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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). 

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’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Waken’ by Jenni Fagan 

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

It fascinates me how vastly different styles of writing can draw me in equally effectively. Will Eaves’s piece was fragmented and formal; Jenni Fagan’s is rolling, with a gossamer touch. Both embody what they want to tell superbly.

We join Fagan’s protagonist, Jessie, as she makes precautions to ensure that her newly-deceased father’s soul will not return to the house. This is an old tradition carried on into the present day; contemporary details puncture the narrative, destabilising its folktale-like tone.

All the women on Jessie’s Hebridean island, except her, became selkies at the age of twelve; but she is about to undergo a transformation of her own. None of this feels in any way out of place: Fagan maintains that measured tone, and the story unfurls as she goes.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Waken’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves

It’s BBC National Short Story Award time again. This is an award that I’ve covered quite a lot over the years; and I’m pleased to be able to run a story-by-story review of this year’s shortlist. Thanks to Comma Press and ED Public Relations for providing an advance copy of the anthology. 

I was excited about this year’s shortlist when I first saw it, because it’s a mixture of favourite authors (such as Cynan Jones and Helen Oyeyemi) and writers of whom I’ve heard great things. Today, we start with a former Goldsmiths Prize nominee: Will Eaves, and his story ‘Murmur’… 

***

The narrator of Will Eaves’s story is a mid-20th century gay academic named Alec, who is arrested for gross indecency and made to undergo a course of hormone injections, as well as attending sessions with a psychoanalyst. The scattered notes of Alec’s journal comprise the story that we read. 

Alec contemplates the nature of mind and, as a materialist, is troubled by the possibility that there is a final ‘leap’ he cannot explain, that mind may not be able to encompass itself. At the level of narrative, Alec considers that we can describe our actions and conscious thoughts; but then there is what he calls the “inner murmur” beneath, the deeper thinking which may be hidden from us.

‘Murmur’ is a strong start to this year’s shortlist. I appreciate the way that it works in harmony across multiple levels, from day-to-day living to the fundamentals of the universe; and that it interrogates the limits of its own form. The ending carries a frisson of dread as the standard tools of narrative fiction are turned against themselves.

Listen to a reading of ‘Murmur’. 

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic: a snapshot review

This is a contemporary title Pushkin Press’s crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo; and also the first novel by Australian writer Viskic. Caleb Zelic, a private investigator, begins the novel with his best friend’s body in his arms. Gary, a cop, has been brutally slain. With the police suspicious of him, Caleb tries to find out what happened. Then his partner-PI goes missing, and his own life is threatened. Caleb seeks help from his ex-wife Kat, but as events unfold, he finds more and more secrets wherever he turns… 

Resurrection Bay is a really enjoyable crime thriller: punchily written and snappily paced, with a vivid cast of characters. Caleb is also deaf, which is handled nicely by Viskic. There’s a sense of fluid communication as he switches between signing and vocalising speech, but there are are also times when we are adrift on a sea of words with him. I’m pleased to hear there will be more novels featuring Caleb Zelic; he’s an intriguing character whom I look forward to meeting again.

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

Book details 

Resurrection Bay (2015) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 282 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Angel in the Stone – R.L. McKinney: a snapshot review

More than 20 years on, Calum is still haunted by his brother Finn’s death in a climbing accident. Their mother Mary, who now has dementia, blames Calum for Finn’s death, and is becoming increasingly paranoid as her condition progresses. Calum returned to Scotland five years ago, following a failed relationship in America. He still isn’t entirely settled, even now. Meanwhile, Calum’s estranged daughter Catriona is heading over from Aberdeen, seeking reconciliation and carrying secrets of her own.

The Angel in the Stone is the second novel by R.L. McKinney, an American writer who has lived in Scotland since 1995. In the book, McKinney weaves a nuanced portrait of family relationships, exploring what may cause those bonds to fray, break, or be made anew. There are also neat thematic parallels in the background: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and the changing face of the Highlands. All in all, The Angel in the Stone is an interesting read, worth checking out.

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

Book details 

The Angel in the Stone (2017) by R.L. McKinney, Sandstone Press, 298 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The White City – Karolina Ramqvist: a snapshot review

I have to admit, one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize; and I loved the one book of Enquist’s that I’ve read, so naturally I’m going to like a novel that won a prize named after him, aren’t I? Well, whether that’s sound reasoning or not, it worked: I liked The White City (Karolina Ramqvist’s English-language debut, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) very much. 

Karin lives with her baby daughter Dream, in the mansion bought for her by her gangster husband John. But now John has ‘gone’ (the circumstances are not specified), and Karin’s life is crumbling around her, with the house due to be repossessed. Karin is desperate for a way out, even if that means heading further into John’s shadowy world.

The White City reads like a gangster thriller turned inside out: never mind the gangsters; this novel focuses on two people left behind. Karin’s viewpoint is disorienting at first, because she’s not so preoccupied with the background information that would be handy to us. Her world is in turmoil, and what she holds on to – what’s most vivid in her mind – is her daughter, and being a mother to Dream.

The strongest images at the start of the book are of weather and landscape – and body and movement. In this way, the ‘white city’ of the title is not just Stockholm; it can also be seen as Karin herself, coming to terms with motherhood. And there are still thrills there, ready and waiting for the right time. The White City is short and sharp – just as I like novels best.
Elsewhere 

  • Saskia Vogel writes for the Paris Review on translating The White City

Book details 

The White City (2015) by Karolina Ramqvist (2017), tr. Saskia Vogel (2017), Grove Press, 176 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Record of a Night Too Brief – Hiromi Kawakami: a snapshot review

This is a collection of three stories by the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase); The Nakano Thrift Shop; and Manazuru. The protagonists of all three stories are disconnected from life in some way; Kawakami explores this through various fantastical encounters.

The title story takes its narrator through a series of strange vignettes (dreams?): transformed into a horse; guest at a bizarre banquet. Alternating chapters chronicle her relationship with a girl, who shrinks, disappears and reappears as circumstances change.

In ‘Missing’, the protagonist’s brother has disappeared – though occasionally he returns, and only she can see him. Now the family is trying to find room for the brother’s wife-to-be (who, unbeknownst to her, is now marrying the narrator’s other brother). There’s a deadpan quality to this story which offsets the strangeness, and which I really like.

The final story is called ‘A Snake Stepped On’. Its protagonist does indeed step on a snake — which then turns into a woman, takes up residence in the narrator’s home, and claims to be her mother. As the story progresses, snakes appear all over, perhaps representing …the tensions squirming beneath the surface of everyday life. With some arresting imagery, this story is a fitting end to an intriguing collection.

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

Elsewhere 

  • An extract from the story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ at Words Without Borders.
  • Reviews of the book by my fellow MBIP-shadowers Tony’s Reading List and 1streading.
  • An interesting interview with translator Lucy North at Bookwitty. 

Book details 

Record of a Night Too Brief (1996) by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Lucy North (2017), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback (personal copy).

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