Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)
Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011/2)
I enjoy fantastic literature in all its forms, but to my mind there’s a unique elegance to works that bring the lightest touch of fantasy to the mundane, and do it well. It takes a fine hand to make that slight supernatural element feel essential but not inadequate. Andrew Kaufman has that sort of hand, and his new novel Born Weird might be his most fully achieved work yet.
When the Weird siblings were born, their grandmother Annie gave each a blessing: Richard would keep safe; Abba would have hope; Lucy wouldn’t get lost; Kent would win a fight; and Angie would always forgive. As is so often the way, though, these ‘blessings’ turned out to troublesome. Now, Annie Weird knows that she is about to die, and instructs Angie to bring her brothers and sisters together in the hospital at Annie’s moment of death, when she will undo her work.
Born Weird then becomes a novel about being trapped in your family’s shadow, which manifests in a very tangible way for the Weirds. Angie is angry with her grandmother in the hospital at first, but forgives her as soon as she’s down the corridor – not because she wants to, but because she can’t help it. Likewise, the other Weird siblings have been constrained in some way as to what they could do or who they could be – by both mundane and supernatural phenomena. The dexterity with which Kaufman moves back and forth across that line is a delight to behold.
The author also deploys humour and eccentricity with great effect. When Angie unites with her sister Lucy, she is struck by the latter’s bizarre haircut. We soon find out where it comes from: Nicola, the Weirds’ mother, has dementia, and believes herself to run a hair salon in her care home; her children may be customers, but she no longer knows them. This is the flipside of the supernatural: an all-too-real fantasy world from which there will be no return.
The Weirds’ lives may have a thread of magic, but their familial frictions (and joys) are very much grounded in reality. Born Weird is alive to the strengths and limitations of both approaches, and balances the two wonderfully.
Viola Di Grado’s first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated superbly by Michael Reynolds), also has a protagonist who feels trapped by her family situation, and, though there’s nothing overtly supernatural about it, the book has a hallucinatory quality all its own. Our protagonist is Camelia Mega, a young Italian woman who has lived in Leeds ever since her journalist father brought the family over to England a decade earlier – the same father who subsequently left to live with his mistress and then died in a car accident.
Camelia feels stranded in Leeds, and has the sense that winter just drags on and on:
Leeds winters are terribly self-absorbed; each one wants to be colder than its predecessor and purports to be the last winter ever. It unleashes a lethal wind full of the short sharp vowels of northern Englishmen but even harsher, and anyway, neither one of them speaks to me. (p. 9)
Whether it really is always winter in this version of Leeds is beside the point, because Camelia’s perception is what counts here. That paragraph I’ve quoted shows how fluidly her narration slides between the outside world, her inner world, and ruminations on language itself. Camelia has woven herself a kind of net out of language, and she can’t get out – she keeps comparing things to her father’s accident, as though she can’t bring herself to move on from it.
There is a glimpse of light on the horizon, though, in the shape of Wen, a boy from a local clothes shop who takes it upon himself to teach Camelia Chinese. This is a different kind of language for Camelia, where a word can change its meaning entirely depending on the tone in which it’s spoken. This gives her a sense that she can look at (and be in) the world differently, though Camelia doesn’t necessarily find it easy to let herself do so.
The Chinese system of writing with ideograms is also an ironic companion to the way Camelia communicates with her mother Livia: after her husband’s death, Livia became mute; she and Camelia now communicate via looks – though it’s not clear how much of it is really two-way, and there is the sense throughout that Livia mother is living her own life beyond her daughter’s knowledge, which contributes to Camelia’s sense of lacking control. Di Grado paints an incisive portrait of a character caught between holding on and letting go, unsure which is worse.