Author: David Hebblethwaite

Faber Editions: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Originally published in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not a book I had heard of before, and indeed the recent Faber Editions publication is the first UK edition. I’m so glad to have come across Maud Martha, though, because I loved reading it.

Maud Martha Brown is born in Chicago in 1917, and we follow her life into adulthood. She dreams of more than her immediate life can promise; for example, here she is thinking about New York:

The name “New York” glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard. It was silver, and it was solid, and it was remote: it was behind glass, it was behind bright glass like the silver in the shops. It was not for her. Yet.

Life turns out to be mixed. Maud Martha marries Paul, a lighter-skinned man with aspirations and eyes for other women. There are moments of racism, but also small triumphs for Maud Martha. For instance, in one chapter she visits a hat shop. The manager hides her contempt under a veneer of politeness – but Maud Martha sees straight through it and strings her along.

There is hope here, built in (it seems to me) to the very shape of Brooks’ novel. The book is a series of snapshots, which gives space for Maud Martha’s life to be more than we see – and it goes on beyond the final page, ultimately with optimism.

Sinoist Books: The Sons of Red Lake by Zhou Daxin (tr. Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan)

Family illness leads Nuannuan to leave behind her life in Beijing and return to Chu Wang Village. There she stays, falling back in love with her childhood sweetheart Kaitian – though the village leader Zhen Shideng would have liked her to marry his son.

Nuannuan settles into the farming life, but a scam causes her and Kaitian to fall in debt to the whole village. The couple’s fortunes turn when a visitor points out nearby ruins of historical interest – giving Nuannuan and Kaitian the key to building a local tourism business. There is substantial money to be made, but also two significant problems. One is that to do most things requires the village leader’s permission, and Zhen Shideng knows exactly what he can demand of Nuannuan. The other problem is the temptation that comes with money and power…

I spread out my reading of this book, and thoroughly enjoyed the result. The characters are engaging, the plot turns in interesting ways, and there’s a sharp examination of the potential effects of tourism (for good and I’ll)  on a rural community. I will be exploring Zhou Daxin’s work further, of that I’m sure.

Published by Sinoist Books, who specialise in translations from Chinese.

Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 (ed. Mark Andryczyk)

Penguin have recently issued a paperback edition of this anthology, which was originally published in 2017 under the title The White Chalk of Days. It’s a selection of Ukrainian texts in translation that were presented as part of a literature series in North America between 2008 and 2016.

There’s a lot I could talk about in this book: fifteen writers represented, and a variety of pieces. I’m going to pick out a few of my favourites to highlight.

‘Books We’ve Never Read’ by Marjana Savka (tr. Askold Melnyczuk). I love the imagery of this short poem. It gives me a strong sense of the world opening up to the speaker: “The roads turn like pages. Eyes reddened by wind. / Nothing now but the bookmark of the horizon.”

‘Genes’ by Andriy Bondar (tr. Vitaly Chernetsky). There’s a sarcastic tone to this poem (“should I explain to you what a laptop is?”) that I appreciated. It starts with Bondar commenting that his family has good genes (or so he’s been told, at least) before reflecting on how modern lifestyles may affect health. At the same time, he talks about people who think that what he writes isn’t really poetry. His conclusion that he writes the way he does because he has to, that the ideal can’t fit everyone.

FM Galicia by Taras Prokhasko (tr. Mark Andryczyk). A selection of vignettes that were originally read out live on the radio. There are some striking thoughts and turns of phrase here. For example, in one piece, Prokhasko reflects on the place of firewood in mountain life: “when you only come to the mountains occasionally, firewood is not treated as daily bread but as some kind of delicacy, as gourmet food, like a cordial.”

‘The Flowerbed in the Kilim’ by Yuri Vynnychuk (tr. Mark Andryczyk). The narrator of this story imagines what it might be like in the small house woven into a rug hanging on the wall. One day, impossibly, he is able to enter the scene, and finds himself taken back to his childhood, visiting his Grandma. This situation can’t last, and the effect is poignant.

Apricots of the Donbas by Lyuba Yakimchuk (tr. Svetlana Lavochkina with Michael N. Naydan). A cycle of poems about the centrality of coal to the poet’s native region. There’s some vivid imagery, as in ‘The Face of Coal’, whose speaker imagines their father affected by a life of mining: “His cheeks are like trenches / Chopped up by the pit”.

I didn’t know much about Ukrainian literature, so I’m glad to have read this. If you’re interested, I think there is a good chance you’ll find something to enjoy within these pages.

Women in Translation Month: Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

In Denmark, a linguist named Knut is watching a TV show about people from in countries that no longer exist. One woman catches his attention in particular, with her unusual name (Hiruko), appearance (she looks a bit like Björk on that album cover), and language (she speaks a pan-Scandinavian tongue of her own devising).

Knut sets out to meet Hiruko and find out more about her. Hiruko’s country has vanished beneath the sea, and with it any knowledge of the word ‘Japan’ – as just one example, Knut thinks that sushi is Finnish. What Hiruko wants most of all is to find someone else who speaks her native tongue. Knut resolves to help her, and they set off on a journey across Europe.

Along the way, Hiruko and Knut gain several fellow-travellers, including Akash, a trans Marathi-speaking student, and Tenzo, who turns out to be a Greenlander rather than Japanese. Everyone is between worlds in some way. Different characters narrate across Tawada’s novel, so that no one is truly at the centre. What we then have is an exuberant exploration of how language can help to make and remake identity, and how we might find different ways to belong.

Published by Granta Books.

Appliance by J.O. Morgan: a Strange Horizons review

I enjoyed J.O. Morgan’s debut novel Pupa earlier in the year. Now he’s back with Appliance, which I think is even better. It’s about the development of technology and how this can run away before people have a handle on the ramifications. Morgan’s new technology of choice is teleportation, but it could really stand in for any form of tech. The way Appliance moves from the specific to the general helps give the novel its power.

I’ve reviewed Appliance for Strange Horizons. You can read my review here.

Appliance is published by Jonathan Cape.

Oneworld: The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Welcome to the Rabbit Hutch, a decaying apartment complex in Vacca Vale, Indiana. Officially it’s called La Lapinière, but like most things in town, it has gone to seed by since the decline of Vacca Vale’s automobile industry. So, though the Rabbit Hutch is a less romantic name, it is more appropriate for a building whose inhabitants are penned in by circumstance.

In her first novel, Tess Gunty gives a panoramic view of the Rabbit Hutch and its inhabitants. There’s a woman who screens the comments for online obituaries; a widower who checks his ratings on dating apps; a new mother trying to connect with her baby. Most of all, there’s 18-year-old Blandine, one of four ex-foster children living in the same apartment. She unexpectedly “exits her body” at the start of the novel, and the main plot thread goes back to explore why that happened.

The Rabbit Hutch is a nicely off-kilter novel, sweeping through different perspectives and styles (even pictures), often with a sense of being slightly to one side of reality. But there’s also the constant background of poverty and decline, a reminder of the urge to escape exemplified by Blandine. I’ll be interested to see where Gunty goes next after this intriguing debut.

Published by Oneworld.

Women in Translation Month: What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt (tr. Caroline Waight)

Today’s book is from Héloïse Press, a new publisher based in Canterbury that specialises in women’s voices. Laura Vogt is a Swiss author writing in German.

What Concerns Us is about two sisters and their differing experiences of pregnancy and motherhood. The father of Rahel’s son left her suddenly. When she meets a writer named Boris, Rahel decides to make a new family unit with him. But when they have a daughter together, Rahel goes into postnatal depression.

Rahel’s sister Fenna is in a relationship with her abusive partner Luc. She turns up at Rahel’s and Boris’s farmhouse, pregnant and unable to decide whether to blame herself. Then along comes the sisters’ ill mother Verena, and their relationships are tested and reconfigured under the same roof.

Vogt’s writing (in Caroline Waight’s translation) is always close to its characters’ experiences of being their bodies. That makes the reading of What Concerns Us raw, sometimes painful, so often compelling.

Women in Translation Month: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”

Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.

In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.

What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.

Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.

The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.

Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.

Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.

Published by Granta Books.

Women in Translation Month: Completing Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy with The Proof and The Third Lie

Ágota Kristóf (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who lived in exile in Switzerland, and wrote in French, In 2014, I read The Notebook, her novel about twin boys driven to acts of cruelty in wartime and after. The brothers don’t allow themselves to express emotion, and the specifics of geography and time are diluted. I found the effect powerfully austere.

The Notebook is a complete experience in itself, but it’s also the first part of a trilogy. I’d always intended to read the rest, and now I have. It’s interesting to see how each volume casts the previous one in a different light.

The Notebook ended with the brothers separated: one crossed the border into a neighbouring country, the other stayed behind. This was, in its way, impossible to imagine, as the boys had narrated as one ‘we’ throughout. The Proof (tr. David Watson) picks the story up with the brother who returned home. Now, we learn his name: Lucas. This alone makes him seem more human and approachable, and we see Lucas trying to adjust to life alone, developing relationships with others and becoming an adult.

But it’s not as simple as that. Kristóf’s prose is as sparse as in The Notebook, creating a stark emotional distance. Lucas is still capable of cruelty, and there are times when we sense he’s being deeply affected by all he has been through – but he won’t let it show, and we can’t get close enough to him to really understand how he feels.

Geography and time are again flattened out, which heightens the sense of being trapped: years pass, yet everything feels essentially the same. But things are about to change when Lucas’s brother Claus finally returns, and suddenly what we’ve read is called into question.

The Third Lie (tr. Marc Romano) goes even further in breaking identities down. At the start, it is narrated by Claus, then at times appears to be narrated by Lucas, and at other times it’s not clear at all. Scenes from The Notebook are retold in a different form that challenge our fundamental assumptions: were there ever two brothers at all?

What I get most from Kristóf’s trilogy as a whole is the sense of being ultimately unable to reach the truth of what happened to its characters. There is great trauma in the background, yet it’s all words on paper in the end – and that, to me, is what gives the trilogy its power.

CB Editions publish a single-volume edition of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy.

Fly on the Wall Press: Man at Sea by Liam Bell

The third novel by Scottish writer Liam Bell is an intriguing historical tale. Stuart was disfigured during the war when his plane caught fire in Malta. He’s long harboured a secret love for Beth, the nurse from his convalescence. In 1961, Beth contacts Stuart because she wants to go to Malta and find Joe, the son of her late husband Victor. Stuart is happy to accompany her, not just for the chance to spend time with Beth, but also because he may be able to take revenge on the man who caused his burns.

A second plot strand follows young Joe in 1941, as his childhood games are interrupted by the news that his father has left the family behind while serving overseas. Back in 1961, it doesn’t take too long for Stuart and Beth to find Joe, but there are revelations to come – not least that Victor is apparently still alive.

I enjoyed reading Man at Sea: it’s briskly paced and evocatively written. Nothing is quite as it seems, so there is plenty to uncover in a relatively short space. Bell’s characters have to face the question of whether it’s better to hold on to the past or let go. They come to something of a conclusion on that question in a quietly poignant ending.

Published by Fly on the Wall Press.

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