CategoryFiction

Blog tour: The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis

Today’s post is part of a blog tour for a new Welsh novel: The Jeweller (Y Gemydd) by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies, published last week by Honno Press). Lewis is a prolific writer for adults and children in the Welsh language, and has also worked on the TV drama series Y Gwll/Hinterland and Craith/Hidden. She won the Wales Book of the Year Award for her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco, which was translated into English (by Davies) as Martha, Jack & Shanco. I reviewed that book for Fiction Uncovered a few years ago, and I’ve looked forward to reading Lewis again ever since.

The Jeweller is the story of Mari, who lives alone in a cottage by the sea with her cat and her monkey, Nanw. Mari runs a market stall selling jewellery and vintage clothing; she also helps her fellow trader Mo with clearing out dead people’s homes, in return for for first refusal of anything she might like to sell.

So, Mari spends her time surrounded by the bits and pieces of other lives. But her most prized possession is a piece of raw emerald that first caught her eye as a child. She would love to cut it just a little, to see the shine within. However, Mari knows enough to be wary:

But yes, of course such gorgeous uncut gems can trick you. She’d heard of jewellers sent insane by years of knowing a stone’s face as incisively as they did their own. They’d put all their faith in it. Been led to believe they had the key to every cell. That it was rock solid. But they’d take up their tools and it would flake to powder just the same. Leaving the memory of that germ of beauty.

This illustrates one of The Jeweller‘s main themes, which is about what lies beneath the surface of life, and how fragile it may all be. For a start, Mari’s market is under threat of closure. There are also hints of secrets in Mari’s past. They don’t come into full focus until the novel approaches its end, so there’s a sense of tension throughout as you never know which way things will turn. The Jeweller adds up to a portrait of a character at a crossroads in her life, uncertain of her options but in need of a direction.

Book details

The Jeweller (2007) by Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies (2019), Honno Press, 208 pages, paperback.

Tamarisk Row: a world in glass

There are a number of writers I’ve been intrigued to read, whom I’ve heard about through blogging. Ann Quin was one; another name that has kept cropping up is the Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Murnane’s work has not been that widely available in the UK, but And Other Stories are in the process of publishing several of his books. I’ve been reading his 1974 debut, Tamarisk Row, which is previously unpublished in this country.

Tamarisk Row chronicles the childhood of Clement Killeaton in 1940s Victoria. Each section is a single paragraph, sometimes pages long. This is a novel that asks you to slow down and focus on the writing. When you do, what opens up is quite something. Murnane will insert Clement’s daydreams and imaginative games seamlessly into the middle of his long paragraphs. This creates vertiginous spaces where the everyday reality of the book seems about to twist into something transcendent. A particularly striking example comes when Clement imagines a world within the shifting light of his front door’s coloured glass:

Creatures neither green nor gold but more richly coloured than any grass or sun try to find their way home through a land where cities of unpredictable shapes and colours rise up on plains of fiery haze, then vanish just as quickly while some of their inhabitants flee towards promises of other plains where cities may appear whose glancing colours will sometimes recall for those few who reach them certain glimpses of the places that have gone…

Long, winding sentences like this draw the reader in; then there are these flashes of a world beyond.

Book details

Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane, And Other Stories, 288 pages, paperback.

The Drover’s Wives – Ryan O’Neill

Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer now resident in Australia. His previous book, Their Brilliant Careers (which I haven’t got around to yet), was a set of ‘biographies’ of fictitious Australian writers. The Drover’s Wives also plays around with Australian literary history: inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, O’Neill has reinterpreted a classic Australian short story – ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson – in 101 different ways (two more in the UK edition than the Australian original).

First of all, if you don’t know the source story (as I didn’t previously), it doesn’t matter. Lawson’s 1892 original is reprinted at the front of O’Neill’s book (you can also read it here). It’s the story of an (unnamed) woman living with her children in a remote house in the Bush. Her husband has been away with his sheep for six months. On the day of the story, a snake has hidden under the house. The woman stays up all night, thinking back over her married life and more recent times, waiting for the snake to re-emerge.

The entries in The Drover’s Wives cover a bewildering range of styles and forms. Part of the fun (and this book is a lot of fun to read) lies in not knowing what’s coming up next, but just to give a few chapter titles: ‘Hemingwayesque’, ‘A Real Estate Advertisement’, ‘A 1980s Computer Game’, ‘Wordsearch’ – even a chart of paint swatches on the back cover.

Perhaps it doesn’t do to get too analytical here. The Drover’s Wives effectively lampoons its own criticism, with spoof reviews and essays, and a meandering ‘Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ (“I suppose this is more of a comment than a question”). But I do appreciate how O’Neill brings out different themes in Lawson’s story, and looks at it from different viewpoints – one entry, ‘Biographical’, serves to remind that the story is actually covering quite a short, not necessarily significant, part of its protagonist’s life.

The mood also changes. I was particularly touched by the ‘Backwards’ chapter, which not only retells the story in reverse, but also flips around cause and effect, so that good impossibly comes from bad (“Fond memories she had of the floods receding and repairing the house and dam, and the bushfire that had come and turned all the charred grass green again”). For all the variety of styles, O’Neill often keeps Lawson’s closing image of “sickly daylight” breaking over the bush; after a while, this has an almost incantatory feel when it comes around again.

In short, The Drover’s Wives is highly enjoyable, constantly surprising, and well worth your time.

Special offer

Lightning Books, the publisher, are currently offering a free copy of Their Brilliant Careers if you order The Drover’s Wives from their website. See Scott Pack’s comment on this post for details.

Book details

The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill, Lightning Books, 264 pages, paperback.

Voices in the Evening – Natalia Ginzburg (#WITMonth)

After a few contemporary books for Women in Translation Month, today I’m looking at something a little older, from 1961. Voices in the Evening is one of three (so far) works by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (1916-91) that have been reissued by Daunt Books. It tells of a town’s inhabitants in the years after World War Two, in particular 27-year-old Elsa (whose mother desperately wishes to see her marry) and the De Francisci family, who own the local cloth factory.

What stays in my mind the most about Voices in the Evening is the dialogue. It starts off innocuously enough: Elsa and her mother are returning from the doctor’s, and the conversation is distinctly one-sided:

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ [Elsa’s mother] added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?’

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs.…’

(translation by D.M. Low)

But, as the novel progresses, its conversations become increasingly barbed, until we have characters literally talking themselves out of their relationships:

‘Formerly,’ he said, ‘I told you everything that came into my head. Not any more, now. Now I have lost the wish to tell you things. What I think about now, I tell a little of it to myself, and then I bury it. I send it underground. Then, little by little, I shall not tell things any more even to myself. I shall drive everything underground, every random thought, before it can take shape.’

Overall, it’s as though Ginzburg is exploring the effects of the war on people’s lives at the level of dialogue, more so than the level of event. Reading Voices in the Evening is like eavesdropping on a community that’s been worn down by everything it has been through.

Book details

Voices in the Evening (1961) by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M Low (1963), Daunt Books Publishing, 157 pages, paperback.

Strike Your Heart – Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It was Dan Rhodes on Twitter who first recommended Amélie Nothomb’s work to me. Several years later, I’ve finally acted on the recommendation, with Nothomb’s most recent novel to appear in English. I wish I’d read her much sooner.

Strike Your Heart begins in 1971 with beautiful nineteen-year-old Marie, who loves to be the centre of attention. She marries a handsome young man, and feels that the future will be one of infinite possibility. That’s until she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Diane the following year. Only once does Marie show any affection towards her daughter, and by the age of four Diane has some insight into her mother’s thinking:

Even if [Marie] had made progress in life, she was still no more than an accountant at her husband’s pharmacy, not a Queen, and while her husband might be the most attentive, infatuated spouse imaginable, he was still not a King. The little girl’s love for her mother was so great that it could even encompass what her own birth must have meant to Marie: resignation, the end of her faith in some kind of ideal.
(translation from the French by Alison Anderson)

It becomes clear in time just how jealous Marie is of Diane, something that tears their relationship (such as it is) apart. Diane goes on to study cardiology at university, where she strikes up a close friendship with Olivia, an assistant professor. She helps Olivia’s daughter with her homework, devotes two years to working with Olivia on the articles Olivia needs to apply for a full professorship… But it seems that Olivia may not be such a friend to Diane after all.

Strike Your Heart is a sharp 360-degree view of the female relationships in its protagonist’s life. I enjoyed it very much, so I’d better not leave it too long before reading another book by Nothomb.

Book details

Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Alison Anderson (2018), Europa Editions, 135 pages, paperback.

The Dollmaker – Nina Allan: a Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons this week, with a review of Nina Allan’s latest novel, The Dollmaker.

Nina is a long-time friend of this blog, and one of the authors I’ve written about most often – but never quite at this length. It was a pleasure to spend time thinking through The Dollmaker: on the surface, the novel is about a maker and collector of dolls paying a surprise visit to a correspondent, but it also explores how lives lived beside each other can be as distant as parallel worlds.

Click here to read my review in full.

The Dollmaker (2019) is published by riverrun in the UK and Other Press in the US.

Transfer Window – Maria Gerhardt #WITMonth

Maria Gerhardt (1978-2017) was a Danish writer and DJ who died of cancer soon after completing her third novel, Transfer Window, a fact that couldn’t help but colour my reading. The protagonist is a terminally ill young woman who lives in a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen that’s been turned into a hospice. The boutiques have given way to juice bars and therapists. The narrator spends much of her time at the Virtual Reality Store, reliving old memories.

Transfer Window is a portrait of life derailed by illness and the knowledge that it will be cut short. It’s written as a series of fragments: no linear narrative here, because the ongoing thread of the protagonist’s life has snapped. Any ambitions she might have had must be abandoned. The optimism of her schooldays has given way to pain and tiredness. Her relationships with other people – her sense of how they see her – has changed:

I don’t have to do anything today, other than care for my body and soul, enjoy life, as they say. There is no one to disappoint, no one to burden. Everyone, who does anything for me, is paid one-hundred-and-fifty kroner an hour. No one has to call me up voluntarily, or come for a visit and get a bad conscience about all the things they cannot change.
(translation by Lindy Falk van Rooyen)

Transfer Window is a piercing novel which depicts a character slipping out of her old life in plain sight. The suburb-hospice becomes a potent metaphor: a parallel world within the visible world, where lives play out to a different rhythm and outsiders can just walk on by. It’s a book that continues to linger and haunt.

Book details

Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019), Nordisk Books, 92 pages, paperback.

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Taeko Kono

It’s August, which means Women in Translation Month (founded by Meytal from Biblibio). My reading for 2019 starts in Japan, with this collection of stories by Taeko Kono (1926-2015), all originally published in the 1960s. Kono’s tales explore the darker undercurrents of their protagonists’ lives and desires. For example, the title story concerns Akiko, who can’t bear the sight of little girls. They remind her of a pupa she once saw in science class.

Akiko dotes on little boys, however. She has a habit of buying expensive boys’ clothes and choosing a friend’s son to give them to, almost on a whim – often to the consternation of the friend in question. Kono’s unflinching eye makes even the smallest interactions in the story disquieting, as the reader tries to piece together where Akiko is coming from.

In ‘Night Journey’, a couple head into town one Saturday evening to look for their friends whom they had invited for dinner. Kono fills in the history of their friendship along the way, while the present-day journey grows ever more charged:

Nobody had ever lived in this half-finished house, Fukuko realized: such places have their own peculiar atmosphere, different from that of an old abandoned house. An abandoned house would be creepy and cold, too frightening to enter. But this one almost seemed to taunt her with its own strange vitality. There was nothing hateful about it, but she felt an urge to scrawl graffiti on the broad doorframe of bare wood, or throw a wooden clog through an empty second-floor window.
(translation by Lucy North)

Past and present develop in parallel, until it becomes uncertain where either the friendship or tonight’s travels will go next. Kono’s stories often end on ambiguous images that linger once the reading is done, refusing to resolve into easy explanations.

Book details

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, tr. Lucy North with one story tr. Lucy Lower (1996), New Directions, 274 pages, paperback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

Night Boat to Tangier: trapped in the conversation

In Kevin Barry’s newly Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier (pub. Canongate), ageing Irish gangsters Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have travelled to Spain to search for Maurice’s missing 23-year-old daughter Dilly. Towards the start of the novel, the pair corner a young Englishman named Benny, who looks like he belongs to the kind of crowd they imagine Dilly has fallen in with. They question him over whether he might have seen her:

Benjamin? Maurice says. We’re not saying ye all know each other or anything, like. Sure there could be half a million of ye sweet children in Spain. The way things are going.

Charlie whispers –

Because ye’d have the weather for it.

Maurice whispers –

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.

Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.

Under the starry skies, Maurice says.

Charlie stands, gently awed, and proclaims –

‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Whose line was that, Maurice?

I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it might have been Little Stevie Wonder.

A genius. Little Stevie.

The dialogue rolls on like this, trapping the reader in the conversation as surely as Benny himself is trapped in the encounter. This is not a situation with any rules that Benny can grasp, and the sense of uncertainty builds: will the next line be friendly or lethal? It’s electrifying to read.

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