Category: English

Salt Publishing: The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware

The Peckham Experiment was a project begun in 1926, aimed at encouraging working-class families to better themselves through access to leisure and cultural activities. Guy Ware imagines twins born into this project: Charlie and JJ. As the novel begins, we meet Charlie aged 85, looking back on his life to write a eulogy for JJ.

The brothers’ parents were communist, and JJ and Charlie carried into adulthood ideals of improving life for everyone. JJ was a council architect, looking to design better housing for working-class people. Charlie was a surveyor, building those homes. As time went on, they would find their ideals compromised, and placed in the shadow of structural failure and disaster.

Charlie’s narrative voice is dense and discursive, his recollections haphazard at times, but still sharp. It’s a voice that can weave together the personal, political and historical. As a result, the twins’ experiences reflect undercurrents that play out across broader society in the novel. It’s fascinating to read.

Published by Salt.

#GoldsmithsPrize2022: Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi

The voice of Mona Arshi’s debut novel belongs to Ruby, a young British Indian woman. It’s an expressive voice in this written (or thought) form, but Ruby decided as a girl that she would stop speaking:

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again.

The scattered vignettes of Somebody Loves You are appropriate for a narrator who’s not used to telling a story to an audience. Still, Ruby’s tale covers a lot of ground in a relatively short length, including growing up, racism and mental health. The latter is explored through the character of Ruby’s mother, and I’m picking it out because I think it’s a good example of how Arshi’s book works.

This is how the subject is introduced:

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

It’s an arresting line, but one that’s at least as interested in the fox as in Ruby’s mother. Actually, in that whole short chapter, the mother’s mental breakdown is strikingly ‘off-page’. Quite a lot (though by no means all) of what happens in Somebody Loves You happens to characters other than Ruby, and of course she can’t see into their experiences – though she can observe.

Ruby notices that her mother finds respite in the garden – a defined space, so rare in this novel of hazy edges. Gardens become one of the book’s recurring motifs, an anchor point for characters and reader alike. The vignettes of Somebody Loves You build together into quite a powerful whole.

Published by And Other Stories.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Santa Monica Press: The Revenge of Joe Wild by Andrew Komarnyckyj

Andrew Komarnyckyj wrote one of my favourite books from last year, Ezra Slef. That novel was a joyous romp about a pompous writer who makes a deal with the Devil. The Revenge of Joe Wild is something rather different: a coming-of-age yarn set in 19th century America. What unites the two books is that they’re anchored by strong narrative voices. Here’s Joe Wild:

The schoolhouse was the worst house in the world ‘cept our house. It had a bell on the roof that went right through you like a stone through a window when it rang. If you warn’t inside when that bell rang woe betide you, you was in for a leatherin’. I knows better’n most about leatherin’.

In 1861, Joe is a twelve-year-old boy from a poor Illinois family. When he’s wrongly accused of murdering a neighbour, Joe runs away from town and into an even wilder world than the one he knew. Eventually he will join the army and return home a man, to set the past right.

Joe Wild is as compelling in its own way as Ezra Slef, a tale of vivid set-pieces that just doesn’t let up. If you’re looking for a rip-roaring adventure, this is a book well worth your time.

Published by Santa Monica Press.

Gallic Books: The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert

A new book by Charles Lambert is always worth a look. This one is a Victorian ghost story, with an eerie atmosphere similar to his earlier novel The Children’s Home.

In 1880s London, Edward Montieth is a young gentleman who goes along to a séance with a group of acquaintances from his club. He becomes captivated with Settie, a flower-seller he sees outside the theatre, and they embark on a relationship. But society would frown on their love, because Settie is Romani. When she falls pregnant, Edward feels forced to take drastic measures – and tragedy follows…

Two years later, Edward has turned away from his old life and now lives outside of the city with his Sicilian wife Marisol and their son Tommaso. However, although Edward may wish to leave the past behind, the past isn’t finished with him. Lambert builds up an unsettling feeling through ordinary sights and sounds, like a child’s cry, that seem oddly out of place. The strangeness grows, in a tale that pits rationality against the supernatural as much as social structures clash with the freedom to go one’s own way. The Bone Flower is engrossing stuff, especially as the autumn nights draw in. 

Published by Gallic Books.

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.

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.

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.

Holland House Books: The Bellboy by Anees Salim

Anees Salim is an author from Kerala who’s had several books published in India over the last ten years. Now, Newbury’s Holland House Books are publishing him in the UK, with Salim’s latest novel, The Bellboy.

17-year-old Latif lives on an island, but now has a job on the mainland, as a bellboy at a hotel named Paradise Lodge. He quickly discovers that this is a place people come to end their lives: on his first day, he watches the manager walk into the room of a guest who still hangs from the ceiling, and pocket the dead man’s cash – only then calling the police. It sets the tone for a job that’s going to change Latif’s life drastically.

When Latif travels between home and work, he’s effectively travelling between two different worlds – neither of which is all that it seems. People don’t generally go to Paradise Lodge for a holiday, as you’d generally expect with a hotel. They go for secret reasons, such as to conduct affairs or take their own lives. Latif’s home island is sinking, but it’s something the inhabitants can put out of their mind if they wish, because the ecologist working there doesn’t speak their language, and the danger is still some way into the future.

So neither of Latif’s world’s has the most stable subjective reality. Adding to this, Latif will invent stories for the Paradise Lodge janitor, Stella, telling her about non-existent people from his village – notably Ibru, who serves as a kind of alter-ego for Latif, someone who can do what he can’t, or won’t admit to.

It’s quite an experience seeing Latif change as he rides the currents of life (or is overwhelmed by them). Here’s hoping we see more of Anees Salim’s work in the UK before too long.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker’s debut novel was first published in 1988. It’s set during an office worker’s lunch hour, and consists of his lengthy thoughts on the minutiae of life, such as why both his shoelaces snapped in quick succession (were stresses caused by tying the laces, or by the laces rubbing against the eyeholes of his shoes?). 

To give you a flavour of the prose, here the protagonist imagines what will happen after he’s bought a rubber address stamp, paid his bills, and taken some chairs for recaning:

Molten rubber was soon to be poured into backward metal letters that spelled my name and address; blind people were making clarinetists’ finger motions over the holes of a half-caned chair, gauging distances and degrees of tautness; somewhere in the Midwest in rooms full of Tandem computers and Codex statistical multiplexers the magnetic record of certain debts in my name was being overwritten with a new magnetic record that corresponded to a figure diminished to the penny by the amount that I had a written out in hasty felt-tip pen on my checks…

The technology fixes Baker’s novel in time to an extent, but in an intriguing way. The protagonist is fixated on the workings of mechanical systems, and of course this is a time when office work is full of them, right down to the frequent use of staplers. There is a real sense of the character interacting with his environment, because what he’s thinking is inevitably tied to the physicality of things. 

I’ve been trying to decide whether The Mezzanine is poking fun at its protagonist’s obsessions, and I’m still not sure. Sometimes it all seems over the top, such as when the character is deciding on the most politic spot to sign his name on a get-well card (not too close to the boss’s name!). Sometimes I just think, this guy is enthusiastic and interested, so good for him. 

Maybe it’s there in the book’s title. The character’s office is on the mezzanine, so when he travels up the escalator, his destination is only part-way up and no further. Looked at another way, he’s found his level, and seems happy with it. Whichever, I’m glad I spent time in his world. 

Published in Granta Editions.

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