Tagfiction

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

Today, I’ve got a Norwegian classic for you. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) came from the village in Vineyard, a village in the southern Norwegian province of Telemark. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 novels, including 1963’s The Ice Palace. I’m reviewing the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, which has been published in association with Peter Owen Publishers. Before I start on the novel itself, I must say that I think the cover image is gorgeous. It’s by Hsiao-Ron Cheng, a Taiwanese artist; if you like this picture, there’s more on her Instagram

Now, back to The Ice Palace. It’s the story of two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is the leader in her school playground, the one whom all the other children gravitate towards. Unn is a recent arrival from another district, come to stay with her aunt (rumour has it, because she has been orphaned). Unn stands apart from all the others in the playground, but Siss is drawn to her nonetheless. It turns out that Unn would like to spend time with Siss after all, but will only do so if Siss visits her at home after school. Siss accepts the invitation. 

The scene where the two girls are sitting in Unn’s bedroom is remarkably powerful. Tension builds and builds, but so much remains elusive. In this passage, for example, Siss and Unn are looking at their reflections in a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. 

In that moment, a unique spark of something has ignited between Siss and Unn; the whole sequence is full of the raw sense of two children working out the shape of their new friendship in the moment. As the scene progresses, it appears that Unn would like to disclose a deep secret to Siss, something that she hasn’t felt able to say to anyone else. However, just as Unn begins to do so, Siss feels uncomfortable and asks to leave. 

The following morning, Unn (in the only chapter written from her viewpoint) feels that it would be too embarrassing to meet Siss again that day. Instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore the ice palace, a mysterious and beautiful structure which has been formed by a frozen waterfall. It’s there that Unn vanishes. 

The rest of the novel revolves primarily around Siss, and her response to a world without Unn. At first, Siss promises to think about Unn – and no one else – for as long as Unn is missing. However, that leaves Siss the isolated one in the playground. She needs to find a different way to be. In this aspect, The Ice Palace is a coming-of-age story. 

Vesaas’ book is also concerned with the interaction of place and people: Siss and Unn’s aunt as members of the village community; the different circles of belonging at school; people’s fascination with the ice palace. When a group of village men are out late searching for Unn at the waterfall, Vesaas makes clear that any mystery or beauty about the place is a product of its observers’ perception:

There is something secret here. [The men]  bring out what sorrows they may have and transfer them to this midnight play of light and suspicion of death. It makes things better, and through it they fool themselves into enchantment. They are dispersed in the angles of ice, the lanterns shoot transverse gleams, meeting the lights from other cracks and prisms – quite new beams are illuminated, just as quickly extinguished again for good. 

The prose, in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation, is a mixture of flowing sentences and jagged fragments. It helps turn what might seem on the surface to be a fairly straightforward novel into a sharper reading experience that stays long in the mind.

Book details 

The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan (1993); original pub. Peter Owen, this edition Penguin Modern Classics; 140 pages; paperback (review copy). 

The White City – Roma Tearne

This book was the January choice for the Ninja Book Club, which focuses on books from independent publishers. It was my first time reading Roma Tearne, and I was glad of the introduction. Sadly, the club’s online discussion had to be postponed, so I’ve put some thoughts on the book together here. 

Years after London began to freeze over, the ice is finally beginning to thaw. Our narrator, Hera, is prompted to recall the day that first day of snow, when her brother Aslam was arrested. Besides narrating the story of her family from then on, Hera tells how she fell in love with an older man named Raphael, private and standoffish though he could be. He’s left her now, but Hera still longs for Raphael; she even addresses him directly in her account, perhaps in the hope of finding him again. 

The White City is a novel of lives uprooted and families falling apart. Hera has never had the easiest of relationships with her Muslim parents, but Aslam’s arrest places  the family under even greater strain. They’re not allowed to see or speak to him, and are given only vague information as to why he has been arrested. Raphael has an analogous tale to tell of his life prior to the UK, which is revealed (to Hera and the reader) midway through the novel. 

Aslam and Raphael become displaced in their own ways – as indeed did Hera’s family when they moved countries, and as does Hera herself over time. There’s a certain nebulous quality to Tearne’s prose when she’s writing about Raphael’s old life or Aslam’s arrest, which heightens that sense of dislocation. The thawing London is itself full of vivid images, which round out a sensitive portrait of places and lives. 

Book details 

The White City (2017) by Roma Tearne, Aardvark Bureau, 256 pages, hardback (personal copy). 

In the Absence of Absalon – Simon Okotie

This book is the sequel to Simon Okotie’s 2012 debut Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, which I haven’t read. I’m reading the second novel by itself because it’s longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, and it seems fine as an entry point. The previous book concerned a detective named Marguerite who was searching for Harold Absalon (“the Mayor’s transport advisor,” according to In the Absence). Now Marguerite has also gone missing, and we follow an unnamed investigator who is looking for him. 

In the Absence of Absalon begins with the detective outside a townhouse belonging to one Richard Knox, a colleague of Harold Absalon’s. This place is critical to our man’s investigation, but he’s taking his time over going in. He has a lot on his mind, or at least his thoughts are related in great detail. For example, here he’s placed a foot on the first step up to the house, and is thinking about taking a key from his trouser pocket:

What he realised, as he lifted the heel of the foot that he’d placed upon that step, was that he could not have known that placing his foot in this position would have tightened the aperture and interior of the pocket in question to the extent that it had. Further evidence had, in short, become known to him during the course of his action, evidence to suggest that the main advantage of it, which was to reduce the distance between his right hand and the equivalent trouser pocket, may, in fact, be outweighed by the main disadvantage… 

That sentence goes on for almost as long again. I want to give you some idea of what the prose is like (I understand that the first book is similar), because you really have to give yourself over to what the novel is doing in order to appreciate it. It’s like an extreme close-up of thought over action; we’re at 92 pages (almost halfway through) before the detective actually takes his keys out of his pocket.

Once I’d got used to the rhythms of In the Absence, I found the experience highly enjoyable. The detective ponders such topics as the appropriateness of wearing a wetsuit for a business transaction, or the tendency of people in households with more than one telephone to still refer to ‘the phone’, singular. Reading the book made me think of the little notions that flash through one’s mind in an instant, barely registered; this is like having those notions brought out for full consideration. 

But In the Absence is still a detective novel, and there is indeed a mystery to be solved. Alongside the novel’s main third-person account are footnotes written in first-person by someone (the detective? our unknown narrator?) who has insinuated his way into Harold Absalon’s job and started an affair with Absalon’s wife, Isobel. And the detective’s investigation becomes more pressing when he sees Isobel Absalon through the window of the townhouse. I feel that I’ve been able to piece together an idea of what was going on. In any case, what a powerful moment of ‘decompression’ there is at the end when both reader and narrator stop and look around. Now I’d like to go back and read Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? to see if I’m right about everything, and if it’s as good as the sequel.

Book details 

In the Absence of Absalon (2017) by Simon Okotie, Salt Publishing, 196 pages, paperback (review copy). 

My Sweet Orange Tree – José Mauro de Vasconcelos

According to the press release, My Sweet Orange Tree has never been out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968. It’s a worldwide bestseller, having been translated into 19 languages… but it has been out of print in English for over 40 years, until this new translation by Alison Entrekin, published by Pushkin Press. 

My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical novel, based on José Mauro de Vasconcelos’ childhood in the Bangu neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. The book introduces us to Zezé, a precocious five-year-old with a tendency to play pranks on others, which often leads to him being beaten. He’ll tell others that he has the devil in him and should never have been born, yet he has charm and kindness to match his cheek. 

Zezé’s family struggles to get by: there are seven siblings to provide for, but Father is out of a job, so Mother has to work as much as she can at the factory. It means there are no presents waiting this Christmas in the shoes that Zezé has left outside his bedroom door. “Having a poor father is awful!” he blurts out, not realising that his father is right there to hear him. This leaves Zezé unable to act:

I felt like racing down the street and clinging to Father’s legs, crying. Telling him I’d been mean – really, really mean. But I just stood there, not knowing what to do. I had to sit on the bed. And from there I stared at my shoes, in the same corner, as empty as could be. As empty as my heart, careening out of control. 

But one of the things that’s so charming about Zezé is that he always has a plan. In this case, he decides to head out with his shoe-shine tin, to see if he can earn enough money to buy his father a gift. 

Zezé also has a broad imagination to match his resourcefulness. When the family moves house, Zezé claims a sweet-orange tree in the garden for himself. He names it Pinkie, imagines he can hear it talk, and whiles away hours riding in its branches with Tom Mix and other movie cowboys of the day. 

But friendship in the real world becomes increasingly important to Zezé. There are some memorable scenes as he becomes the helper of a man who visits the neighbourhood once a week to sing the latest popular songs and sell brochures of lyrics. Most important of all to Zezé, though, is his secret friendship with Manuel Valadares, a Portuguese with the finest car in the area. Time spent with him becomes an alternative to Zezé’s family life, a relationship that’s vivid on the page. 

Now that I’ve read My Sweet Orange Tree, I can absolutely see why this book is so beloved. Zezé is such a charming character, and there are some truly powerful moments. I’m glad to have had the chance to read this book, and warmly recommend it to you.

Book details

My Sweet Orange Tree (1968) by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, tr. Alison Entrekin (2018), Pushkin Press, 192 pages, hardback (proof copy provided for review). 

A Vineyard in Andalusia – Maria Dueñas: a snapshot review

This is a perfect example of the right book coming at the right time. I was in the mood for a long and welcoming novel that could round off the evening. Maria Dueñas’ new book proved to be just that.

It’s 1861. Mauro Larrera is a Spaniard who has made his wealth as a silver miner in Mexico. As the novel begins, Larrera learns that his latest risky investment has collapsed, and he’s going to lose everything. He then has to find a way to get out of his predicament, while maintaining appearances. Mauro’s family and associates have their suggestions, but it seems clear from the outset that Larrera has it in mind to flee. 

Mauro borrows some money from a creditor he’d rather not cross, then sets off hoping to repeat his earlier success. Amidst various scrapes, he goes to Havana, then eventually finds himself back in Spain as the owner of a vineyard, and caught up in the complicated affairs of the family who owned it previously.

A Vineyard in Andalusia is a glorious yarn, almost every chapter adding a new twist to Larrera’s travails. It was also great fun to read in self-imposed instalments – there are plenty of cliffhangers. There are times when certain events happen ‘off-stage’ that I’d have loved to read rather than being told about them after. However,  this doesn’t detract from a highly enjoyable tale, narrated in the snappy prose of Nick Caistor’s and Lorenza García’s translation.

A version of this review was previously published as a thread on Twitter.

Book details

A Vineyard in Andalusia (2015) by Maria Dueñas, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García (2017), Scribe Publications, 534 pages, paperback (review copy). 

I Am Behind You – John Ajvide Lindqvist: a EuroLitNetwork review 

The European Literature Network has been celebrating Nordic fiction lately. I’ve contributed a review of I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish horror writer known for Let the Right One In. This new novel concerns the occupants of four caravans who find themselves transported to a strange empty space, where their characters will be pressured until the flaws rise to the surface.  The translation is by Marlaine Delargy. 

You can find my review here, but do spend some time looking around, because there’s a lot to see. You can also download The Nordic Riveter, a 100-page PDF magazine collecting the new material.

Book details

I Am Behind You (2014) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, tr. Marlaine Delargy (2016), riverrun, 464 pages, hardback (review copy). 

My Personal Anthology 

Every week, the writer Jonathan Gibbs invites someone to ‘dream-edit’ their own Personal Anthology of twelve short stories. Each instalment includes a few words about each story and details of where it’s available to read (including online, where applicable.

This week was my turn in the editor’s chair. I couldn’t bear to commit myself to a definitive list of ‘favourites’ (after all, I might choose a different dozen tomorrow). Instead, I’ve selected stories that left a deep impression on me at the time of reading (various points over the last 15 years). My list includes long-time friends of this blog; beloved authors; and newer discoveries.

A Personal Anthology is sent free to subscribers via TinyLetter.com on Friday afternoon (UK time). However, the entries are archived, and you can read mine here. I hope you don’t you find it interesting and will be intrigued to try some of the stories. You can subscribe to A Personal Anthology here – I warmly recommend it. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

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

This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.

Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.

Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.

Listen to a reading of ‘if a book is locked’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Collector’ by Benjamin Markovits

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

Somewhere near the border with Canada, Robin Bright’s wife Amy dies when she is swept off the road in a storm. Robin struggles to accept what has happened, and retreats to his big house and hobby of collecting. The story switches between the past and the present, in which Robin discovers that Amy may not be the person he thought he knew.

‘The Collector’ is written in a more conventional literary style than the previous three stories. This is less to my personal taste (I find Markovits’ technique of anonymising places, such as “H___”, particularly irritating in a contemporary story); nevertheless, there are aspects of this story that work well. There’s some effective use of metaphor, playing all of Robin’s material possessions against what little knowledge he has of Amy. And I found the ending of ‘The Collector’ especially powerful.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Collector’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ by Cynan Jones

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

loved Cynan Jones’s 2014 novel The Dig, found it vivid and unflinching. I was hoping for something similar from ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ (a story drawn from Jones’s most recent novel, Cove). I wasn’t disappointed.

The unnamed protagonist of Jones’s tale is in a kayak off the coast, catching fish and about to scatter his father’s ashes, when something goes terribly wrong. After that, his goal is to reach land. It can be summarised succinctly, but the experience of it is so much richer, thanks to Jones’s pin-sharp description and a prose that breaks apart and re-forms like waves on the sea.

What I’ve written there feels at once inadequate and just enough to capture it. ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ is simply that kind of story. 

Listen to a reading of ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. 

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