Tagfiction

High Tide: reading in fragments

The Latvian writer Inga Ābele’s High Tide begins with Ieva ruminating on how fleeting true happiness can be, how thin the veneer on the cold world (you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread”). Then the novel heads back through Ieva’s three decades of life to uncover exactly how she ended up feeling this way. The revelations come – for example, we discover that Ieva’s husband Andrejs was convicted for murder – but the cumulative effect is where Ābele’s novel shines the most for me.

High Tide is told haphazardly – not strictly in reverse chronological order, but something close to that. It goes through a number of different forms and styles: one chapter is entirely in dialogue; one is a series of letters; and so on. One that really struck me is a monologue where we discover that Ieva’s daughter Monta feels distant from her mother and has never been to see her father; the combination of a dense block of text and a breezily informal tone conveys the sense that Monta is desperate to get out of a situation, a state of being, that she may never quite be able to shake off. Kaija Straumanis’ translation is full of these subtle effects.

The overall experience of reading Ābele’s novel, I found, is one of reading in fragments. Because it’s not a smooth reverse-chronological narrative, and because the chapters can’t all be Ieva’s recollections, the book never quite settles into a seamless whole. So one ends up focusing on the individual pieces – appropriately enough, as one senses that this is how Ieva experiences her own life.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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Reading ‘In the Wind’ by Jung Mi-kyung

The first two stories in Jung Mi-kyung’s collection My Son’s Girlfriend were good, but they didn’t prepare me for this…

‘In the Wind’ started innocuously enough, with its narrator looking at the quivering bunch of cells in the Petri dish before her, and wondering if IVF is really what she wants. But then it got under my skin, and I’m still trying to process how and why.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for symbolism and patterning in a story, and ‘In the Wind’ has plenty of those. The would-be embryo looks to the protagonist like a flower, and there are recurring images of petals, and fragile things blowing on the wind. Jung’s narrator also sees the cells as being somewhere between mere existence and ‘life’ proper; and she has similar uncertainties about other things – her own life, her relationships.

But that alone doesn’t account for my response. This is a story that burrowed down into me and wouldn’t be coaxed back out. There’s nothing obviously flashy about Yu Young-nan’s translation from the Korean; but I think that very ordinariness allows the narrator’s doubts to spread and fester, up to that final line: “I shuddered violently at the thought that nothing had changed.”

When I respond strongly to fiction, it’s a visceral reaction. With ‘In the Wind’, this wasn’t a pleasant feeling by any means, and I’ve had to put the book aside for now to read something else. `But still… it was exhilarating – it was what reading is all about for me. So I will be going back… tentatively.

Book details (Publisher link)

My Son’s Girlfriend by Jung Mi-kyung (2008), tr. Yu Young-nan (2013), Dalkey Archive Press paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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Second Impressions: Alina Bronsky

Much as I like discovering unfamiliar writers, one of the pleasures of reading an author for the second time in particular is that it allows you to start making connections and building a tentative picture of that author’s approach and concerns. The picture might eventually turn out to be inaccurate, but that’s all part of the exploration of reading.

I’ve now read two novels by Alina Bronsky, so I can form a better picture of her work. Vivid narrators are a key element, which is no surprise following the powerful presence of Rosa in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but it’s still good to have this underlined. If Marek in Just Call Me Superhero isn’t quite as a strong a presence – well, few would be. Besides, his distance from the reader (from everyone, from himself) is a central part of his nature as a character.

Bronsky also filters reality through the perception of her narrators in striking ways. Rosa is so sure of her self-image that there’s a certain wry humour (and, later, melancholy) in realising that the actuality is rather different. Marek isn’t so much deluded about his situation as too guarded to let others in, including the reader. We’re with him as he crosses the boundaries into unfamiliar territory, and we see his ambivalence about getting closer to someone else.

Here’s hoping, then, for many more interesting characters’ worlds to come from Alina Bronsky.

Book details (Publisher link / Foyles affiliate link)

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2011), Europa Editions paperback

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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Just Call Me Superhero: into the unknown

If To Mervas is a novel of moving from inside to outside and back again, Alina Bronsky’s Just Call Me Superhero (translated from the German by Tim Mohr) is one of crossing into unfamiliar worlds. It begins with our narrator, Marek, arriving at what he thinks will be a tutorial to help him pass his high school diploma – only to find that his mother has actually sent him to a support group for disabled people. Marek was disfigured after being attacked by a Rottweiler, but he wants nothing to do with any sort of disability group – until, that is, he spots the beautiful Janne sitting there in her wheelchair.

One of the first things I began to notice about Just Call Me Superhero was how tightly controlled was the flow of information about Marek– for instance, we never learn the full story of his disfigurement. We are firmly in the ‘here and now’ of Marek’s life; there is a clear sense of going only as far into his world as he will allow. That’s what it’s like for Marek with the disability group (particularly the frosty reception he gets from Janne), though there’s also reluctance on his part to enter the group and open himself to them.

Bronsky’s novel is effectively structured into two halves, with Marek taking reluctant steps into two of these unfamiliar spheres. In the first half, it’s the disability group; in the second, it is the family of his father, who eloped with the au pair and had a son whom Marek barely knows. Bronsky draws intriguing parallels between the two groups, and one question hangs above all: is there a family for Marek, among all these people?

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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To Mervas: inside/outside

This August, Meytal from Biblibio is once again hosting Women in Translation Month; and now – albeit later than I hoped – I can join in. The first book I’ve read for this is To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell (translated from the Swedish by Victoria Häggblom). What I want to talk about here is how R moves between, and reflects, ideas of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

Rynell’s protagonist is Marta, whose diary-within-the-novel begins as she has received a letter from Kosti, her lover of years ago, who says he’s in the remote northern town of Mervas (which, as far as I can tell, is fictional). The whole of the novel’s first part is written as Marta’s diary, and it reveals just how much she has withdrawn into herself, having grown up in a violent household and faced the death of her son.

Marta decides to travel to Mervas and find Kosti; her journey begins in the novel’s second part, and is written in the third person. Suddenly we’re thrown into the outside, both in terms of the backdrop to the action, and the vantage point from which we view Marta. The effect of this is the dazzle of stepping out into daylight.

The third part returns to Marta’s diary, and by now she’s reached Mervas. In this section, inside and outside bleed into each other: Marta’a first-person voice symbolically gains the confidence/authority to narrate her journey through the world; and her time in Mervas becomes a kinetic means for her to address what’s holding her back. Marta has been brought out of herself, and now she can return.

Book details (publisher link)

To Mervas (2002) by Elizabeth Rynell, tr. Victoria Häggblom (2010), Archipelago paperback

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Morvern Callar: the strangeness of ordinary lives

A nonchalant reaction to her partner’s dead body wasn’t the half of it. Morvern Callar gets ever more unsettling: the protagonist takes full advantage of the sudden windfall she receives from her partner’s bequest, eschewing her supermarket job for a holiday in Spain, and submitting his draft novel to publishers under her own name. Some of the things that Morvern does are more understandable than others; but they all need rationalising after the fact, because she’s in no hurry to explain herself to us.

What I find particularly striking about Warner’s novel is the way that it highlights how strange an ordinary life may appear to those observing it from outside. Morvern refers to her friends and acquaintances by an array of nicknames: entirely natural to her, of course – as it would be to us in her position – but bewildering when you don’t have the key. The whole sense of Morvern Callar is that a secret world of connections and history likes just over there, if only we could reach it.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Morvern Callar (1995) by Alan Warner, Vintage Classics paperback

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Morvern Callar: first impressions

Vintage have reissued five Scottish novels as Vintage Classics, to mark the twentieth anniversary of Alan Warner’s debut, Morvern Callar. The publishers were kind enough to send me a set, and I thought I’d start with the anniversary book itself.

At the start of the novel, Morvern Callar discovers that her boyfriend (to whom she refers as ‘Him’) has killed himself. Straight away, I was reminded of how the simplest sentences can do the strangest things:

I came back towards the scullery then took a running jump over the dead body. The sink was full of dishes so I had to give them all a good rinse. The face was by my bare foot. I fitted the kettle spout under the tap. Then I put my underwear over the spout  and tugged the elastic round the sides. When the kettle boiled I put the warm knickies on. I jumped back over Him ready to throw the kettle away, after all you don’t want to scald your legs.

The whole opening sequence is like this: a sequence of (mostly) straightforward actions, described quite plainly. But, of course, it raises questions – most of all, why is Morvern so calm in the face of this apparently sudden tragedy? Already, Warner has drawn me in.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Morvern Callar (1995) by Alan Warner, Vintage Classics paperback

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Re-reading Lucy Wood

My book group chose Lucy Wood’s collection Diving Belles for this month, which gave me a welcome excuse to re-read it. I enjoyed it even more the second time around, and – having read Weathering quite recently – gained a greater appreciation of Wood’s approach in general.

By coincidence, Max Cairnduff reviewed Diving Belles the other week; like me, he loved it (I wasn’t surprised, as we tend to have quite similar taste in books). One of his comments that I found particularly interesting was that, even though the metaphors in Wood’s stories aren’t the subtlest, he was more forgiving of this than he’d usually be.

Thinking about this in the broader context of Wood’s work, I am struck that her fiction inhabits a space where metaphor becomes interchangeable with action and landscape. She can get away with using broad metaphors, because they are the foundation of her work, rather than its end-point. To borrow an expression from Ethan Robinson,  magic is a ‘living presence’ in Wood’s stories; this is a key quality that draws me to her work, and why it continues to haunt me.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Diving Belles (2012) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury paperback

Weathering (2015) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury hardback

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Miranda July, The First Bad Man (2015)

MJulyOne of the words that I’ve seen bandied around in newspaper reviews of Miranda July’s novel is ‘quirky’. I can see where this view is coming from, but there are two main problems with it: one is that it’s inherently dismissive (as July herself puts it, it makes her sound like a little girl); the other is that it overlooks the specifics of what the novel actually does.

July’s narrator is fortysomething Cheryl Glickman, who works for a self-defence training company named Open Palm. She has eyes for Phillip, a colleague twenty years her senior; and imagines that certain young children she sees are Kubelko Bondy, a baby she was sent to play with once when she was nine. When Cheryl agrees to have her employers’ twenty-year-old daughter Clee move in, her careful household routine is disrupted – and things change even more when Clee becomes pregnant.

There’s a lot of artifice in the characters’ lives, but it seems to me that this is often a defence mechanism. Cheryl has worked out a system at home for streamlining day-to-day busywork, but the sense is that really it’s an excuse for disengaging. She goes to see a chromotherapist who rents an office for three days of the year, then makes an appointment with a psychologist who uses that office the rest of the time, and turns out to have been acting as the chromotherapist’s receptionist. When Cheryl overhears a conversation between the two, it reveals what a front they’ve been putting up.

The ‘first bad man’ of the title is not a character in the novel as such, but a figure in one of Open Plan’s DVD scenarios, a role taken on by Clee when she and Cheryl act the scenario out. This is an example of how relationships between the characters become performances. Another is Cheryl’s fantasies of Phillip mid-novel, where the lines between reality and imagination blur. Then there’s complicated dance of a relationship between Cheryl and Clee later on. In all, The First Bad Man is quite a powerful novel, whose characters’ eccentricities are central to creating that power.

See also

Reviews of The First Bad Man by Naomi Frisby at The Writes of Woman, and John Self at Asylum.

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A round-up of recent reading

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read lately…

EclipticBenjamin Wood, The Ecliptic (2015)

Benjamin Wood’s first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, explored themes of creativity and obsession. He returns to those themes, and takes them further, in The Ecliptic. We first meet Elspeth Conroy in the 1970s at Portmantle, an invitation-only refuge for artists who have become creatively blocked. The arrival of a mysterious teenage musician leads Elspeth’s past to catch up with her – a past we delve into, learning of her development as a painter, and how she ended up going to Portmantle. There’s a running theme of creativity becoming an all-consuming force in artists’ lives, a theme which gains its most powerful expression late in the novel, in quite an unexpected way. I’ll let you find out the rest for yourself…

Irenosen Okojie, Butterfly Fish (2015)

Published by Jacaranda, Irenosen Okojie’s debut is a kaleidoscopic novel which focuses primarily on Joy, who is trying to cope with the death of her mother Queenie. The figure of a mysterious woman appears in Joy’s life and photographs, and Joy finds herself fascinated by a bronze warrior’s head that belonged to her mother. Okojie weaves in other narrative strands, including one set in 19th century Benin, Nigeria (from where the bronze bust originates), and one examining Queenie’s arrival in London from Nigeria in the 1960s. Parallels and connections emerge, forming Butterfly Fish into an intriguing whole.

Raymond Jean, Reader for Hire (1986)
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (2015)

The second in Periene’s Chance Encounter series, and rather different in tone from White Hunger. At a friend’s suggestion, Marie-Constance places an advert in the paper, offering to read aloud to others in their own home. Her first client is a disabled boy named Eric; after she reads him a rather macabre section of a Maupassant short story, Eric is disproportionately affected, scared out of his wits. Marie-Constance has this ability, to evoke the deep effect of what she reads in her listeners – as she and others increasingly discover. The prose of Reader for Hire reflects this: the viewpoint stays close to Marie-Constance, so the book begins and ends with her life as a reader; and it feels quite sharply episodic, each chapter its own little story. All in all, a charming celebration of reading.

Hawthorn

Melissa Harrison, At Hawthorn Time (2015)

At Hawthorn Time is, first and foremost, a novel of the modern English countryside: its chapters are headed with field notes, and images of the rural landscape run through its pages. Though the eye of narrative may be focused upon human characters, there is always the sense that they are defined by their interactions with the countryside. Melissa Harrison’s four main characters have different relationships with the country: Jack, a former radical protester, wanders across the land, both in close connection to it and yet somehow apart. Young Jamie is the rural native struggling with the realities of trying to make a living. Howard and Kitty are the urban incomers, whose marriage frays at the seams as they try to find their place. Their lives intertwine with each other and the landscape, heading towards the tragedy that, from the beginning, we know has been coming.

Jonathan Pinnock, Take It Cool (2014)

The last book I read by Jonathan Pinnock was a story collection, Dot Dash. This one is different – a non-fiction account of the author’s search for a reggae singer named Dennis Pinnock. The chapters rotate through three strands: Jonathan’s attempts to contact Dennis and the people who knew him; reviews of Dennis’s singles; and the author’s research into his own family history. Reading this book felt rather like eavesdropping, particularly as I don’t know much about reggae (I didn’t listen to any of the mentioned while I was reading, as I found it interesting to maintain that distance – I guess I can rectify that now). But Take It Cool tells an intriguing story, whatever your immediate interest in its subject matter. Published by Two Ravens Press.

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