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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.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: a Shiny New Books review

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kevin Barry’s third story collection, That Old Country Music. I love Barry’s short fiction, and this book is no exception: tales rooted deeply in the west of Ireland, characters navigating contemporary life while older rhythms hum in the background, all told in Barry’s distinctive voice.

Read my review in full here.

Book published by Canongate.

Read my other posts on Kevin Barry’s work here.

Fantasy, Galley Beggar style: Mordew by Alex Pheby

It’s a year or so now since I heard that Alex Pheby’s third Galley Beggar Press novel was going to be fantasy. I was intrigued as to what sort of fantasy novel Galley Beggar might publish, but also wanted to have some idea of what Pheby’s other work was like. That’s what led me to read Lucia earlier this year. It was a powerful experience of vivid language… and so was Mordew.

Reading this book took me back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense of a fantasy novel that was vibrant and wide open, that could go anywhere it wanted. Mordew is built on archetypal foundations: Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums with a mysterious ‘Spark’, is sent on a mission by the powerful Master of the city of Mordew. There are echoes of many a classic fantasy city, but Pheby’s novel is something all of its own.

For a start, there’s the writing. Here, towards the beginning, is Nathan wading through a patch of Living Mud, which can spontaneously generate life-forms:

Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving through the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant nothing to anyone. They meant nothing. 

It’s easier for Nathan to tell himself these things are nothing than for him to act that way in reality. This passage made my skin crawl when I read it!

Mordew also lingers in my mind because of the extent to which Pheby pushes his novel’s imagination. I could list examples, but I find that I don’t want to, because a large part of this novel’s effect lies in the discovery. Suffice it to say that, if you like the sound of Mordew, I highly recommend it.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Bina by Anakana Schofield

I can’t help associating Anakana Schofield with the Goldsmiths Prize. I read her for the first time when her previous novel, Martin John, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths in 2016, and now here we are again with Bina.

Like Martin John, Bina was a minor character in Schofield’s first novel Malarky (you don’t need to have read Malarky to enjoy Bina – I hadn’t – but there are several references to the earlier book). In Malarky, 70-something Bina was arrested for taking a hammer to an aeroplane at a protest. Now she spends much of her time in bed, with medical waste in her garden, and assorted activists camping outside the house as the threat looms of being arrested again.

I described the novel Martin John as being organised to create meaning for its protagonist rather than the reader. Bina runs along similar lines: although its narrator wants to tell her story and be heard, she’ll do it in her own time and her own way. This involves scribbling on the back of receipts and whatever paper she can find, which explains why some sections break down into short single-sentence paragraphs on the page. Bina is a choppy novel to read, reflecting its main character’s restless mind.

Bina’s account revolves around three characters: her late friend Phil (Philomena), the protagonist of Malarky; her ex-lodger Eddie; and the mysterious Tall Man, who recruited Bina for something that I’m not going to reveal. These characters exist in the novel more as shadows than presences (at least, so I found). Their stories grow out of oblique snippets (such as Bina commenting that she found Eddie in a ditch), and only gradually does it become apparent what has been going on in Bina’s life, and how the dark the book will grow.

Bina is subtitled “A Novel in Warnings”; Bina herself is clear what she’s about:

I’m only telling you this to warn you. I’ve better ways to waste my time than mithering on here. I’m a busy woman. Of that be certain. People think old women have nothing to do but stand around. They’re very wrong and very ignorant and do take that last combination of wrong and ignorant as another warning. If people think you have time to stand about, let them know otherwise, by not standing about. Take off! Take off when they least expect it.

So, Bina has several types of warnings for her readers: warnings not to do certain things, to walk away from certain situations – but also not to make assumptions about people or overlook those left in the margins.

My abiding memory of Bina is of a deeply affecting book. I didn’t realise how much it had affected me until the end. Those stories unfolding obliquely within the novel got under my skin, and I hadn’t noticed. But I’ll remember that feeling, long after turning the final page.

Published by Fleet.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

The lover: a Chinese woman who moves to London to study for a PhD. At a picnic one day, she sees a man picking elderflowers. She meets him again at a book club, and they get talking. From such random moments, love blossoms.

The discourse: a chronicle of the woman’s new life and an examination of her love, inspired by Barthes’ book of the same name (which I haven’t read). It’s told in a series of short chapters, snapshots in time.

Each chapter of Xiaolu Guo’s latest novel begins with a brief passage of dialogue that appears in the text later on. For me, this affects the experience of reading in two key ways. First, it emphasises the fragmented structure: you recognise the dialogue when you read it again, and the chapter seems to revolve around it, to become a self-contained piece. Second, the dialogue starts to feel more like a performance.

We end up with a love story that’s ragged in form rather than smooth. This is appropriate, because the experience of moving to London is far from smooth for Guo’s protagonist. There are immediate issues such as unfamiliar terminology (the word ‘Brexit’ appears everywhere when our narrator moves over, but not in her dictionary) and loneliness (“What were we supposed to do at night in our rented rooms, if we didn’t drink or watch sports?”).

As time goes on, the stumbling-blocks evolve, becoming subtler and, in some ways, more profound. The narrator would like to put down roots, but her partner is much more at ease with a transient lifestyle – at one point, they move into a houseboat, but it’s not her idea of home. The protagonist’s boyfriend is German-Australian, with family in both countries, while her parents have both passed away. Unlike her, he is at home in multiple cultures, and comfortable moving between them.

Language itself is a contested space for Guo’s narrator. In one chapter she’s at a New Year’s Eve party where her partner is conversing in English and German, and she can’t follow it:

I thought, even though I speak English, and I can read and write in English, still, I feel monolingual. Really, I had only one language. And even worse, I could not possess this language…Whatever I spoke, whether it was my borrowed English language or my native Chinese Mandarin, I didn’t feel I had that language in me. That language spoke for me, instead of my speaking it.

So perhaps we could see this lover’s discourse as her essay at working through her feelings, taking possession of what it is to live in this place, with this language. Guo’s novel is a love story which puts love to the test, because that’s what its protagonist needs in order to find solid ground in her life.

Published by Chatto & Windus.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

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