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The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips

Bernardine Evaristo has curated a series called ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ with her publisher Hamish Hamilton, which aims to highlight works by Black British writers that have become overlooked. The Dancing Face is one of the six fiction titles launching the series (with six non-fiction books to follow later this year). It’s a thriller originally published in 1997.

Gus Dixon is a Black British university lecturer, and a member of the Committee for Reparations to Africa. He’s disillusioned with the Committee’s lack of action, and sets in motion the theft of a Beninese mask from an exhibition, all for the attention it will bring to the cause. 

But Gus is soon out of his depth, and finds himself entangled with others who have different ideas about the mask. One of the key players is Dr Okigbo, a Nigerian chief in exile who bankrolled the robbery, and wants the mask for personal leverage. In an attempt to keep it safe, Gus sends the mask to his younger brother Danny, a student – which ends up putting Danny in danger. 

Phillips explores issues of identity, and what the mask means to different people. Gus has considered his relationship to an African identity, and reached a conclusion. Danny is still thinking these issues through, and may have ideas of his own. The novel’s African characters offer further perspectives. Alongside this, The Dancing Face is a cracking thriller, with twists that I didn’t see coming and some fine action sequences. I would recommend it warmly.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

This is the first novel by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s partly autobiographical, partly essayistic, often intensely felt. 

In 2012, our narrator is a young mother. Life is full of domestic routines, with repeated phrases in the prose to match. There’s a strong sense of how stifling this can be. When the narrator has to stay in hospital with her newly born child, it becomes downright terrifying – she doesn’t know how this will end, and we feel her fear from the inside. 

Ní Ghríofa’s protagonist is fascinated by the 18th century poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The narrator resolves to uncover everything she can of Ní Chonaill’s life. (The original Gaelic poem and Ní Ghríofa’s translation ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’ appear at the end of the volume.)

Something that really comes across to me in this book is how the act of researching and writing about Ní Chonaill is a means of self-expression and assertion for the narrator. There’s a similar effect in the prose, when passages about Ní Chonaill disrupt the everyday detail. At the same time, the sequences concerning the narrator’s motherhood and domestic life share something with the historical researches: they highlight women’s experiences that might otherwise be treated less seriously than they deserve, if not ignored. 

A Ghost in the Throat is a novel that takes us deeply into its narrator’s viewpoint, where we can experience for ourselves how much Ní Chonaill’s poem means to her.

Published by Tramp Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey

One thing I value the Republic of Consciousness Prize for is that it highlights books I would never have come across otherwise. This is such a book, and I’m so glad to have read it.

Unknown Language is a reimagining of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German mystic. It’s mostly written by Huw Lemmey, but there’s also an introductory story by Bhanu Kapil and a closing essay by Alice Sprawls, which add their own dimensions to the book. 

Lemmey’s Hildegard lives in a version of reality which has elements of 21st century life, yet which nevertheless seems timeless. It feels like a place where profound transformations could happen at any moment. 

Divine judgement is visited upon Hildegard’s city, which forces her into exile. There’s danger beyond the city walls, but also the chance for Hildegard to begin anew. She’s looking for the unknown language to describe the all-encompassing visions she experiences, and the unknown language to articulate her own personal form of grace. 

Lemmey’s prose is always compelling and vivid, but I find it rises in intensity along with Hildegard’s experiences – such as when she meets and falls in love with a young woman. At those times, you really get a sense of the personal transcendence Hildegard is feeling. Unknown Language is a powerful book to experience. 

Published by Ignota Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

Mathilda – Black, queer, working-class – is someone who knows how it feels to be an outsider. She has a periodic need to Escape her life: to reinvent herself, even taking on a new name. She has Transfixions, historical figures with whom she feels a deep spiritual connection. She’s also particularly interested in the Bright Young Things of 1920s London. 

A chance find in Mathilda’s volunteer role at the National Portrait Gallery leads her to a new Transfixion: Hermia Druitt, a Black modernist poet. Mathilda finds her way on to a residency in the European town of Sun, where Hermia eventually lived. There, Mathilda meets a kindred spirit named Erskine-Lily, and seeks to uncover what happened to Hermia and the cult that she founded. 

LOTE is a fun to read, with its central mystery to be solved, and the way Mathilda shows up the absurdities of the residency. It’s not clear at first whether the foundation behind the residency is for artists or business people. Their outlook is very different from Mathilda’s, but she finds that she can bluff her way through. 

Hermia Druitt is fictitious, but stands in for analogous marginalised or ‘forgotten’ figures from history. Shola von Reinhold expands on Mathilda’s story by including passages from an (also fictitious) academic text called Black Modernisms, and from what seems to be a direct account of the poet’s life. 

By looking into the story of Hermia Druitt, Mathilda is also able to remake herself. LOTE takes apart received views of art and history (and art history) to create its own space for other voices to be heard.

Published by Jacaranda Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer ⁣

Fitzcarraldo Editions are the only publisher to have won the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice, so it’s no surprise to see them longlisted again this year. (My copy of The Appointment looks different from the usual Fitzcarraldo blue – I won it in a competition, one of five copies with a cover painted by Katharina Volckmer.) ⁣

The narrator of this short volume is a German in London. She has come to the office of one Dr Seligman for an appointment whose nature is at first unspecified. The book we read is her monologue as addressed to him. ⁣

The narrator begins by revealing some of her fantasies (let’s say that they involve Hitler and leave it there), and continues to unburden herself. It becomes clear that she is profoundly uncomfortable in her body and with her nationality (feeling, for example, that Germany has not reckoned with its past as well as it may like to think). The former source of discomfort is what this appointment is meant to address; the latter one is why the narrator has approached a Jewish doctor. ⁣

The Appointment is densely written, often harrowing, and often drily funny – it shifts mood along with its narrator. There’s a sense that all this – the appointment, and the monologue form itself – is the narrator’s way of taking control. The space of the doctor’s office is private, and by being the one to speak, the narrator can shape what she says, what she reveals about herself. She feels that this is her time and space, and hopefully the chance for a new beginning.⁣

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Looking for Bono by Abidemi Sanusi

Abidemi Sanusi draws on her background as a human rights worker for this sharp look at celebrity. Life is going nowhere much for fiftysomething Baba in the Lagos slum of Palemo. That is, until he sees a news report: Bono is in Africa to speak at a summit. Here, thinks Baba, is a man who can get leaders to listen to him. Baba resolves to meet Bono (whom he calls ‘Mosquito Man’ from the shape of his dark glasses) and tell him about the water shortages in Palemo.

A friend phones the local radio station to tell them about Baba’s plan… and suddenly everyone becomes interested: a journalist, a campaigning charity, even the company behind the problems with water supply – not to mention Baba’s wife Munira, who dreams of making it in Nollywood. So Baba becomes a cause célèbre in his own right, as different parties see what advantage they might gain from him. Looking for Bono is great fun to read, and has serious points to make about access to resources, and how we effect change. 

Published by Jacaranda Books.

The Storm by Akeem Balogun

The stories in Akeem Balogun’s debut collection are loosely linked by an extreme storm that belongs more to the world of metaphor than weather. The tone is set by the opening title story, which sees Seun mostly stuck at his workplace because of the storm, which has been raging for weeks. It provides a vivid example of people becoming separated, as Seun ventures out to check that his father is OK. 

Balogun often explores the effects these extraordinary events have had on his characters. One of my favourite examples is ‘A Stroke of Madness’. This is the story of Amri, whom we mostly see in conversation with either his work colleague Carl or his daughter Kali. All seems mundane at first, but we learn that Amri’s sister Adea vanished in the storm twenty years previously. Only gradually do we see how deeply this has left a mark on Amri. When he learns that a block of flats is due to be built on the park where Adea went missing, he sees this as an affront to her memory – which leads him to desperate measures…

The collection also heads off in several different directions. ‘Room Four’ is one of a number of stories revolving around advanced technology. In this piece, banking is done through interaction with an AI avatar; Balogun’s protagonist struggles with its attempts to dissuade him from making rash decisions. ‘Marc Populaire’ is told entirely through voice messages left to the title character, leading readers to piece together their own story of what has happened to Marc. 

The Storm is a fine introduction to Balogun’s work, and to the publisher Okapi Books. I look forward to seeing what they do in future.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

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Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

My favourite books read in 2020

2020: what a year, eh? Anyway, this is a place for talking about books, and I had a good reading year. As usual, I have picked out my favourite dozen and listed them in loose order of enjoyment (though of course I’d recommend them all). What I particularly like is that this selection encompasses many of the different strands of my reading from the year: the Goldsmiths Prize, International Booker, Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month… They’re all represented in here somewhere.

12. The Blessed Girl (2017) by Angela Makholwa

One of the funniest books I read all year, this is the story of a young black South African woman with the trappings of a successful life and no shortage of suitors to support her. But keeping her lifestyle going is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a poignant undercurrent to the novel that really changes things.

11. Arkady (2018) by Patrick Langley

The tale of two brothers surviving on the margins of an austerity-ravaged Britain in a near future. What really makes this novel work for me is its abstract quality: the broader contours of society are unknown to the brothers, just as they are unknown to it. This makes their relationship leap off the page even more.

10. New Passengers (2017) by Tine Høeg
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

Here’s another novel whose bare summary may not sound much: two characters meet on a train and embark on an affair. But the verse-style prose transforms it, breaking the novel into small pieces just as the protagonist tries to compartmentalise her life, and merging them together just as the parts of the woman’s life refuse to stay separate.

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to society’s expectations of women, but is in danger of being consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly. She breaks free of it all in spectacular fashion: by moving to the country to practise witchcraft. This is an exuberant character study that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

8. Bina (2019) by Anakana Schofield

A restless novel narrated by a restless character: seventy-something Bina, who’s here to warn us – though the full extent of what she has to warn us about about only emerges gradually. This book had affected me deeply by the end, and I still can’t explain exactly how it does what it does.

7. Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) by Gabriel Josipovici

Here is another book whose effect on me emerged spontaneously and without warning while reading. Infinity is the account of an Italian composer who comes across as pompous and larger-than-life at first… But later his vulnerability becomes apparent, and we start to feel his intense engagement with existence.

6. Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) by Claudio Morandini
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

It was a strong year for Peirene Press, and this was my favourite: a novel of reality unspooling for an old man in his Alpine cottage, with only his (occasionally talking) dog for company. This is a powerful study of isolation, with the sort of perceptual ambiguity that I love. 

5. Earthlings (2018) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

After loving Convenience Store Woman a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to this. But that earlier book could not prepare me for Earthlings. Murata’s protagonist may wish for a spaceship to carry her away, but these seemingly childish games have serious and disturbing consequences. 

4. Mordew (2020) by Alex Pheby

A rich and indulgent fantasy from Galley Beggar Press. Reading this took me right back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense that here was a fantasy novel that could go anywhere it wanted. Pheby takes classic fantasy elements, such as a poor boy discovering his destiny, but Mordew is very much its own thing. 

3. The Nacullians (2020) by Craig Jordan-Baker 

Like Mordew, this novel feels unconstrained by any preconceived notion of what it ‘should’ be like, though this time the novel a family saga. The Nacullians are a family who don’t fit into the traditional family saga, so Jordan-Baker takes his novel apart and rebuilds it around them. The result is exhilarating. 

2. The Birds (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

The Ice Palace was high on my list of favourites a couple of years ago, and now it’s joined by The Birds. Vesaas’ novels are so delicately observed. There’s a sequence in the middle of this tale of siblings that will go down as one of the best I’ve read. 

1. The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2019)

I’ve enjoyed Yoko Ogawa’s work before, but The Memory Police was extra special. The tale of an island where concepts routinely fade from the collective memory, it starts off looking like an allegory of life under authoritarianism and ends up enacting a very personal form of loss. There was no book I read all year that stayed with me as much as this. 

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That’s my round-up of 2020. What have you enjoyed reading this year?

My previous yearly selections of favourite books are all here: 2019, 2018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. I’ll be back on the blog in the New Year, and you can also find me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Époque Press: The Nacullians

Craig Jordan-Baker’s debut novel, published by Époque Press, was the November selection for the Republic of Consciousness Prize Book of the Month – and it’s an absolute gem. The Nacullians is a family saga about a kind of family that’s not normally the subject of such a book: a working-class family in Southampton, whose founders emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s: “Patrice Nacullian concentrated on pregnancy, smoking, and crosswords, while Nandad spent his days laying bricks and being racially abused on building sites.”

The structure is non-chronological, with chapters ranging from Nandad’s son Bernard learning the unwritten codes of acceptance on the building site in 1988, to a hospital volunteer singing songs on a ward in 2011 where one of the Nacullians is a patient. This raggedness of structure mirrors a general sense that the Nacullian family don’t quite fit into this kind of story – so the story is reshaped to fit them.

I really appreciated Jordan-Baker’s prose style. It reminds me of Dan Rhodes’s writing, and has the same capacity to start out whimsical and end up serious and poignant. There’s a real feeling in this book that it will not be bound by any preconceived ideas of what a novel should sound like, and the result is exhilarating to read. It builds up to a scene of someone eating cheese and bread: something that sounds mundane, but in this novel has the whole weight of a family’s history behind it.

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