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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.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

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

Traces of Sandalwood by Asha Miró & Anna Soler-Pont

SandalwoodAfter Monday’s detour to Wales, it’s back to Spanish Lit Month with a story of displacement and searching, by Asha Miró (who was herself born in India and adopted by a Spanish couple at the age of seven) and. We meet three children whose worlds are upended in the 1970s: in Addis Ababa, Solomon’s father is a cook in the emperor’s palace, until the emperor is deposed by the military; several years later, Solomon is one of a number of Ethopian children awarded scholarships to Cuba. In India, an orphan named Muna is sent from her home village of Kolpewadi to work in a Bombay carpet factory; eventually she ends up working for a family, which is where she learns to read and write. There is also Muna’s sister, Sita, who was sent to an orphanage in Bombay at age three, and has no memory of the older girl; Sita wishes for parents of her own, and soon finds herself on a plane, heading for her new life in Barcelona.

Something that really comes across in Traces of Sandalwood is the sense of dislocation and upheaval that each of the three protagonists experiences. For example, Solomon’s voyage to Cuba:

The first days seemed very long. On deck, the boys and girls sat on the floor and cried inconsolably. Many of them hadn’t shed a tear since they had said goodbye to their families to go to Tatek, but now the sensation of being on that imposing ship with its smoking chimney, a kind of floating building that was moving away from solid ground toward a totally unknown world, finally overcame them. Now there was no-one shouting at them and telling them that men don’t cry. It seemed as if, suddenly, all of the adults had disappeared and left them alone, adrift in the middle of the water.

(Translation by Charlotte Coombe.)

But perhaps the most striking thing about this novel is its structure: after we leave the children behind, the narrative jumps forward 25 years, and we have to acquaint ourselves with the characters all over again. Muna, for example, is now an international movie star, and keen to track down her sister after all this time. As adults, the three protagonists’ lives come together as they could never have imagined.

By leaving that gap between past and present, Miró and Soler-Pont make the experience of reading Traces of Sandalwood reflect their characters’ lives: the disorientation of being in an unfamiliar place or situation; a heightened sense of life as a series of distinct (albeit linked) episodes. We see the children’s lives cast up into the air when we meet them; by the time we leave them as adults, we have a sense that maybe they have landed well.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Traces of Sandalwood by Asha Miró & Anna Soler-Pont (2007), tr. Charlotte Coombe (2016), World Editions paperback

 

Addlands by Tom Bullough

AddlandsTom Bullough grew up on a farm in Radnorshire on the Welsh borders. As an administrative county, Radnorshire is no more, having been officially absorbed into Powys in 1974; but Bullough notes on his website that there’s still a Radnorshire which persists in people’s conception of the area. Addlands, Bullough’s fourth novel, is set in Radnorshire; and that sense of a distinct place, a specific landscape, runs deep throughout.

The novel begins in 1941, on the day when Etty Hamer gives birth to a son, Oliver. Idris, Etty’s older husband, is out ploughing the fields; the farm is his life – even the midwife’s news of a bomb being dropped nearby doesn’t shake Idris from his work:

‘Oh,’ Idris repeated, as if this woman were a stranger, as if they had not sat within ten yards of one another every Sunday for the past twenty years. He turned his eyes another inch into the darkness and held up the lamp to light the old wooden bridge that led across the flem to the house. ‘I had best fodder the beasts, I had. Please to go on in, Mrs Prosser.’

Subsequent chapters return to the Hamers and their farm every few years, all the way through to 2011. Oliver grows up, to become a figure of some renown in the local community. There are changes in the family and other relationships; the farm and wider area face shifting fortunes; new technologies and social developments leave their mark. Through it all, Addlands maintains a distinctive relationship between reader, character, and setting.

One thing that stands out early on is Bullough’s use of dialect. Here, for example, is a conversation between the young Oliver and a friend in 1952:

Oliver grunted, took the spare pair of gloves and pulled one over his bandaged hand.

‘You looks like your puppy just grew up a fox!’

‘Mam is in a kank.’

‘I hearkened her, to be honest with you. Kept back again, is it?’

‘Six blasted stripes.’

‘By Gar, boy! What did you do? Punch old Willie?’

‘Griffin.’

‘Griffin,’ Albert snorted. ‘Still having a go, then, is he?’

Even in context, it takes a little time to decode this exchange about getting in trouble. But I don’t find this dialect to be like – say – the nicknames in Morvern Callar, keeping the reader out of a secret world. It’s more a feature of the landscape, something to which you do have to adjust, but which will become familiar in time.

Above all, though, what strikes me about Addlands is how the progression of the novel is oriented around the place rather than the characters. If you’ll forgive a generalisation: typically, in a generational saga like this, we (for which read: I) might expect the family’s experiences to be the linking thread, and for the book to deal with changes in the wider world in the context of how they affect the family. We still get that in Addlands, but there’s a subtle difference in emphasis: some key events in the ‘human’ story of the Hamers are missing, and everything is related back to the farm above all. So this becomes a story of the family as a part of their landscape.

There’s a scene set in 1957 where Idris is reading over the detailed records he has kept of the local farms’ sheep flocks. “This was the knowledge that allowed you to survive,” comments Bullough’s narrator, “not the doddle you were told in a classroom. Had [Idris] wished, he could have traced the blood-line of almost any sheep within fifteen miles, as like as not through forty generations.”

Contrast this with a moment from 1996, when Oliver is visited by a young woman who admires the poetry written by Oliver’s ex: “You’re surely aware that you appear in her work?” says the visitor. “I mean her Drought collection. That more or less started me writing myself…It’s one of the formative books in post-pastoral poetry.” Oliver’s reply is tart: “Post-pastoral? We in’t done yet, girl.”

Four decades earlier, the farming life was ingrained in this land, powered by knowledge and instinct which had built up over years. Now, it has become something that can viewed from a distance, in the abstract. But, as Oliver notes, the farms are still there: life still goes on, despite everything. According to the novel’s epigraph, by W.H. Howse, the word ‘addlands’ refers to “the border of plough land which is ploughed last of all”. That’s the land of the Hamers: the land that remains to the end.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Addlands (2016) by Tom Bullough, Granta hardback

The Transmigration of Bodies: ii – networks and conversations

TransmigrationThis is the second in a series of three posts on Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (tr. Lisa Dillman). The first post is here.

The world of The Transmigration of Bodies revolves around personal and familial networks. Foremost, of course, are the crime families: by the time of that initial call to the Redeemer, Dolphin already knows as much as he wants to, as far as he’s concerned; the job he is hiring the Redeemer for will be a strictly practical exercise (there is more to be found out in the end, but that’s fiction for you). We’re also told of a time when a boyfriend attempted to abduct Baby Girl from a shop, and “someone called one of Baby Girl’s brothers – yes, everyone knows fucking everyone,” comments the narrator, wryly.

Actually, the world of Herrera’s novel does not just revolve around these networks – it emerges from them. The underworld through which the Redeemer moves would not exist without the relationships that underpin it, and that affects how we perceive the book’s reality. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Makina crosses the border between Mexico and the US, but it’s not a precisely geographical space: it’s fuzzy. We don’t experience it as a detached observer, but from Makina’s view, peeling back layer after later as she travels on.

It’s similar in The Transmigration of Bodies: the city comes across as less a collection of streets and buildings than one of conversations and encounters, with the invisible currents of familial connection humming in the background. The Redeemer can get along in this world partly because he understands when and how to say the right thing:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person.

In a world of conversations and relationships, words become currency; and someone like the Redeemer knows how to spend wisely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2015), And Other Stories paperback

The Transmigration of Bodies: i – names

TransmigrationThe Transmigration of Bodies is the second of Yuri Herrera’s novels to be translated by Lisa Dillman and published by And Other Stories. The first was Signs Preceding the End of the World, one of my very favourite books from last year. Where Signs was a book of borders, Transmigration is more concerned with networks and exchange; but that same sense of hallucinating reality is ever-present. I have three posts aboutthis new book lined up, starting with a few notes on names…

In the first chapter, Herrera’s narrator wakes up, looks out on a city that’s been quietened by the plague, and gets frisky with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde. Throughout all of this, we know him only as a pronoun. It’s only at the end of the chapter, when our man has taken a phone call, that he becomes the Redeemer.

The Redeemer has been called upon by Dolphin Fonseca to retrieve the latter’s son Romeo from another crime family, the Costas, in an exchange. What the Redeemer will be exchanging, he discovers later, is the daughter of the Costa family, Baby Girl.

As you might gather from the above, it’s a rare character in The Transmigration of Bodies who gets to be known by an actual name, rather than a nickname or epithet. “Some sad fuck so much as takes a bite of bread and we got to find a name for it,” thinks the Redeemer. These aliases help to mark the contours of the novel’s world: when the Redeemer answers that call from Dolphin, he is explicitly leaving behind a period (however fleeting) of anonymity and stepping back into the city’s underworld. Baby Girl doesn’t like her nickname; but, when she speaks her real name aloud, we’re not told what it is – she’s as bound by the alias as she is by social and familial forces.

The nicknames also slide into a more general euphemistic language that sets the terms of engagement with the crime world:

Banished man alias Mennonite. Broken man alias Redeemer. Lonely old soul alias Light of my life. Ravaged woman alias Wonder where she’s gone. Get revenge alias Get even. Truly fucked alias Not to worry. Contempt alias Nobody remembers him. Scared shitless alias Didn’t see a thing. Scared shitless alias Doing just fine. Some sad fuck alias Chip off the old block. Just what I was hoping for alias You won’t get away with this. Housebroken words alias Nothing but truth.

There are some things that can only be done under an alias. And there are some things you don’t say about them, at least not directly.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

From the Archives: Spanish Lit

Today, for Spanish Lit Month, a look back through my archives. This is a list of all my reviews of books translated from the languages of Spain, in reverse order of posting. It’s not a huge number (in the early years of this blog, I didn’t read many translations), but I wanted to link to everything in one place. So – positive or negative, short or long – it’s all here. Just to clarify a few things: all books are translated from Spanish unless otherwise indicated; some links go to external websites; and anything labelled ‘note’ is a few lineswithin a longer round-up post.

Spanish Lit Month: The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

Skating RinkJuly is Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. I’ve never joined in properly before; but I have quite a few unread Spanish-language books on the shelves (and the odd Catalan one), so now is the time. My first book for the month plugs a gap in my recent reading history, and takes me to a novelist’s beginnings…

When I started this blog in 2009, Roberto Bolaño was one of the writers whose names I kept coming across – but I never read him. Partly this was because, at that time I wasn’t yet making a point of reading translations; and partly because the book I heard most about – 2666 – was just too long for me to want to take a punt. My reading took me off in other directions, and Bolaño became another author whose work I’d glimpse occasionally on bookshop shelves and then wonder about. But I did acquire a few volumes over the years, ready for when the time was right. When I came across my copy of The Skating Rink the other week, it seemed as good a time as any.

I didn’t even realise when I started that this was Bolaño’s first published novel. Since I found that out, it has become unusually difficult not to let it colour my response. I’m conscious that what I’ve read is only the start of something, and that I don’t know how Bolaño’s career developed. This novel feels to me like a stepping stone rather than an end in itself; but I don’t have the context to know what is significant in terms of Bolaño’s work as a whole.

The Skating Rink is set in a Costa Brava town identified only as Z, and has three first-person narrators. One is Enric Rosquelles, a civil servant who becomes infatuated with a champion ice skater named Nuria Martí, and siphons off public funds to build her a secret rink in an old mansion at the edge of town. The second narrator is Remo Morán, a-writer-turned-businessman in an occasional relationship with Nuria. Finally, there’s Gaspar Heredia, a poet and old associate of Morán’s who takes a job at his campsite and becomes acquainted with two vagrants, a knife-carrying young woman and an ageing opera singer, who have their own interest in the palace. The three narrators rotate in strict order, each testimony presented as a single, dense paragraph:

Only once had I ever heard anyone sigh like that: a hard, harsh sigh, alive in every hair, and the mere memory of it made me feel ill. I squatted between the cases until all I could hear was the generator and my own uneven breathing. I chose not to move for a long time. When I noticed that one of my legs was becoming seriously numb, I began the retreat; it was all I could do not to panic and go running down the mansion’s twisting corridors. Surprisingly I found my way out without the slightest difficulty. The front door was locked. I jumped out a window. Once in the garden, I didn’t even try to open the iron gate; without a second thought I scaled the wall as if my life depended on it…

(Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.)

The effect of this is that we perceive events building layer by layer, sometimes digressing, and often without a clear sense of where things might be heading. We do know from early on in the novel that there’s going to be a murder, but not whose. Actually The Skating Rink functions almost like an inverted murder mystery: the crime doesn’t come until close to novel’s end, and it’s not so much solved as admitted. The tension ramps up as we reach the fateful moment; but there isn’t the conventional release of finding out ‘what happened’, more a kind of resigned understanding. Solving the murder might explain something of what we’ve read, but it doesn’t fundamentally change it. The ending of The Skating Rink is less a victory for the reader than a truce.

Based on this experience, I think I would like to read more Bolaño, and it could be that one of the higher-profile books is the way to go after all. Maybe this is one literary career where it helps to know the end point before you look backwards.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Skating Rink (1993) by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews (2009), Picador paperback

Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić

QuietFlowsOne thing that really struck me about Human Acts, Han Kang’s novel of the Gwangju Uprising, was how it made violence pervasive but incomprehensible: there is large-scale brutality in the background (and sometimes in the foreground), but the most powerful images for me are the small human movements, because that’s the level at which we can process what is happening. I was reminded of this when reading Faruk Šehić’s debut novel Quiet Flows the Una, which deals with the Bosnian War; because it creates a similar sense of an event that cannot be comprehended within a conventional novelistic frame.

Šehić’s narrator – who is probably named Mustafa Husar (“Sometimes I’m not me,” he says), and might be an analogue for the author – grew up in the town of Bosanska Krupa, whose river is bound into the very fabric of local life:

Our town grew out of people’s bond with the river. The Una is the power that holds the town together, otherwise both the river and its people would have been swept away long ago; like tortoises with houses on their backs, they would have fled far and wide. They know very well that problems vanish by simply watching the flow of the river.

(Translated from the Bosnian by Will Firth.)

Mustafa fought in the war, an experience that still troubles him deeply (“Don’t ask me who I am,” he tells us, “because that scares me”). The pretext of Quiet Flows the Una is that he goes to see a visiting circus with some old comrades, and ends up as the hypnotist’s volunteer; the novel’s chapters are the memories that Mustafa relives. They come at random, from youth and adulthood, wartime and after. The Una flows through it all, touched by conflict but ultimately surviving:

The river flowed as if nothing had changed. Three metres beneath the surface, in the heart of a greenhole, the silence was inviolable. The fish went about their miracles, and the acoustic impressions of an artillery attack on the dot of noon don’t reach them. The forces of nature are insensitive to wartime operations. The tree breaks in half when hit by a tank shell. It has no words to complain with.

Mustafa is quick to point out is that analysis after the fact does not capture the lived experience of war: “I wasn’t a tiny cog in the workings of some cosmic powers – as a real man with a formed personality, I had one private mission: physical survival.” But, with the world he knew slipping away, our narrator also wants to keep it alive somehow, perhaps by describing things in great detail:

I hoped this act of description would make my objects firm and indestructible in the world that surrounded me like an endless dark forest. Everything that was gone forever could be rebuilt with words, I thought…But the loss of the pre-war world of emotions and the palpable objects that comprised it – living rooms (the universe of the intimate), books (time machines) and photographs (time conserved in crystal) – was manifested for me as extreme pain.

So Mustafa’s next thought is to write a book – the book in our hands. “Writing would allow me to make myself a crutch, a substitute world.” Here, Šehić – like Han Kang in Human Acts – makes the problem of writing about his subject part of the text itself. Fiction can’t capture the true reality of war, this novel suggests; but it can create a proxy in words, a space to confront something of that reality. The broken chronology of Quiet Flows the Una reflects an event and an experience which can only be glimpsed In flashes and fragments. But those glimpses are vital, in multiple senses of that word.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Quiet Flows the Una (2011) by Faruk Šehić, tr. Will Firth (2016), Istros Books paperback

#Woolfalong: Mrs Dalloway’s Party

MrsDallowaysPartyIt’s time for another check-in with the #Woolfalong (see my previous posts on Mrs Dalloway and The Voyage Out). The May/June theme is perhaps a little more off the beaten track: Virginia Woolf’s short stories. I’ve been trying to use my #Woolfalong selections to build a picture of Woolf’s work, piece by piece; so it seemed logical to choose a collection linked to a book I’d already read.

Mrs Dalloway’s Party is a sequence of seven stories put together by Stella McNichol after she became aware of them while working on the manuscripts of Mrs Dalloway. The opening two fall chronologically at or before the start of the novel (the first story, ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’, was originally meant to be Chapter One of the novel); the remaining five focus on individual guests at the party that closes Mrs Dalloway.

I’m drawn to a musical comparison here. Reading Mrs Dalloway’s Party was like listening to the offcuts of a familiar album: the stories were of a piece with the main work, but not part of it – sometimes disconcertingly so. There are elements of ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ that I recognise from their later context, such as a mention of Mrs Foxcroft – so powerful to me in the novel; but not nearly so much the way it’s treated in the story.

I fared better with the wholly unfamiliar material of the later stories. It’s not quite the intoxicating tide of consciousness that I found in Mrs Dalloway; but there is still a sense of the interior world as a three-dimensional space, and the significance (or otherwise) of the social occasion to the individual. Here, for example, are two characters who have been introduced and begun to converse in the story ‘Together and Apart’:

Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shallow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific. They were elderly and burnished into a glowing smoothness, so that Roderick Serle would go, perhaps to a dozen parties in a season, and feel nothing out of the common, or only sentimental regrets, and the desire for pretty images—like this of the flowering cherry tree—and all the time there stagnated in him unstirred a sort of superiority to his company, a sense of untapped resources, which sent him back home dissatisfied with life, with himself, yawning, empty, capricious. But now, quite suddenly, like a white bolt in a mist (but this image forged itself with the inevitability of lightning and loomed up), there it had happened; the old ecstasy of life; its invincible assault; for it was unpleasant, at the same time that it rejoiced and rejuvenated and filled the veins and nerves with threads of ice and fire; it was terrifying. “Canterbury twenty years ago,” said Miss Anning, as one lays a shade over an intense light, or covers some burning peach with a green leaf, for it is too strong, too ripe, too full.

This is a long quotation, but I think you need the length to appreciate the full effect: the familiar torrent of words, within which apparently mundane small talk has stirred a deep, primal sense of being alive (literature can also do that to a reader; reading Mrs Dalloway did it to me). Miss Anning’s distancing comment at the end tries to push this feeling away, but of course it will remain, latent, ready to emerge again if given the chance. This is how close Woolf brings us to her characters: into the very fabric of perception.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

ChildrensHomeI had a few false starts with novels before picking up The Children’s Home and finding that it was the book I needed at that time. What marked it out from the others I’d tried, to make me realise that this wouldn’t be another false start? I wish it were that easy to say: something about how the language opened up, I suppose.

The last book I read by Charles Lambert, his fictionalised memoir With a Zero at its Heart, had a tightly rigid structure (with chapters and paragraphs of a set length) which highlighted the fragmentary nature of memory. His new novel is rather different, with its lengthy, meandering passages:

Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages. Moira remained the youngest. According to Engel, who seemed to know, she couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old when she was left. The oldest among them was a fair-haired boy who walked into the house one day with a cardboard tag—the kind used for parcels—attached to his wrist, on which the name David had been written in a childish hand…

The effective of these long paragraphs is to dissolve all action into dream: there’s nowhere for the reader to gain true purchase; you just plunge in, to be carried away by the torrent of words. It’s appropriate, because the whole novel is built on uncertainty: there’s something preternatural about the children who arrive so mysteriously at the big house inhabited by Morgan and his housekeeper Engel. But, if Morgan doesn’t understand who the children are or why they are there, he doesn’t know much about the outside world, either. He’s been rather protected from having to think about things like that, and it started young:

One of Morgan’s first memories after the building of the wall was hearing gunfire and shouting and seeing flames rise from beyond it, while he stood with his hand in his mother’s and listened to her sing a song he had never heard before, in a language he didn’t know. A rebel song, she told him, her dark eyes burning with anger and affront. He didn’t know what rebel meant. When he found out the meaning, he wondered if he had heard her right. Weren’t rebels the ones on the outside, he wondered, the ones who shouted and used their guns and murdered; the ones with a grievance. Perhaps what she had wanted to say was revel. She was never happier in those days than when she was preparing for a party of some kind.

The whole space in which The Children’s Home unfolds is uncertain: there’s a sense of a post-war European locale, but largely at the impressionistic level of the passage quoted above. Even some of the further recesses of the house are unknown to Morgan, so we really are drifting along in the dark with him. Lambert builds an intense feeling of foreboding as the dream continues, uncontrolled by the sleeper/reader, and you wonder where all this is going to go. I could tell you, but I hear an alarm clock ringing…

Elsewhere

Read other reviews of The Children’s Home at Lonesome Reader, A Life in Books, and His Futile Preoccupations.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Children’s Home (2016) by Charles Lambert, Aardvark Bureau paperback

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