TagCanongate

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy: a Shiny New Books review

I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I was particularly intrigued by the premise of this book… Homelands (published by Canongate) is journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s account of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor. It’s part biography and part memoir, as Ramaswamy finds echoes and points of connection between her life and Henry’s.

I’ve reviewed Homelands for Shiny New Books. It felt a bit strange at times to be passing comment on a living person’s account of their recent life, but hopefully I achieved a good balance in the review. Anyway, Homelands is an absorbing book, and if you like the sound of it I suggest you give it a try.

Click here to read my review in full.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: a Shiny New Books review

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kevin Barry’s third story collection, That Old Country Music. I love Barry’s short fiction, and this book is no exception: tales rooted deeply in the west of Ireland, characters navigating contemporary life while older rhythms hum in the background, all told in Barry’s distinctive voice.

Read my review in full here.

Book published by Canongate.

Read my other posts on Kevin Barry’s work here.

Blog tour: The Island Child by Molly Aitken

My post today is part of a blog tour for The Island Child, the debut novel by Molly Aitken, which was published last week by Canongate. It’s set on the small Irish island of Inis, where Oona grows up in the mid-20th century. Inis is a place steeped in tradition for better or worse, where the old tales are told, and the cycle of life turns fixed on its axis – especially for women.

But Oona tries to break free, building a new life for herself in Canada. Twenty years later, she has her own daughter, Joyce, who goes missing, gone to Inis to find out about the past. Oona follows her, bringing her life full circle.

What I particularly like about The Island Child is the way that Aitken weaves in folklore. The people of Inis may often view life through that kind of framework. For example, the English incomer Aislinn has a reputation for being something of a witch. Oona sees her on the beach one night:

On the water a round and glistening shape floated towards her. My fingers clamped cold to the damp rock. She was calling her dead husband back. Bringing life to him again…

She ran screeching into the waves and, laughing, she called out to him, a melodious sound without meaning. Her long fingers reached out for him but he sank and vanished.

But the islanders’ view of Aislinn may have more to do with the fact that she is a single mother who doesn’t conform with how women in this community are expected to be. Aitken continually peels back the layers of folklore to reveal the truth beneath. This can be painful for her characters, but Oona finds a place in her life for stories by novel’s end. The Island Child is a vivid tale of character and place.

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: 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.

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

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.

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

January in Japan: Yoko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996/2010)
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Seventeen-year-old Mari is working at her mother’s hotel when a middle-aged man and a prostitute are thrown out for rowing and disturbing the other guests. Mari is drawn to the man, and starts to see him regularly; he tells her that he’s a Russian translator – the heroine of the novel he’s working on is even named Marie. The two enter into an intimate, masochistic relationship – which, naturally enough, can’t last forever.

Hotel Iris is a quiet book, and all the more powerful and disturbing for it. So thoroughly does Ogawa create the viewpoint of Mari as she’s drawn into the translator’s orbit, it’s a real jolt to be reminded that this man’s intentions are questionable at the very least. But what makes the novel particularly challenging to consider is that Ogawa is clear on the affair’s positive consequences for Mari, as well as the negative ones: it gives her an escape from being put-upon by her mother, however dangerous it might turn out to be. Hotel Iris is an uncomfortable read, in the best possible way.

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (2008/12)
Translated by Rebecca Copeland

The latest title in the Canongate Myths series is inspired by the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi – which isn’t a story I know, so inevitably I’m going to miss out on something here. But the intriguing thing for me is that The Goddess Chronicle is written by Natsuo Kirino, and at first glance seems quite different from a gritty urban novel like Out. But look closer, and similarities emerge: both books focus on female characters who try to escape a system designed to hold and define them.

Our narrator is Namima, whom we first meet as a servant of the goddess Izanami in the Realm of the Dead; Kirino’s novel is the story of how she got there. Namima is born on a tiny island, granddaughter of its spiritual leader, the Oracle. It’s a hereditary position, though Namima’s older sister Kamikuu is destined to become the next Oracle – and it’s not until Kamikuu takes over that Namima learns her preordained role as the Oracle’s sister: to watch over the island’s graveyard for the rest of her life, with no human contact. Namima tries to escape the island with the boy she loves – but tragedy strikes, and she finds herself in Izanami’s realm.

A number of stories overlap in The Goddess Chronicle. There’s Namima’s childhood on the island, which has a measured clarity tempered with a touch of strangeness. There is Namima’s sojourn in the world of the living as a wasp, a fine ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale. And there is the story of Izanami and her brother/lover/enemy Izanagi, which now has Namima as a witness. Their story provides a point of comparison and contrast with Namima’s own. All is wrapped up in clean prose that gives this engaging novel a mythic feel of its very own.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Click here for the index of my posts.

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