CategoryEnglish

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: Assembly by Natasha Brown

The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s debut novel is an unnamed Black British woman who works in the banking industry. She’s been invited to assembly at a local school to talk about her job. However, she’s ambivalent about this: the finance sector gave her opportunities for social mobility that her parents and grandparents didn’t have – but shouldn’t things be different for these schoolchildren? 

…it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent. 

Then again, she wouldn’t have been invited to the school in the first place were it not for her career:

Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth . Perhaps that’s a poor justification for my own complicity. My part in convincing children that they, too, must endure. Silence, surely, was the least harmful choice.

This kind of reflection animates Assembly, as the protagonist considers whether she really wants to do what it takes to get ahead, in a system and society that continue to oppress her. 

But I’m getting ahead of the novel here. Assembly begins with snippets of her colleagues’ behaviour that the protagonist feels she must excuse so she can keep going. Then there’s one side of a conversation with an EU national who tries to make a well-meant comparison about the two of them being made to feel unwelcome in the UK, but still ends up talking about where the protagonist is “really” from. My sense is that this is where the book starts because these are the building-blocks of what the protagonist experiences. 

As a novel, Assembly is pared back so there’s no chance for readers to get comfortable. It changes style and form as it goes, to fit whatever the protagonist wants to say. For example, later on, she describes instances of racism as a series of figures; and the prose turns more essayistic as she discusses the persistence of colonialism. 

Brown’s novel is then an assembly of different pieces, just as the protagonist assembles the self she presents to the world. As the book goes along, she finds a way to take more control over her story, which is reflected in how the prose changes. The reader is kept close to her, and the novel builds to a powerful crescendo. 

Published by Hamish Hamilton.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch

Born into a mercantile family, Denton Welch (1915-48) fractured his spine in a cycling accident at the age of 20, which would shape the rest of his life. He began writing in the 1940s; the autobiographical In Youth Is Pleasure (1945) was his second novel, and has recently been published in Penguin Classics

The novel tells of one summer in the life of 15-year-old Orvil Pym, a boy who doesn’t fit in either at school or with his family. Orvil is distant from his father and brothers: he was closer to his mother, but she died three years ago, and Orvil is forbidden from even mentioning her. “She was never to be thought of or considered again – because she had been loved so much.”

Most of In Youth Is Pleasure is set at a hotel in Surrey, where Orvil is spending the holidays with his father and brothers. This isn’t so much a novel of events: it’s about Orvil exploring his way of experiencing the world and his sense of self. Welch’s writing is often vivid. For example, here Orvil is reading an Edwardian exercise manual while eating in the busy hotel court:

The chatter and the music surged around him. The waves of the sound broke through the deliciousness of the cakes, then receded and were forgotten again. Orvil was not concentrating, but the hyphenated words ‘press-up’, ‘knees-bend’, ‘trunk-turn’, ‘deep-breathing’, jumped out from the printed page. His eyes also idly followed the diagrams of a coarse little man who squatted, thrust his legs out, and tucked his chin into his neck until a large vein, like a branching ivy stem, stood out on his forehead. 

The first part of this paragraph conveys the mix of sensations that Orvil experiences. In the rest, there’s a sense of him being confronted by physicality and beginning to process his feelings. This is how Welch’s novel proceeds, with Orvil working himself out as he goes along. We’re right there with him, in an experience that lives long beyond the final page.

Reflex Press: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock

It’s ten years now since I read ‘My Girl’, the story that won Emily Bullock the Bristol Short Story Prize. So many things have changed in that time, but I could still recall the atmosphere of that story. ‘My Girl’ is here again at the start of Human Terrain, Bullock’s new collection from Reflex Press. It was a pleasure to re-read: narrated by a mother acting as cutman for her daughter in a boxing match, it switches between a vivid account of the present fight and reflecting on the events that brought the pair to where they are. ‘My Girl’ is a story that works equally as well taken at face value and as a metaphor for the characters’ relationship.

Like ‘My Girl’, the title story of Human Terrain places its protagonist in a situation that may or may not be read as, real in order to illuminate a mother-daughter relationship. A woman stands at the front of a lecture theatre, but this isn’t going to be the standard War Studies lecture that the students are expecting. The narrator wants to tell the audience about her daughter in Iraq, a much more personal story than the dispassionate accounts they’re used to. History isn’t in the textbooks, she says, but neither is it quite in her daughter’s story – the truth for her is something more raw and brutal. 

Bullock’s characters are often facing situations that embody the tensions in their lives, but sometimes her stories document a more abrupt change. ‘Zoom’ is set in rural Lincolnshire, where a boy has a school assignment called “Getting to Know Your Neighbours”. But his neighbours aren’t so easy to approach, so he’s taken to filming them instead of trying to interview them. There’s an irony in that the boy doesn’t get to know his neighbours that well at all through the filming , as the story’s sudden, powerful ending illustrates. 

Perhaps my favourite story in Bullock’s collection is ‘Open House’. In this, Freddie sees that his childhood home is up for sale, and decides to pay a visit during the open house, the first time he’s been back to Whitechapel in twenty years. What he finds is an uneasy mixture of the past coming back to him while the present unspools out of his grasp. “A person’s life shouldn’t be an open house,” Freddie thinks, “for strangers to trample through and pick over”. It’s a pointed sentiment in a collection of vivid portraits.

100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but it is something I’m always interested in exploring. So I’m grateful to Yale University Press for offering me a review copy of this new anthology compiled by the Oxford professor John Carey.

Carey’s book includes poets ranging chronologically from Homer to Toni Morrison. For some poets, there’s a single poem; for others, Carey takes us through several extracts. So it was interesting, for example, to sample the varied ways in which Homer has been translated over the centuries. 

100 Poets gave me the chance to read some well-known poems that I hadn’t before: an extract from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale made me smile, and I was drawn in by Poe’s ‘The Raven’. Then there were names unfamiliar to me. Two war poems stand out as examples: ‘Rouen’ by May Wedderburn Cannan, a vivid portrait of a WW1 nursing unit; and Louis Simpson’s ‘Carentan O Carentan’, a stark account of a battle. 

I appreciated Carey’s commentary, especially in the entries with multiple poems; indeed, there are some where I’d have liked more context. But, no question, 100 Poets is a good anthology to dip into – or to read straight through, like I did. Whatever your experience of poetry, I think you’ll find something here to enjoy. 

Faber Editions: Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Faber & Faber have recently launched a new series called Faber Editions, which reissues some of their backlist titles with new introductions, to “spotlight radical literary voices from history”. The first book in the series is this short novel by Rachel Ingalls (1940-2019), an American writer who lived in the UK from 1965. Mrs Caliban was her second novel, originally published in 1982. 

We meet Dorothy Caliban, a Californian housewife drifting through life: her young son has died, and her husband Fred is unfaithful. The setting underlines this sense of stasis: it feels as though this could be the 1950s as easily as the 1980s.

Dorothy hears a radio item about a large sea creature, dubbed ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, which has escaped from a research institute having killed two employees. It’s a hint of strangeness amid a seemingly ordinary tale. Then the creature turns up on Dorothy’s doorstep:

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

I have to credit Irenosen Okojie for the observation in her foreword that Ingalls makes this seem unremarkable, but the effect really is striking in context. Dorothy embarks on a relationship with the sea creature (who prefers to be called Larry). They can keep it a secret because there are certain rooms in the house where Fred doesn’t go – but they don’t want to stay indoors forever. 

Ingalls maintains a delicate balance between the real and unreal throughout Mrs Caliban. The fact that Larry is non-human allows things to be different for Dorothy: she can take charge of her life, and he challenges the model of masculinity represented by Fred. There is something of a fable about this book, but really it has an atmosphere all its own.

Henningham Family Press: The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths

Henningham Family Press and Paul Griffiths were two of my favourite discoveries last year, and now here’s another beautifully produced book by the author of Mr. Beethoven. I was looking forward to The Tomb Guardians, but even so I wasn’t prepared for it. 

When I look at my most favourite novels, it’s not about subject matter or subgenre – it’s about the reaction I have to reading them. The writing somehow bypasses the rational brain and affects me at a more fundamental level. The Tomb Guardians is that sort of novel. 

Two conversations intertwine within the book. The first (in italics) is between the guardians of Christ’s tomb. They’ve woken up to find that the stone has been moved, the tomb is empty, and one of their number has also vanished. The guardians can’t work out exactly how all this happened, but they know they can’t admit to having been asleep. They have to concoct a plausible explanation that won’t land them in trouble. 

In the present day, a lecturer is preparing a talk on the ‘sleeping grave guard’ paintings by the 16th-century German artist Bernhard Strigel [example], which are reproduced in the book as colour plates). The lecturer feels the talk is “falling apart”, and discusses it with a friend. The key question occupying the lecturer is: why doesn’t Strigel’s placid depiction of the guards reflect the Gospel of Matthew? The lecturer has some ideas about this: what if the figures are meant to reflect Strigel’s contemporary reality rather than the biblical one? What if they’re not meant to be the guardians of Christ’s tomb at all? 

Both conversations then revolve around a fundamental absence of knowledge, though approached from opposite directions. The guardians are constructing a falsehood to explain away the empty tomb. The lecturer and friend are reaching for a truth about Strigel’s paintings that they’ll never fully grasp. 

Maybe I’ve made The Tomb Guardians sound heavy so far, but actually it wears its seriousness lightly. The book is at its most playful when the conversations seem to talk to each other:

What?

It’s this lecture.

Yes.

I just don’t like it.

It’s falling apart on me.

There’s a lot I don’t like, beginning with that dirty great rock having shifted on its own-i-o.

That’s happened before.

He shouldn’t have gone.

Not like this. The whole point it’s…. Never mind.

No, he shouldn’t have gone.

It’s also interesting to see how the balance of the novel changes. The guardians feel dominant at the beginning, racing ahead to work their story out as the lecturer is hesitantly forming questions. Then the lecturer’s strand takes control, forging ahead with art-historical exploration, at times almost seeming as though it might be the guardians’ undoing. 

The ending of The Tomb Guardians has the same sudden power as that of Convenience Store Woman, as we experience something of what is at stake for the characters. Griffiths’ novel doesn’t resolve, but stays vividly on the knife-edge of uncertainty. This undermines everything the lecturer has worked towards:

These four were my life. For years. And still there was so much I wanted to say to them. If they’d been here, I could have done that – never mind that they wouldn’t have been able to respond. I could have said they’re the only human beings right there, at exactly the right moment, and they’re missing the event. I could have said their sleep is an admonishment to us, who also sleep through so much….

But the lecturer’s friend sees how it is: you have to go on from where you are, even if there is doubt. For the guardians, meanwhile, there is possibility in the uncertainty as we leave them, and this opens the book up again just as we close it. 

Betimes Books: Hear Us Fade by David Hogan

Hear Us Fade is set in California over the course of a single day in June 2029. It’s a time of change: Billy ‘the Goat’ Wharton is set to be the last person in the USA to face the death penalty. Two activists, Rex Nightly and Urban McChen, are reluctantly torturing the Governor of California to get him to call off the execution. But they go too far – which puts Rex in an awkward position when his Lieutenant Governor wife announces that she’s going to start recall proceedings and run for governor herself.

Meanwhile, Billy Wharton – who insists that he was coerced into confessing to murder – seizes the opportunity to escape from his prison van, and gets caught up in events that spiral out of his control. In the background (though not necessarily staying there) are technological change, environmental disaster, and social upheaval. Hear Us Fade is a dark comedy that turns into a sobering look at where current trends might lead to.

Published by Betimes Books.

Fitzcarraldo Editions: Batlava Lake by Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones is one of those writers I’ve managed to hear of without knowing much about their work. After reading this short (under 100 pages) novel, I am keen to explore more. 

The narrator of Batlava Lake is Barry Ashton, a civilian engineer working with the British army in Kosovo in 1999. This is how his account begins:

Lake Batlava is beautiful. Deep, not exactly welcoming. I don’t expect the locals think it’s much like Loch Ness, but we did. I did. No legends about monsters, none that I’d heard of. But how would I get to hear that about them anyway? I’d have to speak the language, and the Barry brain doesn’t do languages. Just doesn’t want to know. ‘Gut und Morgen’ is about as much as I can manage in foreign parts, doesn’t get you far in Kosovo. Plus we weren’t there as sightseers, though we saw some sights. We saw some sights.

This first paragraph establishes a fair amount about Barry: he’s chatty and matey, but can be insensitive to social niceties and the feelings of others. He’s more of a practical person than an intellectual one. There’s also plenty he is not telling us yet: immediately I wonder what’s behind “We saw some sights”.

The prose of Batlava Lake provides an interesting comparison with James Clammer’s Insignificance, another novel written from the viewpoint of a man who works with his hands. But where the effect of Insignificance was to open its protagonist up to us – to show him as a thinker as well as a doer – Barry’s narration helps to obscure him. He talks a lot, but it feels like a front – or at least that he’s unclear on exactly what he wants to say. 

Still, behind all Barry’s talk is a story: a story of his deteriorating personal relationships, but perhaps especially a story of the brutality of war. This is a narrator who’s not really up to the task of conveying the gravity of that subject, let alone that of empathising with the victims of the conflict. Yet I found Batlava Lake powerful despite this, because it’s possible to read between the lines of what Barry says. Here the book’s shortness works in its favour: in a longer narrative, the effect might have been diluted. Instead, Batlava Lake builds to a crescendo, and ends in a place that feels just right. 

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

A Shock by Keith Ridgway

I loved Keith Ridgway’s previous novel, Hawthorn & Child. It was a key book in helping me appreciate different types of writing, in that it dissolved narrative coherence as it went along. So I was really looking forward to Ridgway’s new book, A Shock. I found a similarly fragmented structure, but a warmer, in the end more hopeful, tone. 

The nine story-chapters of A Shock are set around the same community in south London, with some overlapping characters. It’s the overlap that creates a sense of connection: loose and precarious, but persisting despite everything the modern world throws at it.

In the opening ‘The Party’ (which you can read on the New Yorker website), we meet an old woman at home while her neighbours are hosting a loud party. She’s lived an eventful life that others can only guess at, but now time is standing still for her:

…here I am, the leftover part, the unresolved plot, the loose end, the woman in the house, the house in the woman, the cat, the unkempt garden, the clothes in the wardrobe that she cannot throw out and cannot wear, the furniture she moves so that she can forget, and moves back again so that she can remember, and remembering anyway whatever she does, lost in a little roundabout life… 

All this woman really wants, one senses, is to be able to tell her story to someone. The yearning that comes through in this piece is powerful. 

Elsewhere in the novel we find different kinds of stories being told or withheld. In ‘The Camera’, we meet friends Stan (who’s white) and Gary (who’s black). Gary talks about wanting a new camera; when he gets one, he starts taking photos of Stan and posting them to him. Stan can’t seem to understand why Gary would do this, and his apparent inability to assume a straightforward explanation puts a strain on their friendship. “You get to clock off and I don’t,” Gary reminds Stan, seeing an all-too-familiar story being played out. 

In ‘The Joke’, Stan’s partner Maria pushes her bike up the hill to a different world, where she works as a library assistant in a private school. One of the teachers tells her a remarkable story that turns out to be a fabrication – an unwelcome reminder of life’s instability. 

OK, admittedly this isn’t sounding very hopeful. But there’s hope in A Shock if you look for it. Perhaps there will be someone in the Arms pub with a tale to tell. Maybe it takes a random moment of human connection – and it might be necessary to rely on the randomness. The world of A Shock is not an easy one for its characters to live in, but there are ways for them to hold on. Reading this is a vital experience. 

Published by Picador.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Peninsula Press: Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner

Isabel Waidner has been shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice and the Goldsmiths Prize once, which puts their work squarely in my area of interest. I had tried Waidner’s previous novel, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, but… well, it just didn’t click with me. But I wasn’t going to give up.

Sterling Karat Gold was a recent Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month, and I was determined to meet it halfway. “‘Different’ doesn’t need to be scary or boring or hard; it can be fun,” says Waidner in a recent interview. So I thought: just go with the flow. 

This time, the book clicked.

Any synopsis I give will be inadequate, because there’s so much going on, and because so much is in the actual experience of reading. But let’s see… This is how the narrator introduces themself:

I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservativism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this sterling heart. 

This paragraph merges the personal, the political, the geographical, the linguistic, and the bodily. And that’s how Waidner’s novel continues. 

When we first meet Sterling, they are set upon by a group of matadors, and saved by Rodney, a footballer who sends the bullfighters off. Sterling later goes to a Hendon FC match in search of Rodney, but is arrested by two representatives of the authorities for assaulting one of the matadors. Sterling is taken to a detention centre in Margate on further spurious charges. This results in a trial that takes place in Sterling’s bathroom, muscling in on Catastrophic Foibles, the performance art project that Sterling hosts at home with their best friend Chachki.

Did I mention the time travelling spaceships?

The world of Sterling Karat Gold is a nightmare for Sterling and their friends, because its workings are inexplicable and primed to act against them. The reader gets a sense of this by proxy through the strangeness of what happens, but there are also sharp moments of clarity. For example, there is a powerful chapter of long paragraphs (which you can read in full on the Granta website) in which Sterling reflects on the life of the footballer Justin Fashanu:

…in Chachki’s and my Cataclysmic Foibles lexicon, a ‘spaceship’ is a moment in which discreet neo-authoritarian governance and deliberate governmental deceit become apparent, just momentarily, before vanishing again. What’s that have to do with your life, you might ask, Justin Fashanu, a gay, black footballer, but how the concerted bullying of an individual belonging to more than one oppressed demographic relates to the workings of state control is a pertinent question, and one I ask myself every day.

Alongside this, Sterling Karat Gold is a lot of fun to read – and in that fun, there is hope. A word that came to my mind when reading this book is ‘carnival’, in the sense of entertainment, but also in the sense of the old feast when the structure of society could, in a fashion, be turned upside-down. Sterling and friends are able to take some control back at last. 

Published by Peninsula Press.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

© 2021 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: