TagSalt Publishing

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.

Missing – Alison Moore: a snapshot review

A new Alison Moore novel always promises to be splendidly unsettling, and Missing is no exception. Moore’s protagonist is Jessie Noon, a translator living in the Scottish Borders. Jessie’s job may be about finding the right words in order to make a connection between writer and reader, but her life is full of gaps and ambiguities. Her son walked out on her years ago, her second husband much more recently. Her cottage might be haunted, and a plot strand set in 1985 suggests that something tragic happened then between the teenage Jessie and her young niece.

Missing is full of everyday minutiae: supermarket shopping, train travel, a halting relationship between Jessie and a local outreach worker. But there’s a constant undercurrent of tension and uncertainty: you can never be quite sure how each individual element will resolve. As a result, reading Moore’s novel feels like being on a knife-edge.

Book details

Missing (2018) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Zero Hours – Neil Campbell

Zero Hours is Neil Campbell’s second novel, the sequel to 2016’s Sky Hooks (which I haven’t read, though the new book mostly stands alone). As its title suggests, this is a novel about work:

Try doing some of this zero hours shit. If you’re off sick then drag your arse in because you won’t be getting sick pay, you’ve got no rights whatsoever. Day after day you phone in asking for work. Day after day you sign in at the desk, just another face from the agency. On the phone, they used to call you for work. Now you have to call them. Time after time it’s engaged.

Campbell’s narrator is a young working-class man from Manchester. Throughout the novel he works a number of zero hours jobs, first at a mail-sorting depot, later at a number of libraries. There is nearly always something to dishearten our man, be it his duties, colleagues, managers, or just the constant uncertainty that comes with this kind of employment. Besides work, the narrator has a number of unsuccessful attempts at relationships, and sees the face of his city change, losing its character to gentrification. There’s a stop-start feel to reading the novel itself: as with zero hours work, the present moment is all, and even the immediate future uncertain.

Alongside his ‘day job’, the protagonist is a writer, active in the local literary scene and with a number of books published. This comes across as the glue holding the man’s life together, a source of continuity in contrast to pretty much everything else happening in his world. Sometimes reading Zero Hours feels like eavesdropping; at other times, it’s like being confided in. It makes one hope that, by novel’s end, there will be some light on the horizon.

Book details

Zero Hours (2018) by Neil Campbell, Salt Publishing, 138 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Read my review of Neil Campbell’s chapbook ‘Jackdaws’ (Nightjar Press) here.

In the Absence of Absalon – Simon Okotie

This book is the sequel to Simon Okotie’s 2012 debut Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, which I haven’t read. I’m reading the second novel by itself because it’s longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, and it seems fine as an entry point. The previous book concerned a detective named Marguerite who was searching for Harold Absalon (“the Mayor’s transport advisor,” according to In the Absence). Now Marguerite has also gone missing, and we follow an unnamed investigator who is looking for him. 

In the Absence of Absalon begins with the detective outside a townhouse belonging to one Richard Knox, a colleague of Harold Absalon’s. This place is critical to our man’s investigation, but he’s taking his time over going in. He has a lot on his mind, or at least his thoughts are related in great detail. For example, here he’s placed a foot on the first step up to the house, and is thinking about taking a key from his trouser pocket:

What he realised, as he lifted the heel of the foot that he’d placed upon that step, was that he could not have known that placing his foot in this position would have tightened the aperture and interior of the pocket in question to the extent that it had. Further evidence had, in short, become known to him during the course of his action, evidence to suggest that the main advantage of it, which was to reduce the distance between his right hand and the equivalent trouser pocket, may, in fact, be outweighed by the main disadvantage… 

That sentence goes on for almost as long again. I want to give you some idea of what the prose is like (I understand that the first book is similar), because you really have to give yourself over to what the novel is doing in order to appreciate it. It’s like an extreme close-up of thought over action; we’re at 92 pages (almost halfway through) before the detective actually takes his keys out of his pocket.

Once I’d got used to the rhythms of In the Absence, I found the experience highly enjoyable. The detective ponders such topics as the appropriateness of wearing a wetsuit for a business transaction, or the tendency of people in households with more than one telephone to still refer to ‘the phone’, singular. Reading the book made me think of the little notions that flash through one’s mind in an instant, barely registered; this is like having those notions brought out for full consideration. 

But In the Absence is still a detective novel, and there is indeed a mystery to be solved. Alongside the novel’s main third-person account are footnotes written in first-person by someone (the detective? our unknown narrator?) who has insinuated his way into Harold Absalon’s job and started an affair with Absalon’s wife, Isobel. And the detective’s investigation becomes more pressing when he sees Isobel Absalon through the window of the townhouse. I feel that I’ve been able to piece together an idea of what was going on. In any case, what a powerful moment of ‘decompression’ there is at the end when both reader and narrator stop and look around. Now I’d like to go back and read Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? to see if I’m right about everything, and if it’s as good as the sequel.

Book details 

In the Absence of Absalon (2017) by Simon Okotie, Salt Publishing, 196 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Photographer – Meike Ziervogel

You might know Meike Ziervogel best as the publisher of Peirene Press; but she’s also built a career as a novelist over the last few years. The Photographer is her fourth novel (published, like the others, by Salt), and draws upon the history of the 11 million Germans who fled west in 1945 to escape the fighting. Like Han Kang’s Human Acts (albeit in a rather different way), Ziervogel’s book examines a large human event at an intensely individual scale.

In a small Pomeranian town, a young girl named Trude dreams of being whisked away by her prince. In 1933, shortly after turning eighteen, she finds him: a photographer named Albert. His work allows the couple to travel Europe; later they have a son, Peter. However, Trude’s mother Agatha never takes to Albert: he’s “a boy from the gutter”, not fit for her daughter. Discovering from Peter that Albert listens to enemy radio is all the pretext Agatha needs to report him to the authorities and get him sent to the front. In 1945, the family is forced to leave for Berlin before Albert has returned. The rest of Ziervogel’s novel chronicles how this broken family heals itself.

Appropriately enough given its title, The Photographer revolves around themes of image and appearance, which are often tied to social status. So, for example, we begin with Trude’s dreams of a romantic life – which, for a while, she gets. But, when the family flees to Berlin, those dreams come crashing down around her:

She hasn’t even put on any lipstick and looks like a common woman with a tear-stained face whose husband has just been taken away, has just died. There are thousands and thousands of these women. She feels ashamed to be one of them now.

All of a sudden, Trude feels that her individual, exceptional story has collapsed into something generic: the tale of any other refugee wife. To an extent, she’s right: in the grand sweep of history, she will become part of a statistic, one of those 11 million people. What Trude overlooks, though, is that each of the refugees has their own life, as rich to them as hers is to herself.

In 1947, the family is reunited after Albert has been released from Russian captivity. Here, there is a key lack of images: Albert and Peter can’t remember what the other used to look like, and therefore can’t recognise each other in the present. They have to get to know each other from first principles in order to bridge the gap of the years

Albert’s sense of displacement extends to how he has come to think of photography:

While before the war the camera was his extended eye, which he used to capture his view of the world, it was now what protected him, behind which he hid, which kept him, the real Albert, at a distance. Far, far away from everything that was happening around him.

Where Albert once faced the world with confidence, now photography is just about his only point of stability. No surprise, perhaps, that he attempts to reach Peter by trying to get him interested in photography, although the boy would rather spend his time boxing. Ultimately, it seems, Albert and Peter need to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. 

The Photographer has that wonderful combination of being dense with reading, yet with an openness to the writing. The novel is structured like a photo album: whole lives are narrated, but intermittently. Some events are told in detail; others have to be inferred by the reader; still others are so private that they don’t appear on the page. This is a novel of history as something lived through and looked back on, vivid incidents scattered among the threads of life.

Other reviews 

Read other reviews of The Photographer by Mika Provata-Carlone at Bookanista, and Jackie Law at Bookmunch

Book details

The Photographer (2017) by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, 171 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014)

Rental HeartI have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kirsty Logan‘s debut story collection The Rental Heart, from Salt Publishing. This is a lovely set of stories, the kind of lush fantasy you can file alongside Lucy Wood and Jess Richards.

Let me also point you towards a review in the Independent by my fellow Desmond Elliott shadower Kaite Welsh; she loved the book as well.

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

Tender by Mark Illis (2009)

41HKVdGCgSL._SL160_AA115_Tender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name you care to give to a collection of linked stories. It is, however, a series of episodes in the lives of the Dax family, beginning in 1974 (when the parents meet), and spanning a total of thirty years. The title appears in the text, not in an emotional context, but in the context of a lamb stew which Ali Dax serves up — but her husband and son don’t seem to appreciate the tenderness of the meat, which had to be cooked slowly for it to attain that texture. All that care and effort, for what? This reflects what is perhaps the main theme of Tender — feeling discontented with life, looking back and wondering what happened, where it went.

The stories in Tender switch (though not in strict rotation) between the viewpoints of Bill and Ali Dax (who meet when he is a footballer and she his physiotherapist), and their children Sean and Rosa (and, for one story, Ali’s brother Frank, who later dies). at different stages in the characters’ lives. Naturally, this structure means that quite a lot is missed out; but the overall effect is of a gradual accretion of detail — not necessarily of plot detail, but of emotional detail — that builds up a portrait of the family.

(One technical gripe: Tender is presented as a single entity — no details of original publication are given, and the author’s acknowledgements page suggest that he has revised at least some of the stories for this volume — yet some later ‘chapters’ describe past events in detail more appropriate to stand-alone stories than the format of the present book.)

One of the most impressive things about Tender is the way that Mark Illis gives equal weight to all four of his protagonists. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, I don’t think, to anticipate the book to portray certain of the Daxes more fully than one or two of the others; but it’s not so — all of them feel equally rounded at all stages of their lives — even Frank, in his brief appearance. It’s fascinating to see the characters from both the inside and outside, and how they change subtly over time.

What sorts of moments, then, does Illis give us? Ali, single, dreaming of swimming the Channel and then, twenty-five years later, discovering it’s not what she hoped, and neither is her life. On holiday for the couple’s first anniversary, Bill tying himself in mental knots over what — indeed, whether — to think about the handsome American that he and Ali have met, and the pretty young woman who flirted with Bill. The teenage Sean wondering what to do with his life, and using a stray horse he comes across as a focus for his hopes. Rosa’s habit of listing three things that she’d like to happen, and how these change poignantly between the ages of thirteen, seventeen, and twenty-two.

I am not sure how well the stories in Tender would fare if read in isolation; but it hardly matters, because they’re best appreciated as a whole. One closes the book feeling that its author has observed and articulated something true about life. Well worth reading.

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