TagIan Sales

Reading round-up: late October

Here are some notes on what I’ve been reading lately…

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (2013)

Hearing Bernardine Evaristo read from this novel was one of my highlights from this year’s Penguin General Bloggers’ Evening, so naturally I was interested to read Mr Loverman. Our narrator is the charming Barrington Walker: 74 years of age, not quite as happily married to Carmel as he once was, and sixty years into a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. Now is the time for Barry decide what he really wants in life; his story on its own would be fine, but Evaristo broadens out her portrait to show other characters’ analogous difficulties. The occasional chapters told from Carmel’s viewpoint (in a prose-poetry style that’s a little less immediate than Barry’s narration, and so distances us slightly from her, just as she is from him) show how her delight at marrying Barry back in 1960s Antigua has paled in the decades since. The Walkers’ daughters are also finding that their lives may not necessarily have turned out as they or their parents imagined, adding another layer to a satisfying read.

Ian Sales, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (2013)

Ian Sales continues his Apollo Quartet of novellas set in futures where the history of space exploration went differently; as with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the second volume proves an interesting character study. We join Bradley Elliott at two points in his career: in 1979, when he was about to become the first (and only) human to set foot on Mars; and twenty years later, as he goes on a mission to a far more distant world. What’s so striking about this novella is the air of resignation and melancholy that Sales creates: Elliott may be the only person capable of undertaking his 1999 mission, but there is also the strong sense that this is the only thing that Elliott can do with his life.

Maryam Sachs, The Passenger (2013)
Translated by Gael Schmidt-Cléach

In this intriguing short novel, a German woman arrives in Paris for her son’s birthday. She’s taken the journey from Charles de Gaulle many times; but this one becomes very different when the woman strikes up a conversation with her taxi driver, a Romanian who once lived in Japan. The pair’s conversation ranges far and wide, taking in their personal histories, their thoughts on art and moving between cultures. But this journey is not just a geographic one, as the woman starts to realise she is something of a passenger in her own life, and that it may now be time for her to take the wheel.

Tom Cheshire, The Explorer Gene (2013)

Technology journalist Tom Cheshire tells the story of Auguste, Jacques and Bertrand Piccard: three generations of the same family who became respectively the first person to enter the stratosphere; the person who travelled deeper into the ocean than anyone else ever has; and the first to circle the globe non-stop in a balloon. The Piccards’ story is extraordinary, and Cheshire brings it vividly to life, from the opening scene of Auguste struggling to deal with the leaking cabin of his experimental balloon, right through to Bertrand’s current plans for a solar-powered aircraft.

Jorn Lier Horst, Closed for Winter (2011)
Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce, 2013

A dead body is found in the summer cottage of a television presenter, sparking a new investigation for Chief Inspector William Wisting. Retreating from her relationship, Wisting’s daughter Line, an investigative journalist, settles into the family cottage to write a novel – and finds another body on the nearby beach. These two threads spiral together into a tense narrative, with an added undercurrent examining social change and the forces that may drive people to commit crime.

Book notes: Ian Sales and Simona Sparaco

Ian Sales, Adrift on the Sea of Rains (2012)

Colonel Vance Peterson and colleagues are stranded on their moon base, trying to find a way home. Well, not ‘home’ exactly, because the Earth they knew has been destroyed in nuclear war. Rather, the crew of Falcon Base are using a piece of mysterious Nazi technology to reveal alternate versions of Earth from branching points in history, in the hope that one will be hospitable – and that they’ll be able to travel there.

What I knew in advance about Ian Sales’ fiction was that he was interested in combining a literary approach with proper hard science; I think he’s pulled that off in this novella. He gives a sense of the technicalities of space travel and life on Falcon Base (part of the alternate Apollo program sketched out in the book’s extensive glossary), as well as evoking the desolation and psychological effects of being isolated as Peterson’s crew are.

Most interestingly for me, Sales plays the literary and scientific idioms against each other. The accoutrements of living in space stand for restriction (for example, anger is not so easily expressed when you’re in low gravity and can walk only as well as Velcro slippers allow), but those technical terms also represent the astronauts’ comfort zone, the sphere where they know what they’re doing – and this is what ultimately turns against them. Sales has three more novellas planned in his ‘Apollo Quartet’ – I look forward to seeing where they head.

Simona Sparaco, About Time (2010/2)
Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis

Svevo Romano would seem to have it all, for a given value of ‘all’ – looks, money, career success, the pick of attractive women to string along or use for one night stands. It may not be commendable behaviour, but it suits Svevo just fine, thank you very much. And then he starts to experience mysterious jumps in time: he’ll miss important work meetings when a couple of hours pass in a moment; or his sleep will be disrupted when morning comes too early. Svevo addresses his story to Father Time, as he tries to find a way out of this spiral.

About Time is an amiable morality tale that works neatly at the metaphorical level as well as the literal – think of Svevo as letting his playboy lifestyle get out of hand, and the effects are much the same as if time really is speeding up for him. But I can’t escape the feeling that it’s all a bit too simplistic – that the characterisation of Svevo veers too close to caricature, and that the moral provided by the solution to Svevo’s predicament feels too obvious . I would be interested in reading more of Simona Sparaco’s work, but About Time is a little too unambiguous for my taste.

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