Category: Short Fiction

Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada (tr. David Boyd)

Each of the three stories collected in Weasels in the Attic is linked by the narrator and his friend Saiki sharing a meal, meals that seem to become a focal point for broader currents at play. The stories may appear quiet on the surface, but there is an unsettling sense of more going on (or perhaps more being meant) beneath that façade.

In the first story, ‘Death in the Family’, the narrator recalls visiting a friend of Saiki’s named Urabe, who lived above his old tropical fish shop. Urabe still bred fish, and in the story all his fish tanks seem to represent the force of his personality taking up the space. Urabe invites Saiki and the narrator to snack on dried shrimp that he uses for fish food. This gathering feels like a boys’ club, with the shrimp a way of bringing the other men into Urabe’s world.

In ‘The Last of the Weasels’, Saiki has married a woman named Yoko and moved to the country. They have a problem with weasels in the house. When the narrator and his wife are invited over for dinner, she tells a story of how her parents once dealt with a weasel problem, and the narrator can’t square this with the in-laws he knows. I imagine the weasels here as standing in for the hidden problems in a relationship, experienced and dealt with beyond the sight of others.

By the time of the third story, ‘Yukiko’, Saiki and Yoko have a baby girl. The narrator is again invited to visit, and the different elements of the couple’s life feel more compartmentalised this time. The events of these stories ultimately reflect back on to the narrator’s own life, and a new phase of life is about to begin as the book ends. It’s fitting for a collection that constantly opens out the further you look in.

Published by Granta Books.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List is hosting his annual January in Japan event at the moment. Weasels in the Attic was his first title for this month, and you can find his review of it here.

Fly on the Wall Press: The State of Us by Charlie Hill

Here’s a very enjoyable story collection by Birmingham author Charlie Hill. There are tales of many shapes and sizes, but what I think of as Hill’s typical approach is abstracting and distilling a situation to a sharp point. 

The opening story, ‘Work’, is a good example of what I mean. In the ruins left behind after unspecified “detonations”, we meet two workers: Burt, who moves things, and Bill, who counts things. Burt would like to count things, as he tells Bill; but Bill questions his thought process. The banter between the two may raise a wry smile, but it’s ultimately chilling to see the whole of work – the whole of life – reduced down in this way. As Burt puts it: “…there is no besides, is there? […] There’s no besides at all. Look around you. Look at it. There’s this. That’s all there is. This.” 

Elsewhere in the book, ‘The Tale of Big Hal and the Bethany Tower’ gives larger-than-life dimensions to a story of competitive suburban parenting. The longest story, ‘On the International Space Station’, sees a lone astronaut giving updates to a mission control that they hope is still on Earth, and reflecting on the nature of ‘progress’. ‘Holidaying in the Maldives’ is a shorter piece whose text is increasingly greyed-out in patches to illustrate the tale being lost amid rising seas. 

This collection mostly takes a dark view of ‘the state of us’, but there is also a certain pragmatic optimism. The title story imagines specks of matter from people around the world carried to Birmingham in the wake of World War Two aircraft, then later generations making their way there: “And they found in Birmingham a city not just of a secure and diverting past but a city of a human and uncertain future, a city that was ugly, glorious, troubled, beautiful, a city that was of this earth and of this world, a city that was home…” 

This, then, may be the state of us: good and bad at the same time, precarious but here

Published by Fly on the Wall Press.

History, memory, complicity: German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (tr. Julian Evans)

Is it really so long since I read Brodeck’s Report? I haven’t read Philippe Claudel nearly enough. His latest book in English translation is a cycle of five stories set in 20th century German, exploring themes of history, memory and complicity.

The opening ‘Ein Mann’ sets the tone. It sees a German soldier abandoning his post. We don’t know his name, and the landscape through which he travels is also largely anonymous. He’s been an unthinking cog in the machinery of the Nazi regime: “Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?”

Now that he sees what he has participated in, he wants to get away – he’s not really thinking about where, as long as it’s somewhere else. The ending of the story suggests, however, that he can’t outrun the past.

Recurring throughout the book is the name of Viktor, who may or may not be the same character each time, but always seems to have been an active participant in atrocity. In ‘Ein Mann,’ he’s in charge of the soldier’s concentration camp. In ‘Irma Grese’, though, he’s an old man in a care home in the 1990s, albeit with a past in the regime. 

Irma herself is a girl who’s been given a job in the care home, part of which is specifically to look after Viktor, who happens to be the mayor’s father. Irma resents the job, and resents the pitiful Viktor. She takes out her frustrations on him by eating his food and mistreating him other ways. In an inversion of ‘Ein Mann’, the Viktor of ‘Irma Grese’ is victim rather than oppressor now. But, as Irma will find, there are no real winners in these stories, not in the face of the cruelty that flows through the book.

Elsewhere, Claudel explores the fallibility of memory. In ‘Sex und Linden’, an 90-year-old man looks back on his adolescence, and a time when he was seduced by a beautiful woman who kept whispering another man’s name (‘Viktor’, as it happens). It all sounds a bit too good to be true, and along with the man’s happy memory is a sense that the golden past can’t be recaptured, if it was there in the first place. 

‘Die Kleine’ is the story of a young Jewish girl who has been rescued from a concentration camp, and taken to start a new life in a new household. She pictures the elements of her old life wrapped up in a handkerchief, but this memory is precarious. First, she recalls the old elements in a different way each time. Later, they start to lose their vibrancy:

The handkerchief, folded and tidied away in her brain, held many things but they were things that no longer moved, the way that clothes that have lost the bodies that used to inhabit them still keep a trace of their shape and their smells, but not much. Everything the little girl kept in the handkerchief reminded her of what had happened before, and over there. But over there was gone. There was only here. 

The story which I found to lay down the greatest challenge to the reader was ‘Gnadentod’  – not in the sense of ‘difficulty’ but in its degree of confrontation. In this story, Claudel imagines a version of history in which the German artist Franz Marc did not die in 1916 at Verdun, but was instead placed in an asylum and subjected to a ‘mercy killing’ (to translate the story’s title) by the Nazis in 1940 due to his mental health. 

Then again, maybe that’s just the official line. In one startling sequence, Claudel has Marc’s real-life biographer defending his scholarship in the face of the story’s prevailing fiction. This is a stark experience because we’re seeing fake history being created before our eyes and paraded as the truth.

In various ways throughout German Fantasia, Claudel illustrates how history and memory can be distorted (deliberately or otherwise). He also suggests that his characters are caught in the shadow of German history, no matter where or when they are. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

My favourite books read in 2022

If 2022 has taught me anything with regard to reading, it’s that I shouldn’t bother with firm reading plans! Over the year, I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get into my usual reading routine. I also had a sense that some of my reading cornerstones (such as the Goldsmiths Prize) weren’t chiming with me as they usually did. Whether that’s just a blip or a broader change in my taste, I’ll gain a better idea next year.

Whatever the case, I still read some grand books this year. Here is my usual informal countdown of the dozen that have flourished most in my mind:

12. Faces in the Crowd (2011) by Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2014)

My chance to catch up on a book I’ve long wanted to read, and it was worth the wait. A young woman’s life in Mexico City contrasts with her old life in New York, and with the novel she’s writing, and the life of the poet she’s writing about… Different, blurred layers of reality make this such a rush to read. 

11. Standing Heavy (2014) by GauZ’
Translated from French by Frank Wynne (2022)

A novel about the changing experiences of Ivorian security guards in Paris, Standing Heavy is intriguingly pared back in its form. Three story-chapters capture the movement of history around the characters, and more fragmented observations deepen one’s sense of the book’s world. This is a short novel with a lot to say. 

10. The Sky Above the Roof (2019) by Nathacha Appanah
Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan (2022)

This was a fine example of how a novel’s brevity can bring a distinctive atmosphere to familiar subject matter. Appanah focuses on a young man who’s been apprehended after a road crash, as well as his sister and mother – all three of them ill at ease with the world. This novel has an intensity that might easily be diluted in a longer work. 

9. The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991) by Ágota Kristóf
Translated from French by David Watson (1991) and Marc Romano (1996)

These two novels follow on from Kristóf’s The Notebook: I read them together, and they belong together here. Kristóf’s trilogy tells of two brothers displaced by war. There’s great trauma in the background, but emotions are kept distant. Geography and time are also flattened out, adding to the feeling of being trapped. The trilogy progressively undermines any sense of understanding the truth of what happened to the brothers, and therein lies its power for me. 

8. Love (1997) by Hanne Ørstavik
Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken (2018)

This novel is about a mother and son who live in the same space yet still in their own worlds. That theme is strikingly reflected in the writing, as the two characters’ stories merge into and out of each other repeatedly. Often, the pair seem closest emotionally when they’re separated physically. The ending is sharp and poignant. 

7. The Sons of Red Lake (2008) by Zhou Daxin
Translated from Chinese by Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan (2022)

Breaking the run of short, spare novels is a longer one that I enjoyed taking my time over. A woman returns to her childhood village, falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart, and finds her fortunes changing for better and worse. Zhou’s novel explores the effects of tourism and the temptations of power. I found it engrossing. 

6. Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks

Some of the best writing I read all year was in this book. It’s a novel following the life of an African American woman from Chicago. She has aspirations for herself, but the reality turns out to be rather mixed. In the end, I found hope in Maud Martha, as its snapshot structure opened up possibilities beyond the final page. 

5. Life Ceremony (2019) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2022)

I’m not sure that anyone combines the innocuous and strange quite like Sayaka Murata. This story collection is typically striking, using larger-than-life situations to explore basic questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most of all, Murata puts her readers in the position of her characters, so we see them differently as a result. 

4. Mothers Don’t (2019) by Katixa Agirre
Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis (2022)

Few books that I read this year made such an immediate impression as this one. Agirre’s narrator tries to understand why another woman killed her children, while trying to come to terms with her own feelings about motherhood. Contradictions abound and nothing is reconciled, and this is what drives the novel – not to mention its vivid prose. 

3. Turtle Diary (1975) by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban was my discovery of the year, someone I know I’ll read again. Turtle Diary is the story of two lonely characters linked only by a wish to set free the sea turtles at London Zoo. I really appreciated the ambivalence of Hoban’s novel, the way that saving the turtles in itself isn’t enough to fill the hole in the characters’ lives. I simply haven’t read anything quite like this book before. 

2. Appliance (2022) by J.O. Morgan

I loved this novel exploring the ramifications of new technology. Morgan imagines the development of a matter transporter and, step by step, puts humanity’s relationship with it under scrutiny. What is perhaps most chilling is the way that everything just trundles on, away from the people actually experiencing this technology. Appliance provides a welcome space for reflection. 

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1. Cursed Bunny (2021) by Bora Chung
Translated from Korean by Anton Hur (2021)

At the top of the tree this year is a story collection that grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Some of the stories are strange and creepy, others more like fairy tales. Many are built around powerful metaphors that deepen the intensity of the fiction. It’s all held together by Chung’s distinctive voice, in that wonderful translation by Anton Hur. I look forward to reading more of Chung’s work in the future.

***

That’s my round-up of 2022 – I hope you had a good reading year. Here are my selections from previous years: 2021, 202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

With that, I will leave you until 2023. In the meantime, you can also find me on TwitterInstagram, Facebook and Mastodon – and I’ll see you back here next year.

Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 (ed. Mark Andryczyk)

Penguin have recently issued a paperback edition of this anthology, which was originally published in 2017 under the title The White Chalk of Days. It’s a selection of Ukrainian texts in translation that were presented as part of a literature series in North America between 2008 and 2016.

There’s a lot I could talk about in this book: fifteen writers represented, and a variety of pieces. I’m going to pick out a few of my favourites to highlight.

‘Books We’ve Never Read’ by Marjana Savka (tr. Askold Melnyczuk). I love the imagery of this short poem. It gives me a strong sense of the world opening up to the speaker: “The roads turn like pages. Eyes reddened by wind. / Nothing now but the bookmark of the horizon.”

‘Genes’ by Andriy Bondar (tr. Vitaly Chernetsky). There’s a sarcastic tone to this poem (“should I explain to you what a laptop is?”) that I appreciated. It starts with Bondar commenting that his family has good genes (or so he’s been told, at least) before reflecting on how modern lifestyles may affect health. At the same time, he talks about people who think that what he writes isn’t really poetry. His conclusion that he writes the way he does because he has to, that the ideal can’t fit everyone.

FM Galicia by Taras Prokhasko (tr. Mark Andryczyk). A selection of vignettes that were originally read out live on the radio. There are some striking thoughts and turns of phrase here. For example, in one piece, Prokhasko reflects on the place of firewood in mountain life: “when you only come to the mountains occasionally, firewood is not treated as daily bread but as some kind of delicacy, as gourmet food, like a cordial.”

‘The Flowerbed in the Kilim’ by Yuri Vynnychuk (tr. Mark Andryczyk). The narrator of this story imagines what it might be like in the small house woven into a rug hanging on the wall. One day, impossibly, he is able to enter the scene, and finds himself taken back to his childhood, visiting his Grandma. This situation can’t last, and the effect is poignant.

Apricots of the Donbas by Lyuba Yakimchuk (tr. Svetlana Lavochkina with Michael N. Naydan). A cycle of poems about the centrality of coal to the poet’s native region. There’s some vivid imagery, as in ‘The Face of Coal’, whose speaker imagines their father affected by a life of mining: “His cheeks are like trenches / Chopped up by the pit”.

I didn’t know much about Ukrainian literature, so I’m glad to have read this. If you’re interested, I think there is a good chance you’ll find something to enjoy within these pages.

Women in Translation Month: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”

Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.

In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.

What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.

Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.

The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.

Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.

Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.

Published by Granta Books.

#2022InternationalBooker: Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)

Oh, how I loved this. It’s not often that a story collection will grab my attention from the beginning and keep it throughout. But, for me, there isn’t a weak link among the ten stories in Cursed Bunny

Bora Chung’s stories in this book are often strange, often creepy, always compelling. The title story concerns a family who make cursed objects. The grandfather tells his grandson how he broke the rules and cursed an object for personal use: a bunny-shaped lamp designed to wreak revenge on the company that destroyed his friend’s family business. Rabbits chew their way through the company’s paperwork, but they don’t stop there – and the tale takes some unexpected and horrific turns. 

Some of Chung’s stories are built around powerful metaphors. In ‘The Embodiment’, a woman finds that her period won’t stop. She takes birth control pills for several months, to no avail – in fact, they make her pregnant. The doctors tell her that she must find someone to be the child’s father, or things will go badly for her. Societal pressures around motherhood and relationships are transformed into vivid narrative strokes that raise the protagonist’s predicament to a higher pitch of intensity. 

There are entries in Cursed Bunny that read like fairy tales, though with Chung’s distinctive stamp. ‘Snare’ begins with a man coming across a trapped fox that bleeds liquid gold. He becomes rich from this, but eventually bleeds the fox to death. The man has the fox’s fur made into a scarf for his wife, who then falls pregnant. The man finds a way to obtain gold from his children, but at a terrible cost. This is a sharp parable of greed. 

What really makes Cursed Bunny hang together for me is the voice. Anton Hur’s translation from Korean is beguiling, as it persuades the reader that all of this could happen. Bora Chung goes on to my list of must-read authors. 

Published by Honford Star, a small press specialising in books from East Asia.

Read my other posts on the 2022 International Booker Prize here.

Red Circle Minis 6 and 7: Japanese fiction in English

Let’s start the year by catching up with Red Circle Minis, the series of short Japanese books which are published straight into in English translation. My previous reviews of this series are here and here.

One Love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

One Love Chigusa is the longest Red Circle Mini to date, written by Soji Shimada (whose locked-room mystery Murder in the Crooked House I enjoyed previously) and translated by David Warren, a former British Ambassador to Japan. 

Beijing, 2091: 25-year-old Xie Hoyu is severely injured in a road accident. Technology is advanced enough to repair his body and memories, but he’s as much machine as flesh, if not more. Xie finds he’s lost interest in life, and his perception has also changed: in particular, women all seem to have the snarling red faces of demons. 

One day, Xie notices a beautiful woman whose face appears human. He feels that she gives him reason to live, and becomes obsessed with her. He learns that her name is Chigusa, and asks to go out with her – but something isn’t quite right. 

One Love Chigusa paints in broad narrative strokes, and Xie’s obsessive behaviour is difficult to take to. But the story asks questions about the nature of humanity that I found compelling in the end. 

Monkey Man by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley

In this story, a hacker group called Arlecchino works to expose The Complex, the vast organisation responsible for many of the world’s ills. One of Arlecchino’s operatives is Monkey Man, a masked figure with preternatural agility. He’s among the number of young people who are developing remarkable abilities. Our protagonist, Yuri, is another: she has healing powers. She’s also about to discover that Arlecchino are closer to home than she imagines. 

Takuji Ichikawa writes in his afterword that Monkey Man is a companion piece to The Refugees’ Daughter, his previous entry in the Red Circle Minis series. Both are about young people saving the world, and they’re deliberately broad-brush, heightened and idealistic. 

So I think it’s important to accept Monkey Man for what it is in order to enjoy it properly – and it’s a fun romp that wears its heart on its sleeve. Part of Monkey Man‘s message is that the world could do with a bit more idealism. It makes the case persuasively. 

Inkandescent: Address Book by Neil Bartlett

My post today is part of a blog tour for Address Book, the latest title by Neil Bartlett, published by Inkandescent. Address Book is a cycle of seven stories, each inspired by an address at which the author has lived. 

My favourite stories are at the beginning and end. In the first piece, ’14 Yeomans Mews’, hospital doctor Andrew takes us back to when he was fifteen in 1974, and met an older man, John, at a railway station. Andrew was powerfully attracted to him, as he had been to others – but there was something different this time: “None of the other men I’ve ever met has made me admit that the boy doing the staring and the boy with my name are the same person.”

John invites Andrew to visit his home, which changes everything. Bartlett brilliantly evokes the combination of desire, joy and trepidation that Andrew feels. It becomes clear that this is not just a question of love or sexual attraction: John also represents an aspirational lifestyle – a secure life – that’s beyond anything the young Andrew knows. This is a story of powerful emotions, not least the poignant ending. 

At the other end of the book is ’40 Marine Parade’. After almost thirty years together, Roger and Todd left London to settle down by the sea. But life took a tragic turn just seven years later, as Bartlett (in Roger’s voice) conveys in stark terms: “one cold Wednesday afternoon in March, Todd just wasn’t there any more. He wasn’t on the stairs; he wasn’t in the kitchen, and he wasn’t in the bed.”

The story depicts Roger working through his grief dynamically, represented by him exploring a run-down old house. Eventually he meets someone new, which makes this piece something of a mirror to the first one, looking hopefully to the future, as Andrew looked back on the past. 

The seven stories of Address Book range through time and perspective. For example, ‘203 Camden Road’ is set in the 1960s, where a pregnant woman gets to know her gay neighbour. ’72 Seaton Point’ is narrated by a gay man who attends his friends’ civil partnership ceremony, and reflects on how times have changed. I really enjoyed Address Book, and I’ll be looking out for more of Neil Bartlett’s work in the future. 

Broken Sleep Books: Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard

The book I’m looking at today is a collection of three stories by Rosanna Hildyard, which was longlisted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize. It’s published by Broken Sleep Books, who specialise in pamphlets; Slaughter is one of their first fiction titles. 

Hildyard’s stories are all set among the farms of the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire. Each revolves around a different couple, all facing conflict in their relationship with one another and the natural world. 

The narrator of ‘Offcomers’ met her husband, an older farmer, by chance. She might have loved him at first sight, but now he’s abusive. He grumbles about tourists, by which he means farmers down in the valley. She, on the other hand, appreciates that all humans, including her husband, are outsiders to this landscape. The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 brings change, and perhaps a chance of escape.

The farming couple in ‘Outside Are the Dogs’ are of a similar age, but they’re still mismatched. She’s a local girl who has lived around the world and has an air of sophistication that intimidates him, “a man of hands, not words”. As time goes on, cracks appear in their relationship. They buy a puppy, hoping that it might bring them closer together, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. 

In ‘Cull Yaw’, Star has known her partner since school – but she’s vegetarian, and he raises livestock for meat. There are problems on the farm, while Star struggles to relate to her ailing mother. 

Throughout the book, Hildyard’s prose evokes the stark realities of farm life. There’s always a tension between the different strands of her stories, and I really appreciate the way she brings them together. I like it when a story collection feels like a cohesive whole, and Slaughter is a fine example of that. 

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