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The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

This is another title from Bernardine Evaristo’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. Jacqueline Roy has written a number of children’s books. The Fat Lady Sings (published in 2000) was her first novel for adults – her second will be published later this month.

The Fat Lady Sings revolves around two Caribbean women living in a psychiatric ward in 1990s London. Gloria is in her fifties, a naturally exuberant presence: her mental health was assessed when her neighbours complained about her singing. It’s as though life has conspired to prevent Gloria from living it on her own terms. She has been ostracised by the family of her partner, Josie. When talking to police at the scene of the train crash that killed Josie, Gloria only felt able to describe herself as Josie’s friend. It’s a similar story on the ward: Gloria is told to keep her voice down, and the food is bland English fare.

Gloria has been in the unit for some months. Roy’s other protagonist is a new arrival: twentysomething Merle, who’s quiet and afraid of the voices in her head. Where Gloria’s narrative viewpoint is continuous, Merle’s is fragmented and subject to interruptions. But over the course of the novel, we see both women’s pasts, and they try to find a future for themselves.

The Fat Lady Sings is written in a way that brings the reader close to both its protagonists. We have to piece together their lives, just as they are doing. But there are moments of humour and light along the way – ultimately this is a tale of survival.

Published by Penguin.

Haus Publishing: Land of Cockaigne by Jeffrey Lewis

Jeffrey Lewis is an American novelist who has also written for television (including Hill Street Blues). His latest novel takes us to the small town of Sneeds Harbor on the coast of Maine. Walter and Charley Rath came to Sneeds twenty years ago with money, which they used to buy their house, and a disused summer camp for Charley’s art studio.

All this changes when their son Stephen dies in a carjacking in the Bronx. He worked with young people, aiming to keep them out of prison. His dream was to set up a programme on which Bronx kids could experience a different way of life by spending a couple of weeks in Sneeds Harbor.

Walter and Charley decide to honour Stephen’s memory by giving over their home to his dream project. Walter describes this as the Land of Cockaigne, referring to a mythical land of plenty from the Middle Ages. The Raths’ idea is not totally welcomed in Sneeds Harbor, but change is on its way regardless…

One of my favourite things about Land of Cockaigne is its style, which I would describe as nervy and on-edge:

Back in Sneeds the Raths did the things that were done by people in their situation, including not knowing what to call their situation so that they wouldn’t be hurt further either by too much honesty or too many lies, the middle way of grief.

There’s something in the shape of the sentences that means they don’t quite run smoothly. This really suits a novel about a community going through intense social change, and makes for striking reading.

Published by Haus Publishing.

Prototype Publishing: The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven

Somewhere in Europe, a young woman arrives in a secluded mountain town to work as apprentice to the pharmacist, August Malone (symbolically, we know his name but not hers). Malone believes in finding out and anticipating his customers’ needs and wants to an extreme extent – so much so that they will happily reveal all sorts of information about themselves. This information is useful for Malone (albeit not ethical) when he runs for Mayor.

In the meantime, the narrator finds her personality and sense of self dissipating in the force of Malone’s presence and the flow of customers’ stories. There’s a hazy quality to the prose that really works to convey this feeling. The town itself also feels slightly out of time, despite having modern technology – not antiquated, but perhaps somewhere whose essence remains the same whatever happens in the world. It’s the sort of place where one can imagine a life becoming static and fraying at the edges.

The Weak Spot is Lucie Elven’s debut, and she’s clearly someone I will want to read again. The atmosphere of the novel is so vivid, and it’s what lingered most for me after the last page.

Published by Prototype.

Salt Publishing: The Retreat by Alison Moore

This new novel by Alison Moore (probably best known for The Lighthouse) is typically unnerving – and it’s my favourite one of hers yet. In the 1990s, fortysomething Sandra joins an artists’ retreat on a private island, hoping to rekindle her interest in painting. She’s also been fascinated with the island since childhood, as it belonged to a reclusive silent movie star. 

The retreat does not go as Sandra had hoped. The other guests are standoffish, excluding her from their conversations and activities. (My favourite telling detail in the book is that the other group members tend to fob Sandra off with a cheese salad when making dinner, as she’s the only vegetarian in the group.) Her work is defaced, her things go missing… There’s a sense that something supernatural may be menacing Sandra, not just her fellow guests. 

A second strand of The Retreat is set in the present or near future. Carol retreats to the island to work on a novel, but she’s by herself – and going there by private arrangement, rather than in response to a public advertisement. Ghosts interfere with Carol’s stay, too but the tone is lighter – or at least, that’s the way Carol reacts. 

Tension builds gradually in The Retreat, as it moves from the interpersonal to overtones of the supernatural. But, look, the highest compliment I can pay this novel is that I just wanted to keep on reading it. I don’t generally say that I couldn’t put a book down, but certainly I was always impatient to pick The Retreat up again. If you’re in the mood for a ghostly tale, give this a go. 

Published by Salt.

Mountain Leopard Press: The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

Mountain Leopard Press is a new imprint of Welbeck Publishing Group, founded by Christopher MacLehose. Over the years, I’ve come to associate his name with quality, so I was keen to see what Mountain Leopard would publish. 

The Earthspinner is one of their first titles, the latest novel (and the first I’ve read) by Anuradha Roy. In 1970s India, Elango is a potter who has fallen in love with Zohra. After dreaming of a horse from myth, he resolves to spin it in clay for her. The problem is that Elango is a Hindu and Zohra a Muslim, so their love is forbidden. 

Our other protagonist is Sarayu. Elango taught her pottery when she was younger, and she rediscovers her love for it at university in England. The Earthspinner is an elegant tale of how pottery helps open the world up to Sarayu, even as we see Elango’s world grow more precarious. 

Mountain Leopard’s other launch title is Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal by Charif Majdalani (tr. Ruth Dover), a stark account of events in the Lebanese capital last year. 

World Editions: New Year by Juli Zeh (tr. Alta L. Price)

Life has scuppered several plans I had this month, including taking part in German Literature Month. Still, I’ve managed to read this, the latest novel by Juli Zeh. I have read Zeh once before, when I reviewed Decompression for Shiny New Books. Like that novel, New Year is set in Lanzarote – and it’s an interesting character portrait. 

Henning has taken his young family to Lanzarote for a surprise Christmas break. He might have been hoping to get away from life’s problems, but the trip soon creates issues of its own, such as another man flirting with Henning’s wife Theresa. 

On New Year’s Day, Henning resolves to make a new start, and cycles up into the mountains. The first part of the novel alternates between Henning’s bike ride and his reflections on the current holiday and his life. There’s a real sense here of the environment and Henning’s state of mind. 

We learn that Henning has panic attacks, caused by something buried in the past. When he reaches the summit of his ride, something about the place doesn’t feel quite right. A memory stirs – and, for the rest of the book, we see what happened in Henning’s childhood. In effect, New Year is structured like Henning’s bike ride: the journey to the top that maps out Henning’s present and recent past; and the exhilarating ride down again, as we discover just why Henning is the way he is. 

Published by World Editions

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle): Shiny New Books review

It’s been a while since I had a review elsewhere, but there’s a new one up now at Shiny New Books. This time it’s a book from Charco Press: Elena Knows by the Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro (translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle. Elena is an old woman with Parkinson’s, whose daughter Rita has been found hanging in the church belfry. Elena is convinced that this must be murder, and she’s travelling across the city to see someone who may be able to help her learn more.

Of all the Charco books I’ve read, I think this may be my favourite. It explores themes of identity and motherhood, and the limits of what we can know about other people – and it conveys vividly how Elena’s life is structured around her condition.

Click here to read my review of Elena Knows in full.

Inkandescent: Address Book by Neil Bartlett

My post today is part of a blog tour for Address Book, the latest title by Neil Bartlett, published by Inkandescent. Address Book is a cycle of seven stories, each inspired by an address at which the author has lived. 

My favourite stories are at the beginning and end. In the first piece, ’14 Yeomans Mews’, hospital doctor Andrew takes us back to when he was fifteen in 1974, and met an older man, John, at a railway station. Andrew was powerfully attracted to him, as he had been to others – but there was something different this time: “None of the other men I’ve ever met has made me admit that the boy doing the staring and the boy with my name are the same person.”

John invites Andrew to visit his home, which changes everything. Bartlett brilliantly evokes the combination of desire, joy and trepidation that Andrew feels. It becomes clear that this is not just a question of love or sexual attraction: John also represents an aspirational lifestyle – a secure life – that’s beyond anything the young Andrew knows. This is a story of powerful emotions, not least the poignant ending. 

At the other end of the book is ’40 Marine Parade’. After almost thirty years together, Roger and Todd left London to settle down by the sea. But life took a tragic turn just seven years later, as Bartlett (in Roger’s voice) conveys in stark terms: “one cold Wednesday afternoon in March, Todd just wasn’t there any more. He wasn’t on the stairs; he wasn’t in the kitchen, and he wasn’t in the bed.”

The story depicts Roger working through his grief dynamically, represented by him exploring a run-down old house. Eventually he meets someone new, which makes this piece something of a mirror to the first one, looking hopefully to the future, as Andrew looked back on the past. 

The seven stories of Address Book range through time and perspective. For example, ‘203 Camden Road’ is set in the 1960s, where a pregnant woman gets to know her gay neighbour. ’72 Seaton Point’ is narrated by a gay man who attends his friends’ civil partnership ceremony, and reflects on how times have changed. I really enjoyed Address Book, and I’ll be looking out for more of Neil Bartlett’s work in the future. 

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Sometimes you have to start reading a novel before you realise what makes it unconventional. Then there are books like little scratch that just look unconventional on the page. To see what I mean, look at the sample page in this review at the Glasgow Guardian.

The words scattered across the pages of little scratch are the thoughts of a young woman who works as an assistant at a news organisation. The novel takes place over one day: the narrator gets up, goes to work, spends the evening with her partner (“my him”) at a poetry reading. Ordinary enough, perhaps – but the telling makes all the difference. 

Rebecca Watson’s writing places the reader right into the ebb and flow of her protagonist’s thoughts. A conventional paragraph may give way to two columns of prose (external dialogue on one side, internal thoughts on the other), to a swarm of words, to any number of patterns… This woman’s mind is restless, and we feel that. 

Among all the protagonist’s thoughts, it’s clear that she dwells on something in particular – the itch that she longs to scratch. There are glimpses of this in the way she’s wary around men: for example, in one scene the woman is walking to the train station, and the prose becomes a grid of the word ‘walking’, apart from a few words that reflect what she sees from the corner of her eyes. A man is driving up: “is he going to say something?” There is a real sense of dread here. 

The woman’s inner turmoil grows throughout the day. She wants to be able to say out loud what happened to her, but she can only say it internally. Watson keeps the tension up to the very end. little scratch is her debut novel, and it leaves me intrigued to see where she goes next. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Broken Sleep Books: Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard

The book I’m looking at today is a collection of three stories by Rosanna Hildyard, which was longlisted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize. It’s published by Broken Sleep Books, who specialise in pamphlets; Slaughter is one of their first fiction titles. 

Hildyard’s stories are all set among the farms of the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire. Each revolves around a different couple, all facing conflict in their relationship with one another and the natural world. 

The narrator of ‘Offcomers’ met her husband, an older farmer, by chance. She might have loved him at first sight, but now he’s abusive. He grumbles about tourists, by which he means farmers down in the valley. She, on the other hand, appreciates that all humans, including her husband, are outsiders to this landscape. The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 brings change, and perhaps a chance of escape.

The farming couple in ‘Outside Are the Dogs’ are of a similar age, but they’re still mismatched. She’s a local girl who has lived around the world and has an air of sophistication that intimidates him, “a man of hands, not words”. As time goes on, cracks appear in their relationship. They buy a puppy, hoping that it might bring them closer together, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. 

In ‘Cull Yaw’, Star has known her partner since school – but she’s vegetarian, and he raises livestock for meat. There are problems on the farm, while Star struggles to relate to her ailing mother. 

Throughout the book, Hildyard’s prose evokes the stark realities of farm life. There’s always a tension between the different strands of her stories, and I really appreciate the way she brings them together. I like it when a story collection feels like a cohesive whole, and Slaughter is a fine example of that. 

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