Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 1: McBride, Schofield, Levy

I’m splitting my review of the Goldsmiths shortlist into two parts. Here’s a look at three of the titles…

lesserbohemiansEimear Bride, The Lesser Bohemians (2016)

We’ll start with Eimear McBride, who of course won the vvery first Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Her second novel is the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who goes to study drama in London in 1994, and falls for an actor named Stephen, who is more than twice her age. Sounds conventional enough in the synopsis; but, as before with McBride, the novel is transformed by its language:

Goes on time so. Every day. Hours spent opening lanes of ways on which I might set forth. These are your oysters, boys and girls. Here are your worlds of pearls. I remember it as I sit in dust. Put on tights. Stretch on mats. Lean with hot drinks on stone steps where the throng pokes holes through shy.

A Girl is a half-formed Thing was written in a fragmented style which suggested that its narrator’s consciousness was not yet coherent – in the other words, the cohesion of voice (or lack of it) matched the cohesion of the character’s identity. The Lesser Bohemians could be seen as an extension of that technique: Eilis is further on in life than Girl’s protagonist, so her narrative voice is not quite as fragmented, but its rhythms are still noticeably jagged.

What really gives this novel its shape and contrast for me, however, is the section where Stephen tells Eilis his story – and his voice is rendered in a much more conventional literary style. This gives his life a semblance of order and control; but the events he describes don’t bear that out at all. So, McBride seems to suggest, a life is as coherent as the one living it allows; the tumult of the past will always be there, but – just maybe – it’s possible to bring oneself together eventually.


Anakana Schofield, Martin John (2015)

Conventionally, a novel is organised to create meaning for its reader. Even with a book like The Lesser Bohemians, where you have to work at it a bit, and where part of the meaning is encoded in the style, the general shape is recognisable and you can find your way around soon enough. Martin John is different: this is the form of the novel broken down and rebuilt to generate meaning for its protagonist; readers just have to derive what they can.

Martin John Gaffney lives in South London (his mam sent him away from Ireland). He works as a security guard, visits his Aunty Noanie every week. He loves the Eurovision Song Contest, but hates words that begin with the letter P. He is also a flasher. Martin John the novel is perhaps not so much his story (that would imply a narrative) as an account of his being.

Martin John’s existence is based around rituals and refrains, routines and circuits; these provide the structure that helps keep his life together (or, perhaps, keep his life at bay). The novel is built from looping, elliptical paragraphs:

With no day shift or night shift or circuits, time has become strange, neither protracted nor squat. Just strained. Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged. There are days, inside the room, that because the windows are blacked out, he can’t tell you if it is day or night. He can’t tell if it’s night or day? He can’t even tell you how he wants to make this statement.

Martin John is a novel that lives with you, demands that you make space for it, uncomfortable as that inevitably will be. It places Anakana Schofield on my list of must-read authors.

hotmilkDeborah Levy, Hot Milk (2016)

As with reading Ishiguro, reading Deborah Levy has for me been a learning process. In both cases, when I read the author for the first time (Nocturnes and Swimming Home respectively), I wasn’t equipped to appreciate texts that had the appearance of stereotypical middle-class literary fiction, but distorted the form subtly, so that interpreting them literally didn’t work. I’m still finding my way.

In Hot Milk, 25-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has travelled with her mother Rose to Almeria on the Spanish coast. Rose’s legs have been affected by a mysterious illness; it’s hoped that the Gómez Clinic in Almeria will provide a solution, but Sofia has surrendered her own life in order to come here – she’s even begun to copy Rose’s gait. It took me some time to get into the swing of the novel’s patterns of imagery and oblique characterisation. Even then, I can only see my understanding of it as provisional.

I came to the conclusion that Hot Milk was structured around metaphors of personal space: Sofia begins the novel having effectively subordinated her own identity to her mother’s; and the extent to which other characters encroach on her indicates how much Sofia is her own person. The scene that really seemed to unlock this is one where, hands bloodied from gutting a fish, Sofia rushes into the local diving school to free the owner’s dog, and ends up drinking the vermouth on his desk and leaving bloody handprints all over the walls. It seems strange if taken at face value, but made sense to me as a metaphor for Sofia exerting control over her surroundings.

I wouldn’t say that I unlocked Hot Milk entirely – I don’t have a sense of a complete metaphorical underpinning – but I was able to see Levy’s work in a new light. I now want to explore further, and hopefully come back to this book (and Swimming Home) one day, to see what else I can find there.


Goldsmiths Prize 2016: the shortlist

One of the literary prizes that I like to pay particular attention to is the Goldsmiths Prize, because its remit chimes a lot with what I like to read: “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” I’m planning to read along with the shortlist, which was announced yesterday:

Transit by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber)

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press)

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic Press)

Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories)

At first sight, that’s an interesting mix of books that I look forward to exploring. I’ll be reading and reviewing as many as I can before the winner is revealed on 9 November.


Guest post: Tom Connolly on New York and Men Like Air

tom-connollyToday, I’m pleased to welcome writer Tom Connolly to the blog, on the first day of the blog tour for his new novel, Men Like Air. I enjoyed his debut, The Spider Truces, back in 2010; but Men Like Air is quite the change of scene – from 1980s rural Kent in the last book, Connolly now takes us to present-day New York City.

Men Like Air concerns two brothers: Jack, who left England for New York after their parents died; and his younger brother Finn, who has now travelled over to even things out. During his stay, Finn crosses paths with Leo Emerson, a gallery owner troubled by loneliness, particularly when he sees his brother-in-law William so happily married. The four men’s lives intersect and change as the novel unfolds.

When reading the novel, I was particularly struck by its sense of place; so I asked  Tom to tell me about his inspiration for setting Men Like Air in New York. The piece below is illustrated by some of Tom Connolly’s own photos of the city.


I had a strong sense I was going to do something different to my first book, The Spider Truces. Simply put, that book was set in the past, in a rural landscape, and across many years. I had an idea for an ensemble piece set in the modern day, in a city, spanning just a few weeks. And because New York City was the place I know better than anywhere beyond home, and was the city that first made me feel that anything was possible, there was something there for me. I got interested in the idea of a young buck (Finn) from a bruising small town background in England discovering the magic of New York City and being drawn in to the life of an older New Yorker (Leo) for whom the magic has been lost. Leo’s story took shape after I witnessed an extraordinary late snow storm in Manhattan, one April, when snow and cherry blossom flurried together for a few magical minutes. All the characters in the book feed off their surroundings and the wider gifts and challenges that New York City offers to those who live in it, as did I when writing the book. They are drained and replenished by the place, as I have been.



The challenge was writing about a city people either know well or think they know, from TV, the movies, songs and books. A few drafts in I found the solution lay in not writing about New York at all, but in making it incidental and then allowing it to become important and vivid solely in story terms, as the place where this series of interconnected characters live, love, work and play. After a poor first draft (my first drafts are rubbish) in which my writing amounted to nothing better than street directions across the five boroughs, it began to work itself in to the grain of the city as experienced by the characters. The book’s relationship to New York became more about the play of light, the sounds, about a sense of straying beyond the city’s edges where the neon does not reach and where the city that never sleeps does exactly that. William Maxwell wrote that “New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.” For my characters, this is both the making of them and their undoing.


I loved the anonymity on offer in New York City that Maxwell referred to. For a writer, almost as much as for a photographer, to roam freely and observe and not be noticed, is a creative nirvana. There are so many people writing books, shooting films, taking photographs, painting pictures, that no one notices you, no one cares. I found this liberating and funny. And it was like an unspoken challenge – if you are going to write something set in this city, you better find something new to say.

My nineteen-year-old character, Finn, shares with thousands the experience of landing in New York City and feeling that anything is going to be possible in your life. Something about the place plants that idea in your head as a young adult stepping out of the Port Authority, which I did in 1992. This evening, New York City was the lyrics of a song written especially for him. They had deeper meaning for him than for anyone else; he was in communion with them as no other person could be. This is not unique to NYC but a lot of people like me go there as soon as they can get away or afford to. If, subsequently, chance leads you to spend a lot of time there, then your relationship with the place changes, and this is something reflected in the lives of all the characters in Men Like Air; they are all at different stages of a love affair with the place. But what matters to me is that they are all transformed by New York City, for better or worse, in the lifetime of the book.


men-like-air-blog-tour-flyerMy thanks to Tom for sharing his inspiration, and to his publisher Myriad Editions for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.  Men Like Air will be published on 22 September; you can read the first chapter and preorder the book from Myriad here,  while the blog tour continues all this week at the following destinations:

Tuesday 20 Sept: The Owl on the Bookshelf

Weds 21 Sept: Food for Bookworms

Thurs 22 Sept: Bookish Ramblings

Fri 23 Sept: TripFiction


#ReadingRhys: Good Morning, Midnight


Discovering a writer like Jean Rhys now brings delight, but also a certain amount of frustration and sadness. I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from literary history, because I didn’t really read classics growing up, and never got the sense that there was fiction in the past ‘for me’. It’s only recently that I have begun to explore, and to discover that there are writers from (say) the early 20th century whose work is for me – Woolf, Kafka, now Rhys. So, on the one hand, whole new horizons of fiction have opened up. On the other, I wish it had happened earlier.

Still: we move forward. I’ve said previously that Rhys was essentially just a name to me; and I simply was not prepared for how direct and brutal Good Morning, Midnight would be. I can only imagine how it was received at the time, because it’s powerful stuff today.

We meet Rhys’s narrator, Sasha, in Paris:

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

Sasha’s routine is mundane and her hotel room anonymous; but gradually we see what lies behind this seemingly ordinary visit. Sasha is facing despair (“The passages will never lead anywhere, the doors will always be shut”) and seeking to retreat from life (“A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside”). Her carefully worked out regimen of cafés and bars is her attempt to lose herself in the city.

Rhys brings us so close to Sasha by turning the standard relationship between past and present inside out. Ordinarily, we might expect a narrator’s memories to be safely embedded within a tale that’s oriented towards the present. In Good Morning, Midnight, the present-day sections are often flimsy connective tissue, which allows Sasha’s memories to break through and loom the largest. Then we see just what she has experienced, and feel some of the horror that she feels – but also, perhaps, we sense some of the hope.



Eric at Lonesome Reader has reviewed Good Morning, Midnight, and also has an interesting interview with Jessica Harrison of Penguin Classics on the new Pocket Penguin edition.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys, Pocket Penguin paperback

#Woolfalong: Orlando

OrlandoTime for another post on #Woolfalong, Heavenali’s year-long celebration of Virginia Woolf, who was a new writer to me at the start of 2016 and is fast becoming a favourite. The theme for July and August is ‘biography’; Orlando is included as an option, despite really being a novel – and I had a copy on my shelves, so that was what I went for.

I’m not going to try to encompass everything I could say about Orlando in this post. I just want to pick out a couple of things that have most struck me. The first has to do with the book’s subtitle: ‘A Biography’. Chances are you will know the premise, but just in case you don’t: Orlando narrates the story of a young nobleman who becomes a favourite of Elizabeth I, then ambassador to Constantinople, where he transforms into a woman; she then lives on into the 20th century, without visibly ageing. The novel is framed as a biography, and is written in the style of one. But I started to realise that there’s more to it than this – the biographical form is fundamental to what Orlando is.

It’s another example of how Woolf uses writing to create alternatives to geographical space in her fiction. I first came across this in Mrs Dalloway, which places its characters within a landscape of consciousness: most of the key events occur at the level of thought and perception, but the way the book is written puts these on the same level as events that take place in physical streets and houses.

In the case of Orlando, Woolf creates a landscape of time. This is where the biography form is key, because the point of historical biography is that the individual is a subject is a fixed point, and the rest of history happens around them. Orlando is an individual who moves through time like others move through space, and the prose is elastic enough to facilitate that: months or years may pass in a few lines, but Orlando is always there and the book will reorient around her. This is what gives the experience of reading Orlando such a feeling of openness.

The other thing I want to mention – and I haven’t come across this much in Woolf’s work so far, certainly not to the same degree – is that Orlando is very funny. Much of its humour comes from Woolf’s sly reminders that we are reading fiction. For example:


Orlando quote

I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the idea of fiction reminding me that it’s fiction, but I’ve rarely seen it done with Woolf’s lightness of touch (and Orlando predates most of the other examples that I’ve read). It’s as though she’s stretching the reality of her text a little too far, just for a short time – a toy to be picked up and discarded again.

With my last couple of #Woolfalong reads, I wasn’t quite as taken as with Mrs Dalloway; but now I’m right back up there, and eager to read more Woolf.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperbackA new post

Women in Translation Month and a Shiny review of The Queue


August is Women in Translation Month, a project started by Meytal of Biblibio, and now in its third year. I haven’t had as much time for reading and blogging this month as I’d wanted (though I still hope to be able to squeeze in a relevant post or two). However, I have been recommending a book each day on Twitter and Facebook, so do feel free to pop over and take a look.

I also have a review of a book by a woman in translation in the August issue of Shiny New Books. The Queue by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette) is the story of a Middle Eastern city where everything needs a permit, and society has rearranged itself around one big queue. The novel is absurd, but also chilling as it reveals just how much of a hold  the authorities have.


Read my review of The Queue here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette (2016), Melville House UK paperback

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

breach blog tour

breach is a new story collection published by Peirene Press on Monday. It’s the first in their Peirene NowI series, original fiction commissions which will engage with current events. For breach, Peirene’s publisher Meike Ziervogel commissioned writers Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to visit the Calais refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle’. There’s been a blog tour all this week, which includes an extract from the book and interviews with the authors; but today there are four reviews across the blogosphere: at Food for Bookworms; The Bookbinder’s Daughter; Bookish Ramblings; and here.

The collection format is a straightforward (though nonetheless effective) way for breach to present the camp as a place of multiple stories running in parallel, of overlapping and intermingling worlds. The stories of individual lives can become derailed: the opening piece, ‘Counting Down’, features a number of refugees on their way to the camp; each adopts their own nickname – who they were no longer matters. One is upset when the others take away the money his brother has sent: “There is a boy like you waiting for me to get him to safety. My son, my real son,” he protests. But only the present matters here; everyone has their own future to aim for, and may not be concerned about someone else’s.

Leaving the camp is also portrayed as a disruption of space and experience. ‘Oranges in the River’ sees a couple of refugees take their chances hiding in refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. As he waits to board a truck, Dlo slips an orange into his pocket, “like a man who isn’t going to climb into a truck full of oranges, like a man who isn’t going to sit surrounded by thousands of oranges for many hours. Like a man who just needs one orange for his thirst.” In other words, there’s no pretending that this is in any way a ‘normal’ experience. When the men are in the truck, there is only the freezer; any imagined destination is no more real than a dream – even if they don’t get caught and have to start again.

We also glimpse outsiders to the camp, though they don’t necessarily understand the world they’re observing. There are volunteers who want to give a hand; but, as the narrator of ‘Extending a Hand’ comments, “you don’t need a hand; you have two of those. What you need is opportunities.” In ‘The Terrier’, Eloise, a French B&B who allows refugees to stay, talks to one of her guests, Omid, about the camp’s nickname:

‘It doesn’t look like a jungle, that camp,’ I said to Omid when he came home, after dark, his coat wet.

‘What does a jungle look like, madame?’

‘Thick with trees and creepers and bushes, with birds and animals.’

‘A jungle,’ he said, ‘is a place for animals only. And that is a jungle, I tell you, madame.’

To Eloise, the Jungle is just a poetic, perhaps even romantic name; to Omid, who knows the lived reality behind the metaphor, it is a different matter. As the story progresses, the gap between Eloise and Omid becomes starker, as she begins to question her latest visitors’ motivations. It’s not until she visits Omid in the camp that she starts to see things differently. But this isn’t a simple story of a Westerner ‘learning better’, more a recognition that all the characters have complex individual lives, whatever their circumstances. This is the kind of perspective that breach is able to open up, and that’s what makes it such a valuable collection.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

breach (2016) by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, Peirene Press paperback

Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović: a European Literature Network review

FragileTravI’ve reviewed a Serbian novel for Euro Lit Network this month: Jovanka Živanović’s Fragile Travelers, translated by Jovanka Kalaba and published by Dalkey Archive. It is the story of a man who disappears from the real world and finds himself lost in the dreams of a woman he knows. There’s an interesting mix of twisting sentences, absurd imagery, and a sense of the characters’ disconnection from the world. Find out more by reading my review.

Book details (publisher link)

Fragile Travelers (2008) by Jovanka Živanović, tr. Jovanka Kalaba (2016), Dalkey Archive Press paperback

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

NeverParisI like to think I’m over it by now, but sometimes I still have to tell myself: it’s not about the subject matter. That is to say, whether or not the ostensible subject matter of a novel appeals to me is not a reliable indicator of how I’m going to respond to the book. Self-imposed starvation, high school scandals, coppers going off the rails, society parties… They’ve all featured in fiction that rewired my inner universe, because it wasn’t the topic that counted, but the interplay of language, theme and image. Still, if Never Any End to Paris had not been written by Enrique Vila-Matas –had I not trusted him after Dublinesque – I might not have read this book. That would have been a mistake.

Never Any End to Paris is presented as the text of a three-day lecture delivered by Vila-Matas, dealing principally withthe period in the 1970s when he lived in Paris, in a garret owned by the writer Marguerite Duras. Back then, he wanted to live a life like that depicted by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast; and was trying to write his first novel, The Lettered Assassin – a novel with which, Vila-Matas says, he wanted to kill his readers. There’s drily absurd humour to be found in the author’s exploits:

…I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Sartre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco.

(Translation by Anne McLean)

But look beneath these trappings… the real subject of Vila-Matas’ ‘lecture’ is irony, and irony permeates the novel. We see the young Vila-Matas in Paris playing the part of a certain kind of writer; and performing politics more than actually believing in a given position. But then I discover from David Winters’ essay on Never Any End to Paris that Le asesina ilustrada was actually Vila-Matas’ second novel, not his first; so how much of the history here can we really trust?

Then again, asks Vila-Matas, what happens to irony when you see something in real life? What does it even mean to see something in real life, anyway? The author talks about longing to visit New York, then being disappointed with the place, because the reality of it couldn’t live up to his dream. Vila-Matas also describes how he’d seen on film the study where Trotsky was assassinated, then visited it in real life and found the experience unnerving:

I found it hard to disassociate that study from the one that appeared in the fiction of Losey’s film. Even so, I tried not to forget that this was the real place where Trotsky had been assassinated. So – I thought – this is a historic place. I couldn’t think of anything else. I just kept repeating obtusely to myself, this is a historic place.

Again, the imaginary location looms larger than the real one. But what is ‘real’, here? Look closely enough at Never Any End to Paris, and nothing remains solid: there’s no city beyond the descriptions on the page; no narrator beyond the ‘I’ whose voice we accept; no lecture beyond a framing device; no novel beyond that to which we are prepared to give consent. But of course this is true of all novels, and readers consent to the realities of fiction routinely. Vila-Matas’ approach makes us confront both perspectives – the fictional ‘reality’ and the mechanics of the construction – at the same time.

There is never any end to Paris, Vila-Matas assures us – the Paris of his imagination, that is:

Everything ends except Paris, for there is never any end to Paris, it is always with me, it chases me, it is my youth. There can be an end to this summer, it will end. The world can go to ruin, it will be ruined. But to my youth, to Paris, there is never any end. How terrible.

In reality, there is an end even to this Paris: you just close the book. Equally, of course, there is indeed no end to Paris, because it persists in the mind, and will emerge again whenever the book is read.


Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Anne McLean (2011), Vintage paperback.

Brazilian Sketches by Rudyard Kipling

KiplingBrazilThere’s a new publisher in town: Abandoned Bookshop, an imprint founded by Scott Pack (a long-time friend of this blog) and Kat Stephen to republish out-of-print or neglected titles as ebooks. Their first title is Brazilian Sketches, a set of seven articles (each with an accompanying poem) that Rudyard Kipling wrote during a journey to Brazil in March and April of 1927. The articles were printed in newspapers later than year and at the beginning of the next, but did not appear as a collection until 1940, after Kipling’s death. This is the first ebook edition.

Reading Brazilian Sketches now, from this distance, with relatively little by way of context, has been an intriguing experience. It’s like eavesdropping on history. Kipling’s descriptive passages convey ‘being in the moment’ vividly; here, for example, is his arrival in Rio:

In two minutes the shadowy lines of the crowded wharves vanished, and the car was sweeping down a blazing perspective, chequered strongly with double lines of tree-foliage and flanked with lit and packed clubs, shops, and cafes. This world of light gave of a sudden, between the shoulders of gigantic buildings, on to even vaster spaces of single-way avenues, between trees, with the harbour on one side, fringed by electric lights that raced forward, it seemed for ever, and renewed themselves in strings of pearl flung round invisible corners; while, above everything, one saw and felt the outlines of forested mountains.

Even more than a sense of place, however, what really comes across to me is the sense of another’s viewpoint. Perhaps inevitably, there are attitudes and assumptions embedded within Kipling’s sketches that I don’t share; and they are not easily extricated from the things that I like about the book. But it’s fascinating to see a subject like electricity treated in a way that seems so far away from anything I can imagine being written now, as when Kipling personifies the dynamo of a hydroelectric power station: “Out of his enforced agencies is born ‘power’, which every one, of course, can explain, but which no one knows anything about, except that it will bear watching.”

The Brazil depicted by Kipling is in a time of transition, industrialisation in particular. Kipling often characterises this process as one of human progress fighting back against a natural world that keeps on encroaching. A snake farm developing anti-venom: “the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from hut to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine”. The railway out of São Paulo: “every yard of those fallacious mountain-sides conspired against man from the almost vertical slopes out of sight above, to the quite vertical ravines below.” To my mind, this viewpoint has some troubling implications; but it is also bound up in the way that Kipling organises the space within his writing, open up each experience moment by moment.

Book details (publisher link)

Brazilian Sketches (1940) by Rudyard Kipling, Abandoned Bookshop ebook.

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