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Nona’s Room – Cristina Fernández Cubas

Once again, July is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. A little later than planned, I’m joining in. 

Today I’m looking at another title from the Peter Owen/Istros Spanish Spring trio (the last I reviewed was Inventing Love). The author biography tells me that Cristina Fernández Cubas is one of Spain’s most highly regarded short-story writers — and that Nona’s Room is her first book to be translated into English. After reading these six stories, I can see why Cubas has such a high reputation; and I’m keen to read more of her work. 

The opening title story sets the tone of the collection. When the narrator’s sister Nona was born, her mother told her that Nona was special, and not to forget that “special is a lovely word.” Well, maybe that was how it happened. Whatever, the narrator knows that she has felt sidelined since Nona came along:

Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better, too. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona. 

(translation by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts)

This kind of uncertainty, and a slippery hold on reality, permeates all of Cubas’s stories. In this particular example, the narrator has started to lose her sense of having a life in and for herself when her parents focus all their attention on special Nona at her special school, Nona with her array of imaginary friends. It’s when the narrator sees something inexplicable happen to her sister that she becomes determined to find out the truth, and discover what secrets lie behind the door of Nona’s room… 

Yes, I am tiptoeing around something that I don’t want to reveal. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is ‘all about the twist’: ‘Nona’s Room’ writhes and shifts all the way through, with a constant sense that something else is set to emerge. 

That same sense comes right to the fore early on in ‘Interior with Figure’, when the narrator describes the Cecioni painting of that name and says that the girl depicted “reminds me of a character in a short story I wrote recently whom I called Nona.”
The narrator of ‘Interior with Figure’ admits to being a writer but stops short of revealing her name. Still, that mention of Nona tempts us to perceive this story as being closer to reality than some of the others. Our narrator goes on to recount seeing a school party at the gallery she is visiting, and hearing one girl who has a particularly dark interpretation of Cecioni’s Interior with Figure. The girl speculates that the figure in the painting is hiding from her parents, because she knows they want to kill her for what she has seen. 

It strikes the narrator that the girl’s comments on the painting may actually be a coded cry for help. She wonders what she should do: go to the police? But what would she tell them? ‘Interior with Figure’ is a story about interpretation: a series of subjectivities which crystallise into a whole all unto itself. That’s my interpretation, anyway… 

‘The End of Barbro’ sees a woman drive a wedge between the man she marries and his three daughters. What makes this story particularly striking is that it’s narrated by the three sisters collectively:

We hardly spoke a word and didn’t dare look each other in the eye, but with a few drinks inside us we sorted through our thoughts and memories as if they were scenes from a film fast-forwarding at a frenetic pace and featuring only two protagonists: Barbro and our father. And when we remember her appearing on the doorstep barely a week earlier it seemed as if years and years had gone by. They weren’t the same, and neither were we. 

The effect of this narration is quite eerie, because we lose sight of the sisters’ individual lives and personalities (perhaps reflecting how they feel squeezed out by Barbro), which makes it harder to imagine them as characters. In turn, that makes the story’s sense of reality unstable… and there we’re back to the normal state of affairs in Nona’s Room

Elsewhere
 

Stu has reviewed Nona’s Room here; I like his comparison to Roald Dahl’s stories. You can also read an extract from the title story here at the European Literature Network. 

Book details 

Nona’s Room (2015) by Cristina Fernández Cubas, tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 160 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Dead Writers in Rehab – Paul Bassett Davies: a snapshot review

Debauched writer Foster James wakes one day in what appears to be a rehabilitation clinic, with no memory of how he got there. Adding to the mystery, the other patients are all famous writers – Ernest Hemingway, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Parker, and others. But those writers are all dead… aren’t they? If so, what does that make Foster, who certainly feels alive? The secret to this place may lie with the strange figure glimpsed at the edge of the grounds… or perhaps with the on/off romance between the clinic’s two doctors.

Paul Bassett Davies has written for film, television and radio; Dead Writers in Rehab is his second novel, recently published by Unbound. It’s a splendid dark comedy: most of the chapters are in the form of patients’ “recovery diaries”, so you’ve got a parade of pastiche voices that is a joy to read. But, just when you think you have the novel pinned down, it reveals a serious heart – and changes shape more than once.

Dead Writers in Rehab determinedly follows its own path, which is a quality I love in fiction. In short, this book is a delight.

A version of this review was originally published on Twitter. 

Book details 

Dead Writers in Rehab (2017) by Paul Bassett Davies, Unbound, 273 pages, ebook (review copy). 

The Cut – Anthony Cartwright: a snapshot review

The Cut is the second title in the “Peirene Now!” series (following breach), fictions commissioned by Peirene Press to respond to current events. It is Peirene’s Brexit novel, set in Anthony Cartwright’s hometown of Dudley, which voted decisively to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.
Cartwright explores the issues around Brexit through two main characters: Grace, a documentary maker from Hampstead, who has gone to Dudley to interview people for her new film; and Cairo, a boxer who works cleaning up industrial sites and becomes Grace’s principal interviewee.

Both characters have their preconceptions challenged over the course of the novel. Grace has ideas of what her film’s narrative will be, but the reality she finds in Dudley is too complex and nuanced for that. Cairo makes clear that there’s a whole way of life which has declined over the years, for many different reasons. There’s a real sense of a situation that is almost too complex to articulate — hence the tendency to appeal to overly simplistic explanations.

For his part, Cairo finds that Grace is not quite the out-of-touch tourist that he’d assumed; instead, her arrival gives him a genuine opportunity to reflect and reconsider, to think that life could be something different after all. By focusing in on a few characters, Cartwright is able to illuminate a matter like Brexit on a human scale. The Cut is a sharp novel indeed.
A version of this review was previously published on Twitter. 

Book details 

The Cut (2017) by Anthony Cartwright, Peirene Press, 129 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

​Nocilla Experience –Agustín Fernández Mallo: a snapshot review

This is the follow-up to Nocilla Dream, which I reviewed on the blog previously. Nocilla Experience is a thematic rather than a direct sequel (would it ever have been direct?). The format is broadly the same: short chapters mixing vignettes of characters (some connected) with apparent non-fiction (that may be adapted or even invented). 

As before, the effect is of a novel — a reality — without an anchor. A set of pieces that float freely, now coming together, now drifting apart. The key difference, to my mind, is that Nocilla Experience is more concerned with ideas and where they come from. So, for example, we’ll meet characters with grand ideas — about art or the nature of the world, say — but the book’s overall structure will suggest that each is one idea among many, of no greater significance than the rest. The overriding image is that of a radio playing to nobody, in an empty palace devoted to a particular board game. Individual ideas, the book seems to suggest, are ultimately no more substantial than that palace.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I grasped everything in Nocilla Experience. But it’s not about grasping everything — it never is. Sometimes I need to read a novel that requires me to reach up. Sometimes I need to see that the form and horizons of fiction are limitless.

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

Book details 

Nocilla Experience (2008) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2016), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pages, paperback. 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Earlier this week, the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels was announced. The winning book was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I’m reading at the moment. The novel I’m looking at today, however, was one of the shortlisted titles. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has written a tale of navigating life at the confluence of two cultures – and it’s a strong debut.

In 1968, Yuki is the daughter of a Japanese family living in New York. Her father’s company is sending him back to Tokyo, but Yuki is torn over the prospect of going there: on the one hand, she doesn’t have a single friend in New York; on the other, Japan is a distant memory for her.

Skipping class at school, Yuki meets a girl who calls herself Odile, and who dreams of being a model. Odile becomes the closest thing that Yuki has to a friend, and Yuki decides to move in her and her mother Lillian, a romance novelist. Yuki wants to be more like Odile – which is to say, she’d like to be whiter; Yuki is never quite able to resolve the tension she feels of being between two cultures. The two experience teenage girlhood in New York – but when Odile gets her dream, they start to drift apart, and Yuki has to look elsewhere for a connection.

Buchanan is excellent at delineating the development of Yuki’s different relationships, how each grows alongside the last to begin with, before gradually superseding it as circumstances change. The author also evokes Yuki’s feelings about art brilliantly. Yuki’s great desire is to be an artist; her feeling for art is visceral. Here she is experiencing an exhibition of contemporary art for the first time:

Warm tears raced down her cheeks and into her mouth. She swallowed them, imagined the salt absorbed by her gut and revolving up again towards her eyes. The clear white gallery lights pointed and blurred like stars. It was as if someone had peeled off the crisp outer layer of her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing. Finally, this sadness was no longer trapped in her cramped body. It was a living thing and bright as joy itself.

This is a raw, deep emotion that seems to emerge spontaneously. An outside observer may not understand, may think: why is she being driven to tears by a pile of dirt? The sense is that this feeling of Yuki’s doesn’t fit into the world; her wish as an artist is to create a space in the world where it will fit – just as she is looking for a space for herself.

Alternating with Yuki’s story is that of her son Jay, almost fifty years later. Half-Japanese, half-wit, Jay was abandoned by his mother when he was a young child. Jay’s main story begins as he becomes a father; a few months later, he loses his own father, who died after swerving off the road to avoid a deer; dealing with his father’s estate will finally lead Jay to confront Yuki.

Jay’s situation is not quite an inversion of his mother’s, but the landscape of his life is different. As a gallery owner, the art world is no mystery to him. He’s puzzled by parenting, though; and still ponders his place in the world. Perhaps we might say that Jay had at least part of a path through life illuminated for him in a way that Yuki didn’t; but he still has to find his own way through in the end. Harmless Like You is the story of how both Yuki and Jay come to a conclusion in life, by finding each other.

Book details

Harmless Like You (2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre Books, paperback, 308 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Breathing into Marble – Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė: a EuroLitNetwork review

I have a short review up at European Literature Network of Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s Breathing into Marble. It’s a dark family drama, and the first title published by Noir Press, which specialises in contemporary Lithuanian fiction. I won’t say much more, except that the book is warmly recommended. 

Book details 

Breathing into Marble (2006) by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2016), Noir Press, 192 pages, paperback (review copy) 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: and the winner is…

The other day, I wondered whether the official MBIP winner would match the shadow winner again. Now I know the answer to that question: well, no. 

The winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017 was…

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape). 

I quite liked the book, but it wasn’t one of my favourites; and it didn’t make our shadow shortlist at all. As Tony notes in his post on the winner, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you’ve invested several months in following this competition, and the result doesn’t go the way you wanted. 

Of course, there’s more than one point of view. A Horse Walks was by far the favourite longlisted title of readers from the Mookse and the Gripes Goodreads group who were also following the Prize. A lot of people rate this book very highly. We on the shadow panel weren’t among them. Ah well, so be it. 

My congratulations go to David Grossman, Jessica Cohen, and everyone else involved in the publication of A Horse Walks into a Bar. My thanks go to my fellow shadow panellists StuTony MaloneGrantBellezzaTony MessengerClare, and Lori. Thanks also to everyone who’s been reading along with our discussions. 

See you again next year? 😉

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow winner

A little over a month ago, we of the MBIP shadow panel revealed our shortlist. Now it’s time to announce our shadow winner… 

The votes have been counted, the numbers have been crunched… and the result was the closest it has ever been. So, before we come to the winner, we have one novel which is Highly (Highly) Commended. That novel is:

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press). 

The Unseen is an excellent novel, but it was just pipped to the post by another excellent novel. And so – drum roll please – we can now reveal that the MBIP shadow winner for 2017 is… 

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Congratulations to all involved in this worthy winner! 

Now, there is one other little matter, of course: the official MBIP winner, which will be announced tonight. Both Compass and The Unseen made the official shortlist – I wonder whether either of them will take the Prize. The shadow winner has matched the official one for the last two years. Will this be a third time? I look forward to finding out. 

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch: a snapshot review

This is the first title in Peirene Press‘s ‘East and West’ series; and, unusually for the publisher, it’s a classic – first published in 1910. Ricarda Huch was a pioneering German writer and intellectual, one of the first women to obtain a doctorate from the University of Zurich.

The Last Summer is an epistolary novel set in the early 20th century. Having closed the university due to student unrest, the Governor of St Petersburg receives a death threat. His wife hires him a bodyguard, Lyu. But Lyu is in on a plot to assassinate the Governor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Jamie Bulloch’s translation creates a real sense of urgency underneath an apparently placid surface. The letters of Lyu and the Governor’s family reveal a complex web of emotion and relationships. But they also bring into question how much one can really know another person. Ultimately, Huch’s characters become trapped by the form of the novel itself. 

This review is adapted from an earlier Twitter thread. 

Book details 

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (1910), tr. Jamie Bulloch (2017), Peirene Press, 120 pages, paperback (review copy) 

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