TagReviews

The Gradual by Christopher Priest:from my #shadowclarke shortlist 

The first review from my shadow Clarke shortlist is now up at the CSFF website. I thought I would begin this shadow Clarke journey with the one author I already knew: Christopher Priest. 

The Gradual returns to Priest’s Dream Archipelago (setting of The Islanders), and concerns a composer who goes on a concert tour of the islands, only to find when he returns that time has slipped away from him. The novel also takes in themes of grief and creativity; I enjoyed it very much. 

I’d also like to say a few words about the review itself. This is my first extended piece of writing on a book in some time; it has also been a few years since I’ve written as much about science fiction specifically as I will be in the months ahead. In that time, my approach to reviewing has changed: now I’m most interested in trying to capture my experience of reading a book, rather than “like/dislike + reasons” as I might have done in the past. I think this shift comes across in the tone of the review, and I’m interested to see how else it might manifest as I go through my shortlist.

My full review of The Gradual is here for you to read. 

Peirene’s Fairy Tales: The Man I Became

verhelstI got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might  anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…

The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.

It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?

This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.

‘A Game of Chess’ by Stefan Zweig

zweigchessNovember is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.

The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.

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The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath.  In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:

After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.

Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune,  Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.

Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 2: McCormack and Manyika

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2016 will be announced this Wednesday, so hera is my second round-up of the shortlist (the first is here). Unfortunately, I ran out of time to review Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which leaves two others: first-time Goldsmiths appearances for small publishers Tramp Press and Cassava Republic.

solarbonesMike McCormack, Solar Bones (2016)

If you look Solar Bones up, be warned that the blurb contains a piece of information which is not stated explicitly within the novel until the end (though it can be deduced). It’s not really set up to be a twist as such, and I think that knowing it would change your experience of reading the book rather than spoil it per se… but I don’t need to reveal it here, so I won’t.

Anyway: we join engineer Marcus Conway as he returns to his County Mayo home, the sound of the Angelus bell from the village church ringing in his ears. Over the course of the novel, Marcus ruminates on his life and the world; as so often on this shortlist, it’s all in the telling:

this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of

hearth, home and parish, towards

the wider world beyond

way beyond

since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together…

This is Marcus Conway’s voice: no capital letters or full stops –therefore no strict separation of ideas – and ‘paragraphs’ linked by those chains of sentence-fragments in an unceasing flow. Whether he’s discussing his memories, the economy, or the bones of reality itself, all is part of the same whole for Marcus. As an engineer, he is able to see the workings and connections – and McCormack brings this to life within the form of his novel.

likeamule

Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016)

A few years ago, I read Roelof Bakker’s anthology Still, a book of short stories inspired by his photographs of a vacated building.  It included ‘Morayo’, a story about an old woman going into a nursing home, and what her books meant to her as a person. In a Q&A at the time, Manyika said she was working on a book-length version of the story. I always wondered what that was going to be like; and now here it is, on the Goldmsiths shortlist.

Manyika’s novel is not a direct expansion of the story, but the main character and themes are broadly the same. Morayo Da Silva is a retired literature professor, from Nigeria and now living in San Francisco. She still lives life to the full, enjoys her vintage Porsche, her books, and generally being around the neighbourhood… until she slips one day, and breaks her hip. Then she has to go into a nursing home to recover, and her old life is torn from her.

One of the central themes of Like a Mule for me is the idea that the person someone is on the inside may not necessarily be the person that others see. Morayo is such an exuberant character to us – a joy to spend time with on the page – but, as far as many of the staff in the home are concerned, she’s just another patient. There’s one scene where Morayo daydreams of a glamorous function from her old life married to an ambassador – a dream which is broken when the home staff rush to her aid because she’s left her walker behind.

In Goldsmiths Prize terms, I’d say that Like a Mule distorts the novel form primarily with its use of voice. Besides Morayo, there are chapters written from the viewpoint of several of the other characters she meets: a homeless woman, a shopkeeper, a cook in the nursing home. True, there’s nothing intrinsically unusual about that; but it’s done here in a way that feels disjointed, underlining the distance between individuals. Reading the novel allows us to bridge that distance to an extent, as we can fit the pieces together; and maybe that helps bring a sense of hope, too.

Himself by Jess Kidd: review and Q&A

himselfToday’s post is part of a blog tour for Himself, the debut novel by Jess Kidd. As well as writing a review, I’ve asked Jess a few questions, and I thought I would try to interleave the two…

In 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig, a village on the west coast of Ireland – and his childhood home. He can’t remember the place – but then, Mulderrig is a place apart at the best of times, and he broke the mould simply by leaving, even if he was a baby at the time:

Here the colours are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?

There is a vivid sense of place in Himself, and it came as no surprise to me to learn that this was the seed of the novel:

Mulderrig has always felt like a character in its own right, says Kidd, because it’s so strong in my mind. From the beginning I was able to wander around it in my imagination. It first emerged in a short story and I found myself totally intrigued by the town. Writing a novel offered me the scope to explore the setting further…Mulderrig and Mahony emerged, as did their intertwined histories.

Ah yes, intertwined histories. The infant Mahony was taken from his mother (“the curse of the town”) and left on the steps of an orphanage. He has now returned to Mulderrig because he’s been told of that secret past (and his real name), and he wants to uncover what happened. He’ll meet some fascinating characters: one who really stands out for me is Mrs Cauley, a splendidly irascible old actress who becomes Mahony’s partner-in-investigation.

She’s also the person in whom Mahony is able to confide another secret: that he can see the dead. The supernatural in Himself is strikingly low-key, and I asked Kidd to elaborate on that choice:

For me there are two main supernatural elements in the book, the dead and the magic that erupts from the place itself. I wanted the supernatural elements to feel part of the fabric of the text and not just added on for entertainment value, to shock or surprise. I was therefore careful to weave these events into the narrative, always making sure that they had a place in furthering plot or developing character.

The dead have a communicative function in Himself. Whilst there is the suggestion of a chilling Gothic-style haunting (without giving too much away) the dead in general have a very different kind of presence because of the way they interact with the living. This is because I wanted the dead to be fully developed characters in their own right, with their own stories and a sense of lives lived. The other supernatural elements in the novel, such as the biblical storm, swarming creatures and misbehaving wells, are very much linked to folklore and the land. Above all I wanted to create a world that the reader could become completely immersed in, however bizarre it became! To achieve this, the supernatural elements had to feel like a natural part of the fictional setting. I wanted even the most outlandish supernatural events to feel perfectly plausible and right in the context of the town. The otherworldly outbursts also provide an important contrast to the atmosphere of the town, which is very locked-down, silenced and repressed. In a way the supernatural communicates the rising tensions and repressed fear and guilt of the villagers.

That feeling of the supernatural being an everyday part of the world really comes across in the novel. For example, there is the scene where Mrs Cauley makes a whirlwind of her library to find a clue:

Soon light pamphlets of philosophical thought start to join them, skidding across the floor and fluttering up into the whirling cloud of paper. Slim volumes of difficult poems come next, scuttling out from dark corners and flapping headlong into the swirling gyre. Even the most aloof classics join in, shedding their covers and flinging themselves, one after the other, into the vortex.

I love the rhythm of that passage. I guess it may come across as a bit overegged, what with all the repetitions (more so out of context, I think). But to me, this just heightens the intensity of the moment. That’s one of the ways Himself works: those little flashes of something extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary place.

Then there is the language itself; there’s a real exuberance to it, as I hope the quotations here show. I commented to Kidd that I could imagine being regaled with this story over a few pints in the pub:

The narrative voice was there from the start. Very early on I’d decided to use magic realism in the novel. I’d already experimented with this narrative mode in my short stories but now I wanted to apply it to a full-blown novel. There’s often a storytelling flavour to the magic realist narrator and I thought this would suit both the setting and the way the plot unravels (with stories about Orla [Mahony’s mother] central to the investigation). I’m delighted that you picked up on this quality in the narrative voice as I very much intended the reader to feel that they were being drawn into a tale – led by the hand into a fictional world. Storytelling is a core element of the book, along with the tale-telling narrator many of the characters tell stories – often in the pub!

Although Jess Kidd was brought up in London, her family is from Mayo; I wanted to find out more about what drew her to the particular time and place of the novel:

I think my choice of time and place was very much inspired by my earliest memories of Ireland (in 1976 I would have been three). As a child I was fascinated by the natural world and responded to it by drawing, painting and writing stories. Although the book is very dark, and in places a little twisted, I hope there is also a sense of wonder and even nostalgia there, particularly with regards to the landscape. Mulderrig is a bit of a patchwork of the places I’ve known and visited. Although it’s very definitely Irish I wanted to try and give the setting a universal appeal so that readers from all different backgrounds could relate to the small-town atmosphere of the novel. My choice of setting was also strongly influenced by two play texts. I’ve always loved Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, for its portrayal of an insular, eccentric, seaside village. The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, is set in Mayo and deals with themes of violence and storytelling. As the play unfolds we watch an isolated community create its own realities through the tales it tells itself. Both plays have a strong sense of setting and this was something I really wanted to carry over into my own work.

*** 

Thanks to Jess for answering my questions. If you like the sound of Himself, you can buy a copy from the publisher, Canongate, here; and there’s more to discover at the other stops on the blog tour, which are listed in the graphic below.

himselftour

 

#ReadingRhys: Good Morning, Midnight

jeanrhysreadingweek-banner

Discovering a writer like Jean Rhys now brings delight, but also a certain amount of frustration and sadness. I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from literary history, because I didn’t really read classics growing up, and never got the sense that there was fiction in the past ‘for me’. It’s only recently that I have begun to explore, and to discover that there are writers from (say) the early 20th century whose work is for me – Woolf, Kafka, now Rhys. So, on the one hand, whole new horizons of fiction have opened up. On the other, I wish it had happened earlier.

Still: we move forward. I’ve said previously that Rhys was essentially just a name to me; and I simply was not prepared for how direct and brutal Good Morning, Midnight would be. I can only imagine how it was received at the time, because it’s powerful stuff today.

We meet Rhys’s narrator, Sasha, in Paris:

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

Sasha’s routine is mundane and her hotel room anonymous; but gradually we see what lies behind this seemingly ordinary visit. Sasha is facing despair (“The passages will never lead anywhere, the doors will always be shut”) and seeking to retreat from life (“A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside”). Her carefully worked out regimen of cafés and bars is her attempt to lose herself in the city.

Rhys brings us so close to Sasha by turning the standard relationship between past and present inside out. Ordinarily, we might expect a narrator’s memories to be safely embedded within a tale that’s oriented towards the present. In Good Morning, Midnight, the present-day sections are often flimsy connective tissue, which allows Sasha’s memories to break through and loom the largest. Then we see just what she has experienced, and feel some of the horror that she feels – but also, perhaps, we sense some of the hope.

gmmrhys

Elsewhere

Eric at Lonesome Reader has reviewed Good Morning, Midnight, and also has an interesting interview with Jessica Harrison of Penguin Classics on the new Pocket Penguin edition.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys, Pocket Penguin paperback

#Woolfalong: Orlando

OrlandoTime for another post on #Woolfalong, Heavenali’s year-long celebration of Virginia Woolf, who was a new writer to me at the start of 2016 and is fast becoming a favourite. The theme for July and August is ‘biography’; Orlando is included as an option, despite really being a novel – and I had a copy on my shelves, so that was what I went for.

I’m not going to try to encompass everything I could say about Orlando in this post. I just want to pick out a couple of things that have most struck me. The first has to do with the book’s subtitle: ‘A Biography’. Chances are you will know the premise, but just in case you don’t: Orlando narrates the story of a young nobleman who becomes a favourite of Elizabeth I, then ambassador to Constantinople, where he transforms into a woman; she then lives on into the 20th century, without visibly ageing. The novel is framed as a biography, and is written in the style of one. But I started to realise that there’s more to it than this – the biographical form is fundamental to what Orlando is.

It’s another example of how Woolf uses writing to create alternatives to geographical space in her fiction. I first came across this in Mrs Dalloway, which places its characters within a landscape of consciousness: most of the key events occur at the level of thought and perception, but the way the book is written puts these on the same level as events that take place in physical streets and houses.

In the case of Orlando, Woolf creates a landscape of time. This is where the biography form is key, because the point of historical biography is that the individual is a subject is a fixed point, and the rest of history happens around them. Orlando is an individual who moves through time like others move through space, and the prose is elastic enough to facilitate that: months or years may pass in a few lines, but Orlando is always there and the book will reorient around her. This is what gives the experience of reading Orlando such a feeling of openness.

The other thing I want to mention – and I haven’t come across this much in Woolf’s work so far, certainly not to the same degree – is that Orlando is very funny. Much of its humour comes from Woolf’s sly reminders that we are reading fiction. For example:

 

Orlando quote

I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the idea of fiction reminding me that it’s fiction, but I’ve rarely seen it done with Woolf’s lightness of touch (and Orlando predates most of the other examples that I’ve read). It’s as though she’s stretching the reality of her text a little too far, just for a short time – a toy to be picked up and discarded again.

With my last couple of #Woolfalong reads, I wasn’t quite as taken as with Mrs Dalloway; but now I’m right back up there, and eager to read more Woolf.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperbackA new post

Women in Translation Month and a Shiny review of The Queue

WITMonth

August is Women in Translation Month, a project started by Meytal of Biblibio, and now in its third year. I haven’t had as much time for reading and blogging this month as I’d wanted (though I still hope to be able to squeeze in a relevant post or two). However, I have been recommending a book each day on Twitter and Facebook, so do feel free to pop over and take a look.

I also have a review of a book by a woman in translation in the August issue of Shiny New Books. The Queue by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette) is the story of a Middle Eastern city where everything needs a permit, and society has rearranged itself around one big queue. The novel is absurd, but also chilling as it reveals just how much of a hold  the authorities have.

Queue

Read my review of The Queue here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette (2016), Melville House UK paperback

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

breach blog tour

breach is a new story collection published by Peirene Press on Monday. It’s the first in their Peirene NowI series, original fiction commissions which will engage with current events. For breach, Peirene’s publisher Meike Ziervogel commissioned writers Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to visit the Calais refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle’. There’s been a blog tour all this week, which includes an extract from the book and interviews with the authors; but today there are four reviews across the blogosphere: at Food for Bookworms; The Bookbinder’s Daughter; Bookish Ramblings; and here.

The collection format is a straightforward (though nonetheless effective) way for breach to present the camp as a place of multiple stories running in parallel, of overlapping and intermingling worlds. The stories of individual lives can become derailed: the opening piece, ‘Counting Down’, features a number of refugees on their way to the camp; each adopts their own nickname – who they were no longer matters. One is upset when the others take away the money his brother has sent: “There is a boy like you waiting for me to get him to safety. My son, my real son,” he protests. But only the present matters here; everyone has their own future to aim for, and may not be concerned about someone else’s.

Leaving the camp is also portrayed as a disruption of space and experience. ‘Oranges in the River’ sees a couple of refugees take their chances hiding in refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. As he waits to board a truck, Dlo slips an orange into his pocket, “like a man who isn’t going to climb into a truck full of oranges, like a man who isn’t going to sit surrounded by thousands of oranges for many hours. Like a man who just needs one orange for his thirst.” In other words, there’s no pretending that this is in any way a ‘normal’ experience. When the men are in the truck, there is only the freezer; any imagined destination is no more real than a dream – even if they don’t get caught and have to start again.

We also glimpse outsiders to the camp, though they don’t necessarily understand the world they’re observing. There are volunteers who want to give a hand; but, as the narrator of ‘Extending a Hand’ comments, “you don’t need a hand; you have two of those. What you need is opportunities.” In ‘The Terrier’, Eloise, a French B&B who allows refugees to stay, talks to one of her guests, Omid, about the camp’s nickname:

‘It doesn’t look like a jungle, that camp,’ I said to Omid when he came home, after dark, his coat wet.

‘What does a jungle look like, madame?’

‘Thick with trees and creepers and bushes, with birds and animals.’

‘A jungle,’ he said, ‘is a place for animals only. And that is a jungle, I tell you, madame.’

To Eloise, the Jungle is just a poetic, perhaps even romantic name; to Omid, who knows the lived reality behind the metaphor, it is a different matter. As the story progresses, the gap between Eloise and Omid becomes starker, as she begins to question her latest visitors’ motivations. It’s not until she visits Omid in the camp that she starts to see things differently. But this isn’t a simple story of a Westerner ‘learning better’, more a recognition that all the characters have complex individual lives, whatever their circumstances. This is the kind of perspective that breach is able to open up, and that’s what makes it such a valuable collection.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

breach (2016) by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, Peirene Press paperback

Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović: a European Literature Network review

FragileTravI’ve reviewed a Serbian novel for Euro Lit Network this month: Jovanka Živanović’s Fragile Travelers, translated by Jovanka Kalaba and published by Dalkey Archive. It is the story of a man who disappears from the real world and finds himself lost in the dreams of a woman he knows. There’s an interesting mix of twisting sentences, absurd imagery, and a sense of the characters’ disconnection from the world. Find out more by reading my review.

Book details (publisher link)

Fragile Travelers (2008) by Jovanka Živanović, tr. Jovanka Kalaba (2016), Dalkey Archive Press paperback

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