TagSusan Barker

We Love This Book reviews: Susan Barker and Julia Crouch

A couple of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Susan Barker, The Incarnations (2014)

BarkerSomeone is watching Wang Jun, leaving letters in his taxi, claiming to be his soulmate. This person insists that they and Wang have known each other for a thousand years, and has stories to tell of their various incarnations throughout Chinese history, from the Tang Dynasty to Mao’s regime. In these stories, Wang and his correspondent variously love and hate each other, live together or die at the other’s hand. Back in 21st Century Beijing, Wang has his suspicions about who is writing these letters, though confirming them might drive his family apart.

True to its title, the idea of “incarnations” runs all the way through Susan Barker’s third novel. It’s not just the various historical incarnations of Wang and his “soulmate” – there’s also the sense that a place can go through different incarnations (Wang has seen the city of Beijing change as the 2008 Olympics approach), and that the stages of a person’s life can function in the same way. Wang has experienced several upheavals in his life, and there are family secrets to be uncovered as well – and the gaps between these can seem as great as those between different eras of history.

Barker’s novel balances past and present, the grand sweep of history and the intensely personal, all wrapped up in brisk and densely evocative prose. You can never quite be sure where Wang’s story is going to turn next – not even after a thousand years.

(Original review.)

Julia Crouch, The Long Fall (2014)

CrouchIn 1980, Emma James is eighteen, travelling in Greece before going to university, when an event occurs that will permanently alter the course of her life. In the present day she is Kate Barratt, charity figurehead and wife of a wealthy hedge-fund manager, with the past safely behind her. At least, that’s what Kate thinks: but she discovers that a figure from the old days is back, and has the seemingly limitless capability to threaten her and those she holds dear.

There’s an interesting theme of identity running through The Long Fall: at a time of life when people are finding out who they are, Emma has to change herself, radically and unexpectedly. As Kate, she appears to have built up a happy life (albeit one marked by personal tragedy); other characters have not been so lucky. Kate finds herself questioning how far she has put up a façade, in her marriage and as the face of her charity.

Then there is the plot, which Julia Crouch controls very well: first Emma’s travel diary, leading up to the tragedy that we glimpse in the opening pages, then Kate’s present-day nightmare. The pages turn, the revelations come along at a brisk pace, the sense of dread grows as Kate’s world is systematically undermined. All leads up to a conclusion that brings the narrative satisfyingly full-circle.

(Original review.)

Pen Pusher Magazine 15: Spring-Summer 2010

Okay , so I’m reading Pen Pusher (‘Where new writing finds its voice’) for the first time – and a good read it is, too. It’s a varied selection of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; but, as usual, I’ll be concentrating here on the prose fiction – which gives us:

Wayne Holloway-Smith, ‘Big Time’
An extract from the author’s debut novel, about one Dexter Hammond, who wants to be famous and thinks he’s found an unoccupied niche for a ‘rock ‘n’ roll preacher’. On the basis of this extract, Holloway-Smith’s novel is certainly one I’d want to read, because this is hilarious. Hammond is full of his own self-importance, and so desperate to be cool that one winces at seeing him try to emulate the latest-big-thing rock star, Tristan Rasclott – but, by the end of the piece, it’s starting to look as if Hammond might pull it off. I’ll be interested to read whether he does.

Grace Andreacchi, ‘Ikebana’
A short piece about a woman waiting at an ikebana demonstration for her older lover. There’s a subtlety and depth to this story, as Andreacchi portrays the doubts and conflicting emotions experienced by her protagonist. The woman’s changing attitudes to ikebana – at first, she thinks she’s not interested in it, then maybe she is, but maybe not – reflect her thoughts on her relationship. An insightful tale.

Ruth Davis, ‘End-of-Life Liaison’
This is a story about one of those things which one hopes will never happen, and which probably won’t, but to which there’s a certain nagging plausibility all the same. In this case, it’s that, in the face of continued pressure on resources because of an ageing population, anyone who reaches the age of 85 is compulsorily euthanised. It’s the routine way in which Davis’s fictional authorities handle this which makes the story particularly chilling – the policy has its own acronyms (such as ‘MPA’ or ‘Maximum Permitted Age’), and those approaching 85 are offered ‘End-of Life Counselling’. Davis’s tale follows one octogenarian, George Herbert, as he attends this counselling and unexpectedly presented with a possible way out. All is presented in a very down-to-earth manner, which gives the story its power.

Ross Sutherland, ‘Unexpected Flow’
During a school trip to London, young Connor ditches the rest of his party and wanders around Tate Modern, listening all the while to a Jay-Z album. This may not sound like much when I summarise it like that, but it’s the rhythm of Sutherland’s telling that makes the story work, with the rap lyrics acting as a counterpoint to the events. I could imagine ‘Unexpected Flow’ working very well as a short film.

Sarah Day, ‘Exposure’
A woman agrees to be the muse of an artist-geologist whom she knew as a child, and with whom she becomes reacquainted by chance as an adult, but it turns out to be a bad idea. This is a carefully written piece that builds up detail to create an effective study of both the narrator and the artist.

Michael Amherst, ‘What I Feel’
Another good character study, this time of a man who struggles to feel to feel any emotion about anything, and is now present when a woman falls from a railway platform and is run over by a train. The twist in the story is perhaps no great surprise; but that’s less important than the cold tone of the prose, which brings the character to life vividly.

Elsewhere in this issue of Pen Pusher, we find: a selection of poetry; some interesting reviews; an interview with Diana Athill, which makes me want to read her work; an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, which would make me want to read her work, except I’ve already done so and know how good it is; a superb non-fiction piece by Susan Barker about her time staying in China whilst studying Mandarin;  Paul Francis’s reflective graphic tale, ‘Tidalism’; a list of literary quotations about horses; and even more besides.

Links
Pen Pusher website
Websites of contributors mentioned: Michael Amherst; Grace Andreacchi; Paul Francis; Ross Sutherland.

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