Tagfantasy

Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 30-21

We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.

You can also read my previous instalments, nos. 50-41 and 40-31. Now, on to the next ten…

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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The Dollmaker – Nina Allan: a Strange Horizons review

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

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

Click here to read my review in full.

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

Follow Me to Ground – Sue Rainsford

I like to follow the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, because I’m interested in the kind of fiction it stands for, and it’s good for highlighting worthwhile books that I might otherwise miss. Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, from the Irish publisher New Island Books, is one of those. It caught my interest on this year’s Republic of Consciousness longlist, and when I saw Daniel Davis Wood of Splice compare it on Twitter to The Man Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila, that was enough to convince me to read Follow Me to Ground.

Now that I’ve read both books, I agree with Daniel’s comparison: Rainsford’s novel has the same sense as Répila’s of taking place in its own bubble of reality, and I could even imagine it as a stylised animated film, like Attila’s Horse. Rainsford’s narrator is Ada, who lives with her father in a village whose inhabitants (which they call “Cures”) come to them for healing. Despite appearances, Ada and Father are not exactly human. Father can be positively animalistic:

There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind.

Ada doesn’t partake in that behaviour, but both she and Father were born in “the Ground”, the lawn of their house, which has mysterious properties and almost a mind of its own. Father has tamed a section of the Ground which they use to bury those Cures who require more intensive healing. Even their most straightforward curative techniques appear strange to our eyes:

Claudia Levine arrived at noon and I sang her belly open, sang her sickness away – tricked it into a little bowl under the table. Closed her up again, woke her up again. Told her she’d be sore in the morning, waved her away down the drive, poured her sickness down the drain.

The way Ada describes herself and Father, we never get a firm handle on exactly what they are or what they do. The net effect of this is to create a sense of mystery at the novel’s heart which gnaws away at the reader.

I once read an annoying story by China Miéville about magical playing cards, which essentially used evocative names (such as “the Four of Chimneys”) in lieu of revealing anything concrete about what these cards actually did. This technique didn’t work for me, because it just highlighted how arbitrary the whole thing was – to me, there was simply nothing behind the names. I find that Rainsford’s approach works much better: she reveals enough of Ada’s world to catch the imagination, but not so much as to much as to define it. The mystery remains alive.

Ada is in love with a Cure named Samson, and her relationship with him becomes central to Follow Me to Ground. She grows increasingly possessive of him, in the face of disapproval from both Father and Olivia, Samson’s sister. Here is where the novel’s approach really comes into its own, because the obsession gnawing away at Ada mirrors the reader’s sense of ungraspable strangeness. And (without wishing to say too much) the matter of what ultimately happens is driven by that same sense of unresolved mystery. I’m glad to have found Follow Me to Ground through the Republic of Consciousness Prize; I’ll be looking out for more of Sue Rainsford’s work, too.

Book details

Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford, New Island Books, 204 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Round-up: A.L. Kennedy and Guy Bolton

A.L. Kennedy, The Little Snake (2016)

The Little Snake is a novella inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (which,for context, I haven’t read). It was first published in Germany a couple of years ago, and now has a UK edition courtesy of Canongate. It’s also my first time reading A.L. Kennedy.

One day, a girl named Mary meets Lanmo, a handsome talking snake who becomes her best friend. Mary is the first human Lanmo has befriended: normally he travels the world ushering humans out of their lives. The snake visits Mary at various points in her life, seeing that her city is increasingly ravaged by war and that she is in ever greater danger. For the first time, Lanmo starts to have feelings about what he does; in particular, he wants to ensure Mary’s safety, though he knows the time will come when they must part.

The Little Snake is written as a fable, and Kennedy’s prose has a wonderful ‘tale for all ages’ quality. It’s a tale of losing and finding one’s place, what we lose and what there is to treasure.

The Little Snake (2016) by A.L. Kennedy, Canongate Books, 132 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

***

Guy Bolton, The Pictures (2017)

Guy Bolton’s debut novel is a murder mystery set in Hollywood in 1939. Herbert Stanley, a producer on The Wizard of Oz, is found hanged: the case is assigned to Detective Jonathan Craine, the police force’s regular fixer when it comes to MGM matters. Craine’s job is to ensure that Stanley’s death is treated as an open-and-shut case of suicide, this being the least disruptive option for the studio.

However, things soon get complicated: Craine becomes romantically involved with Stanley’s widow, actress Gale Goodwin; and there are distinct signs of foul play about the apparent hanging. As Craine digs deeper, events spiral out to encompass organised crime; there are some gripping set pieces along the way. Crane’s development as a character is also engaging: he starts off as a pretty repugnant sort who has no qualms about pinning an (apparently unrelated) murder on a scapegoat, and becomes – if not entirely sympathetic – at least more thoughtful and scrupulous. I enjoyed The Pictures, and I’ll be reading its sequel, The Syndicate, in due course.

The Pictures (2017) by Guy Bolton, Point Blank, 400 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).

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Waken’ by Jenni Fagan 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

It fascinates me how vastly different styles of writing can draw me in equally effectively. Will Eaves’s piece was fragmented and formal; Jenni Fagan’s is rolling, with a gossamer touch. Both embody what they want to tell superbly.

We join Fagan’s protagonist, Jessie, as she makes precautions to ensure that her newly-deceased father’s soul will not return to the house. This is an old tradition carried on into the present day; contemporary details puncture the narrative, destabilising its folktale-like tone.

All the women on Jessie’s Hebridean island, except her, became selkies at the age of twelve; but she is about to undergo a transformation of her own. None of this feels in any way out of place: Fagan maintains that measured tone, and the story unfurls as she goes.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Waken’.

Some reviews elsewhere

I haven’t been posting links to my external reviews lately, so here’s a round-up of the most recent four: all books that are worth your time.

winterlingsThe Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade (tr. Samuel Rutter). Twenty-five years after being evacuated to England, two sisters return to the Galician parish of their childhood. The place is otherworldly to them, but they also have a glamour of their own – and so mystery encroaches on the reader from all sides. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

 

beast

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Second part of the thematic trilogy that began with The Wake. This volume is set in the present day, and focuses on an Englishman in search of his place in the landscape. A strange creature haunts the corner of his eye, and his language grows more primal as he heads further into hallucination. Reviewed for Shiny New Books.

 

brussoloThe Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo (tr. Edward Gauvin). A tantalising slice of weirdness set in a reality where art is retrieved from the depths of dreams. One man believes that the dream realm has its own objective existence – and he’ll risk his very self to prove it. Reviewed for Strange Horizons.

 

tobacconist

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (tr. Charlotte Collins). A new novel in English from the author of A Whole Life. The tale of a young man who becomes a tobacconist’s apprentice in 1930s Vienna and strikes up a friendship with Sigmund Freud. Love begins to stir, just as the shadow of the Nazis grows. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

Peirene’s Fairy Tales: The Man I Became

verhelstI got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might  anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…

The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.

It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?

This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.

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