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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.

Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan

This novel (first published in 1998) is another reissue in the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo and published by Penguin. It opens with sisters Anita and Beth as children, helping their mother to look after their dying father. It’s a stark beginning. 

Years later, Anita returns to the house in London. Her mother is on holiday, but Beth is still there, and now it’s the sisters’ chance to reconnect and sort through the past. There is a lot to work through: the shadow of Anita’s and Beth’s father in particular looms over the house. 

Judith Bryan creates a wonderful, shifting atmosphere throughout her novel. There’s tension and dread in seemingly ordinary domestic scenes. Then the writing may move into the safety/distancing of a fairytale register. There are also times when the tone becomes brighter, such as the rhythm of this passage celebrating a childhood friendship of Anita’s:

Two girls, one dark one darker, like twin shadows, each seeking shelter, ‘home’ is only one another, whispering secrets, telling tales. Don’t let go of her, she’ll never leave you, always ready to relieve you, stepping in when you can’t take it, when your back’s against the rails.

Then there are the scenes where Anita catches up with her ex-boyfriend, Steve. There’s a real sense of openness to these scenes, the possibilities of the city. Whether this can last for Anita is another question; it’s just one strand in this multi-faceted novel. 

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Mr Fortune’s Maggot & The True Heart

Last year, I read and enjoyed Lolly Willowes (1926), the debut novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Penguin Modern Classics have continued to reissue her novels, so I’ve caught up with the next two. I found them intriguingly different from Lolly Willowes and each other – and, above all, worth reading.

Warner’s second novel was Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). ‘Maggot’ here means a fad or whimsy, and it’s perhaps a whimsical desire for solitude that leads bank clerk-turned-priest Timothy Fortune, a bank clerk turned priest, to become a missionary on the (fictitious) Polynesian island of Fanua.

After three years, Fortune has not lived up to his name: he has only one convert, a boy named Lueli. Fortune thinks he is getting through to the boy, but Lueli insists on keeping his wooden idol. The time comes for Fortune to take decisive action… and events unfold in a way that challenges his own faith. 

Mr Fortune’s Maggot is focused tightly on these two characters, and in that it makes broader points about faith and colonialism. The change in Fortune’s thinking is carefully drawn, and I found the ending deeply affecting.

***

Warner’s introduction to her third novel, The True Heart (1929), says that it’s a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. This wasn’t really on my mind as I read the book, because it’s not a story I knew much about – but there it is anyway. It must be quite a well disguised retelling, because Warner adds that only her mother made the connection at the time!

In 1873, sixteen-year-old orphan Sukey Bond is sent from London to work as a maid on a farm in the Essex marshes. She falls in love with Eric, whom she mistakes for one of the family. He’s actually the son of the rector of Southend, who has been sent away to the farm because his own family consider him “an idiot”. 

When Sukey’s and Eric’s love is revealed, he is taken back to Southend, and Sukey sets out to find him. There’s a heightened quality to The True Heart that I really appreciated – Sukey even takes her plight to Queen Victoria – as well as a vivid sense of place. 

***

I’ve discovered that this week is Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week, hosted by Helen at A Gallimaufry. Head over there for more Warner!

Tartarus Press: Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature by Andrew Komarnyckyj

Tartarus Press are a Yorkshire publisher specialising in supernatural and strange fiction (they were the original publisher of The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley). They publish some beautiful limited edition hardbacks – there are still some copies available of the book I’m reviewing today – but they also do ebooks, which is the version I read.

Ezra Slef is a contemporary Russian writer, “a titan of contemporary Postmodernism”, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Will Self. The text we’re reading is apparently a biography of Slef, written by one Humbert Botekin, an academic and self-styled literary genius. The problem is that Slef wants nothing to do with him, so Botekin ends up writing mostly about himself instead. 

Oh, but this book is such a joy to read! Botekin is a splendidly pompous narrator, and his life goes through so many ups and downs. He accepts the help of a certain individual calling himself Rensip De Narsckof (I could tell this was an anagram, but I have to thank a Washington Post article for the solution: ‘Prince of Darkness’) to deal with a Twitter troll, and things are never quite the same again… 

Komarnyckyj includes little riffs on writers such as Borges and B.S. Johnson, and plenty more that I didn’t spot (there’s a list at the back). It’s just great fun. If Ezra Slef sounds like your kind of book, I’d say go for it. 

Read an extract from Ezra Slef at minor literature[s].

Reflex Press: Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara

Abingdon-based Reflex Press grew out of a prize for flash fiction, so naturally enough that’s one of their focuses as a publisher. And here’s a collection of 33 stories in a hundred pages, by Australian writer Catherine McNamara. I really liked one of her stories when I read it at random a few years ago, so it was a pleasure to read her work once again. 

As the collection’s title suggests, this is dense and busy fiction, whose characters are often in heightened situations. Here are a few examples:

‘Banking’ sees a woman returning to confront her ex-boyfriend of one week after some money has disappeared from her account, and struggling with the desire that she still feels for him. There’s tension throughout this piece, and it’s only partly resolved by the end. 

‘A Forty-Nine-Year-Old Woman Sends Messages to Her Thirty-Two-Year-Old Lover’ is a paragraph of just a few lines capturing an intense feeling of desire that its narrator can’t shake off: “I wait for the thought of your face and body to mean nothing.”

‘The Vineyard’ has a strong central metaphor of a couple replacing their ruined grape plants with new hybrids. Their place is hemmed in, adding to the sense that this is the last chance for their vineyard to recover – just like a relationship on the ropes. 

For all that the stories are so short, McNamara’s distinctive voice comes through strongly. This is a collection that stays with you. 

Read the story ‘As Simple as Water’.

Avalanche Books: The Failing of Angels by Chris Tutton

The book I’m looking at today comes from Avalanche Books, whom I gather are largely a publisher of poetry and short prose. Chris Tutton is a poet who has seven collections with Avalanche, though The Failing of Angels is a novel – a novel unmistakably with a poet’s touch. 

As a child, Tutton’s narrator is rejected and abused by his parents. He wants their love, but they refuse it,and it takes time for him to find love elsewhere. Music provides him with a form of release:

The sensation of singing was like loosening the fingers of my clenched fist and releasing a small bird trapped beneath their thicket in my palm. Then watching it take to the air on unbridled notes, fluttering and weaving in the clear blue, safe, sunny sky; coruscating unfettered in the swallow-lift breeze of its wings.

Tutton’s prose is striking, full of alliteration, rhythm and unusual images. It’s as though, by telling his life story this way, the narrator can carve out a space of his own, a way to meet reality afresh on his own terms. The narrator’s mother sets up her own religion, a different path to engaging with the world, though tragedy is never far away. 

What you get in The Failing of Angels is a strong, heady brew of language that’s well worth reading. 

Galley Beggar Press: Insignificance by James Clammer

It’s time for another journey into the singular world of Galley Beggar Press. This time we meet Joseph Forbes, a plumber returning to work after a nervous breakdown:

For hours hereon there would be no softness but only the sharp edges of the tools and of the job itself. Almost always it became a battle of one sort or another. He did not yet dare to touch the airing cupboard door and confront the cylinder within, instead he opened the hard plastic case of the toolbox, he would put the gloves on then spend a moment familiarising himself with the things inside, what was this fear, this reluctance, you would think he’d never handled these tools before or learned what each one did.

There’s a wonderful sense in this book that James Clammer knows the precise weight of his prose and what it’s doing. The writing has a mechanistic tone, long paragraphs that break down into their component parts – fitting for a protagonist who works with his hands. 

It seems to me that Insignificance creates a space where Joseph can become (or be seen to be) a doer who’s also a thinker – action blurs into thought in this style of writing. Joseph is also faced with two characters who think in ways he doesn’t understand: his son Edward, who tried to poison his mother Alison; and Alison herself, who has found religion. 

Clammer’s novel takes place over the course of a single day, and the tension ramps up as you start to wonder where this day is going to go. Add in that prose, and it’s a compelling piece of work. 

Prototype Publishing: Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard

I have a few posts coming up about books from small publishers that are new to the blog (and mostly new to me!). When the time comes, I’ll take the opportunity to introduce the publisher as well as the book, starting now…

Prototype is a London publisher that aims to “increase audiences for experimental writing”. They had a title longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize last year (Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces), though this is the first time I’ve read one of their books. I love a good series design, and I was already taken with the small format and striking black-and-white covers of Prototype’s prose fiction list.

Oli Hazzard’s novel is written as a single sentence, addressed to someone known only as A (all characters and real-world figures in the book are referred to by letters, which adds to a feeling of disorientation) . The title of Lorem Ipsum refers to dummy placeholder text used in book and website design, and there’s a sense that the narrator is using his lengthy email as a kind of displacement, throwing everything in as it occurs to him because he’s not quite sure what he wants to say. 

One of the novel’s main themes concerns different kinds of experience. For example, here’s the narrator talking about returning to the analogue world having been immersed in playing a video game:

…I feel like I am emerging from something distinct from sleep or distraction, a state of having been away from language for a while, and returning from the place where I had been–a place in which I ‘thought’ in football, in the sense that the movements of the players I was controlling were expressive of ‘thoughts’ (or maybe ‘ideas’) which I would otherwise only ever become aware of if they were articulated in words–is frightening, partly because it makes me realise how smoothly and soundlessly language can fall away… 

This theme extends to different areas of the narrator’s life, including parenthood. For example, he describes his sense of “our children’s resistance to our efforts to naturalise the process of everyday experience” – imagination rules, and the real world is only allowed in reluctantly. 

The way Lorem Ipsum is written gives the reader a similar kind of dual experience: being immersed in a swirling sea of language at the level of reading, against the everyday reality of what’s being described. The best thing is just to start reading and let it carry you away. 

15 Years of Quick Reads, and The Motive by Khurrum Rahman

2021 is the 15th year of Quick Reads, an initiative run by the Reading Agency charity to help reach people who find reading difficult, or who don’t read regularly for pleasure. Every year, six new Quick Reads titles are published: short books that are distributed to libraries or available to buy at a low price (£1 in paperback). 

I was invited by Midas PR to review one of this year’s Quick Reads titles. The 2021 selection includes The Baby is Mine by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic), The Skylight by Louise Candlish (Simon & Schuster), Saving the Day by Katie Fforde (Arrow), Wish You Were Dead by Peter James (Macmillan), and How to Be a Woman abridged by Caitlin Moran (Ebury). But I went for The Motive by Khurrum Rahman (HQ), which is a prequel to his series of spy thrillers featuring Jay Qasim, a west London dope-dealer who reluctantly ends up working for MI5.

In The Motive, Jay takes a call from a stranger asking him to deal at a student house party. Jay would prefer to stick to customers he knows, but times are tough. He might wish he’d kept to his rules, though, when one of the students is stabbed. What’s more, Jay’s friend Idris – a police officer – is also called to the scene. 

I enjoyed reading this: it’s snappily told, with Jay and Idris both engaging narrators. You get a real sense of the tense atmosphere at the house party, and there are several twists when it comes to who’s responsible for the crime. I’m interested to see where Rahman takes Jay after this, so I think I’ll be reading more in the future. 

Pew by Catherine Lacey: Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize

Today’s post is part of a blog tour covering the shortlist for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize (the winner of which will be announced on Thursday). I’m reviewing Pew, the third novel by Catherine Lacey. I’ve previously written about her debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing; like that earlier book, Pew focuses on a protagonist who’s elusive even to themself. 

Lacey’s narrator is an individual with no memory or identifiable characteristics. They’re dubbed Pew because they are found in the church of a small American town. The townsfolk welcome Pew at first, but Pew’s reluctance to say anything unnerves them, and their attitudes change. There will be a Forgiveness Festival in town at the end of the week, and the reader has reason to suspect that this may not be as wholesome as it sounds… 

With Pew staying silent, conversations are one-sided. Pew becomes an empty presence, and the town’s inhabitants fill the void with their own stories. The novel explores questions of what makes a person, and how individuals and communities relate to each other. Underneath it all is the figure of Pew, who might be looking for a place to belong, or might not need one after all. Lacey’s book is enigmatic, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. 

Published by Granta Books.

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