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British National Short Story Award 2020: ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Nine members of an Irish family head out for a picnic to celebrate William’s birthday. Right from the start, there are power games to play:

There’s a stand-off in the front yard. No significant progress can be made until the men decide who’s driving. It’s the same every time we go anywhere together.

William’s younger son, Buff, tends to be overlooked, never having quite achieved as much in his parents’ eyes as his brother. But Buff’s wife Victoria (our narrator) hopes to change that: she plans to announce today that she’s pregnant, and is sure that this news will alter the balance of favour within the family. But the weather won’t play along with what Victoria has in mind…

Jan Carson’s story revolves around the subtly shifting dynamics of this family. She packs a lot into an essentially mundane situation, and you really get a sense of the currents and hierarchies at work.

Listen to a reading of ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’.

British National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

It’s that time of year again for the BBC National Short Story Award. It was one of the first literary awards I discovered through blogging (way back in 2010!), so I’ve always had a soft spot for it. This year’s shortlist was announced earlier in the month:

  • ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson
  • ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall
  • ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston
  • ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

That’s two authors who are familiar to me, and three who aren’t – a nicely eclectic mix, which is the sort of thing I like from this prize. I’ve been offered a copy of the anthology published by Comma Press, so I’m doing one of my occasional story-by-story reviews of the shortlist (see previous ones here).

The plan is to post a review about one story every other day from now until 6 October, when the winner will be announced. Today, the shortlist gets off to a strong start with Caleb Azumah Nelson’s story…

***

‘Pray’ is the story of two teenage boys from South East London: the unnamed narrator, and his older brother Christopher. Their parents have both passed away, and now they’re struggling to find their footing in life.

The brothers are at an age when they feel they don’t fit in, but other people are only too happy to jump to their own conclusions about where they should fit: “too young to be adults, too old to be children, but stuck in bodies which implicate us either way”. There’s also the issue of racism: as the narrator puts it, “the world we frequented wasn’t built with us in mind.”

What strikes me most about ‘Pray’ is how the brothers’ world comes to them in pieces. Over here is the club, where everything makes sense when you can lose yourself in the beat, take the mic and the words flow out. But over there is the unknown place where things get too much, and you just pray for protection “from what we can’t see but know lurks in the air.”

The boys aren’t in a position to inhabit the world in a way that lets them see it as a whole, and thereby navigate through. Instead, they are shunted from piece to piece, and have to hope they can hold on.

Listen to a reading of ‘Pray’.

Three books: Dillon, Gorodischer, Miller

It’s time for another selection of short reviews that first appeared on my Instagram.

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)

It always fascinates me that I can read something and it will move me so much. How does that work? How does writing do what it does? Brian Dillon’s new essay collection from Fitzcarraldo Editions approaches these sorts of questions by looking at individual sentences. ⁣

Dillon says in his introduction that he’s been collecting striking sentences in notebooks for 25 years. He examines some of these, and others, in this book – sentences by writers from William Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin to Hilary Mantel. ⁣

Dillon’s responses to the sentences are deeply personal and often wide-ranging. He might go into the author’s biography, or look at the wider context of their work. There’s a certain amount of discussing the grammatical nuts and bolts, but it’s always at the service of working out what makes each sentence distinctive. ⁣

I’m struck in particular that Dillon doesn’t always explain the context of the sentences straight away – he waits until the time is right. That means the reader often has to come to each sentence on its own terms, which is especially interesting where a sentence is not taken from its author’s best-known work. ⁣

Above all, Suppose a Sentence inspires me to think about sentences that I find striking, what they do and why. It’s a book to stir one’s enthusiasm for reading. ⁣

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (1979)
Translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (2013)

Penguin Classics have launched a new science fiction series which I’m excited about, particularly as half of the launch list is in translation. I also love the series design, all stark line drawings and purple accents (a nod to the purple logo used by Penguin for science fiction back in the ’70s).

The first book I’ve read from the series is this Argentinian novel-in-stories. Trafalgar Medrano (born in the city of Rosario in 1936) is a merchant with a taste for strong coffee, unfiltered cigarettes, and women. He also travels and trades among the stars, returning to his home city to tell the tall tales in this book. ⁣

On the downside, I have to say that Trafalgar’s constant womanising gets tedious. But the sheer imagination of these stories is quite something. Trafalgar travels to all manner of worlds: on one, he seems to jump through time each day. On a different world, everything is rigidly ordered, with just one person willing to break away by speaking nonsense. ⁣

What makes Gorodischer’s book for me is the casual way it narrates such extraordinary events. There’s no need for explanation, you just go with the flow and whole worlds open up. ⁣

Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014)

This poetry collection won the Forward Prize in 2014. Broadly speaking, it’s about two ways of knowing the world: the scientific precision of those who set out to find “the measure that / exists in everything”, and the instinct of someone like Quashie, who “knew his poems by how they fit in earthenware”, because each word is just as long as it needs to be.⁣

Much of the book is taken up by the long title poem, which concerns the different views of a cartographer and a rastaman. The mapmaker sees it as his job “to untangle the tangled / to unworry the concerned”. But the rastaman knows that the “tangle” is itself part of his island, and thinks that the cartographer’s work “is to make thin and crushable / all that is big and as real as ourselves”. ⁣

Interspersed among the volume is a series of prose poems which reveal the stories behind different place names, such as Bloody Bay, “after the cetacean slaughter” These pieces highlight the history that lies behind a bare list of names, history unknown to the cartographer. ⁣

“If not where / then what is Zion?” asks the cartographer. It’s “a reckoning day”, replies the rastaman, “a turble day.” Reaching Zion, the rastaman says, is not a matter of travel, but a “chanting up of goodness and rightness and, of course, upfullness…to face the road which is forever inclining hardward.” Not every place that matters can be located on a map. ⁣

Published by Carcanet Press.

The Housing Lark – Sam Selvon

The Trinidadian author Sam Selvon is probably best known for his 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. I haven’t read that book, but I was interested to try The Housing Lark (1965), which has just been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK. 

The Housing Lark begins with Trinidadian immigrant Battersby staring at the wall of his Brixton basement room, wishing for a better life:

The irony of it was that the wallpaper really had a design with lamps on it, Aladdin lamps all over the room. It may be that the company know they could only get dreamers to live in a dilapidated room like that, and they put up this wallpaper to keep the fires of hope burning.

Battersby is having trouble paying the rent, so he agrees to another tenant moving in, Jamaican musician Harry Banjo. It’s Harry who has the big idea: Battersby’s circle of friends should club together to put down a deposit on a house. That would change everything: as one character, Gallows, puts it, “if a man have a house he establish his right to live”. 

Of course, it doesn’t work out as straightforwardly as that. There are some very funny episodes in the tale that unfolds, such as the character Nobby’s attempts to lose a puppy that he’s been given by his landlady. But Selvon shows a wide view of his characters’ experience in England at that time, from racism to a trip to Hampton Court, during which Battersby and friends reshape the history of the place for themselves:

“…suppose old Henry was still alive and he look out the window and see all these swarthy characters walking about in his gardens!”

This was my first Sam Selvon book, but it won’t be the last – I enjoyed it very much. 

Three reviews: Williams. Perišić, Makholwa

It’s time for another three reviews from my Instagram.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary (2020)

I’ve heard a lot of praise for Eley Williams’ story collection Attrib. over the last couple of years, but haven’t got around to reading it. So I had high hopes for her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, but didn’t quite know what to expect. ⁣

What I found is a joyous celebration of language. Here, for example, is one character trying to identify a bird:⁣

He pored over zoological catalogues and pawed through illustrated guides but for all he was able to glean about various small birds’ feeding habits, migratory patterns, taxonomies, use of ants to clean their feathers, use and misuse in mythology and folklore, prominence on menus and milliners’ manifests, &c., &c., its species remained a mystery. Basically, it was a sparrow with access to theatrical costumiers.

The music of Williams’ writing is all its own. If you’re interested in words and wordplay, I would recommend The Liar’s Dictionary on its prose style alone. ⁣

But there’s more than that. The novel revolves around Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a grand yet incomplete work that has been in existence for over a hundred years. We follow two main characters: the first is Mallory, an intern in the present day, when it’s just her and old David Swansby left, and there are plans to digitise and update the existing entries. The second protagonist is Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer who works at the dictionary in its Victorian heyday, and often finds himself overlooked. ⁣

The two characters are (unknowingly) brought together by mountweazels: false dictionary entries such as “skipsty (v.) The act of taking steps two at a time”. Peter inserts them in the dictionary for his own amusement, and Mallory is tasked with weeding them out. For both characters, working with mountweazels creates an outside space that gives them a greater sense of belonging. For Peter, it’s a chance to leave his mark on the dictionary when others tend to ignore him. Mallory gains the confidence to come out to the rest of the world and not just to her girlfriend. Williams explores how words can shape and reshape ourselves. ⁣

Published by William Heinemann.

Robert Perišić, No-Signal Area (2015)
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, 2020

This is the first title in a new line of translated fiction published in the UK by the US publisher Seven Stories Press. It begins with cousins Oleg and Nikola arriving in the remote town of N., somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. They’ve come to revive an old factory that manufactures an obsolete model of turbine, so they can sell a couple to an overseas buyer. ⁣

The pair recruit Sobotka, the chief engineer from the factory, to work with them. Gradually the old workers return, and Oleg and Nikola (who aren’t all that business-minded) leave them to manage themselves. The factory becomes poised between the past and the future, socialism and capitalism. As the novel’s title suggests, this place is something of a world apart, where outside influences reach only haphazardly. ⁣

As No-Signal Area progresses, it spirals out into telling the histories of Oleg, Nikola and the factory workers, turning into a complex tapestry of story. ⁣

Angela Makholwa, The Blessed Girl (2017)

Bontle is a twentysomething woman (don’t ask her what number the “something” is) with her own hair extension business. Thanks to the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy (brought in to redress the effects of apartheid), she is now also trying her hand at running a construction business, though it’s not as straightforward as she thought. ⁣

Bontle might seem to have it all: looks, the trappings of wealth, a large social media following, her pick of suitors… She is indeed blessed. “Blessed” in this context (according to the novel’s epigraph) is a South African term that means Bontle’s lifestyle is sponsored by wealthy older men in return for a relationship. She has several “blessers” in her life, and it all gets rather complicated… ⁣

I heard about Angela Makholwa’s novel because it has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize, and it is indeed very funny. There’s also an undercurrent of sadness, the sense that Bontle is using her fancy lifestyle and breezy language as a form of displacement. This sense grows more and more pronounced as the book progresses and Bontle is forced to confront the past. It’s a really effective ending to an enjoyable book. ⁣

Published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

Stand By Me – Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer from Kentucky. The 18 stories collected in Stand By Me chronicle almost a hundred years in the life of the fictional rural community of Port William. Berry’s characters are deeply connected to this place, and there’s a keen sense of how life in the town changes (or stays the same) over time.

The opening story, ‘The Hurt Man’, sets out broadly what kind of book this is going to be. In 1888, Port William is a small, self-contained town:

It had no formal government or formal history. It was without pretense or ambition, for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave. It had never declared an aspiration to become anything it was not. It did not thrive so much as it merely lived, doing the things it needed to do to stay alive.

There’s a school at one end of Port William, and a graveyard at the other. You could spend your whole life there.

Mat Feltner is five when an injured man runs up to his porch, and Mat’s mother takes the man in to treat his wounds. Mat sees an expression of profound concern on his mother’s face, one that reveals to him a truth he’ll carry with him always:

What did he learn from his mother that day? He learned it all his life. There are few words for it, perhaps none. After that, her losses would be his. The losses would come. They would come to him and his mother.

I like the way that Berry emphasises how past, present and future flow into each other in Port William. In ‘The Hurt Man’, the process of loss that becomes apparent to young Mat will continue for the rest of his life. ‘Pray Without Ceasing’ begins with Mat’s grandson Andy looking back, and knowing that his family’s past is still within him. By the time of ‘The Boundary’, Mat Feltner is an old man, and his memories bubble up into present reality as he begins to decline mentally.

For all that Berry’s voice is unmistakable throughout, there’s a variety of tone to his stories. There is gentle comedy in ‘A Consent’, as lumbering farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot tries to catch the attention of schoolteacher Miss Minnie. Contrasting with this is ‘Making It Home’, in which Art Rowanberry returns from fighting in the Second World War, bringing vivid and harrowing memories with him.

What unites the tales in Stand By Me above all for me is the place, and the sense that life continues. As the narrator of the title story puts it:

It was maybe the animals that most of all kept us going, the good animals we depended on, that depended on us: our work mules, the cattle, the sheep, the hogs, even the chickens. They were a help to us because they didn’t know our grief… We took care of them, we did what had to be done, we went on.

“We went on.” Perhaps that’s the whole book summed up in three words: the persistence of a community in the face of time itself.

(Published by Penguin.)

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 10-6

Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.

You can also catch up on previous instalments of this project here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

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Three reviews: İşigüzel, Nors, Glaister

A trio of short reviews first posted on my Instagram.

Şebnem İşigüzel , The Girl in the Tree (2016)
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers (2020)

The narrator of this novel is about to turn 18 when she decides she’s had enough. She climbs the tallest tree in an Istanbul park, and determines to stay there. The text we read is her account of her past, present and future. ⁣

It’s the voice that strikes me most of all: a smart, articulate voice that loops back and forth between stories, able to command a world within the tree even as she’s trying to make sense of the world below. The girl’s reasons for wanting to escape her life gradually become clear, encompassing events in her family and broader violence. This is a poignant, engaging and ultimately hopeful book.

Published by AmazonCrossing.

Dorthe Nors, Wild Swims (2018)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

I knew from reading Dorthe Nors’ previous collection, Karate Chop, that her stories tended towards character studies with a dark streak. So, when I saw there was a story called ‘Hygge’ in this new collection, I suspected that it wouldn’t be as cosy or convivial as the title suggested. ⁣

‘Hygge’ is narrated by a retired professor who views himself as something of a silver fox. He treats the attention of the ladies at the senior club with an air of bored amusement. At the moment he’s with Lilly, they’ve just had an argument, and she would like that to be put behind them. The narrator is reminded of his old Aunt Clara and his students in the 1970s – for different reasons, neither of them good. The ending is truly chilling.⁣

Elsewhere in Wild Swims, we find ‘The Fairground’, in which a woman compares the idealised version of love she imagined in childhood with the disappointing reality she has experienced as an adult, with an abandoned fairground serving as a metaphor for the difference. The protagonist of ‘On Narrow Paved Paths’ keeps herself busy helping out a terminally ill friend, but there’s a sense that she is also propping herself up. In ‘By Syndvest Station’, two friends collecting for charity encounter an old woman in deep poverty and distress – one is shaken, but the other has something else on her mind. It’s another fine collection of stories from Nors.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Lesley Glaister, Blasted Things (2020)

Every novel of Lesley Glaister’s that I’ve read – this is the third – has been atmospheric, Blasted Things perhaps most of all. ⁣

In 1917, Clementine is a nurse on the Western Front. She is about to elope with Powell, a Canadian medic, when he is blown up. Clem is reluctantly forced to return to life with Dennis (a doctor who stayed behind to treat people in the UK), which is where we find her again in 1920.⁣

A chance encounter leads Clem to meet Vincent, whose face was partially destroyed in war. He reminds her of Powell, and she falls for his well-spoken charm. But Vincent is really a grifter, who’s out to see what he can get from Clem. ⁣

There’s some really effective writing in Blasted Things such as when Glaister breaks up her usual style to convey the disorientation of wartime. I also found it a gripping story – you just sense that the tale of Clem and Vincent will not end well, but exactly how it plays out is another matter.

Published by Sandstone Press.

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