for Boekenweek, celebrating Dutch literature. Today I’m reviewing You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty). Robben is a poet, playwright and children’s author; Birk (to use the title of the Dutch version) is his first novel for adults. It won the 2014 Dutch Booksellers Away and the Dioraphte Prize. Having read the book, it’s not hard to see why.

Our narrator is young Mikael Hammermann, who lives with his parents, Dora and Birk, on an island somewhere between Scotland and Norway. There are only three houses on the island, and one of those is empty. Groceries arrive by boat every two weeks; Mikael is home-schooled, at least enough to do well in the tests that are sent to him periodically (and which he is allowed to complete in pencil, so they can be corrected before returning). Robben never places the island in a true geographical context, so throughout there’s a sense of dislocation which really comes into its own as the novel progresses.

The Hammermanns’ world is upended when, one day, Birk vanishes into the sea. The search for him yields nothing, though Mikael begins to see a tiny version of his father about the house – that is, until he’s forced to confront and reveal the full circumstances of Birk’s disappearance.

The rest of the novel chronicles life without Birk for mother and son. Dora’s attitude switches from blaming Mikael to something that he can’t quite read: for example, at one point Mikael’s mother announces abruptly that they’re going to swap bedrooms, ostensibly because he’s growing up and needs the bigger bed – but it still seems a strange thing to him. For his part, Mikael starts to help out the Hammermanns’ neighbour, Karl, with his fishing boat; though Dora is not keen, perhaps from a sense of possessiveness (for whom, is an open question). Mikael also attempts secretly to raise a gull chick in the island’s empty house, which is perhaps his way of proving himself to himself.

Jaap Robben

You Have Me to Love has a number of emotional turns that I wasn’t expecting – it’s really quite affecting. If you’d like a taste of the writing, Anne posted an extract from Doherty’s translation at Random Things Through My Letterbox yesterday. There’s also an animated short based on the book, which you can see here.

Book details

You Have Me to Love (2014) by Jaap Robben, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions, 256 pages, paperback (review copy).

Mothers – Chris Power: a Splice review

Today’s review is about an excellent short story collection, but first I want to introduce the venue. Splice is a new review site and small press set up by Daniel Davis Wood. It has been online only a couple of weeks, but I think it’s already establishing a distinctive and interesting approach. Each week, the site focuses on a single title: a review is published on Monday, followed by a feature or extract on Wednesday, and a round-up of related links on Friday.

This week’s book is Mothers, the debut collection from Chris Power, who writes the Guardian’s ‘brief survey of the short story‘ series. I’ve written the Monday review of Mothers, and I found it a fascinating book to read and think about.

Mothers is a collection of ten stories, mostly featuring characters who are lost in some way, often at moments of great change in their lives. Three of the stories concern the same character, Eva, her relationship with her mother, and what happens when she becomes a mother herself. Mothers is also particularly cohesive as a collection – not that the stories are linked as such, but they cast light and shade on each other in a way that’s quite remarkable to experience.

Some links:

Mothers is published in the UK on 1 March by Faber & Faber.

Book details

Mothers (2018) by Chris Power, Faber & Faber, 304 pages, hardback (review copy).

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

Today, I’ve got a Norwegian classic for you. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) came from the village of Vinje, a village in the southern Norwegian province of Telemark. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 novels, including 1963’s The Ice Palace. I’m reviewing the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, which has been published in association with Peter Owen Publishers. Before I start on the novel itself, I must say that I think the cover image is gorgeous. It’s by Hsiao-Ron Cheng, a Taiwanese artist; if you like this picture, there’s more on her Instagram.

Now, back to The Ice Palace. It’s the story of two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is the leader in her school playground, the one whom all the other children gravitate towards. Unn is a recent arrival from another district, come to stay with her aunt (rumour has it, because she has been orphaned). Unn stands apart from all the others in the playground, but Siss is drawn to her nonetheless. It turns out that Unn would like to spend time with Siss after all, but will only do so if Siss visits her at home after school. Siss accepts the invitation.

The scene where the two girls are sitting in Unn’s bedroom is remarkably powerful. Tension builds and builds, but so much remains elusive. In this passage, for example, Siss and Unn are looking at their reflections in a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation.

In that moment, a unique spark of something has ignited between Siss and Unn; the whole sequence is full of the raw sense of two children working out the shape of their new friendship in the moment. As the scene progresses, it appears that Unn would like to disclose a deep secret to Siss, something that she hasn’t felt able to say to anyone else. However, just as Unn begins to do so, Siss feels uncomfortable and asks to leave.

The following morning, Unn (in the only chapter written from her viewpoint) feels that it would be too embarrassing to meet Siss again that day. Instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore the ice palace, a mysterious and beautiful structure which has been formed by a frozen waterfall. It’s there that Unn vanishes.

The rest of the novel revolves primarily around Siss, and her response to a world without Unn. At first, Siss promises to think about Unn – and no one else – for as long as Unn is missing. However, that leaves Siss the isolated one in the playground. She needs to find a different way to be. In this aspect, The Ice Palace is a coming-of-age story.

Vesaas’ book is also concerned with the interaction of place and people: Siss and Unn’s aunt as members of the village community; the different circles of belonging at school; people’s fascination with the ice palace. When a group of village men are out late searching for Unn at the waterfall, Vesaas makes clear that any mystery or beauty about the place is a product of its observers’ perception:

There is something secret here. [The men] bring out what sorrows they may have and transfer them to this midnight play of light and suspicion of death. It makes things better, and through it they fool themselves into enchantment. They are dispersed in the angles of ice, the lanterns shoot transverse gleams, meeting the lights from other cracks and prisms – quite new beams are illuminated, just as quickly extinguished again for good.

The prose, in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation, is a mixture of flowing sentences and jagged fragments. It helps turn what might seem on the surface to be a fairly straightforward novel into a sharper reading experience that stays long in the mind.

Book details

The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan (1993); original pub. Peter Owen, this edition Penguin Modern Classics; 140 pages; paperback (review copy).

The White City – Roma Tearne

This book was the January choice for the Ninja Book Club, which focuses on books from independent publishers. It was my first time reading Roma Tearne, and I was glad of the introduction. Sadly, the club’s online discussion had to be postponed, so I’ve put some thoughts on the book together here. 

Years after London began to freeze over, the ice is finally beginning to thaw. Our narrator, Hera, is prompted to recall the day that first day of snow, when her brother Aslam was arrested. Besides narrating the story of her family from then on, Hera tells how she fell in love with an older man named Raphael, private and standoffish though he could be. He’s left her now, but Hera still longs for Raphael; she even addresses him directly in her account, perhaps in the hope of finding him again. 

The White City is a novel of lives uprooted and families falling apart. Hera has never had the easiest of relationships with her Muslim parents, but Aslam’s arrest places  the family under even greater strain. They’re not allowed to see or speak to him, and are given only vague information as to why he has been arrested. Raphael has an analogous tale to tell of his life prior to the UK, which is revealed (to Hera and the reader) midway through the novel. 

Aslam and Raphael become displaced in their own ways – as indeed did Hera’s family when they moved countries, and as does Hera herself over time. There’s a certain nebulous quality to Tearne’s prose when she’s writing about Raphael’s old life or Aslam’s arrest, which heightens that sense of dislocation. The thawing London is itself full of vivid images, which round out a sensitive portrait of places and lives. 

Book details 

The White City (2017) by Roma Tearne, Aardvark Bureau, 256 pages, hardback (personal copy). 

In the Absence of Absalon – Simon Okotie

This book is the sequel to Simon Okotie’s 2012 debut Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, which I haven’t read. I’m reading the second novel by itself because it’s longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, and it seems fine as an entry point. The previous book concerned a detective named Marguerite who was searching for Harold Absalon (“the Mayor’s transport advisor,” according to In the Absence). Now Marguerite has also gone missing, and we follow an unnamed investigator who is looking for him. 

In the Absence of Absalon begins with the detective outside a townhouse belonging to one Richard Knox, a colleague of Harold Absalon’s. This place is critical to our man’s investigation, but he’s taking his time over going in. He has a lot on his mind, or at least his thoughts are related in great detail. For example, here he’s placed a foot on the first step up to the house, and is thinking about taking a key from his trouser pocket:

What he realised, as he lifted the heel of the foot that he’d placed upon that step, was that he could not have known that placing his foot in this position would have tightened the aperture and interior of the pocket in question to the extent that it had. Further evidence had, in short, become known to him during the course of his action, evidence to suggest that the main advantage of it, which was to reduce the distance between his right hand and the equivalent trouser pocket, may, in fact, be outweighed by the main disadvantage… 

That sentence goes on for almost as long again. I want to give you some idea of what the prose is like (I understand that the first book is similar), because you really have to give yourself over to what the novel is doing in order to appreciate it. It’s like an extreme close-up of thought over action; we’re at 92 pages (almost halfway through) before the detective actually takes his keys out of his pocket.

Once I’d got used to the rhythms of In the Absence, I found the experience highly enjoyable. The detective ponders such topics as the appropriateness of wearing a wetsuit for a business transaction, or the tendency of people in households with more than one telephone to still refer to ‘the phone’, singular. Reading the book made me think of the little notions that flash through one’s mind in an instant, barely registered; this is like having those notions brought out for full consideration. 

But In the Absence is still a detective novel, and there is indeed a mystery to be solved. Alongside the novel’s main third-person account are footnotes written in first-person by someone (the detective? our unknown narrator?) who has insinuated his way into Harold Absalon’s job and started an affair with Absalon’s wife, Isobel. And the detective’s investigation becomes more pressing when he sees Isobel Absalon through the window of the townhouse. I feel that I’ve been able to piece together an idea of what was going on. In any case, what a powerful moment of ‘decompression’ there is at the end when both reader and narrator stop and look around. Now I’d like to go back and read Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? to see if I’m right about everything, and if it’s as good as the sequel.

Book details 

In the Absence of Absalon (2017) by Simon Okotie, Salt Publishing, 196 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Bloody January – Alan Parks

To start the blogging year, I’m looking at some debut crime fiction. The author Alan Parks worked in the music industry in London for many years, but recently returned to Glasgow to write. Bloody January is the first in a planned series of novels set in the 1970s and featuring Detective Harry McCoy. 

The first thing that hit me on reading the novel was the vivid setting: McCoy’s Glasgow is a city of great, grimy buildings – from the opening scene in Barlinnie prison onwards – and gloomy pubs. It’s a place in the midst of change, where those in the know can take advantage; but also a place where old power and money still hold sway. 

Harry McCoy travels to Barlinnie on 1 January 1973 at the behest of the notorious Howie Nairn. The prisoner has a tip-off for McCoy: a girl named Lorna will be killed the next day. It’s not much to go on, but McCoy does his best to work out who this Lorna might be. He’s waiting at the bus station for her to arrive in the city centre for work when he hears a gunshot. He is too late to save Lorna, but not too late to miss the teenage boy who shot her turn the gun on himself. Shortly after this, Howie Nairn is found dead in the showers at Barlinnie; McCoy takes it upon himself to find out just what has gone on and why – even when doing so brings him into conflict with his superiors. 

I found Harry McCoy a compelling character to spend time with. He’s an unusual figure in the Glasgow police force: Catholic background, grew up partly in a children’s home, yet made detective by the age of thirty. His boss Murray took a shine to McCoy when few others did, but Harry is no teacher’s pet. In the children’s home, he was saved from the most severe punishments by Stevie Cooper, who has grown up to become a key figure in Glasgow criminal underworld. The two still find each other useful contacts, and whenever McCoy may have doubts Cooper is quick to remind McCoy of how much he did for him. This helps steer McCoy’s characterisation away from the stereotypical ‘bent copper’ who’ll do whatever he wants to get a result and satisfy his urges. Rather, Harry McCoy is presented an individual who, almost of necessity, lives on the edge of the underworld and knows the risks if he reaches too far in. 

Bloody January takes us on a tour of McCoy’s world, from the fringes of society to the seemingly untouchable Dunlops, Glasgow’s richest family. It’s a brisk journey that I thoroughly enjoyed; I’ll be looking out for more tales of Harry McCoy in the future.

Book details 

Bloody January (2017) by Alan Parks, Canongate, 336 pages, hardback (review copy).

The US edition of Bloody January will be published by Europa Editions in March 2018.

A Vineyard in Andalusia – Maria Dueñas: a snapshot review

This is a perfect example of the right book coming at the right time. I was in the mood for a long and welcoming novel that could round off the evening. Maria Dueñas’ new book proved to be just that.

It’s 1861. Mauro Larrera is a Spaniard who has made his wealth as a silver miner in Mexico. As the novel begins, Larrera learns that his latest risky investment has collapsed, and he’s going to lose everything. He then has to find a way to get out of his predicament, while maintaining appearances. Mauro’s family and associates have their suggestions, but it seems clear from the outset that Larrera has it in mind to flee. 

Mauro borrows some money from a creditor he’d rather not cross, then sets off hoping to repeat his earlier success. Amidst various scrapes, he goes to Havana, then eventually finds himself back in Spain as the owner of a vineyard, and caught up in the complicated affairs of the family who owned it previously.

A Vineyard in Andalusia is a glorious yarn, almost every chapter adding a new twist to Larrera’s travails. It was also great fun to read in self-imposed instalments – there are plenty of cliffhangers. There are times when certain events happen ‘off-stage’ that I’d have loved to read rather than being told about them after. However,  this doesn’t detract from a highly enjoyable tale, narrated in the snappy prose of Nick Caistor’s and Lorenza García’s translation.

A version of this review was previously published as a thread on Twitter.

Book details

A Vineyard in Andalusia (2015) by Maria Dueñas, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García (2017), Scribe Publications, 534 pages, paperback (review copy). 

I Am Behind You – John Ajvide Lindqvist: a EuroLitNetwork review 

The European Literature Network has been celebrating Nordic fiction lately. I’ve contributed a review of I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish horror writer known for Let the Right One In. This new novel concerns the occupants of four caravans who find themselves transported to a strange empty space, where their characters will be pressured until the flaws rise to the surface.  The translation is by Marlaine Delargy. 

You can find my review here, but do spend some time looking around, because there’s a lot to see. You can also download The Nordic Riveter, a 100-page PDF magazine collecting the new material.

Book details

I Am Behind You (2014) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, tr. Marlaine Delargy (2016), riverrun, 464 pages, hardback (review copy). 

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