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What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Ross Raisin

My Ross Raisin anecdote goes like this: I heard him read from his second novel, Waterline (during which he gamely affected a Glaswegian accent to match the narrator), at the first Penguin General Bloggers’ Night. We got talking afterwards, and I mentioned that we were from the same county – though, as an ardent supporter of Bradford City FC, he wasn’t best pleased to learn that I was from Huddersfield (all in good humour, though, I should add!).

Anyway, Raisin is one of the Granta novelists whom I’ve meant to read, but not yet got around to (I’ve heard such good things about God’s Own Country, I really must read it). ‘Submersion’ is a new and complete story to end the Granta anthology; it sees a pair of siblings heading back to their flooded home town when they see news footage of their father being carried away by the water, still sleeping in his armchair. It’s a strange story that floats on reality like debris caught in the flood. It underlines that I should read more of Raisin’s work – as is the case with a good number of the authors on Granta‘s list.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Sunjeev Sahota

It is just about a year since I read (and liked) Sunjeev Sahota’s first novel, Ours are the Streets; he’s another on my list of authors to keep reading. Sahota’s Granta piece, ‘Arrivals’, is taking from his forthcoming follow-up, The Year of the Runaways – and I think it works quite well as a stand-alone story.

We begin with one Randeep Sanghera showing a woman into her new flat in Sheffield; is he an estate agent, or perhaps her landlord? After seeing his living arrangements and work as a builder, we find that the truth is somewhat different – Randeep is one of several immigrants living in the same house, and the woman is who he married as a means of obtaining a visa. ‘Arrivals’ is an interesting set-up for the novel, but that’s what it feels like – a beginning. Still, Ours are the Streets worked best as a whole, and I suspect that The Year of the Runaways will be the same. I’m looking forward to finding out.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan‘s debut, The Panopticon has been staring at me from the shelf (what else would it do?) ever since I bought it last year, having heard so many good things about it. So ‘Zephyrs’, Fagan’s novel excerpt from the Granta anthology, is the first thing I’ve read of hers – and it really is superb. A short portrait of a man leaving London as the river levels rise, the piece is written in a dense, fractured prose that makes even quite ordinary things seem hallucinatory (in this I was reminded of Jon McGregor’s work, which is always a pleasure). It ends with a strange image: a woman doing housework, outside, in her sleep. I’m left wanting to know more, and to read more by this writer – perhaps it’s time to stop staring at The Panopticon, and open it instead.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Helen Oyeyemi

The first taste I had of Helen Oyeyemi’s last novel, Mr Fox, was reading the embedded story ‘My Daughter the Racist’ on its own. So I’m prepared to accept that any given extract from an Oyeyemi novel is not necessarily going to represent the whole thing. A little digging around into her forthcoming Boy, Snow, Bird suggests that it’s based on the tale of Snow White – but this is only obliquely hinted in Oyeyemi’s Granta piece.

We are introduced to Boy Novak, a young bookstore-worker in mid-20th century America, who takes two teenage girls under her wing when they really ought to be at school. She lives with the Whitman family, which includes a six-year-old girl named Snow. I love the glimpses of Boy’s character that we get from her voice, and definitely look forward to a whole book narrated by her. There is the briefest hint of the supernatural at the end of Oyeyemi’s piece, with mention of a comics artist who appears to have an unusual view of time. The stage is set for another typically idiosyncratic novel Helen Oyeyemi, who’s become a writer I always want to read.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Xiaolu Guo

It is National Short Story Week, so this week’s posts are all about short fiction. This includes finishing off my story-by-story blog of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 anthology, which I’ve let fall by the wayside these last few months. I have fives entries left, so let’s get back to it…

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‘Interim Zone’ is an extract from Xiaolu Guo‘s forthcoming novel I Am China; on the basis of this, the new book is set to be rather different from Guo’s previous novel, UFO in Her Eyes. We meet Kublai Jian, a Chinese refugee in France, and see the contrast between his boyhood in Beijing, and his current life learning French. This piece is the shortest in the Granta anthology, perhaps a little too short for what it’s doing. Still, there’s an effective sense that Jian is in an ‘interim zone’ emotionally as well as physically; and the juxtaposition of past and present sets up an interesting theme that I imagine is explored further in the novel.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Sarah Hall

Whenever I’ve read Sarah Hall’s work previously (see my posts on The Carhullan Army and ‘Butcher’s Perfume‘), I have always been struck by her use of landscape and strong sense of place. I see those qualities again in ‘The Reservation’, which is one of those extracts in the Granta anthology that really makes me feel excited about reading the full novel.

Hall’s protagonist is Rachel, who returns to Cumbria for the first time in six years, having been working on a reservation in Idaho. She is here for a new commission from a wealthy entrepreneur, but also to see her dying mother. There are suggestions of an interesting contrast to be explored between the different spaces of the Reservation and the entrepreneur’s estate; and the implication that the hospice where Rachel’s mother lives is a kind of reservation itself. I am suitably intrigued about Hall’s novel-to-come.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

If I were to rank the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog (and there are over 500 of them) in order of enjoyment, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008) would be right at the top of the list. I bought it on a whim, knowing nothing about it; I was nearly put off by its mannered style; but then everything clicked into place, and I ended up with one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Naturally, then, I’ve been eager ever since to read a second novel by Catton.

Four years after reading The Rehearsal, I have now had that opportunity. At first sight, The Luminaries appears a very different proposition from Catton’s debut: at 830 pages in hardback, it is more than twice the length of The Rehearsal. Where the first novel was set in a deliberately non-specific contemporary Western milieu, the new book is tied firmly to a time and place: the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika in 1865-6. Where The Rehearsal was fractured and stylised, The Luminaries has the appearance of being more conventional: the chronology leaps back at one point, and the novel’s twelve parts grow progressively shorter, but there’s nothing as obvious as The Rehearsal’s non-linear blurring of realities; and Catton’s prose remains within a largely convincing 19th-century idiom.

Things are not as simple as they seem. What made The Rehearsal stand out so much for me was how its unconventional form and style so completely embodied its central concern of performance, and reflected that back in myriad ways throughout the book. Catton does the same thing in The Luminaries, with a different set of concerns – but the extent of it only become apparent once you’ve finished.

Before I get further into that, some plot: we begin on 27 January 1866, when Walter Moody, a Scottish lawyer, walks into the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, disturbing twelve men in conference. Gradually gaining their trust, Moody hears their story: a couple of weeks earlier, a hermit named Crosbie Wells was found dead in his cottage, and a not inconsiderable fortune soon after. Around the same time, a young woman was found unconscious from opium in the road, apparently having tried to commit suicide. Through acquaintance with each other, each of the twelve men discovered that he was somehow connected to these events; so they decided to gather together in this room to discuss what may have happened, and what could be done.

As the novel progresses, more and more connections between the characters become apparent, revealing a complex and dastardly plot. It’s not for me to say much more about the twists and turns; but I will say that, if you want a page-turning murder mystery, you will find one in The Luminaries. This book is as tense and exciting a read as I have come across in a long time. But Catton does not stop there.

If you read any articles about The Luminaries, you’ll soon hear about its elaborate astrological underpinning. Twelve of Catton’s characters (the twelve men interrupted by Walter Moody) represent the signs of the zodiac; another seven represent planetary bodies (Moody is Mercury, for instance). Catton calculated the horoscope for Hokitika during the calendar year in which The Luminaries is set, and transposed the changing positions of each body into the relationships between her characters. Now, for many readers (including myself), I suspect this would not be a satisfactory end in itself: if you don’t know much about astrology, you won’t spot the connections; if you don’t believe in it, then you probably won’t care anyway. But what this astrological foundation does, to my mind, is set up some of the novel’s main subtexts.

One of these, as I’ve hinted above, is the idea of connection and relation. This is perhaps most obvious in the mystery itself: ‘there is no truth except truth in relation’ (p. 364), as Catton’s omniscient narrator puts it; and, indeed, no single character knows the full truth of Crosbie Wells’s death, or the plot going on around it. But we also see this theme manifest in the way that so many of the characters are trying to forge their own paths in life, to act on or against the world (gold prospectors in search of a life-transforming nugget, of course, but others as well), yet are scuppered by the actions of others. Catton’s characters are enmeshed in a web of interdependence that they can only begin to comprehend.

But the zodiac is not only a structure for connecting relationships in this novel; it’s also an artificial pattern imposed by humans on the night sky – and most of the characters have no truck with it. There are several ways in which Catton examines how we try to impose order on reality, and the implications and limitations of doing so. A murder mystery, for example, traditionally relies on a pattern being imposed upon seemingly unconnected facts. There are two major scenes in The Luminaries where this happens: when Moody sums up the accounts of the men in the Crown Hotel, and a later courtroom scene. Both of these sequences end with someone rushing in to announce an unexpected development. It’s a rather melodramatic device, but I see it as a literal interruption of disorder: the facts have been arranged to the characters’ satisfaction; everything seems to make sense – then in comes someone to reveal that it doesn’t. A classic fictional edifice is undermined with one of its own tools.

More pointedly than murder mysteries, there’s another example of a pattern placed over reality in the form of the gold mines themselves. These affect the world physically, silting up the Hokitika River; and Catton never allows us to forget that this is land which once belonged to the Maori. ‘You with your greenstone, us with our gold. It might just as well be the other way about,’ says one character to the Maori Te Rau Tauwhare. ‘No,’ replies Tauwhare, ‘it is not the same’ (p. 814) – but that is as much as we hear. These issues may not be explored in detail in The Luminaries, but Tauwhare’s voice still speaks eloquently, for all that it does not say.

I said earlier that each of the novel’s twelve parts is shorter than the last; more precisely, each part is half the length of the previous one (so Part I is nearly half the book, part XII just a few dozen words). This gives The Luminaries the shape of a golden spiral. It also acts like a spiral – or, to keep up the celestial theme, a black hole, stripping out information as it goes. Though the novel begins with the immersive detail of a mystery, when the focus moves back to 1865 to tell the events leading up to Crosbie Wells’s murders, the chapters then get shorter and shorter – the narrative breaks apart.

Here, the novel begins to embody the tension between the open future and rueful hindsight, the sense of predestination and the sense of free will. The summaries heading each chapter (all beginning: “In which…” take on more of the detail. Without these, each chapter would be a floating fragment of time with no context; the only reason we can place them is that we know what has come afterwards. So the novel spirals down to a singularity, a moment poised between the infinite possibility ahead for those experiencing it, and the inevitable tragedy that we know will unfold. What may seem foreordained after the event is, we see, nothing of the sort in the present moment.

I finished The Luminaries grinning from ear to ear at the experience of having read a novel so completely and idiosyncratically realised. Moments like that are one reason I read books in the first place; and they’re why, for me, Eleanor Catton belongs in the first rank of authors writing today.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Zadie Smith

So far, I’ve read two of Zadie Smith’s novels: On Beauty didn’t particularly engage me, but I found NW very good indeed; so I went into her Granta piece feeling unsure but hopeful.

‘Just Right’ (the title refers to the tale of Goldilocks) is described in Smith’s biographical note as ‘an excerpt from an unfinished novella’, though it works well enough as a complete piece. It takes us to 1970s New York, where young white boy Donovan Kendal is paired up for a school project with Cassie King, a black girl. As a result, Cassie is drawn into the orbit of the Kendals and their puppet theatre, but theirs is not a comfortable relationship. There’s an effective sense in the piece of emotions and events going on beyond Donovan’s understanding; but I can’t help wondering how events and themes might have carried forward into the rest of the novella. I guess I’ll never know.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Joanna Kavenna

With most of the novel extracts in the Granta anthology, I’ve been able to gain some sense of what the full novel may be like (which is not say my impressions are correct, but I have been able to form them). Not so Joanna Kavenna’s short piece ‘Tomorrow’, which has the potential to head off in a number of odd directions. We see its narrator collect the stuff she (along with several others) has been storing at a friend’s house; do her job at home, sending out customer service emails; talk to a friend about the subjective passage of time.

Now I read that back, it maybe doesn’t sound all that strange in summary. But it’s the tone of Kavenna’s writing that makes it feel so whilst one is reading it. I have a copy of the author’s most recent novel, Come to the Edge, on my shelves; and I’m thinking I ought to read it soon – because one thing I do sense clearly from ‘Tomorrow’ is that Kavenna may be my kind of writer.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

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